On 3 September, I woke up at 3:00am and started to hike into Dade Lake to meet Marcyn, my client for an ascent of the North East Ridge of Bear Creek Spire. She wrote a journal piece about her trip. All photos are courtesy of Marcyn.
And a quick note about maps. Sierra Mountain Center provides maps of many of our routes through our website. These maps are for informational purposes only. No one should rely on them for navigational tools. The routes shown are optimal and do not reflect seasonal variations. Sierra Mountain Center strongly recommends purchasing actual maps or mapping software, and having strong navigational skills when traveling cross country.
Cheers! – Chris
Sunday, 31 August
Sometimes, when you’re in a tight spot—God sends angels. God sent me several angels to help me on my quest to finally climb Bear Creek Spire. Both of my attempts in 1982 and again in 1991 were unsuccessful. I knew that the only way I would succeed this time would be if I hired a professional rock-climbing guide. Two of my friends recommended Sierra Mountain Center. I got lucky. Connie, their Office Manager, assigned me to Chris Simmons. He was my last angel.
The first angel is my long-suffering husband, who always guides and counsels me.
His friends, Donalda and Michael Day were my second two angels. They let me crash the first night in their Day’s Inn, after a steering-wheel-fighting drive up Highway 395 in ferocious winds, from Pomona Valley. At the Coso Junction Rest stop, ravens picked through the trash cans. The winds lifted their neck and belly feathers. On some of them I noticed they showed pale grey or dirty white under feathers. North of Independence, dust and straw blasted across the highway and closed the road for an hour. Fires from last summer and floods this spring devastated that whole watershed, destroying the breeders in the fish hatchery. Finally the highway patrol caravanned us at 20 mph through zero visibility. On the southbound lane, we passed kids peeing behind their cars. It was a long wait for both directions.
Arriving in Bishop, I tried to call Donalda, but my cell phone no longer had reception. She was frantic when I got up to Swall Meadows, but thankfully called off the dogs.
Monday, 1 September: Labor Day
Mike, Donalda and I parked at Mosquito Flat to begin our hike. Maybe it was the altitude, already 10,000 feet, or maybe I was shaking because it was exciting to be starting our adventure. We passed a group of 4 older packers also climbing to Treasure Lakes and exchanged greetings.
Before a ½ hour out, mountain goat Michael saw that it was going to be the next millennium before we got to our goal, with me staggering under the weight of my 45 lb., 35-year-old external frame pack. He gallantly exchanged it for his day pack.
We didn’t see him again until the other end of Little Lakes Valley. At the south end of Long Lake, a small trail takes off from the one to Morgan Pass. We took the road less traveled by. The track eventually turned into a path-finding boulder hopping jumble. Donalda was our pathfinder. When we finally staggered up to the first of the four Treasure Lakes @ 11,300 feet, Donalda said, munching her famous avocado sandwich, “Next time, pick an easier place to get to!”
After my first angels went home. I lugged my old pack around the lake to a scenic camp in the foxtail pines. Then, after set up and water chores, scouted tomorrow’s route up to Dade Lake. It wasn’t going to be easy. Four young men came down and showed me where they went. It wasn’t quite apparent. After supper, I noticed the Septuagenarians had made it to the north end of the lakes and set up camp.
Tuesday, 2 September
The next morning, not too early, found me struggling up a lateral moraine of a couloir that leads to Dade Lake.
As I was scouting my next line of attack, my next two angels appeared. They were from the septuagenarian group (an unfair moniker, I learn, as only one is over 70) camped below me. The two men were day hiking to Dade and wondered if I knew the way. As none of us did, we threw our collective intuitions in together and ascended a very steep and dangerous passage, with only one mishap.
Almost to the stable rock bed, I slipped on the scree and lay sideways on my pack. Unhurt, but unable to go up or down, I waited for Hal to set his pack down and gingerly step down to rescue me. I slipped out of my pack, he took it on his own back and we both gained the safety of the wall. But as he swung it around, he grunted, “Gawd, this is heavy!” and one of my baby blue crocks (for after climbing) flew out and down the slope into the steepest and slipperiest of the scree. It will become part of the glaciers. One hundred years from now, when all the glaciers on the earth are gone, archeologists will uncover it, wonder at its color and the whimsical animals snapped in the holes. I hated to litter, but thought it’d be easy for my climbing guide to help me retrieve it later.
With a few scary moments, like crack walking up the cliff and crossing a chute with loose stones, we made it to Dade Lake. After some relaxing time spent on food and schmooze my angels turn back, taking a less dangerous route down. All I have to do is set out my bivy, place the bear can and Jetboil near a handy kitchen rock, draw some water, take pictures of mousetails and heather and the changing light on Bear Creek Spire where I will go tomorrow. If my guide ever gets here!
