Mon, Aug 8, 2005
The previous afternoon and evening had been a rainy one both on the mountain and back in town. Those that had gotten caught in the rain returning from Pilot Knob told stories and shared the pictures and movies they had taken. I talked to everyone I could to find out what times everyone got off the mountain as is my practice in collecting the day's stats, checking them off my list. By evening there were three still unaccounted for: Corrine, Justine, and Scott H. The first two were traveling together and not staying at the Starlite Motel with the majority of us, and I was less worried about them. Scott, on the other hand, had last been seen well behind the others and had not shown up to his room at the motel. Our start for Mt. Mendel was from the same trailhead at North Lake, and when I arrived shortly after 5:30a the next day, the first thing I did was note that Corrine's truck was gone - so I could cross her and Justin off my list. Scott was a different story. I didn't know what car he was driving and was unable to tell if he'd returned or not. As previously arranged, I'd told him I would wait until the start of the next day's Challenge before initiating a search for him in the event I hadn't heard from him. I went around the parking lot collecting names for the day's event, but the uncertainty of Scott's whereabouts had me distracted.
At five minutes to 6a Scott walked up to my considerable relief. He looked fresh and ready to go in his hiking clothes, and my first guess was that he had simply returned late the previous night after I'd gone to bed at 9p. But as he related the story to the rest of us, he had just in fact walked down off the trail. He'd run out of daylight during his descent from Piute Pass, and fearing he would hurt himself in walking off the trail, had hunkered down for an unplanned bivy about half an hour short of the trailhead. We all remarked how chipper he looked, but in reality it was a relief on his face that he'd gotten back before a search was started. He bid us goodbye as he headed back to his car and then on to Bishop to get some needed rest. Scott earned the current record for longest time yet to complete a Challenge: 23h55m.
In the meantime, 11 of us had assembled for the outing to Mt. Mendel. All were returning from the previous day with the exception of Ron Hudson who was joining us for the first time. I had never met Ron, but his name was very familiar to me from the annals of the Sierra Club's SPS chapter. Ron had completed the entire SPS list and was a highly regarded leader in the Sierra Club. I didn't really know what to expect of his personality and his abilities, but in a very short time I was impressed with both. Aside from our group of 11, Matthew had started some 30 minutes earlier with the hope of climbing nearby Mt. Darwin after tagging Mendel. As we headed up the trail to Lamarck Lakes, Mark set the pace up the steep trail. We found the use trail heading to Lamarck Col without any trouble - it was right there between Lower and Upper Lamarck Lakes as advertised.
The weather again was flawless in the morning, but we were no longer being fooled. The weather report called for a 30% chance of afternoon thunderstorms, same forcast we'd had the last three days which meant the clouds were coming. Mark was setting a pretty tough pace by now, reminiscent of his start earlier in the week. There were only three of us left in the lead by the time we reached the grassy plateau below the col. Above this, we found several snowfields, easily crossed without crampons or axes. In the upper cirque just east of the col, a lone tent was set up in the sandy area, its occupant evidently still inside. It was 8:35a when Mark and I reached Lamarck Col. Rick G. was a few minutes behind, the only other one of the original group to keep up. While the three of us took a break at the col and took in our first views of Mendel and Darwin, a group of five were approaching the cirque on the east side, perhaps ten minutes behind us. There were only the first hints of clouds, wafting slowly across the crest high above us. Mark's reaction was, "Uh-oh, this looks bad," to which I replied, "What are you talking about?" 99% of the sky was cloud-free, how could it possibly be looking bad already? I had to agree that the odds were quite high that it would only deteriorate from this point, but how could it be determined to be bad? I think part of it was a lingering fear of the downpour that Mark and the others had encountered the previous day, one that I conveniently avoided, as luck would have it. I was still treating the weather a bit nonchallantly while Mark and some of the others had suddenly gotten religion.
I was planning to take the more difficult NE Ridge route on Mendel, whereas everyone else was planning on the East Face, so I figured I'd get a jump on them and headed down to Darwin Canyon on the west side of the col. I had been surprised that we'd gotten to the col in a little more than two and half hours. My only previous trip had been leading a group of 5 backpacking over it many years ago, and we didn't even manage to reach the cirque on the east side in the first day. Not only was I further convinced that backpacking just sucks, but even more sucky was trying to lead a large group to do the same. So far, things were going quite well. By 9a I was at the bottom of Darwin Canyon filling up my water bottle and photographing a curious marmot. The easy part was no over - time to climb the moraine to Mendel. The weather meanwhile had started its usual pattern, only earlier today - clouds now covered a third of the sky.
