Highlights of Climborama 98

27 Jun - 5 Jul 1998 - by Jim Ramaker

This trip lasted nine full days. See also the leader Steve Eckert's report on the same trip.

The seven of us drove up in two cars. At the parking lot at Whitney Portal on the first night of the trip, four of us left our food in one of our cars and slept on the ground nearby. A bear broke into a truck with a camper shell parked right next to our car. We slept through the attack and awoke the next morning to find the parking lot covered with food debris, and were very relieved to discover that it wasn't ours. Even though our other car contained no food, the bear bent a window frame on it, stuck his nose inside for a sniff, then departed.

The group as a whole climbed 17 peaks over nine days, with individuals climbing anywhere from 9 to 15 peaks. Here's the list of peaks in the order we climbed them:

Mt. Muir 14,015             Mt. Newcomb 13,422
Mt. Hitchcock 13,186        Mt. Pickering 13,474
Mt. Hale 13,494             Joe Devel Peak 13,327
Mt. Young 13,176            Mt. McAdie 13,799
Mt. Whitney 14,494          Mt. Irvine 13,780
Mt. Carillon 13,517         Mt. Mallory 13,845
Mt. Tunnabora 13,563        Mt. Muah 11,016
Mt. Guyot 12,300            Thor Peak 12,306
Mt. Chamberlin 13,169

"Winner" in the peak derby was Eddie Sudol with 15 ascents. Eddie was the oldest person in the group (he turned 50 on the first day of the trip), he has some of the worst gear in the PCS, and while he's in good shape, he was far from being the best conditioned among the seven of us. So desire and inner drive really count for a lot in climbing.

In addition to 10 days of food and fuel, we all carried snow shoes, ski poles, crampons, and ice axes. Packs at the beginning of the trip averaged about 65 pounds.

We were on snow about 90% of the time -- rock hard in the morning, and so soft in the afternoon that we often postholed up to our knees. We all carried snowshoes, but found them to be of limited value on the steep or sloping terrain where we usually found ourselves. Once I postholed WITH snowshoes, got my snowshoe caught under a rock three feet down, and needed 15 minutes of hard digging to free leg and then snowshoe.

Average camp was at 11,000 to 12,000 feet, often on a rock "island" surrounded by snow next to a frozen lake.

Except for three lower peaks, summits ranged from 13,000 to 14,500 feet. Total elevation gain hiking and climbing for the week was around 30,000 feet.

Every one of the ten or so major lakes we passed was frozen solid and covered with snow. Temps at dawn averaged 25 degrees and we often had to chop a hole in an icy lake to get water in the morning.

On all nine days we had perfect cloudless weather (!!!).

Except for the first and last days when we were on the standard trail up Mt. Whitney, we saw NO other people. NONE!!! This in a state with 35,000,000 people and near the highest and most popular big mountain in the 48 states. The El Nino snowpack had scared most people away from the Sierras until later in the summer.

This trip demonstrated how vast the Sierras really are, once you start poking around all of the peaks instead of just cruising through on the Muir Trail. All of our wanderings for the entire nine days were contained on a single 7.5 minute map!!! Remember, to cover all of the "climber's Sierra" from Tower Peak in the north to Olancha in the south requires about 50 7.5 minute maps.

This trip was definitely not easy. On three separate days, 6 p.m. found at least some of us above 13,000 feet, slogging upward on soft snow in the hopes of bagging another peak, with a steep potentially tricky descent still to come. (So much for a prudent "turn-around time.") On all three days we bagged the peak and got down to camp by dark. But a couple times we barely made it, even with the long days just after the summer solstice. On the other hand, we still had a margin of safety on those three evenings. The weather was calm, we were all experienced, and those who were too tired to keep climbing had bailed out earlier.

Steve and Eddie climbed Carillon and Tunnabora the hard way. These peaks are both class-2 boulder hops, but Steve and Eddie made them interesting by starting from Guitar Lake west of Mt. Whitney, crossing Whitney-Russell Pass, descending a steep snowfield with a cliff below it, and traversing the shelf perched above a cliff on the southeast side of Mt. Russell. They bagged both peaks and reversed their route, covering eight miles of rugged cross country above 12,000 feet. To top it off, they got back to camp at 4:30 p.m. with enough energy to insist that everyone pack up camp and backpack over to Crabtree Lakes that evening, so we'd be in position for the next day's climb. (For a full description of Steve & Eddie's route, go to the PCS Web site, page down to "Resources," and select "errata to Secor."

