Mt. Abbot P750 SPS / WSC / PD / CS

Tue, Sep 8, 1998
Etymology Story Photos / Slideshow Maps: 1 2 3 Profile
later climbed Tue, Aug 7, 2001


We slept that first night at Treasure Lakes in conditions that would repeat for the next two nights as well. After the rains would stop sometime in the night, the skies cleared up and the temperature dropped to below freezing. My sleeping bag and bivy kept me dry enough, but my feet never stayed as cozily warm as the rest of me, leading to some moderate interuptions in sleep. Even as I arose around 8a, the clouds began returning and it soon looked as though we were in for another day of unsettled weather, much as we had the previous day on PipSqueak Spire.

Terry had informed me the night before that he was not feeling well. Although he ate heartily enough at dinner time, his stomach was bothering him. It was never clear what it was that Terry might have had, but it bothered him throughout the next three days, and eventually lead us to decide to leave a day earlier than planned. Terry decided that he would take it easy today, perhaps go for a cross-country hike to Mono Pass, and perhaps climb Mt. Starr (due to heavy snow conditions at the pass and his weakened state, he got up as far as Mono Pass where he had a nap before returning). For me, this seemed like a good opportunity to take on Mt. Abbot since I knew Terry wasn't going to be up for that one even if he was feeling better. Mt. Abbot was only two miles from where we were camped, but there was 2,500 ft to climb and some class 3 as well. Leaving camp around 9a, I figured I'd be gone only 4-5 hrs, and back in the early afternoon. It was a good thing I had plenty of time in the day, because I would manage to use most of it up before I returned later that day.

The route from Treasure Lakes to Mt. Abbot seemed clear enough. The first part involved climbing 1,300 ft up the west side of Treasure Lakes to the pass bewteen Mt. Abbot and Treasure Peak. The climbing is class 2 along some fairly enjoyable but steep ledges. The pass was still covered in snow due to the heavy snowfall the previous winter, but the snow was firm and easy enough to travel on without crampons. I reached the pass shortly before 10a and stopped to study the route up Mt. Abbot better. I planned to take the class 3 North Couloir route, described by Secor as "the easiest route up Mt. Abbot from Little Lakes Valley." (I'm a big fan of "easiest".) All I had to do was locate the "prominent snow couloir that is north of the northeast buttress" and climb it. Halfway up I'm supposed to exit the snow to the right and climb class 3 rock to the ridge (and then on to the summit). From atop the pass where I stood, I could see only one obvious snow couloir, directly west from me. Assured that I had this under control, I put my map away and headed off.

The best approach to Mt. Abbot is probably from the north through Ruby and Mills Lakes. From my direction, it was necessary to climb down from the pass (which I always find discouraging when I want to climb upwards) before I could start climbing up the couloir. That is, unless I could manage to traverse across the large snow-covered glacier on Mt. Abbot's northeast face. Thinking I'm quite the clever boy, I opted for the traverse. I only needed to climb down a short way before I was on the glacier proper. The skies were more overcast now, and the snow was unlikely to soften significantly. I donned my four-point crampons, and ice axe in hand, started the traverse. It was slow going and got slower as the slope steepened. The runnout to the bottom was rock-free, but the snow was rather bumpy, suncupped and hard further down, and the thought of sliding down two or three hundred feet was uninviting. I planted my axe firmly every two steps, and kicked a supporting platform with the side of my boots for each step. About half an hour later and halfway across, I realized my mistake in choosing the traverse as the shortest route to the couloir. My feet were tiring of the constant angle they were being subjected to and the repetitive motion injury from constantly kicking steps. My boots aren't terribly hardy, and I'm slowly kicking the life out of them. On top of all of this it became obvious that I had chosen the slowest of two possible routes. As I approached the rocky north buttress, I realized that I had to climb down 50 feet or so to get around the toe of it and enter the couloir. Next time I would look much harder before considering such a silly traverse.

I began climbing the couloir, zigzagging slightly on my way up. My feet were much happier with this arrangement, and the climbing was much more enjoyable. I was still going slowly, as the slope steepened the further I went up, and I was forced to kick horizontal platforms to support my weight. Somewhere in this couloir I promised myself a set of 12 point crampons (which I still haven't purchased). At the halfway point, I looked for my exit to the right, and found a rock to sit on where I could remove my crampons. I tried to climb what was a wet mess of sliding sand and scree, and soon found myself stopped by what was surely more than class 3 rock. Pondering the conditions, it appeared that the snow in the couloir would be easier to climb than the rock on its side. This puzzled me considerably as Secor described the top half of the couloir as a class 5 climb with angles up to 50 degrees. The angle here was steep, but about the same as The Hourglass which has a maximum angle of 40 degrees. Perhaps the heavy snow this year had lessened the angle and made the climb easier. In the end I decided to put the crampons back on and climb the couloir as far as I felt safe, and look for other possible exits.

