Mt. Starr King
|Story||Photos / Slideshow||Maps: 1 2 3||Profiles: 1 2 3 4|
Mt. Starr King previously climbed Sat, Sep 11, 1999|
later climbed Sat, Feb 8, 2003
Mt. Clark later climbed Fri, Nov 1, 2002
On our way into Yosemite via CA120, we stopped at the ranger station just inside the entrance. We expected to be told we'd need to get a permit at the ranger station closest to the trailhead, but were pleasantly surprised to find that they could accomodate us for any overnight stays in Yosemite. Permit in hand, we motored on toward the valley, with a last stop at the gas station at the Tioga Road turnoff. We didn't need any gas, but it was the last stop on the way to fill up with food before hitting the backcountry. I grabbed a tasty-looking 3 cheese sandwich and a Coke while Michael chose the same sandwich and some orange juice (we found the same sandwiches at the Glacier Point shop several days later, leading to theories of about sandwich recycling). It was just after 5p when we reached the Mono Meadow trailhead, but we weren't yet ready to hit the trail.
Michael had decided at the last minute to switch packs to his smaller one, so it took some time to get that all transferred, change clothes, and prepare to leave. We had a lot of stuff with us. In addition to the usual overnight gear, we had a 50m rope, a rack of climbing gear, harnesses, rock shoes, crampons, and ice axes. Even though I had both the rope and rack, Michael's pack still weighed nearly as much as mine (40 lbs). That seemed quite unbelieveable, but as Michael explained, he had reasons for everything he brought, even if they weren't all good reasons. We would both come to regret all this crap we brought as we hauled it over to Mt. Clark the following day, but for now it seemed more an inconvenience necessitated by the need to bring our climbing gear along.
By 5:40p we had packed everything up, stored our bear canister in the bear locker at the trailhead and headed out. I should probably explain the bear canister thing a little better, as that sounds somewhat silly to leave it behind. The canister was the main item keeping Michael from using the smaller pack. We decided that since we were going to be camping quite high (close to the peaks we planned to climb), there was essentially zero chance of having a bear visit us during the night. And at 3 lbs, the bear cannister just didn't make the cut with the other more essential items. Starting down the trail, we had a gorgeous view of Mt. Starr King. The weather was quite fine, probably in the high 70s, afternoon thunderclouds were already spending themselves over the Sierra Crest. Being only a few days past the summer solstice, there was plenty of daylight, and I was hoping we might travel the 5 miles to Mt. Starr King in about 3 hours, which might even give us time to climb before dark. What could possibly be more fun than spending the night on the summit?
The first 2.8 miles to Illilouette Creek are pretty easy, mostly because it's downhill nearly all the way (not a fun return, however!). We had been worried about water levels and snow coverage at the higher altitudes, but found no snow barring our route the whole trip (ice axes and crampons were basically dead weight in our packs). The water at Illilouette Creek wasn't too high, but it was no boulder hop to get across. Michael had read in a trip report that a log was available to cross about a hundred yards upstream from where the trail crosses. We went off looking for such a log, but after a few hundred yards concluded that 5-year-old trip reports may not accurately represent such transients as fallen logs which have a habit of being swept into the creeks during high water times. We did manage to find a fallen tree that crossed most of the creek, and endeavored to make that work. The tree was dead, and had been so for some time, so the branches were rather brittle and offered little security to help maintain balance as one walked across the main trunk. At the end, the trunk narrowed down to only an inch in diameter, and it was clear that it would break should we place our 200+ lbs out at the end. The trick was finding out if one could walk far enough out to jump down onto a few rocks that comprised the edge of a small island, whereby we might be able to get across the final stretch of the creek. I went first (being the lightest) which gave me an opportunity to film Michael in his efforts to get across: ( 1 - 2 - 3 - 4 ). Afterwards we found a way across the remaining stretch and scrambled up the steep, sandy bank on the other side. Undoubtedly it would have been easier (and safer) to simply cross at the wide, shallow area where the trail had crossed the creek. On the way back we would take our shoes and socks off and do just that.
We rejoined the trail after a short cross-country jaunt to intercept it, and headed east. Having done this same trek to Starr King not long ago, I had a pretty good sense of where to leave the trail to intercept the cleanest route (read: least bush-whacking) to the peak. Michael seemed impressed by this bit of route-finding, but it seemed to me a poor test of orienteering skills if you've already done it previously. After a short walk through a forested gully, we re-emerged in front of some steep class 3 slabs. Rather than go around this point (a bit of bush-whacking) we went up and over them, allowing us to follow the rounded ridge with fewer obstacles of the shrub variety. We now had an excellent view of Mt. Starr King's north (the highest) and middle summits. The climbing gets steeper soon after this point, slowing us down accordingly. The easiest route seems to be to head directly for the saddle between the middle and south summits, following this mostly open ridge consisting of loose granite slabs and sand. While the route directly to the saddle between the north and middle summits has some exciting class 3-4 sections (from my previous trip), the bushwhack to get there was a bit time-consuming, and not the shortest, time-wise.
