Mon, Jun 4, 2007
The Evolution peaks are a chain of summits covering some eight or nine miles of ridgeline in a rough C-shape between Lamarck Col and Echo Col along the Sierra crest. Four of the summits (Darwin, Mendel, Haeckel, and Wallace) we had dayhiked on separate occasions, but others furthest from the trailhead we had yet to visit. These included two SPS peaks, Mts. Fiske and Huxley, and these were the primary objectives for today's outing. We expected it would be a tough day if we were to summit both, and so we planned for an early start at 3a.
Starting from Lake Sabrina shortly before the appointed time, Matthew and Rick wasted no time in leaving me in the dust. I'm used to Matthew taking off at a faster pace than I can manage, but now Rick was joining in on it, and I was feeling like the old guy in the group that I was. Damn them. The only sign I would see after the first 15 minutes was the occasional flash of a headlamp as they rounded a switchback somewhere on the slope above me. When we got to Blue Lake an hour later, I checked my watch for the split time. It was actually five minutes faster than my last trip up this trail, so I felt somewhat better that it wasn't me getting slower - these other two bastards were just getting too fast.
I found them again on the other side of Blue Lake's outlet, pretending to be unsure of the way and suggesting I lead them the correct way. Now they were patronizing me. Damn them again. But it turned out that there were some tricky sections where the trail goes over slabs, and it sometimes took the three of us with headlamps searching in all directions to find the trail again. In this way we made our way over and past Dingleberry Lake and then to the only serious stream crossing, a short distance above the lake. The water level was low enough to allow a dry crossing, but there were some 20 stones and logs to hop across in series from one side to the other of the broad creek. The others let me cross first which I'm always willing to do since it means I get to take pictures of the others on their subsequent attempts. Matthew used a log to help steady himself in his turn, while Rick took the fast-hop approach which cost him a foot-soaking. Of course this incurred more laughs than sympathy from Matthew and I, all in good fun. The moon was high over the Sierra crest ahead of us, though not bright enough to forgo the headlamps. There was some snow in places across the trail that caused up some trouble in staying on the trail, but nothing serious. It didn't seem like many people had been up this way despite the busy holiday weekend that had just past.
The day began to dawn as we passed by Sailor Lake, and shortly after 5:30a we were treated to the first rays of the sun on Clyde Spires and Picture Peak above us. We reached Echo Lake just after 6a where we took a short break to load up on water, the last we might find for many hours. Here we left the easier terrain as we headed west towards Wallace Col, clambering over boulders and up grassy ramps where we could find them. Now that we were off the easy stuff I could finally hold my own with my companions, and until we were on the trail again I would be in the lead most of the time. The east side of Wallace Col was easier than we had expected, with enough snow melted out that we could rock-hop our way for more than half the elevation to the col. We used our crampons and axes for only a short section in the middle, and by 7:30a we were standing upon the crest at the col. Only 4.5hrs into our climb, we were well ahead of the 5hrs I had hoped for and the 6hrs I had expected it to take. Fiske stood out prominently on the west side, and didn't look all that far away. Looking down the west side, I was pleased to see it completely free of snow. Broad and steep, it was an easy matter to descend in boot-ski fashion. There was a good deal of rock let loose in the effort, so I made a quick descent of most of it to stay ahead of the others and the inevitable rock that would be let loose. One good-sized one was dislodged by one of them, but a prompt yell of "Rock!" alerted me to the tumbling boulder and I had ample time to side-step out of the way.
We descended several hundred feet below the base of the chute as we made our way towards Mt. Fiske. Rather than climb the NE Ridge to Fiske's east summit as described in Secor, we chose a snow-filled chute to the east of this ridge which looked to offer the quickest descent. Once again we donned our crampons, then traversed across one snowfield and went up the narrower portion that reached to the ridge above. While I favored even loose rock over the snow and got off onto a small arete where I could, Rick favored climbing snow as high as he could. Though we both thought our own preference a quicker ascent, it proved to be about the same for both routes. Matthew was only a few minutes behind us in reaching the ridge. From there, we climbed rock and boulder up the ridgeline to the east summit, moving right onto the face where the ridge was too difficult.
