Sunday, May 27, 2012

Scratching A High Sierra Itch

People plan vacations in the most exciting places. Some people plan to take their work breaks to an exotic beach location, where they can sip on intriguing drinks festooned with umbrellas as they mistakenly believe that a full suit of skin cancer is an attractive attribute. Some will plan to see an amusement park ala the Family Griswold in a cross country adventure. Others will plan to visit family members long lost and seldom seen. And then there are the people like my boss who takes his vacation fixing things around his house and staying home (some people in this world work way too many hours during the week). But these vacations are not for the folks like us. We chose instead to visit of all places Lone Pine, California and the Eastern Sierra mountains, because that’s how we roll.

I have been wanting to get back to the California 14ers for a while now. The last five summers, my wife Gineth and I have concentrated our vacation time on climbing the 58 14,000’ mountains in Colorado. But of course, we live in California, where there also happen to be 12 (really 11 by the Colorado rule of 300’ of prominence - see my  blog here - but Mt. Muir has 297’ of prominence, so pretty much you can say that is close enough, and call it a 14er. This is a complicated subject, how to figure 14ers, and if you read my previous  blog referenced, perhaps some light can be shed on the subject :~). ANYWAY.... For some time now I’ve been meaning to make a trip back to California 14er country. As far as California 14ers go, we had climbed Mt. Whitney, the highest mountain in the lower 48 states, which also happened to be our very first 14er ever when we first started climbing. We climbed Whitney then again via the more difficult Mountaineers Route in 2003, and also in 2003 we climbed White Mountain, the 3rd highest 14er in California. We then moved to the State of Jefferson in 2004, and have since summitted Mt. Shasta many multiple times. Yet moving so far north, we found ourselves far removed from the geographic location of all the rest of California’s 14ers, leaving us stuck at only 3 Cali 14ers climbed for all these years. Well, finally, the time had come to change that.

California 14ers, besides the 3 we had already climbed, are certainly not as easy to access as the majority of Colorado 14ers. The plan for our trip was to start with Mt. Langley, which I had read many people consider the “easiest” California 14er, which I felt would be a good acclimatization climb for the following peaks. The remaining part of the trip we planned to hike up to Shepherds Pass, which is thought to be the most difficult approach hike in California, and make attempts at both Mt. Williamson and Mt. Tyndall, respectively. Then, depending on how we were feeling, maybe give Split Mountain a try as a day hike. It was a truly ambitious itinerary, and in the end not one we really felt like completing. Getting to the summits was never really the goal here. We don’t have a “project” (as we like to refer to it) of climbing the California 14ers, like we do for climbing the Colorado 14ers. This trip was more about  training and preparing for this summer’s Colorado climbs that we will be doing. Many of the Colorado 14ers we will be trying this year will require the same sort of overnight backpacking approaches as these Cali 14ers do. So it was really more of a kickoff to our training regimen, being just the week before Memorial Day in May, getting us a jumpstart on the long hours of hiking we will be spending in the weeks ahead.

The first day, a half day off from work, we were able to drive from our home to as far as Bishop, California - the “big” town in the area. Arriving at night, only in the next morning did we get our first views of the grand Eastern Sierra range that towers over Highway 395. We drove the remaining 60 miles to Lone Pine that morning with one eye barely on the road and constantly looking over to the west at these majestic peaks. I had hoped we could pick up our wilderness permit and still have time to drive up to the Whitney Portal and maybe do a little day-hike up the main Whitney trail, just for old times sakes. Well, getting the permit we were reminded about the “bear problem” you have at the Portal. We had all our food for the week with us, and so taking everything up there with us didn’t seem like a wise move. We decided even though it was early to try and get our motel room for the night, as our Langley hike would not start until the following day. Unfortunately, we chose the Dow Villa. Definitely we learned later this was a mistake, the Dow Villa is no nicer than the Portal Motel across the street which is half the price, but this lesson would be learned over the week. The room wasn’t ready yet, so we decided to take the drive up to Horseshoe Meadows where the Langley hike would start, just to see the trailhead.

It always feels good to be able to see where a hike or climb starts, just for the mental preparation part of it. So it was good to get up there. We loved the “Active Bear Area” signs too, well, I loved them and Gineth... did not so much care for them. But it we were glad to see big bear boxes at the trailhead, so we knew we would have adequate space to stow our bear attractive things while we were hiking. It took about 45 minutes to get to the trailhead from Lone Pine. I don’t drive fast up curvy, windy mountain roads, especially ones without much guard railings or any other such safety measures. So by the time we got back to Lone Pine about 2 hours had elapsed.
I really wanted to get a map of the area. I didn’t need a 7 ½ minute map, just a general overview topo map of the land was all that I felt was necessary for me. Up  to this point, I had been relying on reports I had read of the conditions of the route from people who had posted on a forum. I hate Summitpost, passionately, as the folks who post things on there are generally the biggest idiots on earth, but there really was no alternative, such as the website run for Colorado, as California just has far too many lazy and narcissistic climbers who don’t care to help anybody else climb, and just want to trumpet their own achievements. The forum I had read though had talked about a cornice on the New Army Pass route of Langley, and that the better option at this time was Old Army Pass. So to this point this was the route I thought we would go. I entered the Lone Pine Elevation store to look for the map. The very helpful gal at the counter provided the map and also a local’s perspective on my choice of route. Heck, she almost insisted we take New Army Pass and heavily warned me against Old Army Pass. So when it comes to route advice, I had to weigh the information provided by a seemingly knowledgeable local vs. a Summitposter dipshit. The choice was obvious - New Army Pass would be the route we would take.

