Ericsson Crag No. 3 CS
Ericsson Crag No. 2 CS
The Minster CS

Sep 29, 2018

With: Tom Becht
Scott Barnes
Iris Ma
Sean O'Rourke
Robert Wu
Kristine Swigart

Story Photos / Slideshow Map GPX Profile


Last year we had paid a first visit to Ericsson Crags, the last of the "official" CA 13ers I had left to climb. It was a success for all of us save Tom Becht who nearly had a fingertip severed, but we hadn't time for Crags #2 & #3 that year. I put "official" in quotes because it's based on a somewhat arbitrary prominence value of 300ft and a similarly arbitrary average method of calculating the prominence. This come down to an additional list of around a dozen 13er summits that might have 300ft of prominence based on more optimistic values for prominence. Ericsson Crag #2, with 262ft of average prominence, is one such summit and the reason for my wanting to return. Tom wanted to come back to actually climb one of the crags and the others were along for various reasons, but mostly I suspect because they enjoy my charming company - even though I really don't like backpacking. We had packed into East Lake the day before to set up camp and establish our starting point for the day's adventure.

Ericsson Crags are located just north of Mt. Ericsson and the Kings-Kern Divide in SEKI National Park, about 3.5mi from our camp. Though it makes for a short approach, the outing is far from trivial since less than a mile of this is on trail and there's nearly 4,000ft of gain for the two crags. I was rather cold in the morning as we started out just after 7a, most of us wearing jackets. We followed the trail until it reaches the second boulder field crossing, whereupon we followed a more obscure branch of the trail that climbs up and left into the Harrison Creek drainage to the east. An old trail once went up this way and over Harrison Pass but it has been decades since it was maintained and is hard to follow. We did a decent job of finding it in various locations, but fortunately the cross-country is not so hard through the forest here and can be managed with or without the old trail. It took us about an hour to work our way from camp up through the forest until we reached the granite slabs above treeline on the west side of Ericsson Crags. The slabs give out shortly, turning to boulders and talus as we aimed for the large, obvious chute between Crags #2 and #3. Kristine had left us sometime earlier, choosing to climb Deerhorn Mtn and The Minster instead of Ericsson Crags, thus avoiding the potential rockfall dangers with such a large group. The remaining six of us were fairly close together as we started into the chute but would soon begin to spread out.

The chute is long and steep and took us more than an hour to ascend. The rock is loose, requiring great care to keep from knocking stuff down on each other. Some of us had brought helmets for just this situation, but luckily no serious rockfall would plague us today. There is a chockstone lower in the chute that requires some class 4 scrambling to surmount, or alternately as Tom found out, it can be bypassed well to the left by exiting the chute about 100ft below the chockstone and re-entering higher, above it. It wasn't at all clear from below how one might reach either crag from this chute. With a focus on reaching Crag #3 first, we kept surveying the terrain to the left but everything seemed to rise to vertical cliffs above, leaving us little choice but to continue ascending the chute and hoping something better would come along. Near the top we paused below the saddle between the two to consider a secondary chute branching to the left just north of the saddle. This seemed to offer a way around to the east side of the crag where we hoped to find something more promising. I was happy to let Sean go ahead and survey the terrain, waiting with Robert and Tom below. Robert thought this somewhat funny and perhaps unfair that I would use Sean in such a fashion. My view was somewhat different - I knew Sean could run circles around me on such terrain (to be honest, on any terrain), and it was much like letting the dog run off leash to work off excess energy. In any event, Sean didn't seem to mind one whit. It was sometime before we heard from him, causing us to move into a small patch of sunlight filtering into the chute, an effort to ward off the chill from being in the shade all morning. Eventually I decided to climb up the alternate chute to see what became of Sean, only to hear him shouting down from around the corner a few minutes later. I couldn't make out what he said, but Robert had a more direct line of sight from below and made out that the route would go. Up the chute we all went. Iris and Scott were some distance below us in the main chute at this point. We would lose track of them as we worked our way over to the east side, figuring they'd have to find the way on their own.

