After three hours hiking, we dropped our gear just off the Mono Meadows Trail a mile southwest of Starr King and headed cross-country toward the peak. A tedious climb up a forested slope got us to the south side of the smaller dome just south of Starr King, and easy class-3 climbing took us straight north over the summit of this dome to the notch between the two domes. Here we roped up and Bob S. led us up two very enjoyable pitches of 5.0 or so friction climbing on flawless granite. It's such a fun climb that in a way, it's good that it's somewhat in the backcountry, because if it were next to a road, it would probably be jammed every day. An interesting summit register went back to the 80s, and of course more than a few dayhikers and solo climbers had signed in.
About 6 p.m. we descended the way we had come. On the way down to the packs we got separated by adjacent ridges, but luckily everyone remembered that our packs were behind a rock about 100 yards from the base of a prominent cliff. After regrouping, we packed up and headed up the trail at 7:30, and luckily within a few minutes found water and a decent campsite near a trail junction.
Next morning we awoke at 5:30 and headed cross-country toward Mt. Clark, four miles away. We made poor time on a less-than-optimal route through the forest, twice going straight over the tops of hills when it would've been faster to take slightly longer routes around them. About noon we finally headed up the final hill toward the base of Mt. Clark, encountering well-consolidated snow starting at 10,000 feet. The group got spread out here, and there was a long wait to regroup after the first of us reached the south ridge of Mt. Clark. We climbed up the west side of the ridge until blocked by a small cliff, then found the notch to cross to the east side. There we descended a bit of class-3 rock, put on crampons, and started traversing along the top edge of a moderate snowslope. It was hard to tell where the summit was, and twice I climbed up to an apparent high point on steep class-3 rock, only to find that the summit was higher and further north.
After another long wait to regroup around 4 p.m., I realized we were near the limit of how far we could go and still return to camp by last light at 9 p.m., so I proposed that we turn around. But I was outvoted, so we continued traversing. Bob S. then told us to rope up for a short class-4 pitch to the summit ridge, and my protests that we should turn around again fell on deaf ears. Bob argued that if we summitted, we could descend the northwest ridge, which he said was nearly all class-3, and faster and more direct than the way we'd come up. I was dubious -- that didn't accord with what I'd read about Mt. Clark, and starting down a route unknown to three of us after 6 p.m. sounded like an invitation to adventure. Bob led us up to a platform just north of the summit. From there the way to the summit 20 feet above looks exposed, but is really not -- you climb over a block into a body-width slot, and from there make an easy mantle onto the flat summit.
Meanwhile Bob S. had decided that access to the northwest ridge was blocked by some large exposed blocks, so we would instead rap the northwest face. That looked hopeful -- a long ledge about 50 feet below appeared to lead rightward toward some smooth slabs that appeared from above to be class-3. However, the last 20 feet of the ledge leading over to the slabs dwindled to almost nothing and looked very smooth and downsloping. We rapped down to the ledge, and then Bob led a traverse rightward along the ledge. He managed to get in a couple of cams before the smooth area, and then said laconically "I'm gonna be coming off here." Hmmm -- if Bob couldn't do it without falling, what about the other three of us? But Bob was better than his word, and made it past the smooth section without a slip. Bob E. and Chris followed, taking some tension from both ends of the rope, and then I cleaned the pitch.
But the area that had looked like class-3 from far above was much steeper -- solid class-5. And by now it was about 8 p.m., with the sun heading for the horizon. We rapped again, down to a square 10x10 foot platform that was still 50 feet above class-3 terrain. Everything on the platform was smooth and downsloping, except for, thank God, one solid block about six feet around. We rapped off that, burning some more of Bob's slings, and finally got down to some class-3 slabs.
Below the slabs a long snow gully began, hardening up now that it was 9 p.m. and fully dark. Bob and I quickly descended a few hundred feet to a rock band, but Bob E. and Chris do not like steep snow, and we had a long wait at the bottom of this section, with the lights from the two headlamps above us dancing around on the snowfield.
It was looking like a long night, with maybe a bivvy, but no sense getting worked up about it. We were off the technical terrain, it was a mild evening, and the elevation was relatively low (10,000 feet and heading lower). As I relaxed on a little ledge, I could see out to the west the lights of the Central Valley cities stretched in a long sparkling band from left to right, and above them, just above the horizon, a band of deep orange sky lingering in the afterglow of sunset. The stars and Milky Way stood out sharply overhead, and although it was July 3, skyrockets from a fireworks display were bursting above one of the Central Valley cities in the distance.
Below the snow was a wet, downsloping slab and then a deep moat extending down under the snow of the next, longer snowfield. Bob S. set up yet another rappel. Obviously the descent was not going according to plan, but one has to give Bob credit for going to great lengths to keep everyone safe. Back on snow, we plunged-stepped down, down, down for 1000 feet or more, the snow finally turning to scree and then to a steep forested hillside. Bob E. led us down through the woods, doing a great job of avoiding brush and small cliffs as we followed a creek steeply downhill. We were doing okay, descending by the light of our two functioning headlamps, but of course it was a lot slower and less efficient than hiking in daylight. The descent seemed endless, but finally, after more than 3500 feet of elevation loss from the summit, we reached the valley bottom and the Clark Fork of Illilouette Creek, with easy walking through a flat open forest.
By now it was midnight, with several more miles to camp, and we were running out of steam. After another hour or so, we decided to bivvy. Warm from hiking, I put on my rain gear, sat down on my ensolite sit pad (which added a lot of warmth), reclined against my pack, and fell asleep. In about 30 minutes I woke up shivering, the cold seeping in relentlessly. Luckily, Bob E. was carrying something I never take on climbs but will not be without on future climbs -- matches. He started a campfire, and the other three of us gradually migrated toward it until all four of us were reclined in a semicircle around it. It was a godsend -- it's amazing how much heat radiates from a small campfire, and soon the shivers were gone. It was even a bit pleasurable, lying on the ground around the fire as our prehistoric ancestors must have done, drifting in and out of sleep in a Neanderthal dream state. At some point I sleepwalked into the forest, gathered a bunch of wood, and piled it next to the fire, and then whenever the fire burned low, one of us would partially wake up and add a couple of sticks to the fire. Time passed, and finally I noticed I could see the shapes of trees against the eastern sky -- dawn was coming.
Around 5 a.m. we got up and stood around the embers of our dying campfire, warming our hands. A bit later we headed off toward camp -- amazing how much better we felt with a bit of rest and some daylight to walk by. Bob E. led the way, navigating flawlessly as he had done the night before, and we avoided both of the hills we'd gone up and down on the way over, arriving back at our camp at 7:15. We cooked breakfast, or maybe it was the supper we'd missed the night before, then crawled into our sleeping bags to nap for an hour. About 10 we left for the three-hour hike out, stopping at Illilouette Creek for 20 minutes to watch a group of inexperienced backpackers struggle unsuccessfully to cross the creek. By 1:30 p.m. we were sitting in our air-conditioned cars, sipping Gatorade and heading for home.