PCS and SPS on BCS

31 Aug 1999 - by Jim Ramaker

Bear Creek Spire (13,713) is one of those classic peaks that every aspiring Sierra mountaineer must deal with sooner or later. Seven of us gathered on the morning of Sat. July 31 to attempt it: David Ress, Bob Suzuki, Joan Marshall, Eddie Sudol, Carol Snyder, Terry Flood, and myself (Jim Ramaker). (Carol and Terry are experienced SPS climbers from the San Diego area -- my second trip in a row where PCS and SPS climbers joined forces.) Instead of the standard Ulrich route, our goal was the northeast buttress, with experienced rock climbers David and Bob planning lead the several class-4 pitches.

We left the Rock Creek trailhead at 7:30 a.m. and hiked into Little Lakes Valley. The hike up from this trailhead is so easy it's mind-boggling -- you're in nice alpine country right from the parking lot, and after just three hours of hiking through the gently rolling terrain of meadows and lakes, you're in position to camp for one of the four big peaks in the area -- Mills, Abbot, Dade, and Bear Creek Spire. No wonder this trailhead attracts many casual dayhikers. Mosquitoes were almost non-existent, a welcome change from my trip three weeks earlier.

We set up camp at Treasure Lakes at 10, then continued up the valley past Dade Lake under partly cloudy skies. We'd had some light showers at Camp 9 in Yosemite the night before, but the forecast was for improving weather. Pleasant cross-country travel up slabs, talus, and snow took us to the foot of the buttress by 1 p.m. The buttress was a sobering though not terrifying sight, rising 1500' to the summit ridge. The first hour of climbing was pleasant class 2-3 scrambling with no difficulties. About halfway up is a steep section of rough-textured, beautifully solid rock, which we climbed unroped via ramps and ledges on the left side, with perhaps a move or two of class-4. I thought we'd have hard climbing from then on, and was surprised to find another long stretch of class 2-3 scrambling with no exposure. All the real difficulties of this route are right near the top.

Around 3 p.m., Joan decided to descend because of altitude sickness, and Bob went down with her, which left us with just one experienced lead climber for the five of us. About the same time, the sky darkened and a few snowflakes drifted down. But we heard no thunder, so we continued up and soon reached the area just below the summit ridge where the buttress merges with a nearly vertical headwall. We got out our two ropes and David led up this section, then belayed the other four of us up. No problems, except the pitch took a full hour. We turned left and climbed a little way unroped along a ledge on the left side of the airy summit ridge, then roped up for a horizontal pitch on the crest of the blocky, exposed ridge. To save time, we had one person belay while two climbers on the rope simul-climbed. David put in plenty of pro to keep us safe. Our third roped pitch continued along the ridge, dropping down to the right onto an easy sidewalk ledge.

Now it was 5:30 p.m. and we were at the base of the steep 30' wall right below the summit, with no time to waste. David soloed the wall via some thin, exposed face moves over on the right, then belayed the rest of us as we climbed the awkward squeeze chimney on the left described in Secor (Carol climbed the airy face moves like David). At the top of the cliff I was dismayed to see we were still not up -- we had another 40 feet of ridge-running and then the infamous summit block. We did this part unroped -- David, Terry, and Eddie climbed up on the summit block, while Carol and I were content to reach up and slap the highest point. I don't recommend doing the summit block unroped unless you're an expert -- the move down from it onto a single shallow foothold is awkward and very exposed. Eddie lay folded over the summit for a minute or more, unwilling to push his body out from the slanting face and make the move down. Finally he did so as the rest of us averted our eyes.

We rapped down the 30' cliff, and then David cleaned the rap anchor and climbed down unroped. The dark clouds of late afternoon were breaking up, but the sun was sinking fast, so we hurried down the class-3 ledges of the Ulrich route. This section is not trivial -- the ledges are covered with gravel and rubble, and it's possible to get off-route and cliff out. About 7 we arrived at the sandy class-2 terrain above Cox Col, the difficulties finally behind us. Descending the moderate snowfield below Cox Col was no problem except for the slightly snow-phobic southern Californians. Next was a beautiful section of downsloping slabs and ledges, some with cascades running down them. Finally we arrived at Dade Lake, but it was now 8:30 p.m. and we were running out of daylight. "Another fucking epic," David exclaimed -- with fresh memories of his 18-hour day on Norman Clyde the week before.

