Tue, Jul 5, 2005
Family vacation in Mammoth, looking for a half day climb in the area - Crystal Crag comes to mind. I had climbed the granitic plug above Mammoth Lakes before by an easier route, but this time I was interested in the N. Arete, a 5.7 climb loved by some (made popular by Peter Croft's book), less-loved by others (Josh Schwartz called the climbing "complete crap"). Monty and Michael were also vacationing in Mammoth with their families and we decided this would make a good half day outing. I got Matthew, who'd been out doing some long days for the weekend, to join us as well. Two ropes, two teams, a more efficient arrangement than three in a party.
Picking up Monty and Michael at their townhome in the wee hours of the morning, we made it up to Lake George for a 5a start at the TH. We found the trail to the start of the route much as Romain Wacziarg had described it in his TR from his climb a few days earlier. Snow patches made it difficult to follow the trail directly despite many boot prints from previous hikers. There didn't seem to be a defined main path following the trail, each party taking random routes up the hill from the start. We followed Romain's advice and stayed left of the trail on the NE side of the ridge where the snow coverage was minimal. It turned out to be a good strategy and we made it to the start of the N. Arete in just about an hour. The sun came up just as we ducked around the arete to the NW side for the start. This was a fine thing as temps were already in the 50's and keeping out of the sun would be the most comfortable strategy for the day. There was a good deal of snow up around the base of the peak, but absolutely none to be found once the climbing started.
Though I had seen the route close up on my first visit to the peak, I couldn't say where the start was or describe any part of the two-pitch climb. Michael, on the other hand, had seemingly memorized all the available beta and instantly pointed out the 5.8 start and the 5.7 start with the crux bulge in the first 20 feet. Nice to have an encyclopedia along on a climb. Now that the start was properly identified, we played the game of which team was going to go first and who was going to lead. Michael had already "awarded" Monty the lead as a birthday present, but Matthew and I were trying to push the lead on each other. Michael even chimed in and offered to lead if neither of us wanted to, but I couldn't have let that happen - major wuss points if we split up the team for that. I was really just trying to let Matthew have the lead if he felt up to it, so in the end I got the lead and Matthew and I headed up first since we had our gear ready before the others. I went up the first pitch, finding the bulge not so hard with very good holds all around. I placed 4 or 5 cams for protection as I went off the main arete to follow an easier ramp on the west side. Monty, leading on Matthew's heels, climbed the face to the left of the bulge and then took a more direct route onto the arete. While I was belaying Matthew, I had a good view of Monty on the arete now climbing above Matthew, but to his left. Matthew was just below me struggling to get the last cam out, silently working for some fifteen minutes or so. Monty disappeared around the edge of the arete and I heard him shout and scream an obscenity in a very non-Monty manner. A large rock had come loose and rolled onto his ankle. He tried to return the rock to it's place and get it off his foot, but gravity overcame Monty's arm strength and the rock let go below him.
"Rock!!! Big Rock!!! REALLY Big Rock!!!" he shouted out in warning to Michael below.
Michael scrambled into the small alcove below the bulge as the two main rocks came crashing down into the location Michael had been standing a few seconds earlier. Monty's direct line up the arete had a certain danger we hadn't considered. I saw the rocks tumble out of sight and then again as they hit the snow below the start of the route. It was an impressive event to watch, and thankfully without any serious consequence. Monty's ankle got cut up a bit and looked a bloody mess when I viewed it later, but apparently without any significant injury. After the hoopla subsided, I commented to Matthew - still working at the cam - "I guess that makes our problem look pretty insignificant."
Matthew stopped working at the cam to climb up and let me have a go. Some serious jiggling got it out of its jam and we were on our way again. Matthew took our second pitch, keeping to the right of the other rope and the arete. While I sat there letting rope out and taking in the views, Michael came up the arete and climbed out of sight above me. Matthew checked out a few options before climbing up into a pocket where he set up a belay with about 1/3 of the rope remaining. As I came up I passed by Monty belaying Michael at their first belay before I reconnected with Matthew. We switched leads again and I started up out of the pocket. The third pitch brought us up to the arete on the quartz pitch where I met up again with Michael who was now at the top of their second pitch. The quartz pitch was an interesting stretch of dirty white quartz rock, but as Michael accurately commented, it's only 12ft long.
We ended the roped climbing above the quartz formation and packed away our gear. It was warm now in the sun. From here we continued along the ridge over the lower north summit on some spicy class 3-4 climbing with considerable exposure at times. I thought this part was the best part of the entire climb. At the summit around 9a, we signed into the summit register and took a short break before heading down. Someone had left a Toblerone chocolate bar in the register that had been nibbled on by a marmot. After Matthew and then I each had a section of the chocolate, we had no other takers. Matthew left us at the summit to continue the traverse down the South Ridge and then on up to Mammoth Crest. He made a very long day of traversing Mammoth Crest to Duck Pass, then along the Sherwin Crest, finishing up on Mammoth Rock - it wasn't until 9p that he was back to his car. Meanwhile, the other three of us headed down the class 2-3 West Face of Crystal Crag and then took the shortcut return down to Lake George by following a use trail on the north side of the cascading falls that drain Crystal Lake into Lake George. We got back just after 11a, then moved Matthew's car down to his expected exit point by Sherwin Crest before we headed back to town.
We all agreed that the climbing was superb, solid granite for the most part - despite the rockfall incident. We can't quite understand why Josh considered it crap and now I'm very interested in finding out about some of the routes he finds more deserving.
For more information see these SummitPost pages: Crystal Crag
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