And our room was still not ready. So much for our day hike. We decided then to go ahead and go up to the Portal, car full of food and all, and just eschew the hike part of it. It surprised me how fast we got up to the Portal, particularly in relation to how long it took to get to Horseshoe Meadows. It was also strange to me to see the Portal. This was the location of great memories for us, and somehow I think I had built it up over the years bigger in my mind than it was. In my mind, the Portal Store was this fantastic restaurant/gift shop where we had had the most delicious patty melts in 2002 after we had come down from our epic day hike of the main Whitney trail, and then again in 2003 after coming down from the Mountaineers Route I had enough state of mind to get myself a “Mountaineers Route” t-shirt. In reality, the Portal Store is quite small, with just a few shelves of shirts and other knick-knacks, and a very small board which advertises the few items of food I think they still cook there - no one in sight was eating there this day. Also, the whole Portal area was overrun with day picnickers and families. That was a sight I had never seen since we had never really been there much during the day. So illusions shattered, we bought a couple of souvenirs and then headed back to Lone Pine.

Finally our room was now ready, and we unpacked and geared up to start the following day. It wasn't urgent though. Generally, as when we are in Colorado, we prepare to start a hike or climb first thing in the early, early morning. This time, knowing that we had about a 6 or 7 mile hike to camp over primarily flat ground, there was no need for an early bird start. We went over to the Bonanza Mexican restaurant and had dinner. We were really hungry, so we ate, but the food was awful. Back at the room we had a difficult night sleeping, the air conditioner did not seem to cool the room down (it was in the 90’s during the day there, even in May) and outside our room a motorcycle group had arrived and for some reason they were out there just letting their bikes idle and occasionally revving them up. I truly don’t know what the reason for that was.

In the morning, we made our way to the Mount Whitney restaurant for breakfast. We both had the “Mount Whitney omelet” which was very, very good. The place is a little pricey I thought, ($31 with coffee and tip and the 2 omelets) but it definitely gave us a big fuel up for the day. About 10 o’clock we at last headed up to the trailhead to begin our climb. My pack felt a little light, so at first I felt good about that. Unfortunately I would later learn the reason for that was that Gineth’s pack was so heavy. Since I had been training more with a pack, it would have made sense for me to carry a lot more weight than Gina, and we corrected this discrepancy later in the week. However, this first trek took a little toll on Gina’s back and this turned out to be fairly detrimental to accomplishing what we wanted to this week.

Less than 10 minutes into the hike we ran into a group of fishermen/hikers returning to the trailhead. I asked them about the route conditions, and they confirmed to me that New Army was the more preferable way to go. So this firmly established that the person posting on Summitpost had in fact no idea what they were talking about, and cemented my route choice. We marched on the semi-sandy route and remarked how it resembled the North Gate routes of Shasta.

When you hit the first Cottonwood Lake, the view is spectacular. I have to say this is probably the only view of Langley that is really striking. I was happy to see that this early in the season the mountain was almost completely snow-free, a product of the low snow year and a  good sign since we had opted not to bring our ice axes and lessening the weight on our backs just a little. The trail was pretty easy to follow and was well-marked, at least to this point. It also lifted our spirits a little, as to this point we had no real feeling of what mountain we were climbing, our only scenery was just the pine trees in front of us (and occasional Bristlecone pine!). At last, we could see our objective.
Finally we see it, Mt. Langley
In getting the permit, one is required to put down where one’s first night will be camped. Since I had no real knowledge of the route and the best camping areas, I had put Long Lake as our night’s campsite. I asked the ranger when getting the actual permit what would happen if we decided to camp somewhere else, and she let me know that was fine, that if anything happened the site on the permit is just where they would start looking for us. So we were still feeling strong when we finally hit Long Lake.

Long Lake is very beautiful at first sight. The thing that struck me the most though was the trout. In the creek that drains out of the lake, the trout swim in the crystal clear mountain waters in plain sight. And they were so big! Not huge like a bass, but if you caught like 3 or 4 of them, you would have yourself a really good meal for sure. And they were right there and the shallow water of the creek. It was like you could just get a net out and scoop them out. For the first time in a long, long time I wished I had a fishing pole with me, just for the fun of the catch. Even Gineth, who has never expressed any interest in fishing before, told me the sight made her wish we had fishing poles with us - that’s how cool it was.

Approximately where we lost the trail around Long Lake
And just after that moment of coolness, we passed over to jumping the shark. You see, at the mouth of the creek that drains Long Lake, the trail crosses over to the southern side of the lake. However, since we saw a cool looking snowbank that was being eaten away by the creek, and the trail on the opposite side had been overtaken by snowmelted waters - we completely missed the change in direction. MISTAKE! Continuing on a fisherman’s trail on the north side of the lake, we almost immediately lost our way. Bushwacking my way through, I was certain I could make it, but that was when they struck us. By they, I mean thousands upon thousands of mosquitoes. Every shady turn lurked tons of the little pests. Soon they had us running - even with 40-lb packs - at full speed trying to swat away the little annoyances that when added together became a very big and increasingly alarming disturbance. Definitely, this would not be the lake for our campsite for the night.

