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Though rising to more than 13,200ft, Mt. Carl Heller is the short straw among numerous higher peaks in the Whitney region of the High Sierra. In fact, the peak doesn't officially have a name, though the one given here has been proposed to the BGN to commemorate the founder of the China Lake Search and Rescue group. But where it may lack in stature, Mt. Carl Heller more than makes up for in fine climbing and difficulty of access. It is located in the most inaccessible stretch of the Sierra Crest between the Whitney Trail to the south and Shepherd Pass to the north. The East Ridge, rated class 3-4, was first attempted by Carl Heller in the mid 1960s, and when he finally reached the summit after two more attempts, he came to find he'd been scooped on the route by another party the previous season. It has been said to be one of the finer scrambles in the Sierra. I first conceived of the idea of dayhiking the peak by this route more than three years earlier, using the little-used approach up George Creek. Due to bighorn sheep restrictions, this approach route is only open for two months, one in the winter starting December 15 (an unrealistic time to try for a dayhike) and another in spring starting April 15 and ending May 15. The idea was to go as close to May 15 as possible to allow the maximum amount of snow to melt. The first attempt in 2005 we never even made it to the trailhead. We ran afoul after the acclimatization hike the previous day when our vehicle gave out and required us to be towed back to Bishop for servicing. In 2006 Rick Kent and I made it to the base of the peak only to find that recent snows had left too much snow on the East Ridge, and without any rock climbing gear in our packs we were unwilling to give it a try. 2007 saw similar late season snows and though we did again venture up George Creek, we chose to ascend Mt. Williamson instead, leaving Carl Heller for the next year, yet again.
2008 was the year. Early snows in January had been considerable, but there had been very little since then. Surely it would be our best opportunity in the last three years for the attempt, and I eagerly recruited a strong team of scramblers up for the challenge. I had climbed with all four of those joining me multiple times, and I had high enough confidence in all of their abilities to give us a high chance of success. Rick Kent did not join us on this outing because he had already done the route in the summer months following our unsuccessful foray in 2006. We assembled our group in Independence, late in the evening prior to the hike. I had been to New York Butte to acclimatize earlier in the day, and was already asleep when Matthew arrived at the motel after 5p. Matthew had not had a chance for an acclimatization hike (and would have preferred we do the hike on Sunday), but at least he had spent the day at 8,000ft in the town of Mammoth. The other three, Tom, Glenn, and Ryan, were doing the brutal drive through LA traffic after work on Friday and didn't make it to Independence until sometime after 9p. Nothing like a lack of both acclimatization and sleep to make the challenge that much harder.
The alarm went off at 3a as planned, but to no great enthusiasm. It's hard to get excited at that time of night, no matter where you're headed. In two vehicles we headed out to the Manzanar Internment Camp site, and headed for the trailhead to George Creek. I missed a crucial turn and we ended up at the creek much further east, but with the help of Tom's onboard GPS we were soon back on track. The parking spaces near the trailhead were mostly full. As it was the last weekend for legal access, it was going to be a popular few days. Most of the parties I already knew from online discussions at SierraScrambles. Ron Hudson and Kathy Rich were there for a dayhike when we started out at 4:30a, though they were headed to Trojan Peak. Other parties were heading to Williamson and Barnard, though those parties were doing overnight trips.
Starting off with seven, Ron and Kathy lead our party along for the first stretch on the north side until the first creek crossing. Once across the creek, we never saw them again the rest of the day. Ron had told us to expect this as they would be traveling at a slower pace. We hit the creek crossings more or less on target, never losing much time finding our way and never having to thrash too much in the brush. Between the five of us we had eight previous excursions up George Creek, so this wasn't altogether surprising. Matthew wasn't thrilled with a few of our choices for crossing the creek, so we lost him as he looked for other, easier ways to get across. After the first hour it grew light enough to turn our headlamps off and we continued happily on our way. Two hours went by and we had some trouble finding the trail high on the south side of the creek after exiting the brushy sections. There was an unexpectedly large supply of snow patches on this north-facing slope that gave us some trouble and we never could locate the trail going in to the camp at 9,500ft.
