The Descent of Man: Scaling Darwin's East Face

9 Sep 2005 - by Jeff Dhungana

As a challenging warm up for a daunting Goddard dayhike with Bob Burd and company, I decided to climb Darwin's East Face on Friday.

I started in the dark at 5:05 am from the Lake Sabrina boat launch parking lot. The road heads down to the mouth of the lake where it picks up the well marked trail. From here, it's a brutal climb gaining 1200' over 3 miles to Blue Lake. Shortly after the lake, the trail splits two ways, heading to the oddly named Dingleberry Lake on the right and Donkey Lake to the left. These lakes were complimentary to each other, I suppose. From there, a faint trail leads to the very picturesque Midnight Lake. I skirted around the NW rim of the lake to gain access to Blue Haven Lake and the basin above. I started to follow the inlet of Midnight Lake. However, at this point, it is tempting to traverse too high on the South side of the creek. That's what I did and soon found myself too close to the snowy fields of the N facing slope of the Sierra Crest. Looking North I saw Blue Heaven Lake and the route I should have taken. The terrain here is strewn with large car-sized boulders and loose talus, which made for slow travel.

I grudgingly dropped about 300 feet to traverse over to the small unnamed lakes just below the East Face of Darwin. The first lake I came across was frozen solid on the surface, which was cause for alarm since I had no water by now. I tried kicking in a step through the clear ice at the edge, but it wouldn't crack. The ice must have been about three inches thick. I then strained my back picking up a soccer sized boulder with a sharp edge and tossed it in the air to gain access to the forbidden water. Success! A deep gurgling splash followed the loud crack of the ice and I filled my canteen with the cold water. Then I contemplated walking across the lake to gain access to the chute that led up to Darwin Col. It was too tempting because it would save me about a 1/4 mile of tedious boulder hopping around the few unnamed lakes. As much as I wanted to, I decided against it, fearing that should there be a shallow spot somewhere in the middle, I would be submerged in below freezing water and meet the sad fate of Leo Dicaprio only without a desperate lover coming to my aid.

I skirted around the lake and looked up to the 500 ft chute that would give me access to the NE ridge and my route thereafter. There was some snow at the top part of the chute, but I could see a snow free route on the right, hugging the rocks. The chute is incredibly loose in the middle, so I stuck close to the rock on the right and made good progress up the chute. I topped out at 9 am and was met with a stiff, cold wind. The views were incredible! Without further adieu, I grabbed my down jacket and a snack for a quick break and beheld the great expanse of the Darwin Glacier, Mt. Mendel and the canyon below. The wind forced me to move, and as soon as I turned my attention on the ridge, I noticed large billowing clouds across behind Mt Huxley and Haeckel, but gave no heed to them because didn't seem dark or low enough to be threatening. I traversed around the bump on the ridge and followed the crest slightly below on the Darwin Canyon side to avoid the narrow ridge and large boulders.

Then I came across the class 4 crux pitch on the NE ridge. I had expected something more intimidating than this, but immediately recognized it as being a pretty tough move. It is a 60 foot section that starts off relatively easy, but becomes nearly vertical near the middle and then gets easier. Although Secor describes it as a chimney, it resembles more of a vertical cleft or system of cracks and chocks on the ridge. I went about 15 feet up the easy section and switched to my rock shoes for better traction. I hate the idea of relying on my trail runners to climb pitches where it is critical that your footholds do not give way, and this was clearly one of those moments. Looking at the pitch, I was very glad that I had dragged my 60 meter 10.3 mil rope all the way up here because it looked nearly impossible to downclimb.

The crux move involves a large rock in the middle of the cleft that I will refer to as a chockstone, even though it may not technically be one. Its face is smooth and has no holds. However, the left edge ends with a C shaped flake that is most pronounced at the left curve. I made my way up to the flake at the left end of the chockstone. My right foot found no holds on the smooth rock, and the left wall was equally smooth, except for a few miniscule depressions. One of these was just enough for me to place my toes on and smear to all heaven, hoping it wouldn't give way to 30 feet of air. The flake made for a perfect hand hold and I skirted my hand around the top of it holding on firmly in case my left foot gave way. With a firm push from that leg, an adjoining smear from my right foot on the vertical wall and a strenuous and awkward mantle at the top of the chockstone, I was on top. Then it was easy 3rd class for another 20 feet or so to the top.

Here, I was more than anxious to divest myself of the rope, slings and carabiners I had dragged all the way up. I felt a great relief to have taken much of the weight off my back. I slipped back into my trail runners, took my rock shoes in case I ran into any spicy moves, and left the rope on a high rock to serve as a beacon for my return to the top of the section.

