Epic on Mt Mendel, Right Mendel Couloir

24-26 Oct 2003 - by Rick Booth

As the result of a series of e-mails with Steve Aho of the CMC, a southern California based mountaineering club, I learned that Scott Johnston was looking for a partner for an attempt on Ice Nine, the Left Mendel Couloir. I contacted Scott and he graciously agreed to haul me along, in spite of having never met or climbed together. I was pretty stoked since I had long thought that Ice Nine was probably the top of the Sierra ice climbs and I figured to never have the skills to lead its difficult sections, which include some dry tooling around a chock stone.

Various scheduling constraints meant we had to head for the Sierras on Thursday night, almost immediately after my return from a week at Indian Creek, Utah. Thursday night we arrived at the nearly deserted North Lake parking area and crashed for the night. It was amazingly cold that night and we awoke to the rattle of fishermen heading down the dirt road we were sleeping on. Friday morning we headed up for Lamarck Col. We chugged our way up the trail towards the Lamarck Lakes and took the un maintained trail heading for the col. At the top of the col a sign informed us that we were at 12,880 feet and requested that we should leave both our dogs and our firearms behind. I reluctantly stashed my bazooka behind the sign. We headed down the backside of the col into Darwin Basin and found a nice camp spot near the inlet to the second lake there.

At 3 AM we were up and getting ready to go. It was an amazingly warm night, a marked contrast to the night at North Lake. About 4:30 we were off and quickly thrashing around headed for the wide gully on the west side of the north face of Mendel. We more or less stayed in the gully but ended up drifting too far east in the dark. A little more thrashing around and the saving grace of early dawn light and we were at the base of the ice sheet that fills the couloir heading for both the Left and Right Mendel Couloirs. We could just see the Left Mendel Couloir and it was looking dubious already. There appeared to be very little ice in the upper chimney beyond the chockstone. We headed up the ice anyway and figured to climb the right couloir if the left looked out of the question. Four 200 foot pitches later we were hanging off the ice screws trying to get a look into the left couloir which was another pitch away. There appeared to be a runnel of ice in some parts of the chimney but not in others. This meant the possibility of hundreds of feet of dry tooling which Scott was going to have to lead since I wasn't even sure I could follow hundreds of feet of dry tooling without hurting myself, let alone lead any of it. We punted on Ice Nine.

Two and a half pitches later we were through with the ice on the right side. This last few hundred feet was made more complicated by the fact that Scott dropped one of his ice tools which went whizzing past my sorry noggin. Scott finished leading the pitch with one tool and didn't seem to miss a step. Amazing.

It turned out the end of the ice was not a good thing. This put us at the start of what turned out to be about 200 feet of so called third class climbing in what is without question the loosest, most shattered, dangerous chute/chimney I have ever been in. Flat nasty. We emerged from the top of this horror show on what we think is the West Ridge. It was now about 5:00 PM and we had about an hour of sunlight left. An hour to figure out how to get up over the summit and locate the rappel spot "several hundred yards down the Southeast Ridge". That seemed improbable so the question was what to do from where we were. We could see down below us the John Muir Trail in Evolution Basin. It didn't look so far so we opted to go down the southwest face towards Evolution Basin. This involved a bunch of third class down climbing and three rappels, the last of which was right at the very end and occurred right as it got dark.

Unfortunately we were still way above the trail in Evolution Basin. The southeast face of Mendel is probably 1000-1500 feet longer than the north side. We eventually thrashed our way down to the trail and determined we could head back to the northwest on the trail and intersect a lake with water. Once at the lake we ate most of our remaining snacks, drank some water and contemplated what to do next. It was now about 9:00 PM. We figured there was a trail that came down from the Darwin Bench and intersected the John Muir Trail. We just didn't know where since it wasn't marked on the map. We headed down the JMT until it started to go down hill somewhat. This caused us some considerable consternation and we trolled back and forth over several hundred yards of the JMT looking for a missed cutoff to the Darwin Bench Trail. This didn't happen. Again we sat down for a discussion as to what to do next. It was now after 10 PM and extremely warm, fortunately. About all I wanted to do was crawl over to the nearest rock, boot the bear out from underneath it, crawl under the rock, curl up in a ball, and pass out. The ever energetic Scott argued we should head back to camp, if we could find it. We decided that it was likely we had not gone quite far enough, even though we were gradually going down hill. So we headed further north on the JMT. In our headlamps it appeared the trail took a sharp left and started to head steeply down hill. Right at the apex of the turn was the sought after trail coming in from Darwin Bench. It was now 10:30 PM.

We followed this indistinct path up to Darwin Bench. Scott held his headlamp at knee level in order to illuminate the slight shadows made by faint footsteps and we eventually found our way up to the Darwin Bench. This turned out to be the easy part since now we had to work our way up the bench to our camp at the second lake. This involved a lot of big boulder hopping, climbing around house sized boulders, and in some cases a retreat or two. At 3 AM we flopped down on our sleeping bags at the inlet to the second lake. Twenty four hours, sleeping bag to sleeping bag. Like they say on the TV show "24", it was the longest 24 hours of my life.

Sunday morning we packed up and headed up over Lamarck Col, picked up my bazooka, and headed for home. Scott raced ahead of me in order to cop a snooze in his car and I dawdled my way out in the usual wasted effort to save the pounding on my bad knee. It was the last good weather of the season. By the following weekend the first of the Sierra storms had moved in and the Tioga Road was closed.

Final notes: We used a 60 meter double rope system, eight ice screws, and an alpine rack with one of everything in it up to maybe #2 camalot. The rock is so shattered in the right chimney that only small stuff like stoppers are useful in there.


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