Seven Gables tr


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Trad climber
Bishop, Ca
Topic Author's Original Post - Aug 31, 2013 - 03:47pm PT
It is ironic that the best trip of a pretty descent summer culminated in an abortion. I don’t mean to suggest any lasciviousness here so don’t get your glands in too much of an uproar. But I’m jumping way, way ahead of myself so let me rewind to the beginning.

Coming off the Mt Russell trip I felt more acclimated than I’ve ever felt. A few days living at 13,000 feet will do that. It seemed criminal to let all those hard earned red blood cells go to waste. The Fiddler/Clevenger route on The Seven Gables had been on my mind all summer but I was put off (read intimidated) by the lack of a topo. The photo in the guide book was at an oblique angle and didn‘t show much detail. I couldn’t find anyone who’d actually climbed the thing. Supertopo had just come up with a post on some lesser, new lines on the face and a vague guess at to the location of the Main Event. Then there was the reputation, well deserved I might add, that Vern and Claude have made for themselves over the years…

A few phone calls put me in touch with Claude. “No, sorry, we didn’t make too many topos back then. I don’t think it was any harder than Mt Goode, there’s some wideness but no Twilight Zone type horror shows…”
The conversation wandered off to the plane crash, a route of his I’d done on Fairview, back to the point, “the best way in is from Royce lakes…”

I liked the guy, I hung up and began packing: pad, sleeping bag, map, head lamp, 100 pages of the book I was reading, sketchy route photos, four days of food, four days of dog food, dog, stove, fuel, lighter, giant chunk of hash my friend Izzy left in my camper, assorted crap floating around my pack I was too lazy to bother taking out and figured might come in handy, shoes, chalk bag. Fast and light, just the essentials. Three days back from Russell and I was good to go. Wilderness permit? f*#k em! Don’t want the extra weight.

The hideous first few miles of the Pine Creek trail never went by so fast. It was an amazingly nice day, even by sierra standards, atop Pine Creek Pass I stopped and swam in that little lake, I mean I SWAM not just dunking myself but out to the middle of the lake, tread water for a few minutes and swim to the other side, awesome!

That night Oula and I slept at Royce lake, reveling in the solitude and the stars.
The following morning I awoke ready to continue, except for this major distraction. The distractions name is The North Buttress of Merriam Peak.
I just can’t seem to walk past the thing without climbing it. There are some problems in the local bouldering areas I have the same issue with but this one is on a slightly grander scale.

I have written elsewhere about a prior ascent of the face so I won’t go into too much detail except to say I had a moment. It wasn’t one of those, “Oh shit! Oh f*#k!! Oh my god I’m about to die!!!” moments, not even close. Just a quiet, “Wow, I’m way more tired than I thought I was.” moment. Sobering, to be sure, but still a long way from frightening.

From the summit I decided to descend the east bowl, I wasn’t sure if it really went but descending the Merriam/Royce col just to turn around and go back up it seemed dismal. For any of you looking to climb Merriam Peak here is a special news flash: It goes boys! What it lacks in straight forwardness it makes up for in directness. It spits you out, literally if you don’t pay attention, at the toe of the lake.

Upon breaking camp Oula gave a little jump and began heading back towards the pass. “Hang on Oula, we’re going the other way, this is the beginning of the adventure!”

For those of you who have never met Oula, I should explain that not only is she a really tough, smart dog she is also a large and very solid dog. Point being, in her exuberance she jumped up and punched me right in the balls. It was really quite painful.

Oula led the way over the col. Deep down inside I know she is a dog and has no grasp of the Big Picture, but after eleven years with her I’ve come to rely on her instincts and route finding abilities. I could give you a hundred examples of times she’s saved the day but suffice it to say I trust her judgment in these matters more than any human I’ve ever traveled with. Unless a deer or a chipmunk or something comes into play, obviously.

As luck would have it, there were no deer or chipmunks to thwart our progress crossing the 12,500 ft col. This gave me time to steal glances over to what I had just climbed. Those of you who are not soloists might have some misconceptions of how it feels to look at a big route you have just climbed. Let me take a moment to clear those up for you. There is that sense of pride and satisfaction from a job well done to be sure, but more than that, for me at least, is that feeling of being very, very small. You really feel your insignificance in the broader scope of things. You feel humbled. It’s a heady mix of emotions, not for everyone I’m sure and goes a long way towards explaining why more people aren’t doing this sh#t. And that’s probably for the best.

