Sat, May 6, 2006
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later climbed Fri, Apr 27, 2007|
We were up at 4a in order to have time to eat breakfast, pack our things, and drive from Ridgecrest to Lone Pine in order to meet the others at 6a. Matt, Rick, Michael and Mark were already at the junction to Horshoe Meadow on the Whitney Portal Rd when I drove up a few minutes before 6a. Mike and Bill were a few minutes behind me, and just like that we had our quorum. Plan A had been to drive up to Horseshoe Meadow for an easy acclimatization hike to Muah Mtn, but one of our party had checked the day before and found the road closed well below the trailhead. Plan B, a visit to Thor Peak, was quickly put into effect as we drove in caravan fashion up to the Mt. Whitney Trailhead.
Thor is neither very high nor does it require a long approach, making it a good warmup for the Big Hike planned the following day. The previous year we had overdone the warmup on Saturday and never made it out to George Creek as planned on Sunday. I was hoping to get back early in the afternoon today and avoid that serious mistake again. The easiest and quickest route to Thor is via the North Fork of Lone Pine Creek, hiking up to Lower Boy Scout Lake and then a long snow climb up the northeast side. Rick had enticed us with the suggestion of a class 5.4 route on the southeast side called Stemwinder that was purportedly a great deal of stiff class 3 with a few tougher sections, one class 4, the other 5.4. Because it was past May 1, the Whitney Zone rules were in force and legally it required a permit even for a dayhike to the south side of Thor (the North Fork route is completely outside the Whitney Zone). That made us reflect longer, but we decided the chances of a ranger patrolling the area this early in the month were pretty low. Rick, Mark and myself were definitely interested in Stemwinder, Michael was definitely taking the North Fork, and the others held off their decision until later.
We left the trailhead shortly after 6:30a, making our way on dry trail. There was a good deal of water at Carillon Creek, but it was readily crossed on the large stepping stones conveniently placed for the purpose. We reached the N. Fork of Lone Pine Creek by 7a and here the others finally chose their routes - Matt decided to join Michael up to Lower Boy Scout Lake, the rest of us heading to the south side of Thor. Our dry trail soon thereafter gave out and we found ourselves on solid snow quite rapidly, with very little transition between the two. The snow was excellent for hiking in boots, solid but not slick. Without a trail to follow we were able to skip all the switchbacks, heading more or less straight up the drainage - steep but manageable. Mike and Bill fell behind as Rick, Mark and myself stayed together, keeping a pretty good pace.
By 8a we had reached Bighorn Park, and here we paused for a short break and to get a good look at Stemwinder, rising high above us. Mark had brought a photo with the route marked, and with its help we were easily able to pick out the route, even what we expected to be the crux lower down. While we were debating the various issues involved (including, "what were our chances given we had no rope?" - this one had Mark particularly nervous), we heard a scraping sound off in the distance. To the south of us, coming down the lower slopes of Mt. Irving, was a lone skier. By the sound of it, the skiing wasn't very good in the early morning. Going back to the study of our route, we didn't notice how the skier made short work of crossing several hundred yards of flat terrain between us, and in about a minute he was right behind us. Uh oh, it was the Forest Service.
