Mt Harrington - First Ascent of the East Face, "Dragon Dihedral", 5.7/8

22-25 Jul 2006 - by Rick Booth

Over Memorial Day, 2005, I went to climb Mt Harrington via the North Ridge with Bob Suzuki and a group of PCS people. This was the "consolation prize" for not being able to climb North Guard because the bridge across Bubbs Creek was out. I really didn't care what peak was climbed but Bob "the listbagger" Suzuki was being denied a peak he needed, however, he graciously agreed to repeating Harrington. We camped at Frypan Meadow and on summit day hiked up and passed near the East Face of Mt Harrington on our way to get on the North Ridge. I eyeballed the East Face and dismissed it as no more than 5.6 and it no doubt already had lots of routes on it. I was wrong.

I took a couple of pictures of the East face and when I checked them at home it looked like the top section of the east Face was pretty damn vertical. Not likely 5.6. Checking the literature and the world wide web indicated there were no routes on the East Face. Amazing. One report posted at indicated that the rock was "grainy". It seems to me all Sierra rock is grainy so that potential problem was summarily dismissed. I decided to make an attempt at some route on the East Face at a time when I could fit it into my schedule. Now all I needed was someone dumb enough to go with me.

That problem was resolved nearly immediately. Over beers after climbing at Planet Granite one Wednesday evening I was listing some of the projects I had lined up for the summer of 2006. When I came to the Mt Harrington East Face project, Tom Malzbender, an amiable fellow and outstanding climber, was all for going in and trying a new route on Mt Harrington. Tom is a researcher in algorithm development at HP Labs in the area of optical and visual signal processing and pattern recognition. Go figure.

On July 22, 2006, Tom and I packed up four days worth of food, two ropes, a rack which included doubles of everything from microscopic brass nuts to a #4 Camalot, a dozen bolts and hangers, a hammer, a bolt kit, and a couple of knife blade pitons. Heavy. We headed up the Deer Cove Trail just outside the boundary of Kings Canyon National Park at 11 AM in the nearly insufferable heat and headed for Grizzly Lake. At about 3 PM the heat stopped, only to be replaced by lightning, thunder, and lots of rain. Tom and I hunkered down underneath his tarp and waited out the deluge. That wiped out an hour. After the rain abated we continued hiking and hit the cut off for Grizzly Lake. This part of the trail is in terrible shape. It is overgrown in many places, eroded from water in many places, and there are a lot of downed trees across the trail that have to be negotiated. It was slow going. By about 7 PM and about two miles from Grizzly Lake I was out of gas so we bivvied on the trail near a small trickle of water in the midst of a billion mosquitoes.

Sunday morning we battled our way through the mosquitoes and in about two hours were at Grizzly Lake. We camped at the north end of the lake on a flat sandy spot several hundred yards away from the lake but near the inlet. Grizzly Lake is undergoing the process of being reclaimed by vegetation and as a consequence is a bit marshy and a productive mosquito factory. Keeping our distance helped reduce that problem. Tom and I set up camp and then packed up the gear and headed up towards Harrington. When we could get a solid view of the East Face we saw a huge dihedral on the left side of the face. We decided to take a look at that before we would venture out on the face to the right. Working our way up the talus eventually brought us to a spot directly below the dihedral. The first section looked like moderate angle 5.6 or 5.7. After that the crack system steepened and it was not clear what we could expect in that section.

Tom volunteered for the first pitch. After racking up, Tom headed up the crack that forms the dihedral. This went smoothly, with the exception of two loose hand holds that were tossed off, and Tom stayed with the crack most of the way except for a fifteen foot section where he wandered out on the face to the right. He rejoined the crack above this section and eventually set a belay at about 150 feet up the crack at a good stance below the next sequence of roofs. I followed this and we decided it was about 5.6 in difficulty. The pitch had gone smoothly and at the belay stance I confidently predicted we would be on the summit ridge in no time.

Now it was my turn. I didn't like the look of the roofs up higher but they were there and it didn't seem there was another option so off I went. I negotiated a couple of small overhanging steps and got back into the crack in the corner of the dihedral and headed up to a nice stance just under what looked to be a difficult roof section. This was about 80 feet from the belay. I set a piece and leaned back to check out the next sequence. At that point I noticed it was kind of dark.


Hmmmm. Not good. Looks like our blast to the summit ridge in no time was not going to happen. Since the time between the "flash" and the "kapow" was about one second it was clear whatever was going to happen was pretty close. I threaded a long sling around a block wedged into the crack and lowered off. We left the rope in place and rappelled from the first stance on the single length of 50 M rope. We left that in place and stuck all of our gear into a plastic trash can liner and headed back to camp.

The storm pretty much stayed to the south of Grizzly Lake, a marked contrast to the day before when that storm blasted the Grizzly Lake area quite hard. Tom and I entertained ourselves for the rest of the late afternoon by putting up a rain tarp for the occasional squall that blew through and gathering up firewood to build a little camp fire.

