Devils Crags P750 SPS / WSC

Tue, Aug 14, 2007

With: Matthew Holliman
Jeff Dhungana

Etymology Story Photos / Slideshow Maps: 1 2 3 Profile

Devils Crags has a unique position on the SPS list as both one of the most remote as well as most technically difficult peaks. In pursuit of dayhiking all the peaks on this list, this one has been the most daunting, prompting Matthew to comment that it was the one peak he was most likely to die on. That two climbers have died on it in the last 25 years suggests this is not an idle thought. The easiest route is rated class 4, "old school" by most accounts which means a rope is used even if protection is not employed. The use of a rope necessarily slows progress and could make it very difficult to get there and back in the 24hrs timespan defining a dayhike. At least one trip report had reported taking 12hrs to climb the peak and return to camp after extensive use of a rope - and camp was only a few miles from the summit. In addition to the technical difficultly, the whole trip would require almost 10,000ft of gain and more than 35 miles - not for the faint of heart or weak of foot. In discussing this adventure with other climbers, more than one had told us it was "impossible." All the more reason, we figured, to prove otherwise.

It so happened that Jeff Dhungana brought up this very idea during an email exhange before the Sierra Challenge. I jumped on it instantly and we set a date for two days after the Sierra Challenge. This would give me a full day to rest after a demanding last day of the Challenge. Matthew arranged his schedule similarly, and we agreed to meet at the trailhead come Tuesday morning at 2a.

Matthew and I just made it to the South Lake TH at the appointed hour. Jeff had slept some hours in his car there, having driven from Tuolumne Meadows earlier in the evening. He was already up, headlamp blazing, and ready to go when we arrived - he admitted he had some concern about our showing up, not knowing exactly what he would do if we didn't. It took Matthew and I only a few minutes to get our act together, and shortly after 2a we headed out.

Unlike the last visit I made over Bishop Pass in which it was 26F at the start and 20F at the pass, this night it was much more pleasant. Probably around 50F, it was ideal for hiking long hours in little more than a tshirt. Matthew and Jeff took off at a pace faster than I could keep up with, and it didn't take long for their headlamps to grow dim in the distance as I struggled to keep them in sight. It was a beautiful, moonless night and I enjoyed the faint outlines of lakes and mountains as we climbed above South Lake, past Long Lake and Bishop Lakes on our way to Bishop Pass. The others had waited for me to catch up at the pass where I arrived some minutes after them, just before 4a.

As we continued over the pass and down to the Kings River, their pace slowed somewhat and I was able to keep up with them for the most part. It took another two hours to reach the bottom of the canyon as daybreak began to spread over this magical area of towering peaks surrounding the deep gorge known as LeConte Canyon that was carved by the Kings river. Turning south on the John Muir Trail, we continued on for another hour to Grouse Meadow, our point of departure from the trail. As daybreak came over the surrounding peaks, we found a suitable river crossing, easy enough in late August of a low snow year. Where we had water nearly up to our waists two months ago, it now barely reached up to our calves. Once on the other side, we dried our feet and put our boots and socks back on. Now for the hard part.

Our beta suggested that heavy brush could be avoided by not following too closely to Rambaud Creek on our way up to Rambaud Pass. So from the south end of Grouse Meadow we climbed a steep, wooded hillside for more than 500ft, going over a small saddle to a point high above the creek on the north side of the drainage. From there we traversed west towards the creek and the unnamed lakes found at the higher elevations, well above the brush in the creek further down. Along this traverse we had our first good views of Devils Crags and its imposing Northeast Face, the side of some impressive, if not improbable early ascents. The rock had an almost sinister look about it - dark, steep and volcanic in character, it did not welcome climbers with the warm granite glow of other Sierra peaks. The going went fairly well until we reached the larger lake just above 10,400ft. From this point on, the easier, grass-covered ground gave out to talus and moraine. This last mile before Rambaud Pass caught us a bit by surprise, as we would have expected this torturous section to have been note-worthy in at least one of the trip reports we read. The final steep section north of the pass was particularly loose and treacherous, leaving us all to agree that it would have been far better as a snow climb earlier in the summer.

It was 9:30a when we reached the pass, now almost 7.5hrs into our adventure. We took a short break here and cached some of our gear and food that we wouldn't need until our return. Turning east, we climbed more talus to the crest that connects Mt. Woodworth and Devils Crags in a large U-shape. From the crest we could finally see the NW Arete in all its intimidating glory. It didn't look too far away or too long, and I optimistically thought it might take us an hour - provided we kept the rope in the pack. From a notch on the ridge east of the pass, we climbed up and over an intermediate highpoint, then dropped down to another notch SW of White Top, a place that can be considered the start of the route (on the way back we found that the highpoint could be avoided by contouring around on the west side).

Our primary description of the route comes from trip reports written by Steve Eckert and Daryn Dodge, most recently climbed by the pair in 2006. The writeup is a bit involved, giving us visions of intricate route-finding, but we were happy to find this was not the case. Rather than climbing partway up to White Top as described, we simply started traversing across the south side starting from the notch at the start of the route. This took us over several short aretes, but the going was relatively easy with some nice ledges connecting the various sections. The traverse ends at a notch SE of White Top and directly on the NW Arete of Devils Crags.