Shortly after the second hour we noticed that Ryan, the youngest in the group, was no longer behind us. Matthew wasn't with us either, but at least he knew where he was going. Though urged to do his homework and come prepared with a map, Ryan had come into this adventure blindly, without a clue to where he was going aside from the name of the peak we were after. We waited some twenty minutes or so as we took a break, but still no sign of Ryan. There was some discussion that ensued regarding what we ought to do. Glenn and I were in favor of continuing on while Tom was feeling a bit more responsible. Ryan had gone out with me on a similar adventure the previous summer to Pettit Peak, similarly unprepared. He ended up with an unexpected bivouac after turning back, unable to find his way back the way we'd come. I argued that it was a lesson in preparedness that he apparently needed to learn twice. At least this time he could simply head back down and avoid the overnight experience. It would be a long wait for him back at the cars. As Tom relented, we reshouldered our packs.
We continued on, eventually rejoining with Matthew who had taken a lower (and probably better) track on the hillside. Four of us made it to the creek junction at the 9,500-foot camp around 7:30a. Turning south up the south fork of George Creek, we first stayed off the snow and used the slabby ledges on the right side of the creek. After a while we were forced down across the creek and onto the snow. It was hard and mostly frozen at this elevation, good for making swift progress. We all donned our crampons and started up once again. It turned out to be better than the slabby rock we'd just come off.
With the weather cooperating nicely, I was feeling pretty good four hours into the day. The sun was bright on the snow and we favored the shade as much as possible. Sunscreen was in order and as I'd forgotten lip balm, I spent the day liberally applying sunscreen to my lips instead. Not a pleasant taste, that stuff.
While I was out in the lead from this point on, Matthew began to fall back behind the other two who held the middle ground, the lack of acclimatization affecting his progress. We regrouped at the 10,600-foot mark, where cascading water over some slabby slopes allowed us one last chance to recharge our water bottles. Continuing on, it didn't take long for us to once again stretch out in the same order we had been hiking before the break. Another half hour brought us up to the unnamed lake SE of the peak and our first full view of Carl Heller and the East Ridge. It was not as snow-free as I had hoped, but it had far less snow than two years earlier. And this time we were prepared with several ropes, harnesses, helmets, and a smattering of slings and other gear. I was eager to press on.
The lake was mostly frozen, though starting to melt in a few places around the edges. I walked across the ice on the east end of the lake as the easiest way to reach the base of the route, careful to avoid the more open areas at that end. I sort of wished I had my poles to help probe the ice ahead of me. I continued around to the south side of the East Ridge, knowing it would be mostly snow-free there and afford the easier ascent onto the lower part of the East Ridge. It was 9:30a when I took off the crampons and headed up the boulder field on the south side and then across two small snow fields (crampons back on) to the base of the first steep pitch on the East Ridge. This was where the scrambling would officially start. It had looked intimidating during the approach, but as I drew near it began to appear easier. The others were still down on the main snowfield taking off their crampons, so I decided to climb this first 100-foot section to "see how the rock felt." It was great. Steep, but with good holds, I was soon atop the toughest of it and stopped to wait for the others with a commanding view down the lower section of the East Ridge. In time Glenn and Tom made their way up the boulder field, across the snow, then up that first pitch. They found the rock equally delightful. We laughed and joked and generally grew excited to finally be on something fun. We waited for Matthew to join us. Our wait grew to twenty minutes and still no sign of Matthew. We could not see him anywhere enroute and finally concluded that he must have turned back. He had commented to Glenn that it looked like there was too much snow on the route. And though it was less than I had seen previously, in truth we had no idea if the remaining snow would eventually halt our progress or not. But we were eager to find out. Our primary concern was the steep chute exiting the ridge to a notch north of the summit. This chute, about 200ft in length was full of snow much as I had seen two years earlier. We expected to find it in much the same condition, and so we did. It looked frightfully steep. We had brought sharpened crampons in anticipation of icy conditions, but until we reached it, we didn't know if we'd be able to overcome it or be forced to turn back. Shortly after starting up the ridge again, we spotted Matthew nearing the frozen lake. He was heading back down.
