Sat, Aug 9, 2008
Day 2 of the 2008 Sierra Challenge was designed to be an easy day squeezed in between two of the harder days to Electra and Gemini. I had already been to Mt. Mills some years earlier which would usually preclude me from adding it to the Challenge. But I was interested in completing the traverse between Ruby Peak and Mt. Mills via a long, two mile ridgeline with climbing reported in the low class 5 range. I had already done the part of the crest between Mono Pass and Ruby Peak a few years earlier with Dave Daly, but we had to bail off Ruby before completing the route to Mt. Mills as we had planned due to lack of time. I was unsuccessful in talking Michael G into joining me on the traverse, despite my considerable efforts. He was more interested in Mills and maybe Mt. Abbot than a sketchy, somewhat unknown traverse. When we got to the trailhead at Mosquito flat that morning not long before 6a I was happy to find Tom Becht there knowing he might be persuaded to join me. It was an easy sell, taking all of about 30 seconds. Tom had missed the first day of the Challenge and was looking for a little extra today. This seemed to fit the bill nicely.
There were about a dozen folks at the trailhead when we started off, just as sunrise was hitting the high peaks along the Sierra crest ahead of us. We cruised up the trail towards Mono Pass, taking the fork to Ruby Lake. We passed by Lookout Peak (an easy bonus peak some would climb in the afternoon) and Ruby Lake in that first hour. Above the lake we started the boulder field scramble and our large party began to spread out.
Not long after 7a Tom and I split off from the rest, heading for the toe of Ruby's East Ridge. The ridge is a fine scramble in its own right, with some class 3 scrambling found on the lower third and some even better stuff on the upper third (the middle third is an easy hike on grass and talus). It took the two of us about an hour and a half to make it to the summit, staying on the ridgeline as much as we could. We could probably have saved time and effort by moving to the easier slopes on the SE side, but our reward was a fine scramble before the real climb had yet to begin.
There had been an old tin can for a summit register on my first visit to Ruby Peak, but we found no sign of it nor any other register, search as we might. Oh well, such is the ethereal existence of our mountain registers. Before 9a we had started off along the Sierra crest towards Mills. Now for the fun part.
I had originally estimated it would take us about two hours to complete the two mile traverse. Roughly broken into three sections, the first one was about what I expected, a mostly class 3 ridge punctuated with gendarmes that we side-stepped on either the left or right of the crest. It was a good mix of scrambling over which we made good progress, completing in about an hour. The middle section was an easy class 2 traverse, mostly a boulder and talus hop that we crossed in quick fashion. We had covered more than half the distance in a little more than an hour and it seemed we were well on track. Then we hit the hard part. The really hard part.
We had seen it from a distance, but didn't really come to appreciate this last section of the ridge until we were just about on it. From what we could see at a distance, the left or east side of the ridge fell away in steep, vertical fashion, and it would be hard to find traverse routes around obstacles on that side. As we approached closer, we not only found this to be true somewhat to our dismay, but to compound the problem the right or west side was nearly as vertical as well. Normally we would try to stay atop the ridge as much as possible, feeling this was the more sporting approach to a ridge traverse, but in this case it would be nearly a necessity since we had few opportunities to cheat by dropping off to one side or the other. And so what I'd hoped would take another hour to complete turned into a four hour odyssey in our quest to reach Mt. Mills.
Along the way we encountered innumerable chimneys, flakes, dihedrals, thin ledges, friction slabs and all manner of obstacles to be overcome, one at a time. Though the scrambling was highly enjoyable, not knowing whether we would make it past the next corner had us concerned almost continuously. The scrambling included class 4 and low class 5 moves that seemed to increase in frequency the further along we went. Though we carried a short 8.5mm rope with us, the goal was to complete the traverse without having to use it to bail us out of a predicament. Alas, this was not to be. We found just such a problem halfway across that we could find no reasonable way around though we looked diligently through the available options. We ended up rapping off a sling for a drop of about 30ft on the west side, reaching a ledge system that would allow us to continue.
