Wednesday night I drove through Yosemite and Tuolumne Meadows, stopping at the Whoa Nelli for dinner before retiring at the nearby scenic overlook above Mono Lake. With no moon, the stars were out to full effect, and with a cool breeze blowing I fell asleep under the blanket of the Milky Way. I was up before 5a, ate a quick breakfast, and drove to the rest stop located between Lee Vining and Mammoth Lakes along US395. Dave and I were to meet here at 5:30a before heading off an an acclimatization hike all day on Thursday. He arrived shortly before the designated meeting time, having made good time driving from Fresno in the early morning hours. We ditched my car at the Mammoth Lakes turnoff on SR203, and then drove in Dave's truck to Little Lakes Valley.
Starting from Mosquito Flat TH at 6:15a, we took a more or less direct line up to Mt. Starr over enjoyable class 3 terrain. I wasn't feeling well from the start with an upset stomach, and was going slower than usual. Dave liked the slower pace and probably hoped I'd be sick all weekend (I was). We arrived at the summit after 2hrs. From there we headed down to Mono Pass, and back up to Ruby Ridge to attempt the class 5 traverse to Mt. Mills. Mt. Mills was the stretch goal which we never made - but we did make it to Ruby Peak after some very enjoyable class 3-4 climbing to get there. We thought the hardest climbing was class 4, not the class 5 described by Secor. It took us 5hrs to get from Mt. Starr to Ruby Peak. We descended the easy class 3 East Chutes down to Ruby Lake and back to the trailhead for an 11hr outing.
That night the four of us met over dinner in Mammoth. Dave and I were a bit beat, but at least better acclimatized. I wasn't very hungry and was happy to share some of my dinner with Michele who showed up in need of a good feeding. We went to bed at 11p in a room at the Rodeway Inn in town. At 12a I woke up, lay fitfully in bed for an hour, then wretched my guts out at 1a. It took probably 15 minutes to complete the rite, the others all wide awake by now and quietly joking amongst themselves about my plight. It seemed only fair, if I'm going to wake them up and disgust them with my impressive rendition of the gag reflex, a few jokes are certainly in order to lighten the mood. I went to bed thinking I would to have to bail out of the trip in the morning.
The alarm went off shortly before 6a, and though groggy from lack of sleep and far from feeling 100%, I fought my body telling me to give up and decided to at least hike in the first day and hope my condition improved. Four of us head out from Devils Postpile up the Minaret Lakes Trail at 7:15a. I'm feeling sick in the stomach, but otherwise OK. At the trailhead I was ready before the others and decided to hike out ahead of them, mostly to allow me to be alone with my misery - I'm not terribly sociable when I don't feel well. Halfway up the trail the others still hadn't caught up to me, so I figured I couldn't be doing too bad. Then, somewhat unexpectedly, I find I have soiled myself. Ok, that's embarassing I conclude, as I stop to wash and change my underwear. It's going to be a fun outing, for sure. As I was packed up again and headed out (being far more vigilant from this point on) with my underwear strapped to the back of my pack to dry out, I heard Dave's voice calling to me not far down the trail. I waited for the others and made my confession to Dave who did his best to display some amount of empathy between smirks. It was probably better than I could have done myself under the same circumstances. It took five hours to reach Cecile lake at the base of the Minarets where we set up camp. Michele and Romain had decided to take an hour break down at Minaret Lake. There was no need to rush, and the views from the lake there are quite inviting.
Josh Shwartz had managed to best Peter Croft the previous summer by climbing all the Minarets in a marathon traverse that took something like 17hrs. Exhausted and stumbling back to Cecile Lake in the dark, Josh had come across a fire on the east end of the lake, a small stand of trees left burning by some careless campers who most likely let their illegal campfire get out of control before abandonning the site when Josh arrived. There was some discussion at the time as to whether this was an hallucination, but it was easy now to identify the location where the fire had errupted a year earlier. At various times throughout the weekend Josh's amazing feat would come up for discussion - our amazement only grew as we came to appreciate the difficultly of the terrain and the skill required to master it.