The scramble up the East Ridge was one of the finest any of us had encountered. It was a superb mix of sustained class 3, blocky class 4 problems, and knife-edged sections. We wandered back and forth on both sides of the ridge, but most often directly atop it with huge air screaming down on both the left and right sides. Glenn, the best climber among the three of us, lead up much of this middle section. We'd let him go up the class 4 problems to probe the other side before commiting to them ourselves. On one of these he waited until Tom and I had struggled up a particularly spicy block before grinning and announcing the descent off the other side was even harder. On we went.
After a bit more than an hour on the East Ridge we came to the crux about 3/4 of the way to the summit. The ridge itself was blocked by a huge pinnacle that offered no direct attack, forcing us off to either the left or right side. The right side seemed the more obvious choice with a selection of slanting ledges that appeared to offer a way around on that side. But lingering snow at this higher elevation made the choice less obvious. Wet boots on wet granite with 1,000ft of nothingness below you can be intimidating. I went first around this section, with no small amount of trepidation. It was impossible to avoid the snow altogether, and at one point I intentionally chose to traverse across a steep patch of snow rather than take the thin, wet ledge around it. I kicked deep foot holds and drove my gloved hands into the snow bank as I made my way across the 15-foot stretch. The others didn't think much of my technique, but it got me across. I still couldn't see my way altogether out of the difficulty, so I told the others I would shout from around the corner if the route would "go." There was more spicy traversing, even an old piton that I found in one crack, and I slowly made my way across. I finally found easier ground and called back that it did indeed go. And then I threw in the closing comment, "...but dicey." Tom and Glenn took this as a sign to investigate the left side of the pinnacle more thoroughly, and they retreated from this side in order to do so.
Now by myself, I decided to press on rather than wait and wonder if they were going to follow. If they found a way around on the south side, I might never know it. I continued on the north side of the ridge, traversing easier ledges to the base of the snow chute. I was relieved, thrilled actually, to find the angle no tougher than dozens of similar chutes I had climbed (about 45 degrees), and the snow conditions nearly ideal. To be safe I used the sharper steel crampons I carried rather than the dull aluminum ones I had been using so far, but it probably mattered little. It was easy to kick steps in the soft snow. Ice axe in hand, I grunted my way up the slope with firm kick steps. I nearly wore my arm out in driving the axe handle into the snow, not satisfied until I had given several whacks with each step and driven the axe in up to its head. The snow was broken by a short rock band near the top, but from that point on it was easy enough to secure my way to the notch. I continued to look back to the crux for signs of the others, but they were nowhere to be seen.
Expecting the finally climb from the notch to be even easier, I was surprised to find the difficulties not yet over. The peak would not relent until the very end. The west side of the summit as viewed from the notch was steep with huge blocks. I tried a few ways up on that side, to no avail. I eventually found my way through a nook back to the east side which proved to be the final key. A short distance below the summit while traversing across the East Face, I spied Tom and Glenn back on the East Ridge almost exactly where I had left them. Via shouts they conveyed that they had found the south side of the ridge to be blocked by vertical barriers. "What are you going to do?" I shouted back. "Give your route another look," was the reply. And so they did. Meanwhile, I finished the final small distance to the summit and shortly after 1p I was atop Carl Heller and highly elated. I took off my pack, put on my jacket (it was windy atop the peak), and settled in for a long wait.