From the east summit it was an easy walk to the higher west summit, and by 9:15a we found ourselve atop the summit of Mt. Fiske. It seemed quite fast (6hrs) and we were in fine spirits, hardly feeling the wear of the day's exercise. It almost seemed like we could climb the rest of the surrounding peaks and had a few dreams of grandiousness beyond our abilities. Along with Mts. Fiske and Huxley, Mt. Warlow forms the third vertex in a roughly equilateral triangle. The ridgeline passes through Mt. Warlow to the southeast before continuing on to Huxley. The easiest way to Huxley would be to downclimb Fiske and then climb Huxley on the NE side, bypassing Warlow. But the more sporting route would be to follow the ridge to Warlow and then to Huxley. I had kept this in mind as my stretch goal, and it was to that I now turned my attention. We knew little of the route between Fiske and Warlow, other than the NE Ridge of Warlow was class 4 according to Secor. Secor rates the traverse from Warlow to Huxley as class 3, but a trip report by Steve Eckert put it at more like class 4. This was some remote scrambling, and there just wasn't much beta to go on. From what we could see, the NE Ridge of Warlow certainly looked impressive. There were large blocks along the ridge about 2/3 of the way up that might prove difficult, but these appeared to be passable by moving onto the face to the right. I suggested we climb down to the saddle between the two peaks before making a decision which way to go. The others agreed.
Before heading down we attempted to sign into the register. The aluminum cylinder placed by the Sierra Club was there, but the registers inside were missing. In their place were a few scraps of paper but no pencil, so we left it unmarked by our passing. The SW Ridge of Fiske was comprised of great blocks of granite that made for some fun downclimbing. Rick took the lead on this section, making quick time of the descent with myself in hot pursuit. Matthew thought a bit less of this reckless game or ours, preferring to take it more cautiously and reaching the saddle about five minutes behind us. By the time he had joined us I had refilled my bottles with snow found on the NW side of the saddle and had already made up my mind to head to Warlow. Matthew hesitated only long enough to express the displeasure he'd feel if the route turned out to be really fun, but was decided in favor of descending from the saddle and heading to Huxley more directly. Rick was caught in between, undecided. He would have preferred that we all head in the same direction, but Matthew and I had no qualms about splitting our party. It was the sharp, impressive profile of Warlow's NE Ridge that finally won Rick over, and he threw in his cards with me.
It was a briliant decision. Almost from the saddle, we were treated to some superb class 3 climbing with occasional class 4 sections. We stuck to the ridge as best we could, enjoying the route immensely. Where we encounted the much too large blocks we had eyed from Fiske, we moved right as hoped and then found our way back to the ridge above the obstacle. There were thin pinnacles that we climbed without knowing if we could get off the other side, only to find improbably step-acrosses or perfect fist cracks to downclimb. The exposure was at once both exhilarating and serious. We climbed almost continuously, encouraging each other and really enjoying every moment. It was one of the finest class 4 climbs I had ever encountered. It was 11:30a when we made our way to the summit, almost exactly two hours since we had reached the summit of Fiske. We were elated and high-fived each other, basking in our moment of extreme satisfaction.
Finding no trace of a register, we took another break at the summit, took more pictures, and turned our attention to Huxley. We had seen no sign of Matthew below since we'd left him at the saddle, and wondered how his journey to Huxley was progressing. We figured the ridgeline to Huxley ought to be easier than what we had just done, and from what we could see from the summit, this seemed likely to be the case. It was a mostly straightforward class 2 descent down an easy grade of boulders to the saddle between Warlow and Huxley, with occasional diversions to the right side and some thin edges. We bypassed a tough knife-edge by downclimbing the southwest side about 30 feet, then reached the saddle, or notch. Here the easy climbing abruptly ended. Huge blocks of granite shot up along the ridge in front of us, impossible to climb at less than class 5, mocking us. We peeked around the blocks on the northeast side and found a steep face broken by a series of ledges and ramps. It seemed we could climb down and start traversing across that face, but the climb back up looked tough. It was hard to tell with any precision whether we could get back off the face since it was more than a hundred yards across to the other side, but it didn't seem like we had many options at that point. So down we went, and began traversing across that side of the ridge.
