Sat, Sep 11, 1999
I drove out from San Jose with my friend Monty in his Trooper on Friday evening. My brother Tom was following in his car (Monty had to leave a day early, so Tom and I planned to ride back together a day later). It was around 10p when we arrived at the entrance to Yosemite on CA120. We drove down to where the highway meets CA41, ditched Tom's car on the side of the road (we planned to pick it back up when we returned to Yosemite Valley the next evening), and the three of us rode together up towards Glacier Point. Our plan was to climb Mt. Starr King as a day hike the next day out of the Mono Meadow Trailhead a few miles south of Glacier Point. We didn't have any campground reservations, but didn't expect to have problems as this was after Labor Day and more of the off-season.
What we didn't plan for (or bother to check on beforehand) was the controlled burn they were doing in the area south of the Glacier Point Hwy. As we drove up the road, we could smell the smoke for quite a few miles. The road was hazy in stretches, worrying us a bit that we were going to run into a road closure sign at any moment. We didn't see another soul on the whole stretch of the road, but we also didn't see any signs suggesting the road would be closed ahead at some point. When we reached our destination, the Bridalveil campground, it was closed with the entry gates locked. So much for plan "A", on to plan "B". This called for us to camp at the trailhead, hopefully far enough from the road to avoid detection from rangers looking for just such miscreants.
At the entrance to the trailhead we saw our first sign of other life along the road, another SUV parked alongside the road just outside the trailhead parking lot. We pulled into the trailhead lot and found the place to ourselves, not another vehicle (aside from the one at the entrance) around. Was the trail closed due to the fire, and we just didn't know about it? A distinct possibility, but not one we were likely to solve late at night in the dark. Besides the fact that is was dark and hard to see where the trail was and whether there were any closure signs, we were tired and needed to sleep. We found a spot about 40 yards beyond our vehicles and threw down some tents (for ground cloths), pads, and sleeping bags, and shortly thereafter went to bed.
Sometime around three in the morning, we were awakened by the sound of a large truck outside at the entrance, it's diesel engine rattling noisily. After a few minutes (I was awake now), it pulled into our parking lot, headlights beaming, engine still running. Several minutes went by and the lights continued to shine through the trees in our direction. Was it a ranger? Was he looking for us, attracted by the presence of our car? Just how fun would it be to get rousted out of bed at this hour and told to leave? Not very. I was wide awake now, and turned on my belly to watch the truck behind us. I could hear doors open and close, but no one talking. The truck headlights were so bright that it seemed to light up the whole place, and our little hideaway no longer appeared very well hidden at all. Thirty minutes went by and still the truck sat there, lights on, engine running. I'm wide awake, but Tom and Monty are sleeping soundly, oblivious to the distraction back there (they woke up for two or three seconds when the truck first pulled in, and then promptly fell back asleep). By the sounds I detected, I determined that they were loading the SUV at the entrance onto the truck. Ah, it was a tow truck. That seemed clever to me, almost brilliant. Don't bother to look for the illegal campers, just haul their cars away. Great, now we're next. I wondered if the tow truck can hold two cars? If not, they'll drive away and come back in an hour maybe? Why weren't these two guys sawing logs next to me worried about this? Somewhere around this point in my paranoid ramblings, it occurred to me that maybe, just maybe the guy with the other SUV had had car troubles and called a tow truck. I guess I wasn't too wide-awake, because I couldn't think this one through clearly to judge what was really going on out there. About 45 minutes after it all started, the tow truck finally pulled away. I fell asleep hoping the more benign of the two explanations was the correct one.
Thankfully, that was the end of our interruptions for the night. I awoke at 7a to find that it was already well light out, and only a short time from sunrise. Tom and Monty were still asleep. We had a long day ahead of us, so I wanted to get going as soon as possible. That meant I had to get these potato sacks awake and moving. I tossed some small twigs over onto Monty's bag until he grumbled, acknowledged that he was awake, and "thanked" me for "helping" him. Tom was sleeping a bit further away out of twig range, so I'd have to get out of the bag myself to rouse him. So I got up, got dressed, packed up my bag and pad, and went to put it away in the car. When I came back, Monty was still in the bag, but at least awake. Tom's bag was empty. He had gotten up only because his bladder could no longer hold out and he had to relieve himself. Ok, they were awake, but that didn't mean we were going anywhere soon.
