Mon, Aug 19, 2002
Joe, Vishal, and myself, sharing a motel room in the town of Mammoth Lakes, were awakened by the alarm at 5a. Today's agenda was a climb of Clyde Minaret, a peak I've been waiting a year now for a second shot at. In the 2001 Challenge I was out by myself enroute to Mt. Ritter when I changed plans on the fly and headed for Clyde Minaret. A lack of crampons or axe kept me off the steep snow slope, and I was unable to get to the start of the rock route. I had tried what turned out to be a class 5 route to bypass the snow, but got only about 30 feet up before deciding I was in over my head.
We took three cars to the trailhead, mostly so that we wouldn't have to wait for each other if we turned back at different times or took longer on the route. I had a hard time getting Vishal moving back at the motel room, and Joe and I left him there as a way to impress upon him that I really meant it when I said a 6a start at the trailhead. Driving into Agnew Meadows it was still dark, but the eastern sky was visibly brighter and we wouldn't need headlamps by the time we got started. Joe hadn't quite been ready to leave when we arrived, and so we were still there when Vishal pulled up, somewhat perplexed that I had fully intended to start out without him. Shortly before 6:30a we headed out.
We hiked down to the San Joaquin River, barely a trickle now, crossed over the bridge and started up the switchbacks on the steep slopes that start the Shadow Creek Trail. This would be my fourth time up this trail making me quite familiar with it. Still, it's a highly scenic hike and I continue to enjoy it every time. In usual form, Vishal continued his incessant line of questioning which seemed to be his way of having a conversation. He had questions not just about the day's adventure, but others he'd already had, and others he'd not yet had. Those that pertain to today I tried to answer as best I could, but would soon grow weary, then short with him as time wore on. How should I know if he'll be warm enough climbing Mt. Shasta next year, or what the weather will be like then? I was hoping that by hiking at a brisk pace he might get a bit too winded to talk much, but he showed surprising stamina and talking seemed completely effortless to him, requiring no additional expenditure of energy.
We reached Shadow Lake in little more than an hour where we stopped to photograph the first views of Mt. Ritter and Banner Peak rising over the lake. I have photographed this same view a number of times, but each time I see it my excitement renews and I cannot help but to take another photograph. We headed up to Ediza Lake, arriving around 8:30a, and were treated to the spectacular first views of Clyde Minaret and most of the other pinnacles in the range proudly displayed in a sweeping arc to the south and southwest. From this perspective Clyde Minaret looks impossibly steep, prompting Joe to express some hesitation. I assured him the slope is much milder when we get to the face, and that it truly is a class 3 route. We headed south past the east side of the Lake, climbing now above treeline with Ritter and Banner off to our right, and Clyde growing larger (and still impossibly steep) before us. We hiked up to Iceberg Lake and then Cecile Lake where the trail ends out the lake's outlet on the northwest side. This section of trail is perhaps the prettiest I've encountered in all the Mammoth area, with pristine lakes, gorgeous wildflowers, and jaw-dropping mountain scenery. It was a little past 9:30a now and we'd hardly taken a break for the last three hours. The other two protested here, so we took a break for a snack and a rest. By myself I rarely take breaks longer than a few minutes, preferring to keep hiking and climbing along hour after hour. After about 20 minutes I was getting noticeably restless, though the other two were happy to continue the rest a while longer. I got up and slowly began wandering among the boulders on the other side of the lake's outlet, in the general direction of Clyde Minaret. In another five minutes the others were ready to head out, myself now a few hundred yards ahead. I stayed out in front as we climbed up the lower half of Clyde Minaret, a series of rather fun class 2-3 slabs rising to the permanent snowfield mid-face. The higher we climbed, the better the views became, Volcanic Knob rising behind us, a bird's eye view of Iceberg Lake to the north, Mammoth Mtn and Minaret Lakes to the east. Ahead, I could see all of Clyde Minaret's North Face in great detail and could discern the primary routes found there. As a bonus, I got a rest from Vishal's barrage of questions, and imagined Joe was now getting his turn to supply the answers to the wide-ranging series of inquiries.
I found the snowfield smaller than the previous year, now split in two pieces. It was just possible to make our way across the wet, sometimes steep slabs so that we never had to walk on the snow and saved resorting to our crampons. At the top of the snowfield I found the obvious ramp that leads to the start of the route, and waited there for the others to catch up, only a minutes behind me. Vishal decided to leave his crampons near the snowfield when he was assured he wouldn't need them, but Joe and I kept ours in our packs though there was little reason to. The ramp is a boulder-strewn path with a modest slant, but otherwise a fine little path to follow west as we traversed the north face. The ramp led to a buttress that marked the start of the route, a heavily crevassed glacier (for the Sierra, anyway) looming below on the west side of the buttress.
