Broken Finger Peak CS

Tue, Aug 15, 2006
Etymology Story Photos / Slideshow Map Profile


Broken Finger is an obscure peak tucked away in a corner between Wheeler Ridge and the massive Mt. Morgan. It got its name in 1969 from the first ascentionists, Andy Smatko and party, after an incident two years earlier in which Andy broke one of his fingers deflecting a falling rock during the first attempt at the peak. Matthew had climbed the peak a year earlier and reported it to be of some interest. That was good enough for me.

I was on my way home at the end of the Sierra Challenge and decided Broken Finger would make a good half day effort. Starting at 6a from the Rock Creek Lake TH, I hiked up to the high basin east of the lake while the Wheeler Crest shaded me from the sun for the first hour. I followed the trail signs to Tamarack Lakes where it eventually ended in the rock slabs between lakes. With a good view of the whole mountain, I could see the standard route up the NE Couloir to the left ("NE" seems a bit of a misnomer since the couloir ends at a notch on the West Ridge) used by Andy, Matthew, and probably most parties. Matthew had traversed the ridgetop to Wheeler Peak, so I knew the length of the ridge would be negotiable. Spying what looked like a more obvious chute on the left side of the mountain, I decided to give that a shot instead. What I didn't realize at the time was that the summit is to the far west end of the ridge and much closer to the standard route - probably why it's most commonly used.

As I climbed up boulders to the loose, crappy scree that defines the wide chute, I found that it branches in several directions, the left side being the most obvious. Again I chose to make things harder than they needed to be because I thought it would be more fun, and I chose to take the right branch. Climbing higher and reaching the end of the talus fan, I hoped to move on to more solid rock but was sorely disappointed. I very quickly came to appreciate just how crappy the rock on this peak was. As I turned right into a narrow chute I found that most of the holds I would grab would either come out directly, or wobble so loosely that I was afraid to put any serious weight on them. Dirt and sand slid out from between the rock I was holding and the surrounding rock, like mortar that had too little cement and simply crumbled with any pressure. Cascades of falling debris trailed behind me as I made my way slowly up the chute. Had another climber been behind me I would have been continuously apologizing for the barrage, or worse, have buried him before I was half way up. I found myself clinging to a very precarious wall of choss masquerading as one of the rock sides defining the chute. In one of those rare moments of brilliant clarity gained from 20/20 hindsight, I was convinced I had made a very poor choice in choosing my route. Looking above, the chute steepened and narrowed further, and I wasn't at all sure where it might end up. For all I could tell it would be between two sharp pinnacles with a cliff on the other side once I reached the notch above. Oh, how I was going to hate the downclimbing...

Fortunately the notch revealed the end of my mistake and though still a twisty and serrated ridge, it was negotiable at class 3 or less. the other side turned out to be crappy, fluted talus heaps, but climbable heaps without cliffs. I had a good deal of trouble actually identifying the summit. There were three or four nearby pinnacles that all looked from the notch to be around the same height. Scaling one, I found the others on both sides higher still. Further off to the southeast was an obviously higher point above any of the ones I had originally considered. Could that be the summit? I reviewed Secor's text as given to him by Smatko, but could not believe this higher point so far away could be what was being described in a few sentences. Since I hadn't decided to climb the peak until the night before, I had no map for what was looking much more complex than I had imagined. I argued that because that point to the southeast was obviously higher, it must be the summit and I started heading towards it. I swore at Secor and Smatko indiscriminately, finding them both equally to blame for having such a ridiculous route description, the latter for creating it, the former for copying it blindly into his guidebook. After a few minutes of composing a scathing email to Secor in my head, I paused to consider this more carefully. By my best estimation, the higher summit to the southeast was almost a mile away. It was impossible for me to miss the peak by that much I reasoned, and it must be another unnamed peak I hadn't recalled seeing on the maps before. If that were true, then the real summit of Broken Finger must be in the opposite direction towards the west, and I turned around once again. Without any words of apology for Secor, deserving as they may be, I made my way to the actual summit in less then fifteen minutes. Only then did I realize the NE Couloir/West Ridge was easily the better choice.

I found a small summit register that had a few entries since Matthew had climbed it, but not many preceding it, maybe only two dozen parties. Along with the register were some loose pieces of paper that constituted the notes left by the first ascentionists. This was the first time I'd ever seen a summit register intact for its whole history. I'd seen many that were older, but they always either transcribed the notes from the first several ascents, or those original scraps were missing or swept off to the Bancroft Library without transcription.

I briefly considered continuing the climb by traversing the ridge to Mt. Morgan. It did not look technically difficult along the ridge, and there was a class 2 scree slope to the left if any sections proved impassable. But the extra 1,000ft of what looked like mundane climbing from the notch held little appeal for me and I gave it up. Instead I climbed down the West Ridge and then down the NE Couloir. Unlike the easy snow slope that Matthew described in June conditions, I found little snow and terribly loose crud underneath where the snow used to be. It fit the loose class 3 description given by Secor, earning redemption points for the guidebook author. To be honest, the entire route description including the crossing of two ribs near the end were a very good description I noted upon the descent.

I got back to Tamarack Lakes and within a few miles of the trailhead before I came across a few folks out for a hike. One group looked to be an extended family of asians, including grandma with a cane who walked somewhat unsteadily. The entire group of eight or nine was stopped at a marshy crossing in eager discussion, probably wondering how they could get the matriarch across the muddy section. It was pretty impressive to me that she had made it as far as she had. The whole outing had taken 7hrs by the time I returned to my car, followed by a long 6hr drive back to San Jose. That was enough climbing for more than two weeks - time to get back to family matters. And planning for the next outing, naturally.

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