I found the cylindrical Sierra Club canister with the summit register inside. The original was long gone, the more recent one placed in 2004. The peak had not been climbed in a year and half, the last entry by the only other dayhike we knew of, Rick Kent's in 2006. Worried that his illegal entry up George Creek in September might draw unwanted attention, he had signed it simply "R. K." rather than with his full name as he usually does (Sorry Rick, the jig is up). After some 15 minutes or so I wandered over towards the east side to get a view of the others below. I found them in the midst of negotiating the crux, moving cautiously across the wet, sloping ledges in much the same way that I had. I watched as they stopped at one critical point, hesitating for some minutes before Glenn took off his pack. Evidently he was getting out the rope to help Tom across the crucial section. Later I learned that this was the only 2-foot section that they had employed the rope for. I began to worry that they would be another hour in reaching the summit. My mental calculations for the return showed it could easily be well after dark before we returned. Now that my body had been still for more than half an hour it was growing cold and I was visibly shivering. A headache from the altitude added to my discomfort. After 40 minutes at the summit I decided to head down. I wrote a note to the others in the register indicating my time of departure and started off.
On a normal route, the note would have been unnecessary as I would surely see them upon descending. But the East Ridge would be a bit dicey for a descent, and the easier descent is off the west side, and further from the trailhead. After descending several thousand feet it would be necessary to then hike back up and over Vacation Pass to the north of the peak. I was not looking forward to this last ascent and knew the others would be even less so. The West Face did not turn out to be the crappy talus descent I was expecting. It was steep and fun, and class 3 in many places - and would surely make a good ascent route in its own right. From a short conversation I'd had with Rick a month earlier, I knew he'd run into trouble on the descent when he attempted to traverse towards Vacation Pass while still too high on the West Face. He'd gotten some sketchy cliffs to negotiate for his trouble. Even knowing this, I initially did the same thing, wandering north while still 1/3 of the way up the West Face. But rather than starting to negotiate the cliffs, I made the decision to abandon that altogether and turned back to the southwest. I finished up descending easier ground to the south side of Wallace Lake - a longer route, but probably faster in the long run. I skirted the east side of the frozen lake, then steeled myself for the long climb back up to Vacation Pass.
I was fortunate to have had the time to peruse the summit register for some time, for among the usual entries was a critique about guidebook authors not doing enough to help poor slobs get through the cliff band on the west side of Vacation Pass. I took this to mean that they had climbed to the wrong notch and found an unclimbable dropoff on the east side. From my own visual sightings of the pass from the east side, I knew it was impossible to miss the pass if one moved sufficiently north along the ridgeline. So I resolved to avoid the notches along the ridge nearer to Carl Heller, aiming for an ascending traverse across. This worked out quite nicely. I had to take frequent short rests during most of the ascent, but my energy level felt pretty good, not as exhausted as I've been on other long outings. The terrain heading up the west side was actually pretty good. Not altogether as solid and interesting as Carl Heller's West Face, but not the talus slog it could have been.
My feet by this time were soaked from all the soft snow I had plowed through around Wallace Lakes. They would likely remain soaked for the rest of the day. I normally wouldn't care if I was heading home afterwards, but I still had three days of hiking to follow, so I had to manage my feet a bit more carefully and not simply ignore them.
I got to the top of Vacation Pass around 3:40p. There was a second moment of elation in knowing the rest of the way back would be downhill. And quite a bit of it, too. With Carl Heller now off to my right, I headed down the east side of the pass, all on snow. The snow here was soft and steep and one could make very quick progress. The surface was not smooth like one might like for a fine glissade, but serrated and sharply cut from the sun. Still, one could make fast progress if one wanted. The only danger came when a foot would sink in every now and then up to my knee, stopping that foot in its tracks but my body still lurching forward. This can put a dangerous strain on the knee as it straightens out while momentum is carrying my upper body downhill, so I had to be careful not to go too fast, lest I should find myself face-down in the snow with a leg bent forward, broken at the knee. It took a bit over an hour to descend some 3,800ft almost entirely on snow, all the way back to the creek junction near the campsite at 9,500ft. While I was taking off my crampons and putting away my gear, I was a bit surprised to see two others not 30 yards below me resting on the hillside. They turned out to be Robert Covay and John Stilts (I think I got those names right), part of Kathy Wing's party doing an overnight trek up George Creek. They were tired and having a bit of trouble finding out where to cross the stream and rejoin the rest of their party some 500ft above them on the other creek fork. John's arm looked like it'd been raked through the brush, dried blood smeared all over the outside. In fact, that's pretty much what must have happened as they commented that they'd underestimated the hike up George Creek. After showing them an easy crossing over the creek, the deserted campsite on the other side, and how to get up the ridge to rejoin their party, we parted company.