The east side turned out to work, but not without lots of class 4 scrambling over exposed terrain. The route-finding was a bit tricky, but there were many variations we came to find as the four of us took varying options, sometimes to relieve a bottleneck, other times because the person in front was struggling with a move or two. Sean led us up in the general direction of the summit and was the first to reach it some minutes before the rest of us. It was 10:30a by the time we had four of us on the summit, elated with our success and the quality of the scrambling. An aluminum SRC register box had been left by Jim Keating and Claude Fiddler (signing as Norman Claude) in 1991 with a scant five pages of entries. More impressive were the two scraps of older paper found loosely in the back pages of the notebook from the earliest ascentionists. These included Hervey Voge and Dave Brower from 1939 and several entries from Fred Beckey and partners, 1972 & 1987. The views cover a large portion of the SEKI Wilderness west of the Sierra Crest, with The Minster, West Spur and Deerhorn Mtn to the north and northeast, Mt. Standford and Caltech to the east, Mt. Ericsson and the other crags looming higher to the south. We were atop the summit basking in the welcome sunshine for about 20min before deciding to head down, Scott and Iris nowhere in sight.

As we were descending back along the South Ridge, Scott and Iris passed us heading up. They were in fine spirits and seemed to enjoy their more casual pace. Sean told them about the register we'd found and how the first ascentionist had scratched his name on a sardine tin back in 1921. This had Scott in particular rather excited for the summit visit. The four of us continued down to the saddle between the two crags before moving over to the east side of Crag #2's North Ridge. We had passed a wide, semi-promising chute on the west side of the ridge while ascending the main West Chute earlier, but it looked to grow steep and cliffy at the headwall of the two branches we could see above. From the summit of #3, we could see that an easier approach looked to go up the east side of the North Ridge which is why we tried that first. There were two separate chutes on that side and we had to traverse from one into the other when the first became blocked, but the route worked quite nicely at class 3 and we had a much easier time reaching #2 than we'd had reaching #3. The summit has a sharply pointed summit block that one can straddle, but it would take a very nervy move to try and stand upon. There was a register composing a few scraps of paper in a small glass jar with no lid, leaving the contents somewhat battered and aged. The oldest scrap left by Voge and Brower on the same day in 1939, was brittle and moldy, with little of it that could be read. There were other pages more recent going back to the 1990s, these were in a small plastic film cannister and kept in better shape. We left one of our own registers after putting the others back as we found them, protected as best we could from the sun and weather. Scott & Iris were atop Crag #3 while we on #2. We watched them descend not once, nor twice, but three separate times before returning to the summit after descending a short distance. Their behavior was completely inexplicable to us and we conjectured as to what they were doing. Eventually they descended on the southwest side of the summit before making their way over to the South Ridge and the saddle between the two crags. Later we learned that they had returned to the summit repeatedly because Scott was insistent that they should be able to find the sardine tin. It had been lost in transmission between Sean and Scott that the tin was only written about in Voge & Brower's summit note, and didn't actually exist anymore. The tattered note was on a thin yellow scrap of paper in the back pages of the register book and they'd missed this completely. There was even some discussion upon reaching the saddle and having this straightened out when they ran into Robert and Tom, of going back up to have a look at it - it meant that much to Scott. But in the end he decided he'd at least "held it in his hands" and would have to be satisfied seeing the pictures we'd taken of the old entries.

We descended Crag #2 by the same route, nearly returning to the saddle when Sean convinced me to take the alternate descent down the East Chute. Robert had left his poles at the base of the West Chute, so Tom decided to keep him company and return that way (and subsequently ran into Scott & Iris). Though a longer return overall because we'd have to go back around the north side of Ericsson Crags, the East Chute offered a sandier, shorter descent that would avoid lots of the tediousness of the West Chute. We found the East Chute terribly loose as well, knocking lots of rock and debris down with us, but we did a good job of keeping to opposite sides of the chute as we descended in tandem. We eventually emerged from the chute and made our way around the northeast side of Crag #3 to reach one of the officially unnamed Harrison Lakes. We stopped to empty sand and pebbles from our shoes, then continued descending the drainage around the north side of Crag #3. There were vestiges of the trail that once went up here and over Harrison Pass, but most of it has been erased by rockfall and brush. We took different routes, Sean to the south side, myself to the north, soon reuniting lower down at the base of The Minster. Sean looked at me, looked at the Minster, and sort of smiled with a "Should we?" look. I had to laugh because earlier I had told him he was taking me down the East Chute to lure me to The Minster. At the time he denied any such plan, but now that he was looking up at it, it seemed almost a shame not to.

