Mount LeConte, Mount Corcoran
By: Shannon Scott
Participants: Dennis Richards, Larry Hoak, Judy Richardson, Joe Stevens, Shannon Scott
On the morning of Friday, 21 May 2004 a group of climbers under the lead of Dennis Richards departed Tuttle Creek trailhead in the direction of Mt Corcoran with the intention of climbing same. We were also tantalized with the possibility of climbing the overwhelming looking Northeast side of Mt Langley given a group consensus once Corcoran was dispatched with.
On the way up canyon following the Tuttle Creek drainage, Dennis had mentioned to me the possibility of linking nearby Mt LeConte (an SPS Mountaineers Peak) in with the ascent of Mt Corcoran, which I promptly dismissed as a nonpossibility since most of
the other members of the group had their sights set only Corcoran. We continued up thru shady use trails at an easy comfortable pace. Where the hiking trail ends at the Stonehouse, the majority of the group attacked the lower portion of the Tuttle Creek use-trail as one member decided to try the high road. The low route entailed some degree of trail finding and somewhat steep rough terrain but overall not too bad. Continuing upward, a fairly level camp spot was found at approx 10,400 ft with a fresh snowmelt creek adjacent to our camp. All present settled down for a breezy afternoon accompanied by a few large snowflakes, dinner and an early bedtime in anticipation of the hard work in store for the following day.
Everyone was up by 0530 on Saturday morning; breakfast was downed and the group headed off toward the bowl at the base of "Comb Ridge." While the majority took an indirect but easy dogleg approach around the waterfalls leading up to the valley bowls, one member (Joe Stevens) decided to tackle the direct route by hurling himself straight up the scree slopes adjacent to our route. Joe was looking tired as our tracks again crossed just prior to the bowl as we took a brief snack break and waited for the rest of the group to filter in. As we all sat discussing the various peaks and lines, Dennis again mentioned the LeConte-Corcoran Traverse and emphatically suggested I "go for it" (which, incidentally happens to be Dennis' mantra.) Again I balked but as we ascended the easy slopes to the base of the climb I couldn't help but notice that the perfect weather, great snow conditions and my feeling strong were all pointing to the fact that I should take a stab at it. I signed out and tromped off in the direction of the "Laughing Dolphin," the statuesque landmark just down and south from the LeConte summit blocks.
The route as seen from the bowl was the only continuous snow line to the southern summit ridge. It was broken up by one short section of rock in the form of a refrigerator sized chockstone blocking the gully, capped off by a lOft section of steep snow shortly beyond. As both of these obstacles appeared to be easily overcome, I raced up the slope in hopes of re-uniting with the rest of the group before they got back to camp. The knee-deep sastrugi stairs made the lower two-thirds of the climb quite easy; I kept the friendly dolphin in sight and was at the chockstone in under an hour. What looked to be an easy 3rd class move going around and right side of the chockstone turned out to be slightly tricky as my backpack jammed me halfway up and I was unable to proceed any further. I downclimbed and determined to think this one thru as the group was far away and a mistake here could be serious. I then attempted some 5th class rock up and around but was dead-ended without a rope or a belay and concluded that the chockstone bypass was the only viable possibility. As I climbed back up to the small snow platform directly below the stone, my mind was busy considering how to overcome this obstacle, rather than paying attention to the current climbing; I stepped up onto the platform and was promptly hucked as the thin veneer of snow blew aside and exposed a solid block of ice underneath. As I began to hurtle downslope I recall thinking this could be trouble (my axe had been conveniently quick-stowed in my pack) and just as quickly as it started, I stopped as my outstretched arm hooked a small block of rock lOft down. I decided it was time to stop doddling and climbed up to the platform again (being much more careful this time) dumped the pack and tied in to it with some 1/8" Dacron line and quickly clambered around and over the offending block. A quick hand-over-hand on the trail line and I was re-united with my pack and was on my way after overcoming a short steep section of neve* just above the chockblock. I continued up the gully to the small col between LeConte and the peakiet directly south, down the other side approx l00ft and began traversing north and up which landed me just below the top of the infamous "Waterfall Pitch."
As there was no water flowing, this "pitch" was easily dispatched and I was soon on top (Mt LeConte - elev. 13,930ft) and downing a peanut butter bagel by 1130. (In retrospect I probably could have saved at least 45-minutes had I not been so indecisive in my approach to the chockstone.) I marked the register and headed down in hopes of blasting the traverse and catching the group. I descended and broke away from the Waterfall Pitch about 100 ft down and began wrapping around the west side of the crest following a slightly downward trend. Aiming for the obvious notches and bypassing the first large gully leading back up to the ridge, I was soon looking up at the "Y" configured gully which leads to Corcoran. At this point I decided to put on my crampons as I had no desire to go hurtling down any more ice slopes (and this one was in shade, icy and fairly steep!)
Continuing upward, I ventured toward the rightmost bifurcation and passed underneath a humungous chockstone overhead near the top of the ridge and was soon looking at the footprints of my comrades who were just coming down from their successful summit of Corcoran. 1 wrapped around the corner and there they were. We quickly exchanged hellos and I ran for the summit block of Corcoran (elev 1 3,760ft) hoping to not get left too far behind as they began their descent. I topped out and scribbled a quick blurb, then boogied back down to find a perfect glissade track going from the top of the couloir all the way to the bottom Suiting up in my raingear I shoved my boots right thru my pants blowing out the seams in both legs - oh well, that's what gaiters are for... and on to my rear for 800 ft of terminal velocity bumsliding. At the base of the chute I was once again with the group as we made our way back to camp. We decided to give the scree slope a go for the descent - for anyone considering this as a descent route you should STAY HIGH until you are directly above the chute leading straight down to the meadows below. Traverse across too early or too low (as we did) and you'll be in for some less than pleasant large-scale talus scrambling. We were all back together at the camp by 230 and had the remainder of the perfect windless, sunny afternoon to lollygag, stretch, rest and rehydrate on the white-sand beach of our campsite.
The following morning, it was time to head home; myself and two others decided to take the high path from the Keyhole Wall back down to the Stonehouse; this was a pleasant route as it entailed much fine scree and we were quickly down to the fabled Ashram and enjoying brunch when Dennis Richards and Larry Hoek strolled in a few minutes behind us, they having taken the lower route adjacent to the south fork of Tuttle Creek. A quick jaunt over the bridge and thru the woods and we were back at the cars; fifteen minutes driving and we were holed up in the Lone Pine Pizza Factory by 1130 after another great weekend enjoying the freedom of the hills.
Mucho mahalo to Dennis Richards for getting everyone up and motivated to do this trip.
*neve - refers to snow that has been cyclically frozen and slightly melted, then refrozen numerous times. Or it can refer to the accumulation basin (neve) of a glacier.
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