Mt. Aggie

Tue, Jul 17, 2001

With: Jim Burd
Tom Burd

Story Photos / Slideshow Map Profile

There is nothing particularly outstanding about Mt. Aggie, other than the great views it offers to nearby peaks of Mt. Morrison and Mt. Baldwin. It isn't particularly high, it doesn't have great climbing routes, and like many of the peaks in the area, it is comprised of a whole lot of loose volcanic rock. Still, it had an allure for me as one of the peaks in the Mammoth area that I had yet to climb. I had hoped to climb it several years earlier when we climbed Mt. McGee, but that climb had mechanical problems (my car couldn't make it up the crummy 4WD road, or what passes on a map for a road). From McGee's summit it's less than two miles and only a modest elevation gain of 1,000 feet or so, but it had taken too long to get to the top of McGee and so I had to abandon plans that day of reaching Mt. Aggie.

When my siblings expressed interest in having a family reunion, the task fell to me through some combination of default and volunteering (with 14 adults and 12 kids, this was no small matter). Seems I had more time on my hands than most. So, after considering a number of sites in the state, I settled on one of my favorites, Mammoth Lakes. Aside from the myriad of activities available there, it had the singular distinction of being the most equitable for driving considerations - it was more than a 5 hours drive for everyone involved. It also let me plan a few peak-bagging adventures that only my brothers would be likely to join me for. I planned a return to Mt. Aggie, this time via McGee Canyon, as a half-day warm-up for the bigger hike I was planning to the summits of Mts. Stanford and Morgan two days later.

From a map it seemed pretty straightforward - four miles roundtrip, 3000ft of gain, and I guessed it would take us 3-4 hours total. I had three brothers in Mammoth this weekend, Ron and Tom who had last climbed with me on Mt. Rainier a month earlier, and my eldest brother Jim who now lives with his family in Colorado. I had not hiked with Jim for almost 25 years, dating back to when we were both in the same Boy Scout troop. From a few comments he made prior to the reunion, it seemed to me that he still had expectations of leading the pack, underestimating the endurance and fitness levels of his younger brothers, and overestimating his own. Ron had some sort of viral infection in his throat and declined to join us, so the remaining three - Tom, Jim, and myself made plans to climb Mt. Aggie.

Partly because I had made it seem like an easy half-day venture, and partly because Tom and Jim are both hard to get moving in the morning, there was no chance of getting an early start. I went for a hour run with my sister Kathy (with whom I share the early morning genes) at 7:15a, came back, showered, greeted my family, fed the kids, and finally got my two brothers moving. We left Mammoth Lakes at 10a, and arrived at the McGee Creek trailhead half an hour later. The weather was quite fine, temperatures in the 70's. This was fortunate, as the canyon here is often quite hot at midday in the summer. There is almost no shade and the sun beats mercilessly on the trail.

We headed up the trail which has a gradual rise as it follows the north side of the creek up the canyon. The summit of Mt. Aggie is clearly visible from the start, and looks to be a only a short distance away. Short of the half mile mark, we left the trail and headed NW directly up the canyon wall. The slope was moderate, the hillside covered in low to medium height scrub. We picked our way around the bushes, not wanting to trample them, each of us taking a slightly different course on the way up. After a few hundred feet, Tom and I stopped when we noticed Jim was no longer with us. He had stopped some distance down to take some video of the surroundings. We waved when he zoomed in on us. It seemed silly, but that's what we always did when Dad filmed us as kids. It seems that's what everyone does to ensure that there's at least some motion for a home video. The camcorder also helped explain how Jim could carry 15 lbs for a dayhike. I had two water bottles making up the bulk of about 4 lbs I carried with me, Tom was somewhere in between. Jim has been known to carry charcoal and a hibachi in his backpack, so he was probably travelling light by his own standards. Tom and I waited a little while for Jim to catch up, then we all again headed up.

The canyon wall rises steadily for 500 feet before reaching a few rock outcrops and then leveling off some. I waited at the rocks (with a great view looking to the west) for Tom and Jim, we paused for some additional video footage, then continued. The topo doesn't show it, but there's a high meadow up here composed almost entirely of corn lily, a truly beautiful sight in such an unlikely location. Almost all the vegetation in this local region is scrub, and higher up it gives way to simply less scrub, and then just rock. But here there seems to be a region that stays a bit wet a little longer into the summer, and a region that seems just perfect for the corn lily. We waded through here, or more accurately, walked around the thigh high vegetation to the best of our ability. Looking towards our peak, we discussed which of two routes might be best: the steep canyon or the ridge to the right. The canyon appeared to be the most direct with the least vegetation, though the rock looked to be loose. The ridge to the right seemed a more gentle incline, but would require plowing through some thicker sections of scrub. I thought we had a general agreement to all head up the canyon, and merrily lead off in that direction. Upon reaching it, I found only Tom behind me, and he wasn't sure which way Jim had gone. Oh well, we figured he was a big boy and could certainly take care of himself, whichever route he chose.