It took almost another hour to climb the loose, tedious moraine around to the start of the NE Ridge. I had a short section of snow to cross that I put my crampons on for. I probably could have gone without them, but it seemed almost a shame to carry them all day and not use them, and I could take advantage of the better traction to climb the snow to its uppermost reach and avoid a bit more of the tedious boulders. The NE Ridge is the very prominent ridge as seen from Lamarck Col. The route starts on the west side of the ridge where a deep cleft cuts the ridge. As I peered up the cleft it looked like an impossibly steep climb - how is this class 3? Reviewing my beta I noted that the route goes up the left side of the cleft, not in the chute itself. As I started up the steep shoulder to my left, I marveled at the difficulty and sheerness of the route. "Marveled" might not be a fair description - "became alarmed" might be better. While far better than trying to scramble up the cleft, this route was no picnic either. The whole west side of the ridge was deep in shadow, and the rock was still damp from the previous day's rain. In addition to a small cairn, a cheater sling dangling from above told me I was on the correct route. There was no way I could classify it as class 3, and the cheater sling told me I wasn't the only one of this opinion. I would have rated it class 4 without hesitation. The route climbing up to the ridge was amazingly sustained - nothing was less than class 3 until I reached the short section of chute mentioned in Secor that brings one to the ridge (the chute is the upper section of the same deep cleft marking the start). While the route so far was quite enjoyable despite my initial alarm, I would have enjoyed it a good deal more if I hadn't felt like I was rushing to climb the mountain before the weather turned. This feeling would continue the entire way to the summit.
Having reached the ridge, I expected the climbing difficulty to level off, but it had ideas of its own. Not only was there still a good deal of what I would call class 4 (chimneys, stemming, liebacks were all employed enroute), but there were now route-finding challenges to boot. Further, the ridge was more like an arete, rising steeply from one false summit to the next. From afar the summit is quite obvious, but while on the ridge I found that I was quite sure I must be close to the top, finding myself disappointed several times in the process. But it really was a great route, one that I would highly recommend. As I was surmounting the last of my false summits and setting eyes on the true summit above (wondering if it wasn't also a false one), I was quite surprised to see Matthew ahead of me - looks like he was justing getting to the summit now when I expected he'd already be on his way to Darwin. I called out, but instead of hearing Matthew reply, I heard a shout much lower, coming from the East Face. I spotted Michael and Rick G. a short ways out on the face, traversing towards me and the NE Ridge. In my concentration on the route and finishing it before the rain started, I had forgotten all about the others and the East Face. Now it was like an unusual convergence of three parties right below the summit. Where I had been concentrating on the route and the forces of nature leaving me vulnerable in the remote wilds, it was suddenly a more festive atmosphere with others to converse with and share the route.
As I headed along the ridge towards Matthew, Ron appeared behind me, just having reached the ridge himself. This was the first time I'd seen him in action, and as we made our way up the final 100 yards, I was impressed that he manhandled the boulders and slabs as well as anyone I'd seen. At 60 years of age, not only could he scramble, but he made it to the summit of Mendel in 5 1/2 hours with the rest of us. We took in the views and shared our concerns about the weather. Nobody wanted a repeat of the previous day's deluge. Some of the boots from that one were still drying outside the motel room in Bishop. Goddard, McGee, Darwin, and a host of other peaks were visible, though conditions were not so good for pictures due to some haze and the increasing cloud cover. Unsure about one peak, we pointed south and asked Ron if we were looking at Mt. Fiske. "Uh....." was Ron's initial response, then he confessed he wasn't so sure. "But Ron, you've been up everyone one of these peaks - haven't you got them memorized by now?" I asked, almost incredulous. The fact was, he'd been up many of them several times or more, but instead of them becoming etched in his memory, they were more likely to blur together in time and space. This was a source of amusement for us on several other summits this week as we found it wasn't just the Evolution area that Ron had some trouble with. To his credit Ron was a great sport about our ribbing, calmly smiling with a look as if to say, "Wait 'til you're my age, boys."
