Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Finishing the California 14ers!

On the summit of Polemonium

We started a mini-tradition of climbing some mountains in the Sierra on our way to drop Danny at Stanford. This was our second year doing it. Last year we climbed Mt. Whitney and Mt. Muir is a 12-hour day with nearly 26 miles of travel. That was Danny's freshman year and he needed to be at Stanford by Tuesday, so we only had one day in the mountains before dropping him (Sheri and I climbed Mt. Russell on the way back home). This year, we had some more time and planned on two nights in the North Big Pine Creek area. Our primary goal was to climb Mt. Polemonium - our last California 14ers. There are 15 14ers in California: Whitney, Muir, Russell, Sill, Polemonium, North Palisade, Starlight, Thunderbolt, Middle Palisade, Williamson, Tyndall, Split Mountain, Mt. Langley, White Mountain Peak, and Mt. Shasta. Polemonium is one of the toughest as it requires mandatory 5.6 climbing and a massive, complicated approach, but the harder the effort, the sweeter the summit.
Hiking into basecamp

The only drawback to these trips is that we must leave Derek behind. He's in his junior year in high school and already deep into his tennis season, where he's playing #1 singles (and was 8-0 at the start of this trip). We filled the hole in our team with the venerable, the redoubtable, the indefatigable, the ageless Loobster. While possessing vast experience and a wide array of backcountry and climbing skills, none are as developed nor as valued as his ability to chatter. His storytelling has whiled away many a boring trail mile. He arrived a day earlier and picked up our backcountry pass and bear canister, which provided a constant source of annoyance during the approach, as the hard exterior pounded his back. With me swamped with preparing for the Rattlesnake Ramble (we left for California the same day), Loobster did all the route researching.

We met Sunday night at the Brown's Town campground in Bishop where we made final preparations. The next morning we packed our backpacks and drove to Glacier Lodge, the trailhead for Big Pine Creek. We took our time hiking into Sam Mack Meadow. After a couple of hot, dry miles, we dropped into the main drainage and hiked past the three lakes whose staggering beauty was only surpassed by their creative names: Lake 1, Lake 2, and Lake 3. Though it was only 7 miles and 3400 vertical feet, the approach was tiring with our heavy packs. We got to camp in about 4.5 hours, with a number of breaks. It was a bit past 1 p.m. and, after putting our tents, we took our pads down to the idyllic alpine meadow for lunch, promptly followed by a siesta.
Relaxing in Sam Mack Meadow
While in camp the Loobster acted as our hydration engineer. He had a fancy Platypus gravity filtration system. He'd fill the "dirty" bag with stream water, hang it from a tree and it would drip through a filter into the "clean" bag. Using this method he filtered 140 ounces at a time. It was a slick setup and he kept out thirst slaked and our cooking pot full. Despite this cool technology, what he was most proud of was his special Martha cup, which he used to dip into shallow pools to fill the dirty bag. Hearing so much about this I was a bit disappointed to see it: a simple, clear plastic Starbucks cup with "Martha" written on it.

Our plan was to start at 6:15 the next morning. We were hoping to do the roundtrip in eight hours and move camp down to Lake 3 to possibly climb a route on Temple Crag the next day. From our camp at 11,000 feet we only needed to gain 3000 feet to summit. How hard could that be? As confident as we were, both the Loobster and I packed a headlamp, just in case. When morning rolled around the winds were roaring above, though not buffeting our tent. I ignored the alarms, thinking it was too windy to get started. The Loobster finally came to our tent and basically said, "What the hell are you guys doing? It's time to climb. You're not going to let a little breeze stop you, are you?" He was right, of course, and we got up, had cup of coffee, ate a bit and were off by 6:45 a.m.
Mt. Sill

