Feather Couloir, etc.

3-5 Jul 2004 - by Jim Ramaker

Word gets around about certain Sierra climbs, and the Feather Couloir is one of those with a reputation for being a nice climb in a beautiful area. On 4th of July weekend, Bob Suzuki and Charles Schafer (just back from Denali) led a trip there. Participants included David Altmar, Dee Booth, William Humnicky, Catherine O'Sullivan, Eddie Sudol, and your scribe Jim Ramaker. We met at the Pine Creek trailhead near the old tungsten mill at 9 a.m. on Sat. July 3, and hiked up the old mining road about 9:30. It switchbacks up the mountainside for about 2000 feet, and it seems to take forever to get out of sight of the tungsten mill and the trailhead. Finally about noon we got to Lower Pine Lake and took a break to have a snack and gaze at the bizarre zebra-striped peak (Peak 12,571) northwest of the lake. Has anyone climbed that thing? Nothing on it in Secor's guidebook, and the easiest route looks to be class-4 or at least hard 3.

We continued up the trail past Honeymoon Lake (10,400) as clouds built up ominously. At 3:30 we decided to stop and set up tents in a nice meadow area west of Honeymoon Lake, so we wouldn't have to set them up in the rain later on. Good move -- it started raining about 4, and we all dove into our tents for that most delicious of mountain experiences -- the late afternoon nap with rain pattering softly on the tent above your head.

Around 6 the showers let up as they so often do around that time, and we roused ourselves and cooked supper. A cold breeze came up, which at least helped blow some of the mosquitoes away, and by 8 we were in our tents resting up for a big day tomorrow.

On Sunday we woke at 6 and got rolling by 7:15, up the boulders to trailless Royce Pass (11,700), and then southwestward between two large half-frozen lakes over toward the impressive northeast face of Feather Peak (13,242). Three team members opted not to do the climb at this point, and they spent the day exploring the beautiful Royce Lakes basin (though Catherine did a solo climb of an unnamed peak just north of Feather). The other five of us headed up.

The plan was to do the couloir as a snow climb (without ropes), as another PCS party did in late May a few years ago. The references to a "60-degree angle" in Secor and "water ice" in a a couple of trip reports gave us pause, and we were prepared to go climb something else if either or both of those conditions prevailed. But sitting on a rock to put on crampons at the bottom of the couloir, we could see all the way up it and it looked good -- no ice and nowhere near 60 degrees -- more like 45 most of the way, with a short section near the top that might approach 50. "I think we can do this," I said. (When I got home, I saw that the line in Secor actually reads "up to 60 degrees," which technically, could mean anything steeper than a flat sidewalk.)

We started climbing around 11 a.m. and conditions were ideal, with boots sinking a few inches into the crusty snow and ice axe shafts going in all the way on most steps. The angle demanded care, but we felt pretty secure with axes plunged in like that, and if you slipped, an arrest seemed doable as long as you reacted quickly. So we zig-zagged up, avoiding the shadier and harder left side of the couloir -- the right half had already been in the sun for a couple of hours. One small patch was free of snow, and the exposed ice was as hard as granite, waiting for fall climbers interested in doing the couloir as an ice climb.

We reached the top of the couloir at noon and took a break on the sandy col. The view from there made it clear that the fun was not over -- the other (west) side of the peak had steep ribs going down that were at class-4 or 5, and the way to the summit ridge on our left was blocked by a 30' headwall. But a handy, class-3, zig-zagging staircase led up through the headwall, and at the top of it was a beautiful sight -- low-angle class-2 terrain leading over to the summit.

We relaxed there for about an hour. We couldn't see our companions in the vast lake basin below, but we yelled down and soon heard a faint reply. Around 2 we descended the gully directly south of the summit (the easternmost gully on the south face). The upper part of this gully is smooth and steep, so to avoid that part we downclimbed the class-3 rib to its right (west), cut back into the gully on a ledge, and continued down. It was your basic, loose, class-3 slab and scree gully, wide enough to spread out at least a little bit horizontally and avoid the inevitable rubble that we knocked loose.

At the bottom of the face we walked over and checked out the snow gully between Feather and Royce that descends northward into the basin below -- it's similar in angle to the Feather couloir but shorter. However, Charles "needed" Royce Peak (13.2), so we decided to go for it despite the late hour. The esthetic route seemed to be to climb up to its north ridge and follow that to the summit. Bad idea -- the ridge was very blocky, with a couple of steep ribs coming down that required up-and-down class-3 climbing. It would have been smarter just to angle up toward the apparent summit, diagonaling up the class-2 boulders of the west face. We summited anywhere from 4:30 to 5:30, depending on degree of tiredness, and after a brief rest in the beautiful late afternoon light, we headed southward down the easy class-2 boulders and climbers' trail to the Royce-Merriam saddle. From there, a short 40-degree snow downclimb and a nice glissade below it took us down to the southernmost of the four Royce Lakes, where we replenished our long-empty water bottles at 6:30 p.m.

We then headed north on flat tundra and snow toward the largest Royce Lake, and were very happy to see the other three members of our party waiting for us along its eastern shore. We thought they would have long since descended to camp, and we were impressed that they had hung around all afternoon to make sure we were okay. All eight of us then headed over to Royce Pass and down the bouldery slopes to look for the meadowy area where we had camped. Some of us finally spotted our tents and pulled into camp about 8:45, and then shined flashlights up the slope so the remaining members of our party could find there way home as darkness descended. A 14-hour day made for a relaxed and happy team as we gathered around the stoves to cook supper.

Monday morning, Dee and David decided to hike out and beat the holiday traffic home. The rest of us were a bit tired from the day before, so we just hiked up the Italy Pass trail into Granite Park, a gorgeous area of meadows, boulders, creeks, and tarns, and then climbed Mt. Julius Caesar (13,196) from the pass by its easy southwest slope. This route is class-2 with a sandy class-1 climber's trail in places -- a great beginners' climb with excellent views, as long as your beginners have the stamina for the 5800' elevation gain from trailhead to summit.

We topped out at noon, admiring the views of Sierra giants such as Humphries, Darwin, Seven Gables, and the Abbot group. Weather was clear, windless, and very warm, even right on the summit. After descending to the pass and talking to some backpackers, we split up, with Catherine, William, and Eddie going ahead, and Bob, Charles, and I, the three aging 50ish laggards, bringing up the rear. Around 3 p.m. in Granite Park, a thunder and hailstorm descended on us, but it was actually welcome because the day had been uncomfortably warm up until that point, and besides, it was neat to see hailstones splashing into the creek as we hiked along it.

Back in camp at 4, we sat under a tree briefly and waited for the rain to let up, then packed up our tents and hiked out. Based on what a trail crew had told us on the way in, our big climbing day on Sunday was the only storm-free day in the past two weeks. Other PCS parties that weekend had the same good fortune. Bob, Charles, and I had supper in Mammoth Lakes at 9:30 and got home to the Bay Area around 4 a.m., then reported to work bright-eyed and bushy tailed a few hours later.

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