It was a bit hazy with the smell of the forest fire in the air. These rangers doing the burning out there, they know what they're doing, right? They wouldn't let it get out of control or burn into areas that haven't been thoroughly cleared, would they? They're highly trained professionals, right? Possibly. or maybe they're just pyromaniacs who've found a socially acceptable outlet that lets them play with matches all they like. I went for a short walk to find the trailhead and see if there were any signs indicating a closure. From a distance, I could see a paper attached to a tree near the trail. A closure? That would explain why there weren't any other cars in the lot. When I got close enough to read it, I was relieved that it was simply a warning that a controlled burn was in progress. Great! The climb would go on. Assuming, of course, that I could get the slugs moving while it was still light out.
I took the time to organize and rack our climbing gear, load it in the climbing pack, and eat some breakfast. Slowly, the others got their act together. Of course their interpretation would be that I'm insane for getting up at ungodly hours and rushing them for no good reason, but then they're not writing this story so you won't be hearing any more of that kind of talk. We had what seemed a lot of stuff to pack up and endless things to do to get ready. Food had to be stored in the bear boxes, breakfast consumed, packs readied. Finally, at 8:30a, we were ready to go.
The Mono Meadow Trail starts at 7300 feet alongside the Glacier Point Road. It begins with a downhill hike for 3 miles and 850 feet down to Illilouette Creek. While this makes for a pleasant morning warm up, I knew this would be a drag coming back up at the end of the day. Monty and I were carry packs (Monty had the rope, I had the other climbing gear, we both had clothes, water, and food), while we let Tom get off with just a hip pack. I guessed he was the weaker hiker of the three of us, so I expected this arrangement would help even things up. Right from the beginning though, Tom was out in front keeping up a fierce 3+mi/hr pace. Monty was keeping up for the most part, but I was falling slowly behind. We had 6 miles to go, and lots of elevation to climb. I hiked at my own pace that I knew I could keep up for an extended time. Tom would slow down on his own accord, of that I was pretty sure. As his brother, I figured I was in a good position to judge his abilities. He'd been working out more in recent months, but he was still packing some pounds that would slow him down in a while. Just past Mono Meadow, which was still wet (but not swampy) this late in the season, we had our first , hazy view of Mt. Starr King. The haze made it appear to be much further away than we knew it to be in reality.
We were down to the low point in our hike at the creek in less than an hour. Tom had come to his senses and slowed down to a more reasonable pace. We asked him what the rush was all about, but he didn't seem to have a good reason. I think that was the pace he was expecting Monty and I to want to hike at, and was afraid he might slow us down. We got off trail for a short distance when we failed to notice where it had crossed Illilouette Creek just passed the junction with the Buena Vista Trail. A short back-track and we found our mistake, and headed across the creek. On the other side, the trail rises a short distance past the creek before it joins the Merced Pass Trail. Our peak was still obscured a good deal by the haze even here, but we were getting closer. The Merced Pass Trail begins at this junction, heading east, which we followed for the next mile and a half. It is a mild rise, climbing only 400 feet along this portion of the trail. We began to get improving views now of Mt. Starr King, towering up to the east as the haze thinned the further we got from the burn area. The west side of the peak looked impressive indeed, a polished dome with immense granite walls curving downward from the peak. There were no obvious crack systems of any kind that might afford reasonable climbing on that side. Our destination was to the south saddle between the (main) north and (lower) middle peaks allowed the easiest ascent. To get there, we had to cross a small, forested ravine east of the trail that appeared to require heavy bushwhacking. We continued further along the trail than the direct approach would dictate in order to limit the amount of elevation we would have to lose crossing the ravine, and to reduce the amount of bushwhacking.
