Mt. Clark and Starr King

26 Sep 1999 - by George Sinclair

Since Starr King is a fifth-class mountain, this was listed as a private trip. However, it was listed in the PCS newsletter and was open to anyone with previous climbing experience. Originally there was going to be four of us, but a few days prior to the trip two people dropped out. That left just Greg Johnson and myself, which actually worked out well because it allowed us to travel and climb together as a team and thus do things that would've been more difficult with a larger group. Since there was just the two of us, I decided to try a more challenging route on Clark than the one I had originally thought of doing. We also did a fair amount of cross-country hiking. I've included a little more detail here then I normally would for those who may be interested in repeating parts, or all of this trip. I am not a GPS person, so there aren't any GPS details here.

As mentioned in the trip description in the PCS newsletter, this was an anniversary climb for me. I had first climbed Clark 25 years ago this October on the first Sierra Club trip I was a leader on. I was actually a co-leader at the time. The trip was listed as a joint PCS-RCS trip. Dave Kuty and Dick Irvin were the other co-leaders. Dick Irvin was a very experienced climber, who had been on the 1958 expedition to Hidden Peak. He was one of my sponsors when I joined the American Alpine Club a few years later.

The first day of the trip we hiked in to an un-named lake on the northwest side of Mt. Clark from the Mono Meadows trailhead. This involved a significant amount of off-trail hiking as we worked our way up an un-named fork of the Illilouette Creek. On the 7.5 minute Merced Peak map this is the creek that begins at about 8,800 feet a short distance below a lake and drops in a southwest direction until meeting the Clark Fork of the Illilouette at 7,230 feet. Most of the way we stayed on the west side of the creek. We camped at the lake that is a short distance above where this creek ends. There is a very nice camp spot at the lake. We saw only one other person that entire day.

The second day we climbed Mt. Clark via the spectacular northwest ridge. This climb is included in the Sierra Classics book by Moynier and Fiddler. For a long distance this long ridge, which drops off vertically on the northeast side, rises very gradually. We found the going to be very tedious here as we worked our way over and around large blocks while attempting to get closer to the summit. It seemed like the ridge went on forever. As we got closer to the summit, we avoided some difficult gendarmes by staying to the right side of the ridge (the left side is a cliff). Eventually we reached a point where the ridge rises steeply up to the summit. For this final segment we stayed either directly on, or close to the ridge. This was the only part that required a rope. Most of it was class 4, but there was one 20-foot section that was about class 5.4. The very last bit was a very thrilling and spectacular class 3 traverse of the ridge leading to the summit.

Not wanting to descend the way we had come, we instead went down the Farquhar route and dropped into the cirque below the north face of Clark. A prominent ledge on the west end of the cirque allowed us to regain the lower end of the northwest ridge of Clark, from where we were easily able to return to our camp, which we reached around mid-afternoon. We quickly packed up our gear and headed directly towards Starr King. We were planning to camp somewhere near Starr King Meadow. The map showed a creek going through the meadow where we hoped to get water. Unfortunately, when we got there we found that the creek was dry. We then headed towards another creek somewhat to the southwest. Fortunately this creek had not dried up. We camped near this creek. The off-trail stretch between the Clark camp and the Starr King camp involved hiking through some very dense forests using map and compass.

The third day we climbed Starr King. From our campsite at about 7,600 feet on the south side of the southern of the two domes adjacent to Starr King (near the red '12' on the 7.5 minute Half Dome map) we hiked around the east side of the domes and up to the saddle where the southeast face route begins. We climbed this 2 pitch route wearing our rock climbing shoes. The climb is rated as class 5.5 in Spencer's Southern Yosemite guidebook, which seems about right. If one were to do this friction climb in mountain boots, it would be much more difficult.

This was my second time up Starr King. The first time up in 1979 I climbed what we (Erik Simpson and I) thought was the East Face route, but which I now believe is the Tsunami route in Spencer's guide which was published in 1988. However, Spencer says he first climbed this route in 1987? Speaking of Spencer, we saw his name in the summit register where he once claimed to have climbed Starr King in under two hours from the road!

Using one 50-meter rope we were able to get down in four rappels. We returned to our campsite, packed up our gear, and hiked out. The only difficulty was negotiating a way through the manzanita that surrounds the base of Starr King. We reached the car about 2.5 hours later. On the way we saw two more people, making a total of three for the entire trip.

George Sinclair continues:

After looking at my trip report again, I think maybe I used a poor choice of words in regards to my comments invoving Mr. Spencer. To clarify matters, I want to be clear that I did not intend to infer anything negative about Spencer. I believe that he is a very talented climber. I was merely pointing out that unbeknownst to Spencer, it is very possible that I climbed the Tsunami route on Starr King before he did.

Steve Eckert adds:

Aye, there's the rub! All this stuff about "first ascents" is based on the first RECORDED ascent, so the talkers and writers get credit for stuff that was probably done by natives centuries ago (if not by another white man decades earlier).


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