We followed a good climber's trail up to smooth granite slabs. These provided nice access towards the court of mountains that ruled over the Palisade Glacier. This is an honest glacier, not like what we have in Colorado, and it has a huge moraine. These slabs let us bypass the lateral moraine, but it finally dumped us off at a huge, glacial talus field. This very loose jumble of boulders was made doubly nerve wracking as it was situated atop the glacier itself. Most of the time the boulder and dirt layer was thick enough to deceive us into thinking we were on stable ground, but near the cliff walls at the edge the black ice was completely exposed or covered in a layer of dirt and pebbles less than an inch thick. Sheri asked, "Should be put on our crampons?" "No," I said. The ice was mostly covered anyway and our puny hiking crampons, especially the Loobster's aluminum ones, wouldn't likely even scratch the surface of this ultra-hard ice. Instead, we stepped wisely and cautiously and quickly gained the rock wall below the Sill-Mt. Gayley saddle.
Approaching the ridge on Mt. Sill
The climbing on this wall was 3rd or 4th class, but it was very loose and Sheri wasn't comfortable. We stopped on a precarious stance and put on our harnesses and helmets. I then led up a hundred feet to a rappel anchor and belayed the team up. We all climbed on a single 60-meter, 7.8mm rope, tied in at intervals. I led up another rope length, but the climbing was now 3rd class at best and I stopped and as each team member joined me, they unroped and continued up to the saddle. Sheri led the way and we regrouped at the saddle. Below us was the vast (by Sierra standards) Palisade Glacier. Here I left my pack, in which I had been carrying three sets of crampons and three ice axes. We never used any of this, though that is very uncommon for this climb. I now carried the Loobster's pack with the rack and rope in it and Sheri's fanny pack.
Danny high above the Palisade Glacier
We ascended over talus and loose ground up the L-shaped couloir. Sheri, Loobster, and I had been up this couloir once before, about 25 years ago, when we climbed the 5.7 Sill Arete on Mt. Sill. Back then, much earlier in the year, it was all snow. Now, in mid-September, it was completely devoid of any snow. We climbed up to a saddle between Sill and spur. Here we passed through a slot and descended slightly to the base of the crux climbing of this North Couloir route on Mt. Sill. It wouldn't be the crux climbing for our ascent of Polemonium. We once again roped up and I ran out 200 feet of rope to another rappel anchor. The climbing up to here was 3rd and 4th class with lots of loose gravel. We unroped shortly above here but encountered one last 4th class boulder problem before gaining the ridge.
On the long traverse to Polemonium
At this point we were at 14,000 feet and only a couple hundred feet before the summit of Mt. Sill, up and left for us. To our right was a long ridge leading to Polemonium. Right of this ridge, down towards the Palisade Glacier, the drop was precipitous. On the left side was a vast boulder field of mostly giant boulders. Further left and closer to Polemonium was the small Polemonium Glacier, which looked more like a permanent snowfield. Viewing it face-on, it looked steep and forbidding, but we'd skirt it to the right. We could see the summit of Polemonium a half-mile away. It was already past noon and time concerns were in our minds, though mostly unuttered. The skies had big clouds, moving quickly, though not very dark. When we were in the sun and the wind stopped, we were warm, but when the sun went behind the clouds and the wind picked up, we were chilly. We bounced back and forth between these two conditions for most of the day, though it was cold enough to mostly keep our shells on.
Sheri on the Knife Edge - the last pitch on Polemonium
I led the way over to Polemonium and pushed Sheri a bit to keep moving. In my mind, I was committed to getting us both to the summit, almost independent of what the weather did. This did not include Danny and Loobster, though. They didn't need this summit like Sheri and I needed it. This was our last California 14er, our 15th. We'd already done all the Colorado 14ers and I had previously climbed. Mt. Rainier, so this would complete the contiguous US 14ers for me. A few years ago, when we did the Palisade Traverse from Thunderbolt, over Starlight, to North Pal, we ran out of daylight and had to skip Polemonium, while just below it. That was a huge day and this day was going to be huge as well. I wanted this summit bad and I could get two of us up and down it quickly. Four of us would take more time.
Danny excited to finally be on top of Polemonium. Mt. Sill is in the background
Thankfully the weather held, as it would all day, and we all arrived at the notch before the main summit. The route description here offered some choices, including a traverse, though it wasn't clear where this would be. We opted to drop down the gully, the most common route, as it was so obvious. A hundred feet down the gully, it wasn't obvious the best way back up to the notch below the main summit. I forged a route up steep rock and here we encountered our most difficult climbing, probably 5.5 or 5.6. Everyone did well following, though Sheri was stumped for a bit at the final wall, until the Loobster helped with some footwork advice. This put us one pitch from the summit. The final pitch was the "Knife Edge" and it was indeed intimidating, as it was quite exposed on both sides. The climbing here wasn't that hard, though, maybe 5.5 at best. It was the only pitch where I placed protection, though, as it traversed up to the summit.
Rapping off the summit of Polemonium
I scampered to the summit and put the others on belay. They all followed on the same rope with Sheri coming first, then Danny, and finally the Loobster. I was worried that Danny might balk on the very exposed ridge. He is not a fan of such positions and hasn't really done any rock climbing. I took both the boys out for easy rock climbs when they were young, but Danny decided he didn't like rock climbing and turned his attentions to peak bagging. A couple of years ago I took Danny out to Eldorado Canyon to see how he did on a 5.6 rock climb and it didn't go well. He wasn't comfortable grabbing small edges and standing on tiny rugosities. If he balked here, with Sheri and Loobster still in the middle of the pitch, what would we do? It would be a very bad scene. I could have taken Sheri and Danny up separately, but time was an issue. I also didn't want to single out Danny as a cause of concern.
Danny climbing back to the Polemonium-Sill ridge
When Danny got to the scariest part, he barely paused, but pushed on up the crux climbing to the rappel anchor. I was so relieved. And quite surprised. When did he become so comfortable with such rock climbing? Was he secretly training in the climbing gym at Stanford? Would I see him in true next Reel Rock film? No, it was just his commitment to summitting. This past summer he climbed the steep Skywalker Couloir with Derek and I. It was his first use of crampons and an ice axe. He is committed to gaining the skills and experience he needs to summit the mountains of his dreams, whatever they may be.
Heading toward Polemonium and gazing on the Polemonium Glacier
Enroute to the summit, I passed a rappel anchor. No rappel anchors were on the summit because a rappel from there would put you in a middle of a steep wall. We'd have to reverse the top part of the ridge back to this anchor and even then we wouldn't be able to rappel directly back to the notch. Once everyone was on the summit, we didn't linger. Danny signed the register for us and we started down. It was windy, cold, and we had a long way to get back down. We wouldn't linger even if the conditions were more pleasant. I belayed while Loobster reversed back to the rappel anchors, followed by Danny, Sheri, and me. From here I soloed down the ridge just ten feet and placed a directional anchor so that when I lowered the others off, they'd hit the lower gully at the point where it would be easy for them to climb back to the notch. I then lowered Sheri first. She down climbed to the sling I placed, clipped into it, and then dropped off the side. Once in the gully, she scrambled up to the notch and untied the rope. I pulled it up a bit too enthusiastically and got it jammed. I lowered Loobster next so that he could free the rope.
Danny and I on the summit of Mt. Sill

