Mt. Davis 2x P750 SPS / PD

Sat, May 31, 2008

With: Tom Becht

Etymology Story Photos / Slideshow Maps: 1 2 Profile
previously climbed Mon, Jun 30, 1997

It had been a low snow year, much as in 2007, and the plans I had laid out for the week included a slate of long hikes to peaks in the Eastern Sierra. An unusual low pressure system the previous weekend had dumped up to a foot of new snow in the mountains, some of it down as low as 9,000ft. In fact, it was the same storm I had just missed on the starting end with my recent outing to Arrow Peak, just as things started to get nasty. The question then became when would the new snow melt or consolidate. We'd hoped things would clean up before we started for Mt. Davis on Saturday. A late Friday phone message from Michael Golden suggested things were not going to be easy. He and a friend had been doing an "easy" outing to Mt. Warren just outside Yosemite as a warmup. They had found thick, heavy snow and were unable to make the four miles to the summit. They had planned to join Tom and I for Mt. Davis, but were calling to let us know they were cancelling - and why. Were they just out of shape, or were things that bad in the Sierra at the moment? We would soon find out.

I made my first foray of the season over Tioga Pass just after 1a, following the long drive from San Jose. I saw little snow along the way (at night I couldn't see far from the road), and held out high hopes. A small rock avalanche, probably only a few hours old, had left debris all over the road at one point east of the pass. Boulders the size of microwaves lay scattered about and I thought my trip might be delayed. But with careful driving I was able weave my way through the rocks and continue down the road towards Lee Vining. I drove to the overlook above the Whoa Nellie near US395, parked, and crept into the back of the van to sleep a few hours.

I was awake by 5a, even without the help of the alarm, just in time for the start of a beautiful sunrise over Mono Lake. After changing and a quick breakfast, I made my way over to Silver Lake to meet up with Tom by our designated 6a start. As usual, Tom was punctual, and only a few minutes after 6a we were on our way up the Rush Creek Trail. Based on the message I had received the evening before, we carried snowshoes along with crampons and poles, and the usual dayhike supplies. As the sun came up over the White Mtns, we cruised up the trail, using the tram line for a steep shortcut, and making our way to Agnew Lake in about an hour. Not exactly sure how to cross over to the south side of the lake, we crossed over at the dam which required a bit of acrobatics to get ourselves over the spiked gates blocking access at both ends. Later in the day we would realize the easier route follows a use trail below the dam, crossing the creek on a small wooden bridge.

South of the dam, the Spooky Meadow Trail (not as well maintained as the more heavily used Rush Creek Trail that follows along the north side of the drainage) soon begins to switchback up the steep north slope below Spooky Meadow. It didn't take long to find a good deal of snow blocking the trail at this low, shaded altitude. On went the crampons, and our first indication that the outing could indeed take longer than planned. The snow was hard in the early morning with good bite for the crampons. We took them on and off several times before making our way to Spooky Meadow. The trail was hard to follow as it goes higher and towards the southwest over a pass above the meadow, primarily because snow was now covering more than 50% of the terrain. It also didn't help that we both had conveniently left our maps back in the cars. I had been over this trail some eleven years earlier, so I knew the general drift of the trail, but had long forgotten the specifics. It gets confusing in the vicinity of Agnews Pass (which oddly enough is not located at the highpoint of the trail) and the nearby unnamed lakes, and it was here that we got somewhat lost. And although we did have a GPS with waypoints loaded, it was of limited help because Tom had somehow not entered them in the correct order. Or something like that. I wasn't really clear what was wrong with it, and my eyes were no longer able to read the screen without reading glasses, so I left it to Tom to figure out what was up. All I knew was that we had to head in the direction of Banner Peak which, once it had come into view, was about as good a landmark as one could ask for.

With a bit of time lost wandering about and a good deal of cross-country navigation after Agnew Pass, we made it to Thousand Island Lake not long before 10:30a. Where had the time gone? I'd hoped we might make it to the summit in 5hrs, but here we were only half an hour short of that time and we were still a long ways off. The snow was starting to soften and our efforts to make progress were increasing. We could see Mt. Davis to the west now, not nearly as impressive as Banner, but our goal nonetheless.