Slapping the last few skeeters off of us, we finally spotted the trail - the real trail - on the other side of the lake and finished our circumnavigation of the opposite side in order to get back to it. This detour had definitely taken the wind out of our sails and we were ready to find a campsite - just nowhere near this place. We re-joined the trail finally and after losing it due to snow coverage a few more times were finally on our way again. We arrived at High Lake and soon found a flat spot for our tent. High Lake is a very pretty lake as well, but just above treeline, so it seemed much more devoid of the tiny flying gangs of insects we had encountered at Long Lake.

Mosquito & Trout Central - Long Lake
I don’t know if I was using it wrong or if it was just not working, but our Steri-pen let me down for the first time. This created a problem - there was lots of water here but it needed to be purified. So we had to break out the iodine tabs. I’d never really had to use them before, on Shasta we usually just boil the water, but putting up with a little iodine taste bothered me less than drinking hot water right now. (By the next hike we figured out the Steri-pen, or at least it started working again, and did not have to resort to the iodine again.) The Jet-Boil, which I had problems with my last climb on Shasta, on the other hand, worked as advertised and soon we had a delicious meal of Ramen noodles.
Our campsite near High Lake and below New Army Pass
Our camp was just below New Army Pass. It’s tough to see where New Army goes if you’ve never been up it. I thought I could see switchbacks up the left side of the rock wall - turns out the actual switchbacks were more directly in front of us. I could see the snow at the top, and again this made me wonder about cornices and getting shut down at the top of the route, but I had both the accounts of the local and also the fisherguys that said it was passable. We went to bed early that night, which is about all you can do when camping at 11,000+ feet.

The alarm had been set for 5:00am, but when it went off neither of us were in any mood to wake up. I hit the snooze button, but I had not set up the clock properly so it just turned off the alarm instead. I didn’t really care at first - it was really cold - but an hour and a half later when we did finally wake up, we were filled a little bit with that feeling of oversleeping a day. It was also getting hot in the tent already at 6:30 - almost 70 degrees inside - so definitely it was time to get going. So our summit day started at rather late, it ended up being about 8am before we hit the trail finally.

The short snow section at the top of New Army Pass
Soon enough climbing up the Pass I could see that where I thought the route went was incorrect. It did seem to be switchbacking up directly into the cornice of snow at top. But when we finally reached the point where the snow covered the trail and prevented us from following the switchbacks, I could see what the fisher guys were saying. The top of the pass was right there - just above about a 50 foot section of snow. If you wanted to keep following the trail, one would have to do some serious downclimbing and noodling around the drifts - definitely not worth it. We decided it was easier and quicker to just strap on our crampons - which luckily we had taken along - and go straight up the snow to reach the top. It was steep, but the crampons did their job and soon we were standing at the top of the pass.
Looking towards Langley from the top of New Army Pass
From here, finally we could see again the mountain we were here to climb. Unfortunately, it was still quite a ways away - we later figured it about 3 miles away from this point. We also had to drop down about 400’ from where we were as the top of New Army is a little higher than where Old Army comes up and the two routes converge. I knew this would suck on the hike out, but what can you do?
A rare Class 2+ section (very short)
Sand, sand, sand :(
As we neared the hulking form of Langley, we hit sand. Lots of sand. Huge sections of sand, sand, sand. It was far worse than trying to climb up the summertime talus of Shasta, in my opinion. It made me wonder about anyone who would climb Langley more than once, as opposed to people like us, who were just ticking it off a list. It’s definitely not a fun climb, and the mountain isn’t really a picturesque mountain from this view by any means. There was all too brief section of a little scrambling class 2+ ish section, but beyond that it was just a slog to the top over sandy garbage. Finally I got to what had to be the top, saw the summit register and felt some relief that this march was over. For sure, this was not going to go down as one of my favorite climbs.

The view from the top is pretty, however. From the summit, one can look out at Mt. Whitney and her neighbors, and seeing all the little high alpine frozen lakes is neat. The weather for us at the top was a windy but fair. To my surprise, when I went to send my Spot 2 signal I discovered that I did get a cell signal up here, and a few text messages rolled in. Gina was able to get a 3G internet signal with her Iphone, and she checked up on what was going on in the world since we had last left civilization the day before. (My Droid did not pick up the 3G signal, so I did not get to participate in this 21st Century summit ritual.)
On the way down back to camp

It was a long hike back to camp, and the wind started to pick up even more. Walking 6 miles round trip at over 12,000’ took a little time, as it was our first altitude of the week. We again put our crampons on to descend the little bit of snow at the top of the pass - we went a more circuitous way this time that kept us on the snow longer, but managed to finally get down on the solid trail after a few minutes.

We reached camp and I knew we had to hustle to pack out if we were going to get out before dark. This is when our late start came back to bite us. I really didn’t want to spend another night out there, and Gineth had not slept well either. It would do us both a lot of good to spend the night back in town where we could get good food, water that didn’t taste like iodine, (figure out what was going on with the Steri-pen) and sleep in the next day to get some rest for the hike that lied ahead of us (more on that shortly). So tired as we were, we packed camp and headed out. It was a long slog again, and seemed to take forever. By the time we reached the trailhead it was getting dark, as it was just after 8pm. I doubt seriously that I will ever return to this trailhead or ever climb this mountain again. Good riddance. 

