Sat, May 14, 2005
This was supposed to be "warmup" for the weekend's main event, a dayhike to Carl Heller the following day. It proved to be much harder than that, partially because we hadn't yet acclimatized, and partially because there was so much snow to wallow through. May is usually the time of Sierra hardpack, when the snows have consolidated to a nice crust that is easy to walk on without snowshoes or skis. But a late season storm had swept in the prior weekend, dumping 12-18" of new snow which had yet to consolidate well.
Four of us met up at the trailhead along Rock Creek Rd. The road was plowed as far as the Pack Station, a mile and a half short of the road's end at Mosquito Flat. The lot held about 12 cars, and all but two of the spots were taken. Some folks were packing up the pads they'd slept on overnight, all were in various stages of getting ready for an outing, either for the day or overnight. Matthew and I had spent the night in Mammoth Lakes, and when we arrived shortly before 6a we found both Michael and Sam already there, packing gear. We hadn't seen Michael or Sam since the previous summer, so we heartily shook hands, reacquainting as we made our own preparations. Leaving shortly after 6a, we took about 30 minutes to make our way up the road to Mosquito Flat. There was a good two feet of packed snow at the start and more of the same the higher we went. There was alot of snow around here. With three of us sporting cameras, it seemed like there was always someone pausing to take a picture of the always impressive Bear Creek Spire when it came into view along the trail. There were so many pauses that Sam finally commented, "Is it possible to take too many pictures of Bear Creek Spire?"
Sam, Matthew and I were traveling on foot, the compact snow not yet requiring snowshoes. Michael followed on skis and fell back out of sight a short time after we started out. Three of us crossed Long Lake, tentatively at first, then more nonchallantly as we came to realize just how frozen the lakes here were. The number of old tracks, heavy at first, began to dwindle the further we went, and after a few miles there were only a few ski tracks remaining. As we came to the first slopes of significance I was a bit envious to see the nice ski turns that had been laid down. Past the lower lakes we angled to the right, planning to intercept Treasure Lakes on the west side. Or at least that's what I thought my plan was. Where the slope began to steepen more and I started slipping backwards, I decided to pause and put on crampons before I needed them on a more awkward slope. Sam and Matthew continued ahead after making fun of me, but then I found them not 50 yards ahead and around the corner doing the same thing. Michael caught up with us at this point as well, the last time the four of us were together again. While surveying the slopes ahead, Sam pointed out my error in navigation - I had mistaken Treasure Peak for Mt. Dade, and without the correction I would have taken us up the long way around to Dade's North Face. Catching it early, it just meant a high traverse around the east side of Treasure. Meanwhile, Michael continued on lower down, following the drainage up to and across Treasure Lakes. Our traverse gained considerable elevation, and by the time we reached near the saddle between Treasure and Dade, Michael was a small dot far below.
We had come to climb the class 4 North Face of Dade, or possibly the North Couloir if the former looked to difficult. From our vantage point near Treasure Peak, we could see the upper 2/3 of the mountain on that side and it looked quite intimidating. There was a good deal of snow not just in the couloirs but on most of the rock surfaces as well, and we wondered what we might be getting ourselves into. A short discussion ensued. The snow was not firmly consolidated, that much we could tell. Despite a week's worth of freeze-thaw cycles, the previous weekend's snow had not yet melded into the underlying snowpack. There was evidence of loose snow slides on many of the faces around the valley, and even the slope we were on did not have a solid feel to it. We decided to leave the north side of the peak for another day.
