Devils Crag #1
10-Aug-95 (N.W. Arete)
By: Doug Jones
Dave German and I began our 4th annual High Sierra trip on Thursday morning, August 10th. Our goal was to climb the precipitous Devils Crag #1. The "Devils Crags" is an impressive group of pinnacles at the southern end of the Black Divide in the Sierra Nevada. There are 11 crags, none of which have walk-up routes. Crag #1 is the highest.
We began our trek at South Lake, and a pleasant 5 mile, 2200' gain hike brought us to Bishop Pass, elevation 12,000'. Surprisingly, the trail was mostly snow-free. We crossed a couple of snowfields on the south side of the pass, and some rocks offered shelter from the wind as we took our first break. Subsequently, we began the 6 mile, 3300' descent to Le Conte Canyon. We passed a small pack train and, stopping occasionally to admire Isosceles Peak and the mighty Palisades, hiked through beautiful Dusy Basin. A series of switchbacks led to a bridged crossing of Dusy Branch at 10,200'. We paused to observe the spectacular cascade, then continued down to a cool forested bench at 9,500'. More switchbacks through hot, open chaparral slopes dotted with huge incense cedars deposited us at the trail junction just above the roaring Middle Fork of the Kings River. We turned south on the John Muir Trail and walked a couple hundred yards to a second footbridge over Dusy Branch. We took our second break there and watched a small Rainbow Trout swim in place as we filled our canteens and had lunch. A subsequent 2 mile hike south led to Grouse Meadows where our adventure began. We had to cross the Middle Fork without benefit of a bridge. To make things challenging, the melting snowpack from the winter of 94-95 (one of the heaviest of all time) filled the ice-cold river to a much higher than normal level. At the north end of Grouse we departed the John Muir Trail and hiked along the river hoping to find a log crossing. We continued down river searching for a safe place to cross, only to find that the river became wider as the meadow opened up. This proved to be a good thing, however, because the current slowed. As we hiked through the mushy meadow, suddenly Dave stopped. I knew what that meant! (You readers who know Dave will understand!) He just took off his clothes, slung his boots over his neck, put on his unbuckled pack, and started across (in his birthday suit) without any hesitation! I watched intently as Dave got about half way across (the river was over 50 feet wide.) In the middle he was only mid thigh deep. However, about two-thirds way across, I watched his butt disappear into the icy flow and winced with anticipation of things to come. The channel ran along the far bank and was probably 4 feet deep. I was relieved when I saw him climb onto the other side and let out a hoot! But relief quickly changed to anxiety - it was my turn! Not wanting to be found naked if I screwed up, I followed Dave's path clad in my underwear. I just remember hitting the channel and not really getting much footing. I grabbed a bush and climbed out. Damn was it ever cold! We were across and there was no turning back; we had reached the base of the Black Divide at elevation 8,200'+ feet. We had some laughs, got dressed and headed south cross-country on an ascending route to a small forest. We took a short break on a bench at about 8,800'+ feet and then contoured to Rambaud Creek. That was really our only mistake during the entire trip. You see, Rambaud Creek is brushy. We laboriously 'shwacked up for about 1/3 mile and over 800 feet of gain. It was slow, arduous, and unpleasant. The only nice thing was when we sighted two bucks and a doe on a nearby slope. Somewhere slightly above the 9,800' level we were beat up and it was nearing dark. We had come over 15 miles. Under a small group of pines on a somewhat flattish area, we set up camp, filled our canteens and had dinner. It was nice to stop. Sleep was welcome.
