Tue, Aug 7, 2007
Starting shortly after 6a, I spent the first hour following near the end of the pack as we cruised up the Bishop Pass Trail past South Lake and Long Lake. The sun had risen shortly before reaching Long Lake, starting to illuminate Hurd Peak in the foreground and Mt. Goode further south. Ryan and I left the others around 7a to take the side trail to Ruwau Lake, an area I had not previously visited. The trail petered out as we approached the lake, but it was not difficult finding our way around the north and east sides of the lake to the broad North Slope of Picture Puzzle. We followed the stream feeding Ruwau Lake up through some slabs with a bit of bushwhacking for as far as we could to avoid the boulder-hopping to either side. Eventually we had to take a right turn onto the boulders, otherwise we'd be continuing north to the jagged ridgeline between Cloudripper and Picture Puzzle, a much more torturous route.
The North Slope of Picture Puzzle has only a modicum of interesting scrambling. Most of it is boulder upon boulder and talus galore for almost 2,000 vertical feet. Ryan followed closely on my heels as we picked our way up through it all, favoring steeper, more solid-looking rock where we could find it. Some of it was enjoyable class 3, but they were usually short sections and a bit contrived. The most straightforward route is a class 2 slog just about the entire way. It was unnerving me the way Ryan would follow so close behind me, taking the same steps as myself with the whole slope looking more or less the same. Almost like having a second shadow following me. I had to ask him to back off if for no other reason to avoid the possibility of me knocking a loose rock onto him.
As we neared the top, there were two closely-spaced pinnacles vying for our attention as the highest. I headed towards the left one, Ryan gravitating to the right, but when we were nearly upon them we found that neither was the true highpoint - a higher, third option was shortly behind the first two. But even this third pinnacle turned out not to be the summit as we soon found we had another 20-30 minutes of scrambling and a few hundred yards to go. We had merely reached the ridgeline north of the summit and were following along the various bumps that made for convincing false summits. To reach the true summit we had to drop about 30 feet to a notch, after which a steep pitch leads up the north side to the summit - none of this stretch was indicated on the map.
It was just after 9a when we reached the top, three hours after starting out. Not as fast as we had expected when viewed from Ruwau Lake, but decent nonetheless. There was a medium-sized jar we found at the summit containing a register, though it didn't go back more than a few years. The views we found were quite nice and the calm, sunny weather made our brief stay pleasant. The Palisades rose high to the southeast, the North Fork of Pine Creek drainage to the east, Cloudripper and Vagabond Peak to the north, the Sierra crest and the South Lake drainage to the west. We looked for our companions along the ridge leading from Jiqsaw Pass to Gendarme's summit, but as yet could see no one.
We knew that the traverse along the ridge continuing south would be difficult and possibly class 5, so we didn't even attempt that. Instead, we followed the route Rick had taken earlier, dropping back down to the notch on the north side, then dropping down the NE Chute. Recently free of snow, the chute was still damp and even wet in places, and the amount of loose rock that we could unleash was impressive. We stayed closer to each other in this section to keep the debris from gaining momentum and bowling over the leader. Probably the fastest route would have been to descend the chute to its base and then skirt below the snowfield found on the east side of Picture Puzzle. As is often my habit, I traded off this extra elevation loss by making a more difficult traverse above the snowfield. This turned out to be a bit sketchy on steep, sandy ledges that could afford no error without serious consequences. Ryan did a fine job following me through this obstacle course, and after about 20 minutes we emerged onto the easier boulder and talus leading up to Gendarme.
The ascent of Gendarme was anticlimatic after the traverse, and an hour after leaving Picture Puzzle we were at Gendarme's summit. During our traverse we had spotted two figures on Gendarme's West Ridge, waving to them and getting waved back at. One of the climbers I could tell was Michael G, but it was unclear who the other was. We had expected to see a line of ten climbers by this time, but had seen only the two. Now that we were atop Gendarme, there was again no one to be seen. The register showed that three climbers had arrived before us - Michael, Eric G, and Mike S. Ryan and I signed ourselves in as we took in the (even better) views of the Palisades and sized up the four highest pinnacles just east of Gendarme. Seeing as these pinnacles were the impetus for the peak's name, it seemed worth a visit to climb at least the easier ones, even if they were lower than the easy summit we sat upon.
Following the ridgeline to the east, I climbed the first pinnacle then went up and over it to the second. The climbing was class 3, some of it exposed and tricky, but nothing too serious. I got a picture of Ryan standing atop the first (and highest) of the pinnacles, then considered continuing to the other two. The third pinnacle looked like it might be class 5 - seeming without any easy way up. It also required me to drop down to a notch between the two, and I sort of lost interest in continuing. Ryan was happy to stop after the first pinnacle, and just like that we gave up the extra effort.
We retraced our steps back to Gendarme's summit, spying another climber there just before we reached it. To our surprise it wasn't anyone who had started with us that morning. Corinne Newton (aka SnowNymph) had started a few hours earlier, much as she had done when joining us for Pilot Knob a few years ago. I was happy to run into her once again, and like our previous encounters it was a bit too brief. After starting around 3a, Corinne hadn't seen anyone on her way to Jigsaw Pass or to Gendarme. Where could all the others be, we wondered?