Overlooking High Lake

After a day off resting our feet, we hit the next objective first thing in the morning. The Shepherds Pass trail is considered by many as one of the most difficult approaches in the Sierras. Someone on Summitpost has even posited that the makers of the trail must have been on crack. While I have no personal experience with crack cocaine (but I’m sure the writers on Summitpost are very familiar with it) I really didn’t think it was all that bad. It is a rough trail for sure, and some sections are very poorly maintained. It starts out in the wrong drainage and basically you have to climb up a small mountain to get into the correct drainage. Some of the switchbacks go on far too long in one direction. It’s a little over 8 miles to Anvil Camp, and it’s a full 11 miles to the top of the actual pass. That’s quite a haul carrying a full backpack.

So this was the original plan: Hike all the way to the top of the pass, climb Williamson one day, then climb Tyndall, then hopefully pack out. Madness. As beat up as we were I knew even before we hit the trail that this had to be modified. And then I looked at the weather report. High winds were forecasted for Friday. (I had no idea what the rest of the storm entailed, as the newscasts you get in Lone Pine are from Los Angeles, and not very localized to the area.) This would turn out to be a critical decision-maker, but in the beginning we did not know that. So our modified plan would be to hike in, camp somewhere above Anvil camp but below the Pass, so that we would at least have some protection if the high winds indeed came to fruition. From this base camp we could launch summit attempts at both mountains, one on Thursday one on Friday, then pack out on Saturday. That was the plan anyway. 

Me with my "Furious Midget"

This time I carried  the majority of the weight, correcting the mistake I had made on Langley. I’m certain I was easily packing 50+ lbs, but the backpack was well packed and proportioned so it wasn’t too bad. The bear canister was packed not in the bottom of my pack, but more towards the middle. I don’t mind carrying it, as opposed to hanging our food. The bear can keeps the food from getting smashed, and it really only adds an extra couple of pounds. Of course, on Shasta we never have to worry about this. We actually had not ever used our bear can since our last Whitney climb in 2003. I think we will get a second one for our Colorado trip this year. Had we eaten as much as we thought, it might not have been a problem. However, our appetites were low, and space became an issue. But such are the complications of hiking in the Sierras.  

Hiking in to Shepherds Pass

It took us most of the day to get up there. You really get the feeling you are hiking right up out of the desert and into the mountains on this trail, you even see cactus alongside the way! But we were in luck, this time the Steri-pen was functioning properly, and soon we had fresh cold mountain water to drink. We passed Anvil Camp and knew that was not close enough to the pass to stop, and finally found a good site near Shepherds creek at about 9.2 miles in. As we set up the tent, strong wind gusts nearly blew it down - a sign of things to come. We had brought our REI Half Dome 3-season tent. It’s a good old tent, but definitely not made for stormy weather.

Much to my surprise, I fired up my phone and saw that not only did I have a good cell signal - 3 bars! - but also had a decent 3G internet signal. Sure, first I checked my Facebook, haha, but then I put the internet to good use on looked up the weather forecast for the mountains. It was not good at all. Now they were saying 30mph winds for Thursday and 50 mph (!) winds for Friday at the summits. I still had no idea about what was going to happen with the temps, I kind of stopped looking at the wind speeds. Hoping they were going to be wrong, we settled in for the night.  

Our campsite, above Anvil Camp but below the Pass

Man, did the wind blow that night. We could hear the gusts coming like a freight train down at us, and when they hit the whole tent would shake. Neither of us got much sleep with all that racket going on. Every once in a while I would wake to silence, and I would think that maybe now the winds had stopped, but soon I would hear them ramp up again and shortly they would engulf us at our campsite.

This time, we did not make the mistake of sleeping in too late and were up early. After re-checking the forecast, Gineth and I talked about what to do. Friday still looked very bad, and I at last glanced at the NWS forecast (previously I had only been looking at and saw that there was actually snow in the forecast. Snow! and very cold temperatures- definitely not what I expected for a climb a few days before Memorial Day. So we made the decision that we would only try to climb Tyndall, and then pack out Friday before things got too bad. At least, that was the plan. 

At the bottom of the Pass
Gineth going up Shepherds Pass
Snow Patch at the top of Shepherds Pass 
Looking down Shepherds Pass

We headed the rest of the way up to Shepherds Pass. The pass is very steep and there was a snow couloir running up it. The trail appeared to ascend the right hand side, however, which was mostly snow-free. As we approached though, some rockfall came down from just that side. We stopped and put our helmets on, no reason to take a chance. The closer we got, I could see that someone had been here some days before and ascended straight up the couloir. While I don’t shy away from cramponing up and tackling such a task, I really wasn’t too anxious with this one. It looked very steep, and I knew that once we were on it that it would probably feel even steeper than it looked. We also had not brought our ice axes (again) and were armed only with crampons and trekking poles. We were able to get very high up the pass just following the trail, but finally reached a point where would have to cross the snow. Similar to the New Army Pass crossing, we could see if we just went straight up the snow we could reach the top much faster than traversing across and just encountering more drifts along the regular path of the route. It wasn’t hard  but again it was steep, and I really would have liked to have my axe with me, just for safety. Finally at  the top, our reward was a splendid view of Tyndall.

