Mt. Mendel, right couloir

4 Jul 1997 - by Kelly Maas (view roster page)

In September 1996 Kai Wiedman and I drove to the east side to climb the easier Right Couloir of Mt. Mendel. After passing an old blue Subaru for the fourth time in 12 hours and 200 miles, we pulled in to the North Lake parking lot. On that day the weather gods were frowning on us and we looked over our shoulders continuously at the clouds as we sheepishly pulled out all our gear for packing. The bottom line was that the combination of bad weather and steep snow/ice climbing was simply too intimidating for us soft California climbers. We high tailed it over to Owens River Gorge for some rock climbing instead. There we ran into Doug Robinson who, when told of our ambitions and qualifications, suggested we try it earlier in the year when the couloir would be fuller, less icy, and less prone to rock fall. So we made a pact to return in 1997 over the Independence Day weekend.

Fast forward to July 4, 1997. We rendezvoused at the trailhead with Steve Shields and his friend Doug. While there were a few mosquitoes, they were not nearly as voracious as reported on other trips and were easily tamed with a bit of Jungle Juice. I had a permit for four, but as with my earlier Harrington trip, I left the permit at home. (Altitude kills brain cells!) I then tempted fate by striking up a conversation with the USFS employee we encountered on the trail, but he wasn't interested in checking permits. We trudged up the trail toward Lamarck Col with our 45-50 pound packs, a painful reminder of how much gear is required for technical climbs. As we ascended, the mosquito gave way to the pesky sun cup. These sun cups were well on their way to becoming neive penitente, forming fins that resembled small mountain ranges. These fins had a particular orientation, dictating the direction in which one must cross each snow field. They grew even more menacing by the time we returned on Sunday, so that I nearly broke down sobbing at the top of the last snow field, dreading the thought of having to cross this knee-deep hell.

But back to the story. We wrapped up our approach day by dropping 1200 ft in quick order from Lamarck Col to the uppermost Darwin Lake, where we met the friendly mugs of Jim Ramaker and Charles Schafer. They had just completed a climb of Mendel's east face moments before, and their route description proved very helpful to us the next day.

For good or for bad, camp was quite close to the peak, and the whole route was visible to us from there. Steve and Doug were a bit haggard and chose to rest all the next day, so in the morning Kai and I set out alone for the north face in glorious weather after a leisurely breakfast.

We were fully outfitted with heavy boots, crampons, two ice tools each, two 8.5 mm dynamic ropes, helmets, and assorted rock and ice pro. After reaching and crossing the Mendel Glacier, the slope steepened to 40+ degrees and ascended several hundred feet up relatively good (but not

great) snow. This was thrilling, but was just the start. With a bit of encouragement I got Kai to climb unprotected all the way to the base of the prow that separates the right and left couloirs. Here we roped up and began the belayed climbing. The couloir had only two real sections of ice, and one of them was avoidable. The rest of it ranged from snow to almost-ice. Although the snow started out OK, it steadily deteriorated as we climbed higher, so that at the top of the route our ice tools were almost totally useless. We could do little more than kick in our toes as hard as we could and lean forward into the almost 60 degree snow slope. It was "manky" snow over "manky" ice. Like depth hoar, it had almost no structure to it. The axe shafts didn't hold any better than the picks. At one point the rock did not allow me to make a belay, so we needed to simul-climb as I led some of the uglier stuff. I was then able to set a belay higher up and reel in Kai, who was totally dismayed at the poor quality of the snow.

If we had simply climbed rotten snow all the way to the summit, the climb would have been rather dull. Instead, we were presented with a truly novel exit move at the top of the couloir, followed by an exciting rock climb to the summit ridge. The exit move involved ascending and skirting a small 40 degree rock slab in the middle of the couloir (for which I had to do some dry tooling, a first for me), then a short chimney up between an 80 degree snow wall (which sealed off the couloir) and a vertical rock wall. More dry tooling. Cool. To the max.

But as with the U-notch on North Palisade, the couloir ends well short of the summit ridge. Removing his crampons, Kai regained his composure and led some class 5 climbing past a wet/icy corner, up to the top. After a quick snack, sign-in and rope coiling, we headed down, using Jim's cairnes as guides. Except for a short rappel (this is class 3??!!), the descent of the loose and sandy east face to Darwin Glacier was uneventful. We arrived back to camp shortly after sunset, just as Doug and Steve were setting out to search for us. (Steve served with the Yosemite SAR in 1996, so I guess he's prone to imagining the worst.)

Doug and Steve took off early the next morning and were out of sight up the left couloir long before Kai and I broke camp. The 1200 ft climb to the Col made for a lovely start to the day, and from there it was literally all down hill. The wildflower display, which we had overlooked two days earlier, was spectacular to say the least. The sun cups were hell.

Summary: The condition of this route almost certainly varies considerably over time. We could not recommend it in its current state, but it might be fine at some other time, for climbers who don't mind some 60 degree climbing. While steeper, the left couloir also appeared to be in better condition, having much more ice. But that's definitely over our heads. Gregor Johann Mendel was an Austrian priest and botanist who is considered the founder of modern genetics for his experiments with peas.

I doubt he ever saw the Sierra. We climbed his peak some 113 years after his death.


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