Stegosaurus Fin P500 ESS / CS
Rockhouse Peak 2x P500 SPS / ESS

Fri, Dec 8, 2006

With: Matthew Holliman

Story Photos / Slideshow Maps: 1 2 3 Profile
Rockhouse Peak previously climbed Fri, Jun 17, 2005


I had a somewhat fitful night sleeping in the back of the van. I would have thought I'd sleep soundly after a long day of scrambling, but I wasn't quite warm enough. The temperature in Big Meadow hovered around 25F, a chilly December night and my sleeping bag was barely adequate even inside the vehicle - I should have brought the down bag instead of the summer one made of cloth. I woke up at various times through the night. In coursing its way across the sky, the moon would shine in my face through a window when it got the opportunity. One time I sat up and in my confused state of being barely awake I thought the trees were dusted in fresh snow - it was just the moonlight shining on them. Late in the night I noticed Matthew's Subaru parked on the other side of the road. He had made the long drive from the Bay Area starting around 9p. His sleep would certainly be less satisfying than my own, so I had nothing to complain about.

I woke with the alarm set to 7a, and immediately started the van to get the heater going and warm the air inside. I dressed and breakfasted in the relative luxury of my petroleum-fueled abode. Eventually I wandered outside to greet Matthew who I hadn't seen in a month and a half. After something like five years of owning the Subaru, he had just found out how to fold the back seats flat to allow him to sleep comfortly - after years of cramped quarters trying to sleep on a reclined seat. Better late than never. With the sun barely up and temperatures below freezing, neither of us was in a big hurry though we knew we needed to get going - there's not much daylight at this time of year and we hadn't curtailed our hiking plans to fit the daytime hours. Our primary objective for the day was Stegosaurus Fin, a rocky peak buried deep in the Domeland Wilderness with something like a 12 mile approach. If things went well we'd also visit Rockhouse Peak and White Dome, though I didn't give either of those much chance. Stegosaurus, which we knew little about, reportedly had an airy class 4 summit block. We'd be bringing a rope and a small load of rock gear in case it was needed.

It was around 8a by the time we had driven around to the east side of Big Meadow and started on the trail heading east. It took 45min to reach the corral at Manter Meadow, where we turned left and followed the trail north to Tibbets Creek. Temperatures improved rapidly, and we were soon very comfortable in just t-shirts with the air about 50F - perfect hiking weather. There were many rocky domes and pinnacles that caught our eye, the largest of which Matthew correctly guessed to be named Bart Dome. Elsewhere, we came across an odd rock along the trail, about 10ft high and looking like a giant granite golfball on a tee. I instantly recognized the rock from a picture in Jenkins' Exploring the Southern Sierra, East Side. We failed to climb it unassisted, but with a little boost we were both able to mantle our way atop it - a fun little diversion that took us all of ten minutes.

Not long after we crossed over a saddle into the Tibbets Creek drainage, the trail began to grow thin amongst blowdown and understory regrowth from the Manter Fire. We wandered from one side of the creek to the other in search of the trail, sometimes finding remnants of it and duck markers, other times finding nothing. Eventually we gave up on the trail since the cross-country travel was not difficult at all. With the aid of our topo we correctly avoided following Tibbets Creek where it turned east and dropped more steeply. We followed the drainage to the north where the trail was indicated on the map, but there was little to be found of the trail itself. When we got around an intervening rocky outcrop, Stegosaurus Fin came into view when we were still about three miles to the west. From that distance it looked like we could scale the west side of Stegosaurus Fin to reach the summit block, so we took a more direct cross-country heading for the peak, abandoning both the trail and Jenkins' description to approach the peak from the south.

The cross-country turned out to be harder than we thought it would be, not because of harsh bushwhacking, but due to the nature of the rolling terrain that we hadn't seen clearly from afar. It was 11:30a before we reached the base of the peak, with another half hour spent to climb the class 2 West Side and an unsuccessful attempt to climb to the summit block by a direct route on that side. Wasting only a few minutes, we climbed back down the sketchy slabs and popped through a notch to the north side of the peak. Here we rejoined Jenkins' description, scrambing class 3 rocks up to the summit block. The whole time we had been climbing from the west we could see a massive block standing upright near the summit. It looked to be vertical on all sides and we hoped that it was not the highest block at the summit. Indeed, a set of rocks to the left looked like they might be higher. As we scrambled up the last few feet to the top we became painfully aware that the east summit we stood upon was not the highest point.