Just before I reached the top of the couloir it occurred to me that I might be in the wrong couloir. It seemed I was heading for a col between Mt. Abbot and Mt. Mills. Perhaps it would be possible to climb to the top of Mt. Abbot from this col, saving me the trouble of retreating and finding the correct route. As I reached top of the couloir, I was greeted to a wonderful view of the northwest side of Mt. Abbot and Mt. Gabb off in the distance to the west. I was indeed up on the Pacific Crest now, but I had not come up the North Couloir. Later I learned that the spire rising from my feet is called "Petite Griffon" by Secor, and the couloir is described as "1,000 feet long and 40 degrees steep." The route to Mt. Abbot was rather difficult, and appeared as unclimbable to me as the Petite Griffon (class 4). For the first time I questioned my bible according to Secor, blaming the author for describing the North Couloir as "north of the northeast buttress", and as "the prominent couloir". Who would have guessed one could travel too far north? Why was there no mention of this other couloir in the section on Mt. Abbot? Certainly this had been a much more "prominent" couloir than any others I had seen.

Map in hand, I once again I pondered my route and my alternatives. It was still early enough in the day, just 12p, and I wasn't too tired to go down and try to find the North Couloir again. The climb up this couloir had been fun, even if it was a dead end. I figured this time I couldn't miss the correct couloir, as I'd bracketed the possibilities between Petite Griffon and the pass between Mt. Abbot and Treasure Peak. The weather was gradually worsening, and by now the sky was completely clouded over. The mountain peaks were still below the cloud level, and it appeared that any rain might hold out for at least a few hours. So down I climbed, retracing my earlier steps and keeping my body still facing the mountain. Although still slow going, it was far less tiring than the climb up. At the bottom of the couloir, I went right (east) around what I thought was the northeast buttress (more accurately the north buttress, I suppose). I was soon looking up the North Couloir, but it was less well defined than my original couloir. From the usual approach via Mills Lake, this may not be the case, and the North Couloir may very well appear to be the obvious route. But from the pass I had first viewed things from, the North Couloir did not appear to be a couloir at all, but just another part of the snow-covered glacier.

Ok, enough complaining, I had found the correct couloir, and it was time to climb again. Up I went, somewhat slower than before, as the extra 750 feet of climbing had taken some of the wind out of my sails. Now things started to feel right, and the route-finding made more sense. Halfway up, I moved right onto the rocks and once again removed the crampons. The rock had the expected class 3 look to it, and I was soon enjoying the best part of the climb. There are scattered cairns one finds one the way up to the ridge just to assure you that you are in the right place. They're not really needed as there are multiple ways to thread yourself up the rocks, but after being off the route once, I welcomed the cairns for the familiarity they brought. At the top of the ridge, there are some very nifty class 3 rocks and fun route finding one follows across the a narrow knife-edge portion. Just enough exposure to be make you feel giddy, but rather exhilarating and fun. The final couple hundred yards to the summit are class 2 as the ridge broadens out to become the summit plateau.

I arrived at the summit around 1:30p, about the time I originally thought I'd be back in camp. Oh well, plenty of daylight left, and I didn't have any important meetings planned for the afternoon anyway. I rested at the register, signing in and reading a few of the previous posts. Mt. Abbot is evidently climbed quite regularly, but I had the satisfaction of being the first and only climber up top that day. The view from the top was limited by the low clouds, which were getting lower all the time. I could see Lake Italy and Mt. Hilgard to the southwest, but the view further was obscured. Likewise I could only see Mt. Mills to the north, as all the peaks in the Mammoth area (I was hoping to see Banner Peak, Mt. Ritter, and Red Slate Mountain) were blocked by clouds. After a short lunch break (the usual dried fruit and jerky), I headed back by the same way I had come. I had earlier in the day entertained the idea of going down the Southwest Chute (class 3) and returning via Cox Col by Bear Creek Spire, but I hadn't the time left to seriously consider this option any more.

With the weather still holding out, I retraced my earlier steps as I retreated off the mountain. When I got to the North Couloir, at first I continued stepping down slowly in the same manner as I went down the other couloir earlier. When the angle lessened to something like 30 degrees, I turned around and glissaded on down the remaining distance, some 400 feet or so. It wasn't as much fun as I'd like as I was using my axe continuously to control my speed of descent lest I should careen out of control. The snow had not softened sufficiently to that wonderful consistency that allows for high speed glissades that are easily stopped by digging the feet in. By the time I had reached the pass between Mt. Abbot and Treasure Peak again, I was out of water. So I modified my descent somewhat; instead of following the same benches down to Treasure Lakes, I followed the low part to the right (south) of the benches. The going here had more loose rock than the other route, but it allowed me to tap into the creek that starts halfway down and flows into the western Treasure Lakes.

I got back to camp about 4:00p, making considerably better time on my descent than I had done on the way up (it helped that I didn't get further lost on the way down). Terry was back in camp already, having arrived maybe half an hour earlier. He still felt poorly, but not enough to consider abandoning our trip. We had a leasurely prepared dinner in the final daylight before sunset. The clould cover contributed to an earlier-than-usual darkness, and it seemed that things were getting quite dark by the time we finished cleaning up around 7p. It was a lucky thing that we ate dinner when we did, as the rain began shortly afterwards. Having recounted our adventures of the day, we had little time to discuss the next days plans. Those would have to wait until morning, as the rain quickly drove us to bed just as it had the previous night.


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