Now we knew about the permit requirements, and all of us knew that we had crossed the boundary into the Whitney Zone with our excursion to the southeast side. And standing before us was the ranger we'd figured we'd never see. My only strategy at this point was to engage him with lively banter and hope he'd not bother to ask about the permit. This seemed pretty effective as we spent the next few minutes discussing skiing and the climbing routes on Thor. He wasn't a climber himself and so knew little about the routes, but he was genuinely interested in what our plans were and how we were going to carry them out. It was a friendly discussion that we all participated in. After about five minutes we'd exhausted the discussion and Dave was preparing to leave. We were feeling good about having avoided the permit issue. Then Dave said in a somewhat apologetic manner, "Oh by the way, you guys have your permits with you, right?" We looked at each other. "No," I confessed, we didn't. "Do we need one?" My automatic backup plan had kicked in - faked ignorance. Whether or not Dave believed our ignorance was unclear, but he didn't openly question it. Rick offered that we were under the impression that the Whitney Zone started at Mirror Lake (just above us to the west). Dave kindly corrected us. More because Dave is just a nice ranger than because we somehow charmed him, he said he'd let us go this time, seeing how there was no one else about and it was so early in the season. But next time, we must remember to get a permit. He asked if there was anyone else in our party and we let him know about Mike and Bill coming up behind us. Dave would speak to them as well. In fact, as we found out later, Mike used the excuse that he thought the permit season didn't start until May 15. Dave probably hears this stuff all the time.
Leaving Bighorn, we headed north towards the start of the route. We didn't take the easiest way to get there, but played around on some slabs, thin ledges and a bit of harder stuff before making it to the start of the route. A very fine ledge system led diagonally up and left to the the chimney pitch, the 5.4 crux of the route. Here we paused. It certainly looked a bit harder than 5.4. I climbed up and left to see if there was another way around, but found nothing but harder cliffs. The chimney had an awkward entry that tended to pull one out on a barn door, and seemed a bit shy of appropriate holds. We took off our packs and tried to climb it unburdened, but couldn't quite muster the courage (or muscle) to pull up and over this 15-foot impediment. It was quite a puzzler. I gave it a go for about 5 minutes before Rick gave it a try, also to no avail. We could see Mike and Bill below talking to Ranger Dave. They'd watched us climb to the base and then watched us as we got stuck here. Eventually Mike and Bill headed west to climb Thor from the south side, Dave went back to digging out the latrines at Outpost Camp (not all of his job was skiing, apparently). From my perch to the side, I handed Rick rocks to see if he could jam any of them in the cracks to make another hold. They were either the wrong size or broke apart when pressure was applied. Mark ducked for cover as the splinters trickled down. We would have paid good money for one hex or cam to help us aid the section, maybe even a short 20-foot piece of rope. 5.4? We weren't buying it. Next we tried jamming an axe in somewhere (we had lots of gear - none of it for rock climbing), but that wouldn't work either. Lastly we even tried a snowshoe (I told you we had a lot of gear), but nothing would stick. Frustrated, we gave up. It was time to cut our losses and find another way up the mountain.
Retreating off our ledge, we found an interesting traverse that saved us losing most of the elevation back to Bighorn Park. We donned snowshoes for a short stretch across a steep snow slope, then it was back to rock. Surprisingly, that was the only serious snow to be encountered on the whole south side of Thor. Coming around a corner I came face to face with Mike where our routes converged, a bit of a surprise to both of us. We noted the left side of the slopes here were easiest, class 2 at the most, but further right could be found lots of class 3 and higher. Rick, Mark and I tried to make up for our failure on Stemwinder by sticking to the class 3 rock, and it turned out to be quite an enjoyable climb, far better than the talus slog we were expecting.
There are something like 4 chutes that rise from the south slopes up to the SE Ridge. All of them land you SE of the summit, but at the time we couldn't tell which of half a dozen pinnacles above us was the highpoint. The chute furthest right looked to be steep and cliff-like, so I bypassed that one without giving it much thought. The second one looked iffy as well, with a large chockstone blocking the route halfway. Iffy was better than scary, so I wandered up that chute ahead of the others. Seeing me heading up, Mike called up from below, "Hey, it's easier over here to the left." He was too far away to carry on a decent conversation, so I simply waved and replied, "OK." Mike went the other way while Rick and Mark followed me into the chute. The left side of the chockstone looked from below that it might be climbable, but upon reaching it I found the rock covered in a veneer of ice. No way we could get up that way. The right side of the chockstone had a pile of old snow leading to a small hole - did the hole open up a way above the chockstone? It seemed improbable, but worth checking out since I was already most of the way up the chute. I had to take my pack off to crawl inside, where I found a cramped opening with another pile of snow - this time it was soft and almost fresh - spindrift that had fallen into the hole in a pile and never saw the sun again. Above this was an opening, a twisty little passage that had light coming through. While the others waited, I twisted my body to match the passage opening, slithered in, and then made another contortion to get out a small opening above. To all of our surprise - it worked! Elated, we started a relay to first bring up three packs, followed by my two companions. We crossed the top of the sloping chockstone, danced around some ice, and got onto easier ground. It was very fortunate that we were all rather skinny guys.
