Agassiz and Winchell

29 Aug 1999 - by Jim Ramaker

Just before dawn on the last Saturday in August, Bob Suzuki, Joan Marshall, and I roused ourselves from our bivy spot next to the Glacier Lodge parking lot. A quick breakfast, and then Bob and I headed up the trail toward Sam Mack Meadow. The plan was to drop our packs there, climb Mt. Agassiz (13,893), camp back at Sam Mack with the rest of our group, and then climb Mt. Winchell (13,775) on Sunday.

At 11 a.m. after four hours of hiking, Bob and I reached Sam Mack, a small jewel-like meadow nestled at the foot of the cliffs and moraines leading up to the Thunderbolt and Palisade glaciers. The meadow is enclosed by broken cliffs on three sides and has no obvious way out. After a break, we climbed the steep snowfield at the southwest corner, which is over 40 degrees near the top and requires an ice axe, and would probably require crampons in the early morning. Above that we passed a small lake with a snow cliff just south of Sam Mack Lake, then started upwards over rugged moraines toward the foot of Agassiz. True moraine like this is harder to walk on than talus -- it tends to form up-and-down ridges instead of even slopes, and the boulders are more likely to be loose and mixed with rubble. To pass the time, we estimated how long a day we were going to have, and we figured that if things went well, we'd top out at 3:30 and get back to camp at 6:30.

Around 2 we took a break at the top of the permanent snowfield southeast of Agassiz, then decided to head straight up the southeast face instead of wandering over to Agassiz Col and getting on the south ridge -- the alternate route suggested in Secor. We chose the gully that cuts most deeply into the southeast face and aims just left of the apparent summit. We climbed some class-3 slabs left of the gully, and then when these got a bit steep (for me, not for Bob) we moved into the gully for a tedious class-2 scree slog. The gully topped out just 200' feet left of the summit, and when we reached the top it was 3:31 p.m. It was a great relief to finish the uphill part of the day -- we'd come up almost 14,000 feet in 24 hours (8000 by car, 6000 on foot), and we hadn't been sure this plan would work out.

After a snack and short blissful rest on the soft boulders, we headed down, almost floating now that gravity was working with us instead of against us. The trek back over the moraine felt great as the sinking sun spread its alpine colors over everything, and we arrived back in camp at 6:29, right on schedule. We were greeted by the rest of the group -- Joan Marshall, Steve Eckert, Nancy Fitzsimmons, Maggie Hudson, Stephan Meier, and Ted Raczek. Most of us had climbed together before, in some cases too often to count, so it was a relaxed evening in camp. After supper, we were all in bed by 8 to rest up for the big day tomorrow. Weather was cloudless and quite warm for 11,000'.

Sunday we got up at 5:30 and left camp at 6:40. To exit the meadow, we chose the talus slope at the southeast corner. This leads up to a small frying-pan-shaped snowfield with a finger of snow forming the "handle" and pointing upwards. Early in the summer this steep finger of snow may be hard to climb, but now in late August it had a moat along its right edge with rocks that formed a perfect class-2 staircase. At the top of the slope, we passed "snowcliff lake," then stayed on snowfields as much as possible to avoid the tedious moraines. We gave up a little altitude once or twice but it seemed to save time and certainly saved effort.

At 9 a.m. we took a break on a talus plateau at the foot of the southeast face of Winchell and contemplated the two gullies above. They looked steeper and much less distinct than when I climbed the peak four years ago; in fact they looked almost undoable. I knew there was a moderate class-3 route up there somewhere, but it makes one wonder -- what drove the first acensionists upward on peaks like these, when they could see no safe way through the cliffs above, and had little or nothing in the way of climbing gear?

After more upward slogging, we finally reached the top of the talus and put our hands on rock. Winchell is a fun climb -- we climbed a steep class-3 step near the bottom the right-hand gully, continued up a few hundred feet on excellent rock, and then searched for the traverse into the left-hand gully. To keep this climb class-3, you must traverse at the right place, and after one false start we found it -- it's at the upper edge of an area of white rock high up on the left side of the right-hand gully, just 30' or so below the top of the gully. (Secor's instruction to climb to the crest of the arete is wrong.) Another marker is an 8" wide horizontal dike of white rock that cuts across the gully just above the traverse line.

The traverse takes you across an airy class-3 ledge with good holds, and drops you onto a sidewalk ledge in the left-hand gully. Solid, fun, class-3 ledges then take you up a couple of hundred feet up to the summit, where we arrived at 10:30. All seven of us managed to crowd onto the cramped summit area, and we enjoyed beautiful views of the Palisades, the tarns in the Bishop Pass area, and the sea of high peaks to the south and southwest. Weather was clear and quite warm for almost 14,000' as we ate snacks, took photos, and searched the register for PCS names, of which there were many.

Soon it was time to descend, and we passed the two steep spots with no trouble except for one team member who needed some coaching. Once off the peak, we took another break to enjoy the warm sun, then headed down the moraines. We again made use of snowfields to avoid most of the moraines, and got down to "snow cliff lake" by 1:30. Here the group split up to try different routes down to the meadow. Steve explored rockbound Sam Mack Lake and found a couple of primitive campsites there, then followed me down the straightforward talus slope. The rest of the party tried descending the snowfield that Bob and I had climbed on Saturday, but some folks didn't like the angle (or the runout into a cascading creek with sharp boulders), so they backtracked and came down the talus also.

We were all back at camp by 2:30, and decided to end the trip there so the three carpools could hike out independently. Steve disappeared down the trail, now able to count his remaining peaks on the SPS list on one hand. Bob, Joan, and I managed to hike out in just 2 1/2 hours, and we flogged Joan's poor little Honda home in less than 6 hours. Thanks to everyone for a great weekend -- by keeping our pace steady and our breaks short, we managed to pack a lot into two days and still get home at a reasonable hour.

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