Mount Darwin, Mount Mendel, Mount Lamarck
By: Nile Sorenson
We assembled at the hiker parking at North Lake on Friday morning for a 7:00 am start. Participants included Neal Robbins (our well prepared leader), Ron Norton, Richard Whitcomb, Penelope May and me bringing up the rear. Our goal was to reach Lamarck Col, climb Lamarck peak and descend into the Darwin Lakes basin to camp. This would be a big day and all were prepared. The cross country route by Lamarck lakes is well documented in many write ups. Neal led us through the tricky areas remarkably well. We had no difficulty in reaching Lamarck Col. We dumped the packs and headed to Lamarck Peak. This is an easy class 2 climb. The only difficulty was actually believing we were on the summit, since the south slope is just that, a slope, and not a real summit until you look over the north face. There are several spots along the crest of the ridge to the west that are actually higher than Lamarck. Neal led the group to the right spot even though some of us were trying to go further west to these higher places. Descending down into the basin we found some reasonable spots to camp. There was plenty of snow and running water everywhere so we did not go all the way down to the lakes.
Saturday morning we started at 5:15 am. We put on crampons just a few hundred yards from camp. Neal kicked steps all the way up to the Darwin Glacier, and then up the glacier to the notch, which provides access to the west ridge route on Darwin. This notch is formed by a nice snow chute leading to the crest of the west ridge of Darwin. It is well described by Secor and in other SPS write ups. It is easy to spot and identify. The access to the chute proper, proved a little difficult due to snow coverage over the class 3 rock approach. We did some mixed climbing on steep snow and rock just above rocky cliffs to get into the chute. Once in the couloir, we had 40 to 45 degree snow easing up as we went higher to the crest of the ridge. Thanks to Neal and Ron for kicking steps. After gaining the ridge, the traverse to the plateau is easily done by staying just to the right or the south of the crest as described by Secor and others.
There are several descriptions about the detached summit pinnacle. It is not difficult! One can descend down into the small notch between the plateau and the pinnacle on either the left or the right side. It doesn't matter. The key is to go around the pinnacle itself on the right or south side. It is not necessary to drop below 15 or 20 feet from the level of the plateau. Once on the southeast side of the pinnacle, climb the easiest crack system to the top (there are 2). It is a little exposed but is not hard. Once on top, all gave high fives.
The descent down Darwin across the plateau, ridge, and chute, was a little tricky in the same area near the bottom of the chute. Shallow snow provided unsecure anchors with the ax, so we fixed a rope for one short pitch on a descending traverse. We were back on the Darwin glacier by 1:30 and headed for Mendel. Somewhere in all the climbing that morning, Richard had ripped out the seat of his pants. Any snow sliding for him now became rather "exposed".
Mendel is a route finding problem. Just read the write ups and note the confusion regarding the east face route. There had been a large slide on the east face with tons of rock debris covering the glacier. Maybe that is why the route is difficult because it is changing. Oh well, maybe this will help.
There are two crux problems on the east face of Mendel. One is getting into the correct chute up on the face. The second is exiting this chute to surmount the sununit plateau. First let's get the big picture.
When you look at the east face of Mendel from a distance, it is easy to spot a snow gully rising from the glacier, diagonally to the right (north). I will call it a snow gully even though it may not have snow in it by August. This gully can be seen going almost to the top of the ridge extending north from the peak. This gully is where the climb begins. It is a mistake to climb it to the top. To the left (south) of this snow gully and higher up there appear 2 distinct debris chutes that rise more or less toward the summit area. They actually rise up just slightly to the right (north) of the summit plateau. The left most (or southern of these 2 chutes) appears to run directly up into some steep headwalls or cliffs forming the summit block proper. I will call this the left debris chute. This left debris chute is the one you eventually want to get in and climb. In order to get into this left debris chute from the original diagonal snow gully one must traverse to the left (south) on a ramp or shelf or ledge. Here lies one of the problems. There are several ledges or ramps that run left. How does one know which ramp or ledge system? I will tell you because I tried several, so here goes the route description, starting from the glacier.
Climb diagonally up into the snow gully off the glacier for several hundred feet. Some write ups say about 500 but that depends on where you are starting on a nondescript snow bowl. As you ascend this snow gully take the second ramp system cutting off to the left. It will traverse only about 30 to 50 yards. If you have mistakenly taken the first ramp system, it will go much longer than 30 to 50 yards. If you are on the correct ramp you will come to an end and can see the lower ramp system below you continuing on rising toward the south. This sort of end point you are in will now be in the correct debris chute, although it will not look like you are in a real chute. Climb upward over the easiest way staying in the chute. It will eventually widen into a wide sandy gully taking you to the base of the summit headwall. None of the climbing to this point is more than high class 2 or very low class 3. You now should be standing below the headwall of 100 to 150 foot cliffs that are higher on the left than the right. There also appears to be sort of a notch or small saddle right above you. This was filled with snow and may be where the chock stone spoken of by Secor is, however we couldn't see it due to snow. We had two choices. Go left or right.
If you go to the left you will be climbing a steep crack system visible in the cliff. It looks sort of like a chimney with what has been called a chockstone at its head just 20' below the rim of the summit plateau. It is not a real apparent chock stone. It is sort of squarish. We did not go this way and cannot comment on this route except to say that it is very vertical and appears exposed but is very direct with no searching around.
If you want to go right, just climb easily up to the ridge that is forming the right hand wall of the gully which you have been in. Climb the talus on this ridge till you reach the summit ridge where you will run into some large blocks. This is the main summit ridge running north from the actual summit. You will now have to search around for a way through the large blocks to the west side of the summit ridgeline. This will allow you to cross the notch spoken of earlier. We found some low class 3 moves here. This area is only about 60 feet or 10 minutes from the summit, so don't give up. After working through the blocks, we crossed the notch spoken of previously, on a snow cornice, which of course may not be there other times. Above the notch area is where the key hole is. The key hole is entered on the east side of the ridge and dumps you out on the west side of the ridge blocks. It is very distinct and you cannot mistake it once you find it. Climb along the west side with one class 3 move and you are on top. We made the summit in just over 2 hours from the glacier. We had a strong team and were back at camp by 6 pm. Wow what a great day.
That night most of us were awakened by what sounded like very close and very loud thunder. It turned out to be a large rock slide on Mendel in the area where we had climbed, so we don't know if the whole foregoing description is still accurate or not. Good luck.
Sunday, the hike out over Lamarck Col back to the cars was enjoyable. We were in the cars a little after 1:00pm ready for Pizza in Bishop. Thanks to Neal for a great lead and Ron for kicking steps, and Richard and Penelope for wonderful company and good climbing.
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