Bob Suzuki led this trip on the last weekend in May. Participants included Dee Booth, Marilyn Hurley, Scott Kreider, Rich Leiker, Arun Mahajan, Ted Raczek, and myself (Jim Ramaker). Our goals were to climb both peaks in a two-day weekend, frolic in the high-country snow of late spring, and we hoped, make up for the 1996 PCS group that had to turn back on Red & White because of loose rock and a rockfall injury.
We left the McGee Pass trailhead at 8 a.m. Saturday, hiking up the valley under partly cloudy skies. The weather remained partly cloudy all weekend but never rained, so it was nice and cool during the day and warmer than it otherwise would have been at night, not to mention the nice cloud effects for photographers.
We crossed swollen McGee Creek several times -- once on a log and twice on convenient snow bridges. Snow level was around 9500 feet and snow conditions were generally good -- a little sloppy in the afternoon, but never soft enough to require snowshoes. We reached snowbound and iced-up Big McGee Lake at 1:30, set up camp on a tiny patch of bare ground, and packed for the first climb.
At 3 p.m., six of us set off for the hike thru a snowbound valley toward Red Slate Mountain (13,163), 3 miles to the northwest. The peak was hidden until we were well up the valley, which enabled us to say "That's it!" three separate times, then decide that no, that wasn't it after all. This area has a number of imposing reddish-hued peaks. Around 4:30 we reached McGee Pass, then began the final 1200-foot push up easy snow and scree slopes. While slogging up this slope, some of us had ample time to realize that going from sea level to 13,000 feet in 24 hours on your first trip of the year is not a good idea. Bob and Rich seemed relatively unaffected, no doubt benefitting from their experience on Rainier the weekend before.
We summitted at 5:30 and admired the tremendous views of the snowbound mid-Sierra region, from the Ritter range in the north to the Abbot group in the south. Descent was relatively pleasant, with plenty of soft snow for glissading, and we were back in camp by 7:30. The wind continued all night and kept the tents flapping, but I was too exhausted to hear it and imagine many of the crew felt likewise.
Sunday at 5:30 a.m. found us smashing a hole in the frozen lake to get water, but it was actually a nice dawn -- the cloud cover had kept the temperature at a mild 38 degrees. We departed at 7:20 and retraced our steps from the day before for awhile, then turned left and climbed out of the valley just south of snow-covered Little McGee Lake. (By the way, I once backpacked through this valley in late summer and it was extremely beautiful, with little tarns and meadows and oceans of colorful rock).
Our plan was to circle to the north of Red and White Mountain (12,850), climb the 12,300-foot hump just north of it, then traverse back southward to the peak and finish up via the northeast ridge. The 1500-foot southeast face that rises directly from the Big McGee Lake basin is a more direct route, but this is the route on which the 1996 party turned back. While the loose rock of last summer was now covered by snow from lake to summit, making this route a fine moderate snow climb, some members of our party were uncomfortable on snow, so our route was a better choice.
Morning snow conditions were perfect for cramponing, and by 9 a.m. we were atop the snow hump north of Red and White, gnawing at rock hard PowerBars and contemplating the rest of the route. At this point the slogging ended and we enjoyed a little climbing -- an aesthetic class two scree ridge, and then a rarity in the Sierras, a sharp snow ridge with long snow slopes on both sides.
Here we paused for a repetition of that beloved PCS ritual -- the discussion of which route to take. The class-3 northeast ridge beckoned above -- snow free, but littered with loose rubble. I wanted to split the party and traverse on snow around onto the southeast slope, on the theory that four people kicking rocks down on one another is better than eight doing so, but no one liked that idea, so all eight of us followed Bob up the northeast ridge.
Miraculously, no major rocks descended, and the climbing was quite easy except for the constant danger of loose rocks almost everywhere you placed hand or foot. By 11 a.m., we had our peak and were all very happy. Views were once again excellent, especially the snowbound expanse to the west. The descent of the ridge went just like the ascent, with no missiles cut loose. This group deserves a great deal of credit for climbing so delicately and carefully, even when tired at almost 13,000 feet. Over half the group had technical climbing experience, so that probably explains the meticulous climbing. Future parties should go in much smaller groups or else do the early-season snow climb on the south- east face. As my father used to say, "Do what I say, not what I do."
Descent to camp went a bit slowly with the large group and the taking off and putting on of crampons, and we got back to camp at 2, packed up, and hiked out from 3 to 6. The last hour of the hike out was in some ways the most beautiful, as we passed a vast field of bright yellow corn- flowers, which together with the bright green grass and aspen trees, the dashing creek, the massive peaks above with their golden brown, brick red, grey, white, and black rock streaked with snow, and the blue sky with grey clouds above made for an unforgettable mountain panorama.
Despite the late hour, all of us met in Mammoth to have supper and celebrate the conclusion of a very satisfying trip. PCS alumni Mike Johnson, who lives in Mammoth, took time off from his job at the Shell station to join us.