Pip-squeak Spire

Mon, Sep 7, 1998

With: Terry Davis

Etymology Story Photos / Slideshow Maps: 1 2 Profile
later climbed Sat, May 14, 2005

After having climbed Bloody Mtn during a 3 day stay in Mammoth Lakes with family and friends, my friend Terry and I had planned a four day backpack trip to the Little Lakes Valley area about 30 miles southeast of Mammoth off US395. After seeing the others off back to San Jose on Monday morning, we packed up the Suzuki and left our cushy condos about 10a. After a stop at the grocery store for some last minute items, we were on our way.

The trailhead to Little Lakes Valley is just past Rock Creek, which sits at 9700 ft elevation. The Rock Creek Road takes you about 9 miles south of US395 up into the heart of the High Sierra (or at least this part of it). There are numerous campgrounds, a pack station, and the Rock Creek Resort (complete with cabins, RV parking, and a store) situated around Rock Creek Lake. Further on is the Mosquito Flat walk-in camp and the trailhead at 10,200ft. Parking was rather full by the time we got there at 10:30a, as this is a popular dayhike location as well. And it's popular for good reason. Within five miles of the trailhead are 6 peaks over 13,000 ft that can be climbed as dayhikes (although long ones), there are numerous lakes and campsites, and the views of the Pacific Crest and surrounding peaks are outstanding. Generally it's difficult to get a wilderness permit for this area due to its popularity, but being Labor Day, the high season had just ended and there are fewer folks than normal. Many are coming out on the trail as Terry and I headed in.

My main objectives of this trip (other than to enjoy myself) was to climb the trio of peaks along the Pacific Crest over 13,000 ft, namely Mts. Dade, Abbot, and Mills. These were impressive peaks with impressive glaciers, and technical enough for my liking (up to class 3) to be challenging. We planned to camp at Treasure Lakes which are at the base of Mts Dade and Abbot, and close enough to all three to make relatively short dayhikes, distance wise. I was carrying close to 45 lbs for this trip, which seemed neither light nor too heavy, about what would be comfortable for a 10 mile hike. Fortunately we had only about 4 miles to go from the trailhead. I suppose this very short distance is another reason for the areas popularity. After the first three miles on the trail, we headed off southwest just before reaching Gem Lakes. We didn't find much of a use trail, so it was mostly cross country to our campsite. We arrived about 12:30p under cloudy skies. The clouds were high up, so the peaks were visible, but it looked like it might rain at some point during the day. The weather had been mixed with rain the last 3 days, and it looked like the pattern was going to continue.

Treasure Lakes consists of 4 lakes situated around 11,000 ft. The two lakes to the west are slightly higher than the two to the east. Most of the lake shores are rocky and free of any vegetation save some grasses growing between the rocks. About 20% of the shores are lined with some weather-beaten pines that hold a few protected campsites. After scouting the various options available (we found another party at the upper lakes), we chose to make home for the next few days under the trees between the lower lakes.

After setting up camp and having some lunch, we watched a lone hiker descending the snowfield on the south side of the southern lake. He took his time coming off the snow and picking his way around the boulders along the shore, but after about 30 minutes he came up along side of us, and stopped for a short chat. He was wearing plastic mountaineering boots and carrying an ice axe and climbing helmet, which had caught my attention. I asked where he'd been, and he replied he had just returned from Mt. Dade on a dayhike from the trailhead. I was both impressed and worried, as Mt. Dade is described as a class 2 climb, which I usually take to mean fairly non-technical. I had been talking to Terry earlier about climbing Mt. Dade this afternoon, but now I was a bit concerned as our visitor described the Hourglass (a broad couloir which angles up to 40 degrees) route he had taken to the summit. Secor describes the Hourglass as a broad couloir, snow-filled in early season, but ice patches surrounded by loose scree in summer. Due to the heavy snows this past year, it was still snow-filled even though it was definitely late summer. Our friend had used his crampons to climb what he described as very firm snow, and rather difficult.

After our visitor had left, I pondered again my climbing plans. I did not have 10 or 12 point crampons as he had, just my puny four pointers. I like to use them as insurance, but not depend on them to keep me from careening down a slope. Terry had no plans to move whatsoever (he had no such grand climbing expectations as I, and was quite content to relax at camp), so I would be on my own. In the end, I decided I would "go check it out", and if the snow in the Hourglass was sufficiently soft, I would climb up, time and nerves permitting.

I left camp just after 1p with usual gear, jacket and umbrella, some food and water, camera, gloves, hat, ice axe, and crampons. I picked my way around the east side of the southern lake, and climbed the snowfield we had seen our friend descend earlier. When the snow ended, I headed right up a steep boulder couloir in the direction of the Hourglass. Within about 40 minutes I had reached the bottom of the Hourglass, and proceed to climb up the rocky right side of it as far as I could, about half way up the Hourglass's length. At this point I could climb no further without committing to the snow in the Hourglass. Because it was past midday now and daytime temperatures had been softening the snow for some time, it appeared "doable" and I donned my crampons. The snow was too hard to toe-kick nice steps into, but soft enough to make reasonable steps by kicking the side of the foot a few times against snow before "setting" the step with the crampon. I had to travel diagonally up to the right to reach the nearest rocks some 50 yards towards the middle of the Hourglass. From there it would be possible to resume climbing on scree and rocks. As I crossed, I was very much aware of the steepness of the couloir. I was very shortly on the steepest portion (40 degrees) about halfway across my traverse. I alternated between being spooked by the exposure and confident of my abilities. In retrospect it wasn't that difficult, but provided a nice thrill.

