Clyde Minaret

31 Jul 1998 - by Peter Maxwell

Short report

(i.e. useful info if you plan a trip there)

Topo: Devils Postpile (15 minute)

Trailhead: Minaret Lake, leaving from Devil's Postpile. The bridge washed out in January 1997 is still not replaced. Either go 0.9 miles south to Red Meadows where there is a bridge, or wade the San Joaquin River, which was running very high.

Time of year: end of July in El Nino year (98).

Conditions: mostly snow free to Minaret Lake, large amount of snow to Cecile Lake.

Length: 2 1/2 days with 12 hour summit day.

Elevation: 12281' Clyde Minaret summit, trailhead is at 7600'.

Equipment: crampons, ice-axe, one rope, slings, very small rack.

Summary: camped at Minaret Lake (9850') because it was free of snow, summitted from there.

Summit Route: Starr's Route. Up the drainage to Cecile Lake, climb the red rock to the ledge running across the northeast face, climb 45 degree snow field to rightmost chute, climb chute to ridge, follow ridge to summit. 5 hours up, 6 hours down due to slow downclimbing required.

Comments: Rated as class 4 but everyone thought it was solid class 3 and a rope really wasn't necessary, but it was good to have it anyway. A belay at the top of the chute while descending might be appreciated by some. Crampons and ice axe indispensable. Much loose rock was encountered.

Long report

According to Webster's:

  minaret:  a slender lofty tower attached to a mosque and surrounded 
  by one or more projecting balconies from which the summons to prayer 
  is cried by the muezzin

Five of us responded to the "summons of Clyde" on July 31 and August 1,2, and set forth to climb this lofty tower. The group consisted of John & Chris Kerr, Charles Schaffer, Conor Rafferty and Peter Maxwell. Both Conor and I had attempted this peak last year and failed due to inadequate equipment (no crampons or ice axes). Another necessary addition to Secor's description: he makes no mention of having to ascend a 45 degree snow slope just to get to the start of the rock portion of the climb, if one starts from the area of red rock in the cirque above Cecile Lake. The convenient ledge running across the northeast face is cut by this snow slope, which perhaps melts out much later in the season, but if it's there, the only way to avoid it is to take either the Rock Route or the Glacier Route, starting from the north side of the lake.

This time we weren't going to make the same mistake so made sure we were properly equipped. Conor, who lives in New Jersey and keeps up his skills by scaling 5.8 fences, was out here on a climbing vacation and turned up in a rental car with a model name of "Achieva" - how could we go wrong with such a good omen?

Unlike many people who climb in the Minarets, we started from Devils Postpile rather than Agnew Meadows, heading towards Minaret Lake. The first thing we had to achieve was to get to the other side of the San Joaquin River. The bridge near Devils Postpile that got washed out in the 1997 floods was still out (your tax dollars not at work) and the river was running much higher than last year, making wading it a dicey proposition. Conor tried at one point where it looked shallow but almost got swept off his feet, without being encumbered with a backpack, so we decided to walk the 0.9 miles south to Red Meadows where there is a bridge.

The trail to Minaret Lake is beautiful and highly recommended. The cascades of Minaret Falls made a delightful lunch backdrop. An earlier start would have put us beyond this, but all the messing around with the attempted river crossing, plus the extra 1.8 miles, plus our leisurely 9:15 am initial departure meant we didn't get all that far by lunchtime. We got to Minaret Lake by mid-afternoon and decided to stay there, rather than push on to Cecile Lake, which is 600' higher up and guaranteed to be surrounded by snow. There were also very ominous clouds building all around us and that, coupled with the much lower than average temperatures put us off the snow camping concept.

We had plenty of time to make cups of tea and prepare dinner. John gave us several different versions of "a study in rocky repose ", each involving sprawling out on the rocks in a position of total relaxation. The cool temperature and the wind kept the mosquitoes at bay and we weren't bothered by them at all.

In deciding what time to get up the next morning, Chris was insistent that she had almost never known any group to get their act together and leave within 90 minutes of waking up. We were no exception to this rule so after a 5:30 wake up we were on the way around 7:00. Camping at Minaret Lake meant extra time was involved. It took around 45 minutes to get to Cecile Lake, more or less following the drainage up, and discovering a nice ledge system to go up the final headwall. As anticipated, the lake was still largely frozen over and surrounded by snow, much as it was a month earlier the previous year. The ranger had told us everything was about a month late this year, and this was an accurate description of everything we found.

We encountered the first of what was to be a fair amount of loose rock throughout the climb while scrambling up the red rock to get to the ledge across the face. Even though we took a lot of care everyone sent pieces down as unwelcome presents to those below them. Chris dislodged a very large rock which hit her foot as it fell. Luckily nothing was damaged but it left sobering thoughts with us. We weren't on the ledge for long before we encountered the snow slope. Our route was Starr's Route, and we had to determine exactly which couloir to aim for. The best thing is to ignore counting chutes, as there are more than the three mentioned, and simply head for the rightmost, before the obvious arrete which separates this from the Rock Route. From where we were this involved climbing up and diagonally to the right on the snow.