While Dave and I waited for the others, we recovered the 43lb plaque (11" x 18", bronze) that he had stashed in the rocks the previous week. Though I should probably rest, it's not even 1p and I doubt I could sleep under such sunny conditions. Rather than lie about, I decided to pack the plaque in my backpack and climb up to South Notch. Dave had planned to join me shortly, but got waylaid and never made it. He was worried the others wouldn't find our route from Minaret to Cecile Lake (they didn't, but found another swell alternative), and in looking out for them he stumbled upon an even better campsite higher above Cecile Lake that would accommodate the four of us. And so he spent the next half hour moving our gear from the old location to the new. In the meantime it took me a bit less than an hour and a half to crampon my way up to South Notch. The plaque was as heavy as I had been led to believe, and I gained new respect for Dave hauling it to Cecile Lake the week before. On the other side of South Notch I hauled it nearly over to Amphitheater Lake where I unloaded the beastly burden. I had a great view of Michael Minaret from here and the possible routes up, but they were much too hard for me to tackle alone. I left the plaque on a flat rock out in the open, where it should be easy to locate the next day.
On the way back I missed South Notch and ended up over by Starr Minaret. Not yet realizing my error, I looked over the low notch in the ridge and found not the glacier I expected, but a small lake far below. I realized it must be Dead Horse Lake and that I'd overshot South Notch. What the hell, I decided to climb the class 2 West Ridge of Starr Minaret, but quit 1/3 of the way up - my stomach said go back. I arrived back at camp around 6:30p. The others were having a lively time, we had pasta for dinner, but I was out of it mentally. The others try their best to include me in the conversation, but I am too slow to catch the jokes, and laughed a few times without knowing what I was laughing at (probably me). I went to bed before 8p, expecting I will get up in the morning and hike back as I continue to feel crappy - at least I hauled the plaque up to South Notch as promised, and a bit further. Thankfully there is no barfing during the night.
Romain is up Saturday morning at 5:15a with headlamp ablaze to start the day. At first I thought it was a bear making noise outside in the dark and I sat up to let me hear better. His headlight of course was my first clue it wasn't a bear, and I called out to ask who it was. Romain replied, but I thought he was crazy to be up so early and I went back to sleep. At 6a Romain returned to serve breakfast in bed, a cup of reconstituted scrambled egg and bacon bits. Though it wasn't what I had hoped to eat in the morning, it was a mighty fine gesture that I could not help appreciate. I reluctantly got up, and it seemed I felt a bit better. I decided to stay another day. Romain was the first to be ready, and since he thought he might be the slowest moving in the group decided to head for South Notch shortly before 7a. Michele and Dave left ten minutes later, leaving me alone in camp. I had three sessions to relieve my bowels in a short period of time - I seem to be nothing but a running faucet at the other end there. In case of future accidents I pack an extra pair of underwear for our dayhike. Not wanting to get too far behind, I packed up quickly and headed out at 7:20a. I caught up to the others at the base of the glacier where we stopped to put on crampons. Dave and Michele were having a bit of trouble since this is the first time they've put on these new pairs of G12s. The straps are really long, and with several eyelets at the sides and back, it is not clear what the proper method is for securing them. They both come up with their own versions of how to do it, which seemed to suffice since we lost no crampons this trip. I arrived at South Notch before the others and attempted the West Ridge of nearby Kehrein Minaret. I had hoped to climb as many of the Minarets on this trip as possible, but so far had come up empty. A third of the way up I moved out towards the North Face, but the exposure gave me serious pause. Was this the correct way I I wondered? The class 4 proved too difficult for me and I backed off as the others arrived at the notch. They thought I had been to the summit, but I hadn't spent more than 15 minutes actually trying it. As a group we headed to Amphitheater Lake where we picked up the plaque, my pack once again a complete pain. With crampons/axe and other gear it weighs in at over 50lbs, and I really hope ol' Petey appreciates my sacrifice.
