Thu, Jul 7, 2005
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Before arriving in Mammoth for family vacation, Michael had convinced me to repeat the Banner-Ritter dayhike with he and Monty on Thursday. After our climb of Crystal Crag on Tuesday, Michael grew concerned that he wasn't prepared for such a grueling day and eventually canceled. Undeterred, I simply switched my plans to another project I've been working on over the years - the peaks of Pioneer Basin. At first take one might assume the basin, located between the Mono Recesses and the Mammoth area, was named for those early settlers who drove wagon trains over the treacherous Sierra. Instead, it was named for the railroad barons who drove the Continental Railroad over the Sierra Nevada in the 1860s. There are four main peaks of nearly equal height that were named by R.B. Marshall in 1909 for Hopkins, Crocker, Stanford, and Huntington, the railroad giants of the west in their day. I had previously climbed Stanford and Hopkins, and a year earlier made a half-day attempt at Crocker before realizing it was more than half a day's effort. Now I hoped to be able to climb both Crocker and Huntington in a fairly ambitious outing from Rock Creek.
To ensure I had enough time, I told the family not to expect me until after dark, 9-10p. In addition, I got up shortly after 4a so I could start from the trailhead at first light, around 5a. I left our condo in Mammoth Lakes and made the 20 mile drive in good time to Rock Creek. I parked at the Hilton Lakes TH just outside the pack station, leaving the car as scheduled. I walked through the pack station as quietly as I could so as not to disturb the residents. The horses and mules were awake and looked at me with modest interest (looking for some feed perhaps?), but fortunately they didn't make any noise. I found the pack trail at other end, and followed it heading south. This is the stock trail that meets up with the hiking trail from Mosquito Flat on its way to Mono Pass. My destination was Half Moon Pass, a cross-country route and shortcut to the Mono Creek area (and in my case, to Mt. Huntington). I had descended this pass a year earlier and followed a nice use trail down to the pack station, and it was this use trail that I was looking for in the early morning light. I overshot the turnoff point by several hundred yards, not finding the cairns I had found previously to mark the junction. Rather than return to look for the spot again, I left the trail where I could climb up the steep hillside with a minimum amount of brush and headed west. The cross-country through here was easier than I expected (meaning little bushwhacking), and it turned out to be of little detriment that I didn't find the use trail.
Half way to Half Moon Pass I found the use trail as it follows on the north side of the canyon and the creek meandering down the middle. There was almost no snow to be found in the canyon, though much water. Despite some swampy conditions, I found my way upcanyon without getting my boots wet. Rather than head directly to the low point of the pass, I took a more direct line heading to the north. A nearby pass joins the Mono Creek Basin with that of Hilton Creek to the north, and it was towards this pass that I was headed. The had risen while climbing the cirque, and I enjoyed the early morning views to the south as I climbed higher. The route up looks steep from below, but I found it no more than class 3, most of it class 2. Once atop the ridge, I was now on the Sierra Crest where it joins with the ridgeline from Patricia Peak and Pointless Peak. There is a large, flat area atop the crest here, mostly covered in snow. I took a short break here, about 1.5hrs after leaving the TH. I found a use trail heading north-south over the pass between Mono & Hilton Creeks, recent footprints evident in the sand. To the northwest I could see Mt. Huntington almost two miles off along the connecting ridgeline, Mt. Stanford several more miles behind it. North was a fine view the Hilton Lakes area, to the south were the snow-covered northern aspects of the Abbot group, including Mt. Starr, Mt. Mills, Mt. Abbot, Mt. Gabb, and Mt. Hilgard. There was a great deal of snow around Mono Pass and I was happy to not be traveling that way. My route to Huntington along the ridge had some snow visible, but looked to be mostly avoidable.