Friday, August 11 we arose to a perfect, cloudless, classic High Sierra morning. To quote Dave, it was a day that would "test our mettle. Shortly after 7AM we hiked northwest a bit then southwest along Rambaud Creek (no more brush!) to a beautiful small basin and then on snow to the 10,400' level to a 95% frozen lake with a large (15'-20' deep) "crevasse" on its northwest side. We continued our ascent on hard snow to the 11,100' level where we took a break on a rock outcrop in a snow-filled cirque just north of Rambaud Pass (11,600'). This was a "decision" break influenced heavily by not having crampons. We had 3 choices: The "Henry Cut-off' (steep & snow-filled (icy) in the bottom); Rambaud Pass (steep hard snow except for patches of loose rock); and a steep, icy chute between the two. We chose Rambaud Pass. We ascended without problem to the 11,300'+ level and then cut steps for about 100' to the loose rocks. We climbed the loose rocks (c1.2-3) to a point about 15' below the pass. There we stood on a rock and cut steps on very steep, hard snow and emerged unscathed at flat, dry Rambaud Pass. After a brief stop, we continued in an easterly direction for about 600' of gain on easy talus to Peak 12,200+'. There, we looked at D.C. #1 as well as at the "saddle" to the N.E. and saw we no longer needed our axes. So we stashed them and downclimbed about 150' to the "saddle" (S.W. of Peak 12,262') and contoured to the east on the south side of Peak 12,262' (loose crud!). We crossed a chute (c1.3) and then went down a bit, then up to the first major notch on the N.W. Arete of D.C. #1. We were now less than 1/4 mile from and 300' below the summit (no problem, a 15 minute hike!). We roped up, put on our brain buckets, and Dave led 100' of Class 3, then 4 to an established belay station. We continued (roped together) southeast on 3rd and 4th class rock (loose rocks everywhere) along the arete to an unmistakable pair of "Black Rabbit Ears" which we passed through, and then along the arete some more to another big notch where a large (and fairly easy-looking) chute with snow in the lower part came up on the right (S.W.). This was the only "easy" section of the ridge (100' or so of Class 2). Then Dave led a 60' C1. 4 pitch (keeping in mind that Class 4 is an ambiguous term!). We continued along the dramatically exposed (1,000' on both sides) arete to what I thought was the most difficult part of the route: a real knife-blade notch. (I remember Dave saying "Doug, you're going to like this one!" moments before I arrived). It was a real attention getter! Dave set some very nice pro on this part. We stayed on the crest of the arete here and climbed a lot of very exposed rock to the summit. (R. J. Secor gives an excellent route description in his High Sierra guidebook. I jotted it down on the back of my topo map and found it to be very accurate ) Once on top, I relaxed for a while (as Dave continued along the ridge to look at Crag #2!). We spent 30-40 minutes on the summit and ate, drank, read the register and enjoyed the panorama (one of the finest in the Sierra in my opinion). There was not a single cloud in the sky! The peak receives very few ascents and it was nice to see many familiar names in the "cast aluminum cylinder." We found a photocopy register (from the 1930's to 1977) and a small "pipe" register which we were unable to open. After summit photos, we returned the same way we ascended, down-climbing and rappelling. In our usual style, we removed many of the bleached "poot" slings along the way, and I found a tattered hat with a SPS Sr. Emblem pin on it. Our last rappel landed us at the original rope-up spot. We were unscathed and had all of our gear. I was very thankful. With the sun low on the horizon, we wasted no time in traversing and ascending to our axes, then hurried back to Rambaud Pass as darkness fell. We took a break at the pass and peered over the acclivity. We were dismayed to see that the nice steps we chopped (on the 15' steep section) had partially melted during the day. The snow was once again very hard. However, our ice-axe self belay holes" were still good so we were able to descend to the loose rocks safely. Descending the lower snowfield was a little harder, but again we negotiated it safely (no crampons). Dave did take a short involuntary glissade and remarked how unpleasant the bumpy ride made his backside feel. We finished the descent to camp under moonlight. Our camp was found just as we left it and we had a nice dinner and crashed.
