Sun, Oct 9, 2005
It was 48F in our room when we woke up. Along with no lights during hours the generator isn't running, now we had no heat in the room either. It sure didn't feel much like a resort. To be fair, I had done the heater in when I had tried to get the gas lamp working the night before, inadvertently shutting off the heater's pilot light. Almost as soon as we were out of bed, we had all our clothes on that we would start the day with. Then we had breakfast of cold cereal by headlamp in our room. For this we paid $80 a night?
Day 3 at Lake Thomas Edison saw Rick and I heading to Silver Peak. Matthew had been unsuccessful in convincing me to try both Senger and Hooper, and while poring over the maps the previous night he came to realize it would be shorter to approach via the Bear Creek TH, the same we had just used for Seven Gables. Matthew decided to save those for another trip and turned his attention to Graveyard Peak, located at the center of the Silver Divide. Not an SPS peak, but purported to have some interesting class 3-4 climbing. Unlike Matthew, Rick and I had not previously visited Silver Peak, and though it was known to be more of a slog than exciting, we felt obliged to pay it a visit due to its SPS status. It promised to be the easiest of four days, and I was looking forward to a peak that took less than 10 hours to make the roundtrip. We didn't start as early as we had the previous day, but at 6a when we hit the trail it was dark enough to require headlamps.
It was also quite cold. Rick and I hiked in silence for the better part of half an hour before it was light enough to get rid of the headlamps as well as our extra layers of clothes. The hike to Devils Bathtub isn't particularly interesting as it winds its way through the forest, steep for the last 20 minutes or so before the lake. We reached the end of the trail at the lake about 7:40a, pausing to take in a grand scene with a mirror-like reflection across the lake's surface. Graveyard peak rose to the right (Matthew took a different trail to approach from the east side so as to avoid the slog that is the South Ridge), our pass over to Silver Peak to the left along the divide.
We hiked around the left side of the lake, at first over boulders a bit unwieldy, but these soon gave out to a decent use trail for the second half of the trip around the lake. In climbing to the hanging valley above Devils Bathtub, we stayed well right of the slabs and creek, following a path through the trees. As the trees gave out we found ourselves in a meadow, the stream flowing through the center down to a trickle in the late season. We paused here to fill our water bottles before heading up to the pass. We took a class 2-3 chute that broke through the cliffs on this side of the pass to the right a bit. Halfway up I climbed out of the chute onto the left side solely to enjoy more class 3-4 rock that could be found if one went out of their way a bit. This didn't last more than 100 feet before the slope angle lessened and I was making my way through dwarfed trees and sandy slopes towards the pass. Rick was a bit ahead of me as we approached the pass, arriving a bit after 9:30p.
We took a short break as we took in the first view of Silver Peak across the pass from us. It had all the exciting prospects of a slog that we had been forwarned of. We had to descent 400 feet or so off the other side of our pass before climbing up to the Silver Divide and Silver Peak. That elevation loss was already disheartening though we knew about it from checking the map. Worse was that it all looked to be boulders and talus all the way down and then all the way back up again. Ugh. The wind was up today and blowing steadily along the ridges so we didn't stay long. One last look behind us, then over and down we went. The dusting of snow from two nights previous was still evident on the shady north side, and this slowed our progress somewhat.
Despite our gloom over the loss of elevation, it took us only 40 minutes to reach the bottom and regain all the elevation we'd lost, and from there another 40 minutes to the talus-strewn summit of Silver Peak. The best thing about the peak was the fine view to be had, including the Clark Range, the Ritter Range, the gondola tower atop Mammoth Mtn, Bloody Mtn, and many more peaks to the northeast, southeast, and south. Nothing to recommend the climb, however. We signed into the summit register, noting entries going back about ten years. The most interesting one to me was an entry from Bob Sumner who had made a dayhike to the summit starting from Lake Mary in the Mammoth area - it made our outing look like a walk in the park. As it was but 11a, I suggested to Rick that we might make more of a day out of it by hiking over to Sharktooth Peak, another mile to the northwest. Even better, it looked like we could head back via a different trail over Arch Rock, and perhaps climb Cockscomb on the way as well. Rick didn't take much convincing, and once motivated to go, was eager to get off the summit of Silver.
