Thu, Aug 5, 2004
Six of us showed up at the trailhead, including the regulars Michael, Mark, Matthew, and myself (hey- those all begin with "M", don't they?). Fresh from rest were Michelle and Joe, and just after 5a the six of us headed out under headlamp from the Glacier Lodge TH on the North Fork of Big Pine Creek. We started an hour earlier to allow us ample daylight on one of the tougher Challenges - at over 6,000ft of gain I expected this to be one of the tougher of the week's climbs. It roughly took an hour up to Second Falls where we welcomed the new day, another hour to get above Second Lake, just below Temple Crag, and a third hour to Sam Mack Meadow. By this time we had long lost Michelle and Joe, and neither would be destined for the summit of Winchell. Michelle turned back due to a nagging ankle injury, and Joe continued along by himself but missed the trail junction to Sam Mack. Instead he ended up by Fifth or Sixth Lake before realizing his mistake, then turned around and called it a day.
The other four of us left the trail at Sam Mack Meadow and climbed the narrow creek channel at its southeast end. We hadn't expected any snow travel today, so none of us was prepared with crampons or axe when we encountered the steep, snow-clogged conditions we found in the channel. The creek had carved out the snow in the immediate vicinity of the watercourse, but overnight temps had been low, and the water spray had plastered the adjoining rocks with an icy sheen. After a bit of study, then with careful and deliberate foot placements, we were all eventually able to make it up the iced-over rocks without getting too wet, and on to the more leveled snow sections above.
Sam Mack now out of view below us, Winchell not yet in view above us, we found ourselves in a twisty series of moraine-strewn canyons, not exactly sure which route to take. It had seemed simple from the map - simply follow the creekbed up to the start of the East Arete. But there was no obvious stream to follow, most of the water flowing under the moraine. While Mark forged on ahead almost blindly, Michael and I would pause to consult our map and try to match it to our surroundings. Using our many years of collective experience and wisdom, we would finally conclude that the foolhardy Mark was heading the right way. This didn't stop us from repeating the effort three or four times, thinking Mark was bound to wander off the wrong way eventually, but he never did, and found our way to the start of the East Arete.
From reading the trip reports I was expecting some complications in route-finding, but was happy to find there were none. We simply climbed onto the ridge as soon as we could, relieved to get off the infernal moraine, and followed it up. The climbing was class 3 over large boulders, and fairly easy. Mark and I were well out in front of the other two by now. We moved left off the ridge where the difficulty increased about halfway up. Below and further to my left I could see the talus chutes described in the trip reports and by Secor, but could not for the life of me see why one would recommend that loose mess over the far better ridgeline unless it was in retribution for some real or imagined wrong. Further left we had a grand view across the Thunderbolt Glacier of the impressive North Face of Thunderbolt. i Within a few hundred feet of the summit the route grows steeper as one climbs the face (or chute as described by Secor) over ledges to the summit. I arrived at the summit, a cozy little perch, just before 10a. Mark was a few minutes behind, the others about 10 minutes later. Once on top, there was plenty of room for the four of us as we took our first break all day, enjoying the snacks as we took in the views, particularly of the Palisades to the southeast and south. Most of our approach route from Glacier Lodge was visible to the east. I spotted another climber atop Mt. Agassiz, half a mile to the northwest. We presumed it was one of our fellow Challenge participants, either Mark or David who had made plans to climb it while we were on Winchell. Later we found that it had been another party, as they didn't summit until around 11a.
Not 15 minutes after Michael and Matthew summited we were already on our way back down, retracing the exact same route we'd taken up - there just didn't seem to be any good alternative descent routes that we might take. I got ahead of the others on the cross-country route and once back on the trail made my way leisurely down the canyon towards the trailhead. I paused to photograph some interesting sights (the Kelly's Tiger Lilies were particularly striking) and enjoyed the wonderful weather we continued to be blessed with. I ran across Bill Holt on the trail below First Lake. I'd seen his name on several message boards, but never met him. He had guessed my name upon meeting up with me, aware that the Sierra Challenge was in session and wondering if he'd meet with any of us. And so he did. He was backpacking up for a trail maintenance effort in the vicinity of Fifth and Six Lakes.
I returned to the trailhead about 1:45p, Michael less than 5 minutes behind me, the other two about 10 minutes later. We had all expected it to be a fairly long day, but were surprised to find it much easier than we had supposed. What would we do with all the free time we had this afternoon? The usual rewards - shower, rest, drink, eat - savoring every moment while we prepared for Palisade Crest the next day...
For more information see these SummitPost pages: Mt. Winchell
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