The angle steepens as we began the steady 2000(?) ft climb, the footing was loose, and the weight of our packs began to be regrettable. I'm sure the altitude was affecting us as well, but I was focusing all my blame on my pack and all the crap I had in there. By this time we came to realize there was almost no snow anywhere in sight, and the odds of us needing the ice axes and crampons was near zero. This was also the first backpack of the season, which is always hardest on my shoulders until I get used to carrying a pack. My off-season training consists entirely of running which is great for conditioning the legs, but does pretty much nothing for any muscles above the waist (with the exception of the heart, of course).
The sun set around 8:45p, just before we managed to reach the saddle. From the saddle to the top of the middle summit is an amazingly steep, but fairly safe friction climb on smooth granite that seems interminable. Up, up, up. Pant, pant, pant. Not much talking at this point, just heavy breathing as we struggled onward. It was 9:20p when we reached the top of the middle peak, amid failing light. Looking across the middle summit to the south face of the north peak, the route up looked quite intimidating in the dark shadows, even though I knew it to be not very difficult (but had I remembered incorrectly?). Doing a quick mental calculation suggested it would be quite dark before we began the second pitch if we tried to climb tonight. In the same instance I was pondering this (and quite possibly because he saw me pondering), Michael offered, "I think we should stop right here." I quickly agreed, as it no longer seemed either fun or very smart to try climbing this at night. Oh, and we were very tired -- that probably had something to do with it as well.
We found a nice flat sandy spot to pitch our bivy sacks and had camp set up in about 15 minutes. "Camp" consisted of our bivy sacks and our wet clothes left out to dry. Although not bear-proof, our campsite seemed rather bear-improbable, so we took no special precaution to guard against attack. I ate half the sandwich I had purchased at the gas station (I was too full to eat it earlier), prepared for sleep, and called it a day about 9:45p. Tomorrow would be a full day, and we needed some rest...
As usual, I woke up about every hour with a sore shoulder and rolled over to the other side. Sometime after midnight the moon came out and you would have thought it was daylight out. One of these times I'm going to remember to face my bivy opening to the north to avoid this mild unpleasantry. By 5a it was getting quite light out so I called over to Michael. The previous day he had indicated that 5a was not too early and he'd probably be getting me up. His pleas for another half hour of sleep fell on deaf ears as I got up and started packing things, not being particularly quiet or anything. It had been warm all night, even at 8,500 ft, and about the only thing that keeps me in bed in the morning is cold temperatures. It was in the 50s I guessed, a grand temperature to wake up to. It was going to be a fine day, and probably quite warm as well. No use wasting good daylight with a long day ahead of us!
I didn't really know if Michael was going to get up right away. If he didn't, I planned to haul the gear over to the start of the climb at the saddle between the middle and north peaks, and set things up. If he was late in arriving I could play around fixing the rope on the first pitch, for at least part of the distance. But Michael was sufficiently motivated and got up before I had my sleeping bag stuffed and started packing likewise. We had some breakfast (I had rest of my sandwich) and took some photos of the new day. The Clark Range was dark with shadows to the southeast, with Red Peak, Gray Peak, and our current favorite, Mt. Clark the dominant peaks on the range. Far to the east over the Sierra Crest, the sun was getting ready to make an appearance. Directly in front of us to the north was the southeast face of Mt. Starr King, which we intended to climb shortly. After a last photo of ourselves before sunrise, and we headed off towards the start shortly before 6a. We setup with harnesses, shoes, helmet and rope in short order and started our climb at 6:15a, just as the sun rose on our peak. Learning from the first time around, I belayed about 20 yards further up the slope, on the last piece of protruding granite that could be used as a seat. It just might be enough for us to get up in two pitches rather than the three it took last time. (See photo for route visual.)
