Michael Minaret
(Eichorn's Chute Variation)

10 Jul 2004 - by Jim Curl

One of the things I love about the drive back from the eastern Sierra is the dramatic view one gets of the Ritter Range near Mammoth. Those dark jagged pinnacles have an alpine quality that seems more reminiscent of the Aiguilles of Chamonix than of the gentle Sierra. On closer inspection, The Minarets take on a blacker, more sinister appearance. Climbers know that the range has a reputation for loose rock. The truth of the matter is, the rock quality is wonderful. The dark metamorphic stone that one finds there is bulletproof; it really couldn't be any harder. Admittedly, those very solid rocks aren't always connected that well to one another. But loose or not, Michael Minaret had been calling to me for some time. And so despite doctor's orders to stay off an ailing foot, I hobbled off one weekend to climb it with my friend Bob.

The standard route up Michael is rated class 4. Bob figured we'd just solo it and I had entertained similar thoughts. Last year, when I read about a group planning to head in to place a memorial plaque and search for Starr's grave, I'd had the mischievous idea of day hiking and soloing the climb in order to plant some beef bones or maybe a glow-in-the-dark plastic skull up there. You know, just as a little joke. I never got around to it.

It was kind of windy when we awoke at our camp up above Lake Ediza, but we figured there was no rush in getting started in the morning. After all, how long could it possibly take us to polish off a class 4 route? Even with our less than alpine start, we planned to climb Dyer Minaret the same afternoon and still be back in time for cocktails. We hiked up through The Gap, mostly on rock, but also across some gentle snow slopes. Then we traversed through the jumble of talus and snow on the west side to reach the base of Michael by midmorning.

"Look Bob, snow in all the chutes. How about that?" And had we brought crampons?? Well... no. Not too smart I suppose. But the face to the left of Eichorn's Chute looked just fine, maybe better than dealing with that big ugly chockstone lodged in the chute itself. We scrambled up a little ways, then broke out the rope for a few pitches of class 4/5. The rock was actually pretty good, considering. This took us to the top of a vague buttress, and from there we hiked easy loose junk up the left side of the chute all the way to its top.

The route description indicated a traverse on the right side of two towers to reach The Portal, but it wasn't at all obvious to us. I pointed to what looked like might be a big cairn on a ledge. Bob dismissed it as a pile of rubble and instead suggested a small notch in the rib below that. Since we'd left our ice axes at the base, I stabbed my nut tool and edged my approach shoes into the hard snow while Bob belayed. After crossing the couloir I placed a piece and headed down towards the notch. The rope ran out and I was forced to stop, dig some mud out of a crack to get a good nut placement, and set up a belay.

Bob prepared to follow. "Is that a good hex over there?", he asked. Figuring we'd be mostly soloing, I had decided not to bring any camming devices on this trip. At home I had pulled out my old copy of "Learning to Rock Climb" (by Michael Loughman) and paged through it until I'd found his example of a typical lead rack, circa 1981: "ten stoppers and five hexes". I left the biggest hex behind, packed one 8.5x50 rope and smiled at how light it all felt. Now that I was here fiddling with stoppers in parallel cracks and wondering how I'd ever dreamed that I could day hike this peak without a rope, my smile was less apparent. I looked up at Bob. "The hex??", I repeated blankly, unable to conjure up even a hazy image of the placement I'd so recently made. "Yeah, it's good!"

Now Bob's a solid mountaineer, so when he stepped onto the hard snow without brandishing his nut tool, I just figured it was because he's so well balanced. And when he raised his knee high like a drum major and took a big unlikely looking step, I had to chuckle at how he makes this sort of stuff look so darn easy. Shoot, I was still busy pulling in the slack, trying to catch up with him and there he was hotdogging across the steep snow. So I was more than a little surprised when his legs shot out from under him and he abruptly began zipping down the couloir like a runaway toboggan. I hauled in another foot or so, locked off, and waited to see if that hex would hold. The rope came taut after Bob had gone about thirty feet, stopping him above some rocks. Note to self: Practice self-rescue techniques when you get home.

Bob climbed up to the notch and reported that it was a dead end. So he down led and then tension traversed back across the snow; I followed in like manner. This put us back where we'd started but with quite a bit of lost time. I led out and headed for the ledge with the rubble pile, pulled onto the ledge and... "Hey! It's The Plaque!" The memorial party from the previous year had bolted a forty pound bronze plaque onto the rock. For some reason I was expecting to see it when we got to The Portal, but there it was in front of me. There was also a small plastic box, fastened with four metal screws. We hadn't thought to bring a phillips head screwdriver with us, but as luck would have it there was one already sitting there next to the box. Opening it, we found a small register book. And being peak baggers we instinctively signed it.

Michael's Chute divides into two gullies up there and Bob headed off, third classing down into the first gully, then placing pro up another rib and over into the other gully. From there we scrambled easily up to The Portal, a very cool place to be. I headed out left on a weird class 4 traverse over ledges. Bob then led a mid class 5 pitch that tended up and right. A final pitch over mostly easier terrain brought us, with a tiny bit of simulclimbing, to the sunny summit.

It was 4pm. We'd gone past our turn around time and now we were wondering if we were going to pay for it. But of course we had time to hunt for the register. It was placed by Vern Clevinger in the late 80s and had a dozen or so entries including both Peter Croft and Josh Swartz (the most recent entry at two years ago). I wondered if some parties fail to find this box. There was a fairly new looking rappel sling up there that certainly had not been placed Josh.

A little downclimbing and two rappels brought us to the top of The Portal. We decided to retrace familiar ground rather than descend over the multiple chockstones in Michael's Chute. So I belayed Bob on a short pitch around a corner onto a rib. After another rap, we revisited Plaque Ledge, down climbed and rapped again, belayed across the snow in Eichorn's Chute, and then trudged down the junk to the top of the face/buttress we'd climbed earlier. I was all set to rappel that way, leaving gear if necessary, but ever prescient Bob insisted on looking around the corner towards Starr's Chute. His report: "One short rappel, then class 3." I didn't believe him, but it turned out to be true.

We were back at the base at 7pm. Dyer would have to wait. Much to Bob's disgust, I insisted on returning via Ritter Pass as I wanted to avoid snow or tricky terrain as the light faded, even though it meant hiking farther and ascending a bunch of really loose scree. Bob followed, sulking I think. He wanted to go over an unnamed gap in the ridge. We arrived back in camp just before it got dark.

I have to admit that we underestimated Michael. Route finding slowed us down a bunch and our chockcraft was inefficient. A few TCUs would have been really nice to have, but if I'd known that we'd be climbing 8 pitches (10 counting the dead end) I'd have racked differently. We were also concerned about the rock, but it actually wasn't that bad. There was a lot of shattered junk laying about, but the steeper sections were generally pretty good. In fact, as time goes by the rock seems better and better in my memory. Yes, it was a very nice climb, and the rock was amazingly good.

....Did I mention the part where Bob knocked down a fusillade of boulders?

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