Climbing up the rest of the chute, we soon found that we were a good deal further from the summit than we'd expected. We scrambled around a gendarme and onto the snow-covered east slopes. The snow was excellent for steps, so no snowshoes or crampons were needed. I whistled to Michael and Matt who were across the snowfield and heading down. They waived, then continued on their way. Three of us reached the highpoint just before noon. We took off our packs while we took in the views. They were indeed as good as had been advertised, a wonderful display of almost all the high peaks in the Whitney area sweeping around on three sides - Lone Pine, Irving, McAdie, Muir, Whitney, Russell, Carillon, plus a handful of unnamed ones to round it out. We kept an eye out down the south side, scanning the talus and rock features for signs of Mike and Bill. For twenty minutes we saw or heard nothing from them. After that time, Mike appeared from the same direction that we had approached. He had taken the next chute to the left from the one we had entered. We had been ready to go by then, but at Mike's suggestion we hung around to see if Bill would show up. Another 20 minutes came and went, no Bill. We took more pictures as Mark and Mike vied for the "poser" award. Mark won with his final effort. As we started down, Bill popped up almost on cue. He had climbed yet another chute left of the Mike's. We hung around long enough for Bill to tag the summit and snap some photos, then started off once more.
We followed the bootprints down to the edge of the sloped upper plateau where it dropped steeply down the northeast side. There was a small band of rock and talus to negotiate, followed by an all-snow descent to Lower Boy Scout Lake below. We could see the glissade tracks Michael and Matt had left, and Rick suggested we could get an even longer run if we moved more to the left. The rock was trickier to manuever through, and we had a steep section of snow to traverse, but once down about 80-100ft it was clear sailing. Rick went down first, axe point dug in to control his speed. It was a long run - about 700ft and the longest continuous glissade I could ever remember. After that bit of fun, and having left Mike and Bill somewhere above us again, the three of us started off for the last hour's haul back to Whitney Portal. The N. Fork drainage was still buried in snow and it was a messy affair getting down. We stayed to the south side of the creek for the most part, trying to glissade in the soft, mushy snow found at the lower elevations. It was thoroughly unsatisfying - slow as molasses and much too wet. Traversing and descending between short glissades, we were painfully postholing. I tired of this rather quickly and switched to snowshoes while Rick and Mark went ahead. It took a while to catch back up to them, but there was no clear benefit to the snowshoes over simply wading through the mush - both were unpleasant affairs, but fortunately it all took less than an hour. The trail was dry for the last several hundred feet down to the Whitney Trail, and once there we took the old trail down to Whitney Portal. This was an interesting part of Whitney history that I had never seen before, so it was nice to have an alternative to the regular freeway route.
The store was closed when we got back to the Portal - rumors of it opening that weekend had been incorrect. A burger would have been a welcome treat. Instead we went back to the cars where we found Michael and Matt having arrived about 15 minutes before us. It was 2:30p, making for an 8hr outing. We soaked up the sun, read, and kabitzed while we waited another hour for Mike and Bill to return. Then it was off to Lone Pine, dinner at the Mt. Whitney Restaurant, and early to bed for a very early start on George Creek. We had not outdone ourselves today, which would make for a more pleasant outing on the morrow.
For more information see these SummitPost pages: Thor Peak
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