The Cleaver, via the NW Ridge

3-4 Jun 2000 - by Mike Zimmerman

We got an auspicious start on this trip by not leaving the Tustin area of Orange County until 8:45 PM. Joining me on this trip was Craig Leventhal and Christopher Jain all three of us CMC members. Anyway, this was not a sanctioned CMC trip and was spontaneous in nature on us deciding which peak in the Sierra that we could feasibly climb in a weekend and without having to deal with a permit. We arrived at Whitney Portal at 1:30 AM which made us wake up even later Saturday morning. We prepared our equipment, deciding to take ice ax and crampons and leave the rope behind, and noticed that it was a beautiful clear sunny day and that there would be pleasant temperatures into the mid seventies for our hike up to base camp.

We finally cast off at 9:15 AM and Chris showed us a nifty short cut instead of taking the normal Whitney trail. We went up the old Whitney trail which saved us about 3/8 of a mile at least and got us to North Fork of Lone Pine Creek climbers trail quicker. We found the turn-off for the North Fork approach. If one continues on the Whitney trail about 200 yards to the east from the turn-off here, one can go up the canyon I refer to as north of the North Fork of Lone Pine Creek. I do not recommend it, since bushwhacking is involved and there is no water there (when I went up it in September one time on a CMC trip in 1997 which will be another trip report) especially after the snow is gone. We chose to go up the North Fork climber's trail and did not encounter any snow so far.

We looked for the Matterhorn shaped rock, as mentioned in Secor's book, and crossed the stream there to make our ascent of the infamous Ebersbacher Ledges. We saw what looked like a backcountry ranger, who I have never seen before up in the North Fork area, as we were ascending the Ebersbacher Ledges. We kept ahead of the ranger and got past the Ebersbacher Ledges, which as one goes up these I recommend caution since an unbalanced move here and a fall could very well mean a trip to the afterlife whatever your persuasion. Well we negotiated these safely and moved on up to go to our cross country turn-off to the north.

We made it to an unnamed stream that hits the North Fork trail at approximately 10,000 feet as mentioned in Secor's book The Bible, which was accurate enough for our purposes. Plus it was below Lower Boy Scout lake, where we did not want ot camp which would have been further from our objective. So we veered to the north and hiked up a weak use trail on the west side of the unnamed stream. Still it continued to be a beautiful spring day and we hiked up near the lovely stream and noticed that we were the only ones so far going up this way. We found some solitude from the herds going up the usual North Fork route.

We continued up the west side of the stream and could see the beautiful granite buttresses of the south side of Mt. Carillon and further up we saw the awe-inspiring south face of the Cleaver. We were above timberline and came to our base camp at a flat sandy area that had the outlet stream going through it below the highest lake in this cirque that was surrounded by Mt. Carrillon, the Cleaver and an unnamed pinnacle/point (with no peak status on the map) and we decided to plop our carcasses here for the night at approximately 11,500 feet. From our base camp we could see part of the route to go up to Cleaver Col. and there was definitely snow in the chute. I broke out the happy hour munchies like crackers and smoked oysters sans beer, to continue the CMC tradition. There were balmy temperatures while we slept at base camp during the night. Probably 20 degrees above the freezing point.

We awoke on Sunday morning to find that the weather was going to be a mirror image of what we had on Saturday. The snow in the chute already was being hit by the sun since it was facing to the east with the warmer temperatures during the previous evening meant that hopefully there would be good soft spring snow. We left camp at 7:00 AM and climbed up some talus above the highest unnamed lake to the snow chute below Cleaver Col. and once we were on the snow found out happily that it was soft and easy to kick in steps, crampons not necessary. I had two slips on the snow in which I was able to self belay myself with the ax but the snow climb went smoothly. Relatively good consolidated spring snow and soft, fortunately not hard. Above the chute there was a very short section of class 3 rock to climb on the left, fairly solid compared to the loose rock in the chute that we encountered. Above the class 3 rock section is mostly class 1 travel on a use trail which brought us to easy class 2 scrambling to the top of Cleaver Col. (12,960 feet).

