Sun, Aug 12, 2012
Steven Jay Gould is an unofficially named summit in the Evolution region, just west of Mt. Mendel. It is the traditional starting point for the long, technical Evolution Traverse made popular by Peter Croft in his book, The Good, the Great, and the Awesome, with this traverse part of the "awesome" category. We had climbed Mts. Darwin, Mendel and Haeckel on previous Challenges, so this would make the fourth summit from that traverse. It is by no means an easy outing, requiring one to first climb Lamarck Col (at nearly the same height as our summit), then descend 1,500ft into Darwin Canyon before starting the climb to Mt. Gould. As usual for a North Lake start, there was some confusion as to where to gather in the morning. The TH is located at the campground, but parking there is restricted to campers only. The TH parking is 3/4 mile further east near North Lake itself which is the location I tell folks to meet. Most read the fine print, but not all. By the time we had walked to the TH from the parking lot we had only 14 of the 21 participants for a group photo, but no matter, we'd see most of the others along the trail soon enough.
I started the hike to Lamarck Lakes at the end of the pack, chatting some with my brothers, Rick and Jim in front of me, Ron just behind. This was the first day Rick was actually hiking with us and he showed some initial enthusiasm, outpacing the other two for a few hours. Once we reached Lower Lamarck Lake, I made sure Rick was able to find the unsigned turnoff for Lamarck Col and we followed the trail a bit before I picked up the pace and left him behind. I caught up with Michael, Kevin and others on the series of switchbacks above the turnoff, Adam on the traverse above the switchbacks, then spent some time by myself for the next 45min or so, making my way towards the col. As I approached the large tarn just east of the col I spotted two folks half way up the snowfield leading to the col - these turned out to be Jonathan and Pat, though I didn't know it at the time.
I made it to the col shortly after 8:30a. In past Challenges folks paused here to catch their breath and regroup. Sean, Jonathan and Pat had already started down the other side before I arrived and only Tom G was visible behind me, about halfway up the snowfield. Hoping to catch up with the others ahead, I stopped only long enough to snap a few pictures and immediately I started down through the maze of boulder fields that characterize the west side of the col. I soon learned that it was Jonathan and Pat I had seen on the snowfield earlier. Jonathan's voice could be heard quite distinctly booming through the rocks even though the two were out of sight most of the time. By now I'd learned that Jonathan likes to talk - a lot - and I'd found that my own enjoyment of the wilderness experience was best taken with Jonathan in stretches not exceeding dosages set forth by the Surgeon General. I knew that Jonathan was heading to Mendel and would thus split off once at the bottom of Darwin Canyon, so I let Pat occupy his attention while I skirted the two of them well to the left on the decent down to the first lake.
I reached the lake before them by a few minutes, finding a large party encamped near the outlet, drying out pads and sleeping bags and other morning chores. I skipped across the rocks and boulders above them without passing through their camp and started up the extensive boulder fields that line the route route to the mountain. I came across two climbers on their way down from the edge of the Mendel glacier. They were of the encamped party I had just passed, on their way down after examining the start of Mendel's NE Ridge and finding it too spicy for their liking though they carried a rope and other climbing gear. This was the same route that Jonathan and Adam were heading to, the same that I had taken a few years earlier when we had climbed Mendel during the Challenge. I recall that the beginning was indeed a bit spicy, but the trickiest parts were much higher on the route. The pause I took in talking with the others allowed Pat to catch up to me after splitting off from Jonathan, which was my intention. I hadn't spent more than a few minutes with Pat during the first two days, but her ability to keep up at the front had caught my attention and I wanted to spend some time getting to know her better - this seemed like the perfect opportunity.
