Sun, May 15, 2005
For something like five months we had reserved this weekend for a very special outing to climb the East Ridge of Carl Heller. It took Carl Heller three tries before he was finally successful on this class 3-4 route (and was just beaten out on the first ascent). The peak, located on the Sierra Crest between Mt. Russell and Mt. Barnard, has an impressive looking summit, and fairly challenging by any route. The East Ridge is considered a Sierra Classic. Our plan was to dayhike the peak via George Creek, a classic bushwhack approach usually used for access to Mts. Barnard, Trojan, and Williamson. Further, we planned to exit via the Carillon-Russell Saddle and Whitney Portal to make for an epic adventure that would push us to our limits. A grand plan, but it didn't happen - we didn't even get to the trailhead. Car trouble the day before did us in, or at least that's what we're going to hold responsible for it. Michael's truck died on our way down Rock Creek Road following our climb of Mt. Dade, and it cost us a number of hours to get the truck towed to Bishop. We may have cancelled the outing anyway, as we found the amount of snow on Mt. Dade a great deal more work than we bargained for, and Carl Heller wasn't going to get any easier. But we're still blaming the truck. That outing will have to wait until next year because May 15 was the last day of the season that George Creek was open.
We needed a new plan, something easier perhaps, but still challenging. We hit upon Diamond Peak. Matthew and I had been up Baxter Creek the previous year to climb Black Mtn. and Diamond Peak, but had been too tired after Black to make it over to Diamond. It too, had a seasonal closing (July 1), so it seemed a good alternative. Matthew had other interesting suggestions, but this was the one we settled on.
When we arrived at the trailhead shortly after 6a, there was only one other car in the lot at the end of the dirt road. From some messages I'd seen on the Summitpost message boards recently, we had a good idea whose it was. I went over to check the vehicle out, and the first thing I noticed was the Sports Chalet lisence plate frame. Dave worked at Sports Chalet. Inside the car was fairly clean, most of the loose stuff must be stored in the trunk. But I noticed the driver's seat was covered with a towel emblazoned, Operation Iraqi Freedom. Sgt. Deb had just returned from a 6-month tour in Iraq. I had gone climbing with Dave Daly several times in the past, though not in the last year, Deb I had not yet had the pleasure to meet. Before we headed out I left a note on the car in case we missed them up the canyon. I knew they had climbed Diamond Peak the previous year, so it was unlikely we'd see them there. There were several other peaks in the area (Mary Austin, Black) that they were likely to be after, and since they were backpacking we might run across their camp somewhere enroute.
The Baxter Pass TH starts at something like 6,000ft, and there was no snow to be found in the lower part of the canyon, much to our liking. With Matthew out in front, and Michael trailing behind, I found myself comfortably in the middle as we hiked up. After a couple of stream crossings the trail is relentless, climbing steadily as it makes it's way up at a rate of nearly 1,000ft per mile. There are few switchbacks to ease the slope, though I'm sure if there were more we'd have just complained about them as easily. There is nothing quite so satisfying as complaining about an Eastern Sierra trail while one is doggedly hiking it.
Somewhere before the 8,000-foot level we started hitting snow patches where the trail followed the south side of the canyon. It was a bit awkward traversing across these, but the snow was soft enough to make kicking little steps an easy enough chore. Crampon points in the mud on the trail between snow patches told us Dave and Deb had put theirs on early - they were carrying heavy packs most likely, and a slip for them could have had more serious consequences, and it was possible the snow was much harder when they had come through the previous day. Once the snow was fairly constant I was the first in our party to don the crampons, the other two continuing a good distance further without them, but not making any faster progress. I was impressed that Dave and Deb were able to follow the trail across so much snow. After several hundred yards of the white stuff, there would be a short break in the snow where we could see the trail, and sure enough Dave and Deb's tracks would be within about five feet of the trail. This made navigation a non-issue - we simply followed the crampon points we found in the snow. There was no evidence that anyone besides the two of them had been up here in some time.
I caught up with Matthew when he paused for a break on where the trail crossed back over to the north side of the canyon. There was less snow on this side and the trail was visible in many places through the talus fields found here. I removed my crampons, but we didn't stay long on this side. Travel was actually easier on the snow found on the south side rather than trying to follow the intermitent trail on the north side. And once we were high enough that the creek was completely bridged with snow, we simply followed the creek upstream.