Ryan and I started back along the West Ridge, initially intending to follow the ridgeline back to Jigsaw Pass. It didn't take long for the tediousness of this route to make itself apparent to us. We scanned the ridge ahead of us and the slopes below to the south, but could make out no one anywhere in the bowl between Gendarme and Aperture Peaks. Growing weary of the ridgeline, we dropped down a chute into the bowl and made a high traverse to Jigsaw Pass without losing too much elevation. It wasn't until we were upon Jigsaw Pass and starting up to Aperture Peak that we finally saw more of our companions - a group of four were making there way down the NW side of the same peak.
The other climbers were Michael, Eric G, Ron H, and Evan R, and as we crossed paths they told us their short story of woe. Michael and Eric of course had already been to Gendarme and had been in the lead group of three that made it to Jigsaw Pass without incident. A second group of eight, of which Evan and Ron and been part of, had gone up the wrong chute and ended up at the notch south of Aperture Peak - from where it was impossible to climb up to Aperture or correct the mistake without dropping 900ft back down the side they'd come up. According to more than one trip report and verified by our unlucky companions, it isn't at all obvious from the west side exactly where Jigsaw Pass is located. Almost all remnants of the old trail that went over this pass have been erased by numerous landslides that continue to reshape this steep slope. In hindsight it was obvious to them that they had gone the wrong way, but at the time no one questioned the path they had chosen to ascend, not even Ron, the SPS list finisher with 30+ years of Sierra experience. Ryan and I were feeling pretty happy that we had chosen to go over Picture Puzzle first.
While we were chatting with the others Bill P had come up to Jigsaw Pass and joined Ryan and I for our ascent of Aperture. Bill had started later than the group, but armed with a photo showing the correct route, had not made the same mistake as the group of eight. Most of those in the unfortunate group gave up on Gendarme and decided to return to the trailhead after retracing the route down the wrong chute. Only three decided to continue and climb the correct chute. Heading up to Aperture, we found the climbing as fun and challenging as Michael had indicated it to be. It was the best scrambling we'd found all day and the nicest of the three peaks to climb. Nice and short too, only 30 minutes above Jigsaw Pass.
There were two registers found at the summit - an old one in a glass jar and a newer one placed in 1990 by the mysterious SRC (Sierra Register Committee). The peak is overshadowed by its much higher neighbor Mt. Agassiz to the south, partially blocking the view to Thunderbolt and North Palisade. But it's still a fine peak and the most interesting of the three Ryan and I had climbed.
Heading back down to Jigsaw Pass, we met up again with Corinne who was taking a break. Bill headed off to Gendarme Peak, leaving Ryan and I to descend Jigsaw Pass on our own. No big deal, we figured - there was a wooden stake and a register box marking the pass. How hard could it be? Plenty, as we soon found out. Had we bothered to stop and talk with Corinne a bit who had come up the pass earlier, we might not have plunged blindly down the steep chute that we took for the obvious course. It was full of loose rock and narrow constrictions that pushed us to the side on crummy class 3 stuff. It was impossible to imagine a trail could ever have been constructed here. It turns out we took the wrong descent, the leftmost (when viewed from below) chute that ran along a rock wall on one side. The easier route was further to the right or south of our line. It wasn't without a small blessing however, as we shortly ran into David W on his way up solo. David was unhappy with the route and it was easy to tell he was extremely uncomfortable on the terrain he had found himself on. He asked if we'd help him get back down, and of course we were happy to offer help.
So now there were three of us heading down this loose chute, not a helmet amongst us, and it would have to be done very carefully in order to do so safely. I went down just ahead of David, calling out footholds and handholds for him to use where the going was toughest. Ryan followed last, trying his best not to knock stuff down on us. It wasn't good enough for my liking, and I shouted up to him a few times to cool it. For about 20 minutes there it was a bit tense, trying to get David back down without incident, and though in all fairness Ryan was doing a decent job of downclimbing considering his age and experience, it was an added distraction that made things harder. Eventually we got David down to the bottom of the chute where it opened up into an easier, though tedious boulder field. David was feeling better by this time and had regained his confidence for the cross-country return.
Leaving the others, I continued down, happy to be scrambling alone for the last part of the day. The boulder fields below Jigsaw Pass are particularly loose, evidence of slides abounding in this area (a large rockfall across the trail below had closed it to stock earlier in the year). I found my way back to the trail sometime after 1p, and from there continued back to South Lake where I arrived at 2:45p. Ryan had been slower going through the boulder field, but made up time by hustling on the trail - he arrived back only minutes after myself.
It was just about the right length of time - 8.5hrs - for an easy day to give my body a chance to rest up. Back in Bishop we had arranged a BBQ outside the motel for the participants. Having arrived back first, Michael got the job of being host - he went to the grocery store, then prepared and cooked the burgers and bratwurst for everyone. Thanks to his his hard work (and Evan for providing the BBQ), it was enjoyed by everyone that attended. I was careful not to drink too much and to get to bed at a reasonable time since we had a 5a start planned for the next morning.
For more information see these SummitPost pages: Picture Puzzle - Gendarme Peak - Aperture Peak
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