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In perusing the maps I thought I'd come across a shorter route to McGee with an approach from the north via McGee Canyon and using the NE Spur. This route was rated class 4 which I took to be an old school rating and therefore highly variable. The only information available was the short blurb in Secor's book. I found no trip reports describing a climb from the north side. I planned to take a rope and small amount of gear with me in case it turned out to be fifth class. But in the early morning hour at North Lake before the climb, as I polled the various participants, it seemed those heading to McGee preferred the longer but safer approach from the south via Wanda Lake. Not willing to tackle the unknown route alone, it seemed easier to leave the rope in the car and save the weight. I swapped it out for a few more bottles of Gatorade and prepared to join the others.
We had a dozen at the trailhead for the start, although not all of the participants made it in time for the photo. Matthew, Glenn, and Tom were heading to The Hermit for Matthew's SPS list finish, though much of the approach route would be the same as for McGee, heading over Lamarck Col. It seemed we had half a dozen folks who planned to head for McGee, more than would likely make it, but as is usually the case, this gets sorted out in the first four or five hours on the trail.
There was a somewhat loose group of eight that kept within sight of each other for the trek up to Lamarck Lakes by headlamp and the start of the Lamarck Col Trail. Soon afterwards this became a group of five in two sub-groups. Matthew, Brian, and Peter were out in front keeping a very healthy pace. Rick and I were not far behind, but could not manage to catch up despite our efforts to do so. Not long after sunrise we reached the east side of Lamarck Col. A lone backpacker was encamped here, still asleep in his tent. From the lake Rick and I watched the three leaders traverse out onto the snowfield just below the col, then we scrambled up the boulders to reach the snow ourselves.
The snow was hard, as expected, but a boot track had been layed out across the snow making it possible to cross without axe or crampons if one traveled carefully. Rick followed the traversing course used by the other three while I decided to head up in a more direct fashion scrambling over rock to avoid the long snow traverse. As it turned out my route led to Lamarck Col, the other way to a point north of it. I took a few photos looking east and west sides of the col, then started down - it was too cold and windy to take a break there as we have in the past.
Rick and I rejoined on our way down the sand and boulders into Darwin Canyon, aiming for the second highest of the lakes found there. We continued our chase of the lead group along the use trail on the north side of the lakes, catching glimpses of them periodically but never catching up. We saw no one back up at Lamarck Col and lost touch with the rest of the tribe behind us. By the time we reached Darwin Bench at the mouth of Darwin Canyon just before 8a we were finally in the sun and could start to warm up. It was going to be a fine day.
Rick and I lost the others completely shortly before reaching Darwin Bench. We had little trouble finding the use trail heading down to the JMT and by 8:15a we had reached this junction. We had expected to find Matthew here waiting for Tom and Glenn to head off to The Hermit, but there was no one around. As we took a short break I brought up the idea of the NE Spur once again. Rick did not immediately reject it as I had expected, but seemed to be mulling it over. The prospect of a shorter day was appealing to both of us. "What about the class 4?" he asked. I responded, "Well, so far I haven't found a Sierra class 4 that has stumped me." He came back, "What about me?" Well, that was a bit of a dilemma that only Rick could answer for himself. Somewhat to my surprise, he agreed to give it a go. My enthusiasm (and trepidation) for McGee had suddenly increased and I was ready and eager.
We headed down the JMT into Evolution Valley, leaving the trail to contour around the NW side of The Hermit to reach McGee Canyon. We found a nice spot to jump across Evolution Creek and headed up across easy terrain under open forest. I knew there was a use trail heading up McGee Canyon; I had been on it many years earlier on my first visit to the area, but I forgot which side of the creek it was on. Luckily the cross-country was easy enough and it wasn't until we were halfway up the canyon and out from under the majority of the forest that we discovered it on the west side of the creek (whereas we had been hiking up the east side of the creek the whole time).
Mt. McGee's North Face made a picturesque backdrop for the remainder of the hike up the canyon. Snows lingered at the base of the face, but the route up the NE Spur was completely snow-free as far as we could see. We took a break in the middle of the canyon in this idyllic setting. Rick showed none of the fatigue he had had on our most recent outing to North Guard and appeared in fine shape. We were both enjoying the day immensely.
By 10a we had reached McGee Lakes at the base of our route and paused here to get the last bit of water we were likely to find for some time. Our route up the NE Spur looked fairly straightforward for the most part. I expected we would easily reach the lower east summit before coming to the crux between it and the higher middle summit. The scrambling on the NE Spur was as good as we could have hoped, basically solid rock with scatterings of talus on the ledges, but enjoyable. The only evidence of other visitors we found on the route were the remains of a pair of circa-1970 sunglasses with a red/white/blue laminated frame that were quite popular for a time.
