At about 11 AM Saturday morning, July 3rd, Dan Clawson and I headed up from the Roads End trailhead in Kings Canyon to the Bubbs Creek Trail. In about four hours we had covered the seven miles to the junction of Bubbs Creek and Charlotte Creek. During this time the sky went from partially cloudy to completely clouded over. Worse, thunder was rolling in from somewhere.
The so called trail up Charlotte Creek is really only a faint use trail used by Charlotte Dome climbers and cross country nuts traversing from Charlotte Lake to/from Bubbs Creek. The start is absolutely unrecognizable. In any case, Dan and I headed up on the right side of Charlotte Creek where it meets the Bubbs Creek trail and within a few hundred feet Dan spotted a duck on the left side of the creek and we headed for that, using a couple of logs to cross the creek. This more or less identifies the trail and we followed the ducks and trail uphill to about the 8200 foot level and found the bivy sites which are there. There is a pretty good site for two and one site near a tree and one or possibly two down a few feet below the tree on a rock ledge. This took another hour and it was now raining. This was accompanied by thunder and a couple of solid lightning strikes.
We strung Dan's dilapidated space blanket between a couple of trees and set up for dinner underneath the makeshift tarp. Dan and I sat under the tarp and fired up the stove. While listening to the raindrops bip on the tarp the conversation went something like this:
Rick: "You know we just have the single 60 M rope."
Dan: " Uh, yeah?"
Rick: "Well, rappelling off this thing will be a drag if we get nailed with this weather on the route."
Dan: silence (a rare event in Dan's case)
Rick: "The only way I know to predict the weather for tomorrow is to say it will be the same as today. This means rain at 4 PM which means we had better be at least past the no-pro friction pitch when this stuff rolls in again."
Dan: "Uh, the ranger I talked to today on the trail thinks it will start earlier tomorrow since it will be even warmer in the central valley."
Rick: "That's nice....(slight editorial paraphrasing here)."
Dan: "We should get an early start." Rick: "Uh, ok, how about 3:45 and be hiking by 5 AM using headlamps for the first half hour or so?"
Dan: "Lets call it a quarter to four. It doesn't sound so painful then."
Rick: "We may have to ride out a storm by hanging off a belay for a couple of hours if we are up too high, ya know..."
Dan: "Too far to rappel and may as well go up. Scary. What if the rain doesn't stop?"
Rick: "We are in a bad situation (more editorial paraphrasing here)."
Dan: "Scary. And cold."
Rick: "Yep, if we go, we will have to keep going to the top, one way or the other. Agreed?"
Dan (resignedly): "Agreed."
Dan and I looked at each other. It might be "agreed" but neither of us liked it. At about 6 PM the rain stopped. This meant we might have to ride out about two hours of rain on the route. I was depressed.
The wind blew gently through the bivy site all night which kept the few mosquitoes at bay. At 3:45 AM Dan and I were up and by 4:55 AM we were heading up hill towards Charlotte Dome. We were at the base of the route by 6 AM. The sky was crystal clear.
The South Face Route has about as many variations for a route as any I have seen. The start for this route is described in Secor's Sierra guide book, Crofts guide book, Moynier and Fiddlers guide book, and in the SuperTopo High Sierra guide book. They sort of agree on the start except for Secor who puts it considerably further to the right. What a pain. We decided to go with the SuperTopo description.
Dan and I soloed the first 5.6 pitch, roped up at the tree belay anchor at the end of this pitch, and blasted off for the next three pitches. This put us on a small ledge system which was about 25 feet long. As expected, details from the SuperTopo description were not encountered, such as a 5.5 chimney, so essentially we had no real idea where we were. However, we were on a reasonable ledge so we assumed we were close.
All this time Dan and I were carefully eyeballing the sky. It was about 8:30 AM now and there wasn't a cloud in the sky. This was a good sign and we decided to go for it. Below us a team of three was preparing for either the South Face Route or Charlotte's Web. Dan and I looked at each other and marveled at the hubris of these guys. Didn't they read any weather reports? And why were they starting so late? We kept looking for "the dudes" the remainder of the day.
The SuperTopo description warned against heading straight up from the right end of the ledge, that is, if you are on the right ledge, and the next pitch was supposed to be a short cruise up a 5.7 layback flake followed by a stepover to a ledge/stance. Being good boys we avoided heading straight up from the right end of the ledge and started up about 15 feet to the left. This went up a mixture of several cracks including a upward sweeping right curving crack. I was about 100 feet out now on a supposed 90 foot pitch and none of the details of this pitch were evident. I headed right from the upward sweeping right curving crack for a corner which was sporting a couple of pieces of fixed pro. The face move to get into the corner was about 9+/10-. The corner was easier but somewhat sustained. This was followed by a bunch of mixed no pro face climbing and mantles and intermittent cracks. This ended when I found a decent place to set a belay and bring up Dan. This pitch was about 160+ feet. From this belay Dan headed up and dog legged around an overhanging block and set up a belay in the crack on the right side of the block. We were now just below the so called 12 inch white/pink dike. Up across the dike was a crack shooting straight up. It was full of lichen and looked like it had never been climbed. I headed up this crack and it went for about 150 feet and ended below what I assumed was the "no pro" face. At this point we had done three pitches from the SuperTopo description in only two pitches.