In the recent Supertopo post, the author claims, “It is four miles from Royce Lake to the Seven Gables”.

To which I say, “Whatever dude. If you have wings.”

It took an hour to negotiate a long spur coming off Royce peak. Another hour to cross the valley to La Salley Lake. Then another major 12,000+ ft pass (3rd and 4th class both up and down). Follow that by A LOT of steep talus leading down to the Bear Lakes basin, then a very long traverse around numerous lakes. All in all about ten hours. For a long time I remained optimistic.

Below the peak, at dusk, reality started to sink in. It was relatively easy to find the 12,600 foot pillar, but I needed to find a way out of there. It wasn’t going to be the same route that was for sure and it might not be that easy to figure out. I wasn‘t feeling real good about the food supply. Then there was that growing tiredness I’d felt on Merriam. Added to that was the face itself. It looked like a back country El Cap, if El Cap was pinnacle shaped and looked like it was giving me the finger. I thought I heard a voice disguised on the wind. Oula did too, I could tell by how she held her ears. The weird thing was it didn’t sound like a people voice at all. It was deeper, more resonant. I listened more carefully, “GO HOME BOY.”

A tip here for the aspiring soloist: When the Gods speak, you listen.

“Um, ok then.”

And so we arrive at the afore mentioned abortion.

It occurs to me that in my rush to chronicle the events and feelings up to this point I have neglected to describe the landscape in any detail other than its ruggedness. This should not be seen as an oversight on my part or lack of appreciation for those lakes, crags, glaciers, passes and peaks I passed over, around, under and through. They are just that, first and foremost rugged. The most inviting thing about them is their sheer difficulty of crossing and their absence of people. Nothing beyond your standard Sierra splendor.

In the early morning I stumbled upon a trail, faint and devoid of footprints. I followed it for a short way before deciding it wasn’t headed the way I was and abandoned it. It occurs to me that this could be a metaphor for a life well lived, but perhaps that is another essay unto itself. I began up a barren, rocky slope. My intended goal being Italy Pass, then Granite Park and home. Water was scarce to nonexistent. My shadow shortened. I had only a general idea of where I was but east, shying off just a tad to the north was what I needed. I spent the better part of an hour climbing the first obvious pass only to find it dead ended in a cliff band. The next led to a valley going west. Sh#t, not nearly as far as I thought. It looked like a good place to find skeletons too. I continued east. Then a lake! I checked my map, Coroner lake, for sure. I think. Maybe. Orienteering isn’t my best thing.

Due east, along the rim of a deep canyon. A small lake lay below. Oula wanted to descend but I was reluctant to give up any ground and overruled. The next pass north looked improbable and we kept on east. Two meals left, I was beginning to think if something didn’t come together soon it might be short rations tonight. I followed my lengthening shadow.

Then, one of true hidden gems of the Sierra lay below. If you have ever been to the Minarets you will no doubt have been wowed by Minaret Lake, as well you should be. Picture that times about a hundred and you will have a faded, black and white photo of what Big Bear Lake is like: countless alcoves, sandy beaches alternating with red and buff colored cliffs falling into aquatic depths, surrounded by bigger cliffs and on and on. And on.

And above, way, way above lay an obvious pass. Oula had a rare moment descending to the lake, an eight foot jump to a sloping ledge with a large drop beneath, no way around. She hesitated, whimpered, looked for another way. None. “Come on Oula. I got ya spotted. You got it…” She jumped in the end, after exhausting all other options. Once again, in her exuberance, she punched me in the balls. Or maybe she was just pissed…

I regret that we didn’t stay long at that lake. Time was pressing, it was still a long way to that pass.

Above Black Bear Lake the pass split into two passes. By mutual agreement we opted for the right hand one. It looked easier and was more of a sure thing.