Michael went up fairly quickly placing a first piece of protection about 15 yards up, and a second one another 15 yards further up where some old belay slings marked the location of one possible belay spot (which we used last year), Michael continued up and right over friction surfaces, leaving the obvious right-facing open book (described in Secor) to his left. On a nice shelf, out of view, and near the end of the rope, Michael found some more slings about 10 yards above the last ones. After setting the anchor, Michael belayed me up. We swapped racks (I got the climbing one, he got the cleaning one) and I took off on the second pitch. The rock was much easier than I had remembered (I was getting more comfortable with rock climbing, it was evident), pleasantly so. I headed up and left to where I remembered a set of slings that I had seen on the way down the previous climb. They couldn't be seen from below, blocked from view by the open book. I climbed up and over the book, left Michael's view, and soon found myself at the slings with about 10 feet of rope to spare. The beauty of using existing slings (there were three for redundancy) is the time one saves in setting up the belay anchor. Over the radio I told Michael to time me on my anchor setup (without telling him about the existence of the slings), and he was momentarily impressed with a time of 1 minute, 15 seconds. Once he joined me it became obvious why the anchor setting was so easy. We left the rope and gear at this last belay spot (only two pitches this time!), and headed up, over easy friction slabs to the top.
I had to page through the register to make sure my name was still there from the previous September (like someone was going to rip out the particular page or erase my name) -- it was still there. We added a new one and enjoyed the scenery, taking the requisite summit shots (that's Half Dome in the background of the photos). While Michael was obviously quite elated, I found I was less so the second time around, even though it was a faster, cleaner climb this time around. Nothing like the first time up a peak. It occurs to me that there are very few peaks I have climbed more than once, only Half Dome, Clouds Rest, and now Starr King. Much of the Clark Range was visible to the east, Mt. Clark -- our main objective -- most prominently displaying its west face, and to its right, Gray Peak, which I was secretly hoping we might climb the same day. The northwest ridge of Mt. Clark (our intended route) could be seen in profile and looked both impressive and improbable. The distance between Starr King and Mt. Clark looked immense, even though we knew it to only be 5 miles. Time's a-wastin'!
We headed back to our rope and gear, the tops of both the middle and south summits grandly displayed before us. Michael rappelled down first, and belayed me while I downclimbed, collecting several pieces of pro that he had placed for my benefit. We then doubled the rope, looped it through the existing slings, and tossed the rope down the slope. Michael rappelled off first, the rope not quite reaching our starting point, but the climbing easy enough from that point. When I came down second, I let one end of the rope go through my rappel device while I held onto the other end, pulling the rope through the slings above as I walked down. There was enough friction on the rope running over the rocks to hold me safely while I almost jogged the last 15 yards. It was only 8:15a, taking us only 2 hours to climb up and down, much better than the previous effort where it had taken three of us 3 hours just to climb to the summit.
We had to pack things up now, change into our boots, have a brief snack, and prepare what would likely be a tough hike. In retrospect, I don't think either of had a good a idea just how tough this hike to Mt. Clark was to be. Ah well, it wasn't even 9a yet, our first leg was downhill, and we had all day to get there. How tough could it be?
Leaving Mt. Starr King after our successful early morning ascent, we descended from the saddle down the east side, in the general direction of Mt. Clark. It would be easy to navigate while we were still above the trees, but once down lower, our view of Mt. Clark and the other peaks of the Clark Range would be obscurred. Michael had read that many parties become disoriented on this western approach and end up climbing Gray Peak by accident. To avoid this mistake, I studied the various canyons carefully from our high vantage so it would be imprinted on my mind as we wandered through the forest later, without the benefit of such fine visual reckonings.
Once below the rock slabs of Starr King, the east side of the peak a maze of shrubs and the accompanying bushwhacking. To avoid this as much as we could, we skirted the edge of the south summit, where the brush meets the blank granite slabs. The Penstemons were in glorious bloom, brightening the otherwise colorless, bleached look of the granite slabs. They even brightened up pictures with me in them. Eventually the narrow path we were following ran out and we had to descend through some mild bush-whack to the forest several hundred yards below.
Once in the forest, the cross-country travel became easier, as the bushes don't do well under the forest canopy, leaving the forest floor mostly clear except for the pine needles and the downed trees (ugh!). We had five miles to cross to get to Mt. Clark, all off-trail, so we'd get quite a workout through this next section. A direct line to Mt. Clark was probably not the best tack, as it would involve climbing up and down through several canyons before reaching the main one on the west side of our peak. I intended to travel downhill until we could contour around to the main canyon without having to do any unnecessary climbing. Michael was somewhat doubtful of this strategy. Any ground lost going down had to be regained, and our intended route headed more southerly than the more direct line to Mt. Clark, and therefore seemed to take us in a roundabout manner involving more distance to travel. Michael had less confidence in his own route-finding abilities, so he was content to let me go where I chose and let him follow. I wasn't sure I was going to do all that great, but I wanted to at least make sure we didn't end up on Gray Peak.