Monday morning bright and early we got up and headed back up to the east face. Tom jumared up the fixed rope and belayed me up the first pitch. Since there was no gear in the crack to clean I headed up the face to the right of the crack. This went at about 5.7 and was fun except it would be difficult to protect on lead since there were few decent cracks that would hold gear in this face, in spite of the fact it is very featured. Once at the first belay I tied in to the second rope and headed back up to the previous days high point. I got a decent cam in under the little roof and headed up and around it. I expected it to be a layback but the little crack pooped out and it turned into a reach for a bomber horizontal crack. A couple of moves and I was through it. Above this there is a section of fairly easy face moves. The only pro was to sling a little horn just after the roof moves. I used one of those new Mammut "dental floss" kevlar slings which worked well. From here the climb goes back into a crack, either on the left or right, and heads straight up to the summit ridge. This pitch is about another 150 feet. It is a little loose in some sections and I blew off a pretty big foot hold in one section. The crux section is the little roof and our estimate is this is about 5.7 or 5.8 in difficulty.

The second belay was right on the South Ridge just below a little head wall on the ridge. Tom followed the pitch easily and then we decided to head to the summit. Tom lead up the little headwall and we dropped the rope and strolled over to the summit. The headwall was low fifth class, maybe 5.4, which makes this so called "fourth class" ridge kind of stiff. We signed the summit register on Monday, July 24, 2006, and then down climbed the South Ridge. In addition to the fifth class head wall, there is a bunch of other fourth class stuff below which made the down climb somewhat tedious, however, this brought us back to our packs at the base of the route in short order.

The weather was heading in the same direction as the previous day, that is, down the tubes, so we walked over to the base of the direct east face and looked around here and there and waffled all over the place about the advisability of heading up a pitch, slamming in two bolts, and lowering off. The East Face proper has a visor thing sticking out near the summit which makes exiting the face somewhat problematic. In the end, we threw in the towel and decided to head back to camp, pack up, and see if we could mitigate the hike out somewhat by camping at Frypan Meadow.

This we did. The weather system seemed to sense that we were escaping and decided to give us one last solid shot. In about an hour it was raining as hard as it gets and Tom and I again spent about an hour sitting on our packs in the middle of the mud under his tarp. After the rain let up we slithered into Frypan Meadow and set up for the night. The next day we hiked out, blowing the turn off to the Deer Cove Trail, and ended up heading out on the Lewis Creek trail. As I sit here typing I still haven't a clue as to where that turn is. Tom hitch-hiked back to his van and we headed home.

Final Notes: The name of the route? "Dragon Dihedral" is named for my friends Linda Sun and Vicky Wong. Linda and Vicky have been steady, enthusiastic, and committed climbing friends for well over a year, both outdoors and in the gym. Linda suffered through a thorough thrashing at Joshua Tree this last winter with grace and good humor and Vicky has been my steady gym partner and followed me on the notorious "Quicksilver", 5.9R, in Yosemite Valley without freaking out when Jim, Hal, and I were preparing for The Fin. Without Linda and Vicky, my life would have been diminished and I sure would have climbed a lot less. Thank you both.

Special thanks to Tom Malzbender for accompanying me on this adventure. Tom is easy going, strong, and an outstanding climber. For a smart guy, though, it isn't clear to me how he gets interested in these kinds of projects!

The route is short so it is likely it can be climbed from a base at Frypan Meadow, thus avoiding hiking a heavy pack in to Grizzly Lake. It is two 150 foot pitches from the base to the South Ridge. Once past the little head wall on the ridge itself it is a short class 2/3 stroll to the summit. If you don't leave anything at the base it is possible to continue on down the third class North Ridge and head down that way. The North Ridge is a fun route in its own right and this would avoid the crummy fourth class down climbing on the South Ridge. A single 50M rope should be fine and a rack of one set of stoppers, one green alien, and doubles on up to #2 Camalot plus one #3 Camalot ought to do it. Add in the usual selection of slings including one "dental floss" sling and one or two long slings and that should be sufficient.

The hike in is pretty strenuous. The elevation gain is about 5200 feet from 4600 at the road to about 9800 feet at Grizzly Lake. The total distance into Grizzly Lake via the Deer Cove Trail is approximately 8.5 miles. The Deer Cove Trail is hot, exposed, and has limited water options. The advantage, if it is, is there is no requirement for a permit if you are headed to Grizzly Lake. The Lewis Creek Trail starts within Kings Canyon NP and is somewhat cooler and has several stream crossings. Frypan Meadow is within Kings Canyon NP so a permit will be needed either for the Lewis Creek trailhead or a destination of Frypan Meadow. The trail to Grizzly Lake, either through Frypan Meadow or the bypass which is somewhat further west is in poor condition. There was a huge fire in this area around Labor Day last year and there are a lot of burnt trees, trees across the trail, new growth replacing the old, and water erosion.

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