Mt. Mills P300 SPS / WSC / PD / CS

Jul 2, 1999
Etymology Story Photos / Slideshow Maps: 1 2 Profile
later climbed Aug 9, 2008


I had visited the Little Lakes area the previous year and climbed a number of peaks there while camped at Treasure Lakes. I had the opportunity to climb Mt. Dade and Mt. Abbot, but didn't manage to bag Mt. Mills, which was also on my list before that trip began. These three peaks, all over 13,400 ft, are located on the Pacific Crest within a few miles of each other. Aside from Mt. Morgan, which is located across Little Lakes Valley, there are no other higher peaks in the Sierra to the north. Mt. Mills is the northern most of the three, and the closest to the Mosquito Flat trailhead. I was staying in Mammoth Lakes for a five days over the Fourth of July holiday, and decided to tackle Mt. Mills as my first objective.

It took about 45 minutes to drive from Mammoth Lakes to the trailhead at Mosquito Flat. Most of the driving time is needed to negotiate the final stretch that takes you from Tom's Place off US395 to the trailhead 9 miles off the highway. The drive up Rock Creek lifts you from the desert conditions at 7,000 ft in the Owens Valley to the more alpine setting of Little Lake Valley at over 10,000 ft. The change in settings is as remarkable as the change in temperatures is refreshing. On top of that, it gets you 3,000 feet closer to the peaks! I arrived at the parking lot around 8:30a, easily finding a parking spot at the trailhead (later in the morning the lot typically fills, particularly on weekends; the overflow lot is located a mile back down the road). I carried my climbing pack with me, loaded with only those things I thought I'd need for the day - jacket, gloves, crampons, ice axe, camera, map, toiletries, water, and some food. It was not as hot as it had been the last few days, but the sun was shining brightly without a cloud in the sky. I loaded up on sunscreen and donned my hat and glasses before I headed out.

The route I chose was the easiest and most direct, going by way of Ruby Lake and climbing the East Couloir. Almost the entire route has the same consistent grade, rising 2,000 ft over the first 4 miles (from the couloir to the top, the grade increases significantly). After the first half mile, the valley opens up to a relatively flat region where the first views of the surrounding peaks can be had. Pyramid, Bear Creek Spire, Pipsqueak Spire, Mt. Dade, and Mt. Abbot are all clearly visible from this vantage point (the above photos collectively form a panorama of the skyline here). A beautiful dayhike continues south from here along the well-used trail leading up to Morgan Pass. Its popularity is justified by not only the grand mountain scenery and numerous alpine lakes that are passed along the way, but also it's relatively flat grade for the first three miles or so. There is a trail juncture at this point as well, which I followed on my way up to Ruby Lake. This is the Mono Pass Trail that goes over the named pass and into the Recess and Bear Creek areas.

As I climbed steadily up the trail, I passed a few other dayhikers with whom I exchanged greetings and queries about each other's plans. The popular choice seemed to be a hike up to Mono Pass for the view it provides looking down on Little Lakes Valley. At the 1.7mi point, the trail splits, with the route to Mono Pass climbing sharply. I followed the more gently rising trail to Ruby Lakes, which follows the lively creek that flows out the lake (Ruby Creek?). The creek cascades continuously down from Ruby Lake, through a gorgeous, green meadow (although mosquito-ridden), and then down to Heart Lake in the valley below.

I reached Ruby Lake at the 2mi point around 9:30a. This was the last good spot for camping I found along the route, and it appeared to be quite a popular destination. While there was only one party there as I passed through, there was ample evidence of other campsites and it would likely get busier in the next couple of days with the coming holiday weekend. I past the lake along its east shore (the west shore has some difficult cliffs), as I continued following the beeline for Mt. Mills. The maintained trail ended at Ruby Lake, and the going from this point would be over boulders and snow. I first encountered snow as I was rounding the lake, and found it in excellent shape for walking, and later climbing. It was soft enough to allow my boots to easily grip the surface, and hard enough to easily support my weight. While there was a good deal of snow from here on up, it was still possible to choose a route over boulders that bypassed most of it. I preferred the boulders to the snow as it kept my boots drier. Later in the day my socks and boots would be wet, but by then they would have considerably less chance to promote blister development.