The massive block, some 50ft high, stood like a citadel wall to the west. It was not just imposing, but frightening to consider climbing. It didn't take me long to rationalize that I would be ok if we didn't make it to the summit of this behemoth. We must have stared and studied the thing from our safer perch for a good five minutes before we verbalized our doubts about being able to climb it. There were some difficult-looking blocks piled up on the east side of the true summit, but they reached only halfway up the block. The rest of the way looked like a blank face. The exposure was a fright. Eventually, I decided I ought to at least go over for a close look before we turned around, so I downclimbed to the notch between the summits and scrambled up to the loose blocks (what Jenkins mockingly calls the "East Arete"). With a bit of difficulty, I pulled myself onto a sloping block (with bottomless exposure) and carefully climbed to the top of the loose blocks and the end of the East Arete. I expected to get no further. Looking right, I saw I might be able to climb higher to a thin ledge, but only a skinny crack ran up vertically from there. It was too scary to consider. Looking left, I found a ledge two feet wide running horizontally across the east face of the block. It was practically invisible from afar, but quite doable once I was on it. The exposure was again scary, but the ledge was wide enough that you couldn't rate it more than class 2. There appeared to be nothing at the end of the ledge. I scampered cautiously out on the ledge, figuring I ought to see if some miraculous staircase could be found on the south side of the block.

Matthew watched silently as I made my way across the ledge and peered around the corner when I reached the end of the east face. There was nothing around that side but another vertical wall, and my ledge was at an end. Looking up, the SE Edge of the block looked to be scalloped and sloped at something like 45 degrees. I instantly realized that this was the final key piece that was invisible from the east summit. Large chickenheads made for great holds, and I was soon pulling myself off the ledge and scrambling this last easy section to the top of the huge block. Still not at the very summit, the final obstacle was a 10-foot block resting atop larger one. The main block was thin in the east-west direction, maybe 10ft across, so there wasn't any room to walk around the smaller block and find an easier way up. The last 10ft were near vertical, but the block was small enough to get my hands around it, and usable holds could be found on the edges of the block. The exposure was minimal since the larger block was quite flat on top, and I found it easy to zip up that final distance. And just like that, the whole excursion taking less than ten minutes, I was on top!

This was undoubtedly one of the most impressive Sierra summits I had ever been on. And the peak wasn't even on any of the Sierra peak lists. Matthew had watched the whole episode, but was not much nearer to getting over his initial anxiety of its impossibility. Easily conversing between the two summits, I tried to assure him it was far, far easier than it had appeared initially. The crux in fact was the lower part of the East Arete in climbing to the ledge. I got Matthew to at least descend to the notch and check out the crux section before giving up. Reversing the upper sections, I met Matthew back at the East Arete where he had scrambled up the easier part until the crux mantle. Here progress ground to a halt as Matthew mulled over the various components of fear, pride, doubt, and determination that gripped both mind and body. I could tell him the rocks were mostly solid and the lichen wasn't that slick, but I couldn't honestly say the exposure was no big deal. A slip here was almost certainly death.

We could have gotten out the rope at this point to make things safer, but that bit of pride in Matthew didn't want to resort to it unless absolutely necessary. Was it possible to use a cheater sling, he wondered? I offered to jam my leg in a crack and dangle a sling down to him at the crux, but after he had dug it out of his pack we came upon a better idea and tied the sling to a protruding rock to allow Matthew to wrap the other end around his hand and keep it in reserve for the crux move. This worked like a charm, and as is usually the case, the extra comfort it provided was all that was needed to get Matthew past the crux. After that, it didn't take long to make it back across the ledge, up the SE Edge, and up to the flat top of the huge block. There was more stalling at the final block as Matthew struggled with his head again - he knew the exposure was minimal on the side it would be climbed, but looking down at air on either side a few inches away was very unnerving. As before, he eventually got it all straightened out in his mind and found his way up. We were both elated. After our initial depression, this one worked out sweeter than we could have hoped. We looked around briefly for a summit register, but there was no sign of one. Photos would have to do.