Shortly after 9a we took a break and regrouped on one of the last dry spots to be found in the canyon. We climbed the last headwall before the canyon forks and lost Dave & Deb's tracks (on our way down we discovered they had camped off in the forest above this headwall). Before 10a the snow had softened to the point where we switched to snowshoes. Matthew forged ahead. We climbed higher, taking the right fork of the canyon where it is split by the long East Ridge of Diamond. An interesting couloir presented itself on the northeast side and Matthew and I briefly considered climbing it instead of the Northeast Couloir. Only trouble was we didn't know if we could actually get to Diamond's summit from the top of the couloir since the ridgeline looked quite fractured (later we found the backside of the East Ridge is pretty mild and it would have been fairly easy). We continued up to the cirque NE of Diamond's summit, the Northeast Couloir still out of view. Matthew took the steep, direct line on the left side of the moraine, heading for the base of the couloir. I went to the right, around the moraine, hoping to find a more gentle approach to the base. My effort was for naught, since I found the route is more circuitous than the map suggested, and I ended climbing up and over the moraine. Matthew was already at the base when I clambered up to the top of the moraine, about the only benefit I got was a good view of the Northeast Couloir from a distance.
The couloir looked rather steep, particularly the upper section. I hadn't heard any harrowing accounts of this climb so I figured it probably wasn't as bad as it looked from my vantage point, and in fact this is the case. The upper part actually leans over to the right and is easier than the middle of the couloir, though this isn't evident from below. There was also an interesting branch off the main couloir near the bottom that followed a ledge system diagonally up to the right. This looked more difficult and somewhat more interesting, but it wasn't apparent how the route went once around the corner. Following Matthew's route, Michael caught up to him about the same time I did, and we all went about switching from snowshoes to crampons & axes. I was the first to get my crampons on and headed up the broad base of the couloir before the others. The snow was a bit soft intially, but only got better the higher I went. Crampons were hardly needed as it was possible to kick huge, easy steps in the well-consolidated slope. The snow was very unlike what we had found the previous day on Mt. Dade, evidently the late season storm had not reached this far south in the Sierra. Matthew was on my tail and wasted little time catching up. Though the steps were easy enough to kick, they were not without effort - it was no run up the couloir. Following was much easier, more like climbing steps. As Matthew caught up I moved to the side and let him take over the lead. It was only then that I found how deluxe it was to have steps preformed by the lead member of our party.
We switched leads several times as we made our way up, Michael far below - he was happy to let us make all the steps for him. Matthew wondered if this extra effort on our part wasn't worth a few beers, and I readily acknowledged that we should work on making Michael ameniable to this idea. The climbing was much easier than we had imagined it might, and this made us enjoy the climb all the more, making jokes as we followed each other upwards. Our conversation turned to the remaining distance to the top when we were about 2/3 of the way up the couloir. Matthew declared it to be 50-100ft remaining, to which I scoffed and said it must be at least 300ft. Matthew thought I was crazy, thinking the whole couloir was little more than 300ft. Clearly our estimates of height were quite different. This has been evident in the past and it's never been a simple matter to prove who was right, or at least who was closer. Estimating our steps to each be about 1 vertical foot, I suggested we could count the remaining steps to determine the elevation. Matthew seemed agreeable, and began counting out in the lead. After reaching 50, I pointed out that we weren't much closer to the top, to which Matthew replied that his estimate had been a range going as high as 100ft. I took over the lead and after more steps I asked him if he was still counting, to which he replied no, he'd lost track. I sensed Matthew weaseling out. I took over the count, and started making exaggerated, high steps to counter Matthew's claim that they were hardly 1-foot in elevation. Each time I'd gone another 50 steps I called out the total - 100! - 150! - 200! - 250! - 300! And we weren't yet to the top. Matthew joked about the steps being only 6 inches, but that could hardly have been the case. Later he would claim that the couloir had leaned over and been much higher than it had appeared below - an optical illusion, not a delusional estimate at all. I counted to 400 before we finally topped out, thinking I'd proved his worthlessness for height estimations, but Matthew wasn't convinced - nothing but a parlor trick that proved nothing. And so the controversy continued. Later, while thanking us for the steps up the couloir (we got dinner for that), Michael commented how they seemed to suddenly grow gigantic in the upper part, never guessing the reason until we explained it to him. "So while I'm fighting nausea and exhausting myself to climb that couloir, you guys are making jokes?"
The summit was in view from the top of the couloir, a short by interesting hike along the upper part of the East Ridge. The left side rolls off more gently in snow-covered slopes while the right side falls precipitously down the North Face. Several other couloirs were evident on that side, though they looked far harder than the one we had ascended. The summit register made a number of references to "other" Northeast Couloirs, so it seems likely that most or all of these other couloirs have been climbed already. The views from the summit were stunning, south to Whitney, north to the Palisades. The overwhelming theme in the views about us was snow - blinding white snow was everywhere, more than I can ever recall seeing in the Sierra. It didn't look like spring so much as a fine winter day. To the west we could see into the Rae Lakes and Sixty Lakes areas, every lake buried deep in snow and ice. Mt. Clarence King looked the most impressive with its vertical SE Face in sharp contrast to the snows around it. It was a bit chilly at the summit with a cool breeze blowing. Even with my jacket I looked for a hole to hide in on the leeward side. I perused through the register (dating back to the early 1980s) while we waited for Michael. He was about 20 minutes behind us in reaching the summit, and rather tired by the time he joined us. We stayed long enough for Michael to recover some, then headed down to get out of the cold.
