Red and White Mountain

20-21 Jul 2002 - by Peter Maxwell

Red and White Mountain (12816') is a peak which is notorious for loose rock on some routes, and has been known to have turned parties back because of it. The best route to avoid the worst of it is the class 3 northeast ridge, which appears in the book "100 Classic Climbs". Such a billing is hard to resist, so on the weekend of July 20/21 Sandy Sans and myself (Peter Maxwell) set out to bag it. What a team: both ex-chairpersons of the PCS and both domesticated with loving wives and children. The rest of our families came up with us and spent the weekend camping at the McGee Creek campground.

We set off a little after 9 am on Saturday morning and after 7 miles and 3100' elevation gain, were at Little McGee Lake by 3 pm, leaving lots of time to enjoy the surroundings. Camp sites at this lake are extremely limited, and we found about the only flat area, barely off the trail. We couldn't help commenting on the trail as it continued up to McGee Pass: desolate, barren and uninspiring, switchbacking through treeless wastelands of loose rock. This trail is popular with packers, though, and we saw several mule trains on our journey.

Shortly after our arrival another group of three appeared, en route to further up the trail, intending to stop at the next lake and climb Red Slate the next day. Some time later one came back, stating that in his opinion there was nowhere to camp up there and he was going back to Big McGee Lake. The other two had apparently decided to put their bivvy bags right on the trail, so it would not be a good idea to plan any trip intending to camp beyond our lake.

Mosquitoes were not at all bothersome, it seeming as if the population had decreased a lot from quite recently. They were barely more than a mild annoyance and at the lake were hardly present at all. We were also lucky with the weather, because earlier in the week there had been substantial thunderstorms. Chatting with the ranger who came by, he said he'd never seen such weather, with steady hail occuring every hour or two throughout the entire day. It did cloud over and threaten, but nothing came of it.

We were up at 5 am the next morning to a balmy 46 degrees, and were hiking at 6:10 am, to summit at 8:30 am. This had to be a record for the earliest Sierra summitting for both of us. Sandy captured the moment well when he said "Heck, on some mornings I'm not even out of bed at 8:30!".

The route we followed is well described in Secor, and can be summarized in Roper style, "Head southwest, gain the ridge, follow it to the summit". At all times it was obvious where to go and the class 3 sections are quite easy with very little exposure. The knife edge ridge is really fun and has some good exposure on the east side in parts, but there was never the feeling of teetering on a narrow catwalk, since the west side is not as steep.

Although the ridge itself is solid, elsewhere the route is definitely not devoid of loose rock and where possible we climbed on parallel paths to eliminate the possibility of one of us being in the other's firing line. Careful placement of hands and feet is all that's really needed, but larger parties would still need to stay close together.

After bypassing the "false summit" the route says to climb a steep gulley on the south side of the ridge to the summit, but the jumble of rocks we found didn't provide anything which looked like this. Instead, it was a matter of picking our way up through the maze. On the descent we followed the ridge line much more closely which, although steep, is a decent route to use.

The peak is not climbed all that often, and we were the first up since May. The register went back to 1981 and the book was nowhere near full. From the summit there was a nice view of Lake Thomas Edison and other peaks of the Silver Divide. After lounging around for 45 minutes or so we reluctantly left, to return to camp at 11:30. We were on our way about 30 minutes later and made it back to the car around 4:15.

Our adventures weren't over, though. We thought we'd be back home at a reasonable hour, but at the Don Pedro Reservoir Sandy noticed the car's temperature gauge had maxed out - the thermostat had broken and we were stuck. The rest of the journey was spent in the cab of the tow truck that had to be despatched.


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