Sun, May 7, 2006
After an enjoyable and relatively easy outing to Thor, six of us were rested and ready for the big adventure up George Creek. The goal was to climb the East Ridge of Mt. Carl Heller, an ambitious dayhike on what has been called one of the most spectacular class 3 routes in the Sierra - never mind that small segments are reportedly harder than class 3. The biggest unknown for this outing was going to be the snow conditions on the ridge. In early May of a heavy snow year, it seemed likely that there could be snow lingering on the route. Unfortunately with George Creek closed after May 15, we didn't have much flexibility to wait for it to melt off. Because of this uncertainty, Michael decided he'd leave Carl Heller for another year, and instead make an effort for Trojan Peak, up another branch of George Creek. Mark, Mike and Bill decided to join Michael, leaving only Rick heading to Carl Heller with me.
In two vehicles, the six of us made our way to the TH, arriving shortly before 4a, and heading out by 4:20a. There were three or four cars already at the trailhead - no doubt from the Langenbacher/Rambert Sierra Club crew that we knew were heading to Trojan & Barnard this weekend. By headlamp, we headed up the creek in search of the use trail. With two of us having been up here just a few years earlier, we had only a minor bit of trouble navigating our way upstream with three creek crossings. Michael had the better memory and did a fine job leading the troops in the dark. The headlamps were only needed until about 5:30a, and by sunrise at 6a we had made it out brushiest parts in the lower canyon. Mike had started falling behind shortly after starting, encouraging us to continue without him since he was likely to turn back at some point. Not long after starting up the middle section of the canyon, Bill also fell behind. Four of us continued over the next hour over much talus and some brush, sidehilling and following the use trail where we could find it. By 7a we reached the fork in the canyon where we were to split up, and almost immediately Rick and I ran into snow. Though it was early in the morning, the snow in this north-flowing canyon was frustratingly soft under the trees and a few swear words escaped before I gave up the fight and pulled out the snowshoes. Amusingly, only 100ft later we emerged from the forest cover and the snow was much harder. Rick had toughed it out, not wanting to bother with the snowshoes, and it had paid off. I kept the snowshoes on as we forged our way up stream. It was easy going now, almost no obstacles and a straightforward cruise up the snow-covered creekbed. I made better time than Rick, who switched to crampons as it got a bit steeper, and I waited on a dry, sunny rock where the creek flowed out from under the snow and a last chance to refill on water. After Rick caught up and had a snack break, we continued up, myself winding my way over exposed rocks to avoid the snow, Rick around to the right staying on the snow. We arrived in the upper canyon for our first view of the East Ridge at 9a. It was an awesome view.
The route looked as spectacular as advertised. Rising from a frozen lake, it starts first on low angle slabs, then abruptly changing to a very steep, blocky ridgeline. To our great disappointment, a good deal of snow was still on the route, and on almost all portions of it. We paused a good five minutes to study the route from our vantage point to northeast. We were very quiet, inwardly grappling with the odds of our chances. The more we looked, the less those chances seemed. Finally we had to admit it would be over our heads - we would have to wait for a low snow year. It was a discouraging moment for us. We had left my car at Whitney Portal, intending to do a through hike over Carl Heller and down the West Face, climbing up to the Russell-Carillon Saddle and then down to Whitney Portal. Our backup plan if the East Ridge was unclimbable was to go over Vacation Pass to the north of Carl Heller. We had a good view of the pass from where we stood and it seemed a straightforward climb to the west. It occurred to me from one of the trip reports that others had descended to the East Ridge after first climbing Tunnabora to the southeast of Carl Heller. From where we stood, it looked like there were various chutes we could climb to Tunnabora, for what would be a more direct route to the Russell-Carillon Saddle. Rick quickly concurred, and we put plan "C" into effect. We crossed over the frozen lake and continued south past the East Ridge. We held out faint hope that the south side of the East Ridge might be more snow-free and climbable, but upon getting around the toe of the ridge we found that side was essentially cliffs. Rats. We turned our attention to Tunnabora and started up.