When we finally did leave the trail, we found the travel through the dense forest cover much easier than I expected. We crossed the ravine (with a small creek at the bottom) and headed for the saddle, traversing a bit to the right to get around a large, rocky bulge in our way. The steep ascent begins at this point, requiring us to climb 1600 feet in the remaining 3/4 mile to the saddle. About 1/3 of the way up we took a break to rest, eat, and take care of nature's calls. The next 1/4 mile was where the real bushwhacking took place. Out from under the forest cover, we had some nice Sierra chaparral to contend with in addition to the steep grade. Monty and I were wearing lightweight hiking pants, having anticipated this type of cross-country travel from past experience. Tom, on the other hand, had less past history to draw on, and was wearing comfortable hiking shorts, quite comfortable for most hiking - on trails. While I suppose we could have shown more compassion for Tom, somehow the vision of his pristine legs soon being lashed and scraped by a variety of thorny thickets and brambles brought out humorous jabs from the two of us rather than sympathy. And I must admit I was considerably more guilty of this than Monty, probably because Tom is my brother, and there's an unwritten code among my brothers that this is the expected behavior in such situations. "Brotherly Love" is the term, I believe.
So off we went, heading up the west side towards the saddle, through the scrub. We didn't travel together through this section, as we each picked our own best route. As expected, Tom was swearing at the bushes that raked his legs, and was forced to go slower, bushwhack more cautiously, and take a more meandering route that avoided the heaviest bushes. Monty and I were split up as well as I forged ahead without resting. I'd stop now and then to take a picture of my companions (and myself), expecting that we would regroup above where the scrub ended and the granite began. In a short while I was at the base of the saddle, now, and there was still 900 feet to climb over this last 1/4 mile up to the saddle. It looked like a rather fun class 3 climb up, consisting of mostly friction slabs at the bottom, and a class 2 boulders at the top. The route to the saddle was narrow, with the much larger (and steeper) granite slabs of the north and middle peaks restricting accessibility on either. I climbed up a short way on the first slab and then waited there for Monty and Tom.
Monty was a few minutes behind, and Tom about 5 minutes further back. When Tom reached the beginning of the friction climbing, Monty had already joined me a little higher up. We stayed about 20 yards ahead of Tom, scouting for the easiest route to guide him through. The slabs quickly got steep enough to make traction with our hiking boots questionable. It was getting to be more like 3+ climbing, with a few moves that were really class 4. Tom was pretty comfortable on this stuff, and he soon slowed to a snails pace as his confidence waned. I would climb back down to him to show him the route and demonstrate the ability of our shoes to stay on the rock. At one point I slipped, and that pretty much trashed any confidence Tom might have held that I knew what I was doing. Fortunately we had our bag of tricks, and so I decided to use them to bolster Tom's feeble trust.
While Monty waited patiently ahead a ways, just out of view, Tom and I got out our climbing shoes and put them on. This was Tom's first experience with climbing shoes, so I knew he would need a little convincing that these held some advantage. Compared to hiking boots, climbing shoes look pretty wimpy. They offer no ankle support, have absolutely no tread on the soles, and are generally uncomfortable as hell. It is the smooth, soft rubber soles, however, that offer superior stickiness to the hard rubber treads found on hiking boots. I clambered easily back and forth over the place I had just recently slipped at to demonstrate the difference between the two types of shoes, all the while explaining the physics behind it (engineers love the use of physics to explain things). Tom just sort of stared unbelieving at me, not sure that I wasn't playing a trick on him. He cautiously tested the rock surface with his rented shoes, and took a few wavering steps, but was not sold on the "magic shoe" concept. I only had one more trick in the bag, really, and that was to get out the rope and belay him up. That would mean unpacking the rope, donning our harnesses, setting an anchor, etc. What a hassle for a few class 4 yards. The tradeoff to be made here was an inconvenience (mostly to me) that would cost some time, versus a possible fall should he slip on this part. How far is the fall? Quite a ways actually, maybe 40 yards down a smooth, 40-45 degree granite slab. Probably not life threatening, but certainly could get banged up pretty good, lots of bruises and abrasions, possible twisted or broken joints. Weighing the two sides, it was really an obvious choice, so we had Tom come across the tough part with the rope still tucked away in the pack.