I started off along the ridge, not having any beta as to its difficulty. It was easy enough at first with mild slopes, turning to boulders as I climbed to the intermediate Pt. 12,226ft. Once atop this point where the ridge takes a turn to the north, I could see that the remaining distance to Mt. Huntington was not going to be so easily navigated, the ridge growing more serrated, the exposure more pronounced. The east side of the ridge facing Hilton Creek was essentially cliffs with snow-covered bowls and frozen lakes lower down. Sticking along the crest were I could, I bypassed all obstacles on the west side - steep, but at least negotiable. The rock was decent granite, large blocks in places, sandy ledges providing bypasses on the snow-free west side. The difficulty increased to class 4 in a few places, though most of the ridge I would categorize as class 3. Routefinding and cautious scrambling slowed me down considerably, and it took some 2.5hrs to cover the distance from the pass. It was a fairly enjoyable time with rather fun scrambling. The most difficult part was on the south side of the second intermediate peak (where Fresno, Inyo, and Mono counties all meet), where I found route options limited. I moved briefly around onto the east side of the ridge to bypass one difficulty, but mostly stayed on the crest or within 50 feet of it on the west side. Past this second intermediate peak, the climbing grew much easier, class 1-2 up to the false summit just SE of the true summit. I found some snow at the lowpoint of the narrow ridge connecting the two, but it was soft enough to make crossing it trivial. The remaining climb to the summit over large blocks took but a few minutes after this. It was 9a when I reached the summit where I found a small plastic food container holding a summit register. It was placed almost exactly a year earlier by Reiner Stenzel, only a few others signing in during the intervening time.
In addition to the peaks I could see earlier at the pass, I had fine views of Red & White Mtn, Red Slate, Baldwin, Stanford, Morgan, and other peaks in the Mammoth area. I also had a fine view into Pioneer Basin to the west, with significant snow coverage, but less than I was expecting. My plan called for a descent to Pioneer Basin, crossing this on the way to Mt. Crocker. It looked like much of the snow in the basin might be avoidable. The crazy alternative would be to continue along the Sierra Crest, but even reaching Mt. Stanford at the midpoint would a formidable task. I would leave the Huntington to Stanford traverse for another day - it certainly looked challenging and interesting, but I doubted I would have time to reach Mt. Crocker afterwards (later I found that Secor rates this ridge class 3). My only problem at the moment then was to get off Huntington and down to Pioneer Basin. Reiner's entry in the register showed he took a route from the west up the false summit first - that looked less direct than I would have liked. While on the false summit earlier, I had spied a rock chute heading off the west side of the crest north of Mt. Huntington a short ways. But from Huntington it looked fairly difficult to negotiate the ridgeline to the top of the chute. Another more appealing alternative was to descend a chute directly off the summit to the west. I could see down about half the 800-foot distance to the basin below - enough to be appealing, but make me worry I might run into a cliff. I decided to take my chances and head down the chute.
The class 2-3 descent went well enough until I reached the point beyond which I couldn't see from the summit. It was then that the cliff I feared presented itself, though the chute looked to continue some 40 feet below that. I traversed left onto an arete between it and an adjacent chute to the south, but from there I could not descend into either chute, nor could I comfortably descend the arete any further. A rappel rope would probably have worked nicely here. I paused on the arete, looking around to survey my options. I could see the other chute (that I knew went all the way down) further to the north, but sharp aretes blocked access to it from where I stood. I became somewhat despondent and began to resign myself to the task of climbing 400 feet back up and trying again. It seemed oh so painful a prospect. I decided to go back to the chute and explore the cliff below it for any way getting by the impasse before starting the climb back up. Upon closer inspection, a chimney presented itself that I thought just might work - class 4-5 to be sure, but by wedging myself inside, the exposure to a fall seemed likely to be minimal. I did some more reconnaisance around the cliff to be more certain about what lay below, and by all indications it seemed this one 40-foot section was the crux. With a deep breath I lowered myself into the chimney, jamming myself against the rock for safety and then exploring for holds further down. It was a spicy descent to be sure, but all the key holds seemed to be where I needed them and I never felt a sense of desperation. Below the crack I emerged onto another short class 3 section which was more easily (but still carefully) descended. As I looked back up at my descent route to take a photo, I was surprised to see a rappel sling around a rock in a crack adjacent to the chimney. I guess I wasn't the first on this descent, and also not the first to find it spicy. Descending the rest of the way to the cruddy talus/boulders found in the broad fan at the base of the chute, I paused to turn and observe the route again. I found the whole west side of the peak looking like a messy jumble from below, and it was impossible to pick out the chute and my descent route. Obvious from above, fairly impossible from below. Good luck for anyone trying to find it for an ascent.
