Thu, Aug 9, 2001
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Shortly after 4a the alarm went off. Needless to say, it was quite dark. I turned the alarm off and stumbled out of bed. My legs weren't quite as springy as they had been a few days ago. These extended tours were beginning to take their toll, but I hoped the legs would rejuvenate once they started on the trail again. Yeah, right. I felt pretty good after a shower and eating breakfast, and leaving David sleeping (as best he could anyways, while I rummaged around) I packed up my gear and headed out the door.
Like Humphreys the day before, this would be my first time to Darwin, and I was pretty excited. The easiest routes up Darwin are all on the wrong sides for a dayhike, so I had to settle on the class 3-4 East Face, Right Side route that I knew only from the description in Secor's book. I could find no trip reports from anyone tackling Darwin from this side. As I drove up Highway 168 it was pitch dark, not a hint of light yet. This was the earliest start I'd gotten yet, and it wasn't feeling very friendly. I drove past the turnoffs for South and North Lake, and headed towards Lake Sabrina. I had never been to this trailhead before, so I wasn't too sure about parking. I drove past the trailhead, across the dam at the north end of the lake, into the large lot on the other side. Here I was greeted with "No Overnight Parking" signs, and the total absence of vehicles. I drove back across the dam, more slowly this time, and soon spotted the trailhead on the south side of the road. There was a small lot that could hold two or three cars here, with another one of the No Overnight Parking signs. The regular backpackers lot was further down the road at the turnoff to North Lake, and I was none too excited about walking the extra half mile. I wasn't really parking overnight, just sort of starting in the night, and since it would be getting light out soon I figured my chances were low for getting a ticket. So I pulled in, locked up the car, and with fannypacks secured, headed out. I didn't bring an axe or crampons as I didn't expect to be climbing any serious snow or glacier. I also didn't bring the heavier rain gear, opting for the minimal rain poncho in case of the unexpected rain shower. The stars shown brightly, portending of fine weather today, no traces of the previous two days' clouds to be found anywhere. Along with a light jacket, I had a few snack bars, a quart and half of water, my headlamp, and a map. It was 5:10a when I started out.
I stumbled along in the dark on the first part of the trail until my eyes adjusted. It starts out wide like a service road, but soon changes to a narrow trail as it begins to climb the eastern side of Lake Sabrina. After half an hour it had begun to grow sufficiently light out that I could turn off my headlamp. Lake Sabrina is quite large, and deceptively long. Two thirds of the way down its length the trail begins to divert away from the lake heading south and climbing high above. As I took a photo of the lake lying still in the early hours, I realized I'd made a critical mistake by failing to recharge my camera battery the night before. Argh. What was to be a truly picturesque day in the mountains in a place I'd never visited, I was going to have to conserve battery life, and could take less than a dozen photos.
Almost mercilessly the trail climbs 1200 feet above Lake Sabrina before reaching Blue Lake. Before I had reached the lake the sun had come up on the Sierra Crest, and I had a last look at Lake Sabrina before daybreak reached there. When I reached Blue Lake at 6:40a, I saw no one about, but it had the look of being a very popular camping site - beautiful lake, clear water, gorgeous views, trees for shade. I took a short break here before continuing on. Halfway along the lake's western shore, I turned right at the trail junction heading to Dingleberry Lake. I hadn't noticed the name on my map earlier, but found the name rather amusing posted on the small sign along side the trail. The trail contours around a few small drainages on its way west, then southwest. The route crosses over the top of some flat granite surfaces, the trail marked simply with a few rocks lining the sides. Along this part of the route I got the first views of Mt. Darwin off in the distance, still a good ways off. Dingleberry Lake was somewhat of a disappointment, much smaller than Blue Lake and not nearly as picturesque, and I passed it without stopping. But I still wonder how it got that name...