Now that we were on the summit and the rain had not only held off, but looked as if it would hold off a while longer, our anxiousness about it subsided. Matthew tried to convince me to head to Darwin with him, but having already been to the summit, I was less motivated than he. Clearly the route along the connecting ridge looked difficult, as Matthew commented it was reported to be 5.8. The technically easier route would require a descent to the Darwin Glacier before climbing back up to the West Ridge, and it was this additional 800 feet or so that I had objections to. Matthew and I hiked a short distance to the southwest to get a few pictures looking into Evolution Valley, then rejoined the others for a descent back down the East Face.
I was a bit surprised that they had joined up with the NE Ridge on the ascent, but that was where Matthew's trip report beta had suggested. Looking to the southeast, I spotted a steep chute with a chockstone and asked Matthew, "What about going down there?" He informed me that was the class 4 option, to which I doubtingly replied, "Really?" That of course made it instantly of interest to me, and without another word I headed over to it. The others followed. It was a fine class 4 chockstone we all agreed, and I took some pictures as we all went down in succession. Below it was a bit of class 3 mixed with a lot of class 2, with many options all over the face, on good but somewhat rock. We did well not to knock rocks down on each other, an easy thing to do with lots of loose stuff on the various ledges. Beforehand, I was hoping I would meet up with the folks from the East Face since I didn't know if I'd be able to find the route down on my own without having first ascended it. Much of the route seemed obvious (head down), but there was a traverse to the left (north) that I might have missed if I was on my own. The traverse brought us to the lower chute from which the rest of the route down to the glacier was clear.
Matthew and I were the first ones down to the Glacier, which we reached at 12:30p. It was still fairly early and there was plenty of time for Matthew to head to Darwin, so we stood there debating the merits. The prime factor going for it was that the climb up didn't look too bad at all. It seemed only a short distance and few hundred feet up to reach the ridge, and the route seemed fairly routine class 3. The biggest downside was the uncertainty of the weather. Matthew had characterized Darwin as "the biggest f**king lightning rod in the area" and wasn't excited about the prospect of standing atop it just when the weather was most likely to turn. There was still blue sky visible about us, but yesterday's events were still fresh in his mind. When I left him after five minutes, he was decided upon giving Darwin a go and I wished him luck. Down I zipped, bootskiing over acres of glacier that were surprisingly free of the huge suncups I would have expected at this time of year. When I looked up some five minutes later, Matthew was standing in the same place, this time consulting with Ron for another opinion, Michael and Rick G. having already descended lower. I watched some minutes later as Ron started to descend and Matthew headed over towards Darwin. After another few minutes he changed his mind and I could see Matthew initiate a descent down the glacier. Looks like Darwin would wait for another time.
I traversed above Darwin Lakes on my return towards Lamarck Col. Whereas earlier I was urging the rain to hold off until I'd gotten to the summit, now I was praying it would hold until I was over the col. Ron had made good time on the descent and was now not more than 50 yards behind me, taking a slightly higher traverse than I had. At the rate he was gaining I expected he might beat me back to the col. On my way up the sandy slopes I crossed paths with 4 backpackers descending into Darwin Canyon. Upon seeing me, they assumed I was dayhiking from the tent site just east of the col, and were surprised to find that I and the others were heading back to the trailhead. Asking where we'd been, they looked incredulous at the reply, which naturally drew a smile from me. It was shortly before 1:45p when I reached the col, still no rain. It would thankfully hold off the entire day. Ron had started to bonk about this time, and it was Rick G. that I saw a few minutes behind me.
I bombed down the east side of the col, the permanent snow field on that side a deliciously soft consistency that made for a great boot-ski. I went quickly down the trail at a fast walk, hoping I might yet catch up with some of the others (I didn't). The weather seemed less threatening on the east side of the crest and continued to hold off nicely. It had turned out to be a blessing really, less grilling sunshine meant less exposure and sunburn. And where the descents to the trailhead are usually warmer than one would like, the temperatures were near-ideal for such an outing. I was back at the trailhead by 3:45p, several hours quicker than I had expected. It was quite nice having what amounted to one of the easier days when I had been expecting one of the harder ones.
The five that were on the summit together were the only ones to make it up that day. Mark, Matt, and Jeff gave the weather a wide berth and decided to climb nearby Mt. Lamarck from the col instead of risking getting caught in something nasty over on Mendel. Evan and David went up to the col before turning around for the same reason. Mike Y. and Eric had gone on to Mendel sometime after the initial five, climbing much of the East Ridge before turning around due to their cutoff time. They were the last to return to the trailhead that day.
For more information see these SummitPost pages: Mt. Mendel
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