"You'll never make it that far." Such was the response of the ranger when I told her we were headed for Hungry Packer Lake, our destination basecamp for the Mt. Haeckel trip. Don't you know them's fightin' words lady? I assured her we were well aware of the conditions and were prepared for the snow and frozen lakes. Indeed I was anxious to try out my new Gortex socks (a great investment, it turns out). It was a good thing I called to check on our permit reservation because their computer had somehow erased all the permits for our entry date. Luckily she had no problem writing up a new one and it was ready for us Thursday night, July 21, at the Bishop Creek Entrance Station.
After a fairly good night's sleep at Big Trees Campground off Route 168 in the Bishop Creek Canyon area, Debbie Benham, Cecil Magliocco, and I (Phyllis Olrich) found a decent cafe (there are several in the area) and stoked up for what turned out to be a longer day than expected.
A short time later we met up with the other members of our team, Bill Kirkpatrick and Dave Wright, at the Sabrina Basin trailhead and off we went below cloudless skies (at last!). We experienced two stream crossings requiring the shedding of shoes and a swarm of mosquitoes immune to Cutters. The second stream crossing was really a thigh-deep river crossing and no one (except Dave) could make it across with screaming expletives over their frozen feet.
Things went pretty smoothly until we hit Dingleberry Lake at 10,489 feet. It was there that the trail disappeared under a thick blanket of snow and we had to rely on our maps, memories, and wits. We took the wrong drainage folks, and after a fair amount of bushwhacking, ended up at Midnight Lake. Well, at least it was a lake and we now knew where we were. Up and over a hump we continued until finally we descended to Hungry Packer Lake (11,071 feet), finding a dry campsite of rock and sand near running water. We had brought tents, but as it turned out we could have done quite well in bivy sacks also.
Another perfect day dawned on Saturday. Getting a semi-alpine start, we donned our crampons and made our way across a field of suncups to follow an excellent approach scouted out by Debbie. We headed south from the Lake, then around Picture Peak to a point above Echo Lake. Passing by Clyde Spires, Mt. Wallace came into view for the first time. We heard and then saw a rock fall from Wallace's east face. Alternating between rock and snow along the way, we reached the saddle between Haeckel and Wallace. It was there that we put our crampons away for the rest of the day. You can see Haeckel from as far away as Sabrina, and it looks intimidatingly steep from a distance. But from the saddle it now looked do-able.
We followed the class 3 South Ridge route. Tongues of snow came up high from the glacier below, preventing us from following continuously the "system of easy class 3 ledges leading to the summit block" mentioned in Secor (not so easy for me, RJ). One snow crossing was particularly airy and steep - as each of us crossed, ice ax securely planted, the others would watch and wait with apprehension. For the most part, you are dealing with good solid granite here. One of our party wasn't quite up to the climb, so he remained waiting on a ledge. This actually proved to be quite helpful - he had a good vantage point and helped us by yelling directions from afar. The acoustics must have been very good, because he said later he could hear us discussing the route amongst ourselves.
Things got very tricky near the top. We tried different approaches but were turned back several times by shear drop-offs or other impossible-looking moves. It seemed that all the advice we had received from other PCS members was almost useless to us now (what obvious chute to the right?) I was ready to bag it several times, but Cecil, our most experienced member, pressed on and eventually we heard her whooping in triumph on the summit. Rounding a corner, the sight of Cecil sitting up there was enough to inspire us to finish those last few airy moves. (A warning to anyone who climbs with Cecil in the future - if you hear her say "Cool!" while scouting a route, watch out! ) Signing the register, I was as proud and pleased as I could be! The last party to sign in was September, 1994.
While fussing with my pack, my ice ax came loose and careened into a crack, making such a racket that our lone waiting party member across the way could hear it quite well. We tried unsuccessfully to retrieve it. Cecil even attempted to go head down into the crack while Debbie and I held her legs, but to no avail. My beloved ax remains on Haeckel (see separate article in the August Scree on the Haeckel Challenge - Raiders of the Lost Ax).
Now it was time to make a couple of phone calls. I had rented a cellular phone for the weekend - my mother was in the hospital and I wanted to stay in touch with my family. I carried it all the way to the top, knowing that was the only likely location it would work outside of Bishop. Worked like a charm. I was able to get good news about my mom, and we left a spirited message for Paul Magliocco. We had fun with our novel new toy - we girls especially enjoyed yaking it up in the car on the way home.
Coming down was almost as bad as going up. It required all my concentration and focus. I needed help a few times and Cecil was kind enough to give me a thigh belay at one point (I stepped down onto her bent leg rather than jump an open book). Now I've experienced a butt AND thigh belay. In the two spots where an ice ax was mandatory, we would tie a rope to someone's ax and then pass it back to me for crossing. Once we got back to the saddle, however, I was able to glissade or step my way down without an ax. The blazing sun had softened up the snow rather nicely, leading to some serious body postholing. Not wanting to risk returning to camp in the dark, we bypassed Wallace and headed back down to camp pretty much the way we had come. Just another PCS 12-hour day. Over dinner, Debbie reinforced her reputation as teller of the grossest jokes in the PCS.
Sunday proved to be another cloudless perfect day, but we still needed crampons for the first half hour or so of our journey out. We did much better at route-finding this time, taking a direct route down from Hungry Packer to Dingleberry Lake (although we weren't always sure which lake we were passing). We did have to come down one rather steep snow slope and Cecil took a nice little fall, which I would have loved to capture on videotape. Unfortunately, she wouldn't even let me photograph the resultant brilliant raspberry on her upper thigh. Without an ice ax, I slid down on my butt, using my pack frame as a break behind me. From Blue Lake on down we saw lots of campers and hikers, but we enjoyed complete solitude at our basecamp.
A salad bar raid at the Sizzler in Bishop topped off this great trip!
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