This trip was a provisional "M" lead for Steve Eckert, with Barbara Cohen as co-leader. The meeting point was to be however far we could get up the South Lake road, which turned out to be gated at Parcher's Camp, despite being plowed beyond the gate all the way to South Lake. (I guess that fishermen rate a gate opening, while climbers and skiers don't.) Barbara and I first met Steve last September, on a SPS trip to Gemini, Hooper and Senger, at which time Steve had a mountain man beard and hair. Imagine our surprise on the morning of the 18th when we were expecting to meet ZZ Top at the trailhead, and instead, this clean-cut man showed up. With him were two others, Aaron Schuman and Bob Suzuki, all active in the PCS (Peak Climbing Section in the Bay area).
We started up the road shortly after 7:30 and started walking on snow when we arrived at South Lake. On the advice of a local day-hiker, we stayed high above the lake, roughly following the path of the trail (which was deeply buried), but instead of going west where the trail turns west, just west of Hurd Lake, we continued southwest up to about the 11,200' level at Treasure Lakes. The snow conditions were variable, from a hard crust to occasional thigh-deep post holing. It was possible to make it to camp without wearing snowshoes, but several of us wore them for one annoyingly soft section. We discovered on the way out that a better route, with less ups and downs, would have been to stay low along the east shore of South Lake, then go directly up the drainage to Treasure Lakes. This would not be a good route if the lake were at normal level.
At 11,000', the lakes were completely hidden under snow. We dropped our packs near some large boulders protruding through the snow safely away from avalanche and rockfall danger, and had lunch. After some discussion, it was decided to try for Mt. Johnson that afternoon, despite some gathering clouds. It looked like it might snow that night, and we wanted to try for at least one peak. We went south around to the southeast slope of Mt. Johnson, and ascended ever steepening snow to the top. There was an icy section just before topping out that definitely caught our attention. Ours was the first register entry of the year (although a CMC trip climbed it in February, but the register was buried). There was a whiteout most of the time we were on top, but occasionally the clouds parted, showing a fantastic panorama of snow, rocks, sky and mists. This was a decidedly different view than on a summer climb. We descended the same way to camp, set up the tents, and started cooking in approaching darkness, wind and cold.
We had two white gas stoves, my Coleman Peak 1, and Steve's Optimus. Neither would pump up, either because of drying out of the piston, or shrinkage from the cold. This caused some concern, since the only water available was by melting snow. Eventually, after some white gas soaking, the stoves pressurized and fired up. After some time, the Optimus, roaring like a blowtorch, blew out its pressure release. (Don't use a tight windscreen on a stove not designed for it!) It had never failed in 20+ years, but now it wouldn't hold pressure, so all of the rest of the cooking and snow melting for five people took place on one small stove. Steve was soon going to take the Optimus to Denali, so he was glad that if it was going to fail, it failed when it did.
We endured a cold and windy night, with some snow flurries, and awoke on the 19th with the surrounding peaks hidden in clouds. After some more snow melting for water, breakfast, and gear futzing, it had cleared to the point that we decided to leave for an attempt on Mt. Gilbert at 10:30. We headed west from camp, and up to the top of Treasure Col, where the snow steepened to forty degrees. The rocks at the col had rime from the previous night. The third class route from the col up to Mt. Johnson didn't look inviting. We had to descend several hundred feet from the col to begin the traverse over to Mt. Gilbert. The start of the descent was steep and was littered with exposed rocks. Steve took this opportunity to do a rather virtuoso acrobatic display of self-arrest wearing crampons, due to the full coverage overboots he was wearing, and a big smile on his face the whole time.
We ascended the southeast face of Gilbert, and eventually we all had to put on crampons near the top, as the surface hardened and steepened. The view from the top was breathtaking, and ski tracks were visible on Ski Mountaineers Peak, 13,280 ft. We were the first party to sign in this year. Clouds were forming near Mt. Johnson, and on the way down a whiteout completely enveloped our descent route, and the flat lighting of the whiteout made our previous footprints difficult to see. It cleared as we climbed back over the col, and then descended to camp and dinner. Sunday morning we packed up and headed down the drainage that ends up at the east side of the south end of South Lake. This turned out to be a much better route than the route that we took in on Friday. Ski tracks were everywhere, and numerous skiers were dayhiking in as we hiked out.
One interesting thing was that Steve had made some custom equipment, including insulated overboots and a haul bag, for a planned trip to Denali. He was testing the equipment on this trip. It was amusing to see him glissade down a slope on the way out, with the haul bag, which he had nicknamed "Rocket", pulling him down the slope. It looked like a body bag, and we all had clever lines ready for anybody who asked what was in the bag. A lunch in Bishop finished a very successful trip. Steve did a wonderful job as a leader, and I hope he continues on for an "E" rating, which he is very qualified for. In the trip write-up, he had listed the following three goals in order: 1. return safely, 2. bag the peaks, 3. have fun, and by these criteria, the trip was completely successful.