Lone Pine Peak: The North Ridge

14 Jul 1997 - by David Harris (view roster page)

Lone Pine Peak is the enormous granite peak rising above the town just south of the Mt. Whitney drainage. Although it is only 13,000 feet tall, it look larger than adjacent mountains because it sits forward from the crest and has such impressive faces; thus visitors sometimes mistake it for Whitney. There is a class 2 route up scree and talus from Meysan Lake, but by this point in the summer I was sick of grinding up 2nd class peaks. Instead, we chose to attempt the north ridge from Little Meysan Lake, an often overlooked classic climb of the Sierra. The north ridge rises 3000 feet from the lake up spectacular granite to the summit in about a mile. Along the way is a large blocky tower (the crux of the climb), several smaller outcroppings and notches, and the summit headwall. Secor says that most groups require more than a day for the climb, though it is technically easy at 5.4.

Craig Clarence and I met in Big Pine Sunday afternoon as he returned from a successful ascent of Temple Crag and drove down to Whitney Portal. To buy some time for the climb, we packed two hours up the trail to a nice camping spot near where we believe Little Meysan Lake is (we never saw the lake; it was tiny to begin with and may have been overgrown with willows by now). This would be my first long technical ascent, so Craig reviewed anchors and rope handling with me before I fell asleep by 7pm.

On Monday morning, we woke at 4:45 and were hiking by 5:30. The Sierra Classics guide suggests ascending a gully not visible until you pass it on the trail. The gully that we saw fitting that description looked like a miserable combination of loose scree and huge chockstones so we ascended an easy 3rd class face covered with trees until we hit the ridge. We crossed and stayed just left of the ridge until reaching the notch under the large blocky tower. Along the way we roped up for some 4th class and easy 5th class climbing where I practiced putting in protection and managing the rope. We passed the skeleton of a baby mountain goat, suggesting that we were doing real climbing! We also passed numerous bivouc spots cleared on wide ledges.

Soon we were at the notch below the tower. Climbing the face of the tower slightly right of the crest was supposed to be the 5.4 crux of the ridge. I'd never lead before, but this looked like a good opportunity to learn so I started climbing. The top of the first pitch was a challenging lead for me, ascending a steep crack with a piton. We evidently were slightly off route because the second pitch encountered a layback that seemed 5.6 or 5.7; it was more committing than I was ready to lead so I backed off and Craig scampered up. The remainder of the tower was easier and very enjoyable; we topped out after three pitches plus Craig's short lead, then simulclimbed the airy but easy knife edge to the notch below the summit headwall.

We unfortunately chose to unrope at this point immediately before encountering the most dangerous portion of the climb. A ledge system led right from the notch to a sandy gully just right of the headwall. The climb was supposed to be 3rd class, but the ackward moves onto the narrow ledge and the severe exposure made it 4th class in my book. Worse yet, the chute was dangerously loose and poured over a cliff at the bottom. Craig send a slide of rock down over the edge as he crossed. When I followed, a half-ton boulder in the middle of the chute began to slide and topple as I put my weight on it. I can't fully recall what happened, but Craig says he's never seen such a fast lunge off the rock. Hundreds of pounds of debris slid over the cliff and avalanced down the rock below, sending a great cloud of dust into the air. I was shaken and slowly ascended the buttress and sandy ledges about 600 feet to the summit as Craig zoomed on. We topped out right at the true summit about 2pm, having made a fairly leisurely ascent.

The views along the ridge and atop the peak were outstanding. We could admire the face of Whitney, the aretes of Russell, the horns of Williamson, and the Owens Valley. From the top, we saw the Corcoran towers beckoning. Our enjoyment of the summit was limited only by a shortage of water, so we eventually descended a use trail westward until it dropped us into a steep scree chute for the 2nd class escape. We crossed below Meysan lake, eventually found the trail, and were back to camp by 4. After packing up, we got back to the cars at 6.

Aside from the short nasty scree chute near the top, Lone Pine Peak's north ridge is a terrific climb. I'd recommend it for anyone who wants to learn to lead multi-pitch alpine climbs because the climbing is fun, long, fairly easy, and generally well-protected. In hindsight, we could have climbed it as a daytrip and more experienced parties should certainly do it in a single day rather than hauling along bivouc gear. The route is definitely a classic.


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