We refill with water at the lake and discuss our approach options. We needed to get to the NW Face of Michael Minaret, but are facing it from the east. There are two routes up - the left is a tedious but technically easy class 2-3 talus slog to the south side of Michael. This is still the wrong side and we would have to climb down and around to the NW side, probably up Michael's Chute. We don't know what the west side of this route looks like, but the topo shows probable cliffs. The right side is a 5.4 route called Amphitheater Chute leading up to the notch between Michael and Eichorn Minaret. We decided to go this second option, though in hindsight we think we made a tactical error by not approaching from the west side via North Notch or The Gap. There is a small glacier in the amphitheater NW of the lake, and we have to resort to crampons and axe to get by it. In order to avoid as much of the loose talus as possible, we followed the glacier up as high as we could, taking us a bit to the left the chute. After removing and storing our snow gear again, we traversed up along the base of Michael Minaret's east side until we entered the base of Amphitheater Chute.
Romain commented that he thought we should be done with the route in less than a couple of hours, to which I countered that I thought it would take at least three. These climbs have a way of stretching out longer than one might imagine, but little did we know that it would stretch out well beyond even my estimation. Romain looked at me like I was clueless and comments if it takes that long we're in trouble. And so we were.
Secor describes two chockstones in the route, but we found three, all of them initially visible from our first views from Amphitheater Lake. The first chockstone is more like class 4 to bypass on the right and we all did so without roping up. At the base of the 2nd chockstone we stopped to rope up - it looked tough here. Nobody was particularly eager to run up on lead, and by majority consensus we nominated Dave since we think he is our strongest climber. So Dave went up on lead first with me belaying him. His pack is also somewhat heavy as he is carrying a power drill, hammer, and other tools in addition to his personal gear, and probably weighed about 35lbs. He found the rock frightfully loose and made slow progress right from the beginning. After climbing 25 feet up the right side of the chockstone, Dave came to a stop at the crux, an 8-foot dihedral with poor holds. After some time struggling with it he gave up and came down. I offerred to lead if some switched packs, but no takers. Romain has another idea and went up on lead wearing rock shoes and without a pack. He did a beautiful job getting by the crux. Whether it was the lack of pack or better confidence on the loose rock that made a difference, it was immediately clear to me that we had a new leader on this route. Above the dihedral is a steep, unprotectable slabby section that gives a bit of trouble, but Romain makes it without more than a few words of caution. No one in our party thinks this is a class 5.4 route - more like 5.6. That first pitch is only half a rope length long, above that is more scrambling. To save time, Michele tied in the middle of the rope and went up, while I tied in at the end of the rope and trail the second rope for Dave. This will save hauling one pack by not having a second leader. Michele struggled up the crux and the unprotected section. Though she has a rope above her, it is far to the side and a fall will pendulum her into the chockstone. I followed third and had a horrible time at the crux. All my muscles were stretched, most of all my arms as I struggled to haul up that dihedral carrying my heavy load on my back. At one point I thought I was falling, but only swung out to the other side of the dihedral. Panting, sweating, and cursing I eventually hauled myself to a ledge just above the crux. My arms were completely spent and I had to rest five minutes before I could bend my fingers again to climb further. At the unprotected section I balked and decided to take an alternative route - two tiny ledges for footholds to the left gave me just enough distance to make a jump to the top of the chockstone. Romain called to me not to, concerned I would hurt my ankles with the weight on my back. I didn't care at that point, hardly relishing the steep climb with a nasty pendulum should I fall as I expected to. So I jumped, landing safely.
