Now I understood why the party ahead of us had been so slow on this pitch. I gasped for air while inching my way up the steep, strenuous crack. The spike of my ice axe stuck out of my pack and scraped against the granite, creating fitting background noise for my struggling. Upon reaching a spacious belay ledge, I congratulated my partner on his challenging lead. “How could that pitch be 5.8?!” we wondered. It would be weeks or even months before I would learn that we had been off route due to our lazy, follow-the-party-in-front-of-you mindset on a popular climb, taking a 5.10 variation by mistake.
Luckily, one pitch of unanticipated struggling did not sully the overall experience of climbing an overwhelming number of moderate, high quality pitches in a spectacular setting: steep liebacking and jamming, jug hauling, and slab cruising on quality alpine granite peppered with “phenocrysts,” creating solid and reassuring footholds. It seemed every pitch ended at a spacious belay ledge where we took in the views of a region of the Sierra neither of us had climbed in before, though I knew right away that I would be coming back. Excepting the one pitch where we strayed off route, each pitch went by smoothly and quickly, and we soon found ourselves on the final ridge leading to the monolithic summit block. Surmounting the final boulder and sitting on top, I was not disappointed. This was one climb that had lived up to the hype. I marveled at the views of Seven Gables, Merriam Peak, Feather Peak and so many other classic Sierra climbing objectives I had read about, now clearly in view. A lifetime of climbing options and then some.
This climb had been on my list for a long time. While working at a climbing shoe company in southern California in the late ’90s, a coworker and prolific climber let me browse through his first edition copy of Sierra Classics: 100 Best Climbs in the High Sierra. He had completed nearly every climb in the book. The descriptions of climbs helped me to prioritize my own Sierra climbing goals, and the words “ten pitches of varied, sometimes strenuous, sometimes easy, but completely fun climbing on fine high country granite” quickly caught my eye and captured my imagination. They describe the North Arete route on Bear Creek Spire, first climbed by Galen Rowell and Jeanne Neale in 1971. Since first climbing the route myself many years ago, it has drawn me back, becoming a favorite to climb both during my time off as well as when guiding.
In addition to offering up high-quality climbing by a variety of routes, the Spire is simply a stunning peak. Certainly, many thousands of folks have gasped at least a little when first glimpsing it on the drive up to Mosquito Flat in the Rock Creek drainage. The famed mountaineer and guide Norman Clyde compared it to the Matterhorn, stating, “On all sides, except the west, it drops away in almost vertical walls hundreds of feet in height. The summit itself is a single monolith, only a few feet in diameter, from which these jagged aretes radiate.” A local brewery even features the peak on one of its beer labels. Clyde’s own route on the Spire, the Northeast Ridge, joins the North Arete high on the peak, and it offers equally enjoyable climbing albeit at an easier difficulty grade. Originally considered 4th class, most consider it to be about 5.4.
There are some peaks that simply offer the whole package: aesthetic appeal, quality climbing, prominence, and often something else that is hard to put into words, but it is something that Bear Creek Spire possesses. Maybe it is an energy, an aura. I am not superstitious in the slightest, but neither have I failed to notice that there is this thing about the Spire, whatever it is. And it is a good thing. Since I seem to be at a loss for words, I will resort to pictures and captions from my Spire adventures to try and say just what I mean. Enjoy!
Interested in hiring a guide for a climb of Bear Creek Spire? Check out our info package on the North Arete (5.8) and Northeast Ridge (5.4) climbs.