We still wanted to get up the peak and thus needed an alternative route. We could follow Michael where he planned to climb up the Hourglass Couloir between Dade and Pipsqueak Spire, but that would involve losing several hundred feet of hard-earned elevation. Scanning the east side of the peak, we decided on a short, snow-filled couloir, maybe 100 feet in height. Above that the slope lessened as it rolled off into the large cirque above the Hourglass. From where we first spotted this couloir, it appeared quite steep. I assured Matthew that we were just seeing it from the worst vantage, and once we were close up we'd see that the slope was not so vertical. Inside I was hoping I was right about this. Our ascending traverse became even longer then as we continued around to the east side of Dade. Sam began to fall back at this point and we wouldn't talk with him again until he was at the summit. The altitude, now around 12,000ft, was affecting all three of us, but Sam most of all. Matthew and I'd had a full day to acclimatize and the advantage was now evident. In front of me, Matthew was forging ahead at a faster clip than I could keep up with, so the three of us were strung out in a line.
Matthew's faster pace turned out to be a nice blessing for me. Normally I would be somewhat frustrated by not being able to keep up, but now I was seeing a definite advantage to having someone in front breaking trail. With his pre-formed steps in the snow I was able to make faster progress than if I was out alone, and it felt rather deluxe. He was about 5 minutes in front of me, and that additional time was enough to further soften the snow such that I fell through every fifth step or so, but it was still better than breaking trail. Sam would report that the snow had softened even more by the time he had caught to the deeper tracks and found himself often breaking through up to his waist.
I started catching Matthew as he started up the couloir. He would comment, "Why does it seem like so much work when we're going so slowly." The relentless step-kicking was wearing on him. The snow in the couloir was much better, more consolidated and less exposed to the sun. It was perfect conditions for kicking nice steps up - it was doubtful that the crampons were needed, or that they were really doing anything. As hoped, the angle was less severe when we were in it. I followed Matthew's steps to the top of the couloir, then took over the lead where the angle eased - it was certainly much harder out in front! By now the sun seemed almost merciless. It was probably no more than about 65F, but it seemed much hotter with so much glare off the snow. We had long pants and shirts, hats and sunglasses, lots of sunscreen and lip balm, but still we would suffer from the exposure. I would find after the weekend that my lower lip blistered where it met my tongue, and my tongue itself would suffer sunburn - evidently I had my mouth open too much while climbing.
After some huffing and puffing I pulled onto one of the bare rocks exposed at the top of the Hourglass. To the east I could look down into the bowels of the Hourglass, a steep and intimidating view. The slope rolls off at an ever increasing angle until the view in the bottom half is blocked. There was no sign of Michael making his way up. To the west was the large cirque between Pipsqueak Spire and Mt. Dade The Sierra Crest rises in a jagged ridgeline behind the cirque connection the two peaks. The South Face of Dade and the North Face of Pipsqueak Spire complete the three sides of the cirque - we still had 700ft of climbing up Dade. Matthew was but a minute behind me, and we rested about five minutes here before continuing, no sign yet of Sam or Michael. We left most of our gear at the rock slabs, taking only some water, our cameras, ski poles and a jacket. Matthew lead up on a diagonal heading to the left, across the large snowfield on the lower half of Dade's South Face. When he reached a rock band he changed directions, heading more or less up directly to the summit along the left edge of the face. There were boulders and rocks to climb over and around, and still much snow - nothing harder than class 2. Matthew held a steady lead almost all the way to the summit. I paused at the left edge of the face to take some pictures of Mts. Gabb and Hilgard west of the crest, and took in the amazing views around Lake Italy and into the Second Recess. I eventually caught up to Matthew (thanks very much for those fine steps!) just as we reached the summit shortly after 11a.
Aside from the bright sunlight, the weather was unbeatable. We were tired, but not exhausted from the effort, feeling pretty good after five hours. A few minutes later I spotted Sam down below just reaching the first rock band above the snowfield. It would take another 40 minutes before he was in earshot, making his way slowly, but surely towards the summit. Meanwhile Matthew and I snacked, took pictures, made a feeble attempt at locating a register, and talked on about the many peaks in our view. When he could hear us we called down to cheer Sam on (or was that jeer him on?). He wasn't feeling so good and rested often, head bowed in front of him to keep the blood in his head. As he reached the summit just before noon, he started gagging as though something was disagreeing with him - in this case, Mt. Dade. "I don't feel so good," he commented. Always sensitive to my partners' needs, I replied, "I'll have to get a picture of this." As if on cue, Sam moved on to the dry heaves and then regurgitated the feeble contents of his stomach - what remained of a granola bar he'd consumed an hour earlier. Immediately afterwards he began to feel better - a feeling I could well relate to having done the same myself several times, most recently on an outing to Big Pine Peak in Santa Barbara County. Sam posed with Matthew for a more fitting summit shot. There was still no sign of Michael below.
