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previously climbed Sat, May 6, 2006|
As a warmup to the big George Creek hike planned for the following day, Matthew and I intended to climb nearby Thor Peak via Stemwinder on the peak's south side. I had tried to do this same climb a year ago with Mark T. and Rick K., but we were stopped at the crux without any rock gear. We had mistakenly hoped that the 5.4 rating would allow us to solo the route, but what we found seemed a bit more difficult than that. We had backed down and climbed Thor by another route, but I still wanted a go at Stemwinder. This time around we would bring a short rope, harnesses, and some gear to get by the crux, hopefully not needing it much elsewhere. Our beta suggested there was a second short class 4 section, otherwise we were pretty confident that most of the route could be soloed to speed things up.
Matthew met me at Whitney Portal at 7a as arranged, but he'd had no time to pack up his gear earlier to get a quick start. I gave him little sympathy for his lack of sleep the night before (I'd had my sleepless night a day earlier) and waited patiently for him to get his act together. Normally I would have been rather impatient for getting a late start, but I knew the day should be a short one and there was little reason to believe we'd be pressed for time. Shortly after 7:30a we were on our way out.
We took the old trail that starts behind the Portal Store at the west end of the road. Matthew had never been on this mostly forgotten variation and was curious about it. The trail is somewhat shorter than the current one, and it didn't take long to reach the main trail just past the junction with the North Fork of Lone Pine Creek. We followed the Whitney Trail for a bit more than an hour, with snow covering the trail only in a few places and not proving much of an obstacle. We paused when we reached Bighorn Park, the South Face of Thor now in plain view and time for us to leave the trail. I pointed out the dead tree marking the start of the route about a quarter of the way up the face, but it was impossible to discern the mostly class 3 route from our vantage.
We had some small trouble crossing the Bighorn swamp, flush with runoff and the willows putting up a nasty bit of resistance. Once on the other side things went easier, and we took another hour to reach the start of the route. Along the way we came to find that the ledges had a good deal of snow on them still from the latest storm just a week earlier. This would continue to be the case as we climbed the route, providing a bit more spice to it than we had expected. Even before we got to the crux we had some fun on the ledge that approaches it, featuring an awkward chimney that neither of us able to scale with our packs on. After climbing the chimney, I tossed a sling down to Matthew to facilitate the hauling of our packs. After Matthew tied a knot on my pack I hauled it up, only to have it let go just as I had gotten it ten feet up in the air. I gave a small shout of "Look out!" as it dropped directly on Matthew. He deftly caught it without dropping it or losing his balance, to which I more calmly replied, "Nice catch!" Afterwards, Matthew was sure to tie two (or three) knots for pack hauling.
At the crux I gave Matthew the option to lead, which he accepted. While he was changing into his climbing shoes, I used the extra time to flake the rope, set up a belay off a convenient piton wedged in the rock, backed it up with a cam, and placed the first piece of protection as high up the crux as I could manage. I hadn't brought rock shoes myself, but my pack wasn't light either - I had hauled snowshoes and poles along on the trip and would find them of little use - mostly they proved to make pack-hauling a more difficult task. After tying in and climbing the short distance to the start, Matthew found it was a bit harder than it looked from just ten feet below. A few false starts later and he was wedged up higher, making a last struggle to get over the crux. Once up, he set up a belay to allow me to follow. With the rope above me, it was easier than I recalled on our soloing attempt, but then it's always easier when there's a rope holding you safely from above. We both agreed it was more like 5.6 than 5.4, but we won't be petitioning the guidebook authors to change it.
We kept the rope tied on for the next section that proved to be class 3 (but with snow to keep it interesting), after which we decided to pack the rope away to save time. We were a bit surprised to find the climbing quite sustained at a difficult class 3, tough enough to keep us vigilant and a bit nervous, not hard enough to get out the rope again. An hour went by and it was noon when we reached the notch just above the detached pinnacle and the class 4 traverse to an adjacent gully. We didn't look long at the traverse, essentially a friction section over rough slabs, before pulling out the rope again. Should one slip here, a fall would be fatal, with a short ramp leading to a dropoff of more than 100 feet. Even with a rope, a fall would pendulum the leader and be a messy affair, so naturally I offered the lead to Matthew again, once again accepting. He did a fine job of this section, walking gingerly out on the traverse, calmly examining several options before choosing one he felt most comfortable with. He then climbed up the gully another 30 feet or so before setting up an anchor and belaying me across.
It was another 45 minutes of more sustained class 3 climbing (with yet more snow) until we reached the final ramp leading to the East Slopes of Thor. It was one of the finest (mostly) class 3 routes I could recall, and we both found it highly enjoyable and recommendable. The East Slopes were mostly snow, and from this point until just below the summit I used my snowshoes. The snow was quite soft, and Matthew's postholing as he followed my steps gave me some satisfaction that I had not carried them in vain, but I was really just trying to rationalize - it would have been better to leave them in the car for the trouble they caused on the route and having that extra weight in my pack.
While still traversing across the East Slopes we spied two others heading down from the summit. As they were a good distance to our right and heading towards the NE Slopes, we waved to each other without conversing. After reading the summit register, we found that they were both Summitposters, one of them, Richard Piotrowski, had climbed in the Sierra Challenge the previous summer. It was just before 2p when we summited, with blue skies and absolutely gorgeous weather. In fact, the weather had been fine all day, some of the best I could recall and excellent for climbing. Without wind or chill, it gave a lazy feel to the climb and I never grew nervous about the time or how long we might have wasted as is often the case when using a rope. The summit register was less than a year old, the previous one having been removed as part of someone's (or some group's) general purge that has been going on for the past few years. It seems a fruitless task to remove the registers from Wilderness areas since new ones pop up at the same rate, and the only real effect is to deprive those that come after the privilege and enjoyment of reading the old entries.
After about twenty minutes we started down, with yet another climber on the way up to the summit. Guessing my name without having met me before, Eric G. introduced himself and commented that he planned on joining us the next day for the hike up George Creek. I don't know if he had known we were planning to climb Thor that day or whether it was just coincident, but it was nice to run into him. Matthew and I followed the steps of the first climbers down to the edge of the NE Slopes. From there we cut left to drop down virgin snow slopes for the longest possible snow descent off that side. We'd hoped to be able to glissade, but the snow was too soft and unconsolidated to make it safe, so we simply plunge stepped our way down for more than 1,000ft.
Most of the snow had melted out along the route below Lower Boy Scout Lake, or at least along the variation that stays north of the creek that we followed. This made for a pretty speedy descent through the ledges and willows and back down to the Whitney Trail below. Along the way we passed a half dozen climbers on their way up to do Whitney's Mountaineers Route the next day. One of the party was another Challenge participant from the previous summer, Cliff Agnocs, who had recognized me first. Small world, it seems. We found our way back to the cars by 4:30p, making for an easy 9hr outing. After a few drinks at the trailhead, we drove down to Lone Pine for dinner, then to Independence where we took a motel room for the night - or at least that part of the night before we arose at 2:30a for our George Creek Adventure...
For more information see these SummitPost pages: Thor Peak
This page last updated: Thu May 10 16:34:04 2007
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