Sun, Mar 14, 2004
With a drill nearly identical to the previous day, we were up at 4a, breakfasted, then driving from our Motel 6 in Reno back to the Sierra in California for another day of snowshoeing. Today's main objective was to be Granite Chief, an SPS peak near Squaw Valley and a county highpoint as well. On our climb of nearby Tinker Knob the previous month we had hoped to be able to climb Granite Chief at the same time, but we'd run out of energy on that outing. So we found ourselves back in Squaw Valley's parking lot again, in our same parking spot, at our same 6a start time. In addition to Granite Chief we planned to visit two other peaks found on the same ridge at the edge of the Granite Chief Wilderness, Needle and Lyon Peaks. A further goal was to get back in the early afternoon and drive back to Nevada for an afternoon ascent of Mt. Rose. This last one was going to be a serious stretch, and I place little faith in our ability to complete this last leg of the plan. Besides, I had already climbed Mt. Rose, so I had less incentive than Matthew, who had not.
We headed out for the first half hour over the somewhat firm snow, our snowshoes strapped to our packs. When we began sinking in a foot or so with every second or third step, it was time to unleash the snowshoes - and it was still before sunrise. It was another spring-like day, and it didn't take long for us to look for the shade of the pines to hide us from the bright sun, even at seven in the morning. We hiked up the north side of Squaw Creek for the most part, crossed it, and headed up pretty much on the northern boundary of the ski resort. It was tempting to walk out onto the groomed trails in the Shirley Lake area where the snow would be firmly packed and easy to walk on. But that seemed like cheating to some degree, so we stuck to the trees on the boundary. After the first hour Granite Chief came into view, though the closer (and lower) Emigrant Peak looked far more impressive from our vantage point. The route-finding to Granite Chief is pretty trivial - follow the creek up, bear to the peak when in view, climb up the Northeast Ridge. Climbing out from the Shirley Lake area was the first place where we had to expend significant effort. The slope steepens here, and we had to climb over 800ft in a short distance to reach the ridge.
Once on the ridge, our views really opened up, west to Lyon Peak and beyond, east to the blue waters of Lake Tahoe, and north to Tinker Knob. The climbing also grew more exciting as we hugged the ridgeline with ever steepening slopes. It's probably a class 2 climb without snow, but under current conditions it might be considered something like a class 3 snowshoe - steep with considerable exposure in places, use of hands to grab onto rocks, and tree branches to aid upward progress in places. I really enjoy this type of snowshoeing, and relished the early morning effort. Matthew was having a different sort of morning, and as his distrust of the snow slopes grew, so did his fear of the exposure and the paralysis that began to creep in. The snow wasn't icy due to the shaded slopes it lay on, but it was packed and cut up in places from skiers who had made their way down over the previous days from the summit (no chairlift serves the summit, but the resort allows skiers to climb to the summit under favorable conditions). I waited not far ahead of him until he was nearby before making further tracks uphill, then climbed another 50 feet or so to wait again. When I was within a hundred feet of the summit I made tracks for it without stopping, topping out just after 8a. I walked around for a few minutes taking pictures (N - NE - E - SE - W - WNW - NW), then walked down the Southeast Ridge a short ways in the hope of getting a good picture of Matthew in profile on the Northeast Ridge. But he was nowhere to be seen, and after a few minutes waiting I climbed back up and looked back down the NE Ridge. He was there, about 80 feet down, warily eyeing one of the more difficult sections. I considered whether anything I might say would have the effect of encouraging him or (more likely) simply annoy him.
"It's really just a walk-up once you're around that tree," I called down. "Yeah, my brain knows that," or something to that effect came the reply. It was annoying him. I didn't realize how sketched he was feeling until he further commented, "This is the hardest SPS peak I've ever climbed." I was silent, but I considered he'd climbed the class 4 Mt. Humphreys just this last summer, and this was a walk in the park by comparison, I thought. I wasn't going to challenge him on this point in his present state. After some moments Matthew eventually started up again, and reached the summit shaken and a bit worn out, but without incident. At the top he brought up Mt. Humphreys before I did, perhaps anticipating my puzzlement. "At least on Humphreys I had good solid rock to grab on to. This stuff doesn't feel safe at all." Matthew had no interest in going back down the same way, and was relieved when I offered that we could go back down the easier SE Ridge and pass through the ski area on our return if he preferred. He liked that idea a good deal. While on the summit we spied some tiny dots, skiers it appeared, slowly making their way down the ridge from Lyon Peak nearly two miles off. They must have camped out during the night or gotten a really early start to be out that far at 8:30a. They appeared to be looking for places to ski off the north side of the ridge, and sure enough some few minutes later the group of 6-7 skiers disappeared one by one down that side.
