Mon, Aug 6, 2007
Day 4 of the Sierra Challenge found us back at the North Lake trailhead for the second day in a row. But rather than tackling one of the easier peaks along the crest, today's peak was one of the hardest yet attempted for any Challenge. Lying deep in the High Sierra, the Hermit overlooks Evolution Valley and McGee Canyon in the northernmost part of Kings Canyon National Park. The class 5 summit block meant bringing a rope, harness, and the accompanying gear. Though the peak is not high by the standards of the surrounding area, the effort to get there is far from trivial. Perhaps the most discouraging part is that one must first go over Lamarck Col which is 1,000ft higher than the summit itself, and that just marks the halfway point of getting to the peak.
The larger groups we had seen on the first three days had begun to diminish as the weekend ended and injuries and attrition were beginning to take their usual toll. There were nine of us at North Lake for the 5a start, though not all were planning to head to The Hermit. In fact, it was unclear at first that anyone besides myself and Rick were heading there. Matthew H had planned to join us, but did not show up. Later we found that he had overslept in his car alongside the road somewhere near the trailhead, having exhausted himself the previous day on a far more ambitious outing to Charybdis and Black Giant. Others had found Mt. Goethe the previous day more than they had bargained for, and were looking for something easier today.
It was dark for the first half hour or so as we made our way up the trail towards Lamarck Lakes, but the sun was up shortly after 6a. Not everyone in our party was familiar with the turnoff to the use trail for Lamarck Col and there was some confusion as we all took slight variations at this juncture. We regrouped again a short distance above it and found we had most, but not all, of our original party. While waiting for the rest to join us, I talked with Brice W who indicated he was planning to head for The Hermit as well, so we now had at least three heading in that direction.
We made good, but by no means record time to Lamarck Col, arriving just after 7:40a. Though the snow on the east side of the col was quite hard and a bit icy, there were well-formed bootprints that made it fairly easy crossing without crampons or axes (which none of us had). We took another short break at the col, allowing a few others to catch up. Rick, Brice, and myself took off over the other side of the col before anyone else. Michael G and Ryan S went to Mt. Darwin, while the others went to Mt. Tom Ross or nearby Mt. Lamarck. The three of us got down to the lakes in Darwin Canyon in short order, then headed west down the canyon, cruising through Darwin Bench, then down towards the south to meet the John Muir Trail. Once at Darwin Bench we had a fine view of The Hermit from the north, and it was easy to make out most of the standard route up the NE side.
It took us two hours to travel from Lamarck Col to Evolution Lake just above and to the east of Evolution Valley. At this point we left the trail, following the west shore of the lake to its outlet where we found a rock-hop crossing over the creek. A use trail we found gave us false hope that the traverse to the base of The Hermit would be easy - it gave out after only a hundred yards or so. The basic idea for the traverse is to do a descending traverse around the west side of Peak 11,575ft to the outlet of a hanging valley NE of The Hermit. Our initial effort started too high and we soon cliffed out. Rather than try to push the traverse at the higher elevation (which may have been possible, but technically harder), we backtracked and then dropped down to the easier benches we could see below where the forest provided more coverage. This worked out quite well with little bushwhacking, and by 10:15a we had finished with the traverse and took a short break to collect water in the stream that drains the hanging valley.
Rick and I joked about our preferred liquid refreshments for these hikes. He had a RockStar energy drink, amply provided with caffeine and other supplements for an extra boost. My preference has been for flavored milk, generally chocolate or strawberry, or both. Though not supplied with caffeine, the milk boasts around 400 calories to about 250 for the energy drinks. The debate is still unsettled whether calories or caffeine are more important, which of course depends on how much of each. I'm still waiting for the energy drinks to reach the 400 calorie mark before switching. :-)
After our small diversion and break, we started up the grassy ramp leading up from the creek. The 800-foot slope was easy on the knees with cushy footing, and no bushwhacking to speak of. The top of the slope overlooks a small moraine to the east which must be climbed before reaching the 200-foot diagonal chute. I had crossed the moraine and was about half way up the chute when the others reached the chute below me. The scrambling was pretty good in the diagonal chute and I enjoyed this part more than any other section save for the summit block. The diagonal chute leads to a small notch with a short ramp leading to the next chute to the west. This was the large chute separating the two main summits of The Hermit and I found it one of the loosest chutes I have ever encountered. Dry and crumbly, the footing seemed to be composed of a mix of gravel and coarse soil, sections still damp from the melting of snow. It was almost impossible to move without knocking stuff down, so I kept moving in order to get further ahead of Rick and Brice who had just reached the small notch. By the time they had dropped into the loose chute next door, I was across to the far side of the chute and no longer knocking rocks down in their direction. But stuff would still fall down the main chute in thundering crashes far below our line of vision. Rick and Brice stayed closer together as they came up in turn, in order to keep from knocking stuff on each other.