And so we did. It didn't look all that high above us. I was pretty tired but it was only 1p, so I agreed. I told Sean I'd be slow and he could feel free to go ahead, but he was a good sport and dragged me along for the ride. We knew very little about the feature. We knew Eric Su had climbed it, reporting it to be a difficult scramble from the SE with at least three false pinnacles along the way before he'd found the highest one at the western end of the castellated ridgeline. We figured we could bypass two of these features initially by aiming for a notch high above the steep slope we climbed. This turned out to be insufficient as we found ourselves repeating the very same mistakes that had befallen Eric. There were far more than three pinnacles, perhaps six or seven all told. We took about half an hour to climb the initial slope, then another half hour exploring the northeast side of the ridge in search of the highest pinnacle. Ahead of me, Sean climbed one such pinnacle to find it wasn't the highest, suggesting I "stay low" as I continued on that side. We worked our way around to what we thought was the north side of the highest pinnacle, only to find we were still one pinnacle away when we had neared the top. Sean backed off of one dicey move, commenting that he wasn't feeling all that brave today. I remember asking him if he knew what The Minster was rated, but he had no more idea than myself. A huge gap to the highest pinnacle with no clear way across presented itself and we became despondent - we were ready to admit we might not make it to the summit of this one. We retraced our way back along the northeast side to a notch, figuring we should at least look and see if there were any possibilities on the south side. Luckily, there were. a series of fortunate breaks allowed us to traverse around on the south side until we were perhaps 100ft under the highpoint. The remaining distance up looked rather hard and I balked, wanting to explore further around to the southwest and west. Sean wasn't so sure the south side should be dismissed (in fact, we believe this was the side Eric eventually climbed it from). While debating our options here, we were surprised to see Kristine pop up above at the summit, quite unexpectedly. We knew she had planned to do The Minster and Deerhorn, but had expected her to do this one first. Had she been at The Minster all day, we wondered? No, it turns out she did Deerhorn first, then went through much of the same machinations we did before finding her way to the summit. She reported having come up from the west side and that more or less settled it - Sean and I headed off in the direction she pointed in order find the easier way up.

The west side had a very nice class 3 route, intricate enough that a series of ducks we found were most welcome. We thought these had been in place for some time to mark the easiest route, but later found that Kristine had put them up herself to help her on the way down. We crossed paths with her about halfway along the ducked route before continuing to the very summit ourselves. Like Crag #2, it had a very airy summit block that one person could sit on, perhaps only a foot or two higher than the next pinnacle to the east that we had mistaken for the summit earlier. Finding no register here, we left one before heading back down again. Once back down through the ducked section, the route options open up and eventually dump one onto the sandy Southwest Slope that conveniently goes down to the small unnamed lake in the drainage below. After another round of emptying shoes of debris, we continued down the drainage, eventually finding the use trail from the early morning that would help us back down to the regular trail on the east side of East Creek. It would be 4p by the time we got back to camp where we found Robert, Tom and Kristine relaxing.

After rinsing off in the creek, I put on just about all the clothes I'd brought with me to ward off the chill and joined the others for the dinner rituals. We sat about the fireless campfire, boiling water, consuming snacks and conjecturing about what would be keeping Scott & Iris away for so long. Most of us guessed that they must have chosen to climb something else - most likely Peak Corbel, but when they strolled into camp after sunset hours later, they described having simply taken their sweet time on returning. Seems that enjoying the High Country wilderness experience took precedence over the charming company of the larger group. I made some effort to talk the others into paying a visit to West Spur the next day before leaving camp, but there was no one willing to sign up for that one. Threatening to put it on next year's Challenge had no visible effect. Not wanting to do it alone and be the last one to leave camp, I gave up the idea. In the morning, Tom and I were the first ones to break camp around 7a, making our way back to Roads End in four and a half hours - a pretty stiff pace for a couple of old guys. This would allow us to get home well before sunset and enjoy dinner with our wives on Sunday evening. And another year's worth of backpacking in the bag...

Nathan comments on 10/04/18:
What a cool find!
Scott Barnes comments on 10/09/18:
We looked so hard for that sardine can!
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