Solo Duet - Devil's Crag, Observation, Giraud

26 Aug 1996 - by Steve Eckert

Author's Note: This trip report was filed before I knew about Dave Dykeman's death on Devils Crag (two weeks after my trip). Please do not take offense at my choice of words, but I have chosen not to alter the report in the hope that all of us will think long and hard about the risks and rewards of what we do. If we make our decisions for ourselves, with knowledge of the risks, then we have lived the lives we choose and no one should second guess us. Be safe.

    "Black and white was so easy for me
     But shades of grey are the colors I see
     Now with the wisdom of years, I try to reason things out
     And the only people I fear are those who never have doubts"

          -- Billy Joel

I had once decided not to climb Black Kaweah and Devil's Crag, hearing of their dangerous exposure, loose rock, and many groups failing due to lack of time. This year, however, Bob Suzuki talked me into Black Kaweah (which we summited) and I had an invitation from Paul Magliocco to climb Devil's Crag as part of a small fast group. Paul has been denied the summit twice before, and this time he had to cancel due to non-climbing problems... but at the last minute I discovered that Ron Hudson had a permit for the same weekend! Ron had no partners, and was nervously considering a solo attempt, so we decided to join forces for a duet on Devil and split for some solo peakbagging after that.

We met at South Lake and blew over Bishop Pass in about 2.5 hours, making it to our campsite at 10,000' on Rambaud Creek (pronounced "rambo", I think) in about 9.5 hours including lunch and Ron's 1-hour chat with the lady from Chino (while I sat at a stream wondering where the hell he was!). The route up Rambaud is not tough at all, with the best stream crossing at the outlet of Grouse Meadow. If you stay high enough (just under the cliffs) there is a flatter spot where the traverse over to the creek works. On the way in, we did not go high enough and wound up on brush. The other option is to stay in the slabs and rocks by the stream, which is great higher up.

On DC day, we were walking by 6:30 am, and I spent 11 hours doing the peak. (Ron took a full pack to the saddle between DC and Wheel, and headed north toward McDuffie over the summit of Wheel at the end of the day, while I packed down to the Muir trail to camp.) Trying to avoid up-and-down climbing is a mistake on this peak, because the traverses tend to be dangerous and slow. We wound up stowing the route description Ron had along and climbing almost to the top of the white peak that marks the northern end of the ridge traverse to the summit. With few exceptions, we stayed on the ridge crest from here up.

The route is mostly third class moves with fifth class exposure. There are places where the ridge is taller than it is wide (like 20 feet wide 40 feet from the crest). I would not want to be up there in a gusty wind! There are accounts of all the routes and moves, so I'll skip that: The odd things I noticed were SILVERFISH and BEAR SCAT on the summit ridge, above 12000'! This bear had been eating a good berry diet, and there was both old and new to indicate this was not a one-time jaunt.

I took one belay on the way up, but in general the holds were good enough to count on either hand protecting from a double-boot-failure. This was in sharp contrast to peaks like Thunder and Black Kaweah, where any hold might pull out or give way at any moment. On the other hand, most falls would have meant you only feel the first bounce (since it would have been enough to do you in) and no reason to send a team to pick up the hamburger. Am I exaggerating? Ask someone who's been there.

Ron remarked that the register showed no PCS entries in the last 20 years. Could this be true? I examined the Observation and Giraud registers and came to the same conclusion... but perhaps I missed someone. If so, you can fill me in and I'll correct this report before it goes out hardcopy.

The gathering clouds marched toward us as we sat on the summit, and the soft hail started dumping on us about half an hour down. We hid out behind a rock, out of the wind, and watched our lichen-covered route get wet and slick. Not good. Then Ron mentioned that hail tends to produce lightning, and I thought of Paul's weather record on DC... but it cleared in 20 minutes and we continued down without incident. We rappelled about 5 times and generally made good time going down.

On Day 3, I moved my pack up the Muir Trail to the junction with Cataract Creek, bear-bagged my food and dayhiked Observation Peak. My old 15' topo shows a trail, but that's a joke except from 9500 to 9900 (where the miners stacked rocks to get their mules under the cliffs). The chute I had chosen was full of snow, so I had about an hour's detour but the climbing was pretty nominal class 2. On the way down, I used my Leki pole as an ice axe and glissaded the slope that had been too steep to go up. The lip was not quite a cornice, and the slope became managable after about 150' (with good runout), so what the heck?

The bucks with females are all down in Deer Meadow (along the Muir Trail), while the ones that got shut out are up Cataract Creek: I've got a picture of 3 with antlers (from about 150' away) to prove it! If you're going up this way, leave the Muir Trail 100 yards downstream from where the map shows the junction, and head straight uphill IN THE TALL TREES until you hit boulders, then traverse along the bottom of the boulder field to the 9000' level next to the creek. Trust me, the avalanche trees below and the brush above make this the only sensible route.

Once back at my pack, I crossed the Muir Trail and headed uphill along the unnamed stream across from Cataract. The left fork heads toward a little lake on the way to Giraud, but nothing here has a name or a trail. This is cross-country Sierra at its finest! (assuming you ignore the really nasty bushwhack for the first 300') I stayed on the left of the stream going up, worried about being able to cross later, and that turned out to be the right choice. The right side gets brushy, while the left side has only occasional high second class slabs to contend with. I ran out of steam and daylight just as I ran into the worst mosquitoes of the trip, and made camp about 10300' in soft duff.

Continuing cross country to Giraud Peak on Day 4, I had the best possible scenery and footing to walk on. No evidence of humans, no cliffs, no scree - just tundra, tarns, and wildflowers. Walking around Lake 11040+, I gave thousands of frogs their daily "jump off the shore to avoid the possible predator" exercises, and continued up to the saddle at 11680+. This saddle has a cliff on the side I wanted to go down, but by going north (up) from the low point I was able to find a traverse route through decomposing granite and pine bushes. A bit of high second class, but there is no need to lose altitude between the saddle and the southeast face of Giraud.

Giraud Peak is climbed a bit more frequently than Devil's Crag or Observation (maybe 4 times a year), but should be climbed more often! The view from the top is stunning: Le Conte Canyon to the west, a frontal view of the entire Palisades to the east, Dusy Basin to the north, and... OK, so the south is just a regular Sierra view. Still, the north face of Giraud is one of the most sustained sheer cliffs that I have seen. The snow chute (which you can see prominently from Dusy Basin) that leads to near the summit goes over 80 degrees at the top, and next to it is a cliff that terminates in a 1-foot-thick slab standing on end to form the actual summit.

I followed Secor's route out, over the saddle northeast of Giraud, and had only minor problems finding the right chute. It's between the spires, which might be important if you're doing a one-way trip like mine. If you go too far one way, you've got slabs. Too far the other and you've got the sandy third class chute that I wound up going down. If it does not look like easy loose second class, go back to the ridge and find the right chute!

Ron and I bumped into each other on the way out: after three days solo, we were 15 minutes apart at Bishop Pass. (He bagged Wheel, McDuffie, and Black Giant, but that's another report.) Ron made a dash for SoCal traffic, while I had a margarita and carnitas at La Cantina before heading home. Don't order the double if you plan to drive. They mix 'em like you're supposed to, not like lime slushies.

There is a GIF image of the topo for this trip, with cross country routes shown.

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