The cleaner granite of the NE Spur turned to more volcanic choss as we neared the east summit, some of the climbing turning to harder class 3 slowing us somewhat. Finding no register at the east summit, we paused to observe the route up the middle summit, not altogether comfortable with what we found. It was quite frightening actually, but we told ourselves that the face would look far less vertical when we were actually upon it. We picked our way down through the serrated ridgeline to the saddle between the two summits. Rick pointed down to our left, noting the class 2 talus chute we could take down to the south side if the class 4 proved too difficult. It would be tough having to lose 1,300ft of elevation only to reclimb it by another chute, but we were happy to have this option "just in case."
From the saddle the east face of the middle summit did not look any easier. We had correctly identified the "dihedral and crack" mentioned by Secor, but it looked far harder than class 4. So much so that my first instinct was to look for another route, perhaps one that had eluded previous parties. I climbed up from the saddle keeping to the edge between the east and north faces. Rick climbed up part way, then watched as I probed around on the north side looking for an alternate. Unfortunately the only thing I could find involved some near-vertical walls connected by ledges sloping downwards over the precipitous N. Face without much in the way of hand holds. I balked. "Maybe you should go over to the base of the dihedral and get a closer look," I suggested.
As I slowly retreated from my somewhat precarious perch, Rick traverse out to the east face to examine the crux. It did indeed look a little easier from close up, but it was still formidable. There were two ways to the base of the dihedral and we first examined the lower, easier-to-reach point. After Rick had a look at it he backed off and allowed me a closer inspection. It was not easy. The hardest part looked to be at the very start with a long reach and a pull-up over an exposed position. I contemplated this for several minutes as my legs began to weaken at the stance, then commented, "Maybe we should try the other start."
The second option involved a traverse across a thin ledge blocked by a large stone the size of large TV. It appeared necessary to hang on this block with the body lurching outward in order to get around it, but neither of us were too trusting that the block wouldn't pull out and suddenly plunge us downward some 100ft to certain harm. It was some more minutes that this was contemplated before I worked up the courage to trust it, and thankfully it didn't budge. Being a good 10-15lbs lighter than I, Rick was probably safe as well. From the stone it was a short distance to the dihedral. There was a gap at the vertex of the diehedral, a chimney of sorts about 1/2 the width of my body, running about 30ft up at an incline of perhaps 70 degrees. The gap wasn't wide enough to get my body into, but it was wide enough that I felt confident I could stuff enough appendages in to secure me tightly in the process of climbing it. I started up.
At first Rick stood at the base of the dihedral with neck strained to watch me struggle upwards. The first rocks that came tumbling out sent him for cover, after which he wisely moved off to the side to get out of the fall line. The climb involved a great deal of struggle on my part. Evidently used by only a few parties in the past, there were several loose chockstones and other debris that caused the racing of my heart and more deliberate attention to the moment. Afterwards I described the climbing as desperate because it really pushed my strength to the limit, but I never felt exposed as though I were going to fall out and crash. At worst it seemed I might wedge myself in so tightly that extraction could be made impossible.
There was a parallel crack about 10ft right of the dihedral that started about half way up. The climbing looked easier in this second crack and it appeared that a small ledge would allow me to move from one to the other after about 15ft. When I reached this point I found the ledge illusional and without climbing shoes I had no confidence I could bridge the gap. My only choice seemed to be to struggle to the top of the dihedral and hope for the best. After another tough section the climbing became easier and I scurried to the top of the dihedral where I found a small stance where I could rest and catch my breath. In all I had spent about 10 minutes on the effort, though of course it seemed much longer and my limbs felt spent.
From below Rick asked how it looked above. As far as I could see it was easier from that point on. Rick mulled it over for a few minutes before pronouncing he had no confidence to follow me. I was suddenly struck with the thought of the rope we had unfortuitously left back in the car. It would have been an easy matter to secure a stance and toss a rope down to him had we had it now. If only... While I like to cajole and persuade as much as the next guy, I do not feel at ease doing so to get someone to climb something they aren't feeling at the moment. I had to let Rick make up his own mind, offering that although the climbing was indeed hard (it would probably rate class 5.6 or so by today's standards), I didn't feel exposed and fearful. Rick resolved to head back to the saddle and take the alternate route down the south side. We bid each other goodbye and went in opposite directions.
The climbing above was indeed easier, much to my relief. I had had enough of the hard stuff for one day. What I hadn't appreciated until now was just how close we were to the summit - it took less than ten minutes to reach the top. I really felt for Rick who I knew would be delayed by hours taking the other route, and this muted my sense of elation I might normally have upon reaching a difficult summit.
The register, placed in 1997 by Tina Stough (now Bowman) had eleven pages of entries in the intervening years including the 2005 dayhike entry by Matthew and a host of other easily recognized names. I had expected to see Michael Graupe's name as the last entry - he had started an hour earlier than the rest of us in order to give himself more time. That I had beaten him to the summit provided some measurable amount of satisfaction. I looked around to the west to scan the rocks, but saw no sign of him.
My next order of business was to get myself safely off McGee. The original plan called for a traverse over the west summit to Peter Peak for the bonus, then descend back to McGee Canyon. The route from the middle to west summit was given a class 3-4 rating, somewhat easier, but after that last bit of class 4 I was understandably concerned. I figured at worse I could descend the chute between the middle and west summits to Davis Lake and take the long way back.
