Of Gabb and Gales

13 Sep 1997 - by Peter Maxwell

The plan had been to leave Thursday evening to avoid the worst of the traffic. Unfortunately, the BART strike more than compensated for any advantage, so leaving the Bay Area was as bad as ever. Such was the start of the trip to Mt Gabb on September 12-14. We had a permit for eight, but in the end were only three: Chris Kerr, Meri Mitsuyoshi and Peter Maxwell (organizer, leader, car driver and general rouseabout). At least car pooling was easy - we all went in one car. This was a good way to put some early miles on our new Subaru Legacy Outback, and to check if everything Paul Hogan says about this car is true or not.

Having successfully put the car through its paces by negotiating 100 yards of Inyo National Forest rough road, we slept in confidence on Dead Man Summit on Thursday night. The plan was to leave Rock Creek trailhead at 9 am, and we made it almost on schedule at 9:10. It was cool - a light frost could be seen on the ground in the shady parts. We were headed for Cox Col, to cross the Sierra crest to get to Lake Italy. The col was about 3000' higher than the trailhead, most of the climb being cross country. The elevation gain to the point where we left the Morgan Pass trail was only 500'.

It was wonderful to be walking and stopping for breaks with not a single mosquito around to bother us. The scenery was browner than in July, but that was a small price to pay for peace.

We had a leisurely lunch at Dade Lake. I was surprised to see the southwestern shores of the lake still covered with snow several feet thick. There were even crevasses in it as large chunks were poised to break off into the lake. This large snowfield extended up the slopes a way as well, so we had to negotiate this first. The large sun cups made the going difficult and it was with some relief that we were finally able to get onto rock.

From the lake we had 2500' to get to Cox Col, but it was not clear exactly where to head to. Secor talks about "the first notch south of the lowest notch" being the preferred route. The trouble was that this would have put us hard up against Bear Creek Spire, and the snow slopes leading up to this notch were extremely steep. We had neither crampons nor ice axes so headed a little further north, towards a very obvious "U" shaped notch. This proved to be an excellent choice, with only class 2 rock to contend with. The number of footprints seen there showed that many others had come that way also.

As is always the case for me, the final few moments of ascent were really exciting, wondering what vistas would be exposed the other side. As expected, there was a glorious panorama, including a great view of Mt Gabb. Lake Italy, our destination for that day, looked a long way down and a long way away, although in truth it was only 1800' and a few miles.

We had wonderful, easy, sandy slopes to walk down from the col, at least at first. Secor's description was rather vague, about having to turn right (to the northwest) before turning left (to the southwest) to descend to the lake. The temptation is to go southwest too soon, to avoid going "too far out of the way", and we ended up going down some steep, slippery sections that would have been better avoided. It's better to stay in northwest direction longer, heading into the upper portions of the bowl around Gabb, Abbott and Dade, then descending the much easier slopes from there.

Looking back towards the col one is truly able to appreciate Secor's statement about it being the only reasonable crossing of the Sierra crest in that area. The gentle sandy slopes leading up to the col were all the more remarkable considering the almost vertical walls leading up to Dade, Abbott and Mills.

Everywhere here was barrenness. There were no trees, or even bushes, and the only green parts were surrounding the lake and the creek feeding it. Not only were there no bears, we didn't see any ground critters either, with the result that we put the food into packs or in tents overnight. This was like backpacking in Australia, not the Sierras, and was a pleasant change.

The ascent day saw a leisurely awakening at 7 am and departing camp at 8:15. No need for alpine starts when you're camped right at the base of the peak. As promised in my trip announcement, we tackled the south face, rather than traverse further to the west to pick up the southwest ridge. This gave us easy class 3 climbing, although there was much loose rock and scree, making the climbing less enjoyable than would otherwise have been the case. We were on the summit by 12:30 and relaxed there for an hour before heading back to camp. I like these mellow trips! Our descent route was more to the west, avoiding the larger talus we had encountered on the way up, and was a breeze.

The wind which had been gusting at the summit picked up intensity during the afternoon, and by the time we were back at camp at 3 pm it was blowing strongly and consistently. It was a cold wind, too, and the only relief was to seek shelter behind some large boulders that were conveniently sited there. Too bad the wind was blowing from the west, as it meant we couldn't be in the sun and out of the wind at the same time. Chris decided sun was more important, and sat reading a book all rugged up in her down jacket.

I ended up relocating my bivvy sack to behind one of these boulders to get some shelter. Meri wasn't so fortunate - she put the fly on her tent to avoid the gale roaring through the "no-see-um" netting (also "no-stop-um" for the wind) but then had to suffer with it flapping all night long.

After blowing all night long, the wind had eased a little by early morning, so breakfast at 6 am was tolerable. It rapidly picked up again as the sun rose, though, and increased to gale force later. Standing in the base of the bowl, we could hear it roaring across the peaks 3000' up, and I wondered what the col would be like.

When we got there at 10 am, it was almost impossible to stand up, and gusts came along that easily blew us off our feet. Just down to the east a little we enjoyed being in the lee and had a peaceful snack, but as we descended we became exposed once again. My Australian Akubra hat, which works great in calm conditions, and makes me feel trendy and rugged, became a sail. Despite the chin strap it kept getting blown off, almost choking me in the process, and I had to resort to downclimbing with one hand holding the hat onto my head. This, in turn, produced aching muscles where I'd never had them before.

The wretched wind was so strong that the gusts were picking up water from the surface of Dade Lake and throwing it into the air in great clouds of mist. Quite an impressive display.

We arrived back at the car at 2:30, and I was amused to see another brand new Outback parked next to mine. What's more, it was bought in Palo Alto and had only 500 miles on the clock. Somehow I don't think the choice of parking was accidental.

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