Less than three hours to go. I had a much easier time descending the upper half of George Creek by following the lower use trail closer to the the creek. It was not without problems, causing some horrendous, but thankfully short sections of bushwhacking where I lost the trail briefly. Not long before the first of the stream crossings, I came across a couple alongside the trail having a quiet conversation. I gave a simple "Hi," and a wave as I passed by. Later I learned it was Kevin Trieu who had joined us for the Sierra Challenge in 2005. He was sporting facial hair in George Creek that he didn't have during the Challenge, but I suspect I would have had trouble recognizing him regardless. I thought I might run into Ron and Kathy down in George Creek somewhere upon their return from Trojan, but I saw no other persons during the return.
It was 7:30p when I finally dragged myself over the last creek crossing and back to the trailhead. To my surprise, Ryan was wandering about, probably trying to keep the mosquitoes from eating him. I had expected that he'd have gotten a ride back to Independence with Matthew, who I knew would want to head back as soon as he returned. Ryan told me that Matthew had returned about 5:30p, but didn't feel much like conversing and took off shortly thereafter. It wasn't hard to guess he was disappointed with the outing. I gave Ryan the further bad news that the other two would be at least an hour, and more likely two hours behind me. It would probably be dark before they returned and we could all drive out in Tom's car. Rats. Not exactly what Ryan was hoping to hear, having already spent 6hrs at the trailhead and long since run out of interesting things to occupy his time with. I suggested we might start walking out to keep the mosquitoes and boredom at bay, and Ryan readily agreed.
Off we went. Almost immediately we came across a father and young son walking up the road asking if we had a truck parked back down the road. They and two others had gotten their own truck stuck while trying to turn around and had already spent an hour and a half trying to get it out. They were disappointed to find that we had no vehicle of our own, but we immediately looked to this as a possible way out for ourselves. I offered our services in helping to unstick the truck, but they politely declined saying they already had enough hands to do the job by hand - what they really wanted was a tow. We walked back with them to their truck, commiserated with their plight, and left them to continue toiling away.
I wasn't really sure how many miles it was back to US395. I guessed it was something like five miles, but in fact it was closer to nine. Our walk was going to take longer than my feet could stand. Now, in the past I have commented that Ryan is a rather chatty fellow, sometimes a bit too much so, and one might think I was setting myself up for some additional suffering. But that wasn't the case at all. His lively talk helped make the time pass and allow me to somewhat keep my mind off the blisters that were developing on the bottoms of my feet. There was a burning sensation with most every step in the sandy road and I knew I was not doing my feet any favor by continuing to abuse them. But Ryan's talk about his upcoming move to Montana kept us both entertained for what was becoming a grueling effort. Grueling for me, anyway. Ryan was comparatively fresh and seemed to exert no effort. I'd have felt better if he had showed just a bit more suffering. I stopped at one point to change into a dry pair of socks I was carrying, but this seemed to provide only temporary relief. As darkness swept over the valley we kept looking back to see if there was a sign of our friends or anyone else coming back from the trailhead to save us the trouble. For more than an hour all we could see was the distant taillights from the truck of the group of four as they continued their own struggle to free their vehicle. Finally, after an hour and a half, they were able to get it back on the road and we rejoiced to see the headlights bouncing down the road towards us.