After this point, the climbing was much easier, mostly class 2 scrambling up boulders that had sloughed off the steeper slabs on either side ages ago. We reached the saddle at noon, and took a short breather. Looking east, we had a nice view of Mt. Clark a few miles in the distance. Looking down the east side of the saddle it was immediately obvious that this would be a much better approach. It's not nearly as steep and only a short class 2 climb to the saddle. While the approach is somewhat longer from Mono Meadow, it's probably less bushwhacking and may even be less time when taking the eastern approach around the south and middle summits. The middle summit was a short distance up to the south of the saddle, while the higher north summit rose up from the opposite side. Tom had a chance to rest and regain his strength while Monty and I went about getting ready for the climb. Monty changed his shoes here, we all put on the harnesses and we set up an anchor even though one was hardly required here. This was to be Tom's first rock climbing experience, and both Monty and I wanted to make him feel comfortable that we knew what we were doing, even if we ourselves were only beginners and just getting the hang of this outside a structured class environment.
Outside of classes, this was the first time Monty and I had climbed together, so there were a few discussions about who would lead, how much of an anchor was needed, and other little details that we went through with each other to reassure ourselves. There were a few points that we didn't readily agree with, that took more discussion to sort out the best procedure. Tom took this as further evidence that we didn't know what we were doing and a number of jokes and jabs followed, with a twinge of nervousness in his voice. Ah, but this was a simple climb (class 5.0), and short to boot (only two pitches) - how hard could it be?
We decided I would lead the first pitch and Monty would lead the second. Tom would climb second
following the leader, after which we'd throw the rope down to the third person and belay them up.
This meant that Tom would have to clean all the protection out on his way up, so we gave him a
quick lesson on how to do that (it's really quite easy) and gave him a cleaning tool and an empty
sling to hang the pro on. I tied on to one end of the rope and shouldered the rack (with all the slings
and protection on it), Tom tied on to the other end, and Monty tied onto the anchor and set up a
belay near my end of the rope. After cross-checking each other's knots and harnesses and all the
good things they teach you to check on your partner before you start off, we were ready to begin the
climb (it took us half an hour to just set up for this):
Me: "On belay?"
Monty: "Belay on!"
Monty: "Climb on!"
Tom: "Is this supposed to impress me?"
And off I went. The first 15 yards are a very low angle walk up to where the saddle starts to get steep, and I wondered if we didn't start too far down. It would be unfortunate to miss the next belay spot by these 15 yards. I placed a piece of protection after a few more yards mostly for practice than necessity. There was a nice big crack leading up to the left which seemed to follow the general description given in the guidebook, so I followed it up. I found a #3 Metolius cam that had been left behind by a previous party, but was unable to extract it. Instead I decided to use it to clip into, and continued on up. At the top of a rock outcropping I found a small belay area and a number of slings wrapped around a chockstone between the rock outcropping and the main face. I was only about 35 yards up, but it didn't look like I was going to find any flat areas between where I stood and further up where my rope would end. It was not difficult climbing to where I was, and I suspect that this might be where others normally begin the climb. At this point, we were just about level with the top of the middle summit just south of here.
Using the available slings, I added another piece of protection and set up an anchor. After 10 minutes or so, I had taken up the slack, seated myself, and was ready to belay Tom up. He came up the easiest portion at the bottom quickly enough, but slowed down as the angle grew steeper. He cleaned out the first pro I had placed and continued on. As he would hesitate on a given section, he would get encouragement in stereo - me from above, and Monty from below. Along with various bits of advice on what type of technique to use, we would continuously repeat the mantra meant to help him overcome his biggest mental block - "Trust the shoes!" He was still an unbeliever, and like a couple of religious zealots, Monty and I tried hard to convert him. Tom finally joined me on the small belay area. I was sitting in the only good flat spot, so he had to clip into the anchor and hang off to the side a bit out of the way to make room for Monty coming up next.
