Mount Abbot, Mount Dade
19-Sep-98 (Private Trip)
By: Mitch Miller
My unfinished business with Mt. Abbot dated back to 1984 when about 21 people turned back after a falling rock cut one participant's forehead. Three years later my friend and I turned back from the north couloir upon realizing we would later be downclimbing steep, hard snow without ice axe or crampons. The trickle of loose stones dropping provided ominous background to our decision. Ten minutes later, rockfall in that very same couloir sent dust flying hundreds of feet up the precipitous east face of the Sierra crest. We never knew if careless climbers were above. The previous day the party camped beside us successfully completed the southeast buttress route.
Thus it was I chose to not return to the couloir but attempt the southeast buttress of Abbot. Two weeks before the trip there were two; Linda McDermott and myself. This would be Linda's I Oth SPS emblem peak, and my 13th. Richard Whitcomb signed up and called to express a desire for Mt. Dade. I packed more E.R.G. Non-member Paul Sue enjoyed our August climb of Middle Palisade enough to join on. Saturday morning at Mosquito Flats Linda said she had spoken with Ron Bartel and Gary Craig who expressed an interest in joining the group. Ron had summited Abbot twice before, including by way of the north couloir. We set out at 8:15 and pitched camp at Treasure Lakes at 10:30.
Linda and Ron have climbed Mt. Dade. She fished while he scouted and compared Abbot's routes. Paul elected to rest up for Abbot and casually wandered about the landscape, including Dade Lake. At noon, Gary, Richard and I headed for the Hourglass route; 40 degrees of snow hardening with autumn's approach. Gary only learned Friday afternoon he was not going to climb Red Slate and Red and White when he arrived at Ron's. He borrowed crampons from Linda. Gary found the fit poor and stashed them in his pack. I stashed mine on some rocks and joined Gary in a traverse left to the less-sunlit snow, then right to a moat beside a towering pinnacle. We chopped steps as we went. Richard assuredly cramponed upward to the lowest rocks. Meanwhile, Gary and I invented routes over and around the loose crud between a six foot high wall of ice and a steep rock face.
It was nice to leave the ice axes at the saddle where we viewed a lake which was part newlyfrozen and part Arctic; huge slabs of turquoise and is white ice tainted with pink algae, cracked and rising against one another. Skeletal shadows of chaotic gendarmes crept down a steep, bright wall of snow behind the lake. Westerly winds picked up just to the point where my nylon shirt was too cool and my thermals too warm. After a bit the boring scree turned to class 2 rock climbing and we got there. What a sweet view to Mt. Abbot. The jagged crest plummeted away from our feet then repeatedly soared and dropped on its course to Sunday's objective. Lake Italy sparkled in sunlight and the Coast Range pierced through Central Valley haze on the western horizon. Upon viewing the southeast buttress we three agreed the north couloir really couldn't be all that bad, and certainly not that vertical! I divorced my mind from the work ahead, wishing I'd carried my crampons higher.
The descent was notably more exciting, difficult and heart-stopping. Back at the top of the shadow-cast Hourglasses' snows Gary and Richard settled down to don crampons, and I began the work of downclimbing as safely as I could. This meant turning my face to the slope and alternately pinching suncups, kicking steps and slamming my pick into the ice, then lowering it. My whole world became the ten or so square feet of white before me. At the occasional generous foothold I'd peer down at the bottom that seemed to draw away rather than closer. The next event happened rather suddenly. I heard a commotion above and glanced up to see Richard sliding towards me and Gary shouting'arrest!' Richard!s course was more to my side than I realized at first. Nearly even with me, he managed to take control of his axe, turn and bury it into the snow coming to a safe stop, to everyone's relief.
We were back in camp at 5:15 p.m. where some of us enjoyed Linda's golden trout catch. A new moon September night brought the Milky Way seemingly closer and Jupiter burned a hole in the morning sky. High, variable winds and my altimeter's rising digits signaled something was meteoroligcally afoot. Morning brought Richard's announcement that his Hourglass slide pained him enough to pass on Abbot. We other five left late at 6:45 a.m. to allow sunlight to soften the north couloir snows. It was strange to view that icy gash in the crest again, having never wanted to return. At the final rocky rest stop Ron elected to sit this one out; he'd been there twice and was without crampons. Paul carried the rope to belay Gary while Linda and I crunched our boot nails into the hard stuff. I had created new holes in the crampon straps and enjoyed the added security. I also learned part of a leader's responsibility is to change the subject when the subject drops very steeply and far below.
It wasn't long and we were all four beyond the path hospitably cut across the couloir, and stashing crampons below the sifting rock ledges. Two climbers who had recently appeared several hundred feet below us on the snow field were by now at the base of the northeast buttress, apparently without crampons, ice axes or rope, and moving very slowly. Meanwhile, we four enjoyed the stable class 3 rock we found between the fidgety stuff. It was a good day to be 67' and enjoy long stretches. Route finding was easy with Ron directing traffic from below with arm signals, and plenty of cairns nicely leading the way. Up on the skyline we stashed helmets and the one axe we'd taken just in case. We celebrated a little prematurely. I soon noticed what appeared to be some challenging territory ahead.
But from there it became really fun and thrilling. A brief class I walk-up transitioned to class 3 down and following cracks and slabs on the west side above big air over Upper Mills Creek Lake. Next came ledges up and over the crest and along the east side, just past the barrier at the top of our couloir. Then it was back to the ridgeline for the final walk-up. It was really good to at long last see that steel case embossed "Mount Abbot". Views encompassed Mono Lake, Yosemite, Mt. Whitney, well into Nevada and generally lotsa great places. All were smiles and our camera shutters blazed. Linda passed out wonderful summit brownies which disappeared without problem. She commented she does not need any more Sierra peaks. I give her until June. I told Abbot goodbye and that I would not be back. Oh, maybe not this millenium.
The down-climb included a meeting with the other two climbers, one of whom looked really spent. The stronger one had the pack and pronounced his dizziness. The weaker individual asked about the peaks whereabouts. We pointed out it was the rather obvious hulk behind us. Paul broke the news they had another hour to summit. Very fast clouds jettisoned east above the peak. We departed and accomplished our descent of the screedappled ledges without incident, taking turns passing through the looser areas so not to bop anyone on the head. The remainder went well and all were back at the cars no later than 5:45, in blustery autumn-like air, clouds spilling through passes, and summits having disappeared in the fog. Next time, I carry SASE's for the strangers of whose fate we may forever wonder. But for now, many thanks to all who participated for their camaraderie and motivation!
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