I chose talus where Rick stuck to the crampons and snow for the lower-angled start up the Northwest Face of Tunnabora. As before, we chose different mediums but they proved to be nearly equivalent in terms of making upward progress. Where the talus ended I crossed the snow in our chute and started up the blocky arete on the right side of the chute. This turned out to be a fortunate find. It was a very enjoyable scramble on what from below looked like a talus slog. We were doing a good job of making up for our disappointment on Carl Heller. Rick took off his crampons as he followed me onto the arete. We were still moving pretty quickly, but we had something like 2,000ft of climbing up to the summit ridge. There was a snowy section of the arete where we had to redon the crampons, then back to more rock. The last few hundred feet were steeper, not so scary as it was tiring. It was 11a when we pulled up onto the summit ridge. We were further from the summit than we had thought, the actual summit about a quarter mile away to the south - it had been hidden from us from below. The summit ridge was an easy hike over a sloping plateau. There was almost no wind and far too much sun, but fortunately the wind-blown snow stayed firm. Just before 11:30a we reached the summit of Tunnabora.
It was a bit chilly on top with a mild breeze. Up until now we had been protected from wind on the lee side of the crest. We hunkered a bit behind a large block that left us sitting in the sun. The views were quite fine. As one might expect at this time, there was a great deal of snow throughout the High Sierra we could view. Immediately south rose Carillon and Russell, Tulainyo Lake frozen over and the entire basin around it bleached white. Whitney rose up behind Russell, the Kaweahs to the southwest, the Great Western Divide running from the Kaweahs to the northwest, Barnard, Trojan, and Williamson to the northwest. And everywhere, tons of snow. The feature that caught my eye almost immediately was the snow-covered sloped of Russell's NW Face. It had a consistent angle that looked about 30 degrees and rose for well over a thousand feet. I'd read nothing about this side of Russell in Secor, and it looked like quite an adventure. Naturally I tried to get Rick interested, but he had valid concerns - not the least was that we could die. Though the snow we'd climbed so far was well-consolidated, we didn't know what underlay the snow on the NW Face, and Rick believed from previously viewing it from above that it was granite slabs. Rick alternatively suggested that we should climb to the Russell-Carillon Saddle, and then depending on how we feel, consider Russell's East Ridge. That was good enough for me.
After about 15 minutes on the summit, we headed down the easy south side. It was almost free of snow, and we used the copious amounts of sand to make quick work of it (this same sand is what makes this route tedious for an ascent, earning the peak the nickname of Tunnaboring). We decided to cross the lake, both because it was the most direct route to the saddle and because it was unusual. We'd both viewed the lake a number of times in the past, but it had always been in the summer when it was a deep blue in color and uncrossable except as a swim or in a canoe. I watched Rick walk out a good ways onto the lake and then followed. The lake is deceptively large. It took twice as long to cross it as I would have guessed beforehand. Only later did I realize it was almost half a mile wide in the direction we crossed it. After exiting the lake edge, we had a 500-foot climb to the saddle to contend with. This was mildly troublesome due to its steepness, but with crampons and axe (Rick used poles instead of an axe) we took our time to make our way up the snow slope topping out shortly after 1p.
By then, both of us were interested in climbing the East Ridge of Russell, so the decision to do so was made quickly. We were still looking for ways to make up for our failure on Carl Heller, and this seemed like a good way to do it. We could see snow on the normally easy traverses around the harder parts on the ridge. We would probably not want to push our luck on the uncomfortably sloped snow slopes. We left our snowshoes and poles at the saddle to lighten our load, then started up. As we expected, we were no longer charging up the rock, but it was still an enjoyable climb. The snow on the lower angled slopes on the north side of the ridge forced us to take a more direct line over the very crest of the ridge, up and over some rather large blocks that pushed a bit beyond the normal class 3 rating. There were some other tracks we noted in the snow from a previous climber, but these seemed to end about 2/3 of the way up. After a bit more than an hour we reached the east summit, and then the higher west summit about 20 minutes later. It was 2:30p and we were as high as we were going to get today. As before on Tunnabora, we were greeted with views of snowy peaks in all directions. Whitney's North Face looked most impressive immediately to our south. Ours were the first signatures in the register for the year, a little surprising since we did not encounter any particular stiff difficulties on the way up. We hung around the summit blocks for about 15 minutes before starting our descent.