I coiled about half the rope and tossed it down to Monty. It tangled some in midair and only got about halfway to him. This was my first time at tossing a rope, and it was a bit harder than I had imagined. I didn't have the strength to toss the full coil of rope, and the portion I did toss nearly threw my arm out of my socket. Ok, I admit it - I have weak arms. My second toss was better (after laboriously pulling it back up and recoiling it again), and got to within 10 yards of Monty which was as good as we needed. Monty tied on and began climbing. When he got to the stuck cam, we decided to take some time and see if we could free it. This was our first piece of found protection, and we were quite eager to take our prize with us. To our surprise, Monty was able to remove it after about a minute's effort, mostly just jostling it back and forth until the cams unlocked. He then continued up to the rocky outcropping to join Tom and I.
I handed the rack to Monty who was to take the second lead, and off he went towards the right- facing open book above us to the left a bit. About 20 yards up was the crux of the climb, and we gave Monty a few "attaboys" as he passed it. He then began some friction climbing on the face without the reassuring cracks we had had earlier. After another 10 yards or so, Monty traversed right to a large belay ledge. This ledge matched Secor's description of the first belay point, so at least we were confident we were on the correct (meaning, easiest) route, even if it took us two pitches to get here. Monty had a bit of rope left, but didn't see any better positions further up, so he stopped to set up the anchor.
We had brought walkie talkies with us to help us communicate easier, but so far they had turned out to be more of a nuisance. They had a paging feature activated by a push of a button that would accidentally get pressed now and then. The annoying part was that the receiving radio would beep incessantly until a button was pressed to acknowledge the page. And of course, you then had to check with your partner to see if he had paged you on purpose or not. Additionally, we didn't have a good way to attach them to ourselves so that we could free our hands but still get to them quickly. The clips that came with them could be used to attach it to a chest strap, but the clips weren't firmly attached to the radios themselves, and several times we just caught them before they tumbled down the rock face. Now that Monty was out of view above, It was the first time that the radios had a benefit over simply shouting. After about 5 minutes of waiting, I began to get impatient and wondered what he was doing. With the radio I could call him and get a status report. So I did just that, hoping to get some meaningful response that could appease my impatience. But all I got back was "Still working on it." Still working on the anchor? Finding anchor positions? Would it be another 2 minutes or 10?
After another 5 minutes (that felt more like 15 minutes), I began to get impatient again, and I made jokes with Tom about what Monty could possibly be doing up there with all this time. Mostly I made the jokes, as Tom didn't really have a reference point to say whether it was a long time or not. I fought the urge to get on the radio again, as I didn't want Monty to feel I was rushing him. All my mental efforts went to psychically hurrying him through telepathy, but it was in vain. I considered my impatience and tried to reason myself out of it. It was a beautiful day, after all, and we were on the sunny side of the mountain, with wonderful views all around us. Then the other side of my brain would argue about how uncomfortable I was in this spot and how if we kept up this pace we wouldn't get to the top before the first snowfall two months from now. Finally, after another five minutes, Monty came on the radio to say that he was ready.
Tom went up the second pitch much slower than the first, as the exposure and difficulty had increased substantially. At the crux he paused for a while to consider his options and think his way through it. He didn't really believe he could safely surmount it, so he repeatedly asked Monty to keep him on a tight rope. I think what he really wanted was for Monty to pull him up, but since Tom had 30 pounds on both of us, that wasn't likely to happen. Tom finally mustered the courage to continue, and managed without falling, and looking surprisingly good at it in the process. He then came to the face-climbing portion and that brought back his previous difficulties in believing the shoes could hold him with friction alone. "Trust the shoes!" we implored repeatedly, but Tom wasn't going to be so easily convinced. He struggled upwards hesitantly, his fears causing him to falter and slip. Monty kept the rope tight, allowing Tom to recover and make forward progress, albeit slowly. At the beginning of the traverse, Tom had to clean out the last piece of protection and with it his last protection from above. The traverse was a friction section, similar to the upward part Tom had just completed. But a fall here would result in a pendulum, which might cause him to fall up to 10 yards diagonally before he would come to rest directly under Monty's position on the ledge. This concerned me a little, and Tom a lot, as he realized the consequences while I explained the need to be extra cautious here. It wasn't all that difficult, particularly with the rock shoes we were all wearing. Tom realized this in his head as his mind struggled to convince his body to relax, but his body was still hesitating and faltering. It was several minutes before Tom worked up the courage to make the attempt. After taking an extra moment to do some deep breathing and last minute negotiating with himself, he committed and took the five or six steps over to Monty. Success!