The trail begins climbing again as it heads south. A mile past Dingleberry Lake is another turnoff, the more heavily used trail heading left to Hungry Packer Lake, the right side towards Midnight Lake. The trail to Midnight Lake grows a bit weaker as it gets closer to the lake, as there doesn't seem to be much traffic heading out this way. As one gets closer to the lake the trail travels over much naked granite, and as if to make sure it wasn't left in a natural state there is much evidence of blasting here. At first I thought the rock had been blasted to help mark the trail, but there is way too much of it. In large sections, one or two inches of the rock has been blasted away with the use of dynamite placed in regularly spaced holes that were drilled into the rock a short distance. I came to believe that the trail crew here had been given way too much dynamite and didn't want to carry it back out with them, or else they just liked blasting dynamite for the thrill of it. Somewhat of an eyesore in any case. The trail peters out completely as it reaches Midnight Lake, and from here on it is cross-country travelling.
Midnight Lake is just shy of 11,000 feet, and I have almost 3,000 feet more to gain. I followed the north shore of the lake a short distance before striking out up the canyon towards Blue Heaven Lake. This section is not as barren as the map suggests, and there are some trees still to provide firmer ground, and packed sand slopes to climb. I took a photo of the moon as it set behind Mt. Darwin as an excuse to take a short break. Halfway up to Blue Heaven Lake the route becomes a jumble of rock and boulder. I climbed high to the south of the lake, higher than needed, and I had to come back down several hundred feet to cross the inlet at the lake's southern end. While the waters are a beautifully deep blue, there is little but rock lining its shore and it seems to offer only exposed and rock-strewn camping. Darwin's massive East Face is now less than a mile to the west, and I can see all its imposing features. The lowest portion falls away in difficult cliffs that are not easily surrmounted. I must first climb around to the Northeast Ridge before I can gain access to the (relatively) easier slopes of the East Face. To the northwest I can see Peak 13048 on the Sierra Crest, my route for reaching Mt. Darwin's Northeast Ridge. Just to the left of this peak is a very obvious wide chute that provides access to the Sierra Crest. I headed for this chute, passing several small, unnamed lakes on my left that still remained partially frozen. Over 12,200 feet now, these lakes must have very short seasons indeed.
I had thought that the endless boulder fields were tiring enough, but once I reached the chute I found it mostly filled with even more tiring loose sand. The chute is nearly 500 feet high, and I can see snow at the very top, something I hadn't expected. I clung to the right side of the chute as much as possible where I was able to avoid a good deal of the sand that virtually owned the middle of the chute. It was 10a when I topped out (the view looking back down the chute) and reached the Sierra Crest, and I was beginning to think I was going to be up and down much quicker than I had expected. Ha! I was happy to find that the snow I had seen from below was really just a small patch, and I could easily walk around it. I headed towards the low point marking the start of the Northeast Ridge by following the crest on the northwest side to avoid the highpoint between the top of the chute and the start of the ridge. The views of Darwin Canyon were quite different than I had remembered when I entered via Lamarck Col a number of years earlier. The rocky canyon with a string of lakes dotting the bottom were a dark contrast to the whites of the Darwin Glacier that clung to the steep north face of the ridge running between Mts. Darwin and Mendel to the west.
"Now the fun begins," the saying goes. And so it did. As I reached the start of the route, it quickly became apparent that I was moving from a hike/scramble to a climb. The ridge is rather narrow, the rocks rather large. I found myself moving over and around large obstacles on the ridge over class 3 terrain. The left side of the ridge is mostly cliff, so anytime I had to get around something I was forced onto the Darwin Canyon side. At one point I was forced to get around an obstacle on a short section of steep snow/ice. I paused at this point, unhappy about climbing the 20 feet or so on the steep snow that was a bit too icy for my liking without crampons. It almost seemed silly that I could be blocked by this, as it seemed in maybe another week the snow would sufficiently melt to allow one to walk around it. I found a few pointy rocks that I might use to dig into the snow to improve traction, and headed up cautiously. It worked, and I left my stones on a larger flat rock at the top of the snow patch so that I might retrieve them on my way down. In and around some more blocks, I enjoyed the climbing a great deal. Then I came to the chimney. More of a narrow cleft in the ridge that grew more vertical at the top of this 60-foot section, I knew from the description that this was the class 4 crux of the route. I easily climbed up the lower section before I came to the near-vertical section and some additional reason to take pause.