We managed our way across about half the distance when the far side began to look like it would be a tough challenge. I scanned the face above us at this point, and though quite steep, it looked like we could climb through the ledges above us to regain the ridgeline. Maybe. I decided that a positive attitude was what was needed to get us through this little mess, so I told Rick we were going to head back up to the ridge and it was going to be the greatest climbing ever. He smiled disbelievingly, but didn't go so far as to tell me I was crazy. He would withhold judgement until we were on easier terrain heading for the summit. So up I led, through a series of surprising, last minute escapes up to the next ledge with non-trivial exposure. Each time I would find the key hold to allow us to continue, I would turn to Rick and say, "See? Isn't this the greatest climbing ever? You're going to be thanking me later for this." Rick would return his smile, only it became more sincere as our upward journey progressed.
We did manage to return to the ridge, though the climbing did not become any easier. The ridge was lined with sharp, pointed pinnacles that we worked hard to get over or around. Another 30 minutes along the ridgeline led us closer to the summit of Huxley, but at least a dozen times we came upon a block that looked like it might stop us for good. There was no doubt in either of our minds that this was class 4 climbing, a good deal of it too, and we agreed the Secor class 3 rating was just wrong (Eckert was more accurate in his TR). There were several false summits, pinnacles really, that were surmounted in the hope that we were atop the true summit. Rick was not fooled by the last one of these as I was, bypassing it on the SW side while I was forced to downclimb the spicy crack I had ascended. It was all good fun, and Rick admitted it was probably the best scramble he had done to date.
We finally managed to reach the summit by 1:20p, where we found Matthew patiently waiting for us after having come up the NE Ridge. He found his route uncomfortably loose and had no interest in downclimbing it if it could be avoided. He wouldn't say exactly how long he'd been waiting for us, but it was probably a good while. Rick and I didn't tell Matthew just how great the climbing had been, not wanting to make him feel bad (just yet, anyway). So our response was that it was tough, certainly class 4, and just manageable. Huxley was the only summit we visited that had a register, though it didn't go back very far. One out of three made for a poor average. The excess energy we had displayed on the summit of Fiske had all dissipated by this time. We were tired and wanted to get back. There would be no visit to nearby Mt. Spencer as we had deluded ourselves of earlier. The shortest route back was probably to go back over Wallace or Haeckel Col, but the least cross-country would be to head west down to the JMT and come back over Lamarck Col. The first two cols were both visible from our perch on Huxley, but the approaches and climbs up the west side looked like an awful slog. I declared my intention to return via Lamarck Col, and the others agreed, though less enthusiastically.
We descended Huxley via the class 2 West Face, utilziing a chute described in Eckert's TR and in Secor, found not far down the NW Ridge. As we got lower towards Evolution Basin, Matthew and Rick had a change of heart and wondered if they couldn't still get over Haeckel Col. We moved to the north end of the West Ridge as we descended the last few hundred feet to see if we could see a way to traverse around the north side of Huxley. Unfortunately there were cliffs there to prevent a traverse, and they would have to drop all the way to the JMT before climbng back up to Haeckel Col. They resigned themselves to the long slog out.
Back on trail, we stopped for a short break to eat a snack and fill our empty water bottles. Though not raging, the stream was wide enough to make the crossing we found further on a bit tricky. Some of the rocks dotting across the stream were partially submerged, so one had to move quickly to keep from getting wet boots. Not all of us were able to negotiate the stream without a soaking. Matthew retook the front position and was soon hiking well out in front of Rick and I. This continued on until we got past Evolution Lake and near the turnoff for the use trail to Darwin Bench. I found Matthew waiting along the trail, we discussed briefly where we expected to find the junction, and waited some more minutes for Rick to join us. Though we were all pretty tired by this time, Rick was slowing the most and not sure he could keep up.
