Mt Stanford: High Drama In The High Sierra

1 Sep 1992 - by Peter Maxwell

Labor Day weekend saw quite a large group laboring to conquer Mt Stanford, one of the Sierra's least visible major peaks. It makes up for its lack of prominence by its inaccessibility and its altitude (a healthy 13963 feet). The aspiring graduates were Debbie Benham, Debbie Bulger, Dave Caldwell, Joe Coha, Jim Curl, Dodi Domish, Anne Gaillard, Kelly Maas (co-leader), Chris MacIntosh, Peter Maxwell (leader), Jim Ramaker and Richard Stover. Apart from the gruelling hike in and a very long ascent day, there were other, unplanned sagas and a few lessons learned.

To start with, it's a long way to the Onion Valley trailhead so too early a start was not reasonable. We eventually got away around 9.30 for a hike which entailed some 13 miles, 2500 feet up to Kearsarge Pass, down 2000 feet to Vidette Meadow and up a further 1000 feet to our campsite on (whoops, near) the John Muir trail just past the junction to Center Basin. Although long, the hike goes through beautiful countryside with lots of variety and incredible views of the Sierra.

The campsite itself, apart from being set in idyllic, isolated surroundings, has a metal bear box thrown in to make life easier. Somebody in the group warned us to be sure we didn't lock a little animal in the box when we closed it for the night. We arrived about 6 pm, most of us being pretty tired. Up to this point we still hadn't seen the peak!

The next day we had 3200 feet to climb to the summit with about a further 3-4 miles to hike. Double those figures for the round trip and it makes for another long day. We were away by 7 am on a crisp, beautifully clear morning. We stopped several times in the first half hour trying to figure out exactly which was the peak and which route to take. This has to be one of the most difficult peaks to locate. It was almost impossible to match the topo map with what we were looking at, and the peak looked more like a wall of rock than a peak. Even Gregorys' Monument, immediately adjacent, should have been a giveaway indicator but it wasn't.

As it turned out I got more challenge than I bargained for. Our original intention had been to try the North Ridge route, but when we arrived at the valley leading west to the ridge, we could see that the route involved a steep wall. Some people expressed concern at the safety of this route. After discussion, we decided that the entire group would continue further south around a large ridge and into the next bowl.

Beyond this spur ridge it became clear that the route had to go up the bowl and on to the ridge or plateau on top. The bowl was apparently the steep chute which descends directly from the summit described in Secor - makes me wonder if he ever climbed it personally. This summit plateau/ridge ran all in front of us: from Mt Stanford all the way to the left (past Gregory's Monument and over towards Forester Pass).

Most of it was a steep wall, and on the next peak it was a loose talus slope above a scree-covered glacier. A gully immediately in front of us looked as if it might be possible, although most of it was obscured by a rock curtain, out the base of which fanned a large scree slope.

The more open and visible route on our right was clear - a move off to the east, a traverse across the gully on a wide ledge and then up to the top of the chute by the ears - two rock columns. Most of the group agreed that this, the northwest route, was going to be the easiest.

The people who had disliked the North Ridge route did not agree with the decision. The route up the steep scree gully to the west seemed the easier route to them. There was no consensus reached, so two people signed off the trip and proceeded toward the gully, joined by a third person. With hindsight, perhaps altitude was already affecting judgment. They assured us they wouldn't tackle anything beyond their abilities.

To make a short report of a rather long experience, what the party of 3 found in their gully was first, scree. This had been visible before. Above this was 80 feet of steep ice: solid, but with some loose scree on top of it. At the top, through holes in the ice, was a cave. The first attempt to reach it, by climbing the rock to the side, failed: the ice was too smooth and steep.

But a second attempt from directly below got all three people into the cave. Despite its icy, blue beauty, the wall above it was almost unclimbable. Kelly later estimated it to be 5th class - and these people had no rope, just a short piece of cord of inadequate thickness. However, the group, misbelieving they were close to the top, made 20 more exposed feet further up, when the rock became too friable (due to the freeze-thaw action of water). Not to mince words - they were stuck and hypothermia became a real possibility in the cold environment. At least they had the 10 essentials. Two people got out their whistles and started to sound the distress call 3 blasts.

The main party was also climbing. After some initial scree work, the climb turned into good, challenging class 3. At 12:20, the graduation ceremony took place for just five of us.

One of the most amazing things about summitting was reading the summit register. This had been placed there in 1940 and was still only about half full. What's more, the first two pages were photocopies of entries dating right back to the first ascent. In one small book we had the entire history of everyone who had climbed the peak.

On the descent by the upper group, we had gotten as far as the point where we had parted company with the trio earlier, when Jim Ramaker barely heard a whistle being blown. At first, this was mistaken for some far off backpackers playing with whistles.

However, the whistling was repeated several times in a distress signal and it was coming from the gully where the others had been heading. I gave Kelly the 10m of 6mm rope I was carrying for safety, and he and the two Jims headed up to investigate. Kelly and Jim Curl continued up.

Kelly managed to convince the leader of the three that they were not near the top and that it would be better to descend rather than continue up. The rope was extremely useful, although somewhat short, as the three were belayed down. The episode was not without risk because rockfall was a constant danger.

After exchanging shouts with the others as to what was going on, the rest of us started back on the route to camp. We stopped when we were about to lose sight of the gully. The plan was to wait until we saw signs of people coming out, at which time we'd head back to camp to let the others know what was happening. It was a long wait and we didn't start back until two hours after we'd first heard the whistle. This put us back in camp as it was getting dark, to report our saga. About an hour later, 3 of the 5 turned up at camp. The other two ended up staying out all night.

This made for additional difficult decisions the next morning as, although we knew they were out of the gully, we didn't know if they had become injured on the walk back to camp. Because of the long walk out and the long drive back we did not want to leave too late. Jim Curl offered to walk back up the trail to try to meet them while we would report them as lost to the rangers on our exit. We left them a note on their tent to this effect.

As it turned out, Jim saw them only a short distance from camp and was able to utilize his bionic legs and catch up with the rest of us. The hike out took us past the stunningly beautiful Bullfrog Lake, a slightly different route than our hike in, and highly recommended.

Nobody was hurt in all of this, but had we not had people in the group who were capable of climbing the gully and aiding the trio, I'm not sure how this adventure might have turned out. After all, they were climbing what was at least class 4 with no rope.

There are many lessons to be learned from this. It would not have happened had the party all stayed together. However, signing off a trip is a valid option if a participant thinks the leader has made an incorrect or dangerous decision. The important thing is not to go off independently and tackle something for which anyone in the group is either ill-equipped or has insufficient ability. If this happens, anyone else in the area (including the group from which the party has signed off) is honor-bound to try to rescue them.

Morals for leaders are to be aware of the abilities of all participants and to ensure that everyone returns safely. Know when to turn back and don't let initial sense degenerate into an attitude like we're almost at the top: press on a little more and we'll make it .

Morals for participants are that they can and should tell the leader if they feel the route selected is not safe. They should not allow themselves to be talked into doing something they don't feel comfortable with.

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