Oct 2, 2009
Saturday was going to be a very long outing, so we needed something easy that would be interesting and help us with acclimatizing. Matthew and I had visited Mt. Hoffmann in 2005 as part of a longer outing, and had taken the time to hike the short distance down from the summit to investigate Hoffmanns Thumb. The feature is an imposing pinnacle some 70-100ft high (depending on which side you view it), vertical or overhanging on almost all sides. The easiest route is rated 5.6, making it inaccessible to the casual scrambler. It looked both impressive and intimidating, but we commented that we should come back and climb it sometime when we had appropriate gear. That time had come.
When we arrived at the May Lake TH shortly after 6a the temperature was hovering around the freezing point. The sun had not yet come up and I was very disinclined to get out of the car. I remarked to Matthew that I would be happy to sit back and rest my eyes for a spell before we ventured out, if he didn't mind. Matthew was similarly inclined, but had competing thoughts of getting it done with so he could get some work done in the afternoon since he was still hoping to call this a Work Day. It was this bit of guilt that won out and he had us out of the car and packing up soon enough. It wasn't as bad as I'd feared and we'd soon warm with the rising sun. Our gear consisted of one 50m/9mm rope, four cams, a couple nuts, and maybe a dozen slings and carabiners. Matthew got to carry the rope while I tossed the rest of the gear in my pack. Off we went.
We hiked the trail up to May Lake, the High Sierra Camp now closed for the season. A few tents were set up on the south side of the lake, the occupants of one tent stirring when we arrived around 6:45a. We hiked through the camp area to pick up the use trail on the south side of the lake and followed this as it turned south to head up the east side of Mt. Hoffmann. We had heard that the use trail had been improved to a maintained one, but there was no evidence of this that we could find, and no signs had been erected at the start to help direct folks. It was much as Matthew had remembered it many years ago on his first visit - a well-worn use trail. We surmised that the Access Fund dollars had been spent on a kegger party and they needed something legitimate-sounding to attribute the costs to. We're cynical that way.
I had lamented back at the start that I had forgotten my camera for the trip, unable to find it after rummaging through my pack and gear bag. Having to pause on the East Slopes to relieve my bladder, I was surprised to look down and see my camera attached to my belt much as it usually is while I'm hiking. Apparently I had put it there before we had left San Jose. I chocked this up to a senior moment and happily began using the camera as the sun came up around 7a.
As we hiked above the false summit on the east side of the upper plateau, we caught our first sight of the true summit and the Thumb shortly before 7:30a. We had a fine view to Half Dome, the Valley, and the Merced watershed to the south, but our attention was on the Thumb and the daunting perspectives it presented us with. "Boy, this thing looks hard..."
It took only an hour and fifteen minutes to reach the summit, a distance of about three miles. Matthew jokingly commented, "You know, this is dangerously close to cragging." For a couple of guys who revel in long outings to remote summits, the thought of cragging (rock climbing close to the road) was somewhat insulting and we had a laugh about this - mostly because it was true. We took the usual series of summit photos despite Matthew's further statement, "As if we don't have enough pictures of Yosemite." Satisfied that the scenery had been adequately captured, we turned south and sauntered down the 100yds or so to the base of Hoffmanns Thumb.
The route description in Secor was so short that neither of us thought it worthwhile to bring a photocopy, but it was immediately clear that one or the other of us had misread it. Walking around the west side of the pinnacle we first looked up at the southwest side which Matthew identified as the regular route. "That looks hard," one of us commented. "Yeah," was about all the other could add in elaboration. I then offered that I thought the regular route was around on the southeast side, which I freely admitted didn't seem likely since it had been overhanging on that side when we had viewed it on the approach from the east. Matthew looked at me as though I were suffering another senior moment which I must admit was certainly possible. "I'll go take a look," I said.
While Matthew waited at the base of the southwest side (which surely we couldn't climb and would have to run back home with our tails between our legs), I gingerly stepped out on a sloping ledge to investigate the SE corner. The ledge led out just above the overhanging portion of the face on that side and looking above I was happy to see the slope eased off and possibilities present themselves. I announced with conviction that this was the right starting point.
We took off our packs and boots, donning our climbing shoes, harnesses and helmets. Matthew came over to have a look, after which I offered to let him lead it, to which he enthusiastically agreed. It didn't look any harder than the advertised 5.6 rating. While Matthew collected the gear on his harness I flaked out the rope and stuck a cam in a crack to use as an anchor. Matthew looked at it before asking if I was going to back that up. "But we haven't much gear," I weakly protested. Of course he was right, and after looking around we wrapped a sling around a large rock in way of back up, and shortly before 8:30a we were ready to go.
The holds were nice at the start and Matthew was soon 10ft up as I paid out the rope above me. A single piton with a ring was found on the left side near the SE edge that led Matthew up in that direction. It was a tricky section that had poor holds and nearly vertical for about 5 feet. Try as he might, he could not get by the piton without grabbing on to it. We made jokes about Frenching it, but in the end that is what he had to do. Above that he made easy progress for another 20-30ft before slowing to a crawl. A dead stop, really. Luckily I was in the sun and wasn't suffering from the cold, but I very much wanted to fall asleep the longer I sat there waiting for Matthew to push on. He was quite silent on what he was up to save for an occassional grunt or indistinguishable word. The rope would go out a few inches then slide back down to me. This went on for about 20 minutes, all the while I wanted to know what was taking so long but knew it would be of no help for me to shout up to him. So I sat, and waited. And waited. This is why I'm not very enamoured by rock climbing. Too much sitting around.