I continued down and began my traverse across Pioneer Basin. The lakes were half-frozen, the ground half-covered in snow. As I'd hoped, I was able to negotiate much of the ground avoiding the snow. Where it wasn't possible, the suncups slowed me down and started sapping my energy. I found the sun bright and myself growing a bit lethargic. I needed to stop at one of the trickling streams to get water, and I decided to just go with the whole lethargic mood, moseying about, stopping unnecessarily to top off the water bottles and rest a bit. It was kind of nice to enjoy such a pretty spot - Pioneer Basin is really a pretty alpine setting and it was easy to get lost in the moment. After some time at this I regained my motivation to continue and picked up the pace as I crossed the upper reaches of the basin. As I got closer to Mt. Crocker, I noticed a fine-looking snow-filled couloir rising up to Crocker's South Ridge and considered climbing it. I'd been carrying my crampons and axe to no purpose so far and it seemed it might make a good opportunity to get some use out of them. The East Ridge of Crocker, my planned route, was also looking pretty good from the basin and I was having a hard time deciding. To give myself more time, I aimed for the SE Face between them. Getting closer, I could see that there was a morrainal cirque below the SE Face and the ugly mess of rock was standing between me and the snow chute. That option lost its appeal in a hurry and I started angling up to the Sierra Crest between Stanford and Crocker, aiming for the East Ridge.
As on Huntington, I hadn't taken the time to gather beta on Crocker, other than to know the easiest route was off the west/southwest side. The East Ridge looked pretty straightforward save for a large step located about 3/4 of the way to the summit. It would prove the most interesting part of the route. The first half was easy climbing over packed sand and talus. There was a good amount of snow forming a cornice off the north side, but this was easily bypassed on the south side of the ridge. Higher up the route became more like class 3 with decent granite, very much like that I had encountered on the way to Huntington earlier. I grew a bit anxious as I neared the step, looming ever closer. It looked to be an impasse some 30-40ft high, and a bypass on the south side looked unmanageable. I couldn't see around to the north side of the obstacle yet, but I had to hope that way held the key.
Up and over more blocks I went, finding it quite enjoyable. Along with the stretch on the crest to Huntington, this was the most fun all day. As I came upon the large step at last, I was happy to see that broken rock slopes looked navigable around to the right on the north side. Standing at the base of what was surely the crux on the route, I imagined a better climber could make it up one of several crack system evident before me. I went around to the right and saw that I could keep on the north side for the easiest ascent, though it would be more of a traverse across and up a boulder field that didn't look too enticing. More eager to get back on the crest of the ridge, I found a class 4 route up and around the step maybe 20 feet past it to put me back up on the ridge. From there it was a bit more easy scrambling to the summit where I arrived shortly after 12:30p. I found another register placed by Reiner Stenzel, this one a day before the one on Huntington was placed. There had been only a few visits in the year since.
The views from Crocker are not the most sweeping in the Sierra, but they may possibly be the most colorful. Red, white, orange, gray, and black rocks were on display with fine views of nearby Red & White Mtn, Red Slate Mtn, Mt. Baldwin, and Mt. Morrison. The lingering snows of an abundantly wet year added to the display before me. To the southeast lay all of the Pioneer Basin with partially frozen lakes, and behind that the high peaks of the Abbot Group and the Mono Divide. I spent some 15 minutes or so atop taking in the views before I was ready to head down.
