Invalids on Mt. Haeckel

5 Jul 1992 - by Jim Ramaker

Wispy clouds blew across the Sierra Crest as eight of us gathered at the Lake Sabrina trailhead near Bishop on the Friday morning before 4th of July. Looking up the valley past the lake, we could see several jagged peaks -- little did we know that the tallest and most jagged was our target, Mt. Haeckel. The condition of the team was a bit pathetic -- both Dave Caldwell and leader Peter Maxwell were suffering with bad colds, while Steve Duvall had a lame foot, and Gary Pinson's back was threatening to go out at any time. The rest of us -- Dody Domish, Ann Gaillard, David Ress, and myself (Jim Ramaker) offered our sympathies as we all sorted our gear and headed up the trail.

We hiked in at a leisurely pace, climbing 2000 feet over about 5 miles and passing Lake Sabrina and a series of smaller lakes and unnamed lakelettes. At the outlet stream of one of the lakes, Peter amused us by falling off a log bridge. The sky was partly cloudy, but thunder or rain never threatened, and that was pretty much the weather pattern for the weekend.

After a lunch stop, we arrived at our camp at Midnight Lake around 2 p.m. After we pitched our tents, David Ress and Gary tool off to scout out the next day's climbing route, while the rest of us talked, napped, read, watched the campsite marmot, or hiked around the environs. From our tri-level camp in a grove of timberline trees at the east end of the lake, we could gaze up at the steep faces of Mt. Darwin and its eastern subpeaks, rising over 2000 feet from the other end of the lake. A strong gusty wind came up in the late afternoon, and after supper most of us headed for our tents early to escape the chill. Around 9 p.m., a distant thundering sound grew louder and louder and went on for more than 30 seconds, then slowly died away. One hell of a rockfall somewhere in the area.

On our climbing day, 4th of July, wake-up call was at 5:30 and we were underway by 6:30. (Because of a painful achilles tendon, Steve skipped the climb and stayed in camp on marmot duty.) The rest of us climbed the ridge south of the lake and traversed eastward along the top of it, a beautiful walk on solid granite in the early morning light. Next we contoured around a lake basin on talus and headed for the snow gullies leading up to the saddle just east of Haeckel. Nearby on our left, the beautifully sculptured cliffs of Picture Peak plunged down toward Hungry Packer Lake.

Since this was an official PCS trip, our ice axes were at home or back at the trailhead, and we had to forgo the frozen snow leading up to the saddle. Tackling one of the rock ribs between the snow gullies, we found the worst rock some of us had ever seen -- a mixture of gravel, sand, boulders, and awkwardly steep dirt. Even delicate footsteps sent streams of rubble cascading down the slope. We headed for a refrigerator-sized pinnacle, thinking it had to be pretty solid, only to find that it too came apart with gentle tugs. Finally we passed this tedious section and paused on the saddle to snack and regroup. Above us the east ridge of Haeckel looked inviting, with huge, beautifully weathered granite slabs, some of them stacked vertically side-by-side. But it was at least 4th class, and so we dropped down from the saddle and circled around to the southeast face. On the right side it was steep with nice solid rock, and toward the left a bit less steep but also much looser.

We started up a gully near the middle of the face, but were stopped by a chockstone with an interesting keyhole under it, just big enough for one of Dave Caldwell's cats.

At this point the group split up, depending on inclination, prudence, and the state of our infirmities. Peter and Dody traversed left and headed up a sensible third class gully system toward the top. Dave, who now had a serious case of altitude sickness on top of his cold, joined Anne back toward the saddle, while Gary found a comfortable seat at the bottom of the face to observe the thrashings above. David Ress traversed right to get at that beautiful granite, and I headed up the middle of the face. A couple of hundred feet up I found myself stymied, unable to climb up or down safely. Luckily I was able to traverse right and locate David high above me, and I climbed up to him and followed him up several steep bits of very difficult third class. After a while David and I could see Dody and Peter relaxing on the summit, and after thrashing up one more steep crack, we very happily joined them there. It was about 12:30. The sky was cloudless for once, and the air exceptionally clear from all the wind. David, who has all of the Sierra topo maps stored in his mental database, identified dozens of peaks all the way south to Mt. Whitney. Nearby, the Palisades and Mt. Goddard dominated the view. We dropped down out of the wind to a sunny ledge, ate our Powerbars and sandwiches, and waved at Dave Caldwell, Anne, and Gary at the foot of the face. They waved back very enthusiastically, then waved and twirled jackets even more enthusiastically. Translated, this meant that Dave was sick to his stomach, they didn't want to wait for us at the saddle as planned, and the three of them were going to return to camp by a longer but easier route past Echo and Moonlight Lakes. We interpreted the message as "hi" and "how's the view up there?" and were quite surprised to find no trace of them after we descended the face and traversed back to the saddle.

Since the three of them have decades of PCS experience and a few epics behind them, we figured they were in capable hands, and we retraced our route down from the saddle. Luckily the snow was now soft enough for safe glissading, so we were able to avoid the unpleasant technical dirt pitch.

The rest of the descent was great fun, glissading on our boot soles and taking an extended break at some beautiful small lakes and grassy patches at 12,000 feet. We got back to camp about 4, and Anne, Dave, and Gary were back by 5. Dave immediately crawled into his tent and slept for 14 hours, emerging the next day very hungry but feeling much better. The rest of us relaxed, washed up, and cooked supper on another beautifully cool and windy evening.

The next day we broke camp and hiked out around 9, reaching the cars by noon. One last photo session, and another great trip was history. Dave, Gary, David, and I piled on the hedonism on the way home, with an all-you-can-eat lunch at the Sizzler in Bishop, a lengthy soak in the hot springs at Hot Creek, a rest stop at Tioga Pass, and a gourmet dinner at the Yosemite Junction Grill. And oh yes, somewhere during the trip, Anne and Peter announced that by the time you read this, they'll be married. So who says climbing's not romantic?

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