From the top of Cleaver Col. we could see the NW ridge route up to the summit of the Cleaver and a rock outcropping just to the north. Also the lovely dark blue Tulainyo Lake was visible below and the monolithic North face of Mt. Russell to the SW, Mt. Carillon to the south and Tunnabora Peak to the NE as well as the peaks of the Great Western Divide off to the west and the peaks to the south. A nice view.

So we descended down the use trail going down the west side of Cleaver Col. avoiding the outcropping to the left. We worked our way on a traverse of the east side of Tulainyo Lake on some talus to a point where we were at the north east end of Tulainyo Lake and made our ascent toward the NW Ridge of the Cleaver by climbing up some Class 2 talus to the shoulder of the ridge. At this point, Chris suggested to drop our packs to climb the last 250 feet of elevation to the summit.

We noticed a stairstep series of ledges on the NW side of the peak so we dropped our packs and started climbing up the ledges. Mr. Norman Clyde was correct about his assessment of this climb, he said that it was a "good rubber soled shoe climb" and I totally agree. These ledges were made of clean white granite with no loose rock on them at all, even though we wore helmets the entire way. Just really clean rock and super enjoyable. Nice and grippy for mountaineering boots and relatively easy class 3 climbing all the way up this ledge system to the summit (13,355 feet) which we made at about 10:50 AM. If one wants to make this climb more of a class 4 experience, try staying on the NW edge of the ridge which drops off with very serious exposure off to the east side. I recommend staying on the west side of the ridge since the rock is fantastic here. The climb was so good from where we left our packs that one could do laps on the ledge system. On the summit we found the register which had entries from Galen Rowell and other climbers from the fifties. The register was not that full and it seemed to me that the peak does not get that much attention. The quality of the rock on this route I think was better than the rock that is found on the East Arete route on Mt. Russell even though the rock is really good there too. We felt no need for the rope on this climb since the exposure was not too bad and the foot holds and handholds on the ledges being so bomber.

So we made our descent back down the way we came up to our packs. Chris wanted to climb Tunnabora Peak since it was so close. I had already climbed Tunnabora on a previous CMC trip that I lead back in 1999 so Craig and I opted to go back to Cleaver Col. to have lunch while Chris went off to the north to climb Tunnabora. I went back the way we went came from Cleaver Col. and Craig took the way of climbing up the outcropping, that I mentioned earlier, which is probably class 3. The way Craig went was a good shortcut to get down from Cleaver Col. So the two of us met up at Cleaver Col. and had lunch while we waited for Chris to come back from his successful ascent of Tunnabora Peak from the south side. We could hear him yodeling in the distance since we could see him on the summit. The peaks are so close together in this vicinity.

We regrouped at the Col. and retraced our steps back to base camp. We returned there by about 3:00 PM packed up our stuff and went back down the way we came up but not without incident. I stepped on a rock on the descent down to the North Fork and had a light sprain of my left ankle. Fortunately, I was wearing my heavy duty La Sportiva Makalu boots which prevented my ankle from totally rolling over. We regrouped at the 10,000 foot level on the North Fork and caught the climber's trail back down to the Whitney trail and took the shortcut down the old Whitney trail back down to the car at the Portal by about 7:00 PM.

I am not surprised that more climbers go up to climb the Cleaver, I think one factor is that Mt. Whitney is in the vicinity, being that it is the highest summit in the continental U.S., and draws the attention of climbers. Also there are several classic climbs on Whitney which gives further attraction, especially the Whitney trail. This gives this climb of the NW ridge route of the Cleaver a "secret route" feel to it. I strongly recommend this mountaineering route, I think it is better to do it during this time of the year since the snow covers up alot of the loose rock in the lower portion of the chute going up to Cleaver Col.. This way is more direct than the Russell/Carillon Col. approach, is lower in elevation and avoids the sand and scree slog up that way. But I recommend the use of helmets on the east side of Cleaver Col. The climb up the NW ridge/face of the Cleaver I would give a five star out of five star rating and it is definitely class 3, I think one of the best class 3 climbs of its type in the entire Sierra Nevada range that I have climbed so far and really fun.

My thank yous to Craig and Chris for the camaraderie, the team effort on the climb and for taking Craig's Honda up and back. The trip was great overall with superb weather, good snow climbing and the superb rock on the route itself.


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