We traveled together up to the Mendel Glacier that lies between the two peaks, talking a bit about the WWII airmen that had crashed on the glacier during a training flight and how one of them had been retrieved only in the last year or two. Almost as soon as we mentioned the possibility of finding airplane parts, we cam across a thin metal strip about 16" long lying on the ice. Though others would report finding more interesting pieces, it was the only one we saw on our trek across the ice, snow and rock. With such a dry year as we had, the glacier had melted back significantly, showing the underlying ice with embedded rock, rivulets of water coursing through the ice in many channels. It was a fascinating world of water and ice that captivated our attention the whole time we spent in crossing it, a mix of geologic forces, human history, and natural beauty.
When we were done crossing the ice portions (no need for axe or crampons as the embedded rocks were more than sufficient traction), we turned our attention to the East Face of Mt. Gould. We heard rockfall in the middle of it, about a third of the way up, eventually spying Sean taking what looked like a direct but dangerous route to the summit. It seemed terribly steep from our perspective and with several more incidences of rockfall we thought it not the safest route for us to follow. Secor's description of the East Face begins with "Climb the glacier north of Mount Mendel to its top, aiming for a point immediately right of the far right-hand side ice couloir that rises above the glacier." The highest point on the glacier we could see leads to the couloir splitting Mendel and Gould, so this seemed to be the obvious point referenced in the description. From that point I could imagine an ascending traverse through what looked like class 3 broken rock that somewhat fits the rest of the description. Confident I had identified the route, we headed up in that direction. It was a mistake in the making.
We managed well enough to begin with, climbing the steep parts of the glacier without needing our axe or crampons by utilizing the myriad embedded rocks and small cups in the snow. After the fact we admitted the crampons would have been a wiser idea and we should not have let laziness get the better of us. In reaching the top of the glacier, we could see that the couloir had mostly melted out from what we could imagine it usually looks like with a tongue of snow and ice reaching up towards the notch between the two peaks. The first rock we encountered upon exiting the glacier was abysmally loose, dusty and downright dangerous, a result of exposed rock that has spent years buried under the snow. I carefully climbed up ahead of Pat to examine the ascending traverse portion of the route I'd picked out, hoping the rock higher up would be of better quality with less glacial debris littering the landscape. I had trouble getting a view for more than 10-20ft at a time and had to continue upward in order to get a grasp of the situation. Meanwhile, Pat was slowly making her way up too, cautious to stay out of my fall line until I told her I was secure and would stop moving. Others by now had reached the glacier and were crossing it towards the middle of the face where Sean had gone up. I started having second thoughts on our choice when I realized they had no intention of following us towards the couloir. The ascending traverse I had hoped for didn't materialize as we came to a wall of class 5 climbing. Pat let me know that she was on as tough a route as she'd ever been so there was no way I was going to make it even harder - not that I would have gone that way even if I was solo. The route we had taken so far to reach our precarious position had been so loose and sketchy that neither of us had any desire to downclimb it. I looked for alternatives and found some class 3 ledges leading left into the couloir. Maybe we could find a route or exit in that direction? Again I went ahead to scout the route, after which Pat would follow. She was very good at verbalizing her feelings - "I'm kinda scared, but I've got it together," she said at one point. I admitted to being scared as well - I don't like this kind of loose stuff where every footstep feels like it might slip out from under you due to excessive sand and gravel or the rock itself might just pull out. It was awful, nerve-wracking stuff. I was highly impressed that Pat was able to keep her cool - it made all the difference between making a sketchy climb requiring intense concentration, and a panic situation. She was superb throughout our mini-ordeal. Over on the East Face, Sean was on his way down and called out to us, asking what we were doing. "Making a big mistake!" I shouted back. At least someone would know where to look for the bodies.
