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"Great West Chimney, Class 4. Leave the Sugarloaf Trail and climb onto the low, southwest ridge of the peak. Follow the crest of the ridge and climb into the chimney that splits the peak. When the difficulties in the chimney increase, crawl under a chockstone. Two more chockstones follow through narrow, cavelike passages. These secret passages lead to a large dark room. A chimney within the Great West Chimney leads up and out of the room to the south. Scramble north to the high point of the peak. Headlamps are recommended."
This sounded more like a caving experience than a climbing one, and when Matthew first pointed me to it, I wanted to go there. We made a first attempt in October of the previous year, but recent snow had made the going awful and I begged a retreat after we'd been out a few hours. Matthew reluctantly agreed on the condition that I would come back again in the future to climb it with him. A year later, early November found us with an available day to give it a second shot. Because he had only a single day to devote to the Sierra, we drove out separately from the Bay Area. Leaving several hours later than Matthew, I found him already asleep in his Suburu parked off the Big Meadows Rd along Horse Corral Creek sometime around midnight. I parked my van behind him and went to sleep myself for the next 4-5hrs. In the morning we would leave my van and take Matthew's car to the trailhead. The dirt road is steep and somewhat rough. I've driven my cars to the TH several times in the past, but even a little bit of snow, ice or mud makes it a scary propostion. No trouble at all in the Suburu.
There was snow on the ground at the Marvin Pass TH when we started at 6:45a but not so much as that last time. In fact once we got to Marvin Pass and started down the south side, there was virtually no snow to be found. This was going to be a lot easier. It was a nice hike down to the trail junction for Rowell Meadows, then east into the National Park and down towards Sugarloaf Valley. It had warmed just enough to make for pleasant hiking with a bright blue sky overhead. We passed by several more trail junctions and crossed over the creek before Sugarloaf came into view before 9a. We left the trail where a camping area with bearbox is found just west of the Sugarloaf's low SW Ridge. We followed a use trail through the camp until it disappeared on the slabby slopes of the ridge where we found easy walking up to the South Face of Sugarloaf.
At this point we were right at the base of the route but I was confused. I had assumed the West Chimney would be on the west side of Sugarloaf, not the south side. Matthew had the route description written on a piece of paper, so after reading it, the route seemed to make more sense. There were actually two chimneys splitting the mountain and it wasn't obvious which was correct. The leftmost seemed harder but made sense of the name, "West" Chimney. Up we went. We got as far as 15ft up the route before running into the first chockstone, but there was no way to crawl under this one as the description seemed to suggest. Perhaps we hadn't gotten to "where the difficulties increase"? Matthew went first over the chockstone, awkwardly hauling himself up on the left side. It was fun to watch him, mostly to make fun of his technique. Above this was a short scramble to a second chockstone which was managed with a bit more aplomb. We were getting into the groove of things (pun intended) for the next five minutes until the route was suddenly blocked by a large bush. It was surprisingly dense, growing from a crack and spreading branches out in all directions. First Matthew tried, then I tried, then we both stepped back and began to doubt the route again. There were no signs that anyone had been here before us, no ducks, no footprints, not a single broken branch on this massive bush. I looked to the right to see if we could get into the East Chimney, but saw only a very exposed way to do so - we were not ready for such dicey manuevers so early in the program. Above the bush all was dark inside a chimney that looked much harder than the class 4 rating. Matthew suggested the crawlthrough might be just above the bush, out of view. But how to reach it?
After much hemming and hawing, and satisfied that other options didn't look any better, I decided to give the bush another try. If there was a technical rating for bushwhacking, this would probably rate a class 4 - just short of requiring saws and loppers. I mostly pulled myself up by the small branches, grabbing them in as a large a handfull as I could manage to increase their combined strength. Had they broken off I would have tumbled backwards and smashed my head on the rocks below. That would not only have been quite painful, but would have made a mess, and inconvenienced Matthew besides. Luckily they held nicely. Once I was past the bush I could confirm that there was indeed a small crawlspace. It was too dark to see far even with the headlamp. Since we still weren't sure we were on the correct route, I suggested Matthew wait while I checked it out. I had to take off my pack to fit through the small opening, then scrambled up to some rocks overlooking the bush and Matthew below. Another crack led deeper into the chimney. This was beginning to sound like the description. I called for Matthew to join me. He struggled with the bush for a good ten minutes, his perseverance paying off on the third or fourth try. Past the bush he passed both packs through the hole before crawling in himself.
