Some ridge-running in the Sierra
(Mt Ruskin (12959 ft), East Ridge (3/4) and Arrow Peak (12959 ft), North East Spur (cl 3))

1-4 Sep 2006 - by Arun Mahajan

Over the Labour Day weekend, the two of us, Arun Mahajan and Tony Stegman, attempted these two peaks starting from the Taboose Pass trailhead. Tony's Honda had to be driven carefully over the access dirt road but it handled the road well and by 8.45am on Friday, we were walking. The slog has been well described by many others but suffice to say that everytime I go up this thing I promise myself that this would be the last. In about six and half hours we were at the top of the pass looking toward our destinations, Arrow and Ruskin further to the west. The Bench Lake trail starts from here and it is about five miles to Bench Lake but we went about three miles or so to the junction with the JMT and camped nearby. We saw several trail workers on this section of the trail and chatted with one for a while.

After meeting the JMT, the Bench Lake trail runs with it for a short distance and after a stream crossing at a meadow, veers off west and the JMT continues south toward Pinchot Pass. Our camp site was in the trees a few hundred feet away from this junction.

On the next day, Saturday, we started off at about 6.30am and went back east on the BL Trail till the JMT junction and then walked north (left) through the woods. This trail goes down quite a bit and intersects a small stream and then further on intersects the Kings River. We went past this interection (marked with a sign for Mather and Pinchot Passes) to a place where a small but flowing stream cuts it. We set waypoints here and then decided to walk up this stream's drainage. This is a long walk and soon we started to wander a bit but stuck with it till a meadow from where we could see Ruskin's east ridge clearly and to our right was a tall spire. This makes me think that we were on the stream that flows down from the North Ruskin Lake.

Ruskin's startling two humped shark-fin of a ridge ends on a flatter ridge and so we made our way to the flat portion and then went east to get close to the toe of our target. It looks impossible to get onto the ridge at the toe, without ropes anyway, because it is all blocky and vertically stacked. So, remembering instructions from previous trip reports and email conversations with Rick, Scott K, Linda Sun and Dee, we traversed left on the south side trying to look for easier options. Seemingly, the more left you go from the toe, the easier it gets. We tried two options but at that point Tony felt that this was something that would take him a longer time to get over and with the potential of harder climbing further on, wisely decided that he had better turn back. We consulted and considered our options. It was a good weather day, it was only 10am and it did not seem too difficult to get to camp from there, given that we both had GPS-es and maps. We parted ways with him going to camp and me deciding to solo it and turning around if that would be too hard. But it was perhaps a bit harder than 3rd class (John Bees calls this 3.7 in his TR!) and very soon I was on the top of the ridge, close to a cairn that someone had previously placed there. I looked up towards the ridge and could see a clean route. The mythical jetstream that lurks around these ridges seeking sufficiently awestruck climbers found me and propelled me on, the same one that had found Rick's party last year. The climb was so much interesting and fun and the rock so solid that I did not even stop to get food or a drink and kept moving up. The exposure was amazing. It was a beautiful day with a slight chill in the wind. How much better could it get? As I got to the false summit I could see the broad slope on the left (south) and that looked like a descent route and sure enough, just before the false summit, there was a duck (thank you, whoever...).

Then came the technically hardest part. The ridge path was blocked by a horizontal rock resting on top and overhanging a vertical one. I looked left, no go. Just vertical columns. Initially the right looked like that too but everybody had gone that way and looking further, I could see a small ledge, maybe the width of a boot, so I walked on it and where it ended there looked to be a few options to help you get over back onto the ridge, a flake, a crack and perhaps a few more. The exposure is hideous but the move is not more than 4th class (or really easy fifth) and really short. In a few more minutes, I was at the summit. I saw that I was the first entry for this year. It was only 11.15am then. I reversed my way and now instead of using the crack to get down I used the flake and again it did not give me trouble. Past the fake summit where the duck was, I descended the slope/chute. It is steep but class-two and some weaving around cliffy sections got me to the bowl that had the South Ruskin Lake but I stayed higher curving left past the toe of the east ridge and down to the stream in the meadow and after a quick lunch, found my drainage and got back to the JMT at 1.20pm. Some quick walking on the uphill JMT got me back to camp at 2.10pm much to Tony's surprise as he was expecting me by about 5 pm or so. He reported that he had found getting back to camp from the toe of the east ridge easy as well.

The next day, we started off at about 6.15am to climb Arrow. The Bench Lake Trail from the JMT junction is very scenic and very soon the lake and the reflection of Arrow in its still waters comes to view. The lake is long and the trail skirts it from the west (right) and goes to the other end. We saw the same trail crew of the daybefore camped there. Following instructions from Rick's report, we went up the drainage of a small stream that inlets into the lake. We were soon in a forest and the NE Ridge of Arrow was partially in view and we made a beeline for it and this involved dropping down to a river and crossing it. Soon we were at the toe of the ridge and started going up on easy class-3 terrain. After a short while the trees give way and one is on open terrain and on the ridge. We kept climbing and at two occassions decided to escape the ridge because of the steep vertical slabs on the route. In the first case, a little lower than where the SW Ridge meets it, we escaped by working our way via ledges on the left and in the second case, a little higher up, after the meeting of the ridges (now on the east ridge proper) by going right. These escapes were probably not necessary but we wanted to keep the climbing to the level safe and quick for both of us.

I topped out on the summit just before noon and Tony came up a few minutes later. Arrow had a handful of entries for this year. We had great views all around and after a 45 min loll at the summit we started the descent. We sighted Bench Lake and saw that to get to it we would have to go to a meadow that was bordered by the same river that we had crossed on the way up but much more north and to get to that meadow, from what we could see from the summit, we would have to get to a plateau formed between Arrow and a smaller peak south of it. We started by just dropping down on the south side of Arrow. This is class-2. Initially steep but then not too bad as one walks on the sand between the rocks. The plateau dropps steeply and there was some corniced snow there and a descent looked improbable but we peered down and sure enough, we could see a couple of steep descent chutes and we just picked one. This was nasty and it would have been bad had we been a larger party but even with the two of us we were inadvertently knocking down debris. After that it was continued hell but the steepness had reduced a little and things were not loose. After getting to the meadow, we crossed the river and then stayed high and our path traced a right curving arc that got us back to Bench Lake where we startled a fisherman who happened to be the same trail crew member that we had met earlier that day and two days ago on our way in. The pleasant walk on the Bench Lake Trail soon ended, getting our tired legs into camp a few minutes before 5pm making it an almost 11 hr day.

On Labour Day, we packed up and walked down in five hours.

Thanks are due to all the information and guidance provided by Rick, Scott, Dee and Linda via email conversations and also via Rick's report in the Jan-06 SCREE of the climb that he and his group did a year ago. Also, the reports on Climber.Org of John Bees and Steve Eckert helped. Also, congratulations to Tony Stegman for doing what may have been his hardest and in his own words, most rewarding climb when he went up Arrow.

For books, we used The High Sierra, Peaks, Passes and Trails by RJ Secor and the first edition of the 100 Classic Climbs by Fiddler and Moynier. Arrow figures in that book, for its elegant line, one would guess. However, Ruskin is the superior climb not only for its clean line but also because it is a true knife edged ridge on solid Sierra rock with tremendous exposure.

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