Class 4 sounds easy enough until you realize that almost all of the class 4 routes in the Sierra were classified long ago when ratings were quite different than today. These older class 4 routes would be rated by today's standards as anywhere from class 4 to class 5.5. This one looked to be in the class 5 end of that spectrum. Remembering the class 4 sections the previous day on Humphreys, I took it on faith that this ought to be similar, with good holds but scary exposure. I began climbing a crack on the left side of the chimney, and took pause when I was about 15 feet up. Seems I'd run out of the really good hand holds, and my feet weren't liking the ones I was standing on with little more than my toes. A large boulder that I couldn't reach my hand over blocked the way. I could get my right hand around to the right side of the boulder, and my left hand higher up on the left side, but I didn't have much to move my feet up onto. Small wisps of fear wafted up from my stomach as I had to consider that I might be in over my head. My legs began to tire as I continued to search my little corner of the world for alternatives, but of course there weren't any. Before my legs and arms gave out due to indecision, I decided to go for it. I clutched that rock with all my might and prayed that it wouldn't come out and crush me 20 feet below. I brought my left leg up a short ways in the crack on the left side, and though I couldn't jam my foot in, I used pressure to push out and up while I repositioned my right hand further up. My right leg hung vertically against the rock, useless, though it tried to fidget for a grip in a semi-autonomous manner. I shimmied my left hand up higher, pushed again with my left leg, and managed to then get my right arm over the top of the rock. This made it possible for me to pull myself up by my arms though they were quite spent from the adrenaline overdose.
Standing up again, I found a rappel sling attached to the rock a few feet above the crux. I wasn't sure if that should make me feel better for having soloed it or feel worse for not using a rope. I was a bit concerned about having to reverse that section, but I resigned that there was little gain to be made through worrying about it before I returned here. I climbed up another 20 feet or so over class 3 rock before gaining access to the East Face. The route description from this point wasn't very clear, but I had to cross two wide gullies before heading up the third to the summit. Scanning across the first gully, it seemed there were a number of routes one could take to reach the first ridge on the far side. What most concerned me was whether I could get down into the second gully from the point on the ridge that I ended up on. As I climbed down into the gulley and began traversing in an upward direction across it, I found the going much tougher than it had looked. There was much loose rock and sand all about, and I slipped short distances several times. I reminded myself about those nasty cliffs that awaited me at the lower section of the East Face, which at the moment weren't too far below me. Up and over ledges and crumbly slopes I climbed, knocking much debris down below me. It was fortunate that no one was attempting to climbe the East Face Direct or I would surely have attracted their ire. It also occurred to me that this route would not be safe to climb with a partner unless the lower member was equipped with a helmet, or they travelled a good distance apart.
I reached the first ridge and climbed through a small keyhole in the rock to gain access to the second gully on the other side. It looked much as the first, with a second ridge on the far side to be gained by traversing across. I found a small cairn at this keyhole on the first ridge that made me feel good that at least I was on the right track. Or maybe someone else got off track and wanted me to suffer along with them. In any case, the keyhole in the rock would make a better marker than the cairn for the return, and as I started down into the gully I took several looks back to remember what it looked like. The scrambling here was similarly difficult with much loose rock, and the going was slow. Reaching the second ridge a while later, I had fewer places that I could cross at. After failing in one spot, I was happy to find any place that would afford access. Once I got over up and down the second ridge I found myself in the central gully that provides access to the summit plateau. I began the scramble up, now used to the loose rock on this whole face, though still cautious.
