The PCS advance trip schedule showed Mt Abbot and Mt Dade, but the trip was dropped from the final schedule due to co-leader reluctance and the incredible snowpack this year. At the last minute, several people called and wanted to do the trip anyway, so off we went. In the meantime, the CMC schedule had come out indicating a Mills/Abbot trip the same weekend, so we hoped to have some company.
Our merry band met near Rock Creek Lake since the remaining 1.5 miles of pavement was covered with 3 feet of snow. A little pavement walking, a little hard morning snow walking, and the two with skis (Charles Schafer and Chris Yager) decided to lighten their packs and weigh down their feet. The two snowshoers (Steve Eckert and Bob Suzuki) stomped on down the trail, confident that the skiers would overtake them soon. Well, not so soon.
It became apparent that there was a pace difference, and a route choice difference, that split along the ski/snowshoe boundary. Bob and Steve set off for Treasure Lakes, dreams of an afternoon blitz up Dade dancing in front of them like a mirage. Chris and Charles headed up past Ruby Lake and planned to meet us at the 12500' saddle between Dade and Treasure Peak, where we would camp poised for a Sunday assault on Abbot.
This year, there is no such thing as a trail. None of the lakes were melted, and the streams poked through heavy blocks of snow making the simple task of filling a water bottle quite exciting. The Dade-bound duo dropped their packs at the base of the Hourglass (a 40-degree snow chute south of Dade) about 3pm. Snowshoes had not been required until about 11000', but the snow was softening rapidly.
We actually KICKED STEPS up the Hourglass IN SNOWSHOES because it was too soft to climb in just boots! (If you flip your foot out behind you, the tail will swing up and you can punch the tip in instead of letting the shoe hit flat.) Still on snowshoes, we summited about 5:30pm. Late summitting is becoming a habit for me, it seems.
Anyone going to Dade should take a new register box, because the one there is missing a lid and badly crushed. Most entries have washed out because they were in ink and some fool stood the topless can upright in the snow.
Back to the packs around 6:30pm, we faced a 1000' climb up snow that still required snowshoes. Even protected by Diamox, Steve did not feel up to the task after the long day, so he started melting snow while Bob headed up to the saddle (sans pack) to let the others know we'd join them in the morning. He never made it. Ran out of light and returned with the report that while he could see the saddle, there was no one there.
Meanwhile, unbeknownst to us, Chris had broken a ski binding and Charles was suffering from early-season altitude effects as well. They got to the north side of the saddle (at the base of Mt Abbot) around 8:30pm and decided to stop there, in the only visible campsite around. Charles skied over toward the saddle to find out what kept Steve and Bob from getting to the meeting spot, but found himself in avalanche debris with failing light and turned back.
Bob and Steve got to the saddle with day packs around 7:30am, and between gusts of wind managed to communicate with the others who were still at camp across the gully from the saddle. Charles and Chris had decided to head out while the snow was still hard, to avoid as much postholing as possible on the broken ski, so we headed up Abbot with high hopes and good hard morning snow.
Crossing the standard snow chute was no big problem, but some spots were past knee deep. Climbing out on the 3rd class rock seemed particularly dangerous, because there were few route choices NOT covered by snow, and a fall almost certainly would send you on a rock-spiked glissade. Then we turned the corner and stared into the jaws of defeat: The traverse over to the summit ridge measures a 48 degree side slope, and was fluffy soft corn snow with gaps near buried rocks.
Packing a step involved repeatedly kicking or pushing snow into a deep footstep until there was enough of a base to hold your weight. The solid step was then FIVE FEET below the snow at arms length in front. We spent 45 minutes doing a 200' traverse, using all kinds of unusual snow moving methods (knees, shins, ice axes held horizontally with both hands, etc.). Once on the ridge, there was a knife edge cornice that was packed hard by the wind. It seemed friendly compared to the soft corn.
Some mixed third class and icy snow lead to the summit of Abbot, where we excavated in vain for 10 minutes but never found a register. To much snow. Damn. We were there. REALLY!
The return to the saddle was much less nerve-wracking, but we had to repack our steps due to softening in the sun. Bob accused Steve of working for CalTrans and making a sidewalk, but the steps that did crack out under testing caused little wet avalanches. Caution was advised, because recovery from a mistake would be difficult.
Baking in the afternoon sun, we darted from shadow to shadow trying to avoid further sunburn. Steve was doing the zinc oxide clown face routine after giving up on SPF 40, while Bob was counting on superior genetics to protect him. Snowshoes were required for the entire hike out: We got back to the car around 6pm, and due to closed passes we got back to the Bay Area around 3am after a scenic drive past Lake Tahoe.
A long trip, and one of the most challenging mixed condition climbs I've done in many years, but two people got two peaks in two days. We never did see the CMC group, so I assume that the ranger's warnings of high avalanche danger kept them away. We saw only melted debris, but the soft snow was certainly at risk of cutting loose.