Deerhorn

6 Sep 1996 - by Peter Maxwell

This is the tale of two trips, primarily told by Peter Maxwell who climbed with Paul Scheidt and Jeff West over Labor Day 1996. Steve Eckert's comments are from a trip he did with Craig Clarence and Don Martin starting 10/5/96, merged to avoid duplication.

The drive up on Friday night was given more interest than normal due to the fires, the smoke from which was particularly bad going through Yosemite. At times it was so thick it was like a heavy fog. Added to that, we had the misfortune to get stuck behind three different bad drivers: one in a van who was swerving all over the road, one who was so timid that they braked on curves while even going uphill, and a Winnebago who treated a whole line of cars to 25 mph travel in the 45 zone.

Steve adds: Both groups entered at Onion Valley, and went over Kearsarge and down past Bullfrog. After hitting Bubbs Creek, you go left for a few minutes, until the valley widens and it looks like horses have been camping (or trampling!). There are several use trails crossing the stream on logs in that area.

An alternative title for this trip could also have been "Sandbagged by Secor", as we discovered two glaring errors and omissions in his guide. After reaching Vidette Meadow, Secor's first error soon became apparent. He indicates that the most challenging aspect of hiking up Vidette Creek is crossing Bubbs Creek, and he states that most hikers end up fording the creek. This is BS. After joining the Muir Trail at the junction of the Bullfrog Lake trail, one continues to where the meadows start. Very shortly afterwards there is a wide, shallow stream crossing, and just after this an obvious crossing of the creek presents itself, where a large log is lying across the creek.

Secor's second error really led us astray. He states that the way up Vidette Creek is on the east bank, which would have necessitated crossing this creek as well. As a result, after crossing Bubbs Creek we continued just on the other side until we reached Vidette Creek. Since it wasn't easy to cross it at that point we started up on the west side. Continuing on, it was evident that the west side was, in fact, the preferable side, and it was beyond our comprehension why anybody would want to hike up the east side. As if to ram the point home, on our return we discovered a very pronounced use trail that descended down the ridge (rather than closer to the creek where we were). This use trail emerged only a short distance from the original Bubbs Creek crossing!

Finding the trail from the bottom is problematical without prior knowledge, so to help others I'll add some hints. After the log crossing, continue east, parallel to the creek. The obvious landmark to look out for is a small wooden, run-down cabin. Just before this cabin is a large trunk lying across the path, and the trail starts straight up the hill from that point. It's impossible to know there's a trail there, but very shortly up the hill it becomes evident, and is easy to follow from there all the way up to Vidette Lakes.

Steve adds: Don't start uphill on the south side of Bubbs until you see that cabin, then go straight up the hill and stay away from the creek but well below the cliffs. you will find a pretty clear use trail on the west side of Vidette Creek if you stay on the shoulder or ramp that provides the easiest walking.

We arrived at the lower lakes around 5:30 pm, and immediately started arguing as to exactly which lake we were at. Since it was already late, and the arguing took up even more time, we decided to stay where we were. This was at the southern end of the group of lower lakes, at around 10500', and offered excellent bear bag opportunities at the cliffs of the rock wall at the end of the basin. Having heard of recent PCS bear encounters, we heeded the ranger's warning, especially as we saw some bear droppings (they were old, but proved that bears did occasionally come up there) and protected our food by suspending it over the above cliffs. This was the only guaranteed safe way, as all the trees in the area offered little or no protection.

Steve adds: We camped at the same place, but stuffed most of the food in a bear canister. It was very warm and clear, with no bugs AT ALL. Minimum temps of 40 deg at night was a welcome change from a mid-September trip that had several inches of snow on the ground in the morning! Craig and I bagged West Vidette the same afternoon we hiked in, which is a nasty bit of large scree with a pleasant ridge walk at the top.

Next morning we were away by 7:30 am, to try to be on the peak for lunch. We'd made a good decision in camping lower, since the upper lakes are beautiful, but offer no bear protection. We met a group of hikers, who assured us they hadn't seen any sign of bears, but after having gone to all the trouble of suspending our food, we convinced ourselves we'd done the right thing.

There was a lot talus to negotiate, which became quite tiring. Abundant water was present, so we could tank up and not worry about having to scrimp at all. We were headed for the so-called northeast buttress, which leads to the lower northwest summit. There seems to be no best way to get onto this buttress, but we definitely chose the worst way! We had in hand a fairly a detailed description of a route which had been done by someone else, so we tried to follow this. [The very bottom section is what looked like slabs/cliffs to us. We though it didn't look good to try to go straight up from the base, which is why we traversed right.]

Steve adds: The summit of Deerhorn is seen clearly as the left (slightly higher) peak in Secor's picture. Less clear is the well- defined shoulder to the left of the true summit, which appears flat from Bullfrog Lake, and appears humped from the 10800' lakes in Vidette Creek drainage. The saddle between the peaks is at the top of the snow chute in Secor's picture, with the what he calls the "northeast ridge" on the left of the snow and the "northeast buttress" on the right. This year (in October) the chute was full of old hard ice.

