Bear Creek Spire
(North Arjte)

11-12 Aug 2002 - by Rick Booth

It is August and August means Dee's birthday and Dee's birthday means the annual technical alpine climb. This years target was the North Arjte on Bear Creek Spire, another classic Sierra climb, or so it is indicated in the two versions of the 100 Sierra Classic climbs. We were not disappointed.

On Saturday, August 10 we headed up the Rock Creek Road from Tom's Place towards the trailhead. The trailhead is at the absolute end of this road but offers a limited amount of parking considering the number of people interested in this trailhead. Arriving about 8:30 AM we were fortunate to find one of the few remaining parking spots and the rest were filled within five minutes of our arrival. We packed up our packs and headed out the Little Lakes Valley towards Morgan Pass. Our destination was Dade Lake.

For the first two miles or so the trail goes up and down and up and down and up and down. By the time we had hiked to Long Lake we had achieved a whopping 262 feet in elevation gain. At the western end of Long Lake a very obvious trail breaks to the right from the main trail to Morgan Pass. This is the trail to Treasure Lakes, which is the route we chose to get to Dade Lake. This well used trail breaks again within about 100 yards and the right fork continues around the lake as the fisherman's trail. The left fork starts up hill and is the path to Treasure Lakes. This trail meanders through a boggy area or two and continues up hill following the outlet from the Treasure Lakes. Much of the up hill progress requires talus and boulder hopping. These rocks seem to be fairly stable so it passed quickly. Once at the first Treasure Lake we continued past it to the most western and southern Treasure Lake. Dade Lake is just up above the bench above the western end of this lake. Unfortunately getting up on this bench requires chugging up about 400 feet in elevation in more, somewhat looser, talus and scree. Once above this it is a short stroll to Dade Lake. This is an extremely clear and scenic lake. Bear Creek Spire and the North Arjte are plainly visible above the lake. There are several nice bivy spots here and we occupied one being abandoned by two young fellows from Mammoth Lakes.

The next morning we were rolling by 5:15 AM using headlamps to navigate around to the other side of the lake. We continued up through wet slabs and talus heading for the permanent ice field which guards the approach to the North Arjte. There is a tongue of rocks and rubble piled up on the ice field directly below the start of the route this year. Unfortunately it stops about thirty or so feet from the rock itself. We roped up at the top of the scree pile and gingerly headed across the ice in climbing shoes. This was a dicy proposition but by standing on the flat spots or the embedded rocks and grabbing little air holes in the ice we made it to the rocks itself. We had packed ice axes and crampons in for the climb but had left them in camp based on the advice given us by the guys from Mammoth Lakes.

The first pitch ended on an obvious shelf at the base of the first 5.8 crack. For some reason the Moynier topo indicates the end of the first pitch is at the top of the next 5.8 pitch. Our first pitch ended at the base of the 5.8 crack with no rope left. Moynier must use one hell of a long rope in the backcountry. We ran up the 5.8 crack without any trouble. The second pitch is supposed to move right somewhat and then up. I first went way right and then came back some and climbed some flakes. This was supposed to be 5.7 but felt harder than the first crack. Our guess is we missed the 5.7 somehow. This put us to the right somewhat and the start of easier climbing. We moved up easily to the shelf area in the vicinity of the second crux 5.8 pitch, however, we needed one more pitch than the topo to do so. The second crux pitch is described as a crack that turns into a chimney that turns into an offwidth. We had heard that it was hard to find and located to the left. After going as far left as I could go without doing anything heroic it appeared that this crack system was the widish slot with a couple of fins hanging down in it. This slot is located the furthest to the left as one can reasonably get. We went up this and sure enough there was one or two chimney moves involved and up a little higher a couple of armbars in the right offwidth slot behind one of the fins. Dee stemmed the whole thing. While it may be argued that the first 5.8 crack is overrated, this section was pretty solidly rated at 5.8. We escaped the crack using a short hand crack on the left to a shelf and headed up to the top of the tower on its left side. It appeared that it might be possible to go further up the slot but it was not obvious how to exit back out to the left at the top. The remainder of the route more or less follows the arjte itself or a little to the left. The Secor guide indicates there is a keyhole, which can be passed through on the ridge and sure enough once past a gendarme the keyhole is used to move back to the left side of the arjte. Past the keyhole the Northeast Ridge joins the North Arjte and it is mostly fourth class or low fifth class climbing to the summit area. The final summit area can be ascended via the fourth class crack which is part of the Ulrichs Route (or Cox Col route) or it can be ascended by getting up on the arjte again and walking to the summit area.

