Roy Lambertson and I attempted this route last weekend, starting at the base of the east ridge according to Moynier and Fiddler's guide, rather than following the Roper/Secor route, which uses a scree chute to gain the ridge closer to the summit.
We made it to the top of the big gendarme (13,000+) by mid-morning Sunday. The view from this perch was impressive: A knife-edge ridge of granite descends slightly to the saddle that marks the start of the standard East Ridge route. Above, an airy blocky ridge climbs to the massive, fortress-like east face of Humphreys.
Dark thunderheads were piling up over the summit, however. When we started at 5 a.m., the sky had been clear; now, shortly past 9 a.m., such a fast buildup did not bode well for our plans.
I remembered a similar situation I had encountered on the East Face of Whitney several years ago. There, retreat was much more difficult so we had continued on. We had been lucky: though we heard thunder and our ice axes buzzed with electricity for several minutes, no bolts struck Whitney. And the accompanying snow flurry was brief.
On this route, escape was much easier. The ridge up to this point had yielded three enjoyable 4th-5th class pitches, but an easy descent in the scree was available by scrambling off the gendarme.
Should we climb an exposed ridge to the highest lightning rod on the Sierra crest for miles? We reluctantly descended.
Roy, always quick with the self-deprecating humor, compared our strategy to that of the knights in the film Monty Python and the Holy Grail. These fellows usually responded to danger with headlong retreat, yelling: "Run Away! Run away!" To further memorialize our failure, he culled another TV reference from his misspent youth: he dubbed our gendarme "girlie-man peak," borrowing the name from the Hans und Franz skits of Saturday Night Live.
From that ridgetop I realized that adding Moynier's section of the ridge makes this route longer than a Grade II. In my book, 5-6 additional pitches of 4th to low 5th-class climbing warrants a total rating of Grade III for the complete ridge. Next time I will allot a full day to this route.
The lower ridge did have one especially memorable section: a 100-foot knife edge ridge, almost as smooth as the crest of an A-frame: too narrow to walk on but you could hump across it on your butt (what do the French climbers call this technique? Au cheval? (on horseback?). I was leading at the time and couldn't tell if there was any pro on the crest; nor did I know if my butt could take the horseback ride. I opted for downclimbing on the left side to a ledge system. To enjoy these technical pitches you need to stay right on or near the crest. If you don't, you're just slogging up scree-covered ledges.
Despite our retreat, we enjoyed the weekend. The high desert was bursting with wildflowers--lupines, paintbrush, many others--and the hike in was short, though it involved a little bushwacking and some scree slogging. Also pleasant was a spearmint-type aroma that we enjoyed along the way. Was it actually spearmint? Maybe someone can who knows the flora better than me can answer this. At the unnamed lake where we camped, the meadow nearby was covered with blue shooting stars and purple heather.
We had the whole place to ourselves except for one other party--they climbed the Checkered Demon couloir Sunday morning. These guys had the right idea: pick a route you can get up and off of before the showers start. (By the way, we felt a few random drops of rain on the hike out, but we never did hear any thunder.) The night had barely been cold enough to freeze the neve in the couloir, and we were impressed with how efficiently they did the climb, including negotiating one melted-out section. Checkered Demon is the wildest looking rock I have seen in the Sierra. It is a calico cat of huge strips and patches of red, white and gray--a geological marvel.
Road info: Access is from the Buttermilk road west of Bishop. The last 2-3 miles of road are rough. Roy's Subaru Legend wagon did well negotiating the ruts on this section (a task that would have been very difficult without adequate clearance and 4WD). We parked at 8600; If you have a very low gear, you can drive up to 9000 feet.
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