Once off the snow we dumped our crampons and ice axes - no point in lugging these to the top - thereby eliminating any chance of returning via the Rock Route should we have wished to do so. The climbing was solid class 3, with the chute narrowing until it was almost a chimney just before cresting onto the ridge at the top of the gendarme separating this from the Rock Route. Although very steep, handholds were good, and the only problem was that we had to be constantly careful of loose rock, carefully testing before putting any weight on anything. We noticed a few slings on the way up so figured some people considered rope necessary.

Very close to the summit we encountered the "short class 4 move" described in Secor, which involved a vertical wall of about 10'. However, nobody thought this was class 4, since there's no significant exposure and plenty of holds. From here it was 5 minutes to the summit, which was attained at noon - 5 hours for the climb. It was warm and there was not a breath of wind, and very difficult not to resist the temptation to spend the whole afternoon up there. John took the opportunity to give us yet another demonstration of his "power lounging" technique while I marvelled at the steep, craggy nature of the rocks and peaks around us.

Going back down was slow progress as everything was sufficiently steep that downclimbing was necessary. On several occasions Charles piped up with "Did I tell you I hate downclimbing?". Progress was sufficiently slow that at the top of the main chute, where it was the narrowest and steepest, we figured rappelling down might be faster. This one section was much more potentially class 4 than the wall at the top and some people would appreciate a belay here. As I was putting my camera on a convenient rock my pack took on a life of its own and decided to start tumbling down the chute with my rappel device inside! By a stroke of luck it wedged itself just about at the end of the rope, about 25m down. I guess I could have borrowed someone else's rappel device, but to save time I just used the rope as an aid to speed up the downclimbing.

After that first rappel we decided we weren't saving any time so continued unroped downclimbing. The snow had softened up somewhat by the time we got to it, but it still looked formidable. We all had to downclimb this also, some using crampons and some not. Not wanting to return via the red rock route due to the unstable rock, we went all the way to the bottom of the snow, then cut northeast across the cliff faces above Cecile Lake until we could descend by the easy ridge leading to the northwest side of the lake.

The snow descent had some interesting moments. Chris was carefully doing a stomach glissade, lying on the ice axe, and was priding herself at her control when she went right over the edge of a bergschrund. Luckily it was not very wide at that point or she would have experienced more than the abrupt stop that happened. For Conor and myself, it was the "fun run" at the end of the slope when both of us slipped and slid the last 100' or so trying to self arrest in snow that was too soft and ending up plowing into the bushes. Charles saw me coming straight toward him, crampons first, and fled in panic out of the way.

From there it was plain sailing back to camp, where we arrived at 7 pm, almost exactly 12 hours after we'd left. This was one of the rare peaks where coming down took more time than going up: 5 hours up and 6 hours down. As a celebration of our climb, Conor offered fine brandy. Charles insisted that we hadn't "conquered" the mountain, but had merely "visited" it. Mosquitoes visited us, also, as it was warmer and there was less wind, but luckily there were not hordes of them. Looking back at the peak we realized that our route was clearly marked by a prominent dark straight line running up the gulley (although this was not evident from close up).

The return to Devil's Postpile took only 3.5 hours. People were less worried about getting wet so we waded the river rather than make the detour. Also, we weren't sure if what we'd done had been dangerous or not, but there were plenty of signs warning us that wading the river was, so this heightened the sense of adventure. We found that the best place to cross at the very broad bend downstream from where the bridge used to be, just before the river goes into a much narrower canyon. The water depth here was barely above the calves. Those of us without fancy sandals plunged in boots and all, not bothering to try to keep them dry. Conor didn't even bother to empty the water out and I could hear him squelching during the short walk back to the cars.

Steve Eckert adds:

> both of us slipped and slid the last 100' or so trying to self
> arrest in snow that was too soft and ending up plowing into the bushes.
> Charles saw me coming straight toward him, crampons first, and fled 
> in panic out of the way.

Thanks for sharing this moment of learning! My experience suggests that a "standard" ice axe pick arrest is non-functional most of the time in the Sierra Nevada. The soft afternoon corn snow does not provide enough drag to make the pick effective. (Those who think it is working are usually doing the work with their toes.) You need to get the point (end of the shaft) in the snow with enough leverage to stop yourself. If your wrist loop only attaches to the head of the axe, it's hard to get enough leverage without wrenching the axe out of your hands. If your shaft does not have rubber (or bicycle handlebar tape) on it you cannot hold on with wool or fleece gloves. With a proper wrist loop, you can drive the shaft in like a picket and hang off the axe OR you can face down slope and use it like a canoe paddle to brake. Practice with runout!

> People were less worried about getting wet so we waded the river rather 
> than make the detour.  Also, we weren't sure if what we'd done had been 
> dangerous or not, but there were plenty of signs warning us that wading 
> the river was, so this heightened the sense of adventure.

Meaning you would recommend wading over the detour for others, or that you were shell-shocked enough that the wading danger did not matter? (grin)

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