Fri, Aug 5, 2005
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Pip-squeak Spire previously climbed Sat, May 14, 2005|
The 2005 Sierra Challenge got under way early and in a big way with a 5a start. We'd covered many of the peaks in the Little Lakes area in previous Challenges, most recently with a long hike out to Mt. Gabb in 2003. Mt. Hilgard would take us another mile or two deeper into the John Muir Wilderness, quite some distance from the Mosquito Flat TH. We had 17 participants for this first day of the Challenge, an impressive number considering it was only a Friday. Interest always seems highest on the first day!
I waived for Matthew to head out, marking the start right at 5a. It didn't take him long too long to be out of sight. The dotted line of headlamps faded as the new day came on fairly soon after starting, and our large group splintered into smaller groups almost right away. I was in a front group consisting of Glenn, Mark, Rick K., Michael, and myself, making good time on the trail, but not really trying to keep up with Matthew. As the sun began to rise, light began to flood the high peaks around us - Bear Creek Spire, Pipsqueak Spire, as well as Mts. Dade, Abbot, and Mills. We left the trail shortly before Gem Lakes and headed up the forested benches leading to the rise between Gem and Treasure Lakes. Having traveled through here several times in the past, there were no surprises. Except for running into Matthew. He appeared to the side as we topped out on the rise, not really sure how we managed to catch up with him. The six of us continued in a broken line to Dade Lake.
For August, there was considerable snow on the south side of the lake, and perhaps a quarter of the lake was still covered in ice & snow. We paused here to put on crampons, and in doing so several other participants caught up with us. We spread out once again as we made our way southwest and then west up to Cox Col. The others seemed to prefer traveling on the hard snow in the main drainage, but I got off onto the rocks on the right side as soon as I could and packed away the crampons. My route was a bit more direct as well and I soon found myself ahead of the others. I aimed for the breaks in the snow that would allow me a class 3 ascent to the col. The route I picked was a bit too far to the left and it was harder/looser than I would have liked, but went well without incident. Matthew was about 20 yards behind following up the same line, the others further back and for the most part taking the easier lines to the north. I reached the col in 2h45m, some 15 minutes faster than the last time I was up here - seems age hasn't yet caught up with me. :-)
I took a few pictures on what looked like a fine morning with nary a cloud in the sky, then caught up with Mark and Rick K. as they headed down the sandy west side of Cox Col. We made a fairly direct descent towards Lake Italy, with a slight curve to the north to avoid some cliffs on the direct line. Reaching the lake, we surveyed the terrain before deciding to follow the north side of the lake. We noted a crossing point between Toe Lake and Lake Italy that we could use to cross to the southern side if the way ahead looked blocked when we were further along and had a better view of the lakeshore. It was easy going through tufted alpine meadow that surrounds the lake and lines the various streamlets feeding it. The north side proved best without any hindrances at all while we could see several steep snow traverses on the south side in addition to some nasty looking boulder hopping. We had chosen well.
At the northwest end of the lake I filled a water bottle and then five of us took a ten minute break a short distance above the lake on Hilgard's SE flanks, Glenn, Mark, Matthew, Rick K., and myself. We wondered what had happened to the others. Michael was nowhere to be seen, and we had seen none of the others that had started with us in the morning. Across the lake was a group of backpackers with three or four tents set up near one of the snow traverses. They were too far away to talk to, so what they were up to was as much a mystery as our presence might have been to them. After our break, we headed up the SE side of Hilgard. Avoiding the sandy scree to the left on the south side, we preferred to stay on the rockier slopes found on the SE side. Some of it was up to class 3, though you had to work at it to make it that hard. Mostly it was just a long, slow climb. 2,000ft of elevation gain after you've already been hiking for four hours is not to be taken lightly. Mark seemed to have the most energy of everyone, and for the entire climb he was out in front. Matthew and myself followed Mark about the same distance, Rick behind us, and Glenn bringing up the rear.