After Tom scrambled over onto the belay ledge (large enough for 15 or 20 climbers) and hooked into the anchor, he untied and Monty coiled the rope to throw it down to me. Unlike the first pitch, this one involved a good deal of horizontal distance, and it wasn't at all obvious to me that Monty would be able to throw it to me. Might I be stranded here? Monty thought he could do it (he had yet to do his first rope toss) and gave it the old heave-ho. Hoping against hope, I held my hand out in a feeble attempt to help bring the rope in, but it fell a good 15 yards away horizontally as gravity and simple physics had dictated it should. He pulled the rope up and coiled it again, realizing for the first time, I think, how much arm work this takes. Now Monty is a clever fellow, and he recognized immediately that a repeat attempt would follow the same predictable path. He came upon an excellent idea to rappel sideways off the anchor to put him in a position almost above me from where he could better toss the rope. While he set up the belay and unhooked himself from the anchor, I waited below. I'd been in this same tight belay spot for over an hour and I concluded that climbing can suck in some respects. We would have to get better at this climbing stuff or I'd have to learn some serious patience.
Monty finally got himself in position and made his second rope toss. This one went up and came down in tangled mess that only reached halfway to me. He would have to pull it up and do it all over again. As Monty pulled the rope up it became more entangled, until he had a pretty good mess in his hands. He was in plain view of me as he tried to untangle the mess, and it occurred to me how silly this would all look to others watching us. I photographed a series of pictures of Monty's rope mess as I made fun of him from below. He would get one loop out to find another knotted ball a few feet further down on the rope. Holding the mess up to inspect it, he would look for the key loop that had knotted it and attempt to extricate it from the other similar-looking loops. Three or four minutes passed, and I would take another photo, explaining how I planned to post them as a series on the web to embarrass him. You can see them here: (1, 2, 3, 4, 5) Send mail to monty should you like to offer him additional abuse or perhaps sympathy.
He finally got it all together again, and tossed it for the third time, this time hitting the mark beautifully. He climbed back up to the anchor, set up the belay, and signaled to me that he was finally ready. I had tied into the rope, disassembled my anchor and came on up. It took only a few minutes to join Monty and Tom up on the ledge (going second is quite a bit easier than leading, that's for sure). As I got up there it became clear what had taken Monty so long to establish the anchor initially. He had used all eight or nine slings he had with him and the largest cams to establish an elaborate anchor system that reached back five or six feet to cracks at the back of the ledge. Monty smiled sheepishly as I marveled at the small engineering effort that had gone into equalizing the various anchor points. It was his first anchor on a real climb, and he wanted to make it bomb-proof. At that he succeeded, as I'm sure it would have held an elephant in a sling should we have had one handy and wanted to get it to the top as well. Better an over-built fortress than a hastily constructed shoddy one.
I lead the third pitch (normally the second) which was mostly just friction climbing up the face as the angle eased near the top. I found a good-sized boulder to set an anchor around and brought Tom up soon after. It took Monty a little while to disassemble his masterpiece and follow us up. While Monty was coming up, Tom had gone ahead to find a route up the remaining distance which had been reduced to a class 2 scramble. Tom had returned with the news that the route was clear (and wouldn't require the ropes) just before Monty reached me. This was good news, as it would allow us to leave the rope and gear here as we went up to the summit. Monty did the last 25 yards faster than I could belay the rope up, which was really no longer necessary. We left the gear at the last anchor point and headed up.
