Like the two crows in the cartoons, David Harris and Steve Eckert left town August 23rd chatting about Pentium processors, patent law, and all those things that need to be decided for the good of the world. We were on a mission: Haeckel needed to be climbed so Phyllis' ice axe could be found and retrieved, David needed to get into shape for an upcoming John Muir Trail hike, and Steve had never been up the Sabrina Lake drainage. (If you find any "Jeckle and Hide" reference in this report, let me know.)
The first day started with an overnight stay at the Bishop Creek Entry Station, where David slept in line for a permit. It was a pretty long line even on a Wednesday night, with most of the traffic showing up between 10pm and midnight. We decided to take the shorter route past Donkey and Baboon Lakes (really - check the names on a map) and then cross a ridge to drop to Echo Lake. This route is quite good on the way in, but there is a scree chute to drop into the Echo drainage, so for the return route we went for the Dingleberry Lake trail (much longer and many ups and downs).
Making good progress, we decided to slog over Wallace Col (12960) with the packs and bag Mt Wallace (13377) on the way. No problem! From the south, Wallace is a walk-up with some fun summit boulders. Wallace Col, however, is a terrible pass. Loose and sandy, especially on the west side, it should be avoided. We camped that night at the 12000 foot lake just west of Wallace, where the surface froze overnight. Snow on the way in was minimal, and we never put on crampons. Stream crossings were also easy, unlike the previous PCS trip where people had to wade.
The second day we left camp around 7am to crampon up the 35-40 degree slopes to the ridge east of Fiske. From there to the top of Mt Fiske (13524) is an fun high class 2 walk with good views of Helen Lake and the head of Le Conte Canyon. Just under two months ago, I was on the other side of this drainage: the reverse perspective was great.
The ridge from Fiske to Warlow is rated Class 4, and looked tedious, so we dropped a few hundred feet down the south side of the ridge and traversed in some snow to the south ridge of Warlow. Boulder hopping leads to Mt Warlow (13231) and a better view of Muir Pass. The register has many "arguments" about whether the peak is properly named Warlow or John Barton, but the conflict seems to have died out in the 1970s. Perhaps someone could enlighten me on the origin of the name John Barton, and how this peak came to be disputed?
It was only about noon, so we judged that we had time to do the class 3 traverse to Huxley and still pick up Spencer on the way back to camp, but the Warlow register warned that the ridge was "a no-no". That's odd, we thought, and went anyway. If there is a class 3 route, we saw no sign of it. Tall vertical slabs block progress at several points, and downclimbing around them leads you to round sloping dirty ledges with bad exposure. We went up cracks in the slabs, or edged along horizontal cracks, and stayed near the ridge line by crossing from side to side as required. One spot had a two-finger hold chest high, another hold three feet above, and nothing else but shallow counter-force friction. (Suzuki would be proud of me, since he has been beating me up about trusting my boots to hold.)
It took 2 hours to do a one mile traverse with 400 feet of gain and loss, but we made it to Mt Huxley (13117) in one piece. Fortunately, there was an easy way down: The "west shoulder" route listed by Secor as "class 3...class 2, but with a headwall" is really all class 2. The headwall is easily bypassed to the north, staying on scree and boulders the entire way. There are a few moves in the chute that could be called class 3, and there are one or two moves on the summit blocks, but the level of difficulty is so different from the OTHER class 3 route that we considered it class 2 by contrast. At the base of the chute there appear to be some cliffs which are easily bypassed by traversing to the ridge just north of the chute.
We tanked up with water, and headed for Mt Spencer (12400) reaching the summit around 5pm. This may not be a tall peak, but the views into the Evolution Basin and McGee Lakes area are great (Secor calls it "swell"). The register claims that somebody lugged their 7-month-old up to the peak. This was surely a dedicated climbing parent, since you either have to go over a 13000 foot pass or walk 30 miles to get to the base of the mountain. Imagine the diaper pail... Anyway, four peaks in 12 hours does not equal Waddell's claims (in the Huxley register) of a 12 hour traverse along the ridge of Spencer/Haeckel/Wallace/Fiske/Warlow/Huxley. He's a better man than I, that's for sure.
That night I paid the price for leaving my heavy sleeping bag at home. It hit 15 degrees and froze half an inch of ice on the lake! David chopped a hole and pumped water while I creaked out of the sack and lit the stove, then we headed for Haeckel with full packs. The saddle between Haeckel and Wallace seems to be the best way to cross the ridge in this area. It's class 2, but not as loose as Wallace Col. Haeckel Col is class 3, and about the same height, so I can't figure out why the guide books don't mention the Haeckel-Wallace saddle as the best crossing point.
We dropped our packs and headed for the summit along the "easy class 3 ledges" on the west side of the south ridge. The last PCS group to climb Haeckel apparently had to stay close to the ridge line to avoid snow, which forced them onto tougher rock. We carried an ice axe, but never used it. Most of the route was at least 100 feet from the ridge, and it truly was easy except for a move or two near the summit of Haeckel (13435).
Once on top, we located Phyllis' ice axe in a crack. David put on his CalTrans hard-hat and began throwing rocks around, but could not get to it. I then pulled out the tent pole and baling wire contraption I had brought with me to snag the wrist strap. We were in no hurry (it was only 8:30am), and eventually I got the axe shifted around where it could be pulled out. Perhaps Phyllis will bestow "an appropriately wonderful award" as promised in her REWARD notice, but I'll never tell!
The walk out was uneventful, even boring, and we hit very little traffic on the drive home. Since we had climbed every peak in the area, we shortened the trip to 3 days and came out on Saturday night. Dinner at Snivvler and 5 1/2 hours of driving got us home around midnight. If the phone rings and David wants you to help him get into shape, plan on long days and lots of peaks. Those of you who have had trouble keeping up with me may take comfort in the fact that I could not keep up with him.