Looking up, the route appeared quite steep, winding its way up a narrow gully cut into the very edge of the buttress. At least at the start, the route up would be obvious. The three of us headed up, myself in the lead, and from the very start it was sustained class 3 climbing. We had two helmets among us, and I gave mine to Vishal since it was unlikely I'd need one if I stayed in front. I found that with reasonable consideration of foot and hand placements, I was able to keep from dislodging rocks on my companions. After about 15 minutes I came across a difficult section that seemed more like class 4 or easy class 5. I hesitated here a moment before gingerly stepping across on a delicate move. Looking back, I suggested that the right side I'd come up might not be the easiest, and Vishal proved this to be so as he had a better time coming up the on the left. While Vishal was climbing I noticed Joe was hesitating a good deal more than usual. Vishal began to offer reassurance that his variation was better, but I commented to Vishal that I don't think Joe was thinking about just this last move. In fact, he was beginning to have doubts about the whole venture itself. Joe acknowledged this, and we sat there several minutes while he pondered whether to continue or not. Joe had told me previously that he has some trouble with heights, and it seemed he was now on the verge of getting to far outside his comfort zone. Strangely, he couldn't verbalize what was going on in his head nor could he make up his mind, and we sort of sat there just looking at each other. I finally suggested that he might want to sit and rest, and consider his decision more carefully, continuing on if he felt more at ease. From the look on his face at the time, I fully expected the answer would be retreat. Joe took a seat while Vishal and I carried on.
The climbing continued to be exhilarating. We reached the top of a gendarme that rose on our left, and followed some ducks to the left where we joined with the Starr's Route. At this point we were about 2/3 of the way to the summit ridge, and the climbing was now easier. In fact the place where we had left Joe turned out to the hardest part of the route. I suspect if we'd known this ahead of time we'd have been better able to change Joe's mind. The top third of the route was easy class 3, great holds, nice ledges, considerable exposure, though not what I'd call fatal exposure. Vishal continued to climb in fine form though he continued to ask about every other hand or foot placement. He really didn't need my help as he was climbing quite well, but I think it mush have made him feel better to keep his mouth going. The final 20 feet to the ridge were a bit tougher and we took our time looking for the easiest way up. Reaching the ridge was a major accomplishment, and as partial reward we had fine views of Michael Minaret to the southwest and other Minarets I couldn't identify that had been hidden from our view until now. The whole region looked like a fantastic arrangement of volcanic slabs and blocks stacked in an improbably steep arrangment in the various pinnacles and ridges. We still had a short distance to go east along the ridge to reach the summit, and after Vishal had joined me on the ridge we set out for the final problem. Looking down to Cecile Lake far below, we could see a tiny dot making his way towards it on the lower slabs. No doubt it was Joe, and it seemed he hadn't spent much time in further consideration after we'd left him earlier (which he later confirmed).
Now with exposure on two sides, we threaded our way along the ridge, knife-edged in places, but not technically difficult. We came to the class 4, 10-foot downclimb that we'd read about and had been looking to with some amount of apprehension. To our surprise and delight this short section was pretty easy, really, and hardly worth mentioning as the crux of the route. Past this non-obstacle, we were only a few more minutes along the ridge before arriving at the summit at 12:20p. We were about an hour behind what I thought it would take us to get to the summit, and I was somewhat concerned about getting back at a reasonable hour. So when Vishal's first words at reaching the summit were, "Ahh! We're going to spend at least a half hour on the summit!" I responded with, "Not unless you plan to be on the summit by yourself." This dejected Vishal a bit, but I voiced my concerns about getting back, and we agreed to stay for fifteen minutes. Feeling better, Vishal moved to complete his summit ritual of screaming/yodelling. I have always found this one of the more annoying things a peakbagger could do, finding it really inconsiderate to other climbers and hikers that are within hearing distance. I had let Vishal know how I felt about this the previous days and I think he genuinely understood, but he was somehow addicted to this ritual and was going to do it whether I approved or not. Once dispense with, there was a sense of relief about him, and it seemed as he had now truly considered himself to have climbed the peak. We were both highly proud of our accomplishment. Though not as technically difficult as our climb among the Echo Peaks the day before, the climbing had been very steep and very sustained. And we'd climbed a peak that was graced with the name of the most accomplished Sierra mountaineer of all time.
