Sat, Jul 23, 2011
From our roadside bivy along Lamoille Canyon Pkwy Matthew and I were only a few minutes from Roads End where we were to meet Adam at 6a. He was already there when I pulled in just before the appointed time, Matthew driving up a few minutes later. Adam had had a long drive from Sacramento the night before, but looked fresh and chipper and no worse the wear for it. Yet another reason to envy the young.
It was our second day in Nevada's Ruby Mountains. The day prior Matthew and I had done a warm up to Gilbert and Silliman, but today's effort to Snow Lake Peak was the one all of us were most interested in, and why we saved it for Adam's arrival. Snow Lake Peak is one of the toughest summits in the range at class 4. We planned to do a four peak traverse as described in a 1998 DPS report by Ted Brasket.
The start is easy enough, taking the Island Lake Trail up for several miles to the namesake lake located in large cirque on the east side of the ridge between Thomas Peak and Full House Peak. The trail starts on the west side of the road, just before one enters the large parking lot at Roads End. The trail is in great shape, climbing the eastern flanks of the beautiful Lamoille Canyon. A wooden bridge takes you over the creek emanating from the lake above as it cascades down the rocky green slopes to the canyon below.
It was 7a when we reached the lake with a fine view of Full House behind it. The island in the middle of the lake is barely that, a low, brushy affair that looked tiny compared to the size of the lake and the mountains making a backdrop. The trail ends here and we barely paused before starting off cross-country to the northwest towards Thomas. The off-trail travel was steep but uncomplicated, eventually bringing us to a large snow field lying below some cliffs on Thomas' SE side. The lower slopes were easy enough to do without crampons, but once I reached a bare patch somewhere in the middle, I decided to switch to crampons for the last several hundred yards to where the snow ended against a rock band. Adam had drifted far to the east, deciding to take a different line through the rocks than the one I had picked out. Matthew followed behind me a little slower, mostly out of necessity since he decided to forego the crampons. The rock we found above the snow field was class 2-3 by both routes that we chose, soon landing us on Thomas' easy East Ridge. Fifteen minutes later we had found our way to the highpoint at the south end.
Thomas has two summits, the highest point to the south but the namesake benchmark located to the north. We found a register at the south summit dating to 1989 and another dating to 1985 at the north summit. The traverse between the two is trivial and worth the effort for a better view into Lamoille Canyon to the north. In fact it is necessary to traverse even further north along the ridge before you can get a good view down to the canyon. After half an hour or so of wandering about Thomas, it was time to continue on.
We returned to the East Ridge and down the same route we had taken up, until we were once again on the snow field in the cirque below. Here we began a descending traverse to get around the cliffs on Thomas, aiming for class 2-3 slopes near the saddle between Thomas and Full House. I spotted some mountain goats high on the east side of Thomas' South Ridge, their off-white coats just barely contrasting with the pure white snow. There looked to be four or five of them traversing south, evidently put off by our appearance on the slopes of Thomas. Our route led us across a wide expanse of snow, the steepest part of it near the end before we got onto drier ground on the east side of the ridge. This we followed up to the wide ridge itself, a collection of large, flat talus pieces followed by an easy class 3 finish at the end.
The summit of Full House afforded the best views of the surrounding peaks that we would have all day. In particular, Snow Lake Peak to the south looked very difficult with its rugged North Face displayed prominently to our view. A register dating back 11 years could be found under the summit rocks. We took a short break here, and while resting on the rocks, Matthew spotted a tick on my pack, a very fast-moving one at that. Adam became noticeably agitated and it was at this time that we came to learn about his special phobia for ticks. Having overcome my own dread of these little buggers from my overdose of them in the Diablo Range, I considered a single tick or two little more than a nuisance, far more tolerable than a plague of mosquitoes or flies. At least they don't fly, I reasoned. Adam would hear none of this and felt betrayed by nature herself in allowing ticks to be present at these altitudes where he had supposed he was safely above their reach. "How can they live up here?!" he fairly screamed, as he began to watch one of his pillars of Nature's Rules crumble. This was a gross violation of some sort of understanding he thought he had with Mother Nature herself and he was none too happy about it. Matthew, and I in particular, found great humor in this dread of his. I tried to explain that it was certainly reasonable that deer and goats had brought them up to these heights attached to their coats and skin. He reiterated the louder that this was a profanity of nature, a very bad trick done in poor taste. His anger had no real target on which to take aim, so he simply vented loudly and with great vehemence to Matthew and I and the thin mountain air. Over the next few days we would periodically find another tick on our clothing or backpack which would begin Adam's rant anew, and it was always good for a a laugh, despite Adam's finding nothing at all to smile about.