It was 3p when we reached the summit. We had spent three hours on the rope, probably three times what it would take a normal party, and maybe six times what it would take an experienced one. Good thing we had lots of time and nobody waiting behind us! At the summit we found the register box which had been placed in 1937. The previous entry was a week earlier. There had only been about seven or eight parties up here this year, which made us feel somewhat special. I noticed that R.J. Secor had been up last in 1997, his sixth time to summit. I would have thought it would get old after the second or third time, but what do I know? - I'm still enjoying my first go around on all these Sierra peaks. One of the other entries mentioned coming up the east face, something like class 5.6. That sounded like an interesting route as well. The views were quite nice, even with some haze that resulted from the controlled burns in several areas of the park. The back side of Half Dome was the closest peak 3 miles to the north. Echo Peaks could be seen far to the northeast and Mt. Florence to the east. Mt. Clark was nearby to the southeast with the rest of the Clark range stretching south from there. Mt. Clark looked quite impressive from here, and already I wanted to make plans to go there. Could it be done as a day hike? Funny how my thoughts get ahead of me. What we hadn't noticed (or more so were in denial about) while we were climbing were the thunderclouds building up over Mt. Clark. What had started as just a partly cloudy midday sky had built up to something quite a bit more threatening. So far the large clouds had kept to the eastern skies and it was still blue skies above us, but it had noticeably started moving west.
We took the requisite summit photos and signed the register. We spent half an hour on top before it became imperative that we head down. It looked like we would be fighting darkness and a potential rain shower at the same time. As we headed back down to our gear at the uppermost belay, I took a small side trip directly south off the summit when something had caught my eye down 40 yards or so. It turned out to be a rappel sling that had been used quite a bit, judging by the number of slings wrapped around the rock. I guessed that this was the more usual top of the second pitch, and it was probably a shorter rappel from here. But I decided it would be just as well to use our existing belay point as it was already set up, and we were already familiar with that route. I went back up and joined the others. We decided to have Monty and Tom rappel down to the large belay ledge, and I would then down climb the pitch. Since we only had one rope and had more than half the rope's length to get down to the ledge, we couldn't just double the rope and rappel that way. Besides, that would require us to leave protection on the mountain, and it hardly seemed justified for this easy pitch. There wasn't going to be any protection on the way down, but I wasn't worried about slipping on most of the pitch. The steepest part had been leaving the belay ledge in the beginning, so I just wanted Monty to keep me on the rope to keep me from slipping off past the ledge.
Monty went first to give Tom an idea as to what he was in for. It was a very easy rappel, but again would be a first for Tom. Once one gets the hang of it, rappelling can be quite fun, but it's a bit unnerving initially since it requires you to put your weight on the rope and trust that the anchor or belayer will hold you. After Monty was down and off the rope I set Tom up with his ATC (rappel device) that makes the process pretty easy. Even if you let go of the rope behind you controlling the decent, the ATC will lock the rope and stop the descent. Tom started off hesitatingly, as he once again needed to let his brain convince his body that this was safe enough to give it a whirl. It only took a minute before he got over his jitters and headed on down. He was finding that going down was indeed easier than going up. After Tom was down, I disassembled the anchor, donned the pack, and prepared to head down. Monty was down below constructing his elaborate anchor again, and I was being impatient again. Getting an unsatisfactory update on the radio, I decided to head down the easy portion so I could get a good view of the proceedings within shouting distance. I couldn't speed Monty up most likely, and it probably wouldn't be wise if I could, but at least I could make fun of him while I waited.
I easily walked down to within 5 yards of the belay ledge. That last bit was steep enough to make me think twice about going further. Tom and Monty were surprised to see me. Monty was still setting up the anchor, another work of beauty. As I had down-climbed, the rope had slid down ahead of me, accumulating in a bit of a tangled mess on the belay ledge with the other two, which wasn't helping them with their work. I watched a bit, gave my two cents, and then proceeded to let my impatience get the best of me. In all the kibitzing that was going on, I thought I had gotten one of the two to tie into the rope to belay be down the last bit. As I joined them on the ledge, they looked at me, and at each other.
"You got him on the rope?"
"No. Was I supposed to?"
"What? Where's the other end of the rope?"
"Lying in here somewhere."