We found the trail junction right where we expected it. As we started up the fairly steep trail we were taxed for whatever reserves we could muster. Uphill at this point in the day was tough, but we had little choice but to slug it out. We were halfway up to Darwin Bench when Rick told us he was going to have to fall back to a slower pace. He'd been up this trail once before on our hike to Goddard Peak, so we figured he should be able to find his way back - as long as he got over Lamarck Col before dark. It wasn't yet 5p, so there was still plenty of daylight.
Matthew and I continued on together. We were happy to reach Darwin Bench marking the end of the steep part, after which we found the trail harder to follow as we moved up to Darwin Canyon. At one point we followed the wrong side trail several hundred feet up the north side of the canyon before realizing our error. You'd think that after half a dozen trips through here that we'd have it down by now, but the truth was we were just too tired to keep more accurately on route.
The climb up to Lamarck Col was the last serious uphill of the day, and we took a long time to manage it. We stopped six or seven times on the way up to catch our breath and rest our weary legs. We crossed over the col just before 7p, clouds now starting to darken parts of the sky. The snow on the east side of the col was slushy and it looked like the no one had been over in some time. The postholing down the snowfield was so frustrating that I cursed out loud every other time my foot broke through, landing me up to my hip. The good news was that it was downhill from here on out, and we dutifully made our way down the next few hours towards North Lake. By this time it was quite obvious that we'd (or rather, "I'd") chosen the wrong return route and we paid for it in the extra hours still plying the trail when we could have been back already if we'd returned to Lake Sabrina. Oh well, lesson learned.
Matthew got ahead of me during the descent and I never caught up to him again. I was starting to feel nauseous after about a third of the descent and the faster pace Matthew was keeping was exacerbating it. So I slowed down, way down at times, trying to control the urge to hurl. I hadn't eaten much all day, and nothing since leaving the summit of Huxley. Though I had some food in my pack, I had no appetite for any of it. Even the water and Gatorade I was drinking started to taste awful. After about an hour of this I could hold out no longer. I dropped to the ground, heaving like a sick dog. It sounded terrible, but very little came out since there was almost nothing in my stomach besides a bit of water. Ugh. My eyes were watering terribly while I wretched and anyone coming by and seeing my performance might have guessed I was having a seizure or worse. But after about 30 seconds the worst ended, and almost immediately I began to feel better. I could continue down the trail without having an upset stomach, though the episode did nothing for my tired legs.
It was around 9p when I managed my way back to the parking lot where I found Matthew waiting. I had used a headlamp to find my way through the forest for the last 30 minutes, yet somehow Matthew had been able to find his way without one. We drove back up to Lake Sabrina to retrieve Rick's truck, bringing it back to North Lake where we left it for Rick when he returned to the TH. Back in Bishop we stopped for fast food before returning to the motel for a shower and bed.
Rick never showed up that night as we expected he would. Come morning, we got up around 7a and worked out a plan to find Rick. I got the job of driving back up to the trailhead to see if his truck was still there. About two minutes up SR168 I spotted Rick driving the other way towards town. Evidently he saw me too, since he pulled over and waited for me to turn around and catch up. It seems he had made it over Lamarck Col, but lost the trail lower down. After wandering around for about an hour trying to find it again, Rick gave up and decided a bivy was unavoidable. It was somewhere around midnight and had grown very cold. After huddling and shivering for a while Rick realized he was going to go hypothermic if he sat there much longer. So he gather some wood and started a fire. This worked to some effect, but it was nearly impossible to both sleep and keep warm. So he sat up most of the night, warming one side, afraid of nodding off and dropping into the fire, and generally having a horrible time. But he survived, which was the important thing. The ironic thing about it all was that when he got up to leave in the morning at first light, the trail was only three feet from his bivy location.
For more information see these SummitPost pages: Mt. Fiske - Mt. Warlow - Mt. Huxley
This page last updated: Fri Jul 6 18:11:09 2007
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