Tom and I headed up the dry creekbed in the center, which was fairly easy going at first until the slope steepened. Then the large rocks gave way to looser scree, and we found ourselves pretty quickly on the steeper sections. Tom kept up for about half the distance, but fell back to a more sustainable pace after that. The slope was mostly loose scree and sand, and I'd rapidly scramble a few paces trying to keep from slipping backwards while I looked for a solid rock to rest on before the next mini-assault. Soon I was just taking a few steps and looking for any place to put my foot and keep my balance. It was quite slow. There were a few places where the scree was interrupted by somewhat more solid but steeper class 2-3 rocky sections. But these weren't much fun due to the thin layer of sand and gravel covering them that made surmounting them a slow and cautious business. Tom fared no better about 100 yards behind me, but he was making steady progress as well. There was no sign of Jim though I'd look back and scan the hillside from time to time. The last part to the ridge above was the steepest, about 50 yards, with almost no solid rock anywhere. What few pieces there were I used as a sort of connect-the-dots, as I zigzagged back and forth trying to use each one I might find for a rest stop. It took us about 45 minutes to get up this section of less than half a mile, but eventually I topped out. What I thought was quite near the summit, wasn't, turning out to be instead the northeast ridge coming off the subsidiary summit to the north of Mt. Aggie. We still had a ways to go.

I climbed up further to get a better view of the topography and see if I could spot Jim. The gently inclined ridge we had seen from below was not the same as I was on now, but instead was another half mile to the north, and made a wide, sweeping turn before running up to the north side of the subsidiary summit (Peak 3471m). In between the two ridges was yet another canyon we hadn't noticed earlier, and it seemed if Jim had crossed that he'd be quite far behind us. Luckily he hadn't, and I spotted him far down nearing the crest of the northeast ridge. Tom was about 10 minutes behind me, and soon caught up to me. He too had been fooled into thinking we'd nearly reached the summit, and plopped down next to me for a breather. We watched Jim, only a tiny dot down below, slowly make his way along the class 2-3 ridge. Enviously, it looked to be the more interesting route even if it was indeed the longer one. Still, we were in the also-enviable position of getting to rest longer, and were better able to enjoy the views to the southeast and south that provided fine panoramas of the peaks in those directions. About 15 minutes after Tom, Jim came up to join us. He explained that he had somehow misunderstood our intentions earlier, and had headed up towards the right, and once realizing where we'd gone decided on staying his course than to try to regroup. He probably had the better climb anyway.

All three of us resumed our climbing after Jim had a few minutes to rest up. The climbing was more interesting now along the ridge, and the rock more solid. At the subsidiary summit we finally could see the true summit again, about a quarter mile to the south. The ridge was suprisingly sharp between the two summits, not at all what one would guess from the topo map. We weaved along the crest, dropping down onto the west side where the ridge was too difficult to follow. 20 minutes after leaving the subsidiary summit, we reached Mt. Aggie's summit at 2:45p. It had taken over four hours to climb what I thought would take less than three, and it was looking like our half day hike was a bit more involved than that. We ate our snacks, took pictures and video, and rested. Jim showed us his legs, having been scratched up in the scrub below. Tom and I were wearing long pants and came out unscathed. Jim carried long pants with him, but decided the comfort of wearing shorts outweighed the discomfort of the scrub. Seemed like a poor tradeoff to me. The views from Mt. Aggie were better than I had expected, particularly of nearby Mts. Morrison and Baldwin. To the southeast could be seen the summits of Mts. Morgan and Stanford, the goals of Thursday's all-day hike.