Our first view of Tyndall
The view to the west after ascending Shepherds Pass

The top of Shepherds Pass is extremely picturesque. Not only do you get a great scene of Tyndall, but there was a half-frozen alpine lake at the top, which lies just below a mini-bergschrund wanna be glacier. Very pretty. As we approached Tyndall closer, the view to the west opened up and the Sierras were so grandiosely displayed to us. It was an awesome photo opportunity. I thought about what a hiker along the John Muir trail must see. It must be fantastic, although I also thought about how difficult that hike would be, as my shoulders still hurt from the haul up here the day before.

Lake and bergschrund at top of Shepherds Pass

There was one big problem though. The wind was absolutely howling. We walked toward Tyndall, over the sand and talus sans trail, getting nearer to our intended route up, the North Rib. It looked snowy and icy, but not impossible, the trouble was this cold, very annoying wind that was hitting us mercilessly. We realized that ascending this way, we would be in that wind the entire way up - no good. I knew there was another route up the mountain, one that most consider a Class 2 route, over the shoulder of the mountain. So we traversed over there to see if things were any better. While the wind wasn’t hitting us as strongly over here, the route itself was crap. Loose scree and talus, nonstop it appeared for the remaining 1500’ up to the top. Reluctantly, knowing all the trouble it had been to get up here, we decided to turn around and go down back to camp, leaving the mountain untried, and knowing likely both of these mountains would go unattempted by us.

Back down at camp, the winds weren't really that strong anymore - for the moment - but I again re-checked the forecast and could see clearly that something was on its way. So we had to make a decision, either break camp and head down now, or rest and break camp in the morning. It was 1:30 in the afternoon. It had taken us 7 hours to get the 9 miles up here. It would take us about an hour to break camp I figured. So I was worried that we would not get down until after dark. I wasn’t looking forward to the stream crossings (4 of them right at the start of the trail) in the dark. But we had to make a decision. As the wind picked up a little and a few gusts hit us, we both knew that we had to get out of there. The winds atop the pass had just been a precursor, I knew, to the oncoming storm, and it was going to get worse, maybe much worse, before it got better. So we packed up and by 2:45 we were back on the trail, this time moving as fast as we could. Luckily, aside from a mile section where you have to gain about 500’, going down the Shepherds Pass trail is much easier than going up it.

We found ourselves making great time, considering how much weight we were still carrying. (Most of our supplies had gone unused, as we had prepared for 3 nights but had only spent one) We passed a forest ranger going up, and then shortly thereafter a young couple and an older hiker as well. These were the first people we had seen since leaving town the day before, we had had the whole place to ourselves. I don’t know if they knew about the storm coming in or didn’t care. I reckon they must have had a pretty tough night and following day.

By the time we had descended the final switchbacks and reached the first stream crossing, though, the storm was really, really starting to come in. We  got hit with powerful gusts, so strong they nearly knocked us off our feet - it’s rather hard to keep your balance when you get hit so strong and you are carrying a good size backpack. We started to feel even a little desperation, as we were more than ready to get the heck out of there, and we were glad the trailhead was getting closer and closer. Finally we reached our truck, a mere 4:30 since leaving camp. It was a great feeling to be driving away and safely in our vehicle, as even down here the dust was storming across the road in front of us.

We did briefly entertain still going for Split Mountain. I knew we were well-acclimatized, and probably could do it easily as a day-hike. My legs felt good and besides a little shoulder pain from the heavy pack I felt fine. The problem for me was that my feet were destroyed. Two gaping blisters on my left ankle, in addition to one on my right ankle and probably a hot-spot soon to be blister on my right toe. The next morning I stepped out of our motel room in Bishop to discover that the temperature had dropped at least 30 degrees from the summery temps we had been enjoying earlier in the week. Looking at towards Williamson, I saw a whispy cloud move over the top at a breakneck rapid speed. Man, I was sure glad we cleared off of there!

It was time to go home. We could have stayed another couple of days (and it would have cost a fortune in motel rooms - it was “Mule Days” in Bishop and rooms were going for 2X their regular prices) and still gave Split a try. But we had gotten everything we wanted to out of the trip. Although we only summited one mountain out of 4 that we “sort of” had planned, the trip was about training for Colorado, really, and not about climbing California 14ers. We have a much better idea having done this of what will be required when we go to Colorado at the end of July, and what additional things we will need or will like to have with us. Colorado’s 14ers are our project, not the California 14ers. It would be nice someday to return to Williamson and Tyndall. I still think they are do-able climbs for us. But this experience did illustrate to me the things about climbing in the Sierras I’m not so crazy about - being constantly dusty, worried about bears and other animals, the utter lack of other people out there in case of trouble, and just the general difficult access one faces when trying to climb these mountains. But I feel good about our trip. The itch to visit the Eastern Sierras was successfully scratched for the time being, and I know that I can climb elsewhere now not thinking about needing to visit the mountains of my home state, except the best one that lies just an hour from my home - the best one of all - Mt. Shasta.