Catching up with us, we tried to look as forlorn as possible in order to secure a ride, no matter how cramped our positions might be. It worked. The back of the open truck was chock full of random gear they'd brought with them. We took up positions lying atop the gear as the truck then continued bumping its way back down the road. Once at US395 we took our leave as they planned to head to Lone Pine while we were headed north to Independence where we had motel rooms. We still had five miles to go. It was fully dark by now, but a half moon high overhead allowed us to walk along the highway without headlamps. There was little traffic on the highway this time of night and most of what there was seemed to be heading south. In half an hour maybe a dozen cars and trucks went by in our direction. Ryan used his headlamp in flashing mode to signal our presence whenever a vehicle approached. None of them stopped. A semi truck came by, and thinking the flashing white light might belong to something obstructing the road, it swerved into the opposing lane as it rushed by at 60 miles an hour. "Maybe we shouldn't use the flashing light," I suggested. To our surprise, the truck slowed and pulled to the side of the road 100 yards down the road. We looked at each other. "Yes!!" We jogged down the road about as fast as my sorry ass could carry me at this point, praying the truck wouldn't drive away because we were taking too long. He didn't. He could have been a crazed meth addict and we'd have been happy to take a ride with him. But it was good that he wasn't. Or at least didn't appear to be. He was a likeable enough fellow, of eastern European decent and only weak English skills. We were able to communicate we wanted to get to the next town, and also that he was on his way to Oregon. That's a long way away - his day was looking a good deal harder than ours. He dropped us off in Indendence just before 10:30p. We found Mike Larkin in the adjoining motel room (he would be joining me for the next three days), wondering what had become of us. An additional stroke of luck found the Subway open well past the usual 9p closing time. Dinner - yumm. A shower felt pretty good, too. Tom and Glenn of course had not returned, obviously a good deal slower than I had expected. We couldn't help thinking they must be pretty beat wherever they were, but there was little we could do about it until morning. We didn't get to bed ourselves until nearly midnight, and by then I was running on fumes. Sleep could hardly come soon enough...
After summiting around 2:30p, Glenn and Tom made their way back down via the same route I had taken by Wallace Lake and over Vacation Pass. They had done their homework. Exhaustion and darkness overtook them as they made their way back down George Creek, going considerably slower and getting lost in the brush for much of the time. Around midnight, having once again lost the trail, they decided to hunker down and wait for daylight before continuing. It was warm in George Creek that night, probably in the 50s, but that didn't prevent them from having a bad time. Their feet were soaked from the snow and grew cold once they stopped moving. Glenn eventually took his boots and socks off and used his beanie to cover his feet. It helped, but was still miserable. Around 5:30a it grew light enough to continue. They easily found the trail about ten feet above them on the hillside. Another 45 minutes brought them back to the trailhead. Meanwhile, Ryan had come to my motel room at 6a, worried that the others hadn't shown up yet. I was too tired to think and told him to come back in an hour and we'd deal with it then. He came back promptly at the appointed time. I didn't get back to sleep, but I did realize we probably didn't have to drive back up the the trailhead. Tom had been carrying a Spot transmitter, signaling his location via satellite like a personal location beacon. Our first effort would be to contact the company and see if they could give us a coordinate and also tell us whether they are moving (it transmits once every ten minutes). While we were searching their website for a phone number, Tom and Glenn showed up at the motel just as we were getting ready to make the phone call. Our SAR effort was called off.
Ron and Kathy also did not make it out the same day as planned. They summited Trojan Peak around 5p, but were too tired to continue back to the trailhead. They bivied at around 10,000ft, a bit more prepared than Tom and Glenn, having extra clothing and food. But probably not really enjoying themselves either. They also hiked out the next day.
For more information see these SummitPost pages: Mt. Carl Heller
This page last updated: Wed Mar 12 20:16:31 2014
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