Little Lakes, Big Mountains. Charles Schafer and I found plenty of challenge climbing Mt Mills and Mt Abbot from Little Lakes Valley on September 16th and 17th.
We took the East Couloir route on Mills. Viewed from our camp at Mills Lake, it wasn't clear that any of the gullies on the east face would take us to the summit ridge, but once in the snow bowl, there was no mistaking the right route. Secor describes a large chockstone in the couloir, but there was so much snow that we weren't sure which steep section concealed the stone. The couloir ends in a class 5 headwall, but we exited the couloir to the right before we reached the headwall. If we had exited sooner, more or less following the Van Dalsem variation described in Secor's guide, we would have had an easier time. We modified our descent route to avoid the steep top of the chute, with good results.
We climbed Abbot via the route Roper calls the East Couloir, but Secor calls the North Couloir. They are the same route, and there's no accounting for Roper's misnomer. By overlooking two key words in the guidebooks, we easily got off route. We climbed and then retreated from some loose fifth class rock. Roper advises us to climb the gully "until it is possible to exit right". In retrospect, I interpret "until" to mean, exit the gully as soon as possible, no later. Secor estimates the exit point to be "halfway up the couloir". We saw two places where we might exit; below a blank wall at the top of the couloir, and below a green wall lower down. Again, in retrospect, I interpret "halfway" to mean below the green wall. We attempted the higher egress, and tried three chutes, each starting out with sandy, downsloping class 3 ramps and turning into steeper, thinner, and ultimately impassible cracks in the weathered, friable granite. We were discussing our approaching turn-around time, but persistent Charles persuaded me to try the flaw in the wall of the couloir lower down. The route worked, and we were soon doing fine class 3 climbing on the ridge.
We couldn't have climbed either mountain without ice axe and crampons. Charles wisely chose to wear a helmet. I would recommend that anyone climbing in the Abbot group wear their helmet, because the rock is very loose and it's hard to avoid sending down some debris. The amount of rockfall made us grateful that there weren't any parties above or below us!
We found the signatures of many of our PCS friends in the summit registers. These mountains are popular, and for good reasons. The combination of steep snow and extended class 3 rock make for a fine challenge. Both peaks present excellent lessons in mountaineering route finding. The summit views of the Mono Recesses are unbeatable, and the access to the area from the Little Lakes make the trip a good choice for a two-day weekend.
Little Lakes, big mountains, big scree, big slabs, big adventure, big vistas, big challenge, big fun.