Seven Gables I: Heat and Dust

8 Aug 1998 - by Jim Ramaker

Charles Schaefer led this trip into the central Sierras from the west. Climbers included Landa Robilliard, Kelly Maas, Roger Crawley, Andy Skumanich, and your scribe, Jim Ramaker. We assembled at the boat dock at Florence Lake on Friday morning, and boarded the boat ferry that takes you to the trailhead at the south end of the lake. The boat is an old scow like the one in the Humphrey Bogart movie "African Queen," and it held over 20 tightly packed climbers and backpackers. Fare is $15 round-trip.

After fiddling at the trailhead (7300'), we started toiling uphill in the hot sun about 9:30 a.m. Sorry, but this trailhead gets my nomination as one of the worst in the Sierras. The ferry runs on bankers' hours, so on the first day you can't start hiking before 9 a.m., and on the last day you can't really do any climbing because you have to complete the long hike out to the ferry landing before the last boat at 5 p.m. In addition, the first ten miles of the hike up to Seven Gables meanders through low elevation woods and meadows -- on this day, hot, buggy, and polluted by horses from the huge pack station.

In the late morning we toiled up some hot, unshaded switchbacks, then worked our way up past Sally Keys Lakes. Finally around 4 p.m. after more than 10 miles of hiking, we broke above timberline into the alpine scenery around Heart Lake, then popped over Selden Pass (10,800') to the incredibly beautiful basin of Marie Lake. This mile-long lake has many grassy peninsulas and was surrounded by gorgeous meadows and cliffs still streaked with snow. The plan was to continue across another ridge and camp at Sandpiper Lake below Seven Gables, but right at 6 p.m. we passed a gorgeous campsite on a bench above Marie Lake and the tired team rebelled. After mild resistance, Charles gave in and we camped there for the night. The clouds that had been building all day dissipated at sunset, and weather for the rest of the trip remained clear and mild. Bugs were moderately bad, and we got to watch Charles eat supper through his bug headnet.

Saturday we crossed the ridge to Sandpiper Lake and headed up Seven Gables, an easy climb up brushy class-2 cliffs and a huge scree terrace above. Near the summit we had to cross a frozen snowfield and some people wished they'd brought crampons to go with their ice axes, but the runout below wasn't bad and it was safe as long as you went carefully. Above that came 100 feet of nice class-3 blocks, and we stepped onto the airy summit (13,080') with its tremendous dropoff to the east about 11:30.

The view was so good and the weather so pleasant that a profound lethargy overtook the team, and no one except Charles could get up any enthusiasm for the long complex traverse over to Gemini (12,880 and 1.5 miles away). Secor says that the route goes down the cliff just 20 feet below the summit, and after much exploration by Charles and Kelly, they finally found the elusive slot. But looking at a potential return to camp of around 8 p.m., the team slowly decided that it would be okay for once to have a relatively easy day on a PCS trip, with no routefinding struggles up and down loose gullies and no late return to camp.

About 1:30 we headed for our home away from home, glissading down the now-softened snow. Around 4 we stopped for a long rest on the shoulder of the ridge above our camp, reclining on a nice sofa-like ledge with a spectacular view to the north. We talked and dozed in the sun, and soaked up the relaxing alpine antidote to hard days in front of the computer in Silicon Valley. In ones and twos, we departed and wandered back to camp.

In a meadow on the way back, a ptarmigan confronted me in a frightening display, extending her wings and running right up to my feet, where she stood and puffed up her chest and hissed at me. Stunned by this assault, I withdrew, and her motive soon became clear as two chicks scurried up a nearby snowbank. After much excited peeping and calling, mother and chicks were reunited. For those who don't know, a ptarmigan is a rare, ground-dwelling, alpine bird known for its lack of fear of people and for changing color from mottled brown in summer to pure white in winter.

Back at camp, the team spent a pleasant dinner hour, with bottled beer appearing from a nearby snowbank and the bugs nearly non-existent compared to the night before. On Sunday, with 13 miles to go before the 5 p.m. ferry, we didn't have time to climb a major peak like Hooper or Senger. But Kelly and I wanted to get a little more climbing in, so we got up at 5:30 a.m. and tackled the beautiful 1000-foot, class-3 cliff above our camp. Except for a couple of brushy spots, this gave us super climbing up smooth rounded slabs and ledges. We almost got stopped by cliffs a couple times, but there was always a ramp or ledge that gave safe passage. About 6:40 we arrived on the ridgetop and traversed it for a few hundred feet to a small summit at 11,600'. The view down to our lake and down the other side into the Seven Gables-Gemini basin was spectacular at this early hour, and reminded us why we love the mountains.

Back at camp we had breakfast, packed up, and departed at 9. The first hour of hiking, up to and over Selden Pass in the morning light was incredibly beautiful and the cameras were really clicking away. Then the fun was over, and about six hours of hiking in the warm sun finally brought us to Florence Lake at 4. After our hot dusty hike, washing up and swimming in the lake felt like heaven, and as we cruised across the lake on the cool, breezy ferry ride, we realized that the pleasure of climbing must sometimes be purchased with an equal measure of discomfort and pain.

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