The route from here traverses across faint ledges and crosses two prominent ridges. After crossing the second ridge, an obvious chute provides access to the summit plateau in about 600 feet. It is important here to look back often and make a mental note of the route back since going too high or low on the way back can become problematic. This final chute was by far the least fun part of the climb. I found myself on very loose sand and rock it seemed like every step kicked something whizzing down into the nasty cliffs that weren't very far below. Halfway up the chute, the route splits up to a myriad of fractured gullies. Secor identifies the two prominent ones on the left and right side, but in reality, there are a number of ways to ascend this. From this vantage point, it is all a matter of preference. The left side looks to be a lot more sandy and loose with patches of snow/ice imbedded in the dirt. The right side is riddled with sharp, fractured rocks. I started out on the right and ended up on the plateau somewhere between the two routes.

Once on the summit plateau, the views suddenly knocked me out! It was now 11:30 am and the first thing that arrested my attention was that all the peaks across the basin were shrouded with sinister clouds. I noticed a few scattered snowflakes that resembled pollen dancing in mid air before melting into the atmosphere a few feet above the ground. All of a sudden, my presence on the mountain became very alarming and Darwin took on a very disturbing sensation. It reminded me of Matthew Holliman's comment that this was the biggest f**king lighting rod in the area, so I hiked across to the summit block without further adieu. I was really looking forward to exploring the block a lot more, but that would have to wait for another time.

From the North and West side, the summit block looks pretty scary, as the overhang is real prominent. It almost resembles a large beak of a pterodactyl facing the plateau. I hiked up to the base on the side directly facing the plateau and quickly found that it was too rich for my blood. The holds weren't very good, and most the features on the rock were overhanging, making them pretty useless. I hiked around to the right (south) side of the block and traversed a ginger step across some airy exposure. From here, it was a real easy class 3 hop across a few blocks and up the final stacked pancakes that nested the overhanging beak of the dinosaur. 6 hours and 30 minutes later, I was at the top! I made a mental note to get the hell off the block ASAP. I popped open the canister, scribbled my name and chanted a victorious summit shout in a futile attempt to banish the clouds.

Much to my dismay, it had no effect at all, so I humbled myself and scrambled down. I opted to descend by the left chute rather than the one I came up for shits and giggles. I wasn't lying earlier when I said this side was real loose. Compared to the climb up the chute, it took me much longer just to descend because of all the crap that went whizzing down my toes bouncing off the sides. I headed for a point on the ridge that would begin my traverse across the face.

My bright blue rope and red slings I left on the rocks earlier helped guide the way to the top of the chimney with no trouble. Then came the moment of reckoning the snowflakes became denser and the ground was covered with a sheen of snow. I was only a rappel away from the tough section of the mountain. I was well aware that I had never set up a rappel anchor before and that I had only rapped about twice before at Stoney Point. However, I knew all the basics and had practiced at home plenty of times. Commanding all my focus, I slapped on two slings and a rappel ring around a large block at the top of the chimney and double-triple checked everything. I brought another double runner to use as a makeshift diaper harness and a locking carabiner to clip my ATC on to. I ditched the idea of doing a dulfersitz rappel because I remembered how much that hurt my private parts at a Sierra Club Rock Workshop I attended, where the leader seemed to be very keen on this method of rappelling. Thank god for ATC's.

By now, my hands were freezing and it was real windy and snowy. I had to get the hell out of there and fast. I set my gloves aside on the rock next to my anchor to clip into the rope. Then I held my breath and down the rope I went. I fumbled a bit and slammed my knees into the rocks before I reminded myself to lean back farther certainly not the smoothest looking rappel, but I still balked at the crux move, glad that I didn't have to downclimb it like Bob Burd. Then my bare, stiff fingers reminded me that I stupidly left my gloves at the top of the rappel. Shit! I didn't want to climb the toughest section of the mountain again for a pair of gloves. I figured they could be a welcome gift for anyone who found them.

I took a few shots of the chimney at the bottom of the pitch. After packing my rope up, the skies cleared a bit and the snow had stopped falling. However every boulder on the traverse along the ridge to Darwin Col was now filled with a light film of snow. This proved to be trickier that I thought because the rocks became very slippery and my hands were starting to go numb grabbing on to them. I negotiated my way back to the col, thankful that the route back from here was all easy cross country and trail. From here, my fingers spent 90% of the way back curling up with each other in my pockets.

I traced my way down the chute, along the boulders around Blue Heaven Lake and was down to the trail behind Midnight Lake at 3:30p. From here, the skies cleared entirely and I was burning down the trail, covering the final 8 miles in a little over 2 hours. I was back to my car at 5:35 pm perfect timing for a warm dinner and beer in Bishop with my friend Jennie, who was off to climb Middle Pal the next day.

Foolishly forgetting your gloves and freezing your fingers: priceless!

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