Crystal Crag and Cockscomb

4-5 Oct 2003 - by Rick Booth

The number of alpine climbs that may be done as one day projects are somewhat limited. Both the Cockscomb in the Tuolumne and Crystal Crag near the town of Mammoth Lakes can be easily climbed in one day per climb. There are those individuals who can, no doubt, climb them both in one day but that isn't us. Saturday morning, October 4, Dee and I headed out from the George Lake parking area on the trail to Crystal Lake. The Crystal Crag is directly behind Crystal Lake and is easily visible from the parking at George Lake. The Crystal Lake Trail is really the Deer Lake trail and there is a side trail off the main trail that cuts over to Crystal Lake. Going around the left side of the lake brings the hiker to a sign leaning against a tree warning of the dangers of climbing Crystal Crag. A climbers trail heads up towards the crag a few feet past this sign.

The North Arete Route starts in a small chimney in the back of a corner and is not the prominent dihedral which will be to the left. There is an excellent picture in Croft's book which clearly shows the route. The main climbing is about 5.6 but most of the route is fourth class. For the first pitch, head up the small chimney (5.6) and then up a broken face (fourth class). The second pitch appears to have choice of two chimney systems. We headed up the left side and stayed closer to the edge of the arete. It looks like there is a second chimney to the right. In either case this ends below a huge section of white quartz, hence the name Crystal Crag. This is way cool to climb through but it is very, very, loose. A short half pitch of this put us on the ridge. A couple hundred feet of mixed third and fourth class climbing, with the occasional fifth class move thrown in, brought us to the summit.

The descent is done by continuing down the South Ridge. After about 100 feet a notch is encountered and we headed down that. It was mixed third and second class. It looks like it may be easier to go even further down the ridge and then head west on easier terrain but we don't know this for sure. It seemed there were footprints further south that we did not encounter on our version of the down climb.

This is a fun route. It is not very hard and the whole climb and hike in and out was done in under eight hours. The North Arete does not get any sun this time of year and it was cold until we got up on the top of the ridge. To find the trailhead go through the town of Mammoth Lakes and straight out on the Mary Lake Road. Do not take the right turn towards the main ski area. Follow the signs to George Lake or George Lake Campground. The trailhead is marked Crystal Lake, not Deer Lake as indicated in Croft's book. We used a single 60 meter rope and a few cams, smallish aliens to about #2 camalot.

The next day, Sunday, we headed out to climb the Cockscomb in the Tuolumne. This is approached by hiking out the Cathedral Lakes trail which starts a little west of the Tuolumne campground. The Budd Lake trail cuts off to the left from this trail. There are several choices and the best choice is the second cut off which looks very well used. This is followed up to Budd Lake. The stream is crossed to the left near a duck after about 45 minutes to one hour of hiking. The trail heads up to Budd Lake. We headed up the broken junk to the left of Budd Lake to get on the bench above Budd Lake. This required going up and then down since there is a huge gulch that breaks this obvious broken area. The best way to get up is to go towards the end of Budd Lake around the left and then zig zag back and forth across the improbable looking slabs at the end of Budd Lake.

From the bench above Budd Lake we headed up towards a notch on the skyline that appeared to be at the end of a long rightward slanting weakness. At the top of the notch it is a short stroll up sand and manzanita to the base of the West Face of the Cockscomb. We had intended to head around and climb the East Face but decided we didn't have enough time. The PCS group of Ron Karpel, Arun Mahajan, Firoozeh Verplanke, Linda Sun, Landa Robillaird, Nancy Fitzsimmons, Tom Driscoll and Jim Ramaker were on the fourth class North Arete. Dee and I headed up the west face directly. This was third plus class except for the down climb to the notch at the base of the third/fourth class summit tower.

This is another fun route in one of our favorite parts of the Sierra. It took about 7 and half hours round trip. The West Face needed a few medium cams and about 50 feet of rope. Bold people can handle the down climb without the gear or climb up and down the North Arete.


The Good, the Great, and the Awesome, Peter Croft, Maximus Press, 2002, ISBN 0-9676116-4-4. Good photo of the route.

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

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