While Romain and Michele haul Romain's pack on the first rope with Dave's help from below, I climbed up higher to the base of the third chockstone. Dave climbed up last, having better success now on second than at lead. Romain has so far done all the belaying from above and most of the hauling and coiling of ropes, and is getting more of a workout than he had bargained for. At the third chockstone we could almost free around it. It is really two chockstones on top of each other, but a short route goes right around the lower, across the top of the lower, and left of the upper. But the move left of the upper is exposed and sketchy, so we opted for the rope again. Romain leads again without his pack, followed by Michele and Dave, tied in at intermediate points on the rope. Next we hauled Romain's pack, followed by myself at the end of the rope (it was nice to have a 60m rope for this). Finally we scrambled to the top of the notch.
By now it was 2:30p and Romain and I are worried that we are running out of time, Romain particularly so. Our new plan was to return via North Notch (we expected that would be faster than rappelling Amphitheater Chute - not so as we found out and made another strategic miscalculation), which meant climbing down Michael's Chute on the west side, traversing north over North Notch, down to Iceberg Lake, and back to Cecile Lake. Romain and I had blundered by not bringing headlamps like the other two - we thought there was no way this outing could take all day. But I still thought I could make tracks quickly to get back after the plaque was placed, and so I worried less than Romain. None of us had any bivy gear, and I was the least prepared, wearing cotton pants and t-shirt with only a light jacket in my pack.
We had lunch at the notch while we got our bearings and tried to figure out what we were looking at on the other side, comparing our surroundings to those in the pictures we had from our various sources. Lunch consisted of smoked gouda and salami along with some french bread that was simply too tough for me to chew. I couldn't eat that much due to my stomach problems, but at least I got something down before we continued on. We decided we were at the top of Eichorn Chute, and needed to traverse SW around to Michael's Chute. Easier said than done, but I found a way to scramble around to a point on the buttress between the two chutes marked by a large cairn. This was the traverse described by Secor to get from Eichorn's Chute to Michael's Chute. Here we had a full view, closeup, of the NW Face and of the place where Pete Starr had met his fate. All the pictures we had studied beforehand were now in full-life before us, and it was awesome. We had planned to scour the NW face for traces of Pete's gear and his bones that are missing, but that was obviously not going to happen. I hadn't really expected that we would be able to from the beginning, so I wasn't disappointed, but I really wanted to get the plaque mounted which I considered the main objective. Not only were we short on time, but the whole NW Face is frightfully exposed and serious class 5. I had no desire to scavage for gold on that face let alone old bones, and the others seemed in complete agreement once they viewed it. We had renewed awe for Norman and Jules who climbed the face to inter the body, for Steve Roper who visited the gravesite in 1999, and for Pete Starr for attempting this new route in the first place.
We spent some time deciding on where best to place the plaque. We wanted somewhere that would be free from rockfall, visible by climbers coming up from below, and within view of Pete's ledge. It took us over an hour to install the plaque on a vertical face of rock on the buttress that would be visible from both Michael's and Eichorn's Chutes, in full view of the NW Face. I drilled holes while Michele and Romain helped install the plugs and screws. One of holes was drilled slightly off-center so we had to leave it secured with three bolts instead of the planned four. The results came out pretty nice despite the troubles.