I had climbed with all of my companions on previous trips, with the exception of Rick Kent, and so could have guessed beforehand that they would have made up the group to reach the summit. Rick I had known only from summit registers, primarily in the Southern Sierra. From his entries I could tell that he was interested in the long dayhikes to the remote peaks much as Matthew and I had been doing, so I had sent him a private invitation to join us. I was happy to see that he could for at least part of the Challenge, and I was not disappointed in his abilities. The surprise person missing was Michael, as he usually keeps up with the best of us on almost every Challenge. Today he was moving a bit slower and was still some ways behind us, well out of our view.
As we neared the top, we veered west across the South Face and up the final distance. Ahead by a few minutes, Mark tried first the southern of two possible summits before realizing the highpoint was the northern one. He still managed to beat us all to the north summit. Within 10 minutes we had all five of us atop Hilgard's summit, a bit more than five and a half hours after starting out. One of the register entries boasted of a five hour ascent from the Pine Creek Trailhead via Italy Pass, so we hadn't set any record by a long shot. There were other entries from dayhikers as well, a bit of a surprise. I wouldn't have guessed many people had gotten out this far. The peak seemed to get climbed fairly often, more so than nearby Gabb which is a bit more difficult. From the summit we spotted two climbers on the south slope far below, undoubtedly part of our group. We guessed one was Michael but had no idea who the other might be. Aside from the terrific views the summit afforded us, we noticed that the sky was now half-filled with clouds, less so to the north, and almost completely so to the south. And the clouds seemed to be moving in from the south. It wasn't even 11a yet, but it looked like the sky was up to something. After about fifteen minutes, we started down. Matthew and Mark had been plotting a traverse to Mt. Gabb, but the worsening weather brought doubts and they soon began to reconsider.
We took off down the south slope, the easiest descent route by far. The upper portion had more talus and less sand, but this soon gave way to some nice runs of boot skiing. Rick and I were the fastest (read: reckless) down these slopes and opened up a gap to the other three. Halfway down I met up with Michael who looked so tired I couldn't get a smile out of him. I offered him advice on our ascent route to avoid some of the slog before Rick and I continued down. Below Michael by about five minutes we came across Rick Graham, new to the Challenge this year. Somewhere around my age, he had a heavier build that I would never have picked out from a lineup to make it to the summit, but here he was maybe 45 minutes away. A very determined fellow who would make a great showing as the week wore on. As we left him, I commented to Rick K. that Rick G. was probably the last one to make it to the summit, as the others would likely turn back due to the weather. This not only turned out to be true, but almost on cue the first drops started to come down.
It was a light drizzle, at least at first, and I didn't bother with a jacket. As we reached the Lake and started back along the shore, I had to pause about halfway along to get out my jacket as the drizzle picked up a bit. It soon came down enough to make me worry about soaking my jacket and cotton shirt, so I paused a second time to get out the rain poncho. The heavier rain lasted only a short time, and never really too heavy, just annoying - hiking in a non-breathable rain jacket isn't much fun. On the other side of the lake we could see that the group we spotted earlier had packed up their tents and were ready to move. Another individual had passed by them and started across the snow traverse. I considered ourselves lucky not to be staying overnight with uncertain weather - nothing like standing around trying to stay dry on such a day. By the time we reached the east end of the lake the rain had returned to a light drizzle and soon stopped altogether. The clouds remained to blanket the sky completely and keep the constant threat of precipitation fresh in our minds, but it took it easy on us today.
