Two Climbs in Rock Creek & Running with Axes
The trip started as so many Eastern Sierra missions have, for generations:
“We’ve got just enough time to pack, throw a sleeping pad and climbing pack in the car, catch a couple hours of sleepless rest/lying flat in the back of your justbarelybigenough car at the trailhead, crush in the hills for 14 hours, exhale, then drive the 4 hours back home. Anyway, I’ve got the day off – let’s make it happen.”
I, too, had the day off and decided to make it happen.
Within hours of committing, Liam and I were in my car driving south on 395, drunk with enthusiasm for the upcoming day out. We bantered about the wonderful things we’d done and the wild and exciting things we were gonna do (no different than any barroom conversation in any industry/lifestyle/sport ever). Almost to the state line at Topaz, we realized that we were indeed too stoked and neither of us had packed a climbing rack. Simple miscommunication and belligerent single-mindedness as we frothed over our trip’s possibilities led us to each think the other had packed the rack. It’s happened to all of us, and this time it was happening to us. A little blind optimism and positivity (and a phone call to a generous friend in Reno) had us driving north on 395 with our tails between our legs to raid that friend’s garage for a handful of cams and alpine draws. Michael, we owe you a beer or 6.
All in all, a 2 hour detour backwards on the very roads we had just driven south was no big deal in the grand scheme of life. We paid the toll, admitted our mistake, then got back to the business of our climb. Keep your chins up, kids – a little positivity goes a long way sometimes.
By midnight we were horizontal at the Rock Creek Trailhead and had at least enough climbing gear to do some real climbing.
Our alarms mercifully broke the shivering at the crack of 4 AM. We made coffee as we dialed in our packs, and were off and moving within 30 minutes. We had packed light – speed is a friend on a day like this – and actually jogged most of the way to Long Lake on the Class 1 trail from Mosquito Pass into Little Lakes Valley.
Our objective was to climb the North Arete of Bear Creek Spire and the just-barely-13,000 feet tall Petit Griffon in a day. One is maybe the most striking line in this part of the Sierra, and one is really (if we’re being honest) just an ungodly beautiful bump on a ridge, and not even a highpoint on that ridge. The contrast was hilarious to me at the start of the day, but as I write this I’m struck with how much enjoyment and challenge was derived from each climb. The position, the movement, and the summit on each was incredible, and the rewards equally great.
From Long Lake our approach diverged from the main trail and took a climbers’/fishermen’s trail up to Dade Lake. At the shores of Dade Lake we stumbled into a party of 3 leaving their camp to climb the NE Ridge (we shared a few waves as our routes joined near the top of the Arete later that morning) and broke off in a different direction to the base of the North Arete. The morning light at sunrise on the Arete itself is incredible – it’s the first thing to get sun in June in the basin and shines like a diamond over the snowfield below as the granite turns golden every morning at dawn.
We were tied in at the base of the first pitch by 7:15, taking about 2.5 hours from locking the car to plugging our first piece of gear on Bear Creek Spire.
A couple pitches of splendid climbing on solid rock led us to a few hundred feet of easy terrain, so we simul-climbed to the base of the fifth pitch. A highlight of the route, pitch 5 follows some classic stemming corners onto the very edge of the Arete. A wild keyhole provides access back onto the sunny side of the route and you join the NE Ridge route for a sustained Sierra class 4 ridge scramble to the summit.
We enjoyed our own time on the summit (the summit block of Bear Creek Spire is scarcely the size of a coffee table, and more comfortable by yourself than shared with a partner), signed the register, and descended to Cox Col and back to our axes and crampons, which we had stashed before gaining the base of the Arete earlier that morning. We surely didn’t need them to climb or descend Bear Creek Spire on this day, but our route to the base of the Petit Griffon would require a lot more snow travel and possibly some steep couloir climbing. As it turned out, we were able to traverse the Treasure Lakes Basin to the base of the couloir below the Petit Griffon quite easily, but I was absolutely thrilled have an axe climbing and descending the couloir. We both gave our crampons an expansive tour of the Rock Creek area, but never took them out of the packs.
Some unconsolidated snow encountered while ascending the couloir to the base of the Petit Griffon convinced us that the slabs to our left would be more secure and worth a shot, and kitty litter on friable rock led us back onto the snow for the last 200 feet to the notch. We roped up for the second time about 7 hours after we did so at the toe of the North Arete earlier that day. Two pitches of wildly improbable climbing led to the summit, which was even smaller than the block atop Bear Creek Spire. I personally found the climbing on the Petit Griffon Spire to be more stimulating and more unbelievable than the “classic” route we’d just climbed on Bear Creek Spire (and I truly love climbing Bear Creek Spire). I can’t describe it any better than he did, so here’s what Lous Emmet Mahoney wrote after he climbed the Petit Griffon in the first ascent party in 1959:
“I have to say that I was not much of a rock climber, and the last couple of moves up the crack in the flake on the Dade side were among the more interesting periods in my life.”
We enjoyed a few calories on top as we admired the single fixed pin left from the first ascent party during their rappel from the summit block (!), then rappelled off of much more secure slings back to the notch before a thrilling glissade took us down to Mills Lake. The only thing that slowed us down as we continued down the drainage was rubbernecking Ruby Wall about a dozen times, and we were jogging down the class 1 Ruby Lakes trail back to Mosquito Flat in no time at all.
We exceeded my optimistic hope of a 14 hour trip and were in our sandals at the car 13 hours and 10 minutes after leaving that morning. Door to door in Truckee, we took about 28 hours. Not too many 12+ hours days with a partner in the alpine stay “type 1”, but this was one of ‘em. Shoutout to Liam Connelly for being some of the best company anyone could ever ask for in the alpine.
Thankful for another best day ever in the Range of Light.
Climbed 6/18/20, with Liam Connelly
All logistics and time splits are described accurately (non-fiction), while all heroic climbing stuff has been emphasized with mild-to-severe exaggeration for maximum effect