The chute ends at the saddle between the two summits, and from there it is a straightforward scramble NW to the higher northwest summit. I arrived at the summit area at 11:30a, about 15 minutes ahead of the others. The summit block was far more impressive than I had expected, and I spent the time while waiting for the others to study it carefully. The north side rises about 12ft in a near vertical and featureless fashion. I thought at first that this might be the side for using a shoulder stand, but I couldn't imagine letting someone climb on my back with the tiny footing I was perched on while examining it. The east side rises the full 20ft from the base, completely vertical, with an 8-inch crack splitting the feature in two from top to bottom. The register was located under a small cairn at the base of the crack. Though rated 5.6, the east side certainly looked harder. I quickly realized the south side must be the easiest option, though getting on the higher sub-block found on that side was not trivial. Once atop the sub-block, the summit is a tantalizing 10ft away, only a few feet from my outstretched arms. This side is rated class 4 friction, but I was easily rebuffed in my solo attempts and would have rated it more like class 5.6 myself. This was the side that utilized the shoulder stand in the first ascent. Unable to get myself to the top of the block, I had little choice but to wait for the others. In the meantime, I got out the 30m/8.5mm rope I had stowed in my backpack, flaked it out, and tossed it over the summit block from the south side. The rope easily flew over the top and well to the north, and I had to go out and retrieve the rope end from among the large blocks jumbled together on that side.
Rick and Brice arrived to find the rope slung over the top, the two ends dangling down on the south and east sides. They quickly sized up the situation and got out their climbing gear. Rick was the only one with rock shoes, so he was appointed our lead climber, though it wouldn't be as tough as that with a top rope. Brice belayed Rick from the base of the east side while I took the job as photographer to record the fun. Rick found it a bit harder than it first appeared, and it took several attempts before muscling his way up and over the top. He looked impressive with muscles flexed to their extreme, and I had my doubts that I could repeat such a feat in my hiking boots. Standing triumphantly atop for the camera, we next found there were no bolts atop as we had hoped to find (we didn't read the beta too carefully beforehand to know there wouldn't be any). Since there was no way to get three of us atop at the same time without getting ourselves stranded, Rick was lowered back down the south side. Going next, I decided to give the crack on the east side a try if for no other reason than to see how tough it really was. Rick belayed me from the south side while Brice took over camera duties. I found it a very tough climb and harder than 5.6 for sure, probably more like 5.8. I was unable to climb it free, falling (or resting, rather) on the rope half a dozen times in order to rest my hands and legs between efforts on the way up. There was no way I could have led the climb in the traditional manner. After my moment on the top, I was lowered down the south side and then Brice took his turn, choosing to repeat the easier route on the south side, and lowering the same way. But we weren't done yet. Having expended all that energy to reach the peak, Rick decided to give the crack a go while we still had the rope dragged over the top. The rock shoes seemed to work no better as Rick found the same sort of trouble I did, falling on the rope several times during the climb, but eventually reaching the top. Climbing in shorts, Rick's legs took quite a beating, providing some laughs for all of us. Either that 5.6 rating was a sandbag, or neither of us knows how to climb off-width cracks. Maybe both. After that we were all satisfied and happy to call an end to it. The rope was retrieved, the gear packed, and by 12:40p we were ready to head back down.
It didn't take long for me to get ahead of the others, and the descent down the loose chute incentized me to put more distance between us to avoid the inevitable barrage of rocks. By the time I had descended to the bottom of the grassy slope and returned to the creek I was probably about 15 minutes ahead of them. I refilled my water bottle and continued on, looking back only long enough to see that the two had begun the easier descent of the grassy slope. At that point I felt we were off the difficult sections and we could all return at our own pace.
