Mount Dade, Mount Mills
By: Beth Epstein
Little did I know, in 1998, when I assisted Asher Waxman on an Abbot/Mills climb, that when we arrived at camp just below Mills Lake on Saturday afternoon and decided not to climb Mills, I would be left with a dilemma. It seemed the civilized thing to do, and it was the consensus of the group: let's just enjoy a beautiful afternoon at camp and be fresh for Abbot tomorrow, and leave the loose afternoon snow and rock on Mills for another day. Well, that other day arrived two years later, almost to the date.
Our decision left me and several of the original participants of that trip - Carol Snyder, Terry Flood and Kim Gimenez - with two peaks, Dade and Mills, in the same general vicinity. Last fall when I asked Carol what climb she would come on if I listed it, she suggested Dade, so I decided go for Mills, too. The logistics weren't perfect for a class 3 M-level climb of both. The sensible thing to do would have been to dayhike them separately, but I like being out there in the alpenglow with the rock and trees and good company. Treasure Lakes seemed the best camp for a class 3 climb of both peaks (Mills Lake is best for a class 4 climb of Dade). This made for a somewhat indirect approach to Mills. But people actually agreed to come. Unfortunately for all of us, but especially Carol, she broke her wrist the week before the trip.
So nine of us - Tim Everett, Terry Flood, Katrin Hafner, Jason Lynch, Jan St. Amand, John Dodds, and John Robinson with Kim Gimenez and I leading - met at Mosquito Flats on Saturday morning, swatting, and headed for Treasure Lakes. Having heard that the talus was troublesome on the use trail to Treasure Lakes and that crossing over from Gem Lake was better, I bypassed the use trail turnoff at the end of Long Lake. Once I got a view of the drainage, covered with snow, I changed my mind and dragged everybody cross-country and back down to it. They were very kind about the error (it was still early!). We took the use trail on the return; even without the snow the talus seems minimal.
We set camp in snow-free (and mosquito-free!) patches in the benches northwest of the lower Treasure Lakes outlet, had lunch and headed for Dade. The snow was just soft enough to make coping with suncups easier and we never needed crampons that afternoon. We circled lower Treasure Lake on the west, crossed into the uppermost lake, around its east side and up the snow-covered inlet. The lake was full of beautiful turquoise ice formations into which we hoped to avoid sliding. From the base of the Hourglass, Kim kicked steps to the top, leaving us in the proverbial dust with more than one person proclaiming her "an animal" and with complaints from the tallest men that her steps were too far apart. Hmm. I know why John Robinson wasn't on her tail - by the time we got back to camp both his plastic boots had flapping soles. We were on top within 3 1/2 hours - what a view! The snow was pretty good for plunge-stepping on the way down, though too soft to glissade or arrest. It was a quick descent anyway, delayed only by my own complete submersion of one leg in the snow-covered talus below the summit. Jan and Kim had to dig me out by hand. We were back in camp by 6 pm, but everyone was so tired from the day that it was hard to arouse much enthusiasm for happy hour, and for the first time in a long while I didn't have to carry home my dinner. It was also hard to inspire much enthusiasm for a predawn start, so we compromised on 5:30.
If this had been a PCS trip, this would be titled "A Long Dade's Journey into Mills". We left camp at 5:30 in plenty of light. Katrin didn't feel well, John R needed a cobbler and John D had Mills, so now we were 6. The snow was a little harder, but not much. We used our hardened steps from the day before to the basin at 11,500'. I opted not to ascend via Treasure Saddle because the snow was melting fast and the rocky slabs were very wet, instead climbing an extra 200' up a solid snow gully due east of Dade and traversing below its north face. Crampons were helpful here. It is a long way up, and once onto the rolling morainal ridges below Abbot, you see you have to drop a little which is disheartening. But we got a interesting view of the route on Mills and I don't know what I was thinking by not taking a picture. Secor's descriptions of the East Couloir are good, but the photo locates the routeline a little bit too far south.
Reviewing the published write-ups on Mills is like watching "Rashoman". Everyone talks about what must be the same thing in very different ways. I projected my own impressions just in reading them, and may have missed the Van Dalsem route as a result. From our vantage point on the moraine, it was clear that there were a pair of couloirs close to one another on the East face, with a rib between them, the southern one wider and more snow-filled, which was, of course, appealing. The chockstone in the more northerly one was clearly visible half a mile away, and it is very close to the base of the steep rock where the couloirs begin. From a distance - even from 10 yards away - it looked very straightforward, but when I got up to it my heart sank. The reason it looked easy was because the snow was high in front of it. In fact you had to descend 6 feet down the snow which had melted next to it in a sort of mini-schrund, so what was left to climb was ten feet of smooth granite with flaring cracks on each side, few footholds, water pouring down from melting ice on top and soft snow at the base. Here I wish I had the conversation which occurred later with my assistant, who interpreted Secor as saying the alcove of the Van Dalsem route was an alternative to the chockstone. Rereading, it seems possible. I assumed it was above the chockstone, and turned to climb the southern gully.
Kim kicked steps to the end of the gully, where we confronted a headwall - exposed junk on two sides, and ahead a wide, ominously dark chimney which I was reluctant to explore because the rock looked so big and so loose. A sizeable block on which Kim was standing toppled. After viewing the area from above, I wish I had checked the chimney, but I had seen a potential crossing into the northern gully about 100' down and we descended to it. There were two low points on the rib within 20 feet of each other, and we took the upper one, a 15' series of class 3 blocks and cracks with a slightly awkward step-around and an exit into loose rock which led to the top of the rib and over into the northern couloir. Ascending 50 more feet of sandy ribs and eroding rock in the north gully, we got back on the steep, softening snow which led to the top of the ridge. We traversed south below a peaklet on the ridge, staying on snow until the final few feet before the summit plateau, which wasn't visible until our heads popped up onto it. To describe my feeling at the sight of the plateau as relief would be an understatement.
By this time it was almost noon and my pleasure at having found the summit was diminished somewhat by my concern about the descent. But we did the summit stuff -enjoyed the really spectacular views, read the registers (we were the first entry this year), took pictures. Heading down, we peered over the edge of the plateau and saw the standard traverse, mostly clear of snow, across good ledges and talus to the northern gully, and we took it all the way back to our notch in the rib, where we set up a belay back down into the south gully. We then downclimbed the snow to a point where we all could plunge step and began the long haul in soft snow back over the moraine to the Treasure Lakes drainage. Jason and Jan shared the step-kicking duties and we were back at camp at 6:00 and at the cars by 7:45. It was a longer day than I would have liked - a strenuous adventure whose stats don't tell the tale - but thanks to the care everyone took we encountered very minimal rockfall and we were all safe.
Need Dade and Mills? Do it in the snow to avoid rockfall. Climb Dade's north face and camp near Mills Lake. Call somebody and ask about the Van Dalsem alcove. Bring Super Glue. But mostly make sure you've got a party of strong, determined and agreeable participants like ours.
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