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

That Was A Long Day - Casaval Ridge 2012

Me on the "Knife-Edge" section of Casaval
“Epic” is probably the most over-used word in tales of mountaineering that you will hear. Sometimes though, it’s just hard to find a better sounding way to describe a climb. If I use the synonym function on Microsoft Word, the words it suggests - heroic, marathon, classic, larger-than-life (is that all one word?), ambitious, impressive and grand - none of those words quite capture the description of a climb the same way. Certainly no one would self-assess themselves as “heroic”. To do that would be paramount to admitting you’re a pompous twit. The word marathon just sounds like something that went on a long time, not necessarily something out of the ordinary. The word (words?) larger-than-life and impressive don’t seem to fit well either, especially if one is describing their own adventures. The word “grand” just sounds like what a person in a 1950’s movie might say. “Ambitious” comes the closest, but seems to miss the first-person intimacy that only the word “epic” is able to convey.

So we had a climb, and it was really grand, haha.

Brodie at Camp around 10,500'
Once again my friend Brodie and I were attempting Casaval Ridge on Mt. Shasta. The climb started out ordinarily enough. In fact, having attempted this route in both 2010 and 2011, I feel like I’ve pretty well documented the approach to camp sufficiently. (Reference this report of our 2011 attempt here Scouting Casaval) I took very few photos on the first day, which was Saturday, simply because they were the same photo opportunities that I’d taken before. So there really was no need. We did get lucky with very consolidated snowpack conditions, which allowed us to walk most of the way to Giddy Giddy Gulch just wearing our boots, and snowshoes were unneeded until we reached the gulch itself. It was a bit windier this time, something that I had been watching closely in the weather forecasts for the previous few days.

Wind whipping off the top of Shasta as we arrived in the morning
It seemed like for a while it was going to be a weather repeat of the previous year. Then, I had gone up the route the week before to reconnoitre conditions. I did the same thing this year. Both of those times conditions had been perfect for climbing. But last year, during the week in between my reconnaissance climb and the climb itself, a storm had moved in and dumped 2-3’ of new snow on the route. This year the same thing had happened, only the storm was nowhere near as strong, leaving on 4-6” of new white powder. The weather forecasting people were confident that conditions would be fine by the weekend and the time of our climb, but were equally confident that a low pressure system would move in, creating the infamous “north wind” that from time to time ravages the State of Jefferson. That would be bad for our climb if those predictions came true. If there is one thing that will make Shasta unclimbable, it is high winds on the summit. I checked all the outlets I could - the NWS point forecast (it has a Shasta summit block option),, - whatever site was giving me the best forecast for the weekend instantly became the site I trusted most. I just was not going to accept that would we not be able to summit due to weather this year. The consensus was that it was going to be windy Saturday and less windy Sunday (our summit day). Just how much less windy? Well, that would be the weather question of the trip. We gambled on the forecast that showed the best chance that the winds would be right around 15 mph on the summit, and we knew those were conditions we would be able to handle.

But it did start out windy. We looked up at the ridge above us and saw almost constant spindrift coming off as we approached. It wasn’t a huge concern for us, and it would prove over the weekend to not be much of a factor at all. While the wind did whip a little overnight, enough to make it a little hard for me to sleep Saturday, on our summit push the wind was almost no factor at all, and beyond about a one hour period from 8-9am, it hardly blew at all. The conditions for our climb stayed clear and sunny, and actually in the end a little breeze would have been nice. But more on that later.

We made it up to high camp at 10,500’ eventually and found a snowbank to dig out for our campsite. The ridge is exposed at this spot, but nothing a snow wall can’t knock down really. In short order camp was set, and I pretty much spent the rest of the afternoon melting snow for water the next day. The night was supposed to bring the “Super Moon” the one night out of the year when the moon is closest to the earth. So we wanted to stay up for the that. Unfortunately, once the moon did rise, it was not over the mountain as we had hoped, but was well of to the south. So all the “super moon” turned out to be good for was just a natural night lite.

Sunset - Shastina (on left) and Mt Shasta

We awoke at 2am to no wind and absolutely clear skies. It was On Like Donkey Kong. By 3am we were geared up and moving, on our way to a hopeful summit.

The "Super Moon" over the ridge
The route starts out with a traverse of some very steep terrain, and gains little altitude. We had camped high due to this, so that we could start our morning with the traverse, instead of a 600’ hill climb. Immediately it was apparent to us that the conditions of the route were not the same as last year. In 2011, Shasta had well above normal snow fall for the season. This year, there was almost no snow at all until March, then in a flurry the snowfall had almost equaled what would be termed a “normal” year. The high winds of the past few days had been busy scouring the ridge of this “normal” pack, and we found the route to be a great deal steeper than it was in 2011. Most descriptions of this traverse section say it is about a 45 degree angle - yet this year in many sections we were crawling along, front-pointing with our crampons and utilizing the business side of our ice axes to get across. We still managed to make good time across this, but the extra effort required certainly was greater than the expectation I had set from my previous experience. We were joined by a couple, Norbert and Edwina, who had camped a little higher than us but had set out at the same time as we did. We traded breaking trail and this seemed to work for efficiency purposes for a while.