Romain grew more and more restless but restrained himself to a degree in urging us on as he didn't feel he knew us well enough to get cross with us. We had two choices for our descent, the class 4-5 Michael's chute which was nearby, or the extremely loose class 4 Eichorn's Chute that would require a bit of backtracking to return to. We opted for Michael's chute as the more direct of the two. It was around 5p when we began our descent, with only 2 1/2 hours of daylight remaining. It was a long way down to the base of the chute from what we could see. After a bit of scrambling, we came to the first of many chockstones we found in this chute. I found a fixed 8.5mm rope running down some slabs on the south side of the chute, from the weathering it was at least a year old, probably older. Romain thought the best route was further to the south down some ledges, but as I tried to downclimb a portion of it I soon found some not-so-easy problems that made me back off. Dave had found a rappel anchor that went down into the chute around the chockstone and was convinced that's how we should go down. Neither Romain nor I wanted to haul out our ropes for the rappel due to time pressures, but it seemed better than standing there in the indecision that was holding us. We opted for the rappel. It took us an hour and half to complete four rappels (there were a lot of chockstones in this chute). Romain don't think they were all necessary and several could have been bypassed with class 4 downclimbing, but in the end it was probably faster to rappel than to convince everyone in the party to follow suite in downclimbing. Romain and I were setting up all the rappels and hauling the ropes back down, Michele and Dave going in the middle. Dave was dehydrated and spent by this time, having lost his confidence on the rock and moving slowly. Michele was cheerful as always bless her, while Romain and I were growing nervous and somewhat agitated watching the sun sink lower in the western sky. It was 6:45p when we exited the chute, the techical parts behind us.
Dave went ahead down several hundred yards of talus to get water to refill his and Michele's Camelbacks. Michele and Romain changed out of their rock shoes while I pulled, coiled, and packed the 60m rope. Romain packed the small rope and most of the pro, Dave had the drill and other tools. Romain and I decided to forgo the trip down to the lake and instead try to get to North Notch and back to the trail before darkness overtook us since we didn't have headlamps. Trying to follow the others by their lamplight over class 3 terrain seemed too scary. Michele waited for Dave to return with the water while Romain and I headed out on the traverse. I had a cup of water remaining, sharing some with Romain who was out (having shared his with Dave). Halfway during the traverse up and over several gullies, the sun set to the west over Yosemite's Clark Range. Daylight began to fade quickly.
It was 8p when I reached North Notch, or what I had thought was North Notch. On the other side a large glacier greeted me, not what I was expecting. Turns out I was at The Gap, an easier pass, but further north along the range. Before me I could see Lake Ediza far below, but no sign of Iceberg Lake as I'd hoped. Looking back in the fading light I could see Dave and Michele making their way over the talus towards me, about 30min behind, not yet using their headlamps. Romain was climbing up to one side about 10 yards from me, and I called him over to join me. We shared the remaining sips of my water. Our chances of getting out of this without a bivy were slimming by the minute. A bivy in addition to no water seemed too horrible to imagine. It was windy at The Gap and we needed to descend as soon as possible. I had all my clothes on, including my leather gloves and hat. I tightened the strap on my hat, pulling the sun flaps close to my ears to warm them as much as possible, but the hat itself had no insulation. We decided not to wait for the others, but to head down as far as we could. We put on our crampons quickly and hurried down the gentle slopes of the glacier. It seemed there was just enough light to get them back off again and packed away, though by now I could probably do it with my eyes closed. I went ahead to the right (east) to check out the route ahead, but found only cliffs. We saw two points of light at The Gap above us, so we knew the others at least found the route over. I could barely hear Dave's voice calling out, but we didn't bother to try to call back - it would have only led to more confusion. We headed south, following the sound of water issuing from the bottom of the glacier. Stumbling over rocks and boulders, we soon found the stream and stopped to quench our thirst and refill our water bottles. At least we wouldn't suffer from thirst. We followed down the right side of the stream, feeling the angle grow steeper and the climbing more difficult. We eventually came to a cliff where the water dropped down precipitously. It was now 8:45p and there was barely any light left. We had to climb back up and find a way over the stream to the other side. Soaking a foot or hand in the stream could prove disasterous, so it needed to be a safe crossing. We hadn't been climbing back up more than two minutes when Romain called a halt. He had no energy left to climb upwards and couldn't really see anything anymore. We had to bivy.