At first the going was relatively easy, even with our heavy 40 lb packs. Of course, that's because we were going downhill or flat for the first several miles. As expected, we lost sight of Mt. Clark through the forest, and our confidence in our route was questioned every 20 minutes or so as we examined each canyon and dome we came across, not quite sure it was the same we had envisioned back at the saddle of Starr King. "Do we go up this canyon, or the next one?" we'd ask ourselves. If we turned left (and towards Mt. Clark) too early, we would have that extra uphill to contend with. If we waited too long, we'd end up on Gray Peak. I tended to err on the side of turning to early.
It was quite a while before we came to the first stream that had water in it. I was surprised that this early in the season, most of the smaller ones had already dried up. We'd been hiking now for several hours and had used up most of our water, so this was a good place to refill and rest a bit. We contoured around several smaller canyons, rising only slowly before we began to climb more earnestly. Gradually, the weight of our packs began to really bear down on us and my shoulders began to suffer under the strain. Remembering a Saturday Night Live skit where two teens were giving fashion advice, "Just cinch it!", I tried tightening my waist strap to relieve my shoulders, but it was a tradeoff between the shoulder pain and restricted breathing. We stopped after another hour at what seemed like it might be the last stream, and filled up on water again. We might have no more water until the following day if we camped as high as we expected, so we took in as much water as possible at this stop before heading out. I was amazed watching Michael, able to down an entire liter in one long drink. Much as I tried, I couldn't drink half as much without my stomach saying, "Enough!" Then again, he tends to sweating a good deal more than myself (I'd hate to guard him in a basketball game), so he was probably in need of the replenishment a good deal more.
Our pace slowed considerably as we continued on after this brief rest. It became very steep (with a pack, anyway); up, up, up we went. We topped a small knoll where we got a great view of Mt. Clark directly in front of us. We were headed in the right direction at least. Michael thought it was pretty good navigating, and this time I had to agree -- we were in little danger of ending on Gray Peak. We contoured a bit more, and then continued the ever upward climbing. We knew we had to climb something like 3000 feet (turned out later to be 4000 feet), and we debated whether we had done even half that vertical distance. Michael thought less, I thought more. In hindsight, Michael was right.
We came to a point where Michael grew a bit anxious about the route I was taking. I was choosing the most direct route at this point. We could see across the last small canyon we had to cross (in a diagonal, uphill fashion, so we wouldn't lose any altitude), and the rather long, steep climb up to the notch in the northwest ridge. Michael thought a more gentle climb was possible to the left. I didn't want to get a map out to check our route, as this was part of my game. I like to like over maps in the days before a trip, but try to avoid them while on the trail to test my dead reckoning skills. Michael didn't like this game and insisted on seeing the map. I relented. After all, it was my game, not his, and I had no right to make him play by my rules. From the map, it appears the northwest ridge of Mt. Clark sweeps in a large arc for well over a mile offering a gentle slope that Michael was more eager to follow. I hesitated because it was impossible to assess whether this ridge was indeed as gentle as the map suggested, or was rather a pile of broken rubble that might make travel quite difficult. I'm also of the opinion that there are usually a myriad of ways to get to a mountain, so I didn't want to discourage Michael's opinions on routes the few times that he expressed them. I was OK going either way, so we started heading up towards the ridge to the left.
This route was a bit more exposed to the sun, and as the day continued, it had grown quite warm. Looking ahead, Michael had spotted a rocky point along the ridge where it was impossible to tell if the route continued up behind it, or was a local high point that would require us to lose altitude to continue along. This began to bother Michael, and he decided to abandon the new direction about 10 minutes into it. OK, I'm flexible. We lost little as we changed course, heading for one monster of a steep climb up that last face through the forest. We slowed to a crawl as we made our way up this section. It wasn't terribly steep, really, but sure seemed to be so under our loads. Our ice axes mocked us. They might have just as well been rocks for all the good they did us. Our crampons were likewise smirking at us, buried deep within our packs. I don't know if Michael thought about these useless items as much as I did on that long climb, but they sure gave me something to fixate on as we trudged up that slope (later I found that that last slope was something over 2,000 feet).
The sun beat down on us. I found myself choosing a path more for the maximum shade I might get, rather than the best or easiest footing. I zigzagged back and forth from one large tree trunk to the next, coaxing what little shade I could from the branches above. It was past noon now, the sun high overhead. This minimized the shade that each tree could provide, and the fact that the forest thinned the higher we went didn't help either. I tried to walk just a little faster than Michael so that I might be able to stop, sit down, and rest every so often. Unfortunately, he kept no more than 20 paces behind me the whole time, and my rests only lasted about 30 seconds each time. The energy it took to get back to my feet nearly canceled what benefit the rests provided. We talked little at this time. We kept watching the ridge to our left, wondering when we would gain enough altitude to see over it, indicating we were closing in on our goal. The altitude was taking its toll as well, as we were now over 10,000 ft, having been at sea level only 24 hrs earlier. For some reason, I always blame the exhaustion on everything but the altitude, probably because it's less evident than a steep slope or an oppressive sun.