As I resumed the climb on the rocks in the middle of the Hourglass, it was another 10 minutes before I got to the top. At this point I was surprised to find that I was not on the Pacific Crest, but at the bottom of a high cirque that fed the Hourglass. Behind it rose a jumbled rock wall another 500 feet higher to the crest. I had misread the topo map, mistaking the glacier in the cirque for the Hourglass. To the right was Mt. Dade still another 1,000 ft up. I was at 12,600 ft, and it was getting windier, cooler, and the clouds were getting lower. The top of Mt. Dade was in the clouds now, and it seemed unlikely that a view would be had from the summit. To my right was Pipsqueak Spire, a bit closer and 330 ft lower than Mt. Dade. It was nearly 2:30p now, and I figured I'd best be back by 5p to ensure getting back before it got too dark. I finally decided to leave Mt. Dade for another day and go up the easier, lower peak of Pipsqueak Spire.

I left my ice axe at the bottom of the cirque, as it was clear that the summit could be obtained without having to cross snow again. The top of the spire was just scraping the clouds and I hoped the weather would hold out for some sort of view. It was another 40 minutes of boulder hopping and climbing to get to the summit. Shortly before I arrived, the clouds lowered, obliterating any views to be had. The wind picked up more and I donned my gloves in addition to the light jacket I had been wearing since reaching the top of the Hourglass. It also began to snow. Although it was light, the wind whipped it around like hail and it was necessary to keep my face turned away from the wind.

As I reached the top, I was dismayed to find the visibility sufficiently poor as to be unable to figure out where the true summit was. There are a number of large blocks at the summit that I found unclimbable after wandering around from different angles. In better weather it might be easier to tell which rock was higher, and it was also likely that I might be able to climb them had they not been wet with precipitation. I had to give up the search for a register after 15 minutes or so, as I was rather exposed to the wind up top and was getting cold. It also occurred to me that with the visibility so poor, it was not unconceivable that I might have trouble finding the correct route down. This was somewhat alarming since I had come up the easiest route, and any other route would lead to cliffs or difficult climbing at best.

Fortunately, I only had to climb down a hundred feet or so to where I was below the clouds again, and the route became clear. I retrieved my axe at the bottom of the cirque and started down the rocks and scree in the Hourglass. Whereas I chose rocks wherever possible on the way up, this time I gave preference to the scree which made descending quite swift. Upon reaching the snow again I had hoped that the snow had softened sufficiently to negate the need for crampons and allow a quick glissade or plunge step descent. It was not to be however, as the weather had turned enough that no further softening of the snow materialized. So I once again put on the crampons and retraced my earlier route across the snow step for step to save having to kick new ones. Once off the snow, I continued to descend down the rocks until the angle of the couloir lessened enough to consider a glissade.

There's an interesting series of conditions one considers when assessing the safety of a glissade. Is it too steep that I might lose control? If I lose control, how much runout is there at the bottom - will I come to a stop on snow or slam into rocks? How hard will it be to arrest myself if I go too fast? Is the path too bumpy, where I might have my axe bounce around (possibly injuring myself with a sharp steel point in the head)? Does the lack of sun exposure below make it such that the snow below may be icier than where I start the glissade (and thus increasing the chances of a runaway slide)? Any given climber will combine these tradeoffs with his own skill and experience level and choose a point on a slope that he feels safe with. There's also the fun factor to consider: if I climb down too far, will I end up missing out on a really great glissade? Weighing and reweighing all these considerations on my way down the rock and scree, I finally chose a spot where I felt comfortable with the conditions and glissaded down the last 400 feet of the couloir in something under three minutes. The snow was superb, and as the level began to run out I got up and continued using a run-slide-run step with my feet to keep up a good descent pace to the end of the snow. The glissade took me down past the point where I had entered the couloir on the way up, so this brought me a chance to explore a new route on the return. Plus, it's hard to give up a good glissade! The snow ended about 500 feet above and maybe a quarter mile from the southern end of the western Treasure Lakes. There were grassy tufts along the creek that emptied the Hourglass and fed Treasure Lakes. This made the descent much more pleasant than the alternative bouldering down elsewhere.

Once I was down to the lake level, it took another 20 minutes or so to find my way around the lakes and back to our campsite. I arrived around 5:30p, only 1/2 hour after the expected return time I had conveyed to Terry. It's likely that it would have been dark before I returned had I chosen to climb Mt. Dade, and I suppose not having a flashlight with me was also a factor weighing in the decision. There would be another day.

Terry had started dinner about ten minutes before I arrived when he caught sight of me up at the upper lakes. We ate heartily and cleaned up as it was getting dark enough to require flashlights. The snow/rain had stopped when I was at the Hourglass, but now it was beginning to start again. It seemed as good a time as any, so we hit the (bivy) sacks at 7p. Sometime around 8p the rain came down considerably harder and continued for some time. I was warm, comfortable, and dry in my sleeping bag and bivy sack. I drifted off to sleep eventually,hoping the weather might let up before morning to allow for more adventures.

Continued...


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