I wake intermittently all night. Where IS that boy? Maybe he’s not coming? Maybe I got the dates wrong?
Wednesday, 3 September
At 6:30 am, I wake and start stuffing. If he doesn’t come, I’m stuck. I can’t go out myself. As soon as he comes, I’ll ask him to take me out after the ascent.
I’m mostly packed, ready for breakfast when Chris Simmons strides down the hill to my camp. I’m confused. He didn’t climb the way we did. He’s coming from a different direction. “Yes,” he says when asked, “much easier my way.” And yes, he’ll take me out. “No,” he says, when I deliver my 2nd request to help me rescue my crock, “much too dangerous.” “My advice,” he says, “is to leave it lie.”
I boil him some tea. He goes over my daypack and takes out a few things. I zip and snap and strap everything down and we are off. It’s 7:35 am.
Skirting the lake, we boulder hop around the glaciers and climb, one giant rock after another, some of which I use all fours to navigate over. The pace is brisk. Right away I’m panting, open-mouthed, to keep up with him. Before a ½ hour had gone, and I couldn’t stop to photograph the interesting rocks I saw, or the passing scene, I realized that today it wasn’t about the journey, it was the destination.
Long before we reach the saddle, I am near exhaustion, my ample breakfast melted and gone from my muscles. Breathing out of my mouth makes it dry. I dip my face into glacial melt and drink. Chris says it’s ok. He doesn’t treat the water up here.
At last, the saddle. I think it’s about 10 when we get there. It’s way the heck up there! We rest, snack on Cliff Shot; take photos of the views already opening. You can see Spire Lake to the north and the mining road over Morgan Pass. To the east is Mount Tom. I watch a flock of rosy finch sail across to the Spire Lake glacier. Chris shows me the next route. He says what we just did was the easy part. We’ll climb to the end of the brownish/grey rock, then we’ll decide if we rope up and go on.
Chris! There isn’t any doubt, is there? I’m alarmed. I’m thinking, I didn’t spend all this money and practically break my neck, not to mention sliding on the scree, to NOT summit! “Do you want this mountain?” He asks. “Let’s get going!” I say. “I’m ready.” (I think he was testing me; plus he feels that yesterday’s adventure has stressed my legs, and therefore we are going slower than he would like. He needs to get back to his car before dark.)
In what seems like hours, we are at the roping in part. The technical climb. Reading excerpts from my notes, I’ve patched together what I can remember.
We get into harnesses, helmets, rope tied at my waist. It is time for serious climbing. I learn “short rope”, he holds the rope firmly and I just follow, but he keeps it tight between us—that way he can ward off me slipping. When he tells me to do something, I say, “Yes sir”. Arguing is not an option.
>Then I learn when he drops the rope and starts free climbing, I’m to “hold tight”—freeze—he goes up to find an anchor. He will, or I can, wrap my end of the rope around a flake of rock, or a “horn”. If there is a crack, he can slip in a “cam”, then when he’s arrived above, I release the cam and come on up too. He pulls the rope until it is tight between us—and I start climbing. If I need help, he is able to give me a little boost. The first pitch isn’t too bad, and when I get there, he says the rest is that easy. But he lies.
After the second or third pitch, he says to me, “I just have two words for you.” I think he is going to say “Nice Climb!” But he says, “Prescription sunglasses!” Because I’m forever pushing them back up on my face. Then he does say, “Nice climb.”
“Trust your legs”, he tells me. There are crystals or little knobs on the rock and I can actually use them as footholds. If I’m searching, he tells me there will be a nice handhold a few inches to the right. Once we had a chimney! I thought I might be claustrophobic, it was so narrow. I thought my body would get stuck. I was to shimmy up to a ledge. Instead of doing it gracefully I ended up looking like a “beached whale” Chris tells me later, with my boots behind me, on either side, kicking and flailing for leverage. He had to almost haul me up on the ledge.
Those rope assists at the crucial time were most appreciated by me, I always said, “thank you” when he did. I especially remember the one move on the south side of the buttress, where I had to stand on a nub with the left boot, and reach for a handhold at the top of the rock with my right hand. I couldn’t quite reach it. “Oh come on!” He cajoles, “A shorter lady than you made it!” So I crouch and reach for it, just as he gives me the assist, and, magically I sail right up and snag the hold!