As I was making the traverse back towards Evolution Lake I began to think about the long climb up to Darwin Canyon and Lamarck Col, not relishing it very much. I had struggled on same return when doing Fiske/Warlow/Huxley earlier in the year. I began to wonder if it might not be faster to return via Alpine Col or the Keyhole on the Glacier Divide and back down Piute Pass than it would be to reclimb Lamarck Col. Then, in a sudden moment of inspiration, it occurred to me that I might be able to climb Mt. Goethe, the previous day's Challenge peak, with a few more hours' effort. I had climbed Pilot Knob instead that day, but according to the rules of the Challenge, I could now count Goethe as a second Challenge peak for today since I had already climbed The Hermit. The idea was too irresistable to pass up.
I was back at Evolution Lake before 2p, running into a few backpackers there, the first persons I had seen all day that weren't part of the Challenge. I headed back down the JMT, took the use trail to Darwin Bench, then continued north to the two large, unnamed lakes SE of Mt. Goethe. My plan was working so well by this time that I figured climbing Mt. Goethe would add at most two hours to the day, which seemed a good deal. The map I carried with me did not include the vicinity of Mt. Goethe, but having climbed it before and staring up at it from the SE Side, it seemed to matter little. The class 2 climb of the SE Side was a somewhat tedious affair, and my energy level (I'd been feeling pretty good up to this point) was beginning to be tapped out. Upon reaching the summit just after 4p, I was unable to locate the summit register. I was dismayed to espy another summit almost a mile away to the SW, looking ever so slightly higher. Had I misjudged the summit? I had been atop it only a few years ago and already I couldn't recall much about it. Drats. It was going to take longer than I thought.
I marched over to the other summit, following the class 2 ridgeline for almost half an hour. Upon reaching the top I again found no register, and this time the previous peaklet I'd been on looked higher. A good deal higher, too. Double drats - I'd been fooled. Of course now it was obvious I was much too far along the ridge as I looked down into Evolution Valley to the south, so back I went to true summit. A little more searching (and it didn't take much), revealed the ammo canister in plain sight near the the summit. I think it had been cast in shadow and somewhat blended into the rock when I had first looked, but now that the sun was starting to settle closer to the horizon it was more obvious. Note to self - a little more searching next time might save a lot of time and expended energy.
From the summit I headed down the class 4 NE Ridge, an enjoyable scramble in its own right. The class 4 rating is a bit soft as there is only a very short section along the mile-long feature that could be construed as class 4. I reached the end of the ridge at Alpine Col at 5:45p. At this point I should have gone up to Muriel Peak and then down to Piute Pass had I wanted the quickest way back (the same route I took for my first ascent of Mt. Goethe), but the notorious reputation of Alpine Col's north side had me curious as to whether it was as bad as they say. So down I went, thinking a bit of boulder hopping might be a nice change of pace.
I found it to be just as bad as everyone had told me. After the initial 30 minutes of hopping from one rock to the next, the challenge wore off and I was wanting simply to get to the meadowy shores of Goethe Lake ahead of me. I reached the lake in due time, but there were no meadowy shores or banks, just more rocks piled one upon the other right up to the shore. Ugh, ugh, more ugh. In all it took an hour to go the mile from Alpine Col to Muriel Lake where the boulder hopping ended, but by then the balls of my feet were quite sore and my mind was aching for something that didn't require constant alertness and balance. An hour later I was at Piute Pass and onto a trail again at last. It was 7:40p and the sun was having its last play upon the mountains before settling down for the night. I made good time descending the Piute Pass Trail, jogging much of the way until it was too dark and I needed my headlamp. It was 8:40p when I finally got back to the TH. I was the last one from the Challenge to exit that day, the first time that has happened in a very long time. It had been a good day, but a tiring one as well, and I wondered if I'd be able to rest up in time for the next day. When I got back to Bishop I found some of the others relieved to find me back in one piece - a bit of worry had begun to creep in, with no one sure what had become of me. Rick and Brice had exited a short time before me and had no idea why I wasn't back before them, nor could they know since I hadn't thought of climbing Goethe until I was on the way out. I had a quick dinner of fast food from Burger King, followed by a shower, and then quickly off to bed. I was hoping the next day to Gendarme would be as easy in reality as it had looked on paper. Tomorrow would tell...
Brice rolled his ankle during the traverse back to Evolution Lake, slowing his pace considerably. Rick stayed with him for the return which is why they took as long as they did, getting back about 15 minutes before me. Otherwise, they'd have been back several hours earlier. In the end, I concluded that Lamarck Col probably is the fastest way back from Evolution Valley.
For more information see these SummitPost pages: The Hermit - Mt. Goethe
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