Oula reached the top a few seconds before me. She gave a little yip of joy just as I reached the top. Upon joining her my jaw fell open. The first thing I saw was Zebra Peak. (That’s not its real name, just what my friends and I started calling it the past few years.) Below lay Granite Park, “Oula,” I panted, not quite able to believe it. “That’s our valley! How the f*#k?”

Checking the map I realized that by opting right we had hit the rarely used Granite Bear Pass, cutting off a giant loop and saving about two hours of toil.

And that was essentially the end of our adventure. The glacier below was smaller than it has been in living memory. I would guess the talus field beneath hasn’t seen the light of day since before the last ice age. As many of us are learning, such slopes are exceedingly unstable and dangerous. Once again, Oula found the best way around to terrain of more geologic permanence. Then we came upon the well used footpath leading down towards Honeymoon Lake.

I started looking for a place to camp near the bottom on Granite Park. I found a so-so spot and threw down my pack. Oula gave me a look, glanced at the sun, “Really?” her look said. “We’ve got daylight left. You want to stop here?”

Another lesson I’ve come to learn over the years is this: when the dog speaks, I listen.

“What, you want to keep going? Um, ok then.”

An hour later, above a lake I’ve passed dozens of times Oula detoured into the woods and plopped down in the grass. I followed, to see what her issue was and there was the most awesome camp I could have hoped for. We shared a bowl or rehydrated beef stroganoff as flames licked our small pile of twigs.

In closing, two conclusions come to mind. The first you may find most useful if you are intent on approaching The Seven Gables from the east. Granite Bear Pass is the way to go. Like the east bowl of Merriam Peak, what it lacks in straightforwardness, it makes up for in directness.

The second is more esoteric, more personal. For years I have been marching off into the hills, determined, aiming for the summit, eyes on the prize, as it were. It strikes me that in letting go of those rigid goals we allow the greater world so sink in and its rewards and blessings can be greater than we could have otherwise imagined. A quote from Mark Vonegut keeps cropping up in my mind. I read it over thirty years ago but its always stayed with me. “It is better to travel hopefully than it is to arrive.”

Thank You
Steve Seats


Aug 31, 2013 - 05:24pm PT
Another great adventure Steve. Well described with some great humour. Sounds like the pooch liked it!

We had aspirations of climbing seven gables a few years ago when we were up at merriam. We climbed merriam the first day & our plan was to summit Royce & head down towards seven gables, tag it & head back to camp @ Royce. Needless to say when we got on top of Royce & looked over it was far, very far. Luckily we had a million excuses & headed back to camp after a near epic coming down the couloir between Royce/feather. Would love to get back there some day, seven gables is quite prominent from so many places back there but it sure is tucked away.

Thanks for the TR.
Vitaliy M.

Mountain climber
San Francisco
Aug 31, 2013 - 11:09pm PT
Nice report Steve! Even though I been fairly goal oriented, it was more important to be out, drink fresh water, check out new places, and enjoy good company, rather than complete my climb, or get to a summit with a stranger. Being out there is like meditation. Clears my mind from every day weekly struggle. So cheers for getting out there, wish I was out right now. Can't wait for a pressure point on my heel to go away...
this just in

north fork
Sep 1, 2013 - 12:24am PT
Great read, I'm usually against TR's without pics, but that was well worth my time. Seven gables is in my near future, but from the west. Thanks Steve.

Oakland, CA
Sep 1, 2013 - 02:53am PT
Loved it.

What type of pup is Oula? To be cranking that kind of mileage over that kind of terrain in the backcountry for several days on end at 11 yrs old is just f'ing impressive. Our girl is 8 and we take her swimming more than hiking these days. Vet says arthritis, god damnit.

I know that pics aren't your thing, but as a dog lover would be glad to see a pic of the lass.

Sep 2, 2013 - 02:31pm PT
Thanks for posting, Steve. I always enjoy your writing.

Trad climber
Bishop, Ca
Topic Author's Reply - Sep 3, 2013 - 01:12pm PT
Thanks everyone, Oula will be twelve next week. She is part rott, part hound and part bad ass. She mostly just lays around in the low lands but as soon as she gets some place cool and, well, cool about ten years drop off her.

When she was three she onsighted Black Slabith V7, about fifteen feet, in Squamish. I think the ascent was motivated by some small animal...
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