Our description indicated a traverse to the right, then a climb up a chute which leads to the main ridge. In hindsight, after an easy descent, the correct route would be better described by simply stating to get onto the crest as soon as possible, either by heading straight up the talus/scree as you look at it from the approach, or head for where the buttress terminates. We ended up traversing too far to the right to ascend a long, almost vertical, vaguely defined chute, putting us on the ridge 1/2 to 2/3 of the way up. Even before getting to the chute we had to cross over the top edge of a "snow" field whose surface was rock-hard, slick ice.

Steve adds: There is no good or bad way to reach the base of the buttress, but straight up the drainage bottom will avoid messing around with slabs. We went up that way, and came down through the slabs at the south end of the 10800' lakes. You move from boulders to easy third class where Secor's picture shows the bottom of the buttress terminating in a snow field, and stay right on the crest of the buttress working back and forth to keep it low to mid-range third class. Peter's group unnecessarily avoided something that looked bad from a distance but was a piece of cake up close. In the next paragraph, their group was well to the right of the proper route, climbing a face instead of the buttress.

This initial traverse proved more than one of us wanted to do, so only two of us continued. The climb up to the crest of the buttress was terrible - all the rock was loose, and even large boulders would give way at a moment's notice, crashing down onto the ice below, skidding and bouncing quite some time before eventually coming to rest. At one stage the thought went through my mind that that would be what I would do if I fell.

It was with a tremendous sense of relief when we crested onto the ridge top, and from there on up it was easy climbing over a giant staircase of boulders. This ridge led to the lower summit, however, which was unacceptable when the other summit was higher, so we had to traverse over to the saddle between the two. This traverse was trivial, and we then started our spiral of the peak, scrambled around the other (west) side of the peak, (the hidden side in Secor's photo) locating a couloir that took us to the southeast ridge

Steve adds: The ridge they crested in the paragraph above was where they joined the official buttress route! It's much easier to get on the buttress at its base. Also, forget all about Secor's advice to traverse starting 100' below the lower northwest summit - just keep the saddle in view as you get higher, and traverse DOWN to the saddle once you are about 100' above it. The traverse is very easy, so don't start too soon or you'll hit some cliffs. Both groups are now at the saddle between the two summits.

This was where all the airy stuff started. Cresting the ridge, we had a short downclimb down a notch, at the bottom of which was a tiny platform on the edge of lots and lots of air. Several hundred feet of vertical drop greeted us at that point, and we had to traverse about 15 feet on a ledge that was only about 18" wide. Good handholds were afforded, but this was "hideous exposure" all the same. We were now back on the side of the peak you can see in Secor's photo.

This ledge was followed by another steep chimney that had to stepped out of to the right to gain another ledge system which quickly led to the summit. We found out that we had just joined the exclusive club of people to summit this peak. The register had been placed in 1977 and was far from full. Each year from then, the largest number of parties summitting was five, and some years had only one. Even though the climb had proven to be very challenging, some entries indicated it to be "straight forward and enjoyable class 3", suggesting we'd definitely taken a non-standard route. We figured we may even have made a first ascent! Certainly the loose chute could have been avoided, and it turns out even the airy traverse could also, by ascending directly up the face from the saddle between the two peaks. We couldn't verify this, but Steve's October trip did. This route, combined with the correct approach to the buttress, makes the peak a super class 3 climb and highly recommended.

Steve adds: From the main saddle between the twin peaks, the easiest route is up an "S", going to the south of the minor bump Secor's picture shows between the twin peaks, and then left through a small saddle to the north side and turning right to the summit. You can see the summit block from the main saddle, and if you traverse too far around the southwest face you will wind up going right past the peak (we did, before we went back out onto the face and went straight up to the peak) and get into class four nonsense. The "S" route is easy class 3, and is the way we came down. Peter's group did a spiral route, forcing them to climb the ridge on the far side of the true summit, instead of staying on the ridge between the true summit and the saddle between the two summits.

Returning back to camp gave no problems, and we arrived around 4 pm. All the nervous energy and the boulder hopping over the talus had left us fairly tired, but we were still able to prepare a celebration dinner. Paul produced a huge can of Foster's Bitter, which went down very nicely. This tasted much better that Foster's Lager, which is a poor imitation of the version obtainable in Australia. He also produced a can of whipped cream to decorate the coconut cream pudding which I made, to be eaten with Ghiradelli chocolates. A suitable pig-out to close a great day.

Steve adds: After returning from Deerhorn, we had time to move camp to just below Bullfrog Lake. The next morning we bagged Bago before packing out, and still reached the cars by mid- afternoon. Bago is not much to look at from the trail, but it dominates the drainage(s), and provides wonderful views.

Frost was on the ground for our hike out next morning. The highlight of this hike was the discovery of the use trail that I described earlier. I still think Secor is a good book, but in the light of our misinformation, my literary tendencies prompt me to adapt "Sing a Song of Sixpence", a well-known nursery rhyme:

   Sing a song of Secor
   A pocket full of rye
   Four and twenty wrong facts
   In his book you buy.
   When the book is opened
   The facts lead you astray
   Now isn't that a tainty dish
   To spoil your time away?


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