We climbed back down, reversing our route all the way back to the north side of the peak. Here we changed course and moved east to descend the Jenkins route around the east side of the summit through a small saddle. There was lots of enjoyable class 3 scrambling and it was both sad and a relief to find ourselves on easier ground. By now it was 1:30p and our grander plan of reaching White Dome was looking like a stretch. We made a direct line towards Rockhouse Peak a few miles to the southwest. Not surprisingly, we saw no sign of the trail that our maps indicated we should cross on our way across the intervening valley. It would appear that nature is slowly winning back this part of the Domelands. On the other side of the valley we climbed the steep but straighforward class 2 slopes on the northeast side of Rockhouse. This would be my second ascent and Matthew's third, and about the only reason to be doing it again was because it was sort of on the way back. It was about 3:45p when we finally made our way to the top of Rockhouse, the highest point in this whole area. The sun was getting low on the horizon, shadows lengthened, a breeze had picked up, and we rapidly grew cold on the summit. We didn't stay long.

Beating a hasty retreat, we scampered down the way we had climbed the summit portion, then down the southeast side of the peak. Our plan was to pick up the trail we used on our last visit to Rockhouse, making a large loop for our return. We knew this other trail was thin as well, so getting back as far as we could before needing headlamps was important. White Dome was no longer possible and we hardly gave it another thought after Rockhouse. We found the trail, following it back until we lost it again at Little Manter Meadow (interestingly, the 7.5' map shows the trail discontinuous here). By then it was 5p and growing dark quickly. In crossing the meadow we made a few missteps, sinking our shoes in the saturated ground (who would have guessed it would be this wet in December?). Eventually we refound the trail on the west side of the meadow and we made our way to Manter Meadow. It was far too dark to see before reaching the larger meadow and we had our headlamps on as we once again lost the trail before we got there. Clouds that had started rolling in while atop Rockhouse now completely covered the skies, making them even darker. We hoped any rain would hold off until we got back to the TH. On we marched. We were close to a prolonged diversion into the proverbial (and literal) weeds when I happened to catch a glimpse of a trail sign up ahead. Locating this, we were able to stay on track and get ourselves back to the trail.

We continued on for another 30-45min expecting to find the trail junction back to Big Meadow. We passed another corral but no trail junction as the trail began a slow climb we didn't expect. I began to suspect we missed our junction and were headed back towards Tibbets Creek. Calling a halt to the trek as I grew more nervous, we talked about it for few minutes and decided to continue. I don't think we went another 100 yards before I again stopped. It didn't seem right and I dropped my pack to get out my compass and maps for a more thorough checking. While I did that, Matthew took a reading on his GPS that he happened to toss in the pack for just such a problem. We matched the latitude/longitude readings of the GPS to the map as closely as our tired brains could interpolate them. It looked like we were a short distance north of the junction by our reckoning. So we packed up, turned around, and within ten minutes came upon the junction. Because of the way it joins, the trail we wanted wasn't easily visible coming from the southeast as we had done initially. Now it was quite clear. Our concerns melted away at this point because although it was growing colder by the minute, the trail was now well-defined and we knew we were on the right track.

It was a good deal longer back to the trailhead than we had recalled in the morning, with something like 1,000ft of gain to the saddle between Manter and Big meadows. Very light snow began to fall, catching us by surprise - I had forgotten it would be too cold for rain. Oddly, the stars would be out and the clouds completely gone by 9p. Our tired bodies were on automatic long before we managed to trudge over the saddle and back to the trailhead sometime after 8p. It had been a long day, but one we considered highly successful. Our celebration was not commensurate with the day's success, consisting of a Mike's Hard Ale and snack food for dinner in the van before going to bed. We're not what you might call "party people."


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For more information see these SummitPost pages: Stegosaurus Fin - Rockhouse Peak

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