We finally began to make enough headway that we could see the notch ahead, maybe 500 feet up. The ridge to the left of us was coming up even, slowly but surely. We were aimed a little more to the left than we should have been, and found ourselves about a hundred yards to the left direct line to the notch. To our right, the massive northwest face of Mt. Clark loomed high above us. We began travelling over blocks of rock as we approached the ridge, and Michael stopped to put his trekking poles away, having served him well for most of the march. Above, and just short of the ridge itself, was an impressive pinnacle block that had vertical walls on the two sides facing us. It was really shaped like a large cube, maybe 40 feet on a side. It had "climb me" written all over it, which surprised me even in our tired state. As I came up to the wall just short of the ridge, Michael had fallen a bit further back. I decided I would climb the cube (by some easier route I was yet to find) and meet Michael over at the notch shortly thereafter. I slowly began to climb up the challenging class 3 cracks, being very careful to remember I had a heavy pack on my back and I was quite tired -- slow would be the best course of action here (like I had any other choice, really). I was perhaps 20 feet up when I heard Michael behind me, "Hey." That was all he had energy for, it seemed. I appologized that I couldn't pass it up, it had to be climbed, and that I'd meet him shortly. That was all Michael needed to hear as he headed off towards the notch.
I enjoyed the short diversion, the climbing was tricky, but fun. Around the back side of the block, it was apparent that the block was detached from the main ridge by about 30 yards or so, and less impressive faced from that other direction. Still, it would not be a simple climb from the backside. I dropped my pack and approached the block, studying the holds. It was class 3-4 for about 20 feet up to the top, where I briefly rested and took some pictures of Half Dome and Starr King, and even Yosemite Falls which could be seen hazily in the background. There was also a grand view of Mt. Clark's Northwest Arete, our planned route to the summit. Mostly I remember thinking how nice it was without my pack on. I climbed back down, re-shouldered my pack and headed directly up the short distance to the ridge, proper. I was quite surprised to find the northeast side of the ridge dropped away in sheer cliffs for several thousand feet. It was incredibly impressive. We hadn't guessed it from looking at the map, although in hindsight the cliff was accurately represented -- we just weren't looking for it. I had expected the east side to be even more easily accessible, as the easiest route up Mt. Clark is on the east side. That easier route was more to the south, however, and did not bring one up to the northwest ridge I was on now. I could now see the whole ridge now that we had considered taking earlier, and it was indeed a jumble of huge broken blocks. It would have taken several hours to negotiate them all. It was good that we turned back from attempting it earlier. Turning towards the notch, I was stopped almost immediately by the impassable blocks in my way. I had to drop down a short ways back to the west side of the ridge to find a way around towards the notch. About 15 minutes later, at 2:30p, I finally found Michael and the notch we had been striving for all day.
Rather than feeling elated, we were both feeling the exhaustion (and the altitude). My thoughts were slow in forming, my body slow in taking action. Michael would ask me something, and it would take 30 seconds before I could understand the question, formulate a reply in my head, and then speak the words necessary to convey the thought. These were simple questions, like, "What time is it?", and "How much water do you have left?"
Sometime before this, I don't remember when, it had occurred to me that there was zero chance of reaching Gray Peak today. Further, this northwest ridge was frightful looking, and it appeared neither of us had the energy to hump our packs up to the top (still over 500 feet vertically) and traverse down the southeast ridge as we had originally planned. The afternoon clouds had begun their buildup and Michael became anxious about a storm catching us on the ridge or the summit. Michael suggested we rest a bit before attempting the summit; I went him one further and suggested we take a nap for a few hours. I got out my bivy and sleeping bag, and crawled in to take a nap. There were mosquitoes even at our location along the ridge, and I knew that their presence would make it impossible for me to nap -- thus the bivy sack. Michael appears to be immune to them. I had over two dozen bites for the three days, despite my precautions, while Michael had none. The bivy served the additional purpose of keeping me dry should it decide to rain on us.
