Rock Creek

31 Aug 1997 - by David Harris

I organized a private trip to the Rock Creek area over Labor Day weekend. Joining me for the climbs were Craig Clarence, Hiep "Bomber" Nguyen, Steve Landes, Milushe, and Dario Boffelli. Gary Baker also daytripped in with us on Saturday. The trip had originally been named "Milling around the Bear Abbot on Labor Dade" entitling us to climb anything we felt like taking on except the Morgan talus slog.

We decided to start by hiking up past Ruby Lake to make a basecamp just above Mills Lake, then climb Mills on Saturday. Several people were feeling the altitude and carrying heavy packs, so it took unexpectedly long to reach camp. After lunch we hiked over to the East Couloir of Mills and promptly became unable to reconcille our route with Secor.

The only couloir on the impressive East face of Mills was split at the bottom. The right side was blocked at the very bottom by a large chockstone and the left side had an appealing snowfield leading upward that might hopefully cover loose rock. Secor mentions a variation going right from a chockstone blocking a couloir that supposedly avoids loose rock. Since we could not see an alcove below the right chockstone, we figured there might be another chockstone up higher and started up the left chute. Craig promptly disappeared, reasoning he would get out of our way if the route was loose. Hiep got the same idea and headed up too. The rest of us began up the snow as well, but several people had left crampons in camp and found the snow very difficult with just an ice axe. I had time to kick about six times on each step to make deep steps for those without crampons, but it was still very slow going and eventually Gary decided to turn around. Ahead, I heard Craig yell down to get out as soon as the snow ended because it was a "Death Couloir." Hiep reached the end of the snow and launched a cannonade of boulders down upon the rest of us, who took cover at the edge of the chute. Everyone promptly understood why I wore a helmet and had recommended that the rest of the party bring helmets too. (While on that train of thought, check out this year's American Alpine Journal report on 1996 California climbing deaths. Head injuries were the leading cause of death in falls, but only among climbers not wearing helmets).

By the time we reached the top of the snow, both were long gone and we had to evaluate the options. Ahead was a chockstone blocking about 2/3 of a very loose chute. To the right was something that could be construed to be an alcove that climbed a short face onto a rib. The face looked hard, so I went on to explore the chute above the chockstone. Getting around the chockstone was unnerving because everything was loose and I worried that rolling a small boulder which supported the chockstone could send the several ton stone down crushing me. Above the chockstone the chute was walled off on all sides.

Since Craig had called it a Death Couloir, I decided to check the alcove to the right and hope it was Secor's alcove. The wall quickly became 4th class stemming over loose blocks, so I recommended that the rest of the group continue above the chockstone and try the wall up there. I safely made it up to the rib where I could see down to the rest of the party. Dario soloed the wall above the chockstone and called it 4th or easy fifth so I set up a belay and Milushe and Steve had an exciting climb. From there, we continued up the easy 3rd class rib to the summit, where Craig had been waiting well over two hours.

We hoped to find the route by descending the right couloir. Craig and Hiep headed off again ahead of us to avoid rock and once again Hiep launched a severe rockfall, firing a boulder right where Craig had been standing before diving for cover. The rest of us stayed safely back and eventually rappelled a difficult-looking 20 foot wall. Finally we reached the chockstone at the bottom; some rapped of it while others downclimbed the corner, which proved to just be 3rd class. We never reconcilled anything we saw with Secor's 3rd class route or good alcove near a chockstone.

By the time we got back to camp, we were a sorry lot. Several people were feeling very bad from altitude. Milushe tripped right before reaching camp and banged her knee; she held up cheerfully that night but found it so stiff and painful by morning that she couldn't climb anymore.

The next morning Hiep and Craig zoomed off early to climb Dade then Abbot. Milushe decided to walk out slowly; Steve, her carpoolmate, volunteered to climb Abbot, then hike down to meet her at Ruby lake and exit with her. We packed up camp and carried everything to the snowfield below Abbot, then make an easy ascent to midway up the tongue of snow on the north Couloir route of Abbot. Following an earlier trip report that defined "midway" to be the first place we could exit the snowfield on to the face to the right, we scrambled up the loose 3rd class face and followed ducks to the ridge. The ridge had a short airy but easy third class stretch before reaching the summit plateau. Although the route is listed in the Sierra Classics guide, we've climbed dozens of more interesting and enjoyable mountains this summer and feel the face is too loose to be very classic.

We napped atop the summit for an hour and a half before Craig and Hiep dragged their bodies over the edge onto the summit as well. They had done an ice climb on the 4th class north face of Dade, then survived an extremely loose descent down the opposite side of the crest and a traverse over to Abbot over more 4th class terrain. Somewhere along the way, Hiep had knocked a huge slab on his leg which pinned him until Craig could climb back up and strain to lift it a few inches while Hiep removed the leg. It sounded like a route to avoid.