Only once did I balk. He had free climbed up to my left, as I faced the rock, told me to sit tight. He was gone for a long time up there. I heard him talking to himself, saying something like, “What happened to my crack?”… I couldn’t quite hear it. But I tried not to listen either. Then the rope traveled from my left over to my right—to a boulder that stuck out into the air. “Come on up,” he commanded. There was exposure, a lot of exposure, not just at my back, which I could ignore, but also to my right and left. “I don’t like this line, Chris” I told him with more than a little bit of trepidation. “I don’t CARE!” he shouted down, “you don’t have a choice!” Then as I saw I wasn’t getting out of it, he modified, “Well, I do care, but you have to do it.”
Concentrating on the rock, and where to put my feet and hands kept me from thinking about the thousand feet of air on either side. Later I learned that at this point, the most difficult route, the northeast face, joins this, the least difficult, the northeast ridge. I WAS ON THE NORTH ARETE!
Two times there were vertical cracks in the boulders and you could jam your boot in them to step up, and both times I got my boot stuck! It took a mighty lot of wiggling on my part, and tugging on his part, to extricate my boot each time.
We did a crab walk on the south (back) side of the spire – in “short rope”. It was a comfortable move, but I tried not to think that if I slipped, we’d both be goners.
We summited by 2:30. Of course, with THIS peak, one doesn’t get to the very tippy top. There is no way to protect the client, Chris said. The register is below it, where we stood. I wrote in it: “Thank you God! Thank you God for Chris Simmons!” I signed my name and wrote “68 years young.” We took photos and had a little taste of celebratory Kendal Mint Cake, because it is tradition with me. He said he was so not going to touch it, but did have a little piece.
My main fear was that we were going to have to go down the way we came up. But there were some blue rappel straps attached to the boulders beneath the peak. Chris fixed his ropes to them and lowered me down the south side of the wall. At the bottom, he told me to sit and I was his anchor. He followed me down and pulled the ropes out of the straps.
Then all helmets and belts came off, ropes folded and stowed in his pack. I felt naked, on my own, alone again.
As we reached the notch on the ridge, and started down, I realized that in 1982, I had climbed up what is called Cox Col, and free climbed part way up the North Buttress! I hadn’t a clue where the real peak was, so it was a good thing I had turned around before getting stuck up there.
Now the down climb. Painful muscles, overstressed, now hurting worse. Another Motrin changes my attitude. At one point Chris tells me he feels I’m too tired to pack out today. He cannot save me if I loose my balance. He wants me to stay at Dade Lake another night. Rest. “But Chris!” I protest, “I can’t go down by myself!” “You’re just being stubborn,” he says. “No!” I plead, “I’m just being terrified.” He promises to duck the way down. He finds me some cold water from a melting glacier.
Back at camp by 5 pm, I see he is so right. I can barely toddle over to the lake edge for tea water. I give him the rest of my tortillas and the package of salmon, the turkey jerky. He EVEN consented to eating some more Kendal Mint Cake. He shows me on the map, the exit route, down a gentle swale.
I hugged him goodbye and cried. It had been a gorgeous day. It had been a very, very hard day for me. I think he was tired too, from trying to protect me. He did well.
Thursday and Friday, 5 and 6 September
His Cairns were not only functional, but a monument to art. When I could follow them, it was great. When I saw his shoe print in the sand, I knew I was on the right path. But when I could see no other cairn, and there was no worn down trail on the rocks, then the name of Chris was roundly cursed! But he was only teaching me; still, to use my intuition, my common sense. Where would the line go? And I would follow it, and eventually, there would be another glorious and defining duck! He thought it would take me 2 ½ hours to reach my car. It took me 2 ½ hours just to make my way down to Treasure Lakes.
Rick, my angel husband, had emailed Donalda asking her to tell me to please not drive all the way home on the same day as my descent. So I call my friend, Doug Thompson who has promised me a bed in his new hiker’s hostel down in Lone Pine. In gratitude for the bunk bed and a good night’s sleep, I buy some donuts the next morning and drive up to the Whitney Portal store and tell he and his son, Doug, Jr., the story of my climb.
Doug was my first mentor. He taught me the details and gave me the confidence to climb my first solo ascent, Lone Pine Peak. He also encouraged my solo climbing into Carillon Mesa, and led me up the Mountaineer’s Route to Mt. Whitney, which I then led some friends up in a following year. I have Doug to thank for my comfort alone in the backcountry. But it was Chris Simmons who finally enabled me to realize my dream to climb Bear Creek Spire.
At one point in the climb, after several pitches, I said, “Can I take you home with me?” He laughed and mentioned the lack of climbing areas in the Pomona Valley. It was an odd thing for me to say, as I am 68 and he is 36, and we both have lovers at home. It certainly wasn’t an amorous invitation. But he was so strong, so good at what he does, so focused in the goal. I think it was that focus I wanted in my life. Maybe a little bit has rubbed off?
Maybe the climb was about getting to the top. But the backpack and rockclimb was a journey into my soul.