There was a sandy spot big enough for both our sacks, but Michael was uneasy camping so close to the ridge should an electrical storm hit the area (we were about 15 feet below the actual ridge). Neither of us has any formal training in understanding lightning strikes and the odds of our being safe in any given location. We both agreed that the top of Mt. Clark would be the worst location. Michael felt that the ridge was little better, while I thought the notch (the low point along the ridge) and the fact that we were 15 feet below it offered sufficient protection. Michael decided to take his gear and nap another 30 feet or so further down the ridge. He took a walkie-talkie and I told him to call me when he felt like climbing.
I napped on and off for the next hour and a half. I had planned to nap until 5:30p at the latest, and then climb Mt. Clark whether Michael was up to it or not. I wasn't sure that he was going to recover sufficiently, and it looked like we might miss our opportunity altogether if we didn't summit today. At 4:30p Michael called on the radio and said, "Let's climb this thing." He didn't feel a whole lot better, but his will to reach the top was quite strong, and he would rather reach the summit feeling miserable than not at all.
We left most of our stuff behind, as neither of us wanted to carry anything on our back. I took my pack with only our water bottles and our jackets inside. All our climbing gear we left behind. This class 3-4 ridge would have to go without a rope, or we weren't going to climb it. We were quite low on water; actually, we were almost out. That's what made me worry that if we didn't climb Mt. Clark today we might have to descend to find water and blow our chance. There was a small snowfield on the slope above us on Mt. Clark's northwest slope, but we didn't know if we'd be able to get any water from it (we had no stove to melt it). It was warm enough to produce a small trickle, we guessed, but we had no idea if there was access to it at the surface before it drained into the porous sand and rock. If we could get no water, we probably wouldn't have enough to climb, so that was our first objective; afterwards we would head for the arete and the summit.
We climbed up the face just below the snowfield, making a beeline for it. Secor shows the Northwest Arete taking the line along the actual crest at this point (visible as the skyline to the left of <our route), but it hardly looked passable to us (described by others as class 4). No matter -- we were after water at this point anyway. To the left of the snowfield was the Northwest Arete, to its right was a gendarme that sticks out from the northwest face of Mt. Clark. We christened it "Gendarme Robert" (pronounce "JEN-darm row-BEAR," since all the coolest climbing names and terms are French) after yours truly (we had previously christened a peak after Michael, so it was only fair that it was my turn). As we approached the snowfield, I could hear water trickling. That was good. Then I could see it flowing down a smooth sheet of granite. That was better. At least we could lick it off the rock if we had too. Soon we found it dribbling over a break in the rock where we could fill our bottles, and our water worries were over. We could climb Mt. Clark now; maybe not today, but at least by tomorrow using our gear if necessary.
Once we had our fill of water, and topped off all our bottles, we left all but one of them there and went about the problem of climbing Mt. Clark. We headed left (east) towards the ridge, climbing up through class 2, then class 3, then stopping dead in our tracks right at the ridge. The first route we chose was a short, but steep, seven-foot climb right on the ridge proper. There were no cracks or handholds to pull ourselves up by. We could give one of us a boost, but it seemed unlikely the other could pull the second up. We looked around for another way around the impasse. Another route was a 15-foot jam crack angled at about 60 degrees. It was wide enough to get an arm, one leg, and part of a shoulder in. I hate those things, and declined. Michael rather favors them, and proceeded up while I looked around for a third option. As I looked around, Michael reached the top and urged me up. I had the pack on which I used as an excuse to decline a second time. I found another route up what was definitely class 5 (maybe 5.5 or so), a 15-foot, nearly vertical, broken crack line that offered decent fist and toe jams. I went up this quite slowly, very aware of our remote location and the degree of badness a fall here would generate. I got stuck briefly, and realized that I could not downclimb this same route, and mentioned this to Michael. No problem, he explained, we throw the pack down and both go back via the jam crack. That sounded plausible, and I continued upward. After this first bit, the climbing became easier, yet quite a bit more exciting. We were on the Northwest Arete proper now, a very exposed, narrow ridge. It varies from 3 to 9 feet wide, dropping down to great depths on both sides. Michael wasn't talking much anymore, a good indication that he was spooked by the exposure ("I'm not spooked, I'm scared", he corrected me). All manner of jokes stopped, as his concentration was taken up in convincing himself that this was OK. It was not an easy battle. He hesitated at a few places, looking like he might be willing to forgo the summit. I was having a ball, on the other hand, enjoying this climbing immensely, and it was clear to Michael that if he stopped, I would continue on regardless. This seemed incentive enough to keep him going, following me up the ridge. It was a pretty consistent class 3 climb all the way to the summit (I don't know what class 4 crack and chimney Secor was referring to, as we didn't find anything so tough after that first part below), some of the most enjoyable climbing I've done.