We followed the South Ridge off Full House, easy enough at first, but growing more difficult. A near-impasse was reached along the ridge that would require dropping down some on the east side before returning to the ridge. I opted for some exposed class 3 immediately adjacent to the impasse that allowed me to regain the ridge only a few minutes later. The others did not like my route choice much and decided to backtrack a bit and drop down where the exposure was minimal, but requiring a more circuitous route. Their route turned out to be more involved than expected, significantly increasing the delay in regaining the ridge. Consequently I reached easier ground at the saddle between the two peaks more than half an hour ahead of them. I decided not to wait and continued along the ridge to the start of difficulties on the NE Ridge of Snow Lake Peak.
Our beta had suggested that the only reasonable route up Snow Lake would be found over on the west side, the choices being to navigate around the peak to the north or south. The north side was the sketchiest with a steep face and old snow clinging tenaciously to the rock in the mountain's shadow, but this was also the shortest route. I decided to see how difficult it might be and perhaps save the three of us from wasting time on a partial traverse before being blocked by snow or other obstacles. It turned out to be about as dicey as it looked, the snow proving the most serious obstacle. I followed a path along the rock and some helpful ledges, aiming for the top of the snow that I hoped I might walk across. A bergshrund of sorts presented itself and while I was indeed able to walk across a portion of the snow's apex, I found conditions almost bullet hard, where my axe would be unable to gain purchase on the snow, and my aluminum crampons mostly inadequate. I found myself tunneling behind the snow in the bergshrund, a dark blue gap falling away below my feet that made me most uncomfortable. In places I was pressing my back against the rock and feet against the snow, inching my way across a gap below me. The last part to get off the snow and back onto the rock face was also dicey and had me a bit worried.
I eventually got across the North Face in one piece and paused at the NW Ridge where I took off my pack in the sunshine to wait for the others. I could see one of the two far across the way at the saddle with Full House Peak. I didn't know it at the time, but this was Matthew who had reached it ahead of Adam and was now waiting for Adam to pick his way through the rock on the east side to join him. I would have a very long wait, but at least my waiting spot was warm and a thoroughly good spot to nap. During this time I found something crawling across my chest, under my shirt, while I rested. It turned out to be another tick. I didn't tell Adam about this one until much later to save him the added anxiety it might cause. Another half hour went by before the two and reached the ridgeline and walked the short distance to the start of the North Face route I had taken across. Adam came partially across until he was within hearing distance, at which time I called out to recommend they find an easier way over. The best option seemed to be to drop down several hundred feet into the cirque on that side where easier snow slopes could be traversed over and up to the NW Ridge. Adam led the way on this venture, traversing a combination of rock slope and snow, eventually joining me around 12:45p, an hour after I'd reached the same point. Matthew was still below at a distance where I couldn't tell exactly what he was doing, but it seemed like he was putting on crampons. He climbed up about 15 steps on the snow slope before turning around and returning to the rock he'd started on a few minutes earlier. He pulled out a map or route description, studied it awhile, and then decided to turn back to the east and give up on Snow Lake Peak. It seemed odd to turn back after so much effort with a short distance left to go, but he later reported feeling sick from the altitude and lightheaded. He returned back over the saddle between Full House and Snow Lake Peak, then dropped back to the cars on the east side. Adam and I were left to turn our attention towards getting up Snow Lake.
Our beta had suggested a route starting from the NW Ridge, but that seemed highly unlikely as we stood looking at the difficulties one is immediately confronted with. We looked for a way up around the corner to the left and back on the North Face, but this looked unworkable as well. The key turned out to be around the corner to the right, on the SW Face where there were some steep, near-vertical sections that could be climbed at class 3 thanks to an abundance of holds. Adam chose the harder of two options, the one closest to the NW Ridge, while I took his picture and then walked further to the right to see if there wasn't something a tad easier. I did find something easier, though barely, and it was somewhat convoluted to get me back to the NW Ridge where I met Adam at the top of the short section he had just climbed. We still couldn't climb up the NW Ridge, but at least now we could move around to the North Face where we found a class 3 chimney matching the description in our beta. Above the chimney we encountered a large keyhole through the NW Ridge that led back to the SW side of the peak. There seemed to be no more options left on the North Face, so through the keyhole we went. We were really enjoying the route at this point with all its twists and turns, just hoping that we were on a route to reach the summit and not some dead end.