I started off by heading west a short distance in order to get a better view of Rae Lakes and Fin Dome. I got a better view, but the picture of the impressive Fin Dome didn't do the view justice. Matthew and Michael had started down the Southeast Slope and were a good distance to the east by the time I was done with my diversion. From the previous year, I recalled that the SE Slope was a huge slope of scree and sand as viewed during the descent from Black Mtn. I could see that the other two had slowed to navigate through some rocks poking through the snow, but the slope looked like nothing but snow heading down more directly from where I stood. So I took what looked like the lowest angled route down on the west side of the SE Slope, making good time with a long glissade until I was about level with the other two. Below me the slope rolled off more steeply and I could not see the run out to the bottom. Further glissading seemed unwise. Michael had continue down through the rocks to the more open snow he found below while Matthew started angling over to where I was descending. I continued down the steeper slope until I came to the cliffband I had no recollection of. Below me was snow-covered class 4-5 climbing, more than I had bargained for. My memory had clearly failed me. I started traversing east along the top of the rock band looking for a snow chute that I could descend. Matthew, meanwhile, had recognized my predicament and had started a traverse back to the east while he was still well above me. I finally made my way to a steep chute that looked to be continuous to the wide open slopes below. But I had first to negotiate the narrow upper portion that necked down to a width of maybe six feet across - there could be no glissading until I was below the neck. I had to turn into the slope and kick steps down the couloir, about the same steepness as the Northeast Couloir but with sloppier snow due to the sunnier aspect of the slope. It was a bit slow and nervy descending. As I got below the neck I could see Michael just finishing up a very long glissade to the bottom - he had evidently chosen the best route. I had to downclimb another fifty feet below the neck before I was comfortable with a glissade. Matthew meanwhile appeared glissading down yet another chute to the east, wider and far more pleasant looking than my own. My glissade was the shortest of the three and required much traversing before I was able to reach the bottom of Michael's glissade. Looking back up I could see that the slope had three obvious chutes through the cliffband. Michael had taken the largest and best of the three, Matthew the narrowest on the left. My own chute was hidden to the left of the other three behind rocks, definitely the worst of the available options. Oh well, sometimes I have to draw the short stick.
Matthew was far ahead of me and Michael out of sight ahead of him as I switched to snowshoes and began the long trudge out of the cirque south of Diamond Peak. I jogged down where the slopes allowed it, walking where it was flat, trying to catch up to the others. They were making fast time as well and it took half an hour before I finally managed to do so. Around the same time I spotted two backpackers ahead of us on the descent - no doubt Dave and Deb. They were on the north side of the canyon seeking the drier rocks and trail to descend while we continued down on snowshoes following the creek. When we caught up to them around 3p they were about 100 yards laterally to the north. Dave recognized me by the goofy hat almost immediately. They told us they'd been to Mary Austin, and after a few other exchanges we parted, wishing each other well. We continued zipping down the canyon, eventually flailing with the snowshoes on the sidehilling portions of the trail. Matthew and I switched to crampons, Michael nowhere to be found, but somewhere behind us. Another five minutes futher downhill we were surprised to see Michael down by the creek, still in his snowshoes. He'd bypassed the sidehilling by sticking to the creek, but had now run out of snow bridges as he found himself on the wrong side of the creek. Matthew pointed out a log back upstream a short ways, and Michael had to pause to backtrack while Matthew and I continued on.
Once we got rid of the crampons Matthew picked up the pace and left me in dust. No way I could keep up with him. Knowing that Michael was still behind me, I decided to go at a slower pace and stopped to photograph some of the beautiful wildflowers that were springing to life along the trail now that the snow was gone. Michael caught up to me while on my photographing mission. He was sopping wet up to his waist, having fallen in the creek during the creek crossing. It would have made for a good laugh to have witnessed it. He lost his poles in the creek as a result, making for a monetary loss in addition to the uncomfortable wetness he found himself in. It was just after 4:30p when we got back to the trailhead, making for an enjoyable 10hr outing.
We drove back to Bishop and had dinner again at Jacks. The weather was starting to change for the worse and by morning there were thick clouds to the north. Matthew and I left Michael in Bishop to fend for himself in getting his car repaired (it would be the following day before the parts arrived to fix the car and allow him to drive home). Matthew and I had hoped to do some more climbing to Lee Vining Peak, but by the time we reached SR120 the rain had started and the peaks were socked in. No climbing today. We continued up US395 and over Monitor Pass to Carson Pass. Carson Pass looked like winter again as we drove over, several inches of fresh snow on the ground and winds blowing. Summer was having a hard time getting to the Sierra this year...
For more information see these SummitPost pages: Diamond Peak
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