Just a few weeks ago, Carl and I were having an enjoyable day on Tahquitz’s West Face when a very unluckily climber pulled a large block off of Sahara Terror. We talked to the Sheriff’s recovery team as we descended at the end of the day. It was a sad end to a wonderful day of climbing. I had more than a few near misses with rock fall, one avalanche, many thunderstorms, and hypothermia since 1978 when I started alpine and rock climbing.
My only child was two weeks away from leaving home and attend engineering school in Minneapolis. What was I thinking? I needed to be responsible. Any rational father would keep his nose to the grindstone to support his only son rather than being a selfish jerk by trying to prove himself on some chunk of granite. Then I realized who of my climbing friends would be motivated to climb a 13,700 foot peak in the Sierra? If not now when?
I fell in love with the Sierra when I was eleven. My dad, brother, most of Troup 542 and I tried to complete the Rae Lakes loop over Kearsarge Pass. My dad barely made it over Kearsarge Pass with his two pack a day Camel cigarette habit robbing his stamina and shiny brand new leather boots. I never made it to Rae Lakes but I was hooked for life.
People grimace when I politely ask for a belay. I am about as far away from being Alex Honnold as LeBron James is from Lynn Hill. That is a bad analogy considering I don’t make anything close to $30MM a year and I don’t possess a small fraction of LeBron’s athletic ability. At 6’-4” 225 pounds there isn’t a chance I will be out climbing Adam Ondra before he turns 100 and I return to age 30.
Carl wanted to do BCS in a day car to car. I thought that sounded great but I came to my senses and negotiated a late walk in to Dade Lake followed by a partial round trip back to the car the next day. Carl spent a lot of time back country skiing, hiking and climbing in the Sierra as well as seeing his patients’ fulltime during the week. I spent a lot of time at work sitting at a desk starring into a computer, climbing plastic at the local gym and doing yoga with my wife two days a week. I felt strong but had serious doubts about my overall conditioning.
Carl was getting married in November so this trip was especially important to him. I was hoping I would not let him down. For weeks prior to our trip, I schemed of the most creative ways possible to bail on Carl. I could simply lie about a fake injury. I feared I would collapse halfway up the climb leaving Carl to carry my rather large derriere to trailhead. If I died, at least I would be spared the embarrassment of being rescued.
I don’t know why I was so anxious? Norman Clyde did a new route at age 60 in the Sierra. I watched Bob Kamps onsite-flash a thin and technical 5.12 climb in Apple Valley when he was 68. The only problem with my logic was Norman and Bob weighed about 100 pounds less than me and were exponentially more talented. My only weapon was stubbornness. I refuse to grow up and play it safe. I watched my dad take the safe and responsible route in life. He died at age 46 when I was 19. I only remember three real family vacations growing up. I was determined to go no matter what the outcome.
By afternoon on Friday, August 1st, smoke from the Yosemite fire filled Mammoth Lakes. I was bummed. We came all the way up from LA to breathe smog in the Sierra, how ironic. Luckily, Rock Creek looked fairly clear at 5:00pm. The farther we hiked up Little Lakes Valley the more the sky cleared of smoke. Carl frequently brought his seven-year-old dog Ally on trips. She would stand watch over our camp at Dade Lake while we climbed on Saturday. Ally moved over talus like she rode on a magic carpet. She likely ran over thirty miles constantly circling us as we walked the six miles it took to reach Dade Lake. That dog never got tired.
The approach from Dade to the start of the North Arete of BCS was deceptively long. Hiking up the talus and loose moraine was punishing at 6AM at over 12,000 feet. The last section of hard snow was scary for me in approach shoes. Carl linked the first two pitches. The rock quality is excellent. The next 5.7 pitch was mine. We saw big flakes angling up and right. Straight up was some face to a nice hand crack. We agreed that straight up looked best. Less than halfway up I realized that the crack was at least 5.9 and my expectations for a 5.7 pitch quickly vanished into self-doubt. The sparse single rack with an assortment of Hexes did not help my confidence. The last time I placed a Hex was in 1982. Looking at the perfect hand crack I realized our anchor below had our only number 2 Camalot. I would have felt better if I had doubles of number 2 and 3 Camalots on the lead rack. I looked at our assortment of Hexes with confusion. I plugged in our only number 3 Camalot into the perfect crack and asked Carl to lower me to the belay. His eager and confident countenance was a relief. Carl would bail us out.
Following the 5.9 or 5.9+ pitch was not that bad. The crack has really nice crack climbing and stemming on great rock. I could have lead that pitch …….with an Indian Creek rack of six or eight hand sized pieces and some Peruvian marching powder for insurance. We simu-climbed the next two pitches. The original North Arete 5.8 crux pitch looked clean and well protected. I again made the generous offer to let Carl lead. I used the excuse that the 5.9 pitch stripped my confidence. The 5.8 pitch was fun but much easier than the variation we climbed below. We avoided the funky chimney left of the belay stance by climbing a variation slightly right and then joining the crack fifteen feet higher. We ate lunch at the Keyhole. The view was breathtaking.
I lead the rest of the easy 5th and 4th class climbing along the long ridge while Carl simu-climbed behind. About a hundred feet from the summit I got off route. From my perch on the ridge I saw my blunder and directed Carl to swing around down lower on the ridge. Carl took over leading as I reversed an easy mantel on the ridge. We made the summit by 2:30PM. We enjoyed the view for 30 to 45 minutes and then headed down the easy descent. I was so glad the descent route was free of snow. I was getting tired.
We headed left once we negotiated the short third class section down from the first col between BCS and Mt Dade. Loose slopes ended on a grey moraine below. The golden talus on the left side of the valley was much more stable than the grey moraine that runs straight down to Dade Lake. The talus seemed endless.
The moment we made it back to Dade Lake to greet our canine companion and base camp liaison Ally the sky opened up. Rained turned to hail as thunder rumbled all around. We pulled everything into the tent and repacked. After an hour the rain slowed to a shower so we packed up the wet tent and started down to Treasure Lakes. We originally planned to walk down the easier rib just south of Treasure Lakes but the threat of lightening made us seek low ground right away. The steep and wet talus down to Treasure Lakes was challenging. Ally bounded down five hundred feet of wet talus in less than fifteen seconds. She was beginning to piss me off.
The crux of the route, on the way down, for both Carl and I was the seemingly endless talus until you reach the trail at the end of Long Lake. Walking through the meadow at Long Lake I did not see a small hole covered by the grass. I rolled my right ankle and fell to avoid a serious injury to my ankle. Lucky for both of us it is a mild sprain and Carl did not have to call in reinforcements to get down the last four miles of easy trail. We continued on to rain showers and gusty winds. I was never so happy to see a pit toilet at the trail head. My feet were thrashed and right ankle stiff but I had survived! I would have been impossible to wipe the grin of my face.
My almost fully realized success on the North Arete of BCS made me appreciate the old wrinkled guy in my mirror. I could perform well at relatively high altitude and survive a moderate technical route in the High Sierra at 55. Actually, I was very pleased at my overall performance if you ignore getting spanked on the crux pitch and whimpering later at the thought of leading the second 5.8 crux. This revelation has renewed my desire to train harder for the next Sierra adventure. I plan to be in better shape next summer for routes on Mt Russell and Norman Clyde Peak. Hopefully, I can compel Carl to be my ace-in-the-hole next year on a new more challenging and classic High Sierra peak. Thanks to Carl for making this a great trip!