Steve and Dario returned to the snowfield while Craig, Hiep, and I rappeled into the notch between Abbot and Mills to climb the Petite Griffon, a fascinating spire rising out of the notch. Evidently there is a 4th class route somwhere on the side of the Griffon, but I noticed a very solid, clean looking crack system headed straight up and decided to try leading it. The route proved about 5.6 with a delicate move between crack systems and was very fun. The final moves onto the summit block were also airy and exciting. Returning to the 40 degree snowfield leading into the notch required two more rappels over loose terrain. On the last one, Hiep dislodged yet another rock from 100 feet above Craig and I. We dived out of the way, but it glanced off my leg as it fell. Amazingly, it did no damage.

Steve hiked out to meet Milushe, while the four of us remaining descended past Treasure Peak to Treasure Lake for a cold camp. In the morning we hiked up to the Northeast Buttress of Bear Creek Spire. The route finally proved solid and extremely enjoyable. Most of the route was exposed and interesting 3rd class over an amazing variety of holds; at the top we reached a brief 4th class stretch before coming to the summit block. Bear Creek Spire receives an enormous number of climbers but we did see several PCSers signed in this year. It was definitely the best climb of the weekend and the adjacent 5.8 north arete also looks outstanding. This was Dario's first visit to the Eastern Sierra and Bear Creek Spire was a great climb. Also, the views from the lower lakes and from the summits of the region are among the best in the Sierra.

We descended Ulrichs route around the back side of the spire, picked up packs, and hiked out by mid-afternoon.

Steve Eckert remarks:

>reached the end of the snow and launched a cannonade of boulders down upon
>the rest of us, who took cover at the edge of the chute.  Everyone promptly
>understood why I wore a helmet and had recommended that the rest of the party
>bring helmets too.

Helmets on Mills are definitely a good idea. So is staying closer together, so the rocks will not pick up much speed. Alternatively, perhaps you could convince the faster people to stop just short of the loose stuff until you get there. I realize it's fun to go fast, but not if you kill your partners.

>By the time we reached the top of the snow, both were long gone and we
>had to evaluate the options.

Pity you did not have the advantage of their route-finding efforts. Another good reason to stay within earshot while climbing! Sounds like it might have shortened the day for everyone if the followers had actually been able to follow the leaders.

>Returning to the 40 degree snowfield leading into the notch required two
>more rappels over loose terrain.  On the last one, Hiep dislodged yet another
>rock from 100 feet above Craig and I.  We dived out of the way, but it glanced
>off my leg as it fell.  Amazingly, it did no damage.

You are very lucky. I counted four serious rockfalls in your report, two of which actually hit or pinned people. Choose your partners carefully, eh?

Kevin Flynn writes:

What are you doing climbing with an incompetent and dangerous fool like that for? I wouldnt let "Bomber" above me for any $

R.J. Calliger remarks:

I hear your point Kevin and agree wholeheartedly with some additional points below if I may:

He sounded competent to me. He sounded a little dangerous; the result was VERY dangerous however. Does he realize the rockfall that happened? (Before now I mean)..there is a difference between malice (a fool) and inconsideration (curable with training) and a few kind words- ie *these words in these notes today and yesterday *!. But mostly was perhaps over-enthusiasm and consequent unintentional inconsideration I think.

Most of the times these are forgiveable I believe- this probably being one of them-- but luck on the mountains *IS* for fools; competenece, knowing your limits and consideration **HAVE** to be practiced by all of us.

BTW- this won't happen on Aconcagua, right "Bomber"?

Let's Climb! (Kindly, carefully and caringly )

Tony Cruz remarks:

Last week three of us including Joe Stephens & Pat Ibbetson climbed T-bolt from Dusy Basin. On most of the route we were on a very loose, mostly class 2, scree and talus chute.

On the way up, we spread out laterally so as to not hit each other with foot-launched missles. Going down, we either did the same (climbed laterally) or went down one-at-a-time, leapfrogging each other. One of us down climbed, while the other two sat above. When the first climber reached a safe place (a spot sheltered from rock fall by boulders or well away from the center of the chute), the next climbers came down one at a time. We repeated this process until the danger of rockfall was minimal. This is a slow but safe technique.

Kevin Flynn replies:

Tony Cruz tactic seems like a good one and is one that I employ. It is common to occasionally knock a rock or two loose but the descriptions in the trip report sound like this guy really has no place in the mountains to me. From the report it sounds like he endangered himself and others on four separate and distinct occasions. Good luck climbing on Aconcagua, I hope he is not as adept at starting avalanches, with the new snow likely to be encountered.

Jim Ramaker adds:

I have to put in a word about Hiep Nguyen. I was on a trip with him last weekend to Banner and Ritter. He is not a clumsy idiot who has no place in the mountains. In fact he is the fastest and strongest climber I've seen in my eight years of climbing with the PCS. In one day, he hiked in from Agnew Meadows with a full pack, climbed the East Corner route of Banner (1500-foot vertical, rated class 4 but actually class 5), descended to the saddle, climbed the north face of Ritter, and descended to Ediza Lake by 7:30 p.m. And he did most of the Banner climb unroped!

I didn't climb near him much because I don't climb as fast as he does, but he didn't seem to be a clumsy climber. I think he tends to hurry on loose rock because he doesn't like it, and it sounds like he had an off day on Mt Mills. I'd go on a trip with him again anytime because he's a nice guy who loves the mountains. But I admit, if I climbed any steep, loose sections with him, I might ask to go up first and come down last.

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