On the way down I chose to descend via the snowy slabs that we had avoided on the way up. My confidence in their ability to hold up increased in direct proportion to my waning desire to repeat the blocky route on the edge of the ridge. At first I used rock handholds at the edge of the snowfields for extra security, but the snow was quite consolidated and just soft enough to take a firm plunge step. I made good time in descending and was back at the saddle even while Rick was still making his way through the snow slabs. Shortly after 4p we were regrouped at the saddle and from there we headed up to Carillon's summit - neither of us were going to pass up another summit when it was so close. By 4:30p we were standing atop the last summit of the day, taking a few more photos (Russell's East Ridge always looks most impressive from Carillon), then heading down the initially sandy south slopes.
We had a 2,000ft descent down to the North Fork of Lone Pine Creek, and 3/4 of this was a fairly steep snow slope. The snow was quite soft on this sun-exposed flank, but I was a bit nervous about the steepness. I started down the upper portion of the snow slope by facing into the mountain and kicking easy steps. Rick watched me for a few minutes before starting down in his own fashion - glissading. The thick, heavy snow kept him from going too fast and as he slid past me it was clear that his way was not only easier, but far more fun too. I jumped in his tracks behind him, and for the next several minutes we had a wild ride down the slope to Clyde Meadow. For both of us, it was longest glissade we could recall.
Once we reached the creek the fun parts were all done with and we had mostly a snow slog to return. I grew quickly disgusted with the postholing and switched to snowshoes before reaching Lower Boy Scout Lake. Rick, disdaining the snow shoes, continued without them and didn't seem to fare any worse for it. We saw a group of three with skis strapped to their packs heading up, struggling in the deep snow. It seemed the worst possible time of day to be heading up the canyon when the snow was agonizingly soft. Lower down we avoided some of the snow we had tracked through the day before by staying on the north side of the creek and taking one of the lesser-used trails down through the cliffs and willows, what Rick termed the Rockwell Route. If it avoided more snow slogging, I was all for it. Sometime after 6:30p we finally arrived back at the Whitney Portal. We found my car as it had been left the day before, and though I had left the keys in the car and failed to lock it, it was left undisturbed by man or bear. After changing out of our wet boots and packing up our gear, we drove off down to Lone Pine for some well deserved chow. No Carl Heller on this try, but still a very enjoyable day in the annual George Creek Series. Maybe next year we'd actually get to climb Carl Heller. If not, there's still Mt. Williamson...
Mike turned back shortly after emerging from the bushwhack section in the lower canyon, not feeling well after the previous day's exertion. He drove back to Lone Pine for lunch, then bought a cooler and six pack of beer before heading back up to the TH to wait for the others. It is reported that few if any beers remained upon their return. Mark and Michael were successful in reaching the summit of Trojan Peak, Michael taking the standard route from the southeast, while Mark approached from the novel north side facing Mt. Williamson. Bill attempted to reach Mt. Williamson, but turned back at around 12,000ft due to the late time. He was the last one to emerge from George Creek around 9p.
Michael and Mark met up with Patty Rambert and the Sierra Club party near the summit of Trojan Peak. It was the first time that either had met Patty, and as usual she had a warm welcome for those she meets. Sadly, this was one of the last peaks that Patty summited before her unfortunate death on Mt. Mendel a few weeks later. Patty, we will miss you in body, but not in spirit. Thanks for all the inspiration you have given to so many, and may God bless you and keep you forever.
For more information see these SummitPost pages: Tunnabora Peak - Mt. Russell - Mt. Carillon
This page last updated: Wed Dec 30 16:51:56 2009
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