Third Class, My Ass: Darwin & Mendel

18 Aug 1996 - by David Harris

Bob Suzuki organized an enjoyable trip to the Evolution area. Participants included David Harris (co-leader), Sam Wilke, Ted Raczek, Gennady Farber, Alex Zelditch, Alex Keith, and Rich Leiker.

The group departed from North Lake at about 8:30 Friday morning to pack over Lamarck Col. We warmed up by accidentally hiking up the Piute Pass trail for ten minutes before discovering that the turnoff to Lamarck lakes was actually at the trailhead, not a short way up the trail as the 7.5 minute topo suggested. The ascent to lower Lamarck lake went smoothly. Alex had learned of a trail to the col on his previous trip; we found the trail slightly more than half way between Lower and Upper Lamarck lakes. The main trail crosses to the right (north) bank of the stream, then switch backs up a short hill. At the top of the hill is an easy stream crossing to the south side of the stream. The col trail picks up at the south side of the stream near the low point of a small saddle, descends the south side of the saddle, then works southeast past a small pond before switch-backing up a steep shoulder several hundred feet. It continues southeast up easy slopes over several false cols to the lake below Lamark Col. According to a pair of hikers we passed, the trail had been built by a packer to haul gear to the col. The trail makes the col as easy and straightforward as going over many Sierra passes.

By the time we'd reached the col, Gennady was suffering from the altitude and had dropped back with Alex. Gathering storm clouds drove us on and we descended the west side on rocks made slippery by rain and hail. We originally hoped to camp at a high lake at the edge of the Darwin glacier, but decided the spots were more readily available sightly lower at the lake immediately below the col. Gennady and Alex found us in camp as the storm began to clear.

On Saturday, we got a 6:15 start toward Darwin. Secor's route description of the Darwin Glacier and West Ridge was fairly good. A vertical section in the chute below the small notch can be bypassed on any of several routes on the rock to the right; the routes we tried had some interesting class 3 moves complicated by ill-placed patches of ice. An SPS report pointed out that following below the ridge on the right side to the summit plateau is easier than staying on the top of the ridge. After a short walk across the plateau, we saw the unmistakable summit block of Darwin. The block is slightly detached from the plateau. Facing the block from the edge of the plateau, descend to your right off the plateau, then cross over to the left, descend down a chute and reascend another (icy) chute to the far (southeast) side of the summit block. A class 3 crack leads to a ledge immediately below the far side of the block. Climbing the block involves a simple but exposed mantle; only one member of the group felt like using the rope which we had hauled all the way up. A single long sling provided a bomb-proof anchor; don't bother bringing a rack. An experienced party can do the climb safely with no rope; a very short 7 mil rope would suffice to belay those uncomfortable with exposure up the last 5 feet to the summit. The views were outstanding from the top and the climbing was very good. The climb took about 4 hours and the descent to the glacier was another hour.

We descended Darwin and traversed the glacier to the east face of Mendel. At this point, Ted was tired of rock work and decided to return to camp; little did he know what a wise decision he had made. Secor calls the face class 3 and refers to many ledges, but nothing we could find resembled a ledge. The entire face is very loose and several rocks came down that could have caused serious injury to anyone in their path. We met a guy descending from a solo ascent of the Mendel Couloir who directed us right and assured us the route was 3rd class; we foolishly accepted his directions. The climb to the northeast ridge was easy (though loose) 3rd class. However, the ridge itself was very steep and blocky in many places. We could not find Secor's rumored 3rd class "pleasant climb;" numerous moves were both tricky and exposed, meeting our definition of 4th class. Unfortunately, we had left the rope at the edge of the glacier because we were competent climbers expecting a 3rd class route. Alex Zelditch scampered ahead to scout and chimneyed up something that looked 5th class to those of us watching; the rest of us were unwilling to follow and traversed to the face right beneath the summit. We had the choice of chutes to the left or right. The left is probably the chute with the chockstone refered to by Secor; Rich examined the chockstone and felt it would be possible to climb, but difficult to downclimb. A skinny person may have been able to squeeze through a keyhole beneath the stone. We opted instead for a 4th class move to the right, which reunited us with Alex and gave easy access to the summit. In the Mendel summit register, somebody had written "Third Class, My Ass," which became the theme of the trip. Views of Evolution Lake and the Evolution Valley were superb from the edge of the plateau. The climb from the glacier was 3-4 hours, due to route finding, tedious 4th class climbing, and general apathy.

We descended the same chimney and continued down steep, sandy slopes of the face, probably taking Secor's "East Face" route, though ledges are an inaccurate description. A 40 pound rock came down from the back of the group; by the time it reached the front 300 feet down the face, it had split in two and was flying 30 feet in the air. Half dropped directly toward Bob's head; he dived under and narrowly avoided the boulder, but began sliding down the scree-covered face toward an eight foot cliff and barely caught himself before going over. The entire climb and descent was very stressful and hazardous. I would recommend helmets and a short, light rope to future parties and have no interest in repeating the climb myself.

On Sunday, David, Alex Keith, Rich, and Ted left camp at 7:15, brought our packs to the lake on the far side of the col, and made a quick ascent of Lamarck Peak (16-30 minutes from lake to summit). The views made the climb worthwhile (once); we returned to the lake and met the rest of the party which had left at 8:00. The hike out was uneventful and we reached the cars by 1:30.

We descended to Bishop for lunch at a BBQ place on the west side of the main road about a block south of the North Lake road. The restaurant was new to most of us and the food was good (though our standards after three days may be low). Alex Keith plans to write a PCS restaurant guide for the Eastern Sierra; send him ( your favorite and least favorite restaurants.

Steve Eckert adds:

> Secor calls the face class 3 and refers to many ledges

On many a trip, I've sarcastically shouted "here's that ``system of ledges'' that Secor talks about", and received appropriate snickers in response. Too many things look like a ledge to him!

> The climb to the northeast ridge was easy (though loose) 3rd class.

Jim Curl and I climbed the buttress route a few years back, and agreed that a rope would be required to safely descend THAT third class. Don't know if we filed a report... but we came down the sandy face rather than do the ridge again. There was only one place (the chock 20' from the summit plateau) where we thought it was third class, and the exposure there was low. We did spend some time picking a route, which goes to show you that a second class face may not be ALL second class, eh? Also, it's easier (sometimes) to find the big scree chute from the top than from the bottom.

>  Half dropped directly toward Bob's head; he dived under and narrowly 
>  avoided the boulder, but began sliding down the scree-covered face 
>  toward an eight foot cliff and barely caught himself before going over.

Rule #1: return safely.

> I would recommend helmets and a short, light rope to future parties

I usually take an 80' 7mm rope on 3rd class, just in case. It's only 2 pounds, and it can be a life saver (pun intended) if you get a little off route or if some hero under-rated the climb.

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