The descent from the summit area can be done by down climbing the fourth class crack or rappelling. There was a pair of fixed slings near the summit block. The remainder of the descent can be done by going down Cox Col but this is a very steep and loose looking class 3 descent. It is vastly easier to walk about 200 to 300 feet past Cox Col to the north along the ridge and then drop down. Judging by the well-worn path in this direction this appears to be the popular descent. The rest of the descent requires negotiating through the few snowfields and slabs back down to the main drainage above Dade Lake. We spent the night camped at Dade Lake and were treated to the beginning hours of the Perseid meteor shower. The next morning we headed back to the trailhead. The two guys from Mammoth Lakes indicated the trail out might be easier by heading down toward Morgan Pass. We opted to hike along the bench towards the eastern Treasure Lake as much as possible and then drop down at the eastern end of the bench. This was judged to be easier than dealing with the scree. At first it appeared this would be solid boulder hopping but by staying to the north side of the bench the terrain turned into easy hiking after a few hundred yards. Judging by the footprints this appears to be the preferred route in and out of Dade Lake, at least via the Treasure Lakes. This dropped us down right near the outlet from the eastern most Treasure Lake. The rest of the hike out retraced our earlier steps. This is an excellent route and a good benchmark for the grade of alpine 5.8. The first 5.8 pitch is somewhat soft but the chimney and offwidth pitch is solid. It is not as aesthetic as the Fishhook (or J Hook) Arjte on Russell but it is considerably easier to get to. This is a very picturesque region of the Sierra and the views down Little Lakes Valley are terrific. The descent is straightforward. Logistics.

This is a mandatory bear canister area, however, the only critters we ran into were ptarmigans and pikas. If you pick up your permit in person the ranger will insist that you bringing a canister. The best parking is at the very end of the Rock Creek road. This is an extremely popular day hiking and fishing area so this lot fills up early. A sign indicates overflow parking a ways down the road. The next parking appears to be at a picnic area and while it was full of vehicles it is not known if there is any overnight parking there. Even further down the road was a dirt parking area with a sign that indicated "overflow parking". Presumably this is acceptable for overnight parking. The trailhead is high for the Sierras, about 10,200 feet, so those with altitude issues may need to be careful. The hike in is only about four miles and the elevation gain is about 1400 feet to Dade Lake at 11,600 feet. The hike in through Treasure Lakes will require boulder hopping. There may be an easier access from near the Morgan Pass area past the Gem Lakes and then up past another unnamed lake below Dade Lake. There are good bivy sites at Dade Lake and there are at least two sites up higher above the talus towards the route. There is water there. These sites would shorten the morning hike to the North Arjte by about 20 minutes. For gear we used a double 50 meter rope system. A longer rope would probably be unnecessary. The rest of the gear was double Camalots from #.5 to #2, single green, yellow, and red Alien, a single #3 Camalot, and some small stoppers. We brought a selection of slings, which included two long ones.


The High Sierra, Peaks, Passes, and Trails, Second Edition, R.J. Secor, The Mountaineers, 1999, ISBN 0-89886-625-1

Climbing California's High Sierra: The Classic Climbs on Rock and Ice, Second Edition, John Moynier and Claude Fiddler, The Globe Pequot Press (Falcon Guides), 2002, ISBN 0-7627-1085-3

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