Matthew had been in the lead for all the miles we had covered on trail in the morning, after which the two had relinquished the lead to me for the cross-country portion up past Rambaud Pass to where we gathered now on the NW Arete. At this point Jeff took over the lead for most of the way to the summit. You could see him come alive now that we were on this famous bit of dark rock, his eyes sparkling, his smile brimming, his whole body attuned to the rock and scrambling over it like a lizard. We couldn't move fast enough as a group to keep up with his eagerness to get on with it. By contrast, Matthew took up the rear position, approaching the route more cautiously, far more concerned about loose rocks and the unforgiving exposure all about us. I took up something of a middle position between the two, finding the route far less intimidating once we were on it, but cautious of the dangers and those who had died on it. I wanted to keep up with Jeff out in the lead, but also keep Matthew in sight behind should assistance be needed. Knowing that time was a key factor, I worried that Matthew's hesitation on the route would force us to draw out the rope in the early stages and suck up huge amounts of time. Matthew's skills had improved a good deal in the past few years however, and the rope stayed mostly in the pack. There was still a good deal of extra time taken for Matthew to get past the class 4 sections, but his confidence showed a marked improvement and he would respond with a smile or "That was fun," when I asked how he was doing at the top of the spicy sections. The rock was actually pretty decent, solid for the most part, but definitely not the type to let down your guard on. It seems likely that many of the loose pieces along arete had been knocked down by the previous ascents, but there were certainly plenty of pieces waiting to go if you strayed too much to either side. At what we considered the crux, a short downclimb of maybe 15 feet that included a knife-edge along the top, Jeff and I decided to use the rope to protect the section. We tied it off at the top, dangled it down across the crux, and used it as a crutch in our hands "just in case" as we downclimbed it. Jeff knew from talking with Doug Mantle that this was the last tricky section, so we left the rope there and continued to the summit. In all there were maybe four sections I would rate class 4 - three steep headwalls along the ridge plus the crux downclimb. The rest was class 3, though highly exposed, and had enough thrills that we were quite glad it didn't get any harder.

Jeff was the first to arrive at the summit at 11:30a, myself and Matthew joining him some minutes later. A hearty round of (cautious) congratulations was concluded as we took up seats to rest, have a snack, and take in the views. Our distance from the Sierra crest which we had crossed in the morning was so great that we felt about as isolated in the backcountry as we could get. Nothing but peaks and canyons around us in all directions. There was a good deal of haze unfortunately, muting what would otherwise have been superb views. There were two registers at the summit, one the standard SPS aluminum cylinder with unusual lightning damage evident, the other a lead pipe stamped with "Sierra Club" on the side and capped with two endpieces. The latter was impossible for us to open, so we could only guess at the contents. Perhaps a future visitor will need to bring some pipewrenches to get a look inside. In all we spent about half an hour at the summit before starting back down - we still had a very long way to go.

The descent along the arete went well. After collecting our rope back up again, we used it once or twice at the steep class 4 headwalls to allow Matthew to rappel where he didn't feel comfortable soloing. In each case, Jeff went down unroped ahead of him, and I did likewise behind him. From the summit to Rambaud Pass took us two hours, the same amount of time it took us for the ascent. We collected the stuff we had cached, including two pints of strawberry milk I planned to drink on the way back. We had a small discussion at the pass while debating whether to climb nearby Wheel Mtn (also an SPS peak) before heading down. Really it was just Matthew debating with himself, since Jeff and I were firmly set on heading back without the additional peak. I didn't want to discourage Matthew, in fact I was trying to get him to commit since I knew he would have regrets later if he didn't climb it. He was torn. "It's only a thousand more feet ... Well, I guess I better not, since I'm out of water..." he said at one point. Jeff and I quickly offered up our supplies to help him get to the summit. There was a good deal more hesitation and looking at watches and calculating return times and such. Then I offered to join him the following year for a return in which we could climb both Wheel and Woodworth on the same day. That seemed to satisfy his yearning, as he decided to head down with us.

The three of us stayed together down the initial steep crud on the north side of the pass, then lost track of each other as we went at our own pace through the moraine, boulder, and talus junk found below the pass for the first mile. My route back to the Kings River was not as nice as we had taken on the way up, and I found myself with a good deal more bushwhacking as result. I managed to fumble my way back to the river at the same place we had left it many hours earlier. To my pleasant surprise, Jeff showed up at nearly the same time. We took off our boots and recrossed the river, noting a couple of gentlemen my age camping in a small clearing on the other side. They didn't seem too interested in talking to us and we felt like we had maybe interrupted a lovers' tryst or something. We had some fun joking about that before we found our way back to the JMT trail a few minute later.

It was just after 4p when we crossed the river and we still had more than five hours to go back to the trailhead. The climb out of LeConte Canyon, all 4,000 feet of it, was as slow and tiring as one might expect after a long day. Unlike our outing to Mt. Goddard two years earlier where I was reduced to an exhausted puddle going back over Lamarck Col, I felt a good deal better and was able to keep up a steady pace, albeit a slow one. At first Jeff went off ahead, but I soon found him resting alongside the trail and we traded leads a few times. I again caught up to him at Bishop Pass at 7:30p, after which the two of us stayed together for the last few hours march to South Lake. Sunset overtook us not far below Bishop Pass, and before it got to dark we had to pull out our headlamps for the last 45 minutes or so.

Back at the cars we gave each other a warm hug, both for congratulations and a hearty farewell. Jeff was heading back to Yosemite while I had to head back to the Bay Area. Matthew returned about half an hour later, meeting me back at our motel room in Bishop where we spent the night. It was a fine ending to a glorious two weeks running around the Sierra. The dayhike of Devils Crags had been accomplished, and we had renewed confidence in tackling many of the remaining difficult peaks on the SPS list.


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Anonymous comments on 09/14/12:
When I read this story and saw the photos, all I could think was "they had the time of their lives"
More of Bob's Trip Reports

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