Mt. Starr King 4x P900 SPS / WSC / CS

Jun 23, 2018

With: Scott Barnes
Iris Ma
Jackie Burd
Matt Yaussi
Michael Graupe

Etymology Story Photos / Slideshow Map GPX Profile
previously climbed Feb 8, 2003

Michael has been steadily working on completing the SPS list over the past 15yrs+ that I've known him. He announced last year that he planned to finish in 2018. We worked out an arrangement to have his list finish during the Sierra Challenge, giving him extra incentive to get the 12+ remaining peaks on the list done in a timely manner. One of these was Starr King, a modest rope climbing effort in Yosemite, for which he was looking for a partner. I had already been up it three times, but had been thinking about taking my daughter there as a good practice in working up to Half Dome's Snake Dike route. Starr King would be about 12mi with 4,000ft of gain, the hardest hike she'd done to date and a good test piece. And so we made plans for three of us to meet up in Yosemite towards the end of June. As the date got closer we had more folks joining us, a total of eight at one point before it settled down to six. Jackie had another engagement in San Francisco the following day, so it was going to be a marathon day for us, getting up at 1a for the 6a meeting at the trailhead, then another 4hr drive after the anticipated 8-9hrs for the outing. It's been a while since I've turned a Sierra day like this and it's getting a bit tougher as I get older.

Taking a page from her mother's book of tricks, Jackie was able to sleep almost the entire drive, falling asleep within about 20min and not waking up until I was prodding her ten minutes from the trailhead. Even a stop for gas and breakfast failed to rouse her from her slumber. Matt was the only one of the group at the Mono Meadow TH when we arrived around 5:40a. Just past the summer solstice, it was plenty light out at this hour and the sun was due to rise in only about 15min. Scott and Iris arrived next in Scott's car, followed by Michael a few minutes before 6a. Scott and Iris were planning to do the much more involved West Face route while the rest of us took the tourist route up the Southeast Face. We would hike as a group for the first few hours, splitting up after starting the cross country. I had brought several full length ropes which I doled out to Michael and Matt to carry while I kept the climbing hardware for myself. Jackie got a pass on this one, having only to carry her helmet, harness, a jacket and a couple quarts of Gatorade. Despite the somewhat late arrivals, we were all ready pretty quickly, starting off from the trailhead within about 15min.

The hike starts off easily enough, 3mi of downhill or flat as one makes their way down to Illilouette Creek, a drop of about 900ft. There is the bog at Mono Meadows reached after the first half-mile of downhill, some tricky log-balancing needed to keep one's boots dry (not all of us were successful at this). There is a trail junction before reaching Illilouette Creek where we paused to get our bearings. It was here that I admitted not having actually looked at the map or route recently. I was relying on Michael's expert orienteering skills to find the best route and he did not disappoint, as he was the one to speak up first and get us headed in the right direction. As we neared Illilouette Creek we passed by a group of several tents off the trail in the woods, not a soul stirring that we could tell. They would be packed up and gone before we returned in the afternoon. The Illilouette Creek crossing can often be the crux of the day with dangerous spring/early summer runoff, but with low snow conditions this year it was fairly tame. We took off our boots and socks, rolled up our pant legs and waded across the creek up to about our knees. Jackie and I had brought sandals to make this easier on our feet, but the others didn't seem to have much trouble. After putting our boots back on at the other side, we stashed the sandals in the forest and continued up the trail, now on a gentle climb. It is open and sandy for a stretch (ugh, ugh) but soon re-enters the forest. Starr King can be seen through the trees, washed out by the early morning sun and it is soon time to start the cross-country.

Not long after the trail turns to the southeast, we left it to follow a course to the northeast, aiming for the saddle between Starr King's lower middle and south summits, keeping to the right of the drainage. This avoids the heavier brush found by following the small creek channel, but with 1,800ft of gain to the saddle it is still a good deal of work. Around the 7,000-foot level, Iris and Scott broke off to head more north towards the base of the massive West Face they intended to climb. It was the last we'd see of them on the day - they would summit very late in the evening, not returning to the trailhead until around 10p. They reported it as a fantastic climb. Meanwhile, four of us continued the steady pace up to the saddle. Jackie had been worried that she was going to slow us down, but it was Matt who took up the rear position, going at a more leisurely pace. We lost sight of him after a while but figured he knew where we were headed. Jackie was the only one I had to keep track of today and she was never far away.