A breeze was blowing that would chill us to the bone if exposed to it, so we had to find shelter in the rocks somewhere. A short way below us we found a hovel in the rocks against a cliffside where we were mostly protected from the breeze. We spread out the ropes to sit on (for both insulation from the rocks and comfort), and emptied our packs to used them for back rests against the rock wall. It hadn't gotten to freezing the night before, and didn't seem like it would tonight though we were over 10,500ft. This meant we wouldn't get frostbite, but we could still suffer hypothermia. We calculated we had 8 1/2 hours till 5:30a, the earliest we could see well enough to navigate. Though neither of us had ever been forced to bivy before, we were confident we would survive the ordeal, but expected to suffer heavily. And with that we settled down for a long night. We huddled close together. Romain was better prepared, having two fleece layers and an outer rain jacket, with a pair of rain pants and baclava as well. I wore my climbing helmet for additional insulation and padding while leaning my head back against the rock. I had my legs tucked under Romain's the whole night, except for short periods when they needed to get stretched. This helped keep my poorly protected legs from the exposure. My hands I kept tucked between my legs, under my arms, or between our bodies at various times. They stayed warm the entire night. My toes were left to fend for themselves in my boots, and though they got numb now and then, they never completely lost circulation. The ropes were better than nothing, but my posterior faired poorly and would end up getting bruised from the pressure against the rock. We fidgeted and took short breaks to stretch our legs now and then, but basically kept in the same postions the entire night. I got muscles cramps after the first few hours that never went completely away after that. If it got bad I would break for a stretch, but mostly I just fidgeted constantly with my feet positions, futilely trying to find a more comfortable position, but mostly contributing to keeping us both awake. I tried to tuck my face in my jacket so my breath could help warm my chest and to warm the air I breathed in, but this had only modest success. The jacket had no hood and not much of a collar, and it would slip down from my face as the fidgeting continued. I could feel the slight breeze we were still exposed to waft in around my ankles and I tried to pull my pants lower, to no success either. Romain continued to offer me some of his clothes throughout the night which I declined. He didn't trust me to tell him if I was really suffering, and worried I might be too cold-stupid to know the danger signs of impending hypothermia. As the least prepared I felt obligated to suffer more - though I had every intention of taking Romain up on his offers if I found it either unbearable or possibly leading to more than temporary discomfort. We both shivered on and off, not continuously, but at times nearly so. I had feared that my body temperature would drop after we had stopped to bivy due to the inactivity and lowered heart rate, but to my surprise I never felt dangerously cold. My body seemed to understand it was in a survival mode, and the shivering response seemed to work beautifully as a body-temperature regulation system. In fact I suffered more from the hard rock and cramped seating postion than I did from the cold.
At first we kept awake talking to each other, spending several hours discussing jobs, family, and other matters. Romain thought it might be best if we stayed awake, somewhat fearful that falling asleep might not be a good idea. I told him I would take it as a good sign if we could fall asleep, as I was sure the cold would wake us up if things got too uncomfortable. Later we tried to sleep, but only managed to huddle quietly, each lost in his own thoughts. We were staring out at the North Star, and watched the Big Dipper slowly rotate around it in the Northern Sky. We calculated the angle it would have to reach by 5:30a, and quietly cheered as it made its slow progression around the sky. In the earlier hours of the night we could see faint lights below near Ediza where other parties were camped. One set of lights caught Romain's attention and he became convinced it was Dave and Michele, calling out to them in the dark. I tried to assure him that it was several miles away, and after a minute he relaxed, convinced. But the lights were moving, that became clear, and we guessed it was a party returning late from Ritter or Banner to Ediza Lake.
We had watches but no lights in them to see by. At intervals of 2-3 hours Romain would use his cell phone's light to see the time on his watch - it was one of the highlights we looked forward to. Beforehand we would each guess the time as a small game. I was always underestimating the time progression by about 30%, while Romain was usually pretty damn close. Time seemed to go faster than I expected, but make no mistake we were suffering. I yawned countless times and longed to be able to drift off to sleep. Romain thinks we slept some, but I doubted it. It was just too cold to let the mind relax. There was no shortage of time to contemplate our lives, our families, future dreams, and past experiences. But mostly I found I had lots of time to think about how little fun this was. Somewhere in the middle of all this I managed to further embarass myself with another "accident." Fortunately there wasn't much left in my system, and it was too cold to smell anything anyway. It seemed it would be a waste of heat to try to change my underwear, and I just let things be, not even bothering to tell Romain. By morning it would be dry anyway, and of little concern anymore. It was 5:50a before it was sufficiently light to see by, and when we made the move to get up we wasted no time in packing everything up. We had survived, but now it was time to get off the mountain.