The upper part of the gully looked almost frighteningly steep as it breaks into a myriad of fractured spires and cliffs reaching up to the summit plateau. The description which I got from the first edition of Secor's book says to climb the right side of the chute to the summit plateau, then head south across the plateau to the summit pinnacle. Looking up that right side, it looked a lot harder than class 3, both steep and loose. As I climbed closer it didn't seem any easier, and I found myself really not wanting to head up that last several hundred feet of the gully on that side. Looking around, I found a much narrower side gully heading south off the left side. The top still had snow in parts of it, and it was unclear if I could actually get up (or even get out once I got to the top), but it seemed a better choice than the more foreboding right side. So up I went the unknown chute. Part way up the chute, I found that there was much loose rock and sand, and it was wet underneath, giving it the consistency of cement in the process of setting. The snow that fills this chute most of the year had apparently saturated the sand underneath, and the hard snow at the top kept a trickle of water coming down throughout the rest of the summer to keep the ground wet. More rock and sand went tumbling down with each step. I was able to keep off the very hard snow that only partially covered the upper part of the gulley, but it was wettest here, and even the large rocks were loose and prone to come out with little effort. Being a dry year for snow, the rocks and sand weren't used to being exposed like this, and it seemed they hardly knew what to do other than fall apart at the touch. Near the top the gully grew narrower and steeper, and so much sand came down that it was difficult to make progress. 20 yards from the top of the chute the sand gave way to some class 3 rocks. Though some of it was loose, most of the rock in this last part wase quite solid, and I was soon clambering over the last boulder.
What I found at the top of the couloir caught me by surprise. I had expected to find myself still short of the plateau, which would need to be climbed to the right. Instead I found that I was at the small saddle between the summit plateau and the detached summit block which loomed above me to the left. How convenient! I had climbed one of the two "steep snowy chutes" that are normally downclimbed a short way in climbing the summit block in the clockwise direction. Only this year, they were hardly snowy anymore, though still quite steep. I paused here for several minutes to consider the options. Various parties have described climbing from the saddle in either a clockwise (left) or counterclockwise (right) direction to get to the back side of the summit block. The different authors seemed to have differing opinions, so my guess was that either direction would work. While I was considering this, I heard some noise coming from the right side, far down a chute on the south side. I guessed someone was climbing up that way, and making a fair bit of racket while they were at it. This drew me over to the right side, and as I was checking out the route there I heard more rock fall, and listened to it richochet off the walls like rifle fire on its way down. It then occurred to me that no one was climbing this fiercely steep chute, it was just natural rockfall coming down every minute or so. Suddenly things seemed a great deal more unstable and spooky as I imagined the whole side here coming down shortly. I leaned out to peer down the chute, partly to conquer my fears, partly out of curiosity. It was not only steep, but it was partly filled with ice and snow, which probably accounted for the regular rockfall. I continued to explore the right side of the summit block, though by now I was pretty sure I was going around this way.
I hugged the more solid rock below the summit block as I made my way around. Peering around I looked up to see the first of two crack systems that have been described in the trip reports. It looked exposed and difficult. Not for me. Going around further required a ginger step around on a rather narrow, horizontal crack/ledge, a fall leading quicky down a hundred feet into the firing zone of the active chute. I practiced the move mentally a few times before commiting to it, and with little real trauma made the ten feet across this exposed area. Standing on firmer ground I spotted the second crack system, easier than the first, but still not to my liking. I continued around another 10 yards or so to the east side of the summit block, almost directly opposite from where I'd started, and found a very inviting stair step that looked to go to the top. Ok, not exactly a staircase, but large blocks that weren't too hard to climb one after the other. One of the accounts I read described an overhang just before the top, but it was hardly that. The hardest part I thought was the earlier exposed move to get around the right side, but the actual climb to the top I thought no more than class 3. And with that I was on top at 12:30p, 7 hours and 20 minutes after starting. Hardly a speed record, but not bad for a dayhike, I thought.
As I went to take photos of the commanding views found at the summit, my battery which I had tried to conserve by taking only a few pictures so far, had died. Drats! No record of my climb to the summit save the entry I made in the summit register. This had been my hardest solo climb yet, and only one day after I had thought the same thing as I summited Mt. Humphreys. The summit plateau blocks much of the views to the west, but in the other three directions it was limited only by the haze that eventually blocked the furthest views. I could see the Palisade region to the southeast, Mt. Humphreys to the north, and many peaks in between. There were other peaks visible beyond as well, but I could not positively identify them. After 10 minutes or so, long enough to have a snack and write my name in the register, I headed back down. I was particularly sad that I could not take pictures of the summit block which is one of the most recognized in the Sierra. It looked almost exactly as I had imagined it from the photographs, perhaps a bit larger than I expected. I decided my best course of action was to retrace my route as exactly as possible, since I didn't know if I could find an easier route without too much trouble. I would have liked to hike along the summit plateau, but that would have to wait for a future visit.