Matthew and I discussed our plan to climb Pipsqueak Spire with Sam, hoping to entice him to join us. Nothing doing. Sam wasn't feeling up to it and would be happy to claim the Dade ascent as the day's accomplishment. The three of us started down together, but soon spread out over a great distance. I ended up in the lead because I took a more direct descent down the South Face, using great plunge steps to make swift progress with bounding leaps. Matthew and Sam chose to return via the more circuitous route we took on the way up, and Sam was further delayed in stopping to put on his snowshoes which he'd used up to the lower rock band. Matthew and I had to return to our gear before we could make use of our snowshoes, more important now that the snow was softening further. I was already across the top of the Hourglass and approaching Pipsqueak Spire when Matthew returned to his gear, Sam was meanwhile just starting his descent of the snowfield on snowshoes. Matthew and I had discussed several options to climbing Pipsqueak, the most interesting seemed to be a direct ascent up the main snow couloir leading to near NE Ridge. A lower angled climb could be had by plying our way among the boulders to the left of this couloir, though it seemed somewhat less satisfying. As the slope steepened I struggled some in my snowshoes, Matthew gaining ground quickly. I stopped to switch to crampons while Matthew pressed on with his snowshoes, but I soon found myself wallowing in the couloir and making little progress. I bailed out to the rocks when about halfway up, Matthew persevered further, perhaps 3/4 of the distance before also turning to the rocks on the left. Once on the NE Ridge the snow was somewhat firmer, and the climbing grew more interesting, a fun mix of class 3 rock and snow that took us to the base of the summit block.
The first time I had been to Pipsqueak Spire it had been in a light snowstorm, and with clouds all about me and snow lightly falling it was impossible to discern which of numerous pinnacles was the highpoint. Today there was no such trouble, and we were happy to find that the ridge we ascended topped out right at the base of the highest pinnacle. We'd carried rope, rock shoes and other climbing gear for the planned climb of Dade's North Face, but we had expected it might be handy as well for Pipsqueak Spire. Steve Eckert reported an awkward 10-15' chimney, Secor had the summit block at 15' of class 5. What we found was something easier, and made us almost laugh for bringing so much gear. There were two ways we found to climb the summit block. Steve's chimney was located on the NW side and was the harder of the two. The SE side has two blocks that nuzzle against the summit block and standing on them I could just reach over the top of the summit block. That makes it 8', not 15'. The footholds weren't great, but with good hand holds it was easy enough to pull myself up, rest briefly with my toes on the slanted hold, get a better grip above, and pull myself up. Matthew followed, and just like that we were both on top the small block, mostly getting in each other's way. Changing places, I climbed down so that I could take Matthew's glory shot atop the pinnacle. Matthew decided to explore the chimney option, using that way for his descent. That had me a bit envious, so afterwards I used the chimney variation to climb and descend the pinnacle a second time. Having then done it both ways, I was of the opinion that the SE side was the easier of the two. Matthew wasn't as convinced. In the end all we were sure of was that there were at least two ways to climb the summit block, and it was really more like class 4.
