Sat, Oct 21, 2006
We found Glenn and brother Sam at the Twin Lakes Resort parking lot as planned at 6a. It was very dark and cold (29F), but neither descriptive was expected to last long as the new day was about to get under way. The brothers were eating breakfast out of the back of their truck and it was another 30 minutes before we were packed and under way - just late enough that we didn't need headlamps. Wandering through the campground, we headed south and soon found a few trail signs leading us in the right direction. I misread the last one and led us off in the wrong direction on a trail that took us halfway across the south side of the lake. It was almost half a mile before Matthew and I realized the mistake and took corrective action. Nevermind that we'd both been up the Horse Creek Trail multiple times. We called the wasted 15 minutes a "warm-up" and were soon heading up the right drainage. We took the use trail that closely follows the stream on the right side, eschewing the regular trail and its pack mule-friendly switchbacks. The alternative is a fun bit of very steep trail that makes its way under forest cover until it rejoins the main trail after the switchbacks.
The sun was breaking on the Sawtooth Range ahead of us as we plied the last mile of the trail to the meadow above. Where the trail ran closest to the creek at the south end of the meadow, we left the trail to start the cross-country portion of the day. Sadly, I picked the meanest pile of downed logs and runoff debris to plow through immediately after crossing the creek. Sam and Glenn followed me, only half amused at my poor choice. Trailing, Matthew watched the three of us pitch into the thick of it, up and over and along all manner of downed logs. Matthew then calmly found an easier way around the mess. Fortunately, that was the worst of it, and in a few minutes we were making our way up talus and then more talus.
The route we took follows the east side of The Cleaver at its base, only class 2 but a lot of work due to the steepness. Snow that had fallen in the past week had not yet melted, and from the looks of it, some of it may be planning to hang around all winter. It looked like there had been 3-4 inches of snow, though all of the south and most of the eastern aspects had already melted off. Because our route followed the east side of The Cleaver, much of the snow was gone, though not entirely. We were fortunate to find a way to our summits with only a bit of snow as it looked from below like it would be impossible to do so.
We climbed up the talus fields for two hours, past The Cleaver, past Cleaver Notch, to the base of Cleaver Peak's NE Face. We took a short break to regroup and catch our breath before starting up. Cleaver Peak, lying on the Sierra Crest at the junction with the North Ridge leading to The Cleaver was the first of our objectives for the day. Matthew had hopes to climb Blacksmith, the Doodad, and Matterhorn Peak afterwards, but I didn't give us much of a chance - Cleaver Peak by itself would qualify as a good effort for the day in my book. Secor rates the NE Face as class 3, but Matthew had beta that suggested something a little harder, class 3-4. What we found was a little harder still. Snow, though not abundant, lay on easier ledges along the face which we tried to avoid - wet boots aren't much fun. This pushed us onto harder rock and we found it spicier than we had anticipated. Helmets came out of our packs and onto our heads. In the lead, I had charged ahead near the edge of an old retreating snow field. The rocks were sprinkled with sand and dust left as the snow melted, making things dicier than they would have been otherwise. Glenn initially followed but soon headed up his own way, following a flake up a vertical section I had bypassed. Sam found yet another way around it. The end result was that Sam and Glenn quickly showed their better prowess on the rock, and I was left asking, "How did you do that?"
Matthew, taking a different route to the right, struggled a bit behind us. He called for help at one point where he'd wandered off onto a slab that was making him nervous. Glenn and I scrambled back to where he stood, Glenn tossing out a sling to help give him the security he needed to get up the difficultly. At another airy section Matthew asked for the rope, and in the interest of saving time we all donned our harnesses. Glenn hooked some slings over a rock and I belayed Matthew up the short section. As it was easier above, I flaked the rope into my backpack where it would be quickly ready again, then we continued scrambling. No more ropework was needed. As we neared the top, the rocks grew blockier and more vertical. We explored several narrow chimneys for a way up. While Sam struggled in one partially filled with snow, I found an alternate way up a steep ramp to the right that deposited me atop the North Ridge. It was not clear initially that I could continue along the ridge, so while the others waited below I went ahead a few dozen yards to confirm it would go.
I scrambled the remaining distance to the summit block (which can be climbed from the SE or NW sides) in order to get some photos of the others on the airy ridge. Glenn followed in quick succession, but Sam took a seat on the rock right before the knife-edge section. The scrambling wasn't terribly difficult, but the exposure was getting to him he admitted. As he had done for much of the climb, Glenn offered encouragement to his brother and in time he got past the edge. A few minutes later Matthew popped up on the ridge and we were soon four on the summit.
