San Joaquin Mountain

27 Oct 2002 - by Aaron Schuman

Nancy's ice axe rang like a tuning fork as she drove the pick deep into the hard glaze on the great south wall of San Joaquin Mountain. Tom, her belayer, expertly dodged a falling shard of ice. Waiting on a ledge, Bob's attention was diverted by the roar of a massive dry powder avalanche on the opposite wall of the canyon.

It wasn't like that at all for us on Sunday, October 27, but we did make the first snowy climb of the season. Our party consisted of Nancy Fitzsimmons, Tom Driscoll, Greg Johnson, Bob Bynum, David Altmar, Dave McCracken, Sue Leeder, the entire Runov family (Maxym, Dara and toddler Glip), plus leaders Charles Schafer and me.

We drove up from Mammoth Lakes to the Minaret Summit trailhead, and at 7:00 a.m., started walking up the 4WD road to Deadman Pass, crunching on a half-inch of snow. At the end of the road, Glip felt chilled by the wind, so he abandoned the first summit bid of his young life. Maxym and Dara accompanied Glip back to the trailhead.

We proceeded up a use trail along the south ridge, in snow that gradually deepened as we ascended. The ridge afforded us unending views of the Minarets, Mount Ritter and Banner Peak, just across the canyon of the San Joaquin River. The fresh snow heightened the visual contrast between the ridges and the folds of the mountains around us, painting for us one dazzling vista after another.

We lunched on the summit at 11:30. As we browsed the summit register, we were surprised to see how many visitors there were to the mountain. They certainly weren't attracted by the mountaineering challenge, because it is just a stroll in the park. I think the popularity stems from views of the nearby Minarets, which are among the most rugged crags in the Sierra Nevada. Bob asked me in astonishment if the Minarets are as hard to climb as they look. I assured him that they are, and that they offer no shortcuts. Even though he could see them with his own eyes, he still found it hard to grasp that mountains could be as vertical as that.

Certainly our own mountain was nothing like vertical, and as we descended, we gradually moved from the ankle deep snows of the summit to the bare soil near the trailhead.

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