We took some photos at the summit and looked around for a register, but found none. There was too much snow at the summit, and with the popularity of the peak due to its proximity to the ski area, I doubted there was one anyway. Looking east we had a fine view of Lake Tahoe in the background, Emigrant and Squaw Peaks nearby, and many snowy Sierra peaks north and south. To the west were our next objectives, Needle and Lyon Peaks. We started down the SW Ridge, but this soon grew steeper. Matthew chose to carry his snowshoes and walk down the rocky ridgecrest, while I snowshoed down the west slope. We met again a hundred feet down where Matthew put on the snowshoes once again. Needle Peak was about a mile to the west with an intervening highpoint enroute that we had to first get over and then back down a few hundred feet. Nearing this highpoint we opted to take the talus route on the south side of the ridgeline, and managed to make it down and nearly over to the base of Needle Peak in just our boots. We came upon some class 3 rock that we found enjoyable. There was also a stretch of class 3 that we scrambled along for fun even though we could have bypassed it on the snow had we chosen. Eventually we came upon what looked like the impregnable East Face of Needle Peak. There appeared to be no easy way to climb it, a wall perhaps 50 feet high of more serious class 5 climbing. Looking around both sides, I declared the north side far too frightening, and began to walk around the south side of the summit base to see if we could find a better route on the west side. After about a hundred yards of walking along the rocky base, sometimes atop the edge of the snowline where it came up from the south side to meet the more vertical rock of the summit area, we had to traverse some moderately steep snow slopes in order to make further progress. Going first, I put about 50 yards of distance between us before finding a safe place to pause and wait for Matthew. Behind me he hadn't made much progress out onto the slope and was studying it with great apprehension. I had slipped several times on the way over, but the sun-drenched slope was too soft to allow me slide more than five or ten feet against my will. So I knew there was very little danger of sliding far despite the apparent exposure. But this had little affect on Matthew who seemed to see his emminent death very close at hand.
Losing the battle of mind over matter, Matthew resigned himself to letting the slopes win this round and suggested I might go on ahead. I agreed, suggested we'd probably meet up on the return, and continued forward. There was only another 50 yards of so of traversing and I was soon off the steepest part of the slopes and found my way around to the west side of Needle Peak. I left my snowshoes to dry on some rocks at the base of the summit, and climbed the easier class 2-3 rock up to the top, arriving at 11a, not 10 minutes after leaving Matthew. I spied him on back of the east side of the peak and we exchanged waves. Though probably a hundred yards off, we could carry on a conversation quite easily. In perusing the register I noted it had been placed just last September, a second entry was made a few weeks later, and mine was only the third entry. "Hey, there's a register," I called down, "do you know who put it here?" "I could guess..." was the reply. We'd been using Pete Yamagata's directions the previous day and had been discussing some of his peculiarities on our hike up to Granite Chief, so his name was fresh on our mind. After a few minutes I packed up my things, gave Matthew a last wave, and headed back down.
Continuing on to Lyon Peak another mile away, I noted there was not one, but two parties of skiers making tracks on the ridge here. I crossed paths with one party that was making its way to Needle Peak. They were lined up single file, skiing their way up the modest slope along the ridge. We exchanged a few sentences before continuing on our way, but I forgot to ask what affiliation they had that brought so many together out here in the backcountry. I came upon a cache of gear that the second party had left along the ridge as they skied off the north side. Looking over the edge I could make out the party of five or six below, just reaching the end of their run and regrouping to climb their way back up to the ridge. Approaching them from lower down was yet a third party, another group of five or six skiers - this was quite a busy day out here!
I continued up and over the local highpoint, making good time to Lyon Peak. There was no difficult terrain after Needle Peak, and by 11:45a I was atop the summit. This was the weakest of the three peaks, not really very impressive from the views enroute, more of a broad, snow-covered highpoint along the ridge. Looking west I could see more impressive, but lower points further along the ridge, with rocky abutments more like Needle Peak. Was that the summit of Lyon Peak I wondered? Familiar with the area from our Tinker Knob outing, we had brought no map with us, so I had no way to verify it. I decided if that had been the highpoint they would have called it Lyon Rocks, not Lyon Peak, and chose not to make the further investment in time and energy to check it out (afterwards I found that I had indeed been atop Lyon Peak's summit). In addition to fine views of Lake Tahoe and Desolation Wilderness, I was amazed that I could make out the remote summit of Lassen Peak far to the north. Having seen it from fifty or so miles closer the previous two days, it was unmistakeable, probaby 130 miles or so off. All the views (NW - NNW - N - NNE - NE - E - SE - S - SW - W) were really quite impressive. For the first time in over 300 peaks I'd climbed, I pulled out a cell phone to make a call. I was curious as to what kind of reception I might get and was pleasantly surprised to find it nearly full strength. I had a short conversation with my wife who was at home in San Jose lounging with the kids. While she described to me the success of the Church fundraiser she had attended the previous night, I described for her the impressive view I had from the summit. Gotta love modern technology. Phone conversation over, photos taken, I packed up and headed back out.