It was 8:50a by the time we reached the saddle. Michael commented that he wanted to climb the south summit on the way back. "Must be on Peakbagger," I quipped to which he smiled, "Yeah..." I suggested we do it now while we're fresh or we might forgo it later, and so we did. Jackie stayed put at the saddle while Michael and I took about five minutes to climb the granite slabs and broken rock to the summit, the lowest of the three domes. We had dropped our packs at the saddle which made the short climb seem quite easy. We took a few pictures and went back down to the saddle to collect Jackie and continue up and over the middle summit. She seemed a little concerned that we didn't wait for Matt but we told her, "He'll find us ... probably." The middle summit is quite a bit higher than the southern one, taking more than twice as long to reach the rounded top where we had a fine view of Starr King's Southeast Face. We walked the short distance down to the high saddle between the two higher domes and took off our packs where the roped climbing starts. We got out ropes and other gear while Matt came wandering down from the middle summit to join us, much as expected. Jackie snacked while we flaked ropes and worked out a plan to get the four of us up the face.

It was not the fastest of strategies, but it worked, getting us to the summit about two hours after we had first reached the saddle. Much of this time was spent getting the gear ready, harnesses, climbing shoes and helmets on, and then some instruction on how we could have four people simul-climb on the two ropes. I had five Ti-Bloks to be placed with each piece of protection, allowing the rope to travel freely in one direction (up) but lock up in the other (a pull from below). I was on the front end of the first rope, Jackie second, tied into the middle of the rope. Michael was third, tied into the end of the first rope and the front end of the second rope. Matt took up the rear position at the end of the second rope. In hindsight, it would have been better to have Matt tie into the middle of the second rope and carry the remaining rope in a coil, thus keeping him closer to Michael for better communication. Stretched out with two full rope lengths, we were never all four climbing at the same time as I was able to reach the upper belay station before Matt had even left the saddle. I spent some time instructing the others how to move the Ti-Bloks off the uphill rope and onto the downhill rope as they passed them (this was for Jackie and Michael) while Matt got the job of cleaning the gear at the end. Once all this was straightened out I started up.

The climbing is not difficult, mostly steep slabs with some flakes, and a few ledges to break things up. There are three rap stations on the route, the first two I used simply as an anchor point for a pair of Ti-bloks. I placed three others along the way, stretching them out so that there was always one between any two of us in the chain. Jackie was the only one without climbing shoes, so she understandably took longer on the cruxier slab sections, but she managed these nicely. We had to pause the train when anyone reached a Ti-Blok, taking a minute to move it from one rope strand to another, slowly snaking our way up the route. Once I reached the uppermost belay station, I clipped in and switched to belaying mode, bringing the others up one after the other. There was much waiting around, especially for Jackie who was first off the rope, which she used to catch up on her summer tanning. Once the others had joined us, we left the ropes in a few piles and continued up the remaining distance over class 3 slabs to the summit.

It was 11:15a when we reached the open summit, a clear day with sweeping views around Yosemite. I was almost surprised to find that the Sierra Club's aluminum register box was still there. Inside were the same two books that were there on my last visit, 15yrs earlier. The books were nearly full as the later entries have taken to using some skipped pages. The weather was just lovely for our time at the summit, a light breeze, warm sunshine and such fine views. After about half an hour we packed up and started back down, reconvening at the upper rap station where we'd left the rope and other gear. We decided to tie the two ropes together and rap down, hoping that we might be able to do it in a single rap and even more hope that the friction wouldn't be so great as to make pulling the ropes down impossible. When I conveyed this latter concern, Michael offered, "Well, you can always just climb back up and retrieve it." The two-rope rappel allowed us to reach as far as the lowest rap station, not quite enough to get us off the face entirely. Going down first, I tested the rope pull (I was just able to overcome the friction) before signalling for the others to come down in turn. There was more waiting around to get all four of us down, but after a second short rap on a single rope we were all back to the saddle by 12:20p. We changed shoes and packed away the rest of the gear before starting the long trek back.

It was warmer now and would be nearly 80F by the time we returned to the trailhead. We retraced our route over the middle summit and down the westside drainage towards the trail. Along the way we came across an unusual boulder perched atop a small pedestal. It was overhanging on all sides with no easy way up. With a boost from Michael and myself, Jackie was able to scramble atop what I later dubbed "Jackies Gem" when I added it for fun on the peakbagger site. Despite her concerns about being a boat anchor, Jackie seemed to have enough reserves to keep up with Michael and I for the remaining distance back to the trail, across the creek and the more difficult 900ft of gain to get back to the TH. We came across some other folks before and after reaching Illilouette Creek, overall a pretty quiet day in the Yosemite backcountry. About a mile from the TH we came across a young cub walking the trail ahead of us. It took off at a run when it spied us, too quick for me to get a photo. We saw it again a few minutes later (and it again ran off), but never saw mama bear who we figured was probably nearby somewhere. We had lost track of Matt after leaving Jackies Gem, but he found us again at the TH about 15min after we arrived around 3:15p. A couple of beers for the old men and sodas for the others helped frame the end of a successful day. Once again, Jackie would sleep almost the entire drive back to San Jose that afternoon, but this time she had really earned it...

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