The weather was holding and it was still bright and sunny. The few clouds that were forming didn't look too enthusiastic about raining on anything. From the stance Dan headed up the "no pro" face. This was accompanied by non stop muttering, occasional down climbing, and slow upward progress. Eventually Dan salamandered his way up to a vertical running crack good enough to hold decent pro. This was a long ways to the right of the so called furrows pitch area of the rock. I headed up the cracks above the stance and worked left over to the furrows section of the route. Dan had to simulclimb a few feet in order for me to reach a decent belay spot just below the alcove. At this point I think we were finally on route, or at least, we were on somebody's version of the route! The last two pitches were uneventful and we finally unroped within 50 feet of the summit at 4 PM. Below us it was another story. "The dudes" were heading for an epic. The leader of the pitch below the "no pro" face made a tactical error and bypassed the belay stance and headed up the "no pro" face. No pro, no belay anchor in sight, huge rope drag, and lousy communication with the belayer required a simulclimb. I don't know if they ever got it. The hollering and cursing was non stop.
Sitting out of the wind and eating lunch I looked at Dan and pointed at the sky. Some clouds here and there but none of the massive blanketing storm clouds from the previous day.
"We're sittin' in butter!", I said.
"I would rather be lucky than good.", Dan replied.
High fives all around and we headed over to the summit, signed the register, and headed down. The hike down was brutal. Once clear of the slabs protecting the east flank of Charlotte Dome there was no clear way down hill towards the belay site. We didn't want to have to go all the way back around to the route we took up hill, which would have been difficult to do in the first place, so attempted to find a way down to the supposed use trail near Charlotte Creek. It was a manzanita and brush thrash. Maybe there is a use trail in there but I don't know. At 7 PM we finally arrived in camp. The descent took 2.5 hours. Unpleasant.
Monday morning Dan and I packed up and headed home. On the way out we were able to follow the ducks all the way to the Bubbs Creek Trail. This intersects the Bubbs Creek trail about 100 to 200 feet before Charlotte Creek. We took it upon ourselves to reconstruct a couple of dilapidated ducks and built a duck next to the Bubbs Creek Trail marking the start of the Charlotte Creek Trail. The hike out took about four hours including the duck engineering projects.
The nice ranger at the backcountry office asked us to fill out a climbers evaluation form on the way out. She informed us that it had rained every day in the afternoon for the last week and one half.
There are two ways of getting to Charlotte Dome. One is to go over Kearsarge Pass and head down to Charlotte Lake and continue down the use trail. This supposedly requires about a mile of bushwhacking to get to the bivy site. Dan and I went in from Roads End in Kings Canyon. This requires about seven miles of hiking and about 2200 feet of elevation gain to get to the junction with Charlotte Creek. About four hours. The trail starts about 100 to 200 feet before the point where Charlotte Creek crosses the Bubbs Creek Trail. There is a small trickle that comes out onto the trail just about at the point where the trail starts. Dan and I built a duck on the left side about 10 feet off the trail. This point is at the end of a big "fern forest". There are a lot of "fern forests" on the Bubbs Creek Trail so don't get too excited when you get to the first one. Or the third one. The trail winds its way up hill from this point. The bivy sites are about a mile and 1000 feet in elevation up from the Bubs Creek Trail and takes about one hour to get there. This is at approximately 8200 feet in elevation. Water is available from Charlotte Creek below the bivy site. The SuperTopo suggestion is to camp at the junction of the Bubbs Creek Trail and Charlotte Creek. This is a dank mosquito infested area and makes a singularly unpleasant camping area. Go uphill. It is a little loose but it is worth it to gain the extra elevation and chop another hour off the start and end of the climbing day.
The hike to the start of the route goes pretty much straight up from the bivy site. It may require shifting to the right to get to a slaby section and then moving left to the base of the route. As for the start of the route itself, use your preferred route description. I am not sure where the real route is. It is easy to get lost up there. Be prepared for route finding problems. Be prepared to climb harder than the route rating. We used a single 60M 10mm rope. I would recommend using a 60M rope whether or not it is single or double. There is a lot of junk left behind on the first four pitches indicating lots of people have bailed off from there. Above this there is nothing. There are no fixed belay stations. Rappelling off from high on this route would be difficult even in the best of conditions. We used a double set of aliens from the smallest to the largest, a set of stoppers, and one #.75, #2, #3, and #3.5 camalot. The #3.5 is questionable, mostly because every time I went looking for it, it was back at the belay where Dan was sitting on it, but we used the rest of the aliens and camalots.
The descent is brutal. We did not find any recognizable trail down to the use trail from the east flank of Charlotte Dome. Manzanita and brush.