Tue, Aug 12, 2003
Matthew, Michael and I woke up in the Mammoth Rodeway Inn around 5a, ate a quickbreakfast, packed our cars, and drove out to the Rock Creek TH at Mosquito Flat. Our goal today was Mt. Gabb, the second highest peak after Mt. Morgan in the Rock Creek/Bear Creek Spire area. It lies off the Sierra Crest on the west side, visited far less often than those peaks on the crest and others nearby. I had a very ambitious plan of climbing Mt. Abbot from the west side after climbing Gabb, then descending the North Couloir route off Abbot. Michael was planning to climb Bear Creek Spire on the return, a peak I had climbed the previous year.
We set out from the Rock Creek TH at 6a, following the trail to Morgan Pass. We passed by the numerous lakes the trail skirts, silent in the cool, shady morning before this valley comes to life. After an hour we left the trail before passing by Gem Lakes. We hiked cross-country up through some sparse forest to the ridge between Gem and Treasure Lakes, with Treasure Peak rising above in the background. We followed the ridge to Dade Lake, a barren lake with fine views of the nearby peaks - Bear Creek Spire, Pipsqueak Spire, Mt. Dade, and again Treasure Peak. It took us about two hours to reach the lake, and we took a brief break to eat something and fill up our water bottles, possibly the last place we'd find water until our return. After refilling the bottles, we started out across the boulders, but Mathew drew up short. He said his knee was hurting from the day before and he wasn't sure if he wanted to go on. We stopped to discuss options. Matthew was still interested in climbing Bear Creek Spire, so I told him I would build a large cairn at Cox Col. If he reached there before we (or maybe just Michael, if I went to Abbot) returned from Gabb and he wanted to head up, I suggested he build a second cairn next to mine so we'd be sure to go up and help with route-finding, even if we were dead tired.
Michael and I continued up to Cox Col, arriving a bit before 9a. We thought we were smoking to make it so fast, but I recalled that Josh Shwartz climbed the North Arete to the summit of Bear Creek Spire and returned to the same trailhead in the same three hours time. Maybe we weren't so smoking after all. There was a party of three that had just reached the base of the North Arete route as we passed them heading to the col. I wondered if we might see them on our return later in the day. Gabb looked really far away, and towered far up into the sky. I had seen this view standing in the same location a year ago, but I had forgotten just how far off it appeared. We were feeling good, and forged on.
There is a broad canyon reaching from Lake Italy far below up to Gabbot Pass between Mts. Gabb and Abbot (it took me a few years after seeing the name of the pass to make the connection to its name being derived from the nearby peaks). This canyon must be crossed to get between Cox Col and Mt. Gabb, and the basic trick was how to lose as little elevation as possible during the crossing. Trying to lose no elevation would require traversing high on the steep portion of the Sierra Crest on the west side between Pipsqueak Spire and Mt. Abbot, and would surely be slow and arduous - there were cliffs and sharp aretes on this side. So with this thought in mind, we headed down the sandy slopes on the northwest side of Cox Col, generally giving preference to our right side where we could. The slopes started off gently sloped and very sandy, but grew steeper and eventually the sandy sections were replaced by acres of boulders. We aimed for any rock formations that looked solid and class 3 or less, preferring these to the boulder fields. It was fairly enjoyable, and we climbed down a number of short sections that we weren't sure we'd get through, tunnelled under chockstones, across slabs, heading now more towards Gabbot Pass. I studied the southwest side of Mt. Abbot as we hiked along, comparing the views to the pictures I carried in my pocket copied from Secor's guidebook. It didn't look too bad from this view...
We found a small creek running down from Gabbot Pass and stopped to refill our bottles. It was good to find water here as we surely would have run out before getting back to Dade Lake. Thirst would not be an issue now with this strategically placed creek. From the creek we headed up left of Gabbot Pass heading for the class 3 NE Ridge. While Secor says to stay on the south side of the ridge as one heads to the summit, we concluded he probably never climbed it from that ridge. It all went well until about 200 feet below the summit, and then everything seemed to go class 4-5. We climbed up, we climbed down, we traversed west into several other chutes before we managed to find a way and pull ourselves onto the summit. If it was class 3 it was the hardest class 3 I'd seen yet! It was 11:40a when we summited, and we took our much-deserved lunchbreak. We not only found the usual great views from the summit (NW - N - NNE - NE - E - ESE - SE - S - SW - WSW - W), but we found a register dating back to 1934 left by the California Alpine Club. It was very impressive, the oldest Sierra summit register I've seen to date. I was so impressed that I took photographs of all the register entries up until 1960, covering eight pages. There were other registers in the box as well, and we added our entries after the latest ones from only a few days earlier. Over the last decade it looked like Mt. Gabb received visits from about a dozen parties each year.