It was 6p when we reached the summit. We could see the easier class 3 route on the east face, and a good portion of the class 4 Southeast Arete, the route of the first ascent in 1866 by Clarence King and James T. Gardiner. In our ambitious planning, we had hoped to traverse the peak descending across this other arete on our way to Gray Peak. That would have to wait for another trip. The register box at the top was of the Grade A Fancy, Sierra Club variety. Placed in 1941, it gave a sense of history that the register inside could not (it only goes back a few years -- a very popular peak to climb). We took victory photos, panoramas ( view to south and Yosemite valley), rested, and drank water. Mt. Starr King, from whence we'd started early in the morning, also seemed a great distance away (only 5 miles -- the haze made it seem further). The Sierra Crest was mostly obscurred with the afternoon clouds that had built up and spent themselves over that area. We could see down the North Arete, and just make out our camp among the rocks. Soon it was time to head down.
We retraced our steps, making our way back down. Michael was feeling more confident now, and his chatting resumed accordingly. As we got lower on the arete he even began to over-correct for his silence earlier, a point he made himself. I was glad he was enjoying it more -- this two hours of climbing was what we had made all the day's efforts for. We briefly forgot our way before remembering there was a tricky couple of flakes we had to descend ( 1, 2, 3). When we got to the point where we had first reached the arete, Michael went directly for the familiar jam crack. I went over to the holdless face that had stopped us initially, and walked down, then slid, then jumped the last 3 feet or so. That was much easier than the way up! We went back to our water bottles that we had left by the snowfield, and I could feel the day drawing to a close. It was 7p now, still an hour and half of daylight, and I was feeling a bit restless still. I wanted to do some more climbing. I turned my attention to Gendarme Robert, and briefly tried to interest Michael in joining me. He had had enough, but was kind enough to linger around the snowfield while I went up. Mostly class 3, some class 4, and I think I made it harder than I had to in a few places with some awkward moves. Michael cheered me on, offering encouragement in my quest for what we were sure would be first ascent. I was already writing the article for the American Alpine Journal in my head as I reached the arete connecting the summit to to Mt. Clark's northwest face. And then I found not one, but two different rappel setups, used by previous climbing parties as recently as the previous season. Not deterred, I simply shifted my focus to making the first free solo climb. If not in history, then at least for the year 2000. Or maybe June, 2000. No matter. I was king of the gendarme for a day, at the very least (with Michael below as my witness). I didn't stay long at the summit, returning by a slightly different route that avoided the more awkward moves, ending with a short glissade down the snowfield - Yee Haw!
We returned to our bivy site just below the ridge, and this time Michael set up camp next to me (his previous spot sloped more than he originally expected). The clouds that were threatening earlier were threatening no longer, relieving his concerns for camping too close to the ridge. We found a new cause for concern recalling my trip the previous year when I witnessed a landslide of several tons off Florence's similarly sloped cliffs. But that was short-lived, and our exhausted bodies would need a better reason than that to move us anywhere.
While we were puttering about changing clothes and readying for bed, Michael decided that he'd had enough this trip and wanted to return the following day, forgoing the additional day we planned. I was OK with that, but secretly hoped I might convince him the following day to spend Sunday hiking or climbing in the Valley or possibly Tuolumne. It was useless to try now, while we were so worn -- I'd have to hope for recovery the next day to improve my chances of convincing him. We settled in our bivies and ate a good deal of the remaining food (I suddenly found myself with an extra day's ration of food). I swapped some dry salami for some peanut butter-filled pretzels. Michael took some pictures of the alpenglow settling on Mt. Clark just before the sun sank. I was too cozy inside my bag to take any last photos myself. It was about 8:30p when we said goodnight.
The next morning we rose at 6:15a (sleeping in, compared to the previous day). Still sore, but rested, we got up, packed, and ate breakfast up on the the crest. The morning was gloriously clear, much better views than we had the previous evening, as not a trace of the clouds remained and the haze had dissipated. The most interesting views were to the north, of the Cathedral Range around Echo Peaks (interesting to me anyway, since I had climbed there on three trips the previous summer). We could also see far north to the Yosemite border (Tower, Matterhorn, and Twin Peaks) and beyond, but could not identify any peaks by name beyond Yosemite. To the east were the higher peaks around Mt. Lyell (Maclure, Florence, Simmons, Rodgers), Mts. Ritter and Banner and the Minarettes behind them. To the southeast we could see across Isberg Pass on the Yosemite Border to the Silver Divide and the High Country beyond that. Everything to the south (the rest of the Clark Range) was blocked by the summit of Mt. Clark. To the west was Mt. Starr King and our route back (about 10 miles), much of it in the shadow cast by the Cathedral Range. And to the northwest, Half Dome was just visible behind the northwest ridge.
