Mt. Darwin, North Face

30 Jul 2006 - by Rob Yang

I'd been interested in visiting the area around Mt. Mendel for a while. One of my ice partners has led Ice Nine several times and another was interested in doing it this year. I'd heard that nearby Mt. Darwin NF was kind of fun and not too difficult.

My initial plan was to do it solo as an overnight trip, but Matthew Holliman somehow persuaded me to try it as a dayhike. We went cragging in Tuolumne Meadows the day before and then went for pizza at Perry's in Mammoth, loading up the carbs.

At 4am we set out from the North Lake trailhead (9400'), where I'd spent the night. We were carrying a short rope (8.4mm x 35m), several ice screws (19-22cm), various slings, harnesses, second tool, etc. in case we encountered ice on the route, or had to rappel on the descent. As it turned out, none of the technical gear was necessary.

Mosquitoes were out in force near the Lamarck Lakes, and I could see that the previous afternoon it had probably been storming. The snowfields were softening up nicely as we headed up to Lamarck Col (12800'), where we arrived around 8am. I am sure Matthew could have made it faster, probably around 2.5 hours, but I was recovering from a bike mishap and also wearing boots, in case I needed to lead an ice pitch (Matthew was wearing approach shoes, probably the same ones he used to climb Casaval Ridge on Mt. Shasta in a day :)

I looked up in amazement at the north side of Mt. Mendel, and its legendary couloirs. "Everything from that distance looks steep" I told myself. Even Mt. Darwin's north face looked steep. Cool.

We made our way down from the Col, then traversed a bit above the lake, hopping talus, then up class 2 slabs and more talus, then onto the snow below the north face of Mt. Darwin, to roughly the same elevation of the Col. I was huffing and puffing. We got our harnesses and crampons on at around 10:30am.

The snow was softening decently. We could see clouds near the Col, and briefly engaged in a bit of amateur weather forecasting... it really didn't look all that bad. We resolved that if we saw lightning or heard thunder we would immediately descend. So up we went.

I've read that some people get on a rock rib at some point after the snow, but we wanted to follow the snow tongue that led almost up to the summit plateau. The slope was pretty well 40-ish degrees for most of the way. There were some harder spots, and I've read that ice can form in places, but it was all snow for us. We took a break on the left side near some rocks about midway, then continued up. I kicked steps and Matthew promised me a free dinner for doing so :) As we entered the snow tongue we could see a bit of melt-freeze ice near rocks, as one usually does, but nothing serious. The angle was probably 45 degrees at its steepest.

Around noonish we were just below the summit plateau. We had seen clouds blowing over the summit, but far above it, and nothing really ominous. It was not as sunny as before though. We crossed the summit plateau and descended class 3 to an area near the summit block, which had several rap slings. The side that we were looking at seemed harder than class 4 (nonetheless Peter Croft is seen soloing it in his book :)

Matthew descended down a gully, and then came back up the other side, finding a pretty straightforward class 3 route to the top. We signed in, and then downclimbed. Time for a chocolate break !

After snapping the usual pics we headed back up to the summit plateau, and then went to work looking for the descent down the west ridge. The ridge descent was pretty much class 3, and ducks marked much of the way. We encountered several notches on the ridge, but the one we wanted was fairly obvious. Downclimbing back to the glacier was mostly class 3, perhaps with a few moves of something else thrown in, but nothing you can't do in boots. We saw about 3 rap slings on the way.

We were plunge-stepping back down the glacier by around 3-ish. As we descended the moraine and slabs back to the lake below, a couple of raindrops fell intermittently. We refilled our water, and then started up the talus towards the Col.

Getting back up to Lamarck Col was perhaps the hardest part of the trip. Between waiting out a hailstorm in a boulder cave, hopping talus, and breathing hard at the end of a long day, it took us until 6pm to get back to the Col, where the weather was fairly clear. Matthew would certainly have gotten back faster if he hadn't been waiting for me along the way, but we returned to the cars just before 9pm. While putting our gear away we could see lightning off in the distance.

Good clean fun :) However, the next time I go back it will probably be as a multi-day trip, especially if there is any technical climbing involved. I have to admit that I'm starting to get old ...

Some pics are on my website here :

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