While we'd been climbing up I'd been studying the West Ridge route on Mt. Abbot intently. Most of it seemed to be straightforward, but the highest reaches seemed to hold the advertised class 4 sections - they pretty much looked like a cliff from Mt. Gabb. I wondered if the class 4 was modern day or old school class 4, the later which might be considered up to class 5.4 today. It was going to be a risky climb it seemed - what a pain it would be to have to come back down from near the summit and return via Cox Col. In the end I talked myself out of that option and elected to join Michael and hopefully Matthew on Bear Creek Spire. I hoped I still had the energy once we got back to the col.
On the way back, we went down the SE Face, following about as much loose sand and talus as we could. It took only about 40min to get off the peak. A pair of backpackers came up to us when we got down, asking for directions to Gabbot Pass. They weren't two hundred yards from it, and we pointed them in the right direction. We crossed the small stream again, filling our water bottles, and nearby we came across a family out backpacking, having come up from Lake Italy. We chatted briefly. It seemed like we'd come down from the peak to a highway. Rather than being annoyed at the traffic, it was nice to see others out enjoying the beautiful backcountry on such a fine day. After our brief exchange, we headed back to Cox Col. We took a more westerly tack on the way back, having learned something about the cliffs and other difficulties further to the east towards the crest. The climb up was mostly uneventful, but long, very long. The sand was particularly trying, but once we got over the steepest parts, the gentler slopes near the top were no trouble. In fact I felt I was getting a second wind and motored the last few hundred yard pretty quickly, Michael only a few minutes behind.
At the col, we found Matthew talking to a guy named Dan who'd just been to the summit. Or almost. Seems he turned around about 20-30 feet short, after not finding a viable way up. He was dressed as casually as I've seen in the backcountry, shorts and a sleeveless shirt, looking like he was at the beach rather than at 13,000ft. You gotta love California. We also learned that he had come from the same trailhead, arriving at Cox Col after only two hours - this guy was fast. Matthew had taken a nap lower down, then taken his time to reach the col. The slower pace was much better on his knee. We had a joyous reunion, and gave a brief rundown of our adventure to Mt. Gabb. Matthew was all set to join us for the climb to BCS, and with a bit of persuasion and a pep talk, Dan decided to revisit the peak and give it another go. He seemed particularly happy to know that I'd climbed it previously and could guide them to the correct route.
So all four of us went up to BCS. From Cox Col it takes less than 30 minutes to reach the class 4 section. At the summit blocks I pointed out the route, and Michael took off first up the cracks and ledges. Dan watched him carefully, then followed second. I went up third, stopping halfway to coach Matthew up and help him with some of the holds and moves as needed. This was Matthew's first ropeless class 4, and though nervous he climbed it without a hitch. We all then walked the last 40 yards along the thin ridge top, an airy walk with some bold moves to get around some large blocks. Then we came to the famous summit block, an imposing block the size of a small automobile with a reachy climb to surmount the final ten feet. I went first followed by Michael, and the two of us was about as much as the summit could hold comfortably. The climbers we had seen on the start of the North Arete were just coming into view along the summit ridge to the north - we would be gone before they arrived since they were still roped in and moving cautiously. Dan signed into the summit register found at the base of the summit block and left after a few minutes. He was happy to get to the register, but wasn't going to try the summit block. After Michael and I climbed down, Matthew walked up to the block to give it a try. He stood there several minutes pondering the exposure, the summit, and weighing how badly he wanted to climb it against his self-preservation instincts. Instinct won out as he decided it was a bit rich for his blood. After we'd all signed in the register, we climbed back down. Once we got off the class 4 parts, Michael and I abandoned Matthew in what was becoming routine fashion.
We returned to Cox Col, worked our way down the steep, loose east side, and boulder-hopped down to Dade Lake. At the lake we decided to take a different route back, cruising by Treasure Lakes. There was an interminably long boulder field between Dade Lake and Treasure Lakes, and we were very happy to be done with them once we reached the lake. At the lake we found a father with three boys camping along the lake. Dad was sitting lakeside watching the three boys (ages 11-14 or thereabouts) swimming in the buff. Only Dad saw our approach, which gave me time to get out my camera and capture the nature scene before they saw us, became suddenly aware of their nakedness, and turned away. I tried to relax them by commenting, "Don't worry, I've seen it before!" Dad didn't help their plight by replying, "I don't know, there isn't much there to see!" Three of us laughed, the boys not so much. Michael and I continued on without breaking our pace.
At the outlet of the lowest lake, we found the use trail I'd used several times in the past, and followed it all the way back to the main trail. We paused sporadically to take pictures of the lovely lakes we passed, flowers that caught our attention, or other interesting scenes. The day was drawing to a close, but I think I was trying to drag it out just a little longer. I always love Little Lakes Valley. We arrived back at the trailhead by 5:30p, and then drove down to Bishop to get a motel room. We waited for Matthew who arrived a few hours behind us, then we all went to Jacks for a much anticipated dinner. Yum! We were in bed shortly past 9p. Another big day tomorrow!
For more information see these SummitPost pages: Mt. Gabb - Bear Creek Spire
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