Tuesday, October 4, 2011

We went, we saw, we didn't climb

Ben and I decided we wanted to attempt Bear Creek Spire. We both have the High Sierra Climbing supertopo, and we both looked at it and decided that we liked the idea of a destination that had two alternatives from which to choose: the 5.8 North Arete, and the low 5th class Northeast Ridge.

We had been planning to go about a month ago, but ended up going to Courtright Reservoir instead, because we couldn't get permits for overnight stay at the Little Lakes trailhead. Last week looked like the last opportunity of unequivocally good weather in the Sierras (this week the storms begin), so we headed out there mid-week to attempt our objective.

For me this trip came a week after spending a week at Banff National Park, so I was still somewhat acclimated to higher elevations. Ben was coming straight from sea level. I was essentially taking a long weekend in the middle of the week, so we had to do the whole trip in three days, including the getting there and back.

We took off Tuesday morning and got to the Little Lakes trailhead, overnight permit in hand, around 4pm. Backpacking up to Gem Lakes took a couple hours, so when we got there we decided to stop, make dinner while we still had some daylight left, and overnight there. Gem Lakes Valley is possibly the most beautiful place I've ever been, and, on top of that, the trail to continue up to Dade Lake was not obvious, so I had no objections to staying, though my legs were definitely good to go for a while longer.

The next morning we got a leisurely start, based solely on the time it took for the sun to peek over Morgan Mt. to our east, and hit our campsite. We were off and searching for a trail to Dade Lake by 9am, loaded only with climbing gear, and planning to hit the easier Ridge, instead of the arete.

It turns out that there really is no "trail" as such. We learned from the book that we should look for a steep talus slope, of which there is exactly one, so there was little ambiguity there. But nothing we had read prepared us for 2.5 hours of steep, unmarked talus to Dade Lake. Having previously had near-injuries while slogging in talus, I consider it the worst possible terrain to be in during the last part of a tired descent. I was completely demoralized by how long and hard the upward talus slog had been, by the fact that we'd have to do it again, in reverse, and super tired, possibly in the dark, at the end of our day, and, finally, by the fact that there was no way we would ever have managed this talus ascent with full backpacks the night before. It felt like we had done something definitely wrong, but we were definitely following directions right.

By the time we got to Dade Lake I was pretty sure I wasn't up for the rest of the day as we had planned it. We would next have to traverse a snow field, then more talus for over another hour, before reaching the base of the climb. Then we'd climb for 5 or so hours, then we'd have to descend by glissading down a snow gully, and slog talus for 3 more hours to get back. Given our 11:30am arrival at Dade Lake, we were looking at finishing our glissade, with three more hours to go, around nightfall.

Throughout all our preparations it had not occurred to me that what we were planning was actually a mountaineering, and not a climbing trip. The guidebook and websites we'd consulted made it sound like on some trips, some times of year, some people chose to bring snow gear (ice axes and crampons). We were in what I would consider the absolute end of the local summer and, in my non-expert opinion, snow gear was necessary. I was completely uncomfortable with the idea of crossing that snow field without traction, and of glissading down the gully without an ice axe. Couple that with the late start and lack of relevant fitness (i.e. lack of ability to go on autopilot on talus at 11,500 ft for 6 hours, and have faith that I'm not going to miss a step and land on my face, or overturn a boulder and end up with a crushed ankle, both of which I've *almost* done in the past), there was no choice, for me, at least, but to bail on the plan.

I don't know what Ben's process was, but I was pretty annoyed that I had to deal with his long and silent inner struggle. It was completely clear to me -- and it did not diminish me or my self esteem at all! -- that we had bitten off more than we could chew, and had underestimated this project.

Given that the talus ascent had been so miserable, and that we thought we couldn't do it with full backpacks, if we ever chose to return, it was time to make lemonade, and try to find a better way down (or up, for the future). We descended into Treasure Lakes Valley, then down towards Long Lake following the fishermen's path. This trail is actually mentioned in the supertopo, but not recommended, because it is supposedly longer and has more talus (!!!). It took us the same amount of time, so if it's longer it's only marginally so, and I thought it was slightly more pleasant, as far as talus goes. We paid close attention to the maps and terrain, and we think that we've found a way to get from Gem Lakes to Dade Lake by traveling cross country, following the ridge immediately East of Treasure Lakes. Since, next time around, we will be seeking to minimize our distance from Bear Creek Spire, in order to shorten the climbing day and avoid talus travel at the end of it, it will be important to get all the way to Dade Lake. So this ridge is the only option we think we can handle, with full backpacks...


We spent the rest of our day lolling about Gem Lakes, took a quick swim, made movies of trout (I call it "fishing"), and acclimating (for no reason at all). It was a beautiful and restful day, and I was really glad to be there and not epic'ing up at Bear Creek Spire. The backpack down the next day was equally beautiful. A couple days later I read of a rescue in the Tetons (apparently the third this year) of a guy who glissaded without an ice axe and ended up with broken limbs when he lost control. That made me feel a lot better about my admittedly inexpert assessment. I climb for fun, so the idea is to do it only to the extent that I can live to continue doing it uninjured.