This was my first experience getting caught out on the talus in the dark, and it wasn't bad. It's amazing how long the faint light of twilight lasts and how much it can help you walk, especially over white granite boulders. I had a flashlight but didn't need it most of the time. From our camp, Bob shone his flashlight toward us for over an hour, which was a great help because the pinpoint of light showed us exactly where to head and we didn't have to worry about routefinding in the dark. When we finally pulled into camp at 9:30, Bob handed each of us a hot mug of soup. What a guy.

It was a happy camp that night as we had a late dinner and crawled into our sleeping bags. Sunday we slept in a bit and had a leisurely Sunday brunch. Around 9:30 Carol and Terry hiked out, and Bob and Joan persuaded Eddie and me to head up Treasure Peak (12,920+), the junior-sized peak just west of our lake.

We headed up grassy gullies to a scree plateau about 1/3 of the way up, then contemplated the cliffs of the steep upper pyramid. A direct assault looked like class-4 or harder, so we traversed up and right onto a class-3 ledge system just above an area of white rock. After awhile I spotted a gully over to the right and we entered it. It cliffed out below us, but formed a hidden highway above us all the way to the summit. We'd somehow managed to find about the only class-3 way up the east side of this peak. A short way up the gully, Joan decided to descend, and Bob again gallantly escorted her down. Eddie and I continued up and summited at 12:30.

Looking west, we realized we hadn't really climbed Treasure Peak -- an exposed knife edge separated us from the slightly higher west summit. The standard route up Treasure Peak is from the west and is class-3. Oh well, at least we did a mildly sporty climb and got on top of something high. Views were wonderful because we were in the interior of Little Lakes Valley and could look off toward high peaks to the east, west, and south.

Eddie and I retraced our circuitous route on the descent, and then we all packed up and hiked out about 2:30. Instead of taking the use trail back to the main trail, we went up on the ridge to the east of camp and walked along the slabs there (a "shortcut" that Bob and David wanted to try). After a few minutes going cross-country, the only fiasco of the trip happened. Eddie discovered that his daypack had fallen off his backpack, and said he was going to retrace his steps for no more than 5 minutes to look for it. That was the last we saw of him for six hours! We waited for him for about 40 minutes, with frequent yelling and whistle blowing to guide him back to us, but no luck. We then decided no point in all of us waiting, so Bob, Joan, and David hiked out to head for home. I waited another 20 minutes, blowing my whistle every minute, then decided Eddie must have gone all the way back to the lake where we camped and taken the use trail down. I'd been there an hour, and for Eddie to go back to the lake and return to me would've taken no more than 30 minutes.

So I hiked the rest of the way out in an hour, getting to the trailhead at 5. Three hours later it was 8 p.m. and still no Eddie! I considered leaving, figuring Eddie had sleeping gear with him and would just have to find his own way home. Instead I took a long walk up the trail and finally at 8:30, there was Eddie. He'd found his daypack, BUT HAD LOST HIS BACKPACK! Unknown to me, when we split up, he took off his backpack, and had been unable to find where he left it. He was unclear about just where he'd been searching for it, but apparently he went too high up on the ridge and too far east, ending up over near Chickenfoot Lake. He never heard our yelling and whistling, and ended up searching for three hours. Good thing I waited -- if I'd left, he would've arrived at the 10,000-foot trailhead at 9 p.m. with nothing but shorts and a t-shirt.

This fiasco ended up okay -- Eddie and I finally got home at 3 a.m. A few days later, armed with my hand-drawn map, Eddie rented a car, drove from the Bay Area back up to Rock Creek, hiked in, found his pack, and drove back home, all in one 22-hour day. Among the lessons to be learned from this -- always strap things on your pack securely, never drop your pack in an obscure spot, and never split up without an ironclad plan of when and where to join up again. After a few days, both Eddie and I managed to laugh about this little fiasco.

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