We PCSers scale the finest peaks in the Sierra Nevada, but in our hurry to reach the summit, we often miss the best climbs. How many of us have taken the Horse Creek shortcut on the Matterhorn, dashed up the trail to Whitney, or even, heaven forbid, ascended Cathedral Peak by anything other than the southeast buttress?
Charles Schafer and I decided to reverse this trend by climbing Red Slate Mountain, not up the moderate angle ramp from the familiar McGee Pass, but up the steep and icy north couloir.
We examined the possibilities: With so little timber on the parched east side, there was no log jam to cross on. Hopping across the stream from boulder was no option, because all the the usually exposed rock tops were inundated. Wading looked dangerous; the water was so turbulent we couldn't see the bottom, and stepping into swift, deep water with a heavy pack would be a risky affair. To lose ones balance in the cascade could result in being swept far downstream and battered against the rocks. Since we were equipped with a rope, we considered belaying each other across, but a belay wouldn't keep us upright, only prevent us from being transported very far. We had seen the area downstream, and there were no alternate crossing points in that direction. I scrambled about one hundred feet up the Sevehah Cliffs to get a better view of the area upstream, but I could plainly see that the creek was roaring down all the way from Genevieve Lake. Heading up in an attempt to find a ford would require a tremendous detour with no guarantee of success.
We returned to Convict Lake, defeated this time, but determined to return in a later season when the flooding had subsided.
We left the McGee Creek trailhead at about 7800 feet. After only a few minutes, we headed cross country up the Buzztail Arroyo. The brush was dense until we got to about 9000 feet, but the display of spring wildflowers was stunning. We hiked up to the saddle between Aggie and Mount McGee (not to be confused with the famous mountain in the Evolution region bearing the same name). Having started south and east of Mount Aggie, we were now due north of its subsidiary summit. We walked up an easy grade to the peaklet.
A long ridge of broken slate extended east from the peaklet. Steep on its south side, gradual on the north, and studded with false summits, it reminded me of Round Top. The easternmost summit, at 11561 feet, was the high one.
The mountaintop had a surprisingly limited view. We could see exactly seven Sierra summits from the top: the Big Four, Morgan North, Baldwin and Morrison. Nearby Red Slate was completely out of view. We were enclosed by taller crags in a basin just a few miles across. Though the closeup views of the glacier carved faces were an impressive sight, we missed the airy feeling we so often delight in on the craggy tops.
We quickly descended the precipitous south facing scree slope into the U shaped McGee valley, and joined the trail miles above where we had left it.
Returning home, we bought gas at the Mammoth Shell station, where we were surprised to discover PCS climber Mike Johnson working as a cashier. I hadn't realized that Mike had moved away from the Silicon Valley and taken up residence in the mountains he loves. Mike gets Mondays and Tuesdays off from work and would be happy to climb the east side with you - look him up!