On the SW side there was no route to climb upwards towards the summit, so we kept traversing to the right, looking for ways up. This took us across to a small chute on the far right side, leading up to the South Ridge and then around on the SE side and across to the NE Ridge, slowly spiraling our way upward. In fact we had gone 360 degrees around the peak to reach the crux near the top of the NE Ridge. The crux was an awkward class 4 mantle with hidden footholds that would be tricky to find on the way down, but we didn't let that bother us for the moment as we popped out above it and scrambled the remaining short distance to the summit. It had taken nearly 45 minutes and we both enjoyed every minute of it, certainly the most interesting summit we'd visited yet in the Ruby Mtns.
The summit was a modest perch where we found a battered register dating to 1988. Ours was the first entry in just over a year, but the peak looks to average about 2-3 ascents per year. We commented that Matthew would have enjoyed this a great deal too, and would probably be determined to make a return trip once we gave it a glowing report. We retraced our route starting with the crux. Adam was set to go down first, but balked after several minutes of trying to figure out how to find the hidden holds. He then let me go before him, allowing me to help coach him through the last few moves. The rest of the descent was a repeat of our ascent, down the chute on the south side, through the keyhole, and down the chimney on the North Face. I showed Adam the class 3 route I had taken at the bottom on the SW side, but we both agreed it wasn't really better than his own shorter option he'd used on the ascent.
Next up was a traverse to Mt. Fitzgerald, about 3/4 mile to the west. We followed along the south side of the crest, eventually dropping onto snow that covered much of that side and the SE cirque of Fitzgerald. Having been in the sun for most of the day, the snow was quite soft and easily crossed. We debated the best route to get to the summit. The more direct route looked like it might end in cliffs so we opted to circle around to the west side where we hoped to find easier scrambling. As we crossed over the South Ridge the snow ended, but the rock we encountered was surprisingly tough with broken rock towers and more traversing towards the north to get around these. Finally we encountered an opening up to the summit ridge that allowed us up through class 3 rock. Not knowing which point was highest, we visited the north summit first, only to realize the south summit was the highpoint. The traverse along the crest to the south summit was quite airy, an impressive walk with exposure on two sides.
Adam found the register in the rock pile at the summit dating to 2000. There were only nine parties since that time to sign the register, including ourselves, and five of these were from Glen Horn, a local from Spring Creek. This was the least-visited peak we encountered on this trip. Having a second look at our route choice, we noted that the descent down the east side from the north summit did not look as tricky as we had imagined from below. So we went back again to the north summit, then picked our way down class 3 rock along the East Ridge. Eventually rock gave way to snow along the ridgeline, but by then the angle was lower and the crossing safely managed. We dropped off the East Ridge just enough to traverse the SW Slopes of Snow Lake Peak, reaching a saddle on its south side around 4:15p. There was more snow to descend down the east side of this saddle into Lamoille Canyon, eventually becoming easier terrain with low, alpine scrub with a few trees. Our descent was almost directly down to the parking lot at Roads End, picking up a trail for the last few minutes before we reached the cars. It was just after 5p and Matthew was there, having been back a number of hours before us.
Though the whole outing was less than 10 miles, it had taken us over some pretty rough terrain, requiring almost 11hrs to complete. A most enjoyable day, to be sure. After washing up, we drove out to Elko for dinner, then headed east for Wells, NE of of the East Humboldt Range (really just the northern extension of the Ruby Mtns). We drove to Angel Lake in the mountains above Wells to spend the night at 8,400ft, much cooler than in town. The temps were in the low 60s which would mean no trouble for sleeping. The day use lot close to the lake is haevily signed for no overnight camping. Luckily there is a hiker lot near the campground that has no such restrictions, allowing us to spend the night there undisturbed.
For more information see these SummitPost pages: Thomas Peak - Full House Peak - Snow Lake Peak
This page last updated: Sat Oct 8 14:31:53 2011
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