We had a snack, took the usual array of photos (N - NE - E - SE - S - SW - W - NW) , and perused the summit register which we found didn't go back too far at all, something like ten years. Undoubtedly this is the most popular of the Minarets due to its position as the highest, and as we looked around at the others it was clear that I would have to come back for future visits to some of the other prominent pinnacles. We added our own signatures to the summit register and took a summit shot of the two us before packing up to head down. I took the helmet back from Vishal, expecting I'd be out in front on the way down. We retraced our route back along the ridge, looking for our exit point. After a bit of confusion I found the way we'd come up and downclimbed the short difficult section at the top. Vishal decided to take a different route which certainly looked more difficult to me, but he handled it almost casually as he rejoined me. Vishal was no longer climbing like a novice and was doing at least as well as myself if not better. This didn't stop his questions concerning foot and hand placements of course. My new strategy was to try to stay far enough in front that I could pretend I didn't hear most of the questions, which worked beautifully. As I suspected, he continued downclimbing with the same confidence and speed whether I was offering guidance or not. I wondered if Vishal's confident climbing was due to gained experience, or rather ignorance of the true dangers that such exposure presented. In any event he showed no fear and we were both having a great time heading back down.
When we reached the top of the gendarme I paused to consider an alternate descent down Starr's Route. I knew this was also a class 3 route, though without the benefit of climbing it first it might be a bit tougher to find the easiest route on the way down. When I suggested this route to Vishal he was game without giving it ten seconds of thought. It was love-hate thing I had going here with Vishal, but at the moment it was on the love side of the scale. We worked our way down the steep ledges, downclimbing our way along the side of the gendarme. I came to what looked like several hundred feet of an unusually uniform inside corner that descended steeply. The walls were broken enough to afford good placements, at least for the top twenty feet or so that I could discern. Further to the east was the main chute leading down the face which looked to have many more options and a sure class 3 descent. But the inside corner looked too inviting to pass up. The worst I figured was we might have to climb back out of it, but that didn't seem too troublesome - we both had good energy left. Down we went, myself about ten feet below Vishal. I didn't want to get too far below in case a rock got dislodged. Vishal had let a few get away further up, but since the terrain wasn't so confined I was easily able to avoid the bounding rocks as they zipped by. Downclimbing the corner severely restricted my range of travel as the foot and hand placements took more care to find and I simply couldn't have moved out of the way quickly. The difficultly of the corner was fairly sustained and kept us on our toes (literally) the entire way down, making it just about as much fun as could have hoped for. After 150 feet or so the corner opened up below and we moved over into the main chute. We continued down to where we met up with the ramp we'd taken on the way up, completing our loop and two routes on the peak. I was ahead of Vishal by about 100 yards now, and passed by the snowfield where his crampons were waiting for him. I intended to pick up the pace considerably once we were safely off the steeper slopes, while I think Vishal was planning to use the opportunity to slow down some. Below the snowfield I chose to look for a slightly different route off the lower half of the face, and found a challenging route a few hundred yards east of our ascent route. Some of it was definitely harder than class 3 and it slowed me down as I checked several possibilities before commiting to the least dangerous of the options.
When I finally reached Cecile Lake I could see Vishal a ways back on the original ascent route, making his way down the final slabs. Judging that he was safely off the dangerous rocks above, I left him and speeded back along the trail (later Vishal said he took a half hour break at Cecile Lake - and he was still only an hour later than myself getting back to Mammoth Lakes). Around the time I reached Ediza Lake I was ready to admit I was getting tired and my legs were feeling beat. The rest of the hike back was uneventful as I began to focus on just how fine a hot shower was going to feel and looked forward to a tasty dinner. I arrived back in Angews Meadow at 5:30p (that last 500 vertical feet of climbing up from the San Joaquin River took the last of the wind out of my sails.
I found Joe back at the motel in Mammoth, and we caught up on the day's adventures after we'd separated. He'd seen us high on the ridge and so had figured we'd reached the summit, and already he was talking about going back for another go at it in the future. Knowing the Vishal would want to cook his own dinner upon his return, we didn't wait for him after I'd had my shower, and the two of us went walking down Old Mammoth Road looking for a place to eat. We settled on the Austria Hof restaurant. Though pricey, it turned out to be an excellent choice and we both enjoyed it immensely. Satiated, we returned to our motel as the sun was setting to find Vishal sitting in the parking lot, bags of dried beans, lentils and other foods around him, pot simmering away on his camp stove. He looked like a homeless guy making camp in a deserted lot, except that this one wasn't quite deserted and I laughed, wondering what the other motel guests must have thought coming upon this scene. Vishal was happily oblivious to such concerns, smiling for me as I took a picture for posterity. Back inside, we packed up for the following day, dumped the day's photos to the laptop, and left an update on the Challenge online before going to sleep shortly after 9p. As he had the previous nights, Vishal slept on the floor. Again I had offered to let him sleep free there, sympathizing with his unemployed status. Joe and I split the cost of the room, which thus entitled us to the comfy beds it afforded. Already I could feel my legs mending themselves as I lay there in the dark replaying the days adventure and looking forward to tomorrows, slowly drifting off to sleep...
For more information see these SummitPost pages: Clyde Minaret
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