We climbed down the easy class 2 NW Ridge before descending left down sandy slopes for some 600ft to bypass Peak 11,444ft, then back up to the Silver Divide. Despite an impressive sounding name, Sharktooth is really just a pile of rubble from almost all sides. By comparison it makes Silver Peak look good. It took us an hour to make the traverse, our only reward was to stand atop another named rubble pile. No register to be found, and the views were less than we'd had from Silver. We debated briefly the best, that is, the quickest way to get off our rubble pile and down to the lakes below on the south side. Rick was in favor of descending the SW Ridge before peeling left down to the lakes. I was in favor of taking the direct descent down the main chute on the South Face, and after our brief discussion we decided to each go separate ways. We picked a meeting place along the shore of Rainbow Lake, then headed down. Ricks objection to the direct chute was the loose appearance of the chute. It was indeed loose in the upper half, though not so dangerous as it had appeared - we could have both descended without fear of knocking rocks on each other. The lower part of the chute was actually more enjoyable. There the chute was exposed to the bedrock which had some fun class 2-3 scrambling. Water had cleared much of the loose debris and carved interesting shapes into the gray, striated rock. As the chute opened up I angled left looking for the sandiest sections I could descend, and eventually made my way to Sedge Lake. I stopped at the lake for ten minutes or so to marvel at the numbers of trout I found swimming lazily in the water. None of them was very big, but they were consistently all about 8 inches long.
From Sedge Lake I headed down steep, wooded slopes towards Rainbow Lake. Shortly before reaching the lake I was surprised to see Rick below me heading up. I had thought my descent was pretty fast, but evidently his was faster. He had found cliffs below along the lake shore and was climbing up to get over them in order to reach our meeting spot. It seemed a fortunate coincident that we would meet up as we did. I hadn't noticed that I had passed the trail on my way down the slope. It's fairly faint at this point and not very often used judging by the condition we found it in. We lost it a few times as we followed it up to Big Margaret Lake and over towards Cockscomb. It was 1:30p when we got to the largest of the Margaret Lakes, Cockscomb now very close. I paused to see how interested Rick was in giving it a go. "Well, I think you should definitely climb it," was his reply. I gathered that his hesitation wasn't due to his being tired, but rather his doubts about the technical difficulty. We had no other beta on it other than what Matthew had told us he'd gathered from reading a trip report of a party that hiked by it without climbing it: "It looks like class 5." The East Face that we'd been staring at since we left Sharktooth certainly had class 5 climbing on it, but it looked easier than that in the center of the face. I assured him it was likely to be class 3 or easier. It was just a guess which though not admitted, Rick could easily surmise. He said he'd climb as far as he was able. Good enough, and off we went.
We left the trail and headed to the east side of Cockscomb, aiming for the center of the face which we had seen earlier afforded the easiest ascent line. Over slabs and boulders we clambered until we got to the base of a debris chute which we followed up. Where it got steeper we simply moved left onto ledges and up some fun class 3 ramps, angling for the massive summit block that was quite obvious from below. And as sometimes happen, it really did go at class 3 or easier all the way to the summit block.
The summit block was a different matter altogether. From below it looked like the prow of a ship, rising some 25 feet high, the top slanting down some to the north. If there was any way to scramble up the thing, it seemed the north side would be the most promising. Our line of ascent however, led more easily to the south side, and rather than fight the line of least resistance I figured we might as well go up to the south side to check it out, then retreat back around to the north side if needed. Nothing on the east or south side of the block looked at all climbable as we noted the sides rising nearly vertically above us, overhanging quite a bit on the south side where it resembled the ship's prow. I was about to suggest we head back and around to the north side when I decided I ought to at least peer around to the west side, thinking that side might afford an easier route to the north side. No such luck in that regard - the west side of Cockscomb was nearly vertical cliff (to a scrambler's eyes, anyway). It was all class 5 climbing on that side, and no way we were going to use it to get around to the north. All was not lost however. A 4-inch thick slab of granite had separated from the summit block and fallen down a short distance, coming to rest leaning against the west side of the summit block, itself at about a 65 degree angle. If it could be climbed, it looked like it might reach within 8-9 feet of the top of the block. Surmounting the leaning slab was no easy task, and I backed off two half-hearted attempts to do so. Between the slab and the summit block I could just get two hand jams in to pull myself up, but there was almost nothing for me to push my feet off as they were stretched to their limit between the slab and more solid ground below. It would cost some skin, but the only way I could manage it was to pull up my entire weight with the two hands jammed in the space. After the initial grunt, I was up on easier ground, but still precariously perched on four inches looking left off to what would certainly be a most seriously painful fall - some earlier scramblers from a century ago might have described it as an "abyss." The slab turned out to be triangular in shape, tapering to a small point about 4-inches square at its highest point. To make it a bit spicier, the upper two feet of the slab were broken from the larger main slab. This did not sit well with me. The hollow sound that emanated from my kicking the upper slab ascertained that it was indeed separated, but it didn't move any. It weighed perhaps a couple hundred pounds, and seemed likely to stay where it was if I didn't do anything to upset its center of gravity too much. Cautiously I climbed up to the top of the slab, by now fairly nervous. Before me was a small crack running vertically up the summit block, the top of it 8 1/2 feet above me. Of course my reach is only 8 feet. The crack was too narrow to get my fingers in. It might make a lovely aid crack, but it would do little to help me up. My hands probed the granite on either side of the crack and found small shelves I could just get the last joint of my fingers over. I looked at Rick, with a big nervous smile on his face, camera at the ready, then looked back at the rock. I did this several times weighing all those trade-offs one makes before doing something stupid and foolish on the rock. Naturally it only looks stupid and foolish afterwards. I decided if I was unable to pull myself up I ought to be able to guide my feet back to a crash landing on atop the slab I was standing upon. Maybe I could jam a pinky in the crack and hang by that if it got really desperate. Fortunately I didn't have to find out what it felt like to hang by one's pinky, and I was able to pull up, give my feet some purchase on the slab, reach up and grab the top, and finally mantle my way to the top. Whew!