We had survived our forced bivy, but had had no dinner or breakfast. I had eaten nothing since lunch the day before, while Romain had had a few nasty-tasting energy bars and a few GUs. We crossed the stream like we had planned the previous night, and started down the class 3 rock there. Though the route grew steeper, there was always a route to keep it class 3 or easier and we were shortly down in a grassy valley that fed down to Ediza Lake. Rather head down to Ediza and then back up to Iceberg Lake and our camp at Cecile Lake, we headed east towards a small pass in a rounded ridge that I was sure would bring us to Iceberg Lake more directly. This it did, though we were several hundred feet above the lake. We had climbed higher than the alternative route, but it had clearly saved us at least a mile or two in travel. We found a use trail leading down the other side of the pass, taking us back to the main trail at the outlet of Iceberg Lake. Now it was an uphill haul to Cecile Lake, and Romain fell back to a more leisurely pace as I pressed steadily on. Well before reaching Cecile, the first crack of thunder exploded and the first fat drops of rain started to fall. Great, we were going to have some of everything on this epic. We had seen nothing but clear skies all night, but now the sky was in a tempest. I had no rain gear with me - it was back in camp, but I was confident I could plow my way back even if I got soaked to the bone. Fortunately the rain was never very heavy, and came in intervals which allowed my jacket to dry out between fits of rain.
I arrived back at camp at 8:15a, and immediately put on my rain gear before anything else. Dave had left his sleeping bag open, exposed on the rainfly of Michele's tent which he had used for a groundcloth. Michele's tent of course had no rainfly and her stuff inside was wet. I tossed Dave's bag and pad inside the tent and threw the rainfly over it - at least they wouldn't get wet further. Romain came back to camp at 8:45a, and we went about heating water to make brunch - soup and ramen. The rain came less frequently, and we had small windows of sunshine that came out to dry the rock. I used these opportunities to dry out Dave and Michele's stuff, spreading it out on the rocks, then tossing it all back inside when the weather threatened again. It was a chilly morning, very exciting weather-wise. The Minarets and Ritter-Banner were alternately bathed in striking sunshine and then cloudy mists, each minute presenting a quality photo opportunity better than any postcard I'd ever seen. After brunch we settled in to wait for the others to arrive, and at 10:30a we decided to take a nap to catch up on sleep we missed out on the night before. Around noon Romain woke me up that he was woried about our missing companions. Great - now we had two Missing in the Minarets.
