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Day 7 of the 2010 Sierra Challenge had a group of 20 at the Sabrina Lake TH for a 6a start. We were headed to Mt. Spencer, a peak in the Evolution Group just east of the Sierra Crest. Our route would take us over Haeckel Col, a class 3 pass over the crest that I had been wanting to visit, and possibly a climb of Mt. Haeckel's class 4 NW Ridge.
It took several hours to hike up past Blue Lake, then Dingleberry Lake and on to beautiful Midnight Lake. It was my first visit to this last body of water and I found it charming, set against a backdrop of rock and snow. Our arrival at the lake was somewhat of an accident as I found myself not paying attention to the trail junctions. I had intended to start up the ridgeline between Midnight and Hungry Packer lakes back at the last trail junction, the usual route to Haeckel Col. Surveying the ridge before us, the mistake seemed inconsequential since there were other ways to reach the ridge. We crossed the lake's outlet and headed up some slabs to grassy slopes leading to the ridgeline twenty minutes later. There were seven of us on the scramble along the ridge including Sean, Brian, Trisha, Tom, Vitaliy, and Matthew, all strong climbers.
The ridge led to the hanging valley above the cliffs west of Hungry Packer Lake. We passed by several unnamed lakes over a great many boulders on our way to Haeckel Col. The last headwall to the col was steep and somewhat tedious on large granite boulders. Only the last 20 feet or so was class 3. It was nearly 10a when four of us reached Haeckel Col, including Brian, Trisha, Sean and myself. We had a fine view of Haeckel's NW Ridge from our perch atop the crest, but it looked more broken and tedious-looking than I had expected from its description as a good climb. There were also fine views of Mts. Fiske and Huxley, two of the southernmost peaks in the Evolution Group, also just west of the Sierra Crest.
Our route to Spencer looked pretty straightforward from the col. We were actually above the height of Spencer's summit, with about a mile of bouldery ridgeline to follow. This was good news because I'd been afraid a contouring traverse might not be possible from looking at the map, and had thought we'd have to drop further down on the west side of the col. We made good time picking our way through the boulder fields and along the crest of the ridge until we were half way to Spencer. Then we found ourselves atop a 100-foot cliff that had not been evident when viewed from the col. Brian and Sean started finding their way down the cliff to see if they could make it work. I bailed immediately, figuring I'd never be able to follow them down if things got too spicy, and moved left looking for a way down the southwest or south side of the ridgeline.
I was in luck, finding a class 3 chute down the southwest side that got me around to the base of the cliff faster than Brian and Sean who were still trying to make the ridge work. Choosing different ways, they both eventually managed their way down through the cliffs, but it was somewhere in the class 4-5 range. Meanwhile, I got ahead of them for the second half of the journey to Spencer from the col, and they only managed to catch up just before the summit. Three of us arrived at Spencer around 10:45a, about 50 minutes in all from the col. Trisha was a few minutes behind us. She was obviously a strong scrambler, but I came to find she is also strong technically and was "nursing" three broken ribs from a fall a few weeks earlier. I don't think I'd be out climbing Spencer with ribs needing mending, but then I'm neither as tough nor as young as Trisha.
The aluminum register box had been placed by the Sierra Club in 1941, though the register inside went back only a few years. Like many of the other SPS summits, the books have been disappearing into the ether with few clues as to their whereabouts. Spencer's summit has a swell view of the Evolution region, more than 180 degrees of the Evolution peaks themselves (Mendel, Darwin, Haeckel, Wallace, Fiske, Warlow and Huxley) as well as some of the other major peaks such as Goddard and McGee. We did not stay more than about 15 minutes at the summit before starting back. Shortly after setting off, we came across Matthew Hengst, Phil and Vitaliy on their way to the summit. We found others near the base of the cliff descending the same route I had used to escape from that difficulty. The four of us started ascending this same chute but I soon moved further right to get out of the fall line as much as to explore new ground on the south side of the ridge. We regrouped again back at Haeckel Col around 12:15p, contemplating the NW Ridge of Haeckel. I was content to leave that one for another day though Sean spent a few minutes trying to convince me otherwise. Eventually he and Brian decided to give it a go, heading south along the crest while I dropped down the east side of the col on my way back to the TH.
Over the next half hour I ran across several parties in the canyon as I made my way down the boulder fields. Two participants, Carol and Iain, were on their way back after aborting the hike to Spencer somewhere around Haeckel Col. As the time was still early, I decided to explore a more direct route down to Hungry Packer Lake, curious why the standard route goes along the ridge between that and Midnight Lake. The descent started out easy enough over large slab areas and moderate terrain, following the trickling creek braids as they threaded their way down towards the lake. Things got more difficult as cliff areas presented themselves, but towards the north end of the cliffs I found a means through them and down to the lake, no more than class 3.
It was only when I got to the lake that the real problem with this route presented itself. The north side of the lake is blocked by cliffs down to the lakeshore. The south side is a very long way around, contouring over almost a mile of unstable morraine boulders and some hard snow down to the water's edge. I felt a bit trapped and foolish at the same time. Resigning myself to the unpleasant task of climbing back up to the ridge, I started up a chute at the northwest end of the lake, diagonaling to the right, climbing some 500ft or so to an uncertain exit. It looked like my chute might end in vertical walls, but I found a keyhole exit that worked out quite fortuitously. A little class 3 chimney action got me out of the chute and onto the slopes north of the lake. Another fifteen minutes up and down along this slope go me back near the outlet of Hungry Packer Lake where I eventually stumbled upon the trail. Overall it was a terribly inefficient route, but at least it was now clear to me why the ridgeline was considered the standard route.
Shortly after finding the trail I passed by Sailor Lake where a large pack train was in the process of unloading gear for a large contingent of overnight visitors. It was almost like setting up a new High Sierra Camp in the middle of the John Muir Wilderness, with tents, tables, chairs and a host of more civilized niceties. I wasn't exactly disgusted by the arrangement, but I wanted no part of it and was glad to get away. I was even happier that I wasn't another half hour later where I would have been stuck behind the 20-mule team on its way back.
I went by Dingleberry Lake just before 3p and then Blue lake half an hour later. I had been by myself since Haeckel Col and had enjoyed the leisurely pace of the last hours. I was less than fifteen minutes from the trailhead when Sean came jogging up behind me with a big grin. Dang. He'd managed to climb Mt. Haeckel, descend the Southeast Face, drop down over the saddle on the East Ridge and catch up to me before I could get back. He was just as surprised to catch me until I explained my detour adventure through Hungry Packer Lake. We got to the TH together at 4:30p, the first participants to return for the day. We hung around for a short while having a beer to wind down, but saw none of the others before heading back to Bishop half an hour later.
Sean had added another bonus peak over me, giving him 22 peaks in 7 days, two peaks ahead of me for King of the Mountain. Bob Jones was about an hour later getting back, so I increased my lead for the Yellow Jersey to 1.5hrs. Bob Jones and Adam Jantz still held the Green and White jersies, respectively.
For more information see these SummitPost pages: Mt. Spencer
This page last updated: Mon Sep 27 12:29:01 2010
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