Things grew darker, narrower and increasingly more difficult. The second crawlthrough wasn't a hole but a thin gap between massive granite blocks. It went in horizontally perhaps 15ft before abruptly ending, the only way out going up a narrow opening above. The gap was so thin that it was impossible to turn one's head around once in - I had to back all the way out before I could turn it to the right for a second try. I had to leave not only the pack off, but the GPS in my pocket and the camera on my belt had to be removed as these would get stuck in the narrow passage. At the end of the passage I had to mantle my way out of the hole into a larger space where I could breath and wait for Matthew to join me. Matthew had a tougher time because he had to push two packs through the tight squeeze ahead of him. Once he reached the vertical exit, he struggled to figure out a way to lift the packs up high enough so that I could reach down and haul them out. Even once this was accomplished, it was no easy feat to get out of the birth canal - Matthew was still weak from a dislocated shoulder and the awkward mantling moves needed caused much discomfort. With the help of me pulling him up by the armpits, he managed to squeeze through.
We were only about halfway through at this point. We delved deeper into the great chimney, passing upwards through a hole so small that the water bottles had to be removed from the packs and passed up individually. This led to a broken chamber open to outside light, then once again horizontally through a second hole into the darkness again. I found myself in the "large dark room", the last chamber before exiting through a south-facing chimney. It really wasn't much of a room and hardly large - it was more like a narrow corridor that led off in two directions. The lefthand side led deeper into the mountain and appeared to narrow such that even Matthew and I couldn't get our skinny asses through. The right hand side seemed to lead to a similar impasse until I recognized the south-facing exit chimney behind me on this side of the hallway. Once Matthew joined me, we got out the rope and harnesses for the exit. It turned out to be much easier than I had first thought thanks to a convenient chockstone halfway up the 20-foot chimney along with some key footholds. The rope probably could have been left in the pack. Once above this crux section, I belayed Matthew out into the sunshine. It was all class 3 from this point, perhaps another 80yds or so of scrambling to the summit. It had taken us five and half hours from the TH to reach the summit, two of those hours in the West Chimney. We both thought it had been great fun, one I would highly recommend.
We ate lunch while we lounged at the summit with a great view overlooking Sugarloaf Valley, The Great Western Divide from North Guard to Centennial Peak behind it. Avalanche Peak and Palmer Mtn were to the northeast, Sentinel Dome and Ridge to the north, Silliman/Twin/Kettle Peaks to the south and southwest. Mitchell Peak was the dominant summit to the west. There was no register that we could find, so we left a makeshift one - I had an extra jar and pencil I'd taken from a summit with more than one, but had no notebook or scrap of paper. We left our names on a bandage wrapper and tucked it under some rocks.
I explored from the top the exit options on the various sides. The west side was too steep to consider. The north side looked to be class 4 slabs while the east and northeast sides offered easier class 3 options. We settled on a chute off the NE side primarily because it wasn't described in Secor's book. Most of it was class 2, but there was some class 3 off the summit and then a short class 3-4 section of maybe 15ft before it becomes easier. While I found it fairly straightforward to get down into the chute, Matthew wasn't too happy with the upper section, hesitating. Eventually I climbed back up, we threw a sling around a rock to allow Matthew to rappel this part, then I packed up the sling and rope and rejoined him. We scrambled further down the chute until we were satisfied the rest of the way was easy, then packed up the harnesses and climbing shoes. Down at the bottom of the chute we passed around the east side in a clockwise fashion before finding the trail again around 1:30p.
An hour later we reached the trail junction for Ball Dome, the second peak we had planned for the day. It was later than we had planned by this time and it seemed likely it would be dark before we got back to the car. Since I wasn't driving home tonight I let Matthew make the call - he decided to leave it for another day and I was good with that - my shower jug would at least still be warm when we got back. We took another short break after the long climb back out of Sugarloaf Valley, then passed into the Jennie Lakes Wilderness for a few miles before hiking out over Marvin Pass and back to the trailhead at 4:10p. After dropping me back off at the van and saying our goodbyes, Matthew headed home while I drove to the Big Meadows TH about 8mi further west, closer to the Generals Highway. I planned to hike back in to Jennie Lakes Wilderness to tag a few obscure peaks the next day before heading home. I had the TH all to myself (the pit toilets at this location and the nearby campgrounds are really quite deluxe - for pit toilets, anyway) and enjoyed the sunset and dinner with a movie before settling in to sleep for the night. A good day, to be sure...
For more information see these SummitPost pages: Sugarloaf
This page last updated: Sat Dec 1 08:07:37 2012
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