As I neared Needle Peak again I was surprised that the first party I had passed an hour earlier was just making their way to the summit. The other two parties were soon converging on it as well, and as I came back upon the base of the west side, there were more than 20 skiers scrambling around on their way up or down from the summit rocks. They weren't really scrambling, it appeared they were being very slow and methodical in their efforts. They had all their gear, including their skis strapped to their packs, and were using ropes, one per team of two to climb the peak. No protection, just a rope stretching from one to the other with a little slack in between. Though at first this seemed laughable - it really isn't much harder than class 2, I soon came to the conclusion that they were probably in some sort of guiding class, learning to lead clients over difficult sections during backcountry ski adventures. I left the lot of them to the peak, retracing my route around the south side. Halfway back to Granite Chief I came upon Matthew who must have taken a break somewhere and was also heading back. We climbed together back towards the summit of the day's first peak. I didn't really want to go down the SE Ridge and through the ski area - a decidedly less wilderness experience, but I also didn't want to subject Matthew to the torment he found on the NE Ridge either. As we approached within about 100 feet of the summit, I contoured around to the northwest side. The angle didn't look bad at all, and I figured we could traverse around to the NE Ridge and avoid the steepest sections near the top.
I kicked steps in the slopes as I traversed out ahead of Matthew, even though I didn't think they were really necessary. The day had advanced enough that the slopes on all sides were pretty soft, and a slip wouldn't have carried us down very far in all liklihood, though the exposure looked more frightening. I stopped at the base of a tree to turn and check on Matthew's progress, but it was soon evident that he was having another gripping episode like he had had earlier. I retraced my steps kicking even bigger steps that I hoped would give Matthew added confidence. Still he struggled. He used considerable energy in each step. He would stab at the slope over and over with his poles like he was trying to stop a seal he'd harpooned from writhing further. Perhaps to make him feel more secure with his poles, he would drive them in to a depth of two feet or so. He also kept his center of gravity low (to lessen his chance of tipping over?) by bending deeply with his knees and back, putting considerable strain on his hamstrings. It was really hard watching him struggle so, knowing that any words I might try to offer in encouragement would probably be unwelcome in his present state. Slowly but surely he made downhill progress, across the upper slope, down through some trees, down some additional slopes below that. By now I was plunging in deep steps straight down, falling several times, but in the lessening slope and heavier snow I went nowhere but deeper into the snowpack. Gradually Matthew began to realize the lessening danger on the slope and was able to relax more and expend less energy in making progress. He related that not many years ago he had an acute fear of heights, gradually overcoming it. But on the slopes of Granite Chief he felt he was having a relapse that had him gripped and struggling. Breathing easier now, he drank water, rested briefly, and was soon making regular progress as we followed back down the Squaw Creek Drainage. It was 2p when we got down to the Shirley Lake area. It seemed much too late to consider Mt. Rose - it would wait for another day. Somewhere below Shirley Lake we got split up as I began to smell the village getting closer and kept a steady pace towards it. I found myself on the south side of the creek on the return which caused me some thrashing about near the bottom as I couldn't find my way out. I felt silly walking amongst buildings and along roadways getting lost as I tried to get back to the main parking lot. Eventually I found my way out near the tram building and got back to the car at 3p.
I took off my wet clothes and changed into jeans and dry footwear. Matthew showed up about 15 minutes later. We had both driven our cars from Reno in the morning because we were going separate ways after the hike. Matthew had to head back to San Jose and I was going to spend Monday doing more climbing in the area. We shook hands upon parting, bidding each other safe driving, and I drove off while Matthew was still stowing his gear and getting rid of his own wet clothing. I drove back to Reno again for the night, taking me an hour or so. The weekend crowd had mostly dissapated from town leaving it a bit quieter. I wasn't yet decided on where I was going to climb the next day, but had several options I mulled over as I got ready for bed later in the evening - I would make up my mind in the morning...
For more information see these SummitPost pages: Granite Chief - Needle Peak
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