Tom and I made a good pair for the traverse, about equal in our technical abilities when faced with various challenges. I might balk at one downclimb where Tom took a second look and showed a nice way to overcome it, and further on our roles might be reversed. In this way, each of us on our own would have bailed off the adventure much earlier, but with the two of us together we kept at it, defeating one obstacle after another. At some of the particularly nasty spots in which I was in the lead I would stop after getting past it to get pictures of Tom and the look on his face which seemed to say, "Oh no, what's this we have?" There was the Leap of Faith, sketchy slabs, some chimneys, squeeze holes, and all manner of fun. The only specific feature we'd seen documented was the rap into the notch formed by Mills' NE Couloir, as described by Secor. The rap could be avoided with a class 4 downclimb. By the time we had gotten to this feature we had been through enough beforehand that we didn't even consider getting out the rope. Tom lead us down this 40-foot feature into the notch in fine style. Even then we weren't done. There was a final chockstone below the notch to be negotiated before we found ourselves on the standard class 3 route to Mills. Aahhh... Class 3 never felt so easy after this point.
It was 1:30p before we found ourselves at the highpoint of Mill's rather flat summit ridge. To the south, Mt. Abbot loomed rather close, looking much easier than the distance we'd just covered from Ruby Peak. But I would have to leave this next section of the traverse for another day - we'd had enough by now. According to the register, six others had summited before us nearly four hours earlier, all of them well off the mountain by now. It seemed a bit lonely knowing we were bringing up the rear on this Challenge. After a short stay at the summit we started down the NE Couloir, not exactly sure where it was. Some initial ducks we found had us off-route a bit too far to the south, but we soon corrected this problem and found ourselves in the main couloir channel with plenty of footsteps and a huge amount of loose material. So much loose rock and sand that we had to be quite careful in our descent to keep from unleashing holy terror on each other. We wisely chose to keep our helmets on until we were done with the couloir. Just before we reached the bottom we came across the large chockstone that marks the crux of the route. Below this was a sandy scree slope entirely free of snow - we had carried our crampons and axe the whole day for this part, only to find it unneeded. Above the chockstone I found a rap anchor setup that included two chocks and three carabiners along with a handful of slings. All this I disassembled and packed in my bag as free booty. The slings I would discard, but the rest I would keep. The gear had been left by a previous party, not from the Challenge (none of the others from our Challenge group had carried a rope). I was actually quite impressed that so many of them made it past the chockstone which I thought a spicy bit of scrambling to surmount. When I asked Michael later why he hadn't taken the booty himself, his face lit up with the look that it hadn't even occurred to him until then. "I guess I should have," he commented.
Once below the chockstone, Tom and I boot-skied our way down hundreds of feet of talus and sand, kicking up dust and sand and rock almost the whole way down. Eventually the slope eased and it became a boulder hop down to the canyon and meadows around Mills Lake. Below Mills Lake we came across my two brothers lounging by a small, inviting tarn with grassy surroundings. Knowing that the returning climbers would have to come this way, they had come out late in the morning for an easy hike to wait for us. The previous day had seen Jim not finish until after 9p and by the time they had gotten back to Bishop they were in no condition for an early start. After a short chat, the four of us continued on the descent to Ruby Lake and eventually out to the trailhead. It was 4:30p by the time we got back, making for a 10:30 day. Late as it was we weren't the last ones to return to the trailhead though most of the others had been back hours earlier.
Jersey Strategy: Michael G had not climbed Abbot as a bonus peak as I expected, but the far easier Lookout Peak on his way back. As a result he finished more than 3 hours ahead of me and took a 2hr45min lead in the race for the Yellow jersey. He also had the lead in the King of the Mountain jersey, having climbed 3 peaks so far, which was the same as myself, but again had me beat with the overall time used for the tie-breaker. It seemed at this point that I had handed Michael the Yellow jersey (there were no other similar competitors that would be out for the whole ten days, so by the second day it was already a two horse race) with a virtually insurmountable lead. All I could hope for was that either he had an off day and would fail to reach one of the peaks (highly unlikely) or that I could slowly whittle the time back. My work was cut out for me...
For more information see these SummitPost pages: Ruby Peak - Mt. Mills
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