We continued up this ugly couloir, the upper two thirds completely free of snow but no less loose than the lower portions. At least it wasn't as sketchy as the intial section we'd climbed just right of the couloir. My confidence was returning as we neared the notch. I explained to Pat three options I could imagine to get us out of the predicament. The best option would be to find a route from the notch to Gould's summit. Perhaps the backside of the notch would prove less difficult than the north side. Alternatively we might be able to climb to Mendel from the notch, after which we'd descend the East Face of that peak which I'd been down before. And worst case, I figured we might just climb down the west side of the notch to Evolution Lake and circle around back to Darwin Canyon. Upon reaching the notch, all this hopefulness was soon dashed on the broken rocks and faces that we were presented with. I downclimbed the other side of the notch a short distance but saw no reasonable way to either reach Gould or downclimb the narrow, steep chute descending from that point. Back at the notch, I could discern no workable way to get us to Mendel's summit from the west side. I sort of laughed - "I guess we have to take the fourth option that I didn't even consider a few minutes ago - descending back down the couloir."
And this is what we did. Slowly, ever so carefully, we descended step by step, talking to each other the whole time as much to reassure the other as ourselves. It worked out to be easier and safer than we expected. We took turns on those places where it was unsafe to travel together. I would go down first while Pat waited, sending a cavalcade of rock, debris and dust down before me, making an awful racket and clouds of dust, then I'd move off to the side to a secure stance and call for Pat to follow. Anyone in the area would think that there were people dying at regular intervals. There was some ice in the couloir that we thankfully could avoid by downclimbing on the side. Though we carried crampons and axe, they would have been woefully inadequate on the hard ice that marked some sections. We were prepared for low-angle travel over old snow, not steep ice climbing. When we reached the top of the glacier we put on our crampons - no more taking chances and proceeded down to where the angle was easier and we could both breath a sigh of relief.
It was now nearly noon and we had spent the better part of two hours climbing the wrong route above the glacier. Clouds that had been gathering over the last hour had coalesced and covered most of the sky. Afternoon rainshowers looked to be developing. The others that had gone to the summit of Mendel had already descended and were out of sight somewhere on their way back to Lamarck Col. The two of us seemed the only souls left on this side of the Sierra Crest. We discussed briefly our desire to summit Gould and the adviseability of doing so at this juncture, considering the weather. I really wanted to reach the summit of this 13er today, not looking forward to another march across the col and endless boulder fields yet again another day. Pat wanted to as well, but was less determined after our recent ordeal. She wondered how long it would take to get to the summit and back to which I replied, "Probably two hours." I knew that I could do it myself in much less time, but I didn't want to be overly optimistic lest we get into a second round of trouble. I told Pat I'd be happy to stay with her the whole time if she wanted to join me. She seemed as much concerned with slowing me down as she was with the developing weather. I tried to alleviate her of the first concern but of course could do little with the latter - I knew it was a risk to continue to the summit with a sky full of threatening clouds. At the end of our brief exchange she decided to head down which I thought was the best choice for her to make (though I kept that to myself).
As Pat started down, I moved right and up towards the center of Gould's East Face where I'd seen the others go earlier. I was on a mission now to get to the summit and back to the glacier before any rain or lightning started and went about it in a most determined fashion. Once on the East Face, the slope was not so terribly vertical as Pat and I had seen it from the glacier earlier in the morning, and the climbing went pretty much at class 3 as advertised. It was not as loose as the crud we had been on and I was very good (or lucky) not to knock any rock down. The route-finding was not easy, but either by luck or skill or some combination I managed to find my way through the various ledge systems, chockstones and gullies to reach the summit in a bit more than half an hour. Some of this was made easier by the footprints in the sand that I found from time to time made by the others and I was happy to make use of the route options they had picked out hours earlier. I saw no sign of a register at the summit, found at the north end of a flattish ridge. Because of the ever worsening weather, I stayed but a moment to snap a few pictures looking south to Evolution Basin, west to Evolution Valley and north to Darwin Canyon and east to Mt. Mendel. The retreat off the summit went even faster, thanks to gravity and swift descents through the sand. I also made good use of the GPS to retrace my track which helped in several places where I got off-route and found more difficult territory I had to back out from. Just over an hour after starting up, I was back once again on the glacier that was becoming ever so familiar to me. As I was recrossing the exposed ice portion in the middle, the first drops of rain began to fall. I looked back at the East Face for one last picture, then put the camera away in the pack to keep it dry. It would not come out again.