We came to our first major obstacle, a large wall with a protruding bowl of wind blown snow. Above this bank is “the notch” which leads to “the hourglass” or so my research on the route tells me they are so named. All I knew was that it was a big ass wall of snow, and damn looked nearly vertical. It wasn’t, however, filled with the overhanging cornices that we saw on it last year (and had made us detour onto more the West Face route). Brodie took the first assessment, and thought that climbing to right of the bowl and staying close to the rocks was the best option. I came back with something like “No way!” or something to that effect when he told me that. It looked 90 degrees at the top from my vantage point. To me, going to the farthest left of the bowl seemed like the surest way up, and that was the tack that Norbert and Edwina started out on as well. Brodie that way up looked ok, but preferred his own initial instinct and started up right. I felt a little torn. When I am climbing with someone, I always remember what I’ve been taught about climbing and that as “always stick with your partner”, yet my instinct was telling me that I should go left. In the end, I ended up sort of in the middle, but definitely closer to the side Brodie was on.

Pretty soon I was front-pointing again and digging into the bank with my axe. The going was actually pretty smooth, the windblown sides of the bowl meant that my foot and axe placements were firm, something like they would be ice climbing. Now and then though, I would hit a fluffy section. It would be at these times I would become acutely aware of the steepness that I was getting myself into, and tried not to think about what I might try to catch myself should I start to fall. I didn’t want to think about it. I saw up ahead a rocky point sticking out of the middle of the bowl and made for that, thinking that maybe at least I might be able to take a rest right there and give my calves a breather. I reached the big rock, but to my dismay found nothing but ice sheets surrounding it and no proper place to stop. Pushing on up the slope, the “I should be roped up, I should be roped up” mantra played through my head and I tried not to look over to the left at Norbert, who although was climbing a steep area, was merely climbing as usual and had not had to resort to front-pointing. I did manage to catch up with Brodie at last, and about that same time I started traversing at an angle, and managed to turn my ice axe around and walk normally. All said and done, the way up Brodie and I had picked was faster than Norbert’s way, although not by a whole lot. Brodie and I rested before proceeding up the notch, and unfortunately Norbert and Edwina told us they were turning around, due to being too cold. The only other groups on the route were well behind us, so from here on out it would just be Brodie and myself.

I led us up through the notch. Rounding the corner I came to what they call the hourglass. My reaction to it was “sweet” and Brodie remarked that after that last section he was ready for some sweetness. This climbing turned out to be relatively easy and straightforward. We traversed across and up, avoiding the “ratwalk” or “false catwalk” as I term it. We wanted to climb the ridge, not be gung-ho idiots and see how well we could rock climb crumbly volcanic rock. The wind was picking up now, and we slowed our pace substantially as we watch snow devil after snow devil spindrift off the top of the mountain. I knew that it was likely by the time we got up there the wind would die down, but we weren’t really rushing to get up there, with the wind blowing like it currently was.

Heading back up towards the ridge
At last we spied the outcropping of red rock that we knew from photos led to the catwalk. Having never climbed the route before, we were a little uncertain if this was indeed, the right place. I knew there was a feature called “the knife-edged ridge” but I couldn’t see it. Did we traverse to far underneath and miss it? Our hearts sank a little as we nearly convinced ourselves that somehow we had climbed this challenging route and missed the most famous features of it. Then, just as we were about to merely chalk this one up as a summit climb nothing more, Brodie - climbing ahead - shouted down to me that “Hey, I think this is the catwalk right here.” I climbed up behind him and took a look at where I was. It was unmistakable, I recognized the place from all the photos I had seen of the route before. I was ON the knife-edge ridge, and Brodie was standing right before the catwalk. We had found the route.

The Knife Edge
 The catwalk was in awesome shape. I have seen photos of it in years when there is barely any snow on it, and the drop into the gulch below is precipitous. However, for us this year, it was a pretty wide walkway, easily six feet across, although the outer half edge looked to be merely a cornice of built up snowdrift. Thinking that it was, neither of us got too close and mainly we stuck against the wall. We took plenty of photos here, the catwalk being the star of the show easily, the classic finisher of the route.

The Catwalk
It was like the Mountain Gods had smiled upon us. As soon as we came upon the catwalk the wind almost completely stopped and we immediately felt the high temperature of the day as the sun shined bright upon us. We removed our Gore-Tex and then climbing in our base layers. Actually, at this point, a little breeze would have felt nice. It was almost too hot now.

Brodie on the Catwalk
We thought we were pretty much home free here, and really we were. But as we walked away from the catwalk we came upon another obstacle, a large ice covered outcropping in between us and the walk over to continue the way up. To be honest, neither of us had really done our homework this year, and I had forgotten any descriptions of how to get around this. The only thing we could figure would be to climb around to the left, and hope that spilled us out onto where the west face meets the Whitney glacier. Brodie went first, but stopped when it appeared to him that around the corner was a dead end. He briefly tried to ascend the wall, but that too looked like it was going to take a lot of effort. I knew there had to be a way, so I swung around underneath to have a look for myself around the corner. It did drop off pretty steeply, but I felt like I could probably downclimb it and for sure this would put me in a good position to get around this hurdle. I climbed out no problem, and after gaining a small hill I saw perfectly in front of me our ultimate goal - the summit! (Of course I also saw Misery Hill, and from this perspective it looked even more miserable than usual.)

