The map added unnecessary ounces to my pack as we slogged up switchbacks towards the pass. We had been here before, and knew the way. We knew that after the pass, we would wind downhill for four miles to Charlotte Lake, and then continue off-trail through a valley filled with aspen and willow before reaching camp near a spring at the base of a granite dome.
Three weeks earlier, we had been pushing our way through the willows, our camp within site on the next ridge, when Nat stepped on a yellow jacket nest and was stung on the ankles eight times. We were hiking in to climb the legendary Charlotte Dome, renowned for its stellar climbing and very long approach. After running with urgent awkwardness across an uneven grassy slope to escape the feisty yellow jackets, we stopped for a moment to examine the bites. Painful, he said, but let’s keep going. I followed Nat through more willows, the dome in sight, but his itching becoming more and more persistent. I can feel my lips swelling, Erin. A wave of fear and realization moved through me when he said this. Nat was having a systemic reaction to the yellow jacket bites, meaning that his body was considering swelling to the point of closing his airway to prevent further allergens from entering his body. I pulled up his shirt to look at his back; it was covered in hives. My fear began to border on panic as I realized how desperate our situation was. I doubted that I would be able to run to the ranger station, four miles away, and back, with an epipen and benedryl, before his reaction closed his throat, if that is what his body was going to decide to do. Nat put his head in my lap, and we sat there quietly. The sun was beginning to set behind the granite dome and the willow valley had turned to gold. Deep, slow breaths. I willed his throat to stay open. I willed that this golden meadow would not be the place where Nat took his last breaths. We had not had enough time.
The moments passed slowly. It seemed that Nat’s tongue was not continuing to swell. His lips were twice their normal size, his eyes red and puffy. We decided to walk slowly towards the ranger station. Even if Nat did not need epinephrine, he would still benefit from benedryl to help with the swelling. Unfortunately the walking was spreading the toxins around his body faster, and he had to sit and wait for waves of nausea to pass. For the first time, I was the faster walker, and had to check myself. I took the rope from his pack because it was the only thing that I could think to do to help.
Four miles later at the lake, other campers called out friendly greetings to us as we walked by, our heads down and barely able to return the waves. After finding a site for us, I returned to the other campers and asked for benedryl donations, which they quickly handed over when they saw my tear-streaked face.
And now, three weeks later, we were back, armed with a beefy first aid kit, two epipens, and and SOS satellite device, to climb the granite dome we had originally come to climb. We nervously descended the willow valley that Charlotte Creek ran through and made it to camp at the spring for the first time.
While we had remembered the epipens, in his haste to pack Nat had forgotten his puffy jacket, chalk bag, and our #3 camalot. So we would be safe, but a little cold, runout, and have sweaty hands. As long as there were no yellow jackets, who cared! After a chilly night, we walked to the base of the climb as the sun began to illuminate the valley.
The first pitch was awkward and slippery; not the most confidence inducing start to our subalpine backcountry adventure. Somehow, I managed to work my way up to the first belay, marked by a rap anchor. We continued on through the next handful of pitches, the climbing itself knobby and unique, but the routefinding challenging as we wandered up chimneys in a sea of similar looking corners. Above and to our left, an enormous natural amphitheater became visible, continuing into an impossible looking roof. Luckily our route continued straight above us, which still seemed intimidating. Steep vertical cracks shot upwards in every direction, a buttress protruding not far ahead.
Nat led the crux pitch gracefully, pulling over a steep bulge without hesitation. He was on the eighth pitch when we hit the mental crux, as we began to feel that where we were and where we were supposed to be were two very different places. Nat belayed me to a miniscule toe ledge where we hung on the anchor and tried to decipher the rock around us. Runout traverse to a tower… I guess we just did that? Forty feet of runout climbing ahead… I guess that's what we are looking at? It was hard to drum up enthusiasm for that one. We felt better about it all when I traversed under a roof that seemed like it was in the topo we had. Finally, after a pitch of golden fins, it seemed like we were near the top. Now we just had to traverse under the summit block on some Oh my god this is steep third class to easy walking to the top. There we devoured gummy candy and stale trail mix and reveled in the mountains and our own aliveness. This is where we were meant to be and meant to be doing, that was for sure. We would hike a collective 48 miles total to climb this thing and by god, we climbed it. The mountains, and yellow jackets, had allowed us passage this time, for which we were grateful.
We started climbing at about 8 am, just as sun hit the rock, and topped out about 4:30 pm (I'd say we are medium speed climbers.) The descent took probably a half hour. Also, as I said above pitch 8 was tricky to stay on route, so consider bringing more photos and reading the beta very carefully through that section. Pitch 9 was the 40 foot runnout that it says in Supertopo High Sierra, and while it was 5.7, it was mentally very taxing as it was face climbing and did not feel secure. For pitch 12, we were a little unsure of where to go based on the Supertopo beta but continued basically straight up a shallow left facing dihedral/ crack system that did have golden fins at the top. The Furrows pitches are awesome-- easy but steep jugs. Also, there is a trail that goes all the way from Charlotte Lake to the camping area near the base of Charlotte Dome described in Supertopo. We did not route-find diligently enough the first time and lost it in the beginning, but I encourage you to stop and scout because it is well worth it to stay on the trail the whole way. There are many cairns, the trail is just hard to see at times. After passing through the cattle guard and crossing the creek to the N side, the trail stays high above the creek and out of the willows.
Lessons Learned: I will be bringing benedryl and a beefy first aid kit on every climb I do from now on. We originally were not carrying benedryl because we thought neither of us was allergic to anything, but that obviously was not true and it could have turned out a lot worse.