It had been a good climb, and had we stopped there I would have been satisfied. Clearly we wouldn't make it to The Doodad or Matterhorn. The south side of the Sawtooths is even more vertical than the north side, unusual for a Sierra ridge. And the chutes on Matterhorn's West Face, purported to be class 3, looked to be much more challenging with the amount of snow we could see lying in them. It was nearly noon and we set our sights much closer to nearby Blacksmith Peak. None of us wanted to retrace our route on Cleaver Peak if we could avoid it, and initially it seemed as if adding Blacksmith before our retreat would be a lot of work and time. Matthew offered the suggestion that we could avoid the backtracking if we descended the south side of the Sawtooths after Blacksmith and returned via the Burro Pass Trail. That was a brilliant suggestion, or so it seemed at the time. Matthew was the only one in our group who had been on that trail, and it wasn't clear to the rest of us ahead of time just how long that hike out would be. No matter - we had a plan and were soon on our way to Blacksmith.
Getting off Cleaver Peak to the notch between the two was no easy trick. We started down the easiest way on the southwest side, but this ran into cliffs after a few hundred feet. Traversing around to the northwest side where we were told the class 3 route could be found, things were a bit spicier. Slabs and cracks led down on that side, but lingering snow made it look harder than class 3. Going first, I made my way slowly and very carefully from one foothold to the next, taking a zigzag pattern down through the icy minefield. It turned out to be easier than it had looked, but I was unable to convince the others of this. They gathered together above to take stock of this section. Sam initially started down, but within a few feet dislodged a large 50lb rock that came crashing down about 20 feet from where I stood. Smaller pieces the size of marbles bounced off my helmet. Holy smokes! Afraid of another bomb, I dashed down the ramp leading across the West Face, out of firing range. The sun was warming the rocks nicely here and I thought could relax for a bit while the others decided how to descend. They chose to rappel off the West Face, directly above my head. I quickly moved further south across the face to get out of range again. The rappel took 45 minutes before the three of them were safely down and on the way to Glacier Col, while I warmed myself in the sun and strained my neck watching them. The north side of Glacier Col looked like a moderate snow climb (and a much shorter return route), but without crampons and axes it would be impossible. We had earlier considered this for a return route, but hadn't held out much hope.
We scrambled across the talus debris on Blacksmith's south side, traversing upwards towards the SW Arete. Up until this time we had been relying on Matthew's collection of beta for getting us up and down the scramble sections, but here we paid little heed to the written directions as it seemed there were many options on this side of the mountain. Out in front, I scrambled up the SW Arete as far as I could go before the blocks grew too large and vertical. I then traversed back to the South Face, following a convenient set of ramps that took me within about 50 feet of the summit ridge. Some class 4 cracks followed by an easy class 5 move out on a vertical face with excellent handholds got me onto the ridge. Unfortunately, an inpassable gap stood between me and the apparent summit to the southeast, some belay slings suggesting to me that others had run into similar difficulties. Not wanting to rappel into the gap (after all, this is supposed to be a class 3 peak), I backtracked to the ramps and followed Glenn into the narrow chute leading to the summit. This chute was the prominent gully described by Secor, and led us to the middle summit where we found the register. Success!
Or so we thought. The altitude was adversely affecting Sam who decided to call it quits halfway up the South Face. We could see him hunched over, holding his head. Communicating by shouts, Glenn found that he was suffering a headache along with an upset stomach he'd had most of the day. He wasn't having a lot of fun at the moment. Matthew scrambled up to join us a few minutes later on what we learned was the SE summit. He pointed out the NW summit across the gap was the highpoint, the block rated 5.6. Huh? That was the one I had nearly climbed when I came across the gap and backtracked. We studied the upper part of the NW summit a good deal, trying to determine if we could climb it without a rope. It was past 2p now and though not critical, time was certainly becoming a factor. If we got out the rope to do the NW summit it would easily chew up an hour and a half, and having Sam wait it out below for that length of time didn't seem a very nice thing to do. We debated briefly whether it was worthwhile giving it a go, but started our descent without making a decision.
After descending back to the gully between the two peaks, I told Glenn, who was nearby, that I was going to give the NW summit a shot without the rope. Glenn decided to join me. As we started up the class 4 cracks I had done earlier, I called over to Matthew what we were planning, but he remained non-committal. I had dropped my pack which made the low class 5 move easier than the first time. Once at the ridge where I'd found the sling, I scampered up the remaining 20 feet to the summit. Nothing past that crux was harder than class 3, so it was hard to see where the 5.6 rating had come from. Possibly that was for following the gully up from below instead of the face. Glenn came up to join me and take a few quick pictures before we beat a retreat. We knew that Matthew wasn't going to like that crux move though. Glenn went down quickly to rejoin his brother and start their descent to get Sam to a lower altitude. I hung out below the crux talking with Matthew. He decided to put on his rock shoes and to give it a try. He did a fine job on the short class 4 cracks below the crux. I showed him the crux move and the holds that go with it, but he wasn't liking it much. He almost succeeded at finding an easier way around it, but the flake he was climbing proved too awkward to surmount. He hemmed and hawwed for what seemed like 20 minutes (but was really only a couple minutes), eventually deciding it wasn't worth the risk. He'd come back another day. I didn't say so at the time, but if it were me I wouldn't bother coming back just to tag the NW summit - it was maybe a foot or two higher than the one holding the register, and the climbing wasn't that great to warrant a return.