I was able to get down the steep chute fairly easily, though I exercised what I thought was the appropriate amount of caution - no need to lose control, slide a few hundred feet, or twist an ankle. Even a small injury I knew could have very serious consequences, since I was quite far from the rest of civilization and was unprepared for a bivouac should I become disabled. On my way up I had looked back regularly to study the route I was taking, and this paid off quite well in finding my way back across the two ridges. One thing I had learned in the past is that you can't tell the return route very easily without turning around on the way out, as things almost never look the same going in opposite directions. As I found myself at the top of the 60-foot chimney, I knew I had but one major obstacle remaining, and all the rest would be scramble. I stood at the top of the chockstone that had caused me a fair bit of grief on the way up, and went over my plan mentally. The rappel sling behind me was a visual reminder of the seriousness of this section. I turned to face the rock, and clutched the large boulder on both sides at the top as I let my legs slide down the rock. The key was to get my left leg to find the secure foot holds along the crack on that side, and as I continued to lower my legs, my foot began searching. I could just look around over my shoulder to see where my foot ought to go, and managed to get it in place. Now I had to lower my hands. This became the most commiting part as I slowly released the pressure with which my hands gripped the edges of the boulder. They began to slide in a somewhat jerky but controlled manner, allowing my right foot to lower and find its way in the crack under my left foot. Whew! It seemed somewhat "dirty" in that a clean climbing move should be reversible. Letting your hands slide down the rock is not a smooth negotiation of the problem, but I was happy nonetheless. I wasn't bouldering at the local wall and had no asthetic-minding individuals looking on to pass judgement. I had made it up and back down again (at least over the technical parts), and that was enough.
The rest of the chimney took a bit of caution as well, but it seemed almost routine after the crux. Out of the chimney, I scrambled back down the ridge, where I found that bit of snow/ice to negotiate that I'd forgotten about until now. I retrieved my little stone-age axes and used them to help me off this minor bit of treachery, again somewhat sloppily, but in one piece. Then I traversed over the large boulders along the ridge crest till I reached the top of the wide chute. It was now 3p, having taken as long to descend from the summit as it had to climb to it from here. The sand in the chute was now my friend as I plunged in great strides to the bottom until the rapid speed of descent was checked by the disappearance of sand, forcing me over the tedious tallus and boulders again.
It was 4:30p when I reached Midnight Lake and the end of my cross-country travels. I had yet to meet another person since I had left on the trail early in the morning. Suprisingly, I only met a few persons on the way back, probably because it was getting later in the day. I saw several tents that had been set up shortly before reaching Dingleberry Lake on the left side of the trail, but I didn't see any persons about. I made good time returning, covering the eight miles of trail at better than three miles an hour. As I hiked down past Blue Lake and into view of Lake Sabrina, I finally came upon a few backpackers heading up late in the day. There was a good deal more activity within a mile of the trailhead, folks out for a dayhike, and fishermen strolling the rocky lake shore looking for likely hiding spots. At 6:50p, 20 miles and 13hrs, 40min later, I was back at the car. I hadn't seen David on the way back, and as I found out later he had returned well before me. David had hiked/run as far as Midnight Lake, before returning.
I found David looking rather relaxed back at our motel in Bishop, this time I was looking (and feeling) like the beaten dog. We recounted our day's adventures over dinner at Jakes again, and made plans for the following day. Neither of us were feeling like climbing North Palisade the following day. David had never seriously considered it, and I had only faint hopes before the week began that I might be able to. Now it seemed like just too much work, particularly for a peak I had already climbed. No, we would need a new plan...
For more information see these SummitPost pages: Mt. Darwin
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