After breakfast, we hoisted our packs and headed out. There is an obvious drainage that goes almost directly west from our campsite that is highly recommended (by us) for the descent. There is much loose sand that makes descending a pleasure (and alternatively would make for a slog if ascending). We slid and skated a good deal until the drainage started to become an actual creek with the sides heavily angled by the erosion powers of the creek. Looking far below and in the vicinity south of Mt. Starr King, we could see a few prominent, but smaller granite domes that we knew from our map to be in the vicinity of the trail we planned to intercept. So our basic strategy was to head in that direction, but angling/contouring to the right (north) to avoid having to regain altitude to get from one drainage canyon to the next (similar to our strategy in climbing the day before). The downhill again made our packs less of a burden, and we made pretty good time for the first couple of hours.
Then we hit the dead forest. This was a region about a mile long, just before we hit the trail, in the vicinity of the dome we'd been aiming for on our way down. Almost all of the trees in this area (marked on the route map) were dead, some had evidence of fire damage, but mostly it appeared to be the work of disease. While this made navigating through the trees easier (lack of foliage gives a better view), many of the trees had succumbed to gravity and fallen all about. At first this was just a bother, as we navigated around the fallen trunks or climbed over them. Soon, as we got into the thick of it, it slowed us to a crawl, as it was impossible to go even six feet without encountering a downed tree. We found ourselves walking along many of the tree trunks as they afforded the cleanest route for the 30-50 feet of their lengths. Near the end of it, we found ourselves in a swamp as well, making travel quite tricky indeed. It took us well over an hour to cover this last mile of cross-country. (Future hikers in this area would do well to give it a wide berth.) We stopped along a nice creek to refill our water supply and take a rest. We could easily have taken a swell nap in this spot, but we were both eager to get back by this time.
Shortly after resuming, we ran across the trail we were looking for. It was Michael, walking some 10-20 paces behind me that spotted it first, as I was only a few feet from it. I have a feeling I would have missed it had Michael not spotted it, and that would have taken us another hour or so due to the additional cross-country travel that would have ensued. Once on the trail we were able to pick up our pace to about 3 mi/hr. I never appreciate a maintained trail until I've been travelling cross-country for a while -- then it seems like a godsend. We noted the spot where we'd left this same trail a few days earlier, thus completing the loop portion of our route. When we reached Illilouette Creek, we didn't bother trying to recreate our ill-conceived tree crossing we used on the way out. We simply removed our shoes and socks and waded across (1, 2, 3) where the trail meets the stream. Once on the other side, we took a breather to rest and let our feet dry. Michael also took the opportunity to patch up the puncture wounds his legs received travelling through the dead forest earlier. I have a saying that it's not an adventure until someone bleeds, and we both managed to do it this trip -- a true success!
As expected, the hike uphill out of the Illouette Creek Drainage and back to the Glacier Point Road was painful. It was past noon now, and the sun was quite warm again. Tromp, tromp, pant, pant. Then I remembered to ask Michael about possibly hiking or climbing the following day. He wasn't interested.
"What if we climbed Cathedral?" I asked, playing my best card. I knew he wanted to climb it very much, and it would be the one thing I could think of to get him to consider changing his mind.
"Tempting..." was the reply. Then, after a few seconds, "But, no."
He went into more detail about how he really needed to go back to work on Sunday, etc, but of course I didn't care about any of those reasons. I just wanted to get in some more climbing or hiking while I had the opportunity. Seeing that he wasn't going to be swayed, I dropped it.
It was 1:45p when we reached the trailhead, and the end of our endeavors. After packing up, we drove the 6-7 miles out to glacier point where we knew we could get beverages and tasty snacks. It had been a few years since I'd been here, and I was surprised to see a beautiful new wooden structure that housed a store and mini kitchen-deli, replacing the small food stand I'd remembered in the past. Now one could get all the luxuries (except lodging) normally reserved for the Valley below. The views from Glacier Point are really amazing. Half Dome in particular stands out in huge relief of almost unbelievable dimensions. If you can get over the crowds that swarm it regularly, it's really worth a visit if you haven't been there before. We also had a great view of the two peaks we had just climbed, looking quite impressive off in the distance. After our snacks, we headed back to San Jose. I was going to miss that extra day, but was already planning the next adventure in three weeks to Mt. Clarence King. The first thing on my agenda was to tell my wife about it and get her approval...
For more information see these SummitPost pages: Mt. Starr King - Mt. Clark
This page last updated: Wed May 16 17:02:13 2007
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