After packing away the jacket, we came across Mike and Eric heading east from the south side of the lake. They relayed to us the difficulties they had encountered on that side before turning back as the weather grew worse. "Why did you go that way?" we asked. "Because the map showed the route going that way," was the reply. I had a sudden, sinking feeling about the map. It occurred to me that they were using a map I had provided, and sure enough it had a blue line running around the south side of the lake. Apparently I had gotten Secor's recommendation backwards. Until then I hadn't pulled out my map since the ground we covered was so familiar. I apologized, but there was little help to be offered at this point. Latter I found that Rick G. had followed the same map as well, but he had turned back at the first snowfield when he noticed there were no footprints across the snow. That was why he was behind Michael and the rest of us, otherwise he'd have been half an hour further along. Mark, Matthew, and Glenn caught up to us while we chatted there, and soon we had a group of seven heading back up to Cox Col. Matthew and Mark had given up on Mt. Gabb, and Matthew was feeling sufficiently low from the altitude effects that he no longer had any desire for a bonus peak. I had known that Mt. Gabb would be too much for me, and I now considered the easier Bear Creek Spire not worth the extra effort either.
Mark again was leading a strong pace upwards. I tried to keep up, but with little success, he just never seemed to pause for a rest. Eventually he wandered a little further east than he needed to before heading SE for the plateau west of the col, and I was able to catch up with him while we was negotiating a steep, unstable boulder field. As we reached the plateau, I noted that Pipsqueak Spire to the south of Cox Col was not more than a few hundred feet higher than the col, and decided to climb it from the west. I called over to Mark, "You've got too much energy - let's go to Pipsqueak Spire," getting back the simple reply, "Ok." Not waiting for the others to catch up at the plateau, we started up the blocky slope to Pipsqueak Spire. The blocks were quite large and the climbing up to class 3, but solid and enjoyable except for the occasional nervous, low rumble of a refridgerator-sized block moving under us.
Down on the plateau I could see Matthew and another participant meeting up with a couple of folks heading down from Cox Col. I figured these were late members of our group, but as it turned out it was a backpacking group from the PCS that Matthew had read were heading this way. They stood there chatting the entire time it took Mark and I to climb to the crest. We followed the class 3 ridge north to the summit of Pipsqueak Spire where we arrived at 2:15p. The weather had gotten no better, but hardly worse and the rain continued to hold off. We signed into the register (my second time this year) located in an old tin box, and I got a few pictures of Mark hamming it up on the impressive summit block before we headed down.
We climbed down the NE Ridge until we could more easily descend off the north side to the top of the Hourglass, between Pipsqueak Spire and Mt. Dade. I walked out onto the snowfield to see if crampons were warranted, and concluded that it was not soft enough to go without. I started down before Mark and soon was far ahead of him. I faced into the slope heading down, kicking steps down in a fairly rapid fashion, my axe plunging in with every other step. Mark was far more cautious on this slope and was only about a third of the way down by the time I had reached the easy slopes below. I continued down the snowfield, running and boot-skiing my way in rapid fashion. Before I started down towards Treasure Lakes, I paused to watch Mark make it down the Hourglass safely, then left him to his own devices.
It took another hour and a half to negotiate the cross-country to Treasure Lakes, there picking up the use trail taking me back to the Morgan Pass Trail, and out to the trailhead. Arriving at 5p, I had thought that Matthew and the others would be back already, but was surprised to find most of their cars still in the parking lot. It would take the rest of the evening to piece together what happened to the others.
Matthew returned shortly before 5:30p, Mark, Michael and Rick G. just after. Glenn and Rick K. had gone on to Bear Creek Spire, not returning until after 6p. Jeff and Matt had missed the first wave heading west over Cox Col, and decided to climb Mt. Gabb (an equally fine objective) instead, returning around 7p. Mike L. and David had somehow ended up at Peppermint Pass instead of Cox Col, missing the boat entirely. While David headed back, Mike went back up to Cox Col and climbed Bear Creek Spire with some guidance from a few climbers just coming up the North Arete (Mike returned around 3p, David earlier). Jim, Irving, and Calvin had attempted to climb Mt. Dade, but without crampons wisely decided against ascending the Hourglass. Instead, they attempted the steep slopes on Dade's east side, but a nasty fall by Irving during the scramble caused them to retreat. And lastly, Scott had started later in the morning, hiking out towards Cox Col, but not reaching any summits before returning.
For more information see these SummitPost pages: Mt. Hilgard - Pip-squeak Spire
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