Saturday, August 12 we slept in a little and had a leisurely breakfast as the crags glowed from the sun's morning rays. We tossed some ideas around and then decided to climb 12,774' Wheel Mountain. We left camp shortly before 9AM and hiked our now familiar route to Rambaud Pass. Once there, we each filled a water bottle with snow and planted our axes. It was a clear, wonderful morning. We ascended Wheel's Class 2 S.E. Ridge. Near the top, we weaved below and in between the summit towers to a point about 50' below the true summit. An easy Class 3 chute led to the top. Although our tower was higher than the others, we could not locate a register. Dave descended and climbed a nearby tower to confirm and was atop the highest one, then returned. Subsequently, I located a film canister register and we spent about 1/2 hour on the summit. While there, Dave spotted a cloud - the first one we'd seen in two days! We descended to Rambaud via our ascent route and drank our melted snow. When we were about to leave. 3 climbers (Doug Mantle, Tina Stough and Barbara Cohen) emerged at the pass. We had a nice discussion with them, then descended while they ascended to Wheel Mountain. During the descent of the Pass, the snow was soft and the glissade enjoyable (unlike the previous one!). We were back at camp in less than an hour. We ate and broke camp, and at 5PM, began our descent to the Middle Fork. Instead of going S.E. along Brushy Rambaud Creek, we stayed high and went east on open slopes, aiming for the trees and then descended 400' of somewhat steep (for a full pack) but easy terrain to the sloping 9,000- 8,800' bench. We then went N.E. through a cool forest and down (still in heavy timber) 600' to the south side of Grouse Meadows (elevation 8,200'). Compared to our route in, this way was pleasant and had no brush. Only the last 50 yards to the river was brushy. Once again, however, there was a cold river to ford! Dave crossed first (as usual!) and I observed from the west bank. The river was at least 60' wide where Dave started across. This time, however, Dave sunk to his armpits (no exaggeration). Basically, all I could see was his neck and head. I became very concerned as the water was close to 5' deep. But Dave made it across just fine and he even looked good as he crossed never once appearing to lose control or balance. I became a bit nervous but knew what I had to do. While I was preparing for the crossing, Dave examined the river and explored his side of the bank. He found a diagonal route which appeared to avoid the deep section. I crossed the diagonal route he found and it wound up being only about 4' deep in the middle. I let out a shout once I was safely across, and we laughed for a long time. After drying out (and regaining the feeling in my toes), we redressed and picked up the J.M.T. about 50 yards away. We hiked north about ½ mile when Dave spotted a black bear hanging out by the trail. 100 yards further we saw a group camp. We found out that they had left some food in a tent and the bear had gotten it. No wonder, then, why it was hanging around. We hiked 1 1/2 miles further to a campsite just before the footbridge over Dusy Branch and decided to camp there for the night. After dinner. I heard a crunching noise nearby so I shined my headlamp in that direction. I saw two eyes and a rack of antlers! There was a buck hanging out at our campsite! We were thankful it wasn't a bear and just went to bed. While our trailmates downstream had a bear, we had a deer! It hung around all night (fine with US).
Sunday, August 13, we got up about 7AM and had breakfast as the buck returned to forage nearby. A few minutes later, a baby buck (it had two little knobs on its head) stopped by, but the adult buck would act aggressively when the young buck came into camp. We figured out why. It may sound gross, but the adult was licking our pee spots, and it would defend them when the smaller deer came too close. There was hardly a dull moment on this trip! After the wild kingdom show ended we packed up and headed to Bishop Pass, 6 miles away and 3,300' above us. We were very happy to arrive and took a break there. All that was left was the 5 mile descent to South Lake. After our rest stop, we started down, and about halfway to the trailhead spotted a one gallon water jug hung up in a creek. We hate to see garbage in the High Sierra and could not continue without getting it. Dave, who was getting real good at fording rivers, waded out and retrieved it and I carried it out. Before we knew it, we were back at the South Lake parking lot a bit weary, but thoroughly satisfied with our adventure, which had all of the elements of a mountaineering trip. a remote, difficult summit, plenty of cross-country travel, unbridged river crossings, routefinding, exposure, etc. And things could not have gone better. As Dave put it, we drew straight aces." [Trip Stats: 40 miles, 13.600' gain.]
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