At the three mile mark I encountered Mills Lake, which to my surprise was still partially frozen (the photo was taken looking north, Ruby Peak just left of center). I found a small drip of water from the surrounding snow that I used to refill my water bottles, as this seemed like the last place I was likely to find running water available. At 3.7mi, I had run out of rocks and boulders to dance on, and found myself at the base of the East Couloir of Mt. Mills just after 10:30a. I took a small break here for a snack and to change some gear. I put on my Gortex socks, gaiters, and crampons, and surveyed the couloir above. It rose steeply from this point, going from about 20 degrees where I stood up to about 40 degrees at the highest point I could see. The couloir continued is a curve to the right out of view, blocked by some rock outcroppings.

This is where the fun begins. I decided to leave my climbing pack on the last rocks here, taking only my fanny pack (with essentials) and ice axe. Actually, there wasn't much left in the pack anyway, but getting it off my back gave me a psychological lift, and gave the sweat on my back a chance to dry. Earlier, I had entertained the idea of leaving Mt. Mills by way of a circuitous route off the north face into the Fourth Recess, and back by way of Mono Pass. Leaving my pack here would eliminate that possibility, but from previous experience this probably wouldn't matter much since I would likely find my extended plans overly ambitious once I reached the peak. Off I went, toe-kicking steps straight up the couloir. While the most direct approach (as opposed to a zigzag pattern) and the most fun, it's also the most tiring. After I'd climb 20 steps or so I'd be out of breath and legs burning, so I'd rest for 30 seconds and repeat the procedure. Another strategy for climbing steep snow is to pick a slow but deliberate pace that can be maintained for extended periods. This was called the "rest step" technique by the Mt. Rainier Mountaineering School where I took an ice axe class, so I suppose it may be a better technique, but frankly I find it quite boring. I love the feeling of aggressively marching up a sharply angled snowfield, snow flying off the boots, and lunging for one last step before I'm too tired to catch my breath. Perhaps when I start climbing mountains over 14,000 feet I'll have a whole different attitude toward the more deliberate approach. :)

As I got to the bend in the couloir, I had a better view looking up, and could see that it split into three separate gullies (two of the three are visible in the photo, the third is to the right). I continued up the middle one where the snow reached highest, on the assumption that the snow was easier to climb than the rocks. As the angle approached 40 degrees and beyond, I was more careful in my foot placements and more cautious in my forward progress. I used a firmly planted axe in front of me for balance, as an anchor, and to help pull myself up by. The snow conditions were a bit softer than I would have preferred, but still excellent. As the width of the couloir narrowed, it became apparent that it was subjected to a good deal of rockfall. I couldn't tell just how long the rocks had been sitting on the snow here, but it seemed certain that a number of them were fairly recent, not having melted much into the snow. This would not be a good place to linger, particularly without a helmet. I found the greatest concentration of rocks in the last 20 feet before the snow ended completely. There was evidence of several rockfalls involving 3-4 foot boulders lying right in the middle of the route that were quite unnerving. Imagining one of these babies falling on my noggin while I stood there contemplating their origin did nothing to make me feel better.

After little more than 40 minutes, I had finished with the snow portion of the couloir, and prepared for the class 3 finish up the rocks. I removed the crampons and placed them along with the axe in a secure place among the rocks. I made a mental note to remember the route back down so I wouldn't lose my toys. Secor describes the route as class 3 with a chockstone as the difficult obstacle to bypass. Looking up, I could make out what might be a chockstone about 20 feet above, so I prepared to move up to it. The first rock I placed my hand on, which was the size of my body, moved. With a bit more pressure, it moved a lot. Sand came out of the joints holding it to the mountainside. I tried a second handhold, which moved, and then a third, which did the same. I began to realize that this was very loose rock indeed. That would explain all the rock on the snow below me. For 10 minutes I tried to make the first step off of the snow, only to be thwarted outright, or find myself in too precarious a position to fall within my comfort zone (this zone has higher standards when I'm climbing alone). I looked around for other possible starting points from where I was, only to find myself hemmed in on three sides. A fall here would likely have very dire consequences, and I was getting more spooked visualizing that possibility as I considered all my options. This did not appear to be a class 3 route at the moment, something closer to class 4 had I been handing out the ratings.

