Tue, Aug 20, 2002
Up again at 5a, we stumbled about in the room as we ate breakfast and packed up our stuff. Or at least two of did. Vishal was cocooned in his sleeping bag, peering out sheepishly like he wasn't sure if this was a trick we were playing on him in the middle of the night. I assured him it was time to get up, but his body continued to protest. The last three days we'd been unable to get started at the trailhead on time, which was tweaking me more than I cared to admit. I got the strong impression that Vishal was on Manana time and was passively fighting to push our start times out to something he felt more agreeable. Joe had agreed with me the night before to try to get started on time, and we'd warned Vishal before we went to bed that we intended to start on time in the morning. Vishal was still crawling about the floor after we'd packed up our cars and turned in the room keys, and I told him to close the door after he left. Realizing we were seriously leaving, he began to move quicker and pack his stuff up as we headed out. In separate cars Joe and I headed out to US395, heading south past the Mammoth airport, past the Convict Lake and McGee Creek turnoffs, and then up Rock Creek Rd towards Little Lakes Valley. Ours were the only cars in the day lot at the end of the road at Mosquito Flat when we arrived shortly before 6a. Like the day before, there were only three of us planning to climb today, so we didn't expect to find anybody else waiting for us there. We were about ten minutes getting ready and just heading out as Vishal pulled up. He was still incredulous when I told him to catch up when he could, but at least he was taking the start time more seriously.
It was another gloriously fine day without a cloud in the sky, and one of the most picturesque alpine regions in the Sierra. I'd previously climbed eight of the peaks in the region, but Bear Creek Spire is the finest of the spectacular group of peaks found here. It's class 4 rating had scared me off in previous years from attempting it, but now I felt I ready and able. I planned to climb the NE Ridge pioneered by Norman Clyde, described as a superb route in the guidebooks. The easiest route is Ulrich's Route which I planned to use for my descent. I didn't carry my crampons, expecting to find little snow. It was a bit of a risk because the east side of Cox Col is usually steeped in snow, but in a dry year and late in the season I was hoping a way down could be found around the snow. Joe and Vishal played it more conservatively, bringing their crampons and axes along just in case. Vishal caught up to us in the first ten minutes and the three of us continued on past the various lakes found along the trail. As the sun came up and began to bathe the peaks in the morning glow, Joe and I stepped off the trail to take pictures at various points. This was the first hike that Joe had brought his good camera, and now he was snapping pictures even more than myself. We looked more like tourists out on their first visit in the High Country than out for a climb. Three miles in we left the trail and I led our small party cross-country, skirting Gem Lakes to the northwest through the forest and up some brushy slabs. We gained the broad ridge between Gem and Treasure Lakes and headed south towards Dade Lake. The whole east face of the Sierra Crest was very dry, with little snow remaining even in the Hour Glass between Pipsqueak Spire and Mt. Dade. Pyramid Peak rose ahead of us to a fine point, an aptly named lower peak a short distance northeast of Bear Creek Spire. It wasn't until we were some distance past Dade Lake that I realized we'd just past our last water source. Oops. Oh well, it was a comparatively short hike, and we could get water on the way out if we needed to.
Vishal had continued his many, many questions on the hike in as he'd done for the past three days, and I was ready for a break - so I schemed a way to put him in Joe's company for the rest climb to the summit. From the day before I knew Joe was sketchy on class 3+, and he wasn't going to want to climb the NE Ridge of Bear Creek Spire. So my plan was to discourage Vishal from attempting it as well, and sending them both up to Cox Col and Ulrich's Route. Vishal had climbed well on Clyde Minaret's class 3 routes, as well as the short class 4 sections on Echo Peaks. But this was a longer class 4 route that I hadn't climbed before, and I couldn't offer precise comparisons to our other climbs. I impressed upon Vishal that I was only planning to climb the route one-way, and that if he needed to turn around it would be by himself. Besides, there would still be class 4 climbing near the summit by any route, so there would be no lack of challenge in taking Ulrich's Route. It worked, and he conceded it best to take the easier route. I think he was still a bit beat from the long outing the day before, and didn't mind an easier time of it today.
