First Attempt at Route Finding: North Peak

4 Aug 1999 - by Thad Kellam

A month ago I climbed White Mountain to find out how I would react to altitude (not good) and decided that on my next climb, I would see if I could find my own way up the mountain. I became interested in climbing North Peak after reading a report last year by Tony Cruz stating it was good for beginners. (He also said it was a half day climb which means Tony is either first cousin to Superman or has wings!)

I left Oakland Monday morning taking highway 108 over the Sonora Pass for a change of pace. Nice drive, especially the view down to Mono Lake before Lee Vining. I arrived at Saddlebag Lake Campground, found a spot to pitch my tent and started my acclimation period with a slow stroll around the east side of the lake. You can't see North Peak from the campground, but after walking about half way around the lake the peak begins to reveal itself and the adrenaline really starts pumping! I completed my walk around the lake and called it a day.

I spent restless night with a headache came on when the sun went down and went away when it came back up again. I started my day with a stack of thick but fluffy pancakes at the resort and at 0800 hours I started out on my reconnaissance hike. The streams and lakes north of Saddlebag Lake are beautiful. The meadows are awash with colorful flowers. Mosquitoes weren't a problem except near the edge of the lakes. (I found that out after being engulfed in a cloud of them. The fastest move I made during the entire trip was away from a lake. Dozens landed on me in just a few seconds.) I followed the trails that seemed to lead to the north so I could get a look at the north face. At the north end of Steelhead Lake, I stopped for a snack and to make an assessment of my chances of climbing the north face. No chance. It was breathtakingly beautiful with it's near vertical face and steep snow filled couloirs but as much as I wished I could join those two little black dots I could see moving up the first cooler to the east of the summit peak, I knew that would have to wait for another day.

I started back by hiking over the lower end of the east ridge to get a good look at the south and east faces. I could see that I would be able to hike up the valley between North and Conness; from there up to the saddle between them; and then complete the climb by turning to the right to approach the summit via the shallow sloping south-west side. But the more I looked at that long section of loose stones up to the saddle the more reluctant I became. As I pondered all the possible approaches I could take, one seemed to stand out as the one I should try. It would entail climbing straight up a gully on the south-east face to what looked like large clean granite boulders between two steep snow fields. From there I would traverse left and that would lead to a point on the southwest ridge just below the summit. My recon finished and route decided upon, I hiked back to the campgrounds for one more day of a aclimiatation.

After a blissful night of waking up for only one call-of-nature task and no headaches, I set off excited and light footed. The approach past the Conness Lakes with the waterfalls and cascades in-between were scenes even more beautiful than the day before. However, for reasons unknown, the summit of North Peak looked much more distant and forbidding than it had the day before. The first section of the climb went very well. Climbing over large boulders of clean granite with easy footing is fun. A little later the large boulders got smaller and smaller and soon I was climbing on gravel that gave way with every step. When I arrived at the bottom of the gully I had seen the day before, I started having second thoughts when I realized how steep it really was. I considered making a long traverse to the left until I reached the shallow south-west face but knew that would take a very long time and so started up the gully as I had planned. It was very exhausting although there were good holds the entire way up. When I reached the top of this gully I was faced with either continuing straight up a snow field or move to the left and climb more large and even steeper boulders and on up over solid granite. Having no crampons, I choose the latter. It was terrific. The exposure was much more than I would have liked but the holds couldn't have been any better. After awhile, the climbing became so natural I seems to move up with very little effort.

I then came to the ridge of the south-west face and was surprised to find how easy the final portion of the climb was going to be. Walking up to the summit was almost like walking on a man-made stone staircase. As I neared what looked to be the summit, I kept hoping it wasn't a false summit. I continued to carefully watch where I was climbing and when I stepped onto the summit it came as such a shock I burst out laughing. Man it was great. The sun was shining, it was warm, and there was only a slight breeze. I sat down on some rocks, stretched my arms out like I was on an over stuffed chair, kicked my feet up on some other rocks and surveyed my kingdom below. What a blast.

Yes, I can find my own safe way up a mountain.

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