After reshouldering our packs we headed south, following the crest towards Cox Col. This was a very enjoyable scramble, class 3-4 (it's easy class 2 if you stay lower on the west side of the crest for the traverse) as we made our way along the fractured ridgeline around and over many granite blocks. We made a game of trying to avoid stepping on the snow, and though this wasn't always possible, it was impressive how much dancing one can do around a patch of snow if one tries. We carried on like this for about half an hour before coming to a snowy part of the ridge where the east side dropped down in unbroken snow slopes as far as one could see. There were loose snow avalanches evident in the steeper couloirs and we were anxious to avoid these. We weren't yet to Cox Col, but this looked like a safer descent than we might find at the col. Pausing here, we got out our axes and I let Matthew head off down the slope first - ostensibly so I could take a photo of him, but also to let him test out the safety of the slope. We followed a steep line down for several hundred feet, straddling the rounded edge between two large cirques to our left and right. The slope to our left would lead most directly back to the trailhead, but we could not see the bottom of the couloir as it rolled off from the edge, and this spooked us some. We chose the more circuitous route to the right (south) where the slope was not quite as steep, but wide open and visible to the very bottom. Here we got a view up to Cox Col and found it much steeper than we had expected, loose snow avalanches covering the slopes there - it looked liked we'd chosen the best route to descend.
The slopes lessened and the avalanche dangers faded as we reached the bowl just northeast of Bear Creek Spire. From here we put on our snowshoes and began the long trek back. We hiked down to Dade Lake, almost indistiguishable from its surrounding, crossed it, then headed down towards Treasure Lake. I found a slope that seemed almost perfect for glissading on my snowshoes, and tucked in a crouch with my butt just touching the back of the snowshoes, I made an almost effortless glide down the slope for a few hundred feet. I tried to entice Matthew to do likewise, but he chose to downclimb, not liking the feeling of a glissade or the slope. By the time we reached Treasure Lakes I was starting to flag. Matthew moved out in front and would remain there for the rest of the hike back. My water had begun to run out and I was forced to ration it until I could find some running water lower down. Coupled with the relentless amount of sun we had been exposed to all day, I was getting really run down.
Looking back up at the Hourglass as we passed it, we could see avalanche debris in the couloir and Michael's ski tracks coming down. We guessed correctly that he had climbed partway up the couloir only to grow nervous with the conditions, and and abandoned the climb about halfway. His ski tracks were evident in the lower part of the couloir. We could also see Sam's tracks coming down. After downclimbing halfway, he traversed over to the avalanche field and descended the rest of the way where the slides had taken place - probably guessing that the safest part of the couloir was where it had already slid. Matthew and I remarked how we were glad to have headed up to Pipsqueak, saving us the unnerving descent of the Hourglass.
It was 3:30p as we descended from Treasure Lakes, and I naively thought we might even get back by 4:30p. Hardly. The trek back to Mosquito Flat while quite scenic, seemed excrutiatingly long in my exhausted condition. I stopped at a marshy break in the snow to refill some water. It tasted awful. I knew there was nothing wrong with the water itself, it was just my exhausted condition that made the water taste so bad. It was just before 5p when I reached the summer TH, and not until 5:30p when I finally reached the cars. Matthew had been there a good while, Michael had been there since around noon, worried for us. Sam had returned around 4p and already set off for home, deciding not to join us the next day.
I was so tired I was trying to come up with a reason why I wouldn't be able to do the climb of Carl Heller the next day. Matthew and Michael were apparently thinking along the same lines, though no one had given it up just yet. Our decision was made for us when Michael's truck died on him on the drive down Rock Creek Rd. The three of us drove to Tom's Place in Matthew's car, and after much thrashing about on the phone we finally got an AAA towtruck to come up from Bishop to get the car. It was nearly 10p before we we were done with dinner, and there was no way we would be able to get up for the 3a wakeup to head to George Creek. Instead we settled on the Baxter Pass TH and Diamond Peak, and took a room in Bishop for the night. It was a very tiring day, though for all but that last hour and a half on the trail, quite enjoyable.
For more information see these SummitPost pages: Mt. Dade - Pip-squeak Spire
This page last updated: Sat Apr 7 17:05:06 2007
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