Bear Creek Spire

15 Jul 1995 - by Ron Hudson

This trip was to be a repeat of last year's at the same time, to the Rock creek area. Fears about the snowpack discouraged many; only four showed up even though we had permits aplenty and about 12 came last year. After a good sleep Thursday night, we backpacked the four miles to Dade Lake, (11,600') from Mosquito flat (10,200') carrying rack, rope, harnesses, axes, crampons, etc. The nice thing about this is the easy access -- about the easiest access to high country peaks in the Sierra. Snow became substantial at about 10,700'; Long Lake at 10,500' was about 70% frozen on Friday and 50% frozen on Sunday. Any higher lake or bowl was basically a sea of snow. Steep mountain sides and ridges up high were mostly snow free and dry though; O.K for climbing. We found a dry spot to camp and set up by noon.

After being inactive for essentially four weeks, I felt quite tired and not used to this. I had recovered from a severe bronchitis with cough, fever, and absence from work for 1 1/2 weeks. The afternoon I laid around and just ate, read, and slept to acclimatize for the climb on Saturday. We were planning to do the East Arete, rated grade III, 5.8 in Secor's book. Gerry Cox, my partner, hiked up to the base of the climb to leave steps for the morning. The snow was well consolidated all around -- little postholing even in the afternoon. Snow was quite hard in the morning even though the temperature did not get below freezing. Crampons were not needed for the 1 mile hike to the base. We started on the first pitch at 6:30 AM. We took axes with us, and I took my crampons and boots on the climb too. Gerry left his plastic boots at the base.

The spectacular arete, which sticks out directly at you when you see it from the Little Lakes Valley, was completely clear of snow. 14 pitches are involved and most of them are a full rope length. Maybe 60% of the route is 5th class and the rest 4th and some 3rd. Pitch 3, "5.8" and #10, "5.7" are the crux pitches. However, the 5.7 moves seemed 5.8 and the 5.8, 5.9. RJ's description in the book is somewhat brief; we didn't have a climb topo and had to do some hunting for the route.

The climb was exciting! Really nice views and vertical progress up this classic sharp arete. I had thought it would be a simple one; four parties did it the day I climbed another route up the peak last year. I guess the altitude and my inactivity made it hard (for the rating), to me, anyway. Jerry led the odd numbered pitches and I did the evens. The first 5.7 pitch was interesting for me - not real easy. Jerry had an exciting and strenuous time getting around the "5.8" crux overhang. At that crux it was a real struggle for me to got out onto and balance on the exposed vertical wall at its side, even though I was following. There were a number of low 5th class pitches as the book says -- not much hardware needed on those. When I led at the beginning of pitch 10, I got hung up. The book says go left around a gendarme and past two cracks to a third one, but I was confused whether I was in the right place. The gendarme is really a huge cliff wall that you see about down about 1/3 of the ridge from the top. It took me about 20 minutes hanging onto the exposed wall at the bottom of the crack until I could get three pieces in that I still didn't really trust. A Friend had reversed one of its cams and I couldn't get it out while hanging there. Then above that no jugs or rest spots for 20 feet or so. "5.7"! If the crack went nowhere then how would I get back down? That made me nervous; but we weren't up there to sit back and let the world go by. I could see a long channel ahead; I followed it and it did finally end at a great spot to sit and belay. Jerry then led on by, and it was only 1/2 pitch to the triangular hole in the ridge where he belayed from. After that it was slow and deliberate (at thirteen and a half thousand feet above sea level) class 4 and low 5 to the 13,713' summit block. The block itself requires a bit of a strength move while exposed with only a belay from below.

Action and adventure it was! The weather was perfect. Bright sun and no wind all day. Some of the belay spots were in the shade, and I was glad to be shielded there from the blast of high altitude solar rays.

We had a full rack and one 9 mm rope. Could have used some more larger pieces (2 1/2 - 5"). Protection opportunities are mostly excellent. Nice cracks, spectacular vertical exposure, and quality Sierra granite! Many of the pitches, particularly near the end, were a matter of moving deliberately using minimum energy since we were breathing hard in the altitude. We had no falls nor slips. Being careful is all-important; the fate of some when tired or distracted near the end of a climb is to have a momentary lapse in attention or judgement and then suffer the ultimate consequence. We summitted at 5:30 PM.

To get off the summit area, there is a rappel point (1/2 pitch) down to the northwest, then class 2-3 down to the crest ridge. To get off the crest the least steep way down was about 150 yards north of the low spot on the crest north of the peak. The snow was steep, but negotiable with boots and ax. I belayed my partner, who was wearing his rock shoes, two rope lengths pitches down the 50-60 degree snow until the slope did run out. He then had to make a detour on the way back to retrieve his boots.

Back in camp an hour later I met Alois and Jim, who decided to do their climb on Sunday, up the easier SE Buttress (and then drive home). Jerry and I walked out Sunday morning, me somewhat sore but with grand memories of a great climb.

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