On the same day, Craig Taylor and I climbed the west face of Mt. Whitney. This huge face is a maze of buttresses and gullies. Two of the gullies appear to go all the way to the top and we took the left- hand one. Thanks to El Nino the gully was a fine moderate snow climb -- 2000 feet of easy cramponing and never steeper than 30 degrees as it threaded its way up past huge rock towers and walls. From the top of the gully, 500 feet of scrambling up sun-warmed class-2 boulders took us to the summit plateau. For the second time in three ascents, no one was on the summit of Whitney when I arrived.

The most boring climb was Guyout Peak. For the five of us who did it, it was 12-mile day, most of it on the Pacific Crest Trail with intermittent snow patches. The peak itself was a low-angle snow slog with occasional postholing. The peak has four small summit towers -- the third one we got to had the register, but according to Steve's GPS, the fourth (northernmost) one is the actual summit, so we climbed that one too. (We sure didn't want to come back and do the peak again, though in all fairness, it had spectacular views of the vast wilderness around the Kaweahs and the upper Kern River). One of the high points of the day was when Bob navigated back through the woods to our camp using only map and compass (Steve had put his GPS away and there were no useful landmarks visible.) At 5 p.m. we came up over a small a hill and walked right into the center of our camp. Way to go Bob.

The hardest and most interesting peak we climbed was definitely Mt. McAdie (13,799), which is next to Arc Pass about 3 miles southeast of Mt. Whitney. McAdie consists of a north, south, and middle peak. The north peak is the highest, but a direct assault on it from Arc Pass is class 5 so a circuitous route was required. We climbed some class 2-3 rock on the south peak, did a short traverse toward the south on soft 60 degree snow (measured angle), traversed an exposed snowy ridge over to the middle peak, downclimbed a short icy step, traversed the middle peak, then downclimbed 50 feet of nearly vertical class 3-4 rock to get to the ridge between the middle and north peaks. At that point, just when it looked like the climbing was about to get harder, a hidden ledge took us around onto the west face of the north peak, and then enjoyable class-3 rock took us straight up to the summit.

We triggered a small, non-threatening, wet-snow avalanche on McAdie. Over 4th of July, some skiers were nearly killed in an avalanche near Tuolumne Meadows. In a normal year in the Sierras, avalanches are almost unheard of after May 1 because the snow has all consolidated by that time. This year is really different.

After we got down from Mt. McAdie on the second-to-last day, the group split up, with Steve heading off to dayhike Mt. Muah and Tim, Aaron, and Craig hiking out. That left Bob, Eddie, and I to make a 3:30 p.m. start on Irvine and Mallory, neither of which are trivial. Thanks to Bob's persistence, we summitted Irvine at 5, did a long traverse across a soft snowfield, climbed some steep mixed junk of soft snow and class-3 rock, and found ourselves relaxing in the silence on the summit of Mallory at 6:30. One of those golden days in the mountains, with great climbing and great companions.

Even at the end of the trip on July 5th, it was basically still winter in the high country. We saw no bugs and almost no wildflowers -- they were still yet to come. Only after descending from Thor Peak on July 5 did some of us see some green grass and a snow-free meadow that suggested the beginning of spring.

I ate about 50 Energy Bars of various kinds (PowerBars, Stoker bars, Think bars). The others ridiculed me, but I only lost a few pounds and had good energy right up thru the hike out on the afternoon of the ninth day. (Maybe the energy that day came from thoughts of a shower and a meal in a restaurant.)

Most of us didn't wash our faces or clothes for nine days. It was too cold to do so in morning or evening, and we were usually way up in the snow during the middle of the day. Reverting to savagery is fun, for awhile. (Steve was the exception, carefully shaving every day with his battery-powered razor.)

Because of the incredibly stable weather, Bob, Steve, and I slept under the stars every night and were rewarded with spectacular views of the Milky Way and many shooting stars.

Bob and Steve are nuts. Even for the PCS, they give new meaning to the word excess. For them, utter exhaustion is a virtue to be pursued and then used a springboard into ever deeper exhaustion. And they did an incredibly good job of leading this trip. Just to come up with a plan to climb so many peaks in nine days is quite an accomplishment, but then to make it all happen with no major mistakes or fiascoes is a bit unbelievable. On to Climborama 99!

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