The 3500-foot gain, 13-mile hike up to Marie Lake has three parts -- a long, relatively flat stretch through forest and meadow past the large pack station, a steep uphill stretch on manzanita slopes, and a long up and down ramble through woods and past some alpine lakes. With the cool cloudy weather, the hike in was infinitely more pleasant than when I'd done it four weeks earlier on a hot August day. In this El Nino year, the woods were carpeted with wildflowers and the meadows were still lush and green -- more like mid-July than Labor Day weekend.
About 4 p.m. we arrived at Marie Lake and set up camp in a light drizzle. Most of us then took naps and fell sound asleep for awhile, something that I find helps my acclimatization greatly on the first day of a climbing trip. Around 6 the drizzle let up and we cooked and ate supper, and then it returned to soothe us to sleep. Counting the nap, we got about 11 hours of sleep that night.
Saturday we got up before dawn at 5:30, and when we left camp at 6:30, the weather was sparkling with just a few tiny clouds. We headed west toward our first objective, Mt. Hooper (12,349), and climbed up class-3 blocks on the east slope, foregoing easier ground around on the southeast slope. By 9 a.m. we were at the interesting summit block -- a 20-foot tall monolith split by a single narrow crack. Secor rates it class 4, which raises the perennial issue of just what class 4 means. The crack is too narrow for good jamming, and the actual climbing difficulty is probably around 5.6. However, there's no big exposure, so the class-4 rating is a good compromise I guess.
Bob and Skip soloed the crack after a little thrashing. Eddie and I did it on belay, and Maggie and Rich traversed around the west side of the block to an exposed class-3 crack on the north side. If you're going to Hooper, I'd say you won't need a rope as long as everyone in the party is a strong class-3 climber or better. But if anyone is less experienced than that, bring a short rope and a couple of slings.
Our next objective was Senger (12,286), 2.5 miles to the southwest. We hiked across some beautiful slabs and meadows to Selden Pass, taking a lunch break at noon under increasingly cloudy skies. From Selden Pass we headed up the valley northwest of Senger, and climbed a snow slope and some easy class-2 rock to Senger's huge summit plateau. As we took a break on the summit, the clouds rolled in and it started hailing, and we headed down in visibility of about 50 feet. Descending to the west, we soon found ourselves on an unfamiliar, low-angle slope, and couldn't agree on the direction to our descent route. Changing direction, we were soon utterly lost in the impenetrable mist. Consulting maps and compasses, we made an educated guess about where we were and changed direction again.
Then the clouds below parted a bit, revealing the first corner of a lake, then slowly the entire lake, which I recognized as Heart Lake. Finally getting our bearings, we found the saddle leading to our snowslope, descended it, and hiked back to camp in steady soaking rain. By the time we got back to camp at 5, most of us were pretty wet -- even Gore-Tex seems to soak through after hours of steady rain with pack straps pressing on it. The experience showed us the wisdom of not wearing a couple items of clothing on a cold, wet day -- even a very thin layer of dry polypro can do wonders for your warmth when you strip off your wet clothes, put on a dry layer, and climb into your sleeping bag. And that's what we all did. After a short nap, we got up to cook and eat, then returned to our tents for another long sleep.
The weather pattern continued on Saturday -- sparkling and clear in the morning, then increasing clouds leading to rain and hail as the day wore on. Our objectives this day were Gemini (12,880) and Seven Gables (13,080), and we again left camp about 6:30. (Eddie wasn't feeling well and stayed in camp.) We headed east this time, over a ridge and down into the spectacularly beautiful, rarely visited lake basin just west of Seven Gables. Small lakes and fjords, pocket meadows, clean granite slabs, small trees and bushes -- this lake basin is a backpacker's dream. We climbed up past a waterfall, and around 9:30 we emerged onto the more austere terrain near Seven Gables Pass and got our first close-up view of Gemini. It looks pretty steep from the pass, but it's not once you get on it -- just pleasant class-2 slabs. Ignore Secor's confusing reference to the "West Spur," and just climb straight up the wide chute that makes up the north face.
After a break on the summit, with its tremendous views over toward Mt. Humphreys and the Abbot group, we descended and crossed over to the bottom of the 1500' south face of Seven Gables. We clambered over and around some car-sized granite blocks, and then Rich led us up smooth, class-3 slabs and ledges just as the first raindrops started to fall. Higher up, the angle eased off and we slogged up a long scree slope as the rain turned to hail and then snow. At 1 p.m. thunder boomed a couple times and we all gathered under an overhanging rock to discuss what to do. At the back of the overhang, snow trickled through a crack and piled up in a melancholy fashion. Prudence said to descend, but prudence was not leading this trip. We knew that going back down those smooth, somewhat exposed slabs would be no picnic in snow, and that if we could somehow get over to the northwest face, the descent was easy scree almost all the way. Trouble is, on Seven Gables, the only reasonable way from the south face to the northwest face is straight over the summit. Standing under the overhang, we hadn't heard any thunder for awhile, so Bob made a leadership decision -- go for it.
A half hour later we reached the top of the south face and surveyed a dismal, somewhat frightening scene. An very exposed, snow-plastered, knife-edge ridge led over to the summit about 100' away. While we had another discussion in the blowing snow, Bob scampered across the ridge and summited. In search of the "100-foot, class-3 crack" described in Secor, I descended about 50 feet and started traversing northward. I found the crack (it's about 50 feet high, not 100), and climbed most of the way up it with Skip. But right at the top was an exposed move on downsloping, snow-covered holds. Damn -- I could talk to Bob 10 feet above me, but we'd left the rope in camp, and he said it didn't look safe from his vantage point. But he said the ridge he'd done wasn't too bad, so we decided to try that.
I descended, climbed back up, and traversed the ridge. At two spots it felt like class-4 -- a move on the knife edge with 1500 feet of air on the right, and an awkward step around a bulging corner on a wet, downsloping ledge, with one mediocre hold around the corner and a death fall below. With a little coaching, everyone made these moves without complaint, and at 2:15 we were all celebrating on the snowy summit. Bob hopped out onto the actual high point, which juts out over the 1500-foot east face like a diving board. Skip crawled out there, and the rest of us decided to forego this additional excitement.
I led down a short class-3 section and a snow slope to the broad scree terrace northwest of Seven Gables. Then it was down down down the brushy cliff to Sandpiper Lake and a long break, and then up and over the ridge back to Marie Lake. Sun broke through the clouds as we arrived in camp at 5:30, and it was actually hot for a few minutes. But then clouds and rain returned. We ate in the tents, then gathered outside for a bull session in the dark as the rain let up around 7 p.m.
On Monday we departed at 8, hoping to make the 3 o'clock boat. After a snack break at 11, Bob, Rich, and Maggie left early and around 11:30 I realized they might be trying to make the 1 o'clock boat. So I raced along the trail, finally catching up to them at 1:05 just as they descended the last hill to the boat landing and just as the boat was just pulling in -- a fitting end to a highly successful trip.
We'd done the 13 miles in five hours. As afternoon storm clouds gathered over the peaks again, we relaxed in the cool breeze of the boat ride with smiles on our faces.