Always one to try a different route off a peak, I scouted the south side of Mt. Aggie. It looked like we could make it down the south face into the canyon between Mts. Aggie and Baldwin. This might be a more direct route down to the trail, as well as provide less cross-country scrub-whacking and faster travel on the trail below. Tom and Jim were skeptical at first, but finally relented thanks to my cajoling and exuberant enthusiasm that may have been mistaken for begging. We began climbing down the southeast ridge a short ways before I turned off onto the south face. The upper portion of this section was fairly steep class 2+ rock with a sprinkling of loose material over all of it just to keep it interesting. I was moving pretty quickly, and dislodging a good amount of material from underfoot onto the slopes below. I worried that Tom and Jim above me would do likewise, so I took action to minimize the pummelling danger I might be subjected to. I moved further west across the slope to keep their fall line to the side of me, and kept up a decent pace downward to get as far ahead of them as possible. Fortunately, they moved more cautiously than I, and the amount of material they dislodged was minimal, never seriously threatening (though one or two boulders made me take cover). Jim moved even further west onto the more solid rock while Tom and I stayed in the scree chutes on the east side. The west side was made up of a bunch of ledges and short dropoffs, and it wasn't clear from above that Jim's route wouldn't end in a cliff. It seemed Jim was taking some risk in going that way, but he was able to negotiate his way down without having to backtrack.

Once through the rocky section, the slope opens up and becomes simply a large pile of scree and talus. I picked my way down looking for the sandiest sections to plunge step in giant leaps, sliding with the aggregate as far as it would carry me. In 20 minutes I had descended the 1000ft from the summit to the small lake at the base (there wasn't any lake there, but the topo map shows one that presumeably is there for part of the year). I found a nice rock to park my rear on, and turned to watch Tom and Jim making their way down. Tom had just reached the end of the rocky section while Jim was still picking his way down the tougher rocks to the west. Looming above me to the west was the northeast face of Mt. Baldwin. Between Mts. Baldwin and Aggie runs a long, difficult ridge (class 4?) that includes an interesting feature in the middle called The White Fang. It looked like a fantastic, though difficult traverse from the summit of Mt. Aggie. Tom joined me ten minutes later, with Jim arriving five minutes after that. Another brief rest, and we headed down the next steep section to the east.

More loose rock for another 500 feet followed by a good-sized boulder field, and then the return of the scrub-covered slopes. We could see all the way down to the trail half a mile below, but all the slopes in between were covered with thick scrub in the upper section, aspens further down. And another 1000 feet of elevation loss before we would reach the trail. While we stopped to scout out the best way through the mess, Jim decided to change into his long pants, a pair of Levi 501s. It was becoming clearer why his day pack had been so heavy. Tom had run out of water, so Jim and I pushed ours on him. Tom didn't want to deprive us of our supply, but we figured he could use it more than us. As Jim changed, his M&Ms spilled from his front shirt pocket. He collected them up, put them back in, and promptly spilled them a second time. He was looking kind of tired. All of us removed the rocks that had collected in our boots. Tom headed down first while Jim and I were still fussing with our boots. He picked a fairly good route down through the thickets, and Jim and I tried to follow as best we could. At one point it was necessary to drop down into a small ravine to our left to get to the more open slope on the other side. The route was thick with alder and God knows what else, almost up to head level. Tom had already pushed his way through, and waited on the other side to see how Jim and I would fare. Whether he wanted to offer support and suggest the easiest route, or simply wanted to be amused by our efforts was unclear. Now that it was much later in the day and we were all tired, we no longer had the same caring attitude we'd had earlier for the flora. Earlier, it seemed that the scrub had a tough enough existence in harsh conditions with little water, and our efforts to avoid disrupting their growth seemed an important factor. Now the scrub looked like it had turned on us, growing out of control all over the hillside, and it became more of a barrier than a feature. Of course this was just a rationalization to trample the stuff as much as we deemed necessary, and we did just that to plow our way across the small ravine. With a minimal of damage to ourselves, and a modest amount to the plants, we emerged on the other side and joined Tom.

I took the lead again heading down the next slope, now with only knee-high scrub. It soon merged into the aspen thickets for the last 300ft of the descent. Surprisingly, even though it was well over our heads and the ground was littered with debris and branches (both dead and alive), tunnelling through the undergrowth was easier than through the scrub. I emerged onto the trail at 4:40p, and waited for the others to show up, not far behind. Once we were all back on the trail, it was just short of a mile and a half back to the car. The weather continued to be pleasant, and this upper portion of the trail afforded nice views of McGee Mtn. to the north as well as the south side of McGee Canyon. We were all tired having been out over six hours now. After plodding on a short ways, Jim half-jokingly suggested we should run back to the trailhead. Tom and I took him up on the half that wasn't joking, and we began jogging down the gently-sloping, but rock-strewn trail. I took out my camera while we ran and got ahead just enough to catch a few photos of Jim and Tom as they passed me at a switchback. Luckily none of us tripped on the way back which would have made it more obvious why this wasn't such a good idea. I don't think the run did any of us any good, though we did get back a little bit earlier than we would have otherwise, arriving at the car at 5p. Back in the car, and then back to Mammoth, to join the rest of the family for dinner.


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