The drops started out light, but I had no illusion about the liklihood of a good drenching. The previous day had ended with a good hard afternoon rain and I saw no reason for today to be any better. The big difference of course was that I was nowhere near the TH as I had been the day before. I still had to scramble through the boulder fields down to Darwin Canyon and back up to Lamarck Col, then five miles of mostly trail back to North Lake - it would be hours before I'd get back. So the first thing I did after hiding the camera away was to get out fleece, balaclava and gloves. I didn't expect to keep dry, but by moving continuously I should be sufficiently warm to ward off hypothermia. One of my more immediate concerns was how slippery the boulder fields might get when wet. I was happy to find that it made very little difference. The granite boulders had plenty of feldspar to keep it sharp, with good traction, and no lichen to make things slippery.
There was no one at the campsite where the large party had been camped earlier in the day when I got back to Darwin Lakes. On the way up to the col I came across Tom, Michael and Tommey, all on their way back from Gould and all having as much fun in the rain as myself. They appeared somewhat better prepared than myself with actual rain jackets that did a better job of keeping the wet out. Somewhere while still on the west side of the crest we heard the first peel of thunder off in the distance. There would be half a dozen or so additional ones before I got back, but overall very little in the way of thunder/lightning. Mostly it just rained. On the east side of the col Tommey and I stuck together, jogging the places where we could. About a mile east of the col we came across Pat who almost looked like she'd been waiting for us. Indeed, I think she was, after spying the two of us jogging down the sandy trail a quarter mile behind her. The three of us were wet through, but cheerfully so. Misery loves company. It was now three of us jogging down the trail, Pat in the lead with Tommey and I tailing behind. Where the trail went uphill Pat would continue her running until she realized Tommey and I were not, when she'd pause to wait for us. Clearly she had the most energy between the three of us. One of the things I had learned during our long time together was that Pat was a high school boys cross-country coach. And a good one, too, I surmised because she ran with them regularly and was in terrific shape. Running uphill for her was just part of the workout for her. That she was two years older than me prevented me from trying to use the "old man" card - there was just no denying that she was in better shape than me. My only advantage was in my backcountry experience where she was relatively new to the mountaineering game. It's only been a year or two since she started and she was learning fast.
It was 3:30p when the three of us returned to the parking lot at North Lake. I was thoroughly soaked to the skin, the water squishing between my toes, my underwear uncomfortably sticking too close to my body. The others weren't in much better shape, but we were at least sufficiently warm, at the moment anyway. I knew that I would begin to grow cold within about few minutes of being stationary, so the first thing I did was start up the van to get the heater going, then stripped off all the wet clothes and put on some dry ones. It was instant wonderfulness. I still got cold shortly with my fingers white and numb, but it didn't last long as my body worked overtime to adjust between being active to non-active with the outside and skin temperatures making similarly wild swings. Back in Bishop I would have to spend a good deal of time removing everything from my pack and spreading it out about the room to get it to dry, which it was reluctant to do since it was rainy in town, too. Luckily I had spare boots and most of the important stuff would dry in time for the next day. We had more rain coming during the week, but I had a better plan to deal with it...
Jersey Strategy: Jonathan was successful in his climb of Mendel via the NE Ridge, but it took him out of the running for the Yellow jersey. By now there were only three of us that had climbed all three of this year's Challenge peaks - Tom, Michael and myself, and I had a lead of 45 minutes over them - a difficult amount to overcome unless I did some extra bonus peaks. Jonathan was still in the Green jersey with 3 Challenge peaks. Sean and Tom were still tied for the Polka Dot jersey with a total of six peaks each. Kevin took a rest day but still held the lead for the White jersey which had only weak competition so far.
This page last updated: Wed Oct 24 16:17:31 2012
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