There was nearly continuous snow coverage now, with a few places along the north side of the lake that had melted out. These revealed the trail underneath, but it would soon peter out and wasn't really of much use anymore. The lake itself was mostly frozen over, and at one point I ventured out onto the lake as a way to make easier progress rather than following the shoreline. But this left both of us a bit wary as the surface was not as solidly frozen as we'd have liked. It caused us to be hesitant and slow, poking the snow in front of us before advancing forward. It was quickly obvious that this held no advantage for us and we soon returned to shore and continued following around the north side of the lake.

Once we had traveled to the west end of the lake we began the slow climb up to Glacier Pass. This is probably the easiest crossing of the Ritter Range, extending from Iron Mtn in the SE to Rodgers Peak on the Yosemite border. Still, it was no easy feat with what was soon becoming classic Sierra cement. The snow layer grew thicker as did our postholing, and after only about 500ft I stopped to put on my snowshoes. Tom caught up to me while I was putting them on, choosing to continue on without them himself. The next time we joined up again about twenty minutes later, he too was sporting his snowshoes. It took almost an hour and a half to climb from the lake to Glacier Pass, and just below on the north side we took our last break together, out of the wind that was blowing up from the south. The thick, slushy snow was draining our energies - we were now fully aware of what Michael was talking about in the message he'd left for me. I suggested that perhaps the snow on the south side would be more windblown and windpacked, but really it was more for the encouraging effect it might have in getting Tom to continue than it was for any real hope I held out.

After our break we climbed the remaining distance to the pass, looking down on frozen Catherine Lake (it was so buried in snow that it was impossible to discern the shoreline or that a lake even existed) and the impressive view to the Ritter-Banner Saddle to the southeast above us. The snow was no better. In fact, it was worse. We could tell that before the latest storm the snow had melted out south of the pass, as there was no firm snow underneath - just the jumble of boulders piled up that comprise this aspect of the saddle. I'd hoped we could traverse west above the lake to start the final climb up to Davis, but this was clearly impossible with the conditions and it would be necessary to first descend 100ft to the lake level. I started down with Tom following, but he didn't go more than about 10ft before calling to me. He was going to give up. This came as no surprise, really, as the exhaustion had been written on his face and described by his slow pace since we'd left Thousand Island Lake. That we were climbing Mt. Davis, a peak of dubious distinction instead of some grander objective, kept me from trying to talk him out of it - Mt. Davis was hardly worth an epic. On the other hand, I had no intention of turning back just yet - I was determined to make this one work.

Tom planned to wait for me back by Thousand Island Lake and after a last wave I set off down to Catherine Lake, skirted around what I guessed was the north shore and then started up for Davis, still more than a mile away. I had thought that the route up the SE Slopes would be gentle, but found the intial slopes surprisingly steep with snowshoes. I duck-footed my way up, weaving through a few rocky sections but staying on snow the whole way. I was further surprised to find that the slope did not continue up unabated, but found a depression before the glacier on the summit's SE side. Rats. I thought how Tom would have just loved this last 100-foot drop before the top. Undeterred, I dropped down and then made my way up the snow-covered, barren slopes to the summit where I arrived just after 2p. 8hrs in total had been expended so far - ouch. This was going to be a long day.

There was snow in all directions (SW - W - NW - N - NE - E - SE), looking more like April than late May, and even the summit rocks were covered in the stuff. I dug around for about five minutes looking for a register, but it either did not exist, or more likely, it was somewhere under the snow I had not uncovered. I ate some granola bars and had more drink to rehydrate myself before setting off back down about fifteen minutes later. The route to the summit had not been a straight one coming from Thousand Island Lake, necessitated by the detour around Glacier Pass and Catherine Lake. The east side of Mt. Davis is ringed with cliffs, but I wondered if there might not be a way down that side if I looked around. Aside from the detour back to Glacier Pass, it would save me that messy little uphill on the way back there as well. It seemed worth a try.