Above Dade Lake it's pretty much a boulder climb on ancient moraines, broken every now and then by some slabs that came as fresh relief from the tedium of the boulder-hopping. When we'd climbed high enough to view the east side of Cox Col, it became apparent that the crampons and axes wouldn't be needed. Joe and Vishal unpacked the unneeded gear and took a rest break on a large, flat slab before continuing on. I left them there, heading south still, making my way to the start of the NE Ridge. The boulders didn't relent as I approached the ridge, in fact the slope just got steeper and it took me longer to get onto the ridge than I had thought it might. No matter, I wasn't in any hurry today. I hoped to be able to get to the summit area before or around the time the others got there so we could all go down together. It was 9a when I got onto the ridge and peered over the side into the cirque below on the east side. The views were quite splendid actually, the smoke from the fires south of Sequoia was less today than it had been (N - NE - E - S). Looking west up the ridge it seemed a bit imposing towards the top. To my disappointment, the lower part seemed a continuation of the boulder-hopping below - hey, I thought this was supposed to be a classic route?
Fortunately the route improved after a few hundred yards as the boulders began to thin out to reveal the more solid granite underneath. Ok, it wasn't that solid, especially for granite, but it was better than a simple pile of boulders. I found the rock very rough, making for good friction holds (if you don't mind tearing up your hands a bit), and highly fractured, with many vertical grooves and cracks roughly following the direction of the ridgeline. I passed a large gendarme on the left, but for the most part tried to follow along the ridge crest as much as possible. The right, or north side drops off precipitously, a less-than-gentle reminder that kept pushing me back to the left. Further to the left, below the ridge was easier class 2-3 terrain that somehow seemed less sporting, and besides the ridge really did have some fine climbing now. I took my time testing holds, as several seemingly large and immovable blocks nearly came down on me as I pulled up on them. About 2/3 of the way up the route steepened and the class 4 climbing began. Delicate, a bit loose still, but fun. It was reassuring to have a bailout route (to the east face) if I'd gotten into trouble. Though barren from a distance, the ridge craddled some pocket of wildflowers amongst the rocks, offering a bit of color to the scene as well as an excuse to rest and take a picture. By 10a I reached the summit ridge and could peer over the NW Face. I scanned the face for signs of Vishal and Joe, but after a few minutes of intently peering into the expansive boulder fields, I could see no signs of movement and gave up. As I started heading south on the summit ridge towards the summit a few hundred yards away, I heard a voice call up from below. It was Vishal, about 2/3 of the way up the face, waving and smiling. Through a series of shouts I gathered that Joe was ahead of Vishal, having taken a different route up the NW Face. The face is actually split in two by a buttress, and Joe had taken the southern or right hand route, while Vishal had chosen the left side. Both ways worked fine, meeting in the middle above the buttress and just below the summit blocks. As I walked closer to the summit I caught sight of Joe about 100 yards below, resting on the side near the West Ridge. He'd been up to the summit blocks but had backed off, uneasy with the exposure, much as he'd been on Clyde Minaret the day before. I walked over to the topmost summit block and after inspecting it a for a minute, found a straightforward way to climb the six feet up the NW side. Rated class 4, I'd read some trip reports that got me worrying that it would be a scary ascent. I was glad to find otherwise - though it has some exposure, the holds were solid. The top is about eight feet on a side and slopes off to the southeast. Not a horrendous slope, but enough to make me keep one hand over the edge onto the NW side. I spent a short while on the summit taking in the views in all directions (N - NE - E - SE - S - SSW - SW - W - WNW - NW - NNW).
While waiting for Vishal to come up, I climbed back down and explored the class 4 section down to the NW Face. I found a six-foot chimney a short ways north from the summit block that offered a way down. I started to explore downclimbing it, but didn't like the feel of it - I'm always afraid I'm going to fall out of chimneys. It didn't have good holds around it. Looking around, I found a second chimney further north about 10 yards. This chimney had a chockstone clogging it which provided great hand holds and cracks to put my feet into, and I was down easily. A traverse back to bottom of the first chimney, and then about 30 feet of steep cracks and ledges (class 3-4) led to the easier ground of the NW Face. Vishal had come up by this time and climbed up to the summit ridge with little fanfare. I convinced Joe to come back up and take a second look, and after reviewing the route, he came up as well.