Obviously Loobster knows how to rappel, but we weren't set up for him to do this easily. Sheri and Danny are not experienced enough to be rappelling here, though that is a skill they probably should acquire. I'm mostly to blame for this, as I haven't practiced it with them and I'm more comfortable lowering them then seeing them rappel. If I lower them, I know they are safe. They can't mistakenly let go of their brake hand and fall. Derek has been rappelling when we go climbing, but I even lowered him when we descended off Isis Tower in the Grand Canyon earlier this year. Danny had no hesitation to being lowered. This is usually the scariest part for anyone, as you have to trust completely in another person. You aren't in control. I was impressed with his bravery and took some satisfaction in that he must trust me. That's key to a safe, quick climbing team - trust in your rope mates. If you don't have this trust, then you shouldn't be climbing with them.
The amazing, ageless Loobster
From the notch we could see the traverse that was mentioned in the route description. It looked relatively easy, though exciting, and prevented us from rappelling down the gully and then climbing back up on the other side. I led across, placing three pieces of gear to protect the followers and everyone followed quickly and easily. Danny came first and, once across, he untied and scrambled down to his cached fanny pack. Sheri was next and I told those two to start the long, tedious traverse back towards Sill, as we'd reverse our ascent route on the descent. The Loobster came next and took off after the other two while I coiled the rope. I then caught the others and we proceeded back up towards Sill.
The horrible, loose glacier talus field - this lies mostly atop the glacier itself.
At this point, with the weather holding and only two hundred extra feet of climbing, Danny wanted to bag Mt. Sill as well. The others demurred, as they had already climbed it, a quarter century ago. Danny and I dropped all our gear and scampered up to the summit. This was some really fun 3rd class scrambling. After the obligatory summit photos, we were back with Sheri and Loobster in about fifteen minutes. We scrambled down to rappel anchor and I lowered Sheri and then Danny, each started down the L-shaped couloir as soon as they were off the rope. The Loobster then rappelled the full 200 feet and took off after them. I doubled the rope, rappelled a hundred feet, then pulled the rope, coiled it and down climbed the rest of the way. In the couloir I caught up to Loobster and just noticed Danny going around the corner out of the couloir. I tried to yell to him and tried to get Loobster to yell to him, but it was too late. He disappeared around the corner to much steeper terrain. I worried if he'd even be able to get down. I hurried down the couloir until I could see over to the saddle where i cached my pack and where Sheri was waiting for us. Apparently Sheri had descended so fast that Danny couldn't see her and took a wrong turn. Sheri could see Danny and I asked, through her, if he was okay. He was and was able to descend, but he wasn't too happy about his route. No harm done, though, and Danny kept himself safe. He's also becoming quite the competent scrambler.
Scrambling up the L-shaped couloir