Once near the edge of the East Face I gingerly walked over towards the edge, still in my snowshoes, and peered over. The first glance wasn't promising. But I kept looking around, edging closer, careful not to trip over my snowshoes and accidently send me over the 50-foot drop. I spied an angled corner that looked like it might work, mostly free of snow for the 30 feet or so it would take me to reach the snowfield below. Examining it closer, I found some ice patches in a few places, but thought I might still be able to make my way down. I decided to give it a try. I took off my snowshoes, carefully packing them away and reshouldering my pack. The soles of my boots were wet and slippery and I did as best I could to scuff them on dry rocks to help their purchase. The holds were thin at best as I found myself edging on one-inch projections, probing for anything with which to grasp with my hands. It wasn't the safest manuever, but it worked, as I slowly made my way down, ever so carefully until I was planted in the snow below. Only then did I turn my attention to how steep this pile of snow was I was standing at the head of, several hundred feet down. It was a bit creepy. Thankfully it wasn't hard snow, but soft and easy to stand in. Unfortunately it was only the top layer of recent snow that was soft, the underlying old snow quite hard and not yet bonded with the top layer. Great - soft avalanche conditions.

Before starting down I put on my crampons. Probing under the fresher snow, I found the old layer about four inches down. With a firm kick I could just get a dent into it big enough to hold me. The trick was to keep too much snow from sloughing off in front of me to trigger something bigger - and potentially uncontrollable. Facing into the mountain I made big swinging kicks into the snow stepping down three feet at a time. I did this for about a hundred feet until the angle was easier and I could face out and plunge-step my way down to the base of the large bowl. Once down near the bottom I turned right and angled down another snow slope feeding into the main canyon heading up to Glacier Pass from Thousand Island Lake. Plenty of snow sloughed off on my way down, but nothing that built enough momentum on its own to start a larger slide. I was thankful to find no more rockbands to manuever through, just snow, more snow, and then a bit more snow all the way back to Thousand Island Lake. I picked up Tom's tracks on the way there, following them for some 45min until I spotted Tom near the east end of the lake atop a rock outcrop. At last I could take off the snowshoes.

It was about 3:45p when we met up again. Tom had been at another location taking a nap before moving to this one for the last 20min or so. Getting back to Agnew Pass from the lake proved to be as challenging on the return as it had been in the opposite direction in the morning. Without a map we weren't too sure where the trail was, given all the snow, and the trails depicted on the GPS proved to be unreliable. Fairly tired by this time, I let Tom do all the leading for this portion. If we climbed up the wrong hillock and had to do some extra up and down it didn't seem like it would make much of a difference. I fought my natural tendency which would have had me looking over his shoulder at the GPS as he fished around for a heading. Tom would get us there either in an efficient manner or perhaps in some convoluted mess (and it was seeming like the latter for a short stint in there as we side-hilled our way via GPS). Heck, if an Air Force Colonel couldn't get us through the forest, it didn't seem like I was going to do any better. And of course it all worked out, an hour later we were at the unnamed lake above Agnew Pass and heading towards Spooky Meadow. We took a quick break near the high point to look down to Gem Lake and Rush Creek, noticing the lenticular cloud forming over the Sierra to the north. There was no wind to speak of where we were, though. Another hour brought us up and over the rise, and down the steep slope towards Agnew Lake. Carefully picking our way down across the snow, softer now than in the morning but still a concern, we did our best to avoid resorting to the crampons. On the last possible slope I lost my footing and slid 20 feet in quick fashion to the trail just below. Tom had missed seeing my slip, but as I waited for him to catch up, he noted the location where I had slipped and we had a joke about it. Tom managed it better than I.

Yet another hour went by as we made our way back to the lake and across the creek to the trail (bypassing the spiked gates at the dam), back down the tram line, onto the trail again, and back to the trailhead at Silver Lake. It was 7:30p when we finished, making for a 13.5hr day - whew! I was plum tuckered out. We had an ice-cold Mike's from the cooler, grabbed a shower at the campground at Grant Lake, then dinner at the Whoa Nellie. I looked around for signs of Michael, but as I found later he'd left about a half hour before we'd arrived. After dinner we drove to Benton in preparation for a climb of Boundary/Montgomery the next day, finding a dirt road off to the side where we could crash in our vehicles undisturbed. It didn't take long to fall asleep that night. Nightmares of being overcome by unfathonable snow depths haunting my dreams...


Michael Golden comments on 06/16/08:
Equal parts:

* Out of shape
* Postholing in the snow
* Sea level to 12,000' in a day

(We did manage a 16 mile hike down to Waterwheel Falls the next day, so we weren't totally weak.)
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