Riegelhuth Minaret CS
Pridham Minaret
Starr Minaret P300
Kehrlein Minaret P300 CS

Mon, Jul 3, 2006

With: Matthew Holliman
Steve Sywyk
Michael Sywyk

Story Photos / Slideshow Map Profile

The Minarets in the Mammoth Lake area have a reputation for loose rock that I think is somewhat unearned, or at least oversold. While it has its share of splintered talus and sand upon the rock ledges and filling chutes and gullies, it is not really more than in other areas. The rock is primarily volcanic which leads to fracturing and splintering in ways much different than standard Sierra granite, but it can still make for enjoyably climbing.

It seemed a fine idea while on family vacation in Mammoth to make a return visit to climb some of the easier Minarets that I had hoped to climb on my previous trip, but had been unable to do so due to illness. Matthew would be in the area to join me, and a non-climbing friend Steve and his teenage son Michael planned a hike up to Minaret Lakes as a training hike for a later hike to Half Dome. And so four of us started out from the Devils Postpile ranger station at 5:30a, just after first light. We made good time for the first hour or so, crossing swollen Minaret Creek over some logs and starting the steeper ascent upstream. Dropping Steve and son along the way, Matthew and I made it to still-frozen Minaret Lake by 8a. Riegelhuth Minaret, rising sharply southwest of the lake, would be our first destination.

Using crampons and axe, we ascended the steep couloir on the north side of the saddle between Riegelhuth and Pridham. Thankfully we found no ice, and the top of the couloir had already melted out leaving us with a crappy bit of loose talus to climb for the last 40 yards or so. Climbing to the edge of the west face, we pondered the ancient rock, some of the oldest in all the Sierra, and wondered where we might find the fabled class 4 route. Matthew recalled his recent reading from the book of Secor, which called for us climbing out onto the NW Ridge. I didn't question him much about it, because I had failed almost entirely in my pre-climb beta collecting. But it sure looked hard out there on the northwest side.

Now Matthew had been having some trouble either acclimatizing, adjusting to the new time zone since his recent return from China, a troublesome bit of tendonitis in one knee, or as he acknowledged later, the fresh memory of Patty Rambert's death on Mt. Mendel little more than a month earlier. Probably some combination of the above, but Matthew was climbing slowly and far more cautiously than he had done a few months earlier. And so as I climbed up some class 3-4 rock onto the Northwest Ridge, I watched for some ten minutes as Matthew tried one way, then another, then back to the original way, then finally saying, "I won't climb this without a rope." Preferring to break out the rope than watch such further displays of uncertainty, that is precisely what we did. It would take longer than I'd hoped, but we'd still get there. I belayed Matthew up to the ridge, then after giving it a few minutes try he turned the lead back over to me. The crux was right at the start, probably more like 5.6 than class 4, but it worked, and got easier after that. In three pitches we were atop the summit just before noon. Then Matthew realized he had recalled the route description for Kehrlein, not Riegelhuth Minaret. Oops.

We found only remnants of a PVC register. It was broken amongst the summit rocks with only a pencil lying nearby left of the contents. We'd been at it six and a half hours and only managed one of the five Minarets I'd hoped to climb today. Five was looking a bit too ambitious. We found a rap sling heading down into the easier class 4 gully on the WNW side. Our short 35m rope wouldn't reach to the bottom, but it looked like it would reach to an alcove on easier terrain below. Going first, I tied into the rap rope, but only used it for a security blanket as I downclimbed the length of rope on a series of very steep, but well-spaced ledges. After Matthew rapped down, we gathered up the rope and downclimbed the remaining distance back to the west side, the final section made possible by a fortuitous ramp that lead out of the gully before it dropped off precipitously.

It took only 20 minutes to climb the class 2 talus up from the saddle to the summit of Pridham Minaret. We took a brief look around (no register), then descended down the west side to a notch. Our next stop was to be Starr Minaret, perched higher on the main crest and across a high cirque with a small frozen lake at the bottom. We descended loose talus off the south side of our notch until we hit the snow that filled most of the cirque. We switched back to crampons, then traversed to a thin snow-filled chute between Starr and Kehrlein Minarets. The snow was quite steep, but well consolidated and excellent for climbing. It was probably fortuitous that the chute was filled with snow, as an old rap sling found near the top suggested it may be harder without the snow.

I had traversed pretty steadily and without rest across the snowfield, and had left Matthew somewhere behind me. I could just see him at the bottom of the chute starting his way up as I spotted other climbers a short distance ahead on their way to Starr Minaret - this seemed impossible. These lesser minarets are climbed only a few times each year, how could it be that others were heading to the same minaret at the same time as us? I chased them down, taking a more direct route along the ridge, and reached the top about 15 minutes ahead of them. Again I found no register, but when the others, a group of three, joined me, one of them found a plastic tub underneath a rock. We chatted briefly, commenting on the unliklihood of meeting others on Starr Minaret. I was wearing a Sierra Challenge t-shirt and they commented that they had heard of the Challenge, wondering if I was out training for it. Without going into any detail, I simply commented, "No, just out for a dayhike." I let them sign the register before I did so I could check there names to see if I recognized them from anywhere. None of their names were familiar.

It was now after 3p and I hadn't seen Matthew for more some time. I began to suspect he'd given up on Starr Minaret and headed towards South Notch. Heading back down, I again passed the other climbers and then did a search of the ascent chute. There were other boot prints, so he had definitely come up this way. I started to follow the others up towards South Notch when I chanced to look back and spotted Matthew at the summit of Starr Minaret - somehow he had managed to climb past all four of us without any of us spotting him while we were descending. I bid adieu to the others and took a seat in the sun to wait for Matthew to descend. It seemed to take forever, but mostly because my patience was wearing thin - it was after 4p and the whole day seemed to be going on much longer than I thought it should. In hindsight I was thankful to Matthew for allowing (forcing?) me to practice patience. One really needs to go with the flow of the moment and all its attendant changes, rather than continue on a ballistics course of pre-conceived expectations.

We reached South Notch together at 4:15p. Above us to the east loomed Kehrlein Minaret, a summit I had been rebuffed on in my first attempt. I was going to try this class 4 summit again, but as I told Matthew, there was no time to use a rope. Matthew was either too tired to care or took my hint, and left me to climb Kehrlein on my own. I took the same route up I had three years earlier, and once at the crux on a sloping ledge overlooking some significant air, it no longer looked as hard as it had the first time. The route was mostly class 3 after that, and in 20 minutes I was on the summit. Here I found a real register, placed by Carl Heller and party in 1972, signed by Croft, Shwartz, Hudson, and others - a real gem.

Back down at South Notch, I found Matthew waiting for me, and together we made short work of the easy glissade down the southeast side to Cecile Lake. I lost Matthew somewhere on the descent to Minaret Lake, and never saw him again until back at the trailhead. It had taken us 14hrs to traverse but four of the Minarets (by comparison, Josh Shwartz had traversed all 15 or so in 18hrs), but it had been an enjoyable outing nonetheless. The rock we encounted was even better than I had hoped, and my appreciation for the climbing opportunities in this sub-range only increased. I would come back and do more in the future. Perhaps I could eventually lay claim to dayhiking them all. Though certainly not all in the same day!


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