Petit Griffon Fail PD / CS
Mammoth Knolls P300
Dry Creek Knoll P500

Jun 30, 2019

With: Tom Becht
Scott Barnes
Iris Ma
Robert Wu
Brian French
Kristine Swigart

Story Photos / Slideshow Maps: 1 2 GPX Profile
Petit Griffon later climbed Jul 2, 2019


Petit Griffon

I had first been made aware of Petit Griffon when I climbed Mt. Abbot for the first time some 21 years earlier. I had made a route-finding error and ended up climbing the couloir to a large spire instead of Abbot's NE Couloir. I went back down and corrected the error, but later learned the spire is called "Petite Griffon" in Secor's book (it seems a mispelling - most references call it "Petit Griffon"). This impressive spire is rated 5.7 by its easiest route and is easily visible from many parts of the Rock Creek drainage and most of the summits, lying prominently on the Sierra Crest at the notch between Mt. Abbot and Mt. Mills. It remained an impossibility for several years until I had gotten some rock climbing experience, and has been simmering on the back-burner for 17 years or so. I had even put it on the 2018 Challenge list, only to reconsider as the event approached when realizing it wasn't really a good summit to have a dozen or so folks on. Brian and I had discussed climbing it for the last couple of years and when Scott mentioned it in Spring of this year, we settled on a date of Jun 30 to give it a shot. I invited others to join and eventually had seven folks signed up, perhaps still too large a party to do this safely. Scott had emailed me at the end of May, choosing to decline coming because, in large part, he felt responsible for everyone's safety. By explaining we were all adults that could take responsibility and read up on the route beta, Scott's concerns were assuaged and he reconsidered. In the end, it was because a number of us didn't read up on the beta very carefully that we failed to reach the summit. We had lazily decided to rely on others to do this part for us and it cost us.

I had expected us to start off at 6a from Mosquito Flat where I had spent the night. Robert and Kristine had gone in to camp on Friday afternoon, so we planned to meet them at the base of the couloir in a few hours. Of the others, Scott and Brian were the only two at the TH at 6a, Tom and Iris showing up just after but not ready to go. Brian started off ahead of us, planning to wait with Robert and Kristine for the rest of us to arrive. It wasn't until almost 6:30a that the remaining four of us headed out from the TH, though this wasn't at all a problem - we would have tons of daylight for this one and time would not really be a factor. We had heavy packs though we weren't spending the night in the backcountry. Each of us had a pair of snowshoes, crampons, axe and personal climbing gear (helmet, harness, shoes). Brian and Scott each carried a rope (Robert had a 3rd rope with him at Mills Lake), Brian had a full rack of gear (he was easily carrying the most weight of all of us), and there was some other pro distributed to the others. I had craftily managed to get none of it, but my pack still weighed me down - I blame old age. Iris led off at a pretty good clip with me chasing her tail and the other two losing ground behind. When we reached the Mono/Morgan Pass trail junction, she was breathing hard.

"Why so fast?" I asked.

"I don't know..." was the gist of her reply.

Scott, Iris and Tom had driven up Saturday morning, stopping at Whitney Portal for an afternoon climb of Candlelight Peak. This was supposed to be their warm-up and acclimatization, but it had taken longer and more effort than expected, leaving them starting the morning already flagging. We reconvened and started up the trail towards Mono Pass, but I soon found myself alone in front and the others nowhere to be seen. I should have stopped to take the rope or other gear from them, but I sort of assumed they had paused for one reason or another and would soon catch up. At Ruby Lake I stopped to put on my snowshoes. They weren't really needed on the firm morning snow, but I figured they might help me navigate the suncups that characterized much of the two miles we had to reach the base of the couloir. As I started up from Ruby Lake I spotted others behind me just reaching the lake's outlet. It would be the last I'd see of them for some time. It would take me another hour to make my way up the drainage, past Mills Lake (still mostly frozen) and up to meet the others. I caught sight of Brian up ahead climbing a steep slope with two others we'd met at the parking lot who were headed to Mt. Abbot. It was shortly after 9a when I pulled up to the large rock, the last dry spot before climbing the couloir, where the other three were busy putting on crampons. Kristine and Robert had been waiting for some time now, wondering if the rest of us would show. Brian's appearance alleviated their concerns but when I arrived, I told them I thought the others were over an hour behind by now. That didn't seem problematic at the time, as it would take us awhile to set up for the rock climbing once we got to the notch. I hurried to dump my snowshoes and put on my crampons as the others started off.

Kristine and Robert led the way up the couloir, straight up at first, then zigzagging as it got progressively steeper, then finally straight up again in the shady section near top that was much harder snow. Brian and I reinforced the steps they had made so that there was a pretty decent set of tracks running up the couloir before we were done. At the very top we switched from using the spike of our ice axes to the pick, the most nervous part of the ascent because a slip here would be hard to arrest until we had fallen to the softer snow in the sun below, by which time we'd have built up considerable speed. It took us about 40min to climb to the couloir where we found ourselves back on dry, rocky ground, though somewhat unstable. The wind was blowing strongly across the col, sending us to our packs for more layers to put on. Kristine almost immediately went up to the left to explore the climbing options. It certainly didn't look like the easy class 5 we were expecting, and it was about this time that we began to realize that none of us had done a thorough job of learning the route beta. Brian had information provided in Secor's book and another source, neither of which proved very useful. Perhaps we were supposed to go over the notch and around the other side? Brian and I explored that briefly, only to decide that we'd have to drop way down the other side to get around cliffs, and that didn't seem correct either. We were also aware that there are in fact two notches, not just the one that our limited beta suggested. We were on the northern one that separates Petit Griffon from Mt. Mills, but there is another higher and sketchier one on the south side that is shared with Mt. Abbot. There were older steps that we'd seen going into that couloir and we wondered if we'd picked the wrong one. And though we were indeed at the correct notch and starting point, we collectively convinced ourselves that the other notch might be the right one.