As I was traversing across the ridgeline of the middle summit I heard a voice calling over, looked around, and found Michael only minutes from the summit. His salt-stained face had a worn look to it, he was tired but making progress. He said he had seen another climber behind him down by Davis Lake, but had seen no sign of him for some time. He could only guess who it might be as he did not have a good look. I surmised it couldn't have been Rick, but must have been one of the others heading to McGee. I tried to talk Michael into my plan of returning to McGee Canyon via Peter Peak, but he would have none of it. He would be satisfied with the longer but surer route he had already taken up.
Upon parting, I continued to the notch between the two westernmost summits and surveyed the rock above leading to the west summit. It did not look hard at all and I immediately began making my way up directly from the notch. Secor's directions were somewhat convoluted but I think unnecessarily so. I found it pretty straightforward class 3 climbing directly up to the summit. I reached the top of the west summit (or rather one of the tops -there are several at this broken summit of similar height) about the same time that Michael completed his traverse to the highpoint.
From the west summit I found a class 2 boulder slope leading down the northwest side to the saddle with Peter Peak. It was also class 2 leading up the summit of Peter, about 400ft above the saddle. The going was all very straightforward and I was able to cover the distance from McGee's middle summit to Peter Peak in about an hour. I was mildly disappointed to find no sign of a register atop Peter, not even as much as a pile of rocks. I'm guessing it sees very few visitors.
Secor describes a class 2 route off Peter that first descends the NE Ridge to a notch, then follows a loose class 2 chute down the east side. I had been observing Peter Peak during our ascent of McGee since we had a fine view of it from that angle and was able to pick out the obvious chute that goes from the base all the way up to the notch in a clean sweep. But negotiating the ridgeline to reach the chute was not an easy matter and looked like it could be tedious class 3 on loose volcanic rock. The face directly below the summit on the east side had a number of possible chutes that looked to converge in a wide, steep cirque just above a cliff band. It looked possible to work my way down through the cliff band so I decided to take this much more direct route not described in Secor. After carefully downclimbing about 30ft to the easier sand/talus, there was much boot skiing to be had in quick fashion for hundreds of feet until I found myself at the top of the cliff band. I then picked my way to the left (north) side of the cirque where I found a narrow chute leading diagonally down through the cliff band. It worked beautifully and I was soon on the snowfield at the bottom.
The snow turned out to be fortuitous as well. The large amphitheater formed on the north side by McGee and Peter is a giant moraine that would have made for a tedious crossing over loose and shifting boulders. The snowfield was soft enough to walk on without crampons or axe, but not too soft that I would posthole, and it had a tongue extending down the drainage heading north in exactly the direction I needed to go. As narrow as a few feet in spots, it made a beautiful runway to get me through the boulder mess. At one point it ended abruptly, only to have a second snowfield waiting just out of view another 40-50yds below. This second snowfield allowed an exit onto more stable alpine terrain in McGee Canyon and it was fairly easy to find my way back to the use trail. A second hour had elapsed between the summit of Peter Peak and regaining the use trail. I was convinced this route had to be much faster than the route around Davis Lake.
I spent a bit more than three hours retracing my route back down McGee Canyon to the JMT, up to the junction with the Lamarck Col route, up Darwin Bench and Canyon and finally back to Lamarck Col which I reached at 5:40p. I was quite tired by this time, but not nearly as tired as I'd been on the Mt. Goddard hike when I had to stop every twenty feet on my way back up to the col at the end of the day. This time I was able to keep up a steady albeit slow pace and was in good spirits as I crossed back over to the east side of the Sierra crest.
On my way back down the Lamarck Trail I somehow stumbled on an old horse trail that originates at Grass Lake. I recognized right away that it wasn't the usual return route, but I could guess it had to lead back to North Lake eventually so I continued to follow it all the way down. Although the route past Grass Lake was a bit longer than the usual route past Lamarck Lakes, it was nice to have new scenery and explore an old trail. It was after 7:30p before I got back to the van, having seen none of the other Challenge participants since I had left Michael near the summit of McGee. I'd gotten back before sunset which was my primary goal, but I needed to get back to Bishop, showered, and into bed as soon as practical. I was scheduled to get up at 5a the next morning and I was just beginning to find out how much sleep would be in short supply during the event this year...
Although I didn't know it when I returned, my time of 15:30 was the fastest of those going to both McGee and The Hermit. Michael was followed to the summit of McGee by Brian and some time later by Rick. Peter, who had been in the lead group with Matthew and Brian found himself out of energy when he reached Davis Lake and returned without summiting. Four others including Matthew, Tom, Glenn, and Daria reached the summit of The Hermit. Thoroughly exhausted, Rick was the last of all these to return to the trailhead, taking until nearly 1a before reaching his car.
For more information see these SummitPost pages: Mt. McGee
This page last updated: Thu Sep 11 11:27:20 2014
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