After discussing our options and noting the weater as a significant factor, we decided to call 911 at 12:30p. They connected us with the Mono County Sheriff who turned us over to SAR. because Romain's phone was low on battery life, we had to keep the phone calls brief. In time we had given a description of our plight to Greg, the SAR dispatcher who relayed that to others in our area. They got descriptions of Michele and Dave, our camp location, and the events of the previous night. There had been a helicopter in the area over Banner Peak earlier, and there were SAR teams in the area by Ediza to help with an incident there. On a second flight of the helicopter, they added a search of the Minarets for our lost Dave and Michele. They flew over our camp, circled the area, went up to North Notch and The Gap, flew around the back side, and searched the front side. Then they flew over Volcanic Ridge (looking for someone involved in another incident?) and then back to Banner to search more there. This whole loop was repeated a second time before we saw the helicopter fly off for good. Meanwhile Romain was contacting Greg at SAR dispatch every half hour or so for small updates. It was confusing to all sides, as the job of coordinating these searches is quite complex. We didn't know all that was going on with SAR, the SAR teams in the field were missing important pieces of information, and the dispatcher was sitting in a room somewhere trying to piece several incidences together and keep the facts of each separate. Around 2p we were informed that a SAR team had seen two people matching the description hiking out by Shadow Lake around noon. Since they hadn't known at the time that these were two of the missing people, they didn't stop to chat and get IDs. At one point the dispatcher asked if the missing woman could be described as "very attractive". Bells went off, and Romain replied, "Yes, quite attractive." Seems the SARs guys had all noted the striking blond in tight black pants. In the meantime a team had been sent from Ediza Lake to our camp to get more info and bring a satellite phone to replace Romain's fading cell phone. We packed up campthe team to arrive around 4p. Two of the three guys that we finally met with had been in the SAR team that had passed the two hikers at Shadow Lake. After we gave the leader descriptions of Michele and her clothing, the other two were nearly certain we had a match. Not only were they at a loss to remember much about Dave, but we were no help since we couldn't remember much of his clothing to help either. The only thing that clicked there was the description of two brand-new matching axes that we knew Dave was carrying his pack. With the satellite phone we were able to connect the pieces together, and with another guy reporting from the TH parkinglot, we determined that Dave's truck was missing - they must have hiked out to get his truck and head for town. Romain got out the video camera and played some clips of Michele and Dave to the two who had seen them. They positively ID'd Michele, though pictures of Dave were met with questioning stares. The case was closed and the team left us after we thanked them heartily. We packed up our stuff, leaving Michele and Dave's stuff for them to get the next day - there was just too much for us to consider packing it all out.
It was dark before we reached the TH and we needed to resort to our headlamps. Romain had estimated our walk out at 2hr23min, but having done the hike twice before imagined it to be more like 3hrs. I couldn't estimate time during our bivy, but I'm pretty good on hiking times, and it was indeed more than 3hrs. In fact we began to wonder if we hadn't overshot the turnoff - it would be unfortunate if we should find we'd hiked to Reds Meadow or the Silver Divide by accident. Romain stopped to get out his GPS so we could check, but couldn't get a signal in the trees. While he was working on that I walked down to the river to see if I could find the bridge, but couldn't see well enough to locate it. There were lights across the river, but that didn't help pinpoint where we were. I walked back, frustrated that we were so close, lost, and having to rely on a stupid GPS to get us to the last trail junction. Romain walked on further holding the GPS out, still trying to get a good signal from the satellites. He hadn't walked 50 yards when he stumbled across the junction. We could have saved that last 5 minutes if we had just kept going it seemed. We got back to Mammoth around 9p where we got a room at the Rodeway Inn. Dave had left a message with Romain's wife who relayed the info to Romain - they were also at the Rodeway, and we got the room next to theirs. We had a brief reunion before Romain and I left them to get showers and dinner - we were famished. We found out that they had bivied not far above us, but waited until 7a before starting out. At Ediza they decided to hike out thinking it was a long way back to Cecile Lake and camp. They were a bit surprised that it had taken us only about 2 1/2 hrs to return. At Agnew Meadows they took the shuttle back to the TH to get Dave's truck as we deduced. Michele had left her key in camp, so all her gear was either locked away in her car or up at camp. As penance, they would have to redo the 14mi hike the next day to retrieve their gear and bring it back out.
Romain and I woke at 7a and went to get our continental breakfast. We found the other two stuffing their jackets with danishes as they were heading back out to Devils Postpile to get their stuff. Romain headed back to the Bay Area after breakfast while I spent a few hours climbing Crystal Crag in the morning, and resting in the motel during the afternoon. The trip had been quite different than we had imagined beforehand, but even with our forced bivy, all agreed it was a great adventure.
This trip report with pictures can be found at: http://www.snwburd.com/bob/trip_reports/michael_minaret_1