Joe watched Vishal and I climb up the final summit block, but he had no desire or need to complete that last part. The summit register was conveniently located at the base of the summit block, and he was more than satisfied to get that far. Joe took some pictures of Vishal and I climbing the block and then roosting on top, and afterwards thumbed through the register. The summit might hold three or four climbers if they were close, but hardly more. We didn't stay long on the summit and came back down to write in the register as well. It was just before 11a and I'd been on the summit half an hour by now. Joe and I were eager to head down, but Vishal wanted to stay and enjoy the victory a good deal longer. Checking that he was confident of the moves getting off the summit block, we happily left him on the summit, writing in the register and enjoying his lunch he'd brought.
Joe and I went back down the NW Face, a series of rock-strewn ledges in the upper half, one long boulder-hop for the second half. Surprisingly there was a large patch of snow just west of Cox Col this late in the season, so it seemed one could reasonably camp here most of the summer (why one might want to is another thing). Joe led the way back through the col to the east side. The upper portion is surprisingly steep. There was no snow the way we went, but it was apparent that most years it is covered - the rock was very unstable and sandy, the rocks coated in fine dirt and dust. Large chunks of rock would come down if we weren't careful, and I could hardly see how this could be considered class 2. Lower down the angle eased, and we returned to our boulder hopping, all the way back to where they'd left their crampons and axes earlier. On the way we past the North Arete route on Bear Creek Spire, one of the classics I've read about - it certainly looked worth another visit to this fine peak in the future. I laughed when Joe relayed that yes, he'd gotten an earful from Vishal on the climb up. So it wasn't just me that found his questions excessive. Joe likened Vishal to a chattering monkey - possibly a pet or a mascot. Vishal the mascot - the image was quite humorous.
We split up a bit near the bottom of the col as we each picked our way down towards Dade Lake, rejoining where Joe and Vishal had left their gear earlier in the day. It was noon when we returned to Dade Lake. This was certainly one of the easier days on the menu, and with plenty of time and energy left, I suggested to Joe that we take an alternate route back via Treasure Lakes. Joe was all for it and off we went. It cost us a good deal more boulder-hopping than if we'd taken our ascent route down past Gem Lakes, but it was a fine change of pace. I had camped for four nights at Treasure Lakes four years earlier with my friend Terry, and had enjoyed immensely my first ascents of Mts. Dade and Abbot (my first class 3 peak). Those memories came flooding past as we walked by the campsite, really just a nook in some gnarled pine trees. Terry and I had "enjoyed" four days of thunderstorms, but there was always enough of a break to get in some climbing before the weather soured in late afternoon. On the north side of Treasure Lakes, at their outlet, we found the use trail I'd discovered previously that takes one down through the steep boulders at the outlet and down through some very fine meadows before it rejoins the main trail near the south end of Long Lake (this is a great way to get to Treasure Lakes if you're heading up that way). There were plenty of other folks out on the trail now, the first we'd seen all day. This is a very popular trail for dayhikers, and the trail grew busier the closer we got to the trailhead. We both lolly-gagged the last several miles, stopping frequently to take pictures of the pretty lakes, Mt. Morgan, flowers, creeks, and whatever grabbed our interest. We were back to our cars shortly before 2p. Getting our shoes off was the first priority, a cold beer second, a dry shirt third. After a short rest, we drove to Bishop where we took a motel room with our next two priorities already worked out - a hot shower and then dinner. Ah, the rewards of the dayhike... Vishal joined us back in the motel room a short while later. He was now completely sold on the dayhiking idea - maybe a little too sold. I was beginning to think he was taking advantage of our generosity in letting him crash on the floor. No, it wasn't that really - I just needed a break from the questions! :)
For more information see these SummitPost pages: Bear Creek Spire
This page last updated: Wed May 16 17:07:53 2007
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