Bella Italia, even when it rains
(Climbing peaks around Lake Italy)

2-8 Sep 2012 - by Sonja Dieterich (view roster page)

Doing an east-west traverse of the Sierra over the top of Stanford N, I had seen the towering peaks over the Mono Recesses and dreamed of climbing them. Finally, the opportunity came and my friend Larry and I started out at Pine Creek trailhead toward Italy Pass for a week. Spectacular climbing weather turned into significant atmospheric instabilities, which forced us to adapt our ambitious climbing plans. More details are in my blog at deserttortoise.wordpress.com; below is the executive summary for the climbing parts.

By noon on our 2nd hiking day, we had hauled our still food-filled packs to the crest of Italy Pass at 12,400 ft. Larry had some altitude issues, so I left him, the packs, the SPOT and my binoculars behind and set off to visit the Emperor Himself via the south ridge from Italy Pass. For the most part, there are sandy ledges making up a use trail for the various alpine-dwelling mammals. The talus is made up of nice granite; solidly stacked and not prone to kicking down rocks should a multi-climber party ascend. I reached a small saddle near the top where multiple routes converge. From there, I found the summit block to be easy, non-exposed 3rd class simply because of the comparative size of the boulders vs. me. I easily located the summit register, signed, and left some Trader Joe Ginger Chews for the next climbers. I also took a look at the West Ridge, which in Secor 3rd edition is called a classic class 3 climb. No kidding. I thought David Harris' report to be a bit exaggerated at first. On seeing this ridge I have to agree with him that it is definitely not class 3, or I am a way better climber than I make myself believe! It looked like a solid class 2 to me. After studying the route up Mt Gabb, I returned to Italy Pass about 2.5 hours after I started. Not bad for a 2nd day at altitude. We got to our camp on the south side of Lake Italy near the inlet near 6pm. There are several nice campsites there, some of them with rock walls stacked up on the west side of the camps to protect from the strong updraft winds coming through the valley most evenings.

On the 3rd day, my body demanded a rest day, so I chucked my plans for Recess. Wise decision, because around our estimated summit time a fast-moving, intense hailstorm moved over Lake Italy. This would have made for some very slick rock and unpleasant temperatures high up on a peak! But at least Larry got some fishing time in and procured three sizable trout from Lake Italy for dinner.

Finally, Day 4 saw us get up at 5:30 am for a 6:30 am start to climb Mt Gabb. We hiked along the north shore of Lake Italy until we came to the second creek just across from our camp. Two connecting ramps of willows lead us up to the ledge at 11,800 feet connecting Hilgard and Gabb. We used that ledge to traverse below the cliffs to reach the south face of Gabb. Immediately after bypassing the ridge, one should make a left turn to reach the sandy bowl. I let myself be pushed too far east by the granite ledges, which required a traverse to the west to reach the sandy bowl once we got to the base of the south face. By 10:07 am, we had reached the saddle at 13,000 feet and the clouds started building. I looked at the 700 feet of ridge above me, the weather, and decided to make a run for it. Secor calls the south slope and SW ridge class 2-3. The face is certainly class 2 most of the way, with some easy class 3. I definitely found the ridge, except maybe the first 150 feet, to be class 3 due to the size of the granite blocks. It is not exposed at all and quite a lot of fun to climb, but compared to the south ridge of Caesar definitely more challenging. On the few occasions when I used short sandy ledges, strong whiffs of sheep dung confirmed the presence of bighorn in the area. I swear they were somewhere out there, our climbing efforts providing the sheep equivalent of the Comedy Channel. We got to the peak at around 11:45 am. A quick scout revealed no sign of a summit register. We sadly could not spend much time on enjoying the superb view, because being on the highest peak for several miles around with rapidly building cumulonimbus clouds just had "lightning rod" written all over it. We climbed down very quickly, this time taking the creek all the way to Toe Lake. I spent a good 20 minutes immersing way more than my toes, actually up to the top of my quads, in the ice-cold water of the lake. It felt so good. Meanwhile, there was almost complete cloud cover, the occasional drizzle at our altitude, rain socking in Gabb, and distant rolls of thunder once or twice. After a leisurely hike back along the north shore, we got back to camp at 4:15 pm for a total of 10 hours round-trip.

The next day I wanted to climb Hilgard, but when I poked my head out of the tent at 5:30 am I saw the sky covered in altocumulus clouds, a sure sign of bad weather rolling in. We did not have it in us to outrun another set of storms on a 2100 feet climb, so we strategized and decided a hike toward the Bear Lakes Basin was called for. We only got around Brown Bear and Teddy Bear Lake before we decided to return for an afternoon nap in the tent just barely beating the rain getting to us. We were entertained for a few hours by the various drumming patterns of steady rain interspersed with hail.

Day 6, the weather finally turned better again and we started out at 7 am toward the round willow patch marking the Italy outlet route up Hilgard. Atop this first gully, we stayed on the SE ridge until it got too blocky, which was a little higher than halfway up the climb. From the ridge, we easily moved into the SE face. The gully is sandy and somewhat loose, which is not my favorite climbing material but this one was not too bad. Only once I absolutely had to clean up a delicately balanced 50-pound rock, which I felt ok about because I could see clear all the way down the face making sure no other climbing party was be below us. The climb is very straightforward: the broad chute narrows to a gully, and staying on the lowest slope naturally turns the climber toward and into the small chute Secor mentions leading through the left of the head wall. Just when we were about 200 feet below the summit, a small single-engine plane flew a few hundred feet above the summit. The top of the chute revealed a feature which cause me to laugh out loud. Reaching the summit at 10:15 am, we enjoyed a generous 30 minutes there with stunning views across the High Sierra. Again, I could not locate a register, but found 3 USGS markers.The glissading on the down climb was ok, not quite as nice as on Gabb but acceptable. Forewarned by Debbie Bulger's trip report we did not glissade all the way down to the tarn but headed for a small patch of dry meadow at the bottom of the chute. Walking a few hundred yards south from this grassy patch on top of a broad ridge got us to the wide ramp leading back to the round willow patch signaling the descent route to the Lake Italy Inlet. Being back at camp at 1 pm, Larry found time to catch two more trout as appetizers before loosing the lure to the rocky depths of the Lake.

And that's all we got to. We hiked out the next day in one shot, chased by thunderstorms and rain. Coming down from Italy pass we met Bob (Emerick, SPS list finisher in 1989), Anne, and their 3 gorgeous dogs. Originally, we had planned to camp at Pine Lake but two lightning strikes within less than a mile away and almost steady rain for several hours made me decide a very late arrival in my soft bed was worth the extra effort.


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