Having taken inspiration from Ron Karpel's recent North Peak TR, and heeding the advice of a few others who recommended I try a guided climb, I hired a guide from Sierra Mountain Guides for a climb of the northeast couloir on North Peak.
This was my first technical snow climb, so bear with me. The snow wasn't too steep, but made for a good place to learn some stuff.
Friday, September 24th:
I 'awoke' after a mostly sleepless night in the Boulder campground at the bottom of the Tioga Road. My watch had run out of batteries the night before, and I feared that if I slept I wouldn't be up in time to meet the guide at Saddlebag Lake. We were scheduled to meet at 5:30 AM, so I showed up at about 4:30 just to be sure. As it turned out, my guide, Vince Anderson, also had problems with his alarm. He didn't show until about 7:00. He was very apologetic, but I told him not to sweat it as I was notorious for late starts, and I don't like a regimented schedule anyway.
We left the parking lot and hiked around the lake, then into the basin above. The approach he chose was up a set of grassy ramps on the 'cliff' immediately below the couloirs. There was one tricky move, and the grass was slick, but otherwise it was a beautiful scramble.
We geared up at the bottom of the snow patch, then walked up to where the snow got steep. Vince set a belay and ran out the 60m rope to a good belay below and right of the burgschrund. I followed, then put Vince on belay again. He crossed the sturdy bridge over the 'schrund and continued up the chute. Again, I followed. The 'schrund was not too large, but was a fearsome hole nonetheless. There were beautiful frozen sculptures within.
The remaining 3.5 pitches were pretty tame. While I was following the 3rd pitch, another climber appeared at the bottom. He was climbing solo and made good time, passing me before I reached the belay on the 4th. He rested next to Vince, and when I arrived at the belay and swapped gear, he and Vince climbed in parallel and talked. The other guy was a climbing ranger from Tuolumne.
We arrived at the notch, and I felt queasy. I had climbed too fast. My stomach acid and the Tang I'd been drinking since morning got the better of me and I released the toxic mixture into the snow. After drinking some water and eating a little chocolate I felt much better.
From the notch, we turned right around a corner and started up a broad chute with beautiful stair-step ledges. This part was mostly class 3, but we did a 30 foot class 4 step on stellar rock with huge Tuolumne crystals - thumb mantles galore!! This was the part of the climb I really enjoyed. We reached a headwall and bent left toward the ridge. We unroped on the ridge and walked the 200 feet to the summit.
Views were outstanding. The sharp alpine peaks - Dana, Lyell and MacClure, Conness - were set against the domes and slabs of northern Yosemite. There was very little haze, and we could see Half Dome and Tenaya Lake. To the north, we could also see Whorl Mountain and many others, and I think I saw Tower Peak.
Our 30 minutes in the sun were over, and we descended toward Conness and then down the basin and back to Saddlebag Lake. I thanked Vince for a great time, and gave him a $20 gift certificate for Wilson's, which made up for the sling and 'biner I dropped while digging through my pack at a belay. We had Sierra Nevada Porters to celebrate, and he gave me some info on the hot springs in the area.
Vince is a great guide, and very experienced. He does most of his climbing in Alaska, and showed a decidedly glacier-centric pattern of thought. He kept trying to do end-runs around the cleavages between granite dikes on the descent. He is a very personable fellow, and enjoyed talking about everything from computer science to girlfriends, and of course climbing.
Well, that's about it. I should have an illustrated version of this report posted by tomorrow - really nice pics!!
Tom Kenney continues:
The new snow in the couloir was only an inch or two thick, and posed very little problem. We were front-pointing up almost the whole way. Due to our slightly late start, the last pitch was getting pretty soft. Most of the climb was in great shape, and the old snow was firm enough that picks were setting nicely. At one point my guide had some trouble pounding in an axe for a belay, so he put in a couple screws, which seemed fairly solid. I was still in the area (Whites) 2 days later, and the weather stayed clear.
The left couloir (you did previously) looked good also, with coverage right to the top. The middle 'couloir' looked like a death trap - lots of rock and sand down what little snow was there.
The new snow seemed to be localized. Dana looked fairly covered, and the peaks surrounding. The Palisades didn't look like they had much new snow at all. I was able to view them from Sierra View on the White Mtn. road, and the glaciers along all the peaks looked pretty thin, with dark patches showing at the bottoms.