I stood and waited for Brodie to join me. And waited. And waited. Finally I called out. Brodie answered finally that he was Ok, but clearly he was shaken by something. I soon learned that downclimbing the same section that I had to get around the corner, Brodie had slipped on the brittle ice and gave himself quite a scare. We were finished with the ridge now, but very aware that this route was not a route for the novice climber. The difference between success and catastrophe was very, very thin, and both of us had moments where we had caught ourselves going out past our comfort zones, even as fairly experienced climbers.

Our approximate route up Casaval Ridge

Joe Simpson’s line from Touching the Void went through my head, something like “Well, we did the ridge. Do we really have to go all the way up to the summit” (paraphrase). And yes, we did want to summit. The remainder of the climb was just a slog up Misery Hill, and then as the altitude was starting to hit me a little, a waltz over the summit block to get to the actual summit. We stayed on the summit just long enough to take our pictures and take a short rest - maybe only 15 minutes on top, then started our descent. It was just past noon, so the climb here had taken us so far 9 hours. But we weren’t done yet...

Climbers heading up the regular route
Now we had to get back to camp. We now knew there was absolutely no way, for sure, that we could go back down they way we came up. It’s not even an option. We had two choices, and neither choice really seemed like a good one. We could go down the West Face Gully route, a way neither of us had ever been before, or back down Avalanche Gulch, a way both of us knew very well and was very populated by other climbers that day (there was no one on the West Face route, to my knowledge). The problem with going down the AG route was that if we went too low, we would end up having to climb back up to our camp area. The problem with the West Face was, we didn’t know the route, how the conditions might be, and likely we would also have to climb back up to where our camp was. What we decided on, was that we would descend Avalanche Gulch, but not all the way to Helen Lake. Instead, we would try to traverse across the bottom of Casaval, on the gulch side, trying not to lose too much altitude as we did so. The difficulty in this was, it could be very steep, and we would end up down in the gulch anyway.

Going down the gulch was easy, but we were getting pretty tired as it was. Brodie started to glissade when conditions allowed. I tried, but could not get enough steam going for a good glissade, so just gave up and high stepped down. Eventually I started cutting across the bottom of Casaval, and at first it seemed like a solid plan. I could see the ridge where our camp sat, and I felt like I had a bead on getting there without having to do to much climbing back up.

Then it started to get steep. It got really, really steep. Brodie had traversed a little higher than me, and now caught up to and passed me. I followed up into his footsteps, and realized he had donned his crampons, whereas I had taken mine off to attempt to glissade and had not put them back on. I was so tired though, that I didn’t want to stop and take the time to get my crampons on. The snow was soft, and except for the steepness factor, I felt like I would be Ok without them.

The traverse went on and on though, and just seemed to get steeper as we lost altitude more and more. Then finally, when my footstep was not level enough to balance my body, the snow slipped out from underneath me and I was falling. Quickly I gained velocity. I instinctively punched my ice axe into the snow in a well-executed self-arrest to stop myself. Well, that must have given the folks below a good show - I thought to myself. They must be looking up at me and wondering what the hell those guys are doing up there. Practicing for a snow school, perhaps? Who knows. I regained my feet and went some distance before it happened again. And then it happened again. And then it happened yet again. I was really getting worn out, and our situation was becoming more and more hopeless. It looked almost certain we’d have to descend to the bottom of the gulch and climb back up again to our camp.

The sloping traverse on the way back to camp
We ended up finally just below our camp area, probably 300’, but down a hopelessly steep face. Brodie traversed over and was able to launch himself onto some rocks. I knew there was no way I had the energy left to attempt such a maneuver, so I told him I’d meet up with him at camp, that I would have to go around. I was finally able to get myself onto the slope leading up to our camp, a slope that I could ascend. Tired as I was, I was so anxious to end this day that I found myself climbing that last 500’ of uphill rather fast. At last I met up with Brodie in camp, as he was busy doing his best to start tearing camp down.

We were beat. For whatever reason, my pack seemed like it grew 5 pounds heavier than the one I had taken up here yesterday. I wondered how that could happen, but I’m quite sure it did. We trudged out and at 7pm at last I was back at the truck, to finish a 16 hour climbing day. I had downgraded my plans for the “Possibly the Best Burger in the World” at the Goat Tavern back in Mt Shasta City, to “I just want a Coca-Cola” at the Chevron. I was so sick of the mountain, I couldn’t wait to get out of there. Brodie mentioned that he felt no desire to ever do that route again. I agreed, although I know my wife, Gineth, will want to try it, maybe I won't have to be back up there until next year, or who knows when. 

I finally finished the video with the GoPro footage. And, if you're at all wondering, yes the batteries on the GoPro's died just before we reached the Catwalk. Sorry:

I wouldn't mind doing the route again, as I think about it now. But Casaval Ridge is a route that is springtime only, it will melt out before summer, and with 90+ degree temps forecasted for the next week, it's quite possible the route will be done for the season very soon. It definitely is a more challenging route than the "normal" Avalanche Gulch route, and as I think about it, I will be doing it again sometime. For now though, I'm happy that finally after 3 attempts, we made it. We climbed Casaval Ridge.

Summit of Mt. Shasta