My heart was still racing as I hurriedly snapped a photo of Rick and a few of the surrounding mountains. The summit was roomy - enough to hold dozens of climbers. I went over to the north side to see if there was an easier way down on that side. It dropped off at least 10 feet and I was unable to find anything easier I might try - I'd have to retrace my steps. As often happens, the fear of descending a dicey ascent turns out to be unjustified, and I found it easier in going down than in ascending. As I returned to the solid footing where I left Rick five minutes earlier, I asked him if he was going to give it a try. He walked over to the slab and feigned like he was going to give it go, but quickly retreated with a definitive, "No." He would leave it for another day, one that included a rope, perhaps.
We descended the East Face via the route we had taken up, and at the base of the chute we traversed south so as to intersect the trail where it goes over a saddle just south of Cockscomb. We had to back off a few cliffs we managed to find ourselves atop during the traverse, but in 15 minutes or so we had reconnected with the trail. From here, the South Face of Cockscomb looks quite formidable, and we guessed this was the view from which the earlier party had guessed it to be fifth class. With all the technical scrambling over as well as the cross-county portion, it was now just a long haul back to the trailhead - another 4 1/2 hours worth, as it turned out. Rick and I hiked together for the next hour, past Fern, Coyote, and Frog Lakes, just before the junction with the trail heading over Arch Rock. Rick decided to take a rest break and resume at a slower pace while I continued on. It was just before 4:30p when I finished the last serious climb up to the crest, marking the border of the John Muir Wilderness. Heading down the other side, I had my eye out for the Arch Rock formation, but I never saw it. Later Rick would report it not only being quite obvious from the trail, but one of the most spectacular natural arches he'd ever seen. Rats. The trails south of Arch Rock only roughly match their depiction on the 7.5' map, but it was close enough that I had no trouble finding my way back. Twilight was just ending as I neared the road junction to the trailhead where Rick's car was parked. A car came by heading for the trailhead, and though it was nearly dark I guessed it might be Matthew come to look for us. I had no headlamp on so he didn't see me some 40 yards up the road as he passed by. I turned right at the junction to head back to the Vermilion Resort, seeing no need to take the quarter mile turn to the left and the trailhead - if it was indeed Matthew, I guessed he'd find me on his way back.
It was just after 7p when I got back to our room. It was dark inside, but Matthew's pack gave evidence that he'd already returned. I went to the store to talk with Jim about getting the pilot light for the heater relit. I also got a quick lesson on how to use the gas lamp so we wouldn't have to breakfast by headlamp the next morning. I showered and started dinner in the microwave when the others showed up some 30 minutes later. Matthew had gone to the trailhead and waited until Rick returned. He had no good notion what he would do at the trailhead if we hadn't shown up, but it did give him time to think what might have kept us, and indeed it occurred to him that we likely went on to Cockscomb or possibly Graveyard Peak. Rick made much better time than I had expected, as I was thinking he might easily have been more than an hour behind, judging from our Mt. Goddard outing. Matthew reported having a great time on Graveyard, finding good class 3-4 rock on the East side as well as the traverse between the two summits. It had been a very fine day indeed, the best of the three so far, we all agreed. And it was the one outing we hadn't even planned on before the trip begain.
For more information see these SummitPost pages: Silver Peak - Cockscomb
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