Tabula Rosa: Red Slate Mountain

22 Aug 1999 - by Aaron Schuman

I'm writing the report for the PCS climb of Red Slate Mountain and I wasn't even on the trip. Kelly Maas led a group up the peak on the weekend of August 22, 1999. His party was comprised of Greg Johnson, John Hossack, Bob Evans and Landa Robillard. Charles Schafer and I organized the outing but didn't participate, instead climbing the same peak on our own private trip.

We hiked up the Convict Creek trail. A couple miles up the trail, we gingerly stepped across the creek on partially submerged rocks. Charles and I tried this trail once before in June of a heavy snow year, and were stymied by the crossing. I recommend that you avoid this route any earlier than August or September. We walked underneath bizarrely twisted cliffs of red, white and black metamorphic rock, past Mounts Laurel, Morrison, Bloody and Baldwin. That evening we made camp at lovely Lake Witsonopah.

Before the sage grouses bellowed out their belligerent morning song, Charles and I walked up to the snowfield at the base of the implausible north couloir of Red Slate Mountain. The PCS group awoke shortly afterward and scurried up the long scree slope on the west side of the peak. They summitted at around 9:30 a.m., while Charles and I were still hacking and crawling up our ice chute.

The frozen crystals yielded to the points of our crampons. The hefty ice tool I borrowed from Kelly sunk into the surface, but my underweighted dragonfly ice axe tended to bounce off. On the steepest part, which exceeded forty degrees, we maintained a running belay protected with pickets. We were also able to anchor on the side cliffs by slinging horns and chocking cracks.

About 500 feet from the top, the couloir appeared to exhaust itself, but we turned a corner to the right and found its continuation. To get back on the ice, we had to cross a stretch of the loosest, steepest, least defensible rubble I've ever known. The rock is completely unlike the classic Sierra granite we love; slate shatters into millions of pointed shards. We were finally climbing in sunshine, and I was able to refill my water bottle from a merciful ice drip.

We walked out of the couloir directly onto the summit at 1:30. Unforecasted clouds were building rapidly, so we hustled down the west ridge before the lightning storm blew in from Lake Thomas Edison. We met our carpool partner John at the lake. He told us the others had evacuated as soon as they saw us safely attain the summit.

We three ate, packed, and hiked the down trail. Slowed by our tiring ascent, we were overtaken by the weather. For twenty minutes or so, we were pummelled by hailstones so large that I considered putting on my climbing helmet. Beyond the stream crossing, we slowed down so much more that we were enveloped in the blanket of night, and reached the trail's end under clear skies and the light of the moon.

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