Finally Matthew called down that his arms were too pumped out to climb anymore and he'd have to belay me up to give it a try. He took only a few moments to set up an anchor and I was soon following behind on the easy end of the rope. I had the same problem as he had in getting by the piton, and I was not embarassed at all to use my finger through the metal ring to secure me to the rock as I made the dicey transition. I was shaking even with a top rope and gained respect for Matthew leading through this point. Above was the easy scrambling and I was quickly caught up to Matthew. I could see the flake above him that he had tried to lieback on, but the rock to the left, closer to the SE edge of the pinnacle looked much easier to me. And so it was. Mostly class 3, stepping up from one large block to another, it took only a few minutes to finish the route to the top, with a pause only to place a single piece of pro just before the top. Matthew was soon to follow, somewhat embarassed that he had missed the easier way up. The lesson of the day - don't push the route doggedly up through difficulties if you haven't taken the time to look for alternatives.
At the summit we found the old Sierra Club register box that used to be atop Mt. Hoffmann's highpoint. From the leading entries in the registers, it was clear that it had been moved in 1988 by the SRC as a safekeeping measure, to keep it from disappearing from the more easily reached Hoffmann summit. Though I think the Sierra Register Committee (Robin Ingraham & Mark Hoffman) had good intentions, I think they were misguided in removing old registers from the summits and placing them in the Bancroft Library for safekeeping. Yes, they are now safe for many years to come, but how many people are going to care about seeing them in a library? How much better to encounter a single one of these registers while atop the summit where it was created, rather than viewing dozens in the air-conditioned confines of a library reading room hundreds of miles away? I've come to the conclusion that all registers lead an ethereal existence, that is, they have been disappearing from the summits almost from the time they were first placed there. Accept this, and replace them when you can. And find better things to worry about.
It was rather chilly on the summit with a cold wind blowing in from the west and we were in no mood to linger at the summit. I photographed all the register pages available, took a few more pictures of the views around us, and it was time to retreat. We found a rash of old slings on the west side, and a vertical drop of some 75ft. Though I find rappelling somewhat disturbing, this one looked like it would be fun. Rather than make things simple by adding a fresh sling to a set of half a dozen that were all more than a year old, we went cheap and decided to trust our lives to the old ones. They can't all break, can they? I was all set to head down first when I decided to try a back-up, with Matthew belaying me from one of the ends of the rope I was rapping down. The idea was that it would allow me to weight the rope and drop part way down with a belay before untying the belay and committing to the rest of the rappel. There was a ledge about halfway down that I calculated I could reach without Matthew having to release the rope. This was only partially successful. It did indeed work for redundancy, but the effort in untying the end probably wasn't worth it since it was a bit awkward and prone to making a mistake while perched precariously on the small ledge.
After I got down all the way I took off my leather gloves, tied them onto the rope, then sent them up to Matthew (he'd forgotten to bring a pair). I then scrambled up to the side of an adjacent rock feature to get some pictures of Matthew as he came down, using Half Dome as a back drop. Safely down, we coiled up the rope and retrieved the boots and other gear we'd left at the base of the climb on the other side.
Rather than climb back up to the summit, we dropped down the east side of Hoffmann's long South Ridge, a little class 3 scrambling at the top. We had spotted a pair of trekking poles from atop the Thumb at the base of the granite skirt on that side, and went down to retrieve them. It took some looking around before Matthew finally found them. Though still functional, the handles had partially rotted to the elements and we carried them back only to leave them in the trash. Neither one of us is particularly fond of poles, let alone a well-worn pair.
On our way back down the trail we ran into several parties of hikers. All of them were of retirement age, not surprising I suppose, given that it was a Friday. One gentleman asked if he was on the trail to Mt. Hoffmann. "Yes, just head up this way," I assured him, to which he respond, "Oh, I've already been there before. I'm heading back down now." He left me scratching my head on that one.
We continued down to May Lake and were back at the trailhead by noon, giving us a rather slow 6hrs for the round trip. An hour later we were having lunch at the Whoa Nellie, then continued our drive to Bishop. Matthew had hoped to get some work done during the drive, but managed very little before giving up because he was too tired. Motel rates in Bishop had been temporarily jacked up an additional $30/night due to a car show in town for the weekend. Usually fond of vintage cars, I'm beginning to think these hobbyists are a damn nuisance. We did some shopping and other chores in the afternoon before settling down to sleep around 5p. We had the alarm set for 10:30p in order to meet Tom Becht for a midnight start at the Shepherd Pass TH that evening. Not much time to sleep, but more fun was on the way...
For more information see these SummitPost pages: Mt. Hoffmann
This page last updated: Mon Sep 4 09:38:13 2017
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