I hung out with Matthew while he changed back to his boots, then we shouldered our packs and headed down. Glenn and Sam had left some 15 minutes earlier back the way we ascended along the SW Arete. Matthew suggested the gully ought to be faster than the ridge so we headed down that way. It was a junk-filled chute that fortunately wasn't too steep to cause worry over sending rocks down on each other. I didn't follow the gully all the way to the base as it grew steeper in the lower reaches. I traversed right (west) towards the SW Arete a bit before finding class 3 scrambling down through the rocks. Matthew was a few hundred feet above me when I got off the last of the face. Lower down I watched to make sure he was off the hardest parts before turning and heading for the Burro Pass Trail.
Glenn and Sam were nowhere about when I reached the trail, presumeably already hiking down the shallow valley. My map didn't cover the return route we planned, but I figured it would be pretty easy - just take any right forks at the trail junctions. It was 3p now as I hiked on alone for the next hour. I figured I had a few hours of daylight, another hour of dusk, then headlamp. Without knowing how long the trail was, I hoped I might make it out before dark. That was wishful thinking. After hiking up one steep section of the trail I thought I was near the pass, only to find the trail headed west and continued climbing. I didn't know at the time that this false pass led to Island Pass, a class 2 cross-country route down Little Slide Canyon. A little beta and a map could have helped save some time there. Or maybe I would have gotten hopelessly lost in the canyon thicket at nightfall and suffered an epic. It was possibly a good thing I followed the trail. I continued on for a few more miles to Mule Pass, catching Glenn and Sam along the way. The three of carried on together from there. Sam's headache was gone, but not so his upset stomach. For a 17-year old he was pretty damn tough and didn't complain much. This was turning out to be one hard day.
The nice part about our return route was that it went through some very beautiful country, with high alpine meadows, sparkling lakes, and rugged peaks. There was no evidence that there had been anyone on the trail recently as the only bootprints in the dust were our own. It seemed we had this entire wilderness to ourselves. Half a mile past Mule Pass the trail headed NW down a steep section with snow that was unavoidable. We stomped our way through it, the Gookins leading the way, now and then pausing as the trail was momentarily lost. We began to see boot tracks in the snow, first from one hiker who had ventured the highest before turning around, then more as we dropped lower. It seemed we were the first over Mule Pass in some time.
We passed by Crown Lake and Robinson Lakes as the trail meandered about, not taking the obvious route down the drainage. It continued in a northwest direction which was away from Twin Lakes, with some uphill sections thrown in for good measure. The convoluted route made sense when we realized it was meeting a trail junction to Peeler Lake, but at the time it seemed odd. After the junction, the trail began to descend Robinson Creek in earnest as the three of us forged on. We took a break near Barney lake just after sunset, where I refilled a water bottle for the last leg of our journey. It was still a long way back to Twin Lakes, but we were heading in the right direction at least and it was all downhill. After one too many stumbles we paused to put on our headlamps, using them for the last hour and half.
It was 8:15p when we stumbled through the campground and found our way to the cafe at the Twin Lakes Resort. Not sure how late they were serving dinner, we filed into the small building with our packs and headlamps still on. "How late are you open?" I asked. "If you want dinner, you better order now before the kitchen closes," was the reply. We set Sam at the counter while Glenn and I ran back to our cars to get our wallets. We ordered bacon cheeseburgers, patty melts, and similar to satisfy our cravings for fat and protein. We ordered salads because our Moms taught us to eat vegetables and roughage. We ordered beer because we could (excepting Sam, for shame). It was the best darn burger I had had in a long time, though that might have been the case with any burger after a 13 hour outing. We had expected Matthew to catch up to us along the trail, but failing that we ordered a cheeseburger for him should he be too late to order for himself. He didn't make it back until the rest of us were done and in the showers, but he found his to-go order on the front seat of the car. He was happy to have the burger, even if it wasn't as hot and fresh as our own. A good finish to a long day.
For more information see these SummitPost pages: Cleaver Peak - Blacksmith Peak
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