Back together again, we downclimbed the anchor above the glacier talus field. Here I lowered Sheri and Danny again and then Loobster rappelled 200 feet down to the talus. While they started the loose, tedious traverse back to the slabs, I rappelled and downclimbed to the talus. After I stowed the rope, I peed. I was shocked to see that my pee immediately washed away the gravel and revealed the black ice below. Indeed it was a very thin veneer that covered this treacherous surface.

The notch at the top of the L-shaped couloir
We were now in a race against the setting sun. Our overconfidence had us only bringing two headlamps for the climb. We could descend with only two headlamps, but it would be very slow. If we didn't get back to the trail before darkness, it would be very slow even if we all had headlamps. Danny led the way across the glacier boulders and then down the slabs and finally across the lateral moraine talus to the trail. He called out triumphantly, "I'm on the trail!" The sun had set behind the ridge and the light was rapidly fading, but we'd make it. In fact, we only needed our headlamps to cross the stream just before camp. We arrived 13 hours after we had left. The total mileage (7 miles) and vertical feet (less than 4000) are completely irrelevant in describing the effort we expended. The Loobster had recently down three laps on Mt. Defiance in the Columbia Gorge for a total of 15,000 vertical feet and 30+ miles of hiking and he called our day much harder. That puts into perspective the difficulty of this terrain.
Temple Crag - next year's goal
I immediately set to cooking and the Loobster filtered some more water. In turn everyone had a well earned dinner. We went to bed with no alarms set, already deciding that an ascent of Temple Crag would have to wait for the next trip. Everyone popped some vitamin I and we slept the sleep of the successful. Sheri and I had almost forgot to celebrate finishing the California 14ers. Danny now has four California 14ers and the Loobster has eleven. The next morning we'd take our time packing up and hiking out. After lunch in Bishop the Loobster left us, headed to take his granddaughter (age 4) climbing. We headed toward Stanford and would drop Danny off for his sophomore year the next day.
Sheri and Danny practicing their favorite backcountry pursuit: stream crossing via rock hopping
So, what's next for us? The boys are interested in Rainier and are pushing Sheri to complete the lower 48 14ers, but she's resisting. She has a very strong aversion to snow and ice and has heard that Rainier might have some of that…even in summer!
Mr. September in the "Dorks of the Sierra" calendar

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