The question now was which way. I had been giving this a good deal of thought on my way across Pioneer Basin. Originally, I thought I might descend the East Ridge and then head up the connecting West Ridge of Mt. Stanford before dropping down to Hilton Creek and back out to Rock Creek. Now that seemed like a good deal more climbing than I felt like doing. I wondered if I couldn't just drop down to McGee Creek and out that way, then thumbing rides back to Rock Creek. Without sufficient motivation to climb another peak, I decided to take my chances with getting a ride back from the McGee TH. I headed off Crocker's West Ridge / SW Slopes, continuing to follow the Sierra Crest, intent on getting to Hopkins Pass, just north of Upper Hopkins Lake. In my way was another 200-foot rise that would have to be surmounted, and I found my interest in climbing even that little bit considerably lacking. As I descended the West Ridge, I kept my eye out on the north side of the crest for a shorter escape route down to Crocker Lake and McGee Creek. I found it at the saddle, a short bit of loose class 2-3 climbing for maybe 100 feet until I could reach the ample snows that filled the bowl above Crocker Lake. The snowslope was steep enough that I used my axe and faced into the slope for the upper portion. The snow was soft enough that I didn't bother with crampons, getting by with easily kicked steps. After some 50 feet or so of this, the slope lessened and allowed me to turn and plunge step/boot ski the rest of the way down. I had a good deal of snow to cross before I got down to McGee Creek. My gators helped some, but my shoes were pretty wet before I finally reached the trail.
Adventurous part behind me, it was now just several hours of very familiar trail down to the trailhead. Much of the first hour on the trail was through very wet conditions, mosquitoes forcing me to resort to DEET and even then I got a number of bites through my T-shirt, even as I kept up a brisk pace. The second hour was fairly dry going and I began to run into others on the trail. First a pair of backpackers, then a number of small parties of dayhikers. This seemed a good sign, and I hoped I might be able to find a ride out to US395. There were some amazing flower displays in the lower part of McGee Canyon, some of the finest I have seen in the Sierra, particularly amazing considering this part of the canyon is generally more desert-like. As I neared the TH just after 4p, I caught up with a women dayhiker on her way out. I made an extra effort to slow down and engage in conversation with her, hoping she might be my ticket for my first ride. Had I been more bold I would have asked her during our brief chat for a ride out, but I didn't want to force her hand and make her agree to something she might not be comfortable with. This way, she could drive by me later with my thumb out and decide whether to stop and give me a ride. Her husband and daughter were also out hiking, returning via one of the parallel paths that converge on the TH.
I walked out to the road, following it past the pack station and then out towards US395. It was quite warm out and my feet were pretty tired and hot and about to blister on me if I didn't cool them. A UPS truck passed me heading to the pack station and I wondered if he'd be able to give me ride out upon his return (I figured this was a low probability - probably against company rules to give rides with packages aboard). When I heard rumbling down the road heading in my direction, I stuck out my thumb. The plan worked like a charm. The woman with her family paused along side the road and asked if I'd like a ride. I not only got a ride out to US395, but they gave me a ride all the way to Tom's Place even though they were heading back up to Mammoth Lakes. They were all three quite friendly and I enjoyed the chat we had about our families, vacation, and work. At Tom's Place I started up Rock Creek Road, expecting to have decent luck - a lot of late afternoon fishermen head up this way and I figured I'd have a good chance of getting a ride before hiking much of the nine miles up to the car. It was better than I could have expected, getting a second ride within a minute of getting dropped off. An elder gentleman with his dog were heading up to Mosquito Flat for a short afternoon hike, and by 5p I was back at the car - only 45 minutes from the McGee Creek TH to my car at Rock Creek. How good is that? 11hr15m hiking, 45m for the return. It had been a fine day. I made a note to come back and climb the ridge between Huntington and Stanford, as it seemed a worthy goal on its own. For now, back to Mammoth Lakes and family vacation...
For more information see these SummitPost pages: Mt. Crocker
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