"Nobody had me tied in? Great."
"I didn't hear you say anything. Why didn't you check?"
"Because I'm stupid, that's why."
We finally straightened everything out, organized the rope and gear, and worked out our plan. Tom would rappel first down to the first belay spot. Monty would follow, placing some protection in a few key spots. I would then disassemble the rappel anchor and down climb with Monty belaying from below. Monty had the tricky job of anticipating where the tough spots were for my down-climb and providing protection to keep me from falling too far should I slip at the crux. He did a superb job of this, I must say, and it was a rather fun pitch to do. After I join them at the first belay spot, we threaded the rope through the existing slings and tossed both ends of the rope down. They just made it far enough down (essentially a half-pitch length) where we could walk off the rock from the end of it. I went first on this rappel, followed by Tom and then Monty. We then pulled the rope through the sling, walked down to the saddle, and packed our climbing gear up.
It was 4:30p now, and the thunderstorm over Mt. Clark had begun to unleash the water it had been lifting for the last several hours. We could see the rain off in the distance, and it was getting closer all the time. It was only a mile off when we were ready to head out. It looked like we would be racing the rain to get back to the trailhead. We decided to avoid descending the gully we had come up earlier in the day, as it might require more rope work to get Tom safely off, and that might delay us a good deal. Instead, we chose to walk up to the top of the middle peak and descend off the other side, down the west gully between the middle and southern peaks. Tom decided to leave his climbing shoes on in case there was anymore friction climbing while Monty and I went with the far greater comfort afforded by our hiking boots. It's a short walk up to the middle peak, and then an interesting hike down granite slabs to the other saddle. The slope was close to the maximum I felt comfortable on with the hiking shoes, and it was really quite fun coming down. I had one eye watching the rock for the best foot placements and the other watching the clouds to the east getting closer.
When I got down to the saddle I waited for the other two. Monty was close behind and Tom was a ways further back. I didn't want to rush anyone, but I didn't want to get caught in the rain either. Tom was having a painful time coming down, his toes being crushed by the pressure pushing them into the front of the shoes. We had him change into the hiking boots at the saddle, and we all agreed it would be best to make swift progress descending. I felt a few drops of rain as the leading edge of the clouds reached Starr King, and we bolted off down the gully. The descent was pretty easy, lots of sand and loose rock, easy to skate and shuffle our way down. This route is definitely easier than the one we took on the way up, and recommended for others who may be heading this way. (Later I read a bunch of trail reports, and this route was in fact the most widely used.) Descending is always a welcome direction to travel at the end of the day, as it seems no matter how tired you might be, you can always go downhill. It boosts your moral as you make descent progress, and seems to give an extra bit of energy to your legs.
By the time we got back to Illilouette Creek, the advancing clouds had called a halt and seemed to stay hovered over Mt. Starr King. They seemed to be expending themselves, and had little of their earlier menace left in them. We were now back at the low spot and had to do the climb back up to the trailhead. Ooof. Our legs once again reminded us that we had been on them all day. The sun was beginning to set now, hovering in the trees. It seemed unlikely that we were going to get back before it was gone altogether. Tom gave up his lead at the steepest incline just before we reached Mono Meadow as he stopped to take a needed breather. While we weren't going to make it back before sunset, we were still hoping to make it back before dark without having to resort to flashlights. We didn't rest more than 2 minutes total on the hike back, so we were pretty beat when we made it back to the parking lot in the failing dusk just before 7:30p.
Wheh! We congratulated ourselves for a job well done, and broke out the well-deserved congratulatory beers from the coolers stashed in the bear box. After a quick change into more comfortable shoes and clothes, we packed up and headed down to Curry Village in Yosemite Valley. A hot shower and some hot pizza was on tap, the last difficult decision was to be in which order they would best maximize their enjoyment. We met John (who would join us for the next day's adventure to Half Dome) on the terrace of the pizza place, and sat down to enjoy some dinner and the usual recollection of the day's events.
For more information see these SummitPost pages: Mt. Starr King
This page last updated: Wed Feb 2 17:13:19 2022
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