Five years ago, a strong PCS team attempted the Doodad (11,680+) in the Sawtooth Ridge area of northeast Yosemite, but they were turned back at the base of the summit block by high winds. Jim Curl was on that trip, and this spring he organized a rematch.
For anyone who's been to the Sawtooth Ridge area, the Doodad is a striking peak -- a level, airy summit ridge, and in the middle of it, "a 25-foot high cube of granite, overhanging on all sides," according to Secor, who rates the summit block at 5.2. With sharp eyes, you can see the taunting summit block all the way from the town of Bridgeport, 15 miles to the northeast.
After cancellations and dropouts from various people, five of us gathered at the Twin Lakes trailhead on the morning of Saturday May 15: Jim Curl, Dot Reilly, Dee and Rick Booth, and myself (Jim Ramaker). After running into Butch Suits and his party of skiers at the trailhead, we left the cars at 9:30 and headed up Horse Creek canyon under blue skies. We hit snow at about 8500', but the cold La Nina spring had left it firm and crunchy, and the four or us with snowshoes didn't need them, neither then nor at any time during the weekend.
Jim Curl skied up, and donned climbing skins for the big hill at 9000', while the rest of us put on crampons at that point. Around 1 p.m. we veered to the right and climbed up to a frozen tarn at 9600', then had a lengthy discussion about navigation and where to camp. None of the maps showed the prominent Horse Creek Tower just ahead of us, neither by name nor by contour lines. We finally agreed to go left of the tower, which proved to be the correct way. After climbing two more long snow slopes, we reached a snow bowl beneath the Doodad at 4 p.m., and set up our tents in a large flat area at 10,800'. Our camp was spectacular, with miles of untouched snow around us, and the towering white granite walls of the Dragtooth, the Doodad, and the Three Teeth shooting up a few hundred feet away. We melted snow for water, and I amused the group by inadvertently letting the wind catch my ensolite sit pad and whisk it several hundred feet up the frozen snow slope.
Around 6 the sun dropped behind the peaks and the temperature plummeted. With lots of clothes on inside our sleeping bags, we managed to stay warm enough to sleep that night, but just barely. When we woke at 5 a.m., it was 0 degrees F -- unbelievable, but confirmed with two different thermometers (there were also record low temperatures in the Bay Area that weekend). Luckily, our camp, on a northeast-facing slope, caught the sun as soon as it rose, and by 6:30 it was reasonably comfortable in camp, even sitting still.
We set off at 7:30 without Dot, who's recovering from major foot surgery. Secor calls Polemonium Col a "worthy climb in its own right." Perhaps late in the season, when it's icy, but we found it surprisingly easy -- nothing steeper than 40 degrees, with firm styrofoam that you could kick steps into several inches deep. It was really no harder than Matterhorn East Couloir. Higher up, we moved into the permanently shaded part of the couloir, and the snow became ... softer! We explained this anomaly by reasoning that this spring has been too cold for any melting and refreezing in places like this, and the frozen snow has slowly sublimated, rotting out and becoming filled with air.
At 9 we arrived at Polemonium Pass, one of those wind-blasted, shadowy alpine notches that PCS'ers know and love. Impressive vertical granite walls shot up on both sides of the pass -- to get established on the Doodad, you drop down several hundred feet and circle around to the right (west). The snow on the way down from the pass, which receives the most sun, was the hardest and iciest we found.
Soon we stood at the bottom of the southwest face -- a 40-50 degree incline of smooth, downsloping slabs and ledges plastered with thin snow. Further left, the climbing is supposed to be easier, but we decided to head straight up. Because of the smoothness of the rock and the intermittent thin snow on top of it, we soon decided to rope up. Jim Curl and I climbed two pitches, then unroped and climbed two additional pitches to the summit ridge (though the climbing on the upper part wasn't any easier). In late summer, with the rock dry and free of snow, the easiest way up would be more obvious, and experienced class-3 climbers could probably climb it safely unroped.
At the summit ridge, we roped up to climb leftward along the ridge and up over a 20' high blocky pinnacle. The climbing wasn't hard, but the exposure was quite hideous, especially down on the right side. One pitch took us to the platform at the foot of the Doodad summit block -- from this vantage point, a 25' high shoebox of smooth, holdless granite, standing on end and leaning slightly to the right, and bigger on top than on the bottom. Wearing light approach shoes, Jim Curl led out to the left on a hand traverse along a flake that takes a sling for protection, then disappeared around a corner. After a disquieting pause, the rope moved out rapidly, followed by a call of "off belay."
I went next, moving around the corner and looking with dismay up a smooth, flaring, and slightly overhanging chimney. 5.2, my ass! I eyed two flaring cracks in the back of the chimney, but forget about them -- the key to the pitch is to move around the corner and get established in chimney position, with your back on the near wall and your feet on the far wall. Then you can move up a few feet and reach above your head to a smooth rounded hold. After more upward thrashing, better holds appear and then you're up. Rick and Dee soon cruised the pitch, though neither thought it was easy -- Jim rated it at 5.7.
The summit is beautiful, flat and spacious, with two aging rappell bolts and a nice crack all the way across that will take a medium hex or similar piece for backup. We yelled down to Dot at our camp, 1500' almost straight below us. We rapped off the summit block, the traversed back along the ridge a short ways. Instead of belaying down the tedious class 3/4 slabs, we did one long double-rope rappell, down to some lower-angled snow ramps on the right side looking down. These took us all the way down to the bottom of the face -- almost. Thirty feet from the bottom, we got cliffed out and had to do one more short rappell. Finally, at 3 p.m., we were back on safe ground.
We popped back over Polemonium Pass, and our footsteps from the morning gave us a nice ladder to downclimb, facing in. Dot welcomed us back to camp at 4, and we quickly packed up our tents and other gear and headed down. The snow that had been our adversary on the face of the Doodad now became our great friend, and we glissaded and plunge-stepped quickly down the snow slopes back to Horse Creek Canyon. Jim had a great time skiing down, as corn snow began to form in the afternoon sun. We got back to the cars in just 2 1/2 hours -- the same trip late in the season could take twice as long, picking your way over boulders. After grabbing a bite to eat in Bridgeport, we got back to the Bay Area at 1:30 a.m. -- a long day, but well worth it to share a fine alpine climb and a moment of triumph atop the Doodad.