Before retreating to try the other branches in the couloir, I hike down about 15 feet to see if I could mount the rocks from another vantage point. I found a place on the north side of the couloir where I could make a less dicey 3+ move to get up on the rocks. Once up that first 10 feet, it was a very enjoyable class 3 climb among the towering rocks. I weaved in, out, and around a variety of obstacles, not ever sure if I wouldn't turn a corner to find I was walled in. I stopped every minute or so to look back and try to etch the view into my mind so I would remember the way back. I placed a cairn every now and then, but I was pretty sure they would be invisible on my way back down, being swallowed up in the jumble of much larger rock formations that surrounded me. The climbing was exhilarating, even as I worried I might lose my way back. I was using my hands to pull myself up and over many obstacles, but none of them were as difficult as I had first found trying to get off the snow in the couloir. Eventually I found my way up onto the summit plateau. From there it's an easy walk up to the high point, which I reached around 12:30p.

The views to the west, north, and east opened up in grand fashion. Mt. Abbot's higher summit commanded much of the view to the south. To the west was an outstanding view of Mt. Gabb with Mt. Hilgard behind and to the right. Far off to the northwest could be seen Mt. Ritter and Banner Peak. Among the numerous peaks along the Pacific Crest to north, the most prominent peak is Red Slate Mtn. To the northeast and east are theOwens Valley, a commanding view of Little Lakes Valley, and a nearly level view of Mt. Morgan on the other side. I found the register at the summit easily enough. It was a relatively new one, placed in 1994 by RJ Secor on his second ascent of Mt. Mills. I had a snack while I enjoyed the scenery, and took a bit of video. Afterwards, I wandered off to the North Face to have a look at that route. To my surprise, it was not only reasonably climbable, but it looked easier than the East Couloir route I had taken. It looked like a short climb down to the snow on the right side, and then a tremendous glissade down to the Fourth Recess below. Since I had left my pack along the route, I would have to return the same way. Perhaps if I come back to Mt. Mills another time in the future, I'll either climb up the North Face or come down that way on my return.

I wandered back down to where I had accessed the summit plateau and began my descent. I was doing fine for about half the rock portion, noting the various places I had passed on my way up. Then things started to get a bit unfamiliar. Then very unfamiliar. Thinking that maybe I was just having trouble remembering properly, I continued down expecting to see the snow in the couloir any moment. Soon I was looking down some rather steep cliff sections and couldn't continue any further. I was upset with myself for getting lost, even though I half expected this predicament. I wasn't really worried that I wouldn't find my way back, just that I'd have to hunt around, wearing myself out climbing up and down until I was back on the route. As I started to climb back up out of the wrong chute, I moved left and was happy to see I was only a wee bit off the correct route. I climbed down into the chute I had ascended, reversed the tricky move back onto the snow, and gathered up my axe and crampons I had left here.

I put my crampons back on and headed back down. For the first 50 yards or so I faced into the mountain and retraced my footsteps using the toe holds I had kicked on the way up. Once past the steepest part and down to where the couloir opened up to the larger snow field, I turned around and plunged stepped down the rest of the way to my pack below. It took about 8 minutes to descend what took nearly an hour on the way up - you gotta love this about snow! I picked up my pack, removed my crampons, and continued heading down. I stayed mostly on the left side of the creek until I got to Ruby Lake, as this avoided some of the toughest boulders I had to cross on the way up. I made good time going back, but then that's hardly surprising since it was all downhill. I got back to the parking lot at Mosquito Flat at 3:30p, just 2 1/2 hours after I left the summit. I still felt pretty good, and began looking forward to the next day's climb as I drove back to the condo at Mammoth. Very soon though, those thoughts were replaced with images of a hot shower and what I might have for dinner. No backpack food this week! Ah, this was the life...


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