Tue, Jul 2, 2019
After the failed effort to Petit Griffon on Saturday, I drove back to Mammoth Mtn to return Brian's gear to him. We discussed making another attempt later in July before the Sierra Challenge started, figuring the couloir would still be in good shape at least until that time. Later that afternoon, while I was tooling around on some minor peaks north of town, it occurred to me that since Brian was self-employed he might have a more flexible schedule than I had at first thought. I still had two days before heading home so I sent him a text asking if he might be available Monday or Tuesday. He replied that he had a work commitment for Monday but would be happy to play hookey on Tuesday. We arranged to meet at 5a at Mosquito Flat to give it a second try in two days. I had simply to occupy myself on Monday, which I spent visiting a bunch of easy summits in the area before calling it a day early to give me more time to rest. I was at Mosquito Flat by 7p that evening and bedded down an hour later, excited by the prospect of having a second chance.
Our failure that first time wasn't due to physical conditioning, at least not the four that managed to reach the top of the col. Our undoing was our laziness in not researching the route beforehand, thinking it would be obvious once we reached the col. We did have the description from Secor and another source with us, but those proved to be virtually worthless. The real beta for this route comes from the Supertopo High Sierra Climbing guidebook. I had the first edition, but Petit Griffon was not added until the second edition. Scott had this version and had sent out the relevant pages to the group email, but none of us that reached the notch that day had bothered to examine it. Scott, Iris and Tom had reached the base of the couloir, but went no further as they were too tired by that point to continue. They watched us try to climb the pinnacle from the wrong side before turning around. Later that evening while Tom and Iris were driving back to Southern California, I texted to ask, jokingly, "How come you didn't run up there and get us back on route?" Tom's reply: "Because it was more fun watching you guys screw up." I told him I was going back to rub it in his face, but he didn't realize I had already made plans to do so as I kept this as my little secret to surprise him with later. Iris kindly sent me the missing beta and I studied this until I had the text and topo map virtually memorized. I went to bed Monday night confident that tomorrow would be a very different story.
And so it was. Besides the better understanding of the route, we had several additional factors going for us. There were only two of us, which would make the rock climbing part a lot easier and faster. There was also some pretty decent boot tracks through the two miles of suncups that we had laid down two days earlier which should make that portion easier, plus there would be good steps leading up the couloir. We carried less stuff with us, too, leaving the snowshoes, extra clothes, food and water in the car that we hadn't used on the first effort. The earlier start meant we should be able to get back in the early afternoon before the snow had become a slushy mess. Brian carried the climbing rack while I took the 60m rope and together we set off around 5:15a with plenty of light that we didn't need headlamps.
We made excellent time, reaching Ruby Lake in an hour and the base of the couloir in another hour and half. Somewhere near Mills Lake we came across a pair of ptarmigan (or were they grouse) that seemed not much concerned by our presence. They moved only a few inches, perhaps because they were too cold, but otherwise we might easily have picked them up. Brian commented that it was good he wasn't hungry our he might have one on the end of his trekking pole. At the base of the couloir, we used the same large rock to leave our poles and some extra water before putting on our crampons and heading up. It was only 8:30a by the time we got to the top of the couloir and the start of the rock climbing route. The wind wasn't as strong as it had been two days earlier, but it still had a chill to it, so I put on my fleece, an outer jacket and balaclava, pretty much all the clothes I had with me and it worked quite nicely. We stashed our crampons and axes while examining the route before us, facing south. Brian racked up while I flaked out the rope, and by 9a Brian had was already partway up the first pitch. Far more skilled than I, Brian very smoothly and efficiently made his way up, placing gear and getting to the top in less than 20min. I found this first pitch to be the crux of the route, though it is rated at 5.6. I though the open book with finger cracks harder than this and I struggled some, partly because I was carrying a pack but mostly because I'm old, weak and unskilled at this level. When I had joined Brian at the ledge above (directly above the start of the pitch), I found that he had used a rap station for the anchor, one we would conveniently use to rap off later. P2 is described as class 4 broken rock, a step-out to a clean ledge, a traversing foot ledge and a broken corner. Little of this matched what we found, but we may not have taken the described route. We first scrambled up a short distance from the belay ledge, then dropped down and around the west side of the pinnacle. There is a spicy bit of exposed climbing here that we used the rope for, but it is poorly protected as the hard part is at the low point of the traverse. Brian belayed me from the halfway point of P2 which allowed us to stay in sight and sound of each other, making communication much easier. Besides the short exposed section, the rest of the second pitch we found to be essentially class 3 leading to the notch between the east and west pinnacles. We kept the rope on for this, not knowing if it would get harder, but on the return we simply scrambled P2 in its entirety. The last pitch leading up to the higher western pinnacle is rated 5.7. Brian led this as well, placing pro as high as he could before climbing onto the steep fin that rises towards the top. There is some mantling moves at the very top to pull oneself onto the surprisingly large summit block. A much smaller block is about 4ft higher that one can clamber onto for hero shots. I found this last pitch easier than the first, your mileage may vary, but we were both on top by 10:20a. I had more simply climbed onto the fin from the start, easier I thought than fighting up the left-hand side, but of course I had a top rope and didn't have to worry about pitching off it. The mantling moves were some work, but nothing scary, just tough for an old guy with weak upper body strength.
At the summit we found no register, sadly, as I'd seen a photograph of a scrap from a 1964 ascent I'd hoped to see. There were just a few lonely rocks there on top, but no sign of any can or box or something to hold a register. There was a small collection of rap slings on the summit that we used to rap back off to the notch, after which we coiled the rope and scrambled back to the top of P1, taking extra care at the exposed move. We used the old rap station there to drop us nicely down to the top of the couloir. I was switching back to my boots as Brian was pulling the rope and commenting that this was the part that made him the most nervous. As if to prove his point, the rope became stuck after the one end was pulled through the rap slings. I'm not sure what we'd have done if things had stayed this way - it's not the sort of pitch one wants to free-solo to retrieve the rope. I went up to join Brian for some extra muscle which proved enough to free the rope from whatever constriction it had wedged into. We put the climbing stuff away, switched to crampons and started down the couloir. We faced in for several hundred feet until the gradient had relented some and the snow softened sufficiently. Then it was larger plunge steps to get us back to our large rock, only 30min after starting down. Everything after this continued to go like clockwork, an hour down to Ruby Lake and then 50min back to the TH. We were done just after 1:30p, about 2-3hrs faster than I had anticipated. We celebrated with a few beers, chips and guacamole from the cooler, well-satisfied with our success. I still had more than five hours of driving to get home to the Bay Area, but now I would easily get back before sunset. What a difference it makes when you actually study the route you're climbing!
For more information see these SummitPost pages: Petit Griffon
This page last updated: Sun Jul 7 18:34:17 2019
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