Far down below, we could see that the other three had arrived near the base of the couloir but were making no real effort to go further. Tom had already pre-guessed that he might not get further than this point. Scott, feeling unusually weak in part because of a crash diet, had given Iris the rope somewhere around Ruby Lake so that he could continue. The result seemed to be that all three were not feeling up to continuing beyond the point they'd reached. Scott, of course, knew the route better than anyone and watched as we hesitated in the right-hand couloir and probably with some disbelief as we then switched to the other.

I went back down first, once again using the pick to get through the shaded snow, then traversed across the snow-filled gap between the notches to reach the left-hand couloir. This one was steeper, the snow didn't extend to the notch and the rock above was exceedingly steep and rather loose, too. We would have to break out a rope to consider safely reaching the top of this notch, almost a full rope length above us. Robert was willing to give leading it a try whereas Brian was having serious doubts about the enterprise altogether at this point. Kristine and I were somewhere in-between - we were ok with continuing if someone else was willing to lead it. After some silent deliberation, Brian decided to go back down, but not before leaving us the rope and gear he'd carried up. That left us with two ropes and a full set of gear. Despite having plenty of gear, things did not go well. Robert managed to lead about half a rope length up, a bold effort considering the poor quality of the rock. We scrambled some beyond this only to find even crappier rock above that would require a tougher lead than the first. We all began to have doubts by this time. We'd already spent hours on the effort in this couloir, and decided to bail. We used existing rap slings we came across in our scrambling to rap back down to where we'd left our crampons at the top of the snow. Three hours had passed from the time we'd first taken them off until we had them back on again. It's amazing how fast time flies when you're flailing on a rock climb.

The other four had started back hours ago and we'd see no sign of them the rest of the day. We carefully descended the couloir facing into the mountain until the gradient eased and allowed us to face outward and make faster progress. Once back to our large rock where we'd left gear, I switched back to snowshoes for the two miles of suncups we had to cross before getting back to Ruby Lake. Though I had a good headstart, Kristine managed to catch up to me at Mills Lake wearing just her boots, which pointed out there was no real advantage to the snowshoes and I might just as well have been carryng them as dead weight. Kristine and Robert had to stop off at their campsite above Mills Lake to pick up the rest of their gear. Robert's girlfriend, Angela, had spent the day at camp while Robert and Kristine went off to climb Petit Griffon. Angela and Robert would hike out at a slower pace. I was carrying Brian's rope and some of the gear and by the time I'd strapped the snowshoes to the pack at Ruby Lake, my shoulders were aching from the extra weight. Ugh, ugh. The remaining hour to Mosquito Flat seemed to drag on far longer than I remembered. More Ugh, ugh. It was nearly 3:30p by the time I returned to the jeep and could unload my unruly burden. I'd been back about 10min, time enough to spread out my gear all over the bear boxes to help it dry, when Kristine came waltzing off the trail. After returning to her car and removing her boots, we sorted out gear so I could get Brian's stuff back to him in Mammoth Lakes. We were of course disappointed that we hadn't gotten ourselves to the top of our spire, but we had to agree that the weather had been fine and the outing quite enjoyable. This would serve as a lesson that we might or might heed in the future - do the research on your route!

Mammoth Knolls

After meeting back up with Brian in Mammoth to give him his gear, I had several hours of daylight and was kinda itching to get to the top of something. The forest areas north of Mammoth have a huge network of roads that one can explore on bike, ATV, motorcycle or car, with a collection of easy summits. I'd visited some of these on past trips, but there were plenty of others still. Mammoth Knolls is one of the closest ones to town, overlooking it on the north side. I used the Mammoth Scenic Loop Rd and then a few lesser forest roads to get within a short distance of the summit. An easy stroll leads to the open top where one has a fine view overlooking Mammoth to the south with the Sherwins and the Sierra Crest in the background. There is a small solar-powered installation on the slightly lower east summit where I had parked.

Dry Creek Knoll

Less than a mile and a half further north, Dry Creek Knoll also has a road going nearly to the summit, though this one I found blocked by a large downed tree on the northeast side of the peak. I simply parked at the blockage and went up from there, about 1/3mi each way. The cross-country through open forest understory was easy enough, the highpoint found at a rocky outcrop with partial views through the forest. In all I spent about an hour on the two summits, just enough extra effort after Petit Griffon to satisfy me for the day. I ended up parking at the TH for Inyo Craters where I showered and camped for the night, with plans to do some other peaks around this area the next day...


Scott Barnes comments on 07/08/19:
I feel nothing but shame for my performance on this day. To not even have the energy to get to the base of a route. Never again. (Maybe)
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This page last updated: Tue Nov 24 08:44:01 2020
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