2004 Sierra Challenge - Day 6: Mt Winchell, East Arete

August 5th, 2004

Routes: East Arete

Elevation Gained: 6,044'

RT Distance: 17 mi

RT Time: 8hr 30min

Trailhead: Big Pine

Summit Elevs.: 13,768'

Rating: Class 3

Mt Sill seen from just above Sam Mac Meadow.

It was 5 am and we were all ready to go at the Big Pine trailhead. The day’s challengers for climbing Mt Winchell’s East Ridge were Bob, Michael, Matthew, Joe, Michelle, and me. Some of the others had planned on having an easier day and were climbing nearby Mt Agassiz from a different trailhead.

We started out hiking with headlamps, but hardly a half hour went by before we had enough morning glow from the rising sun to dispense with them. We quickly covered the first set of switchbacks climbing into the north fork and were across the following flats and up the tedious broad switchbacks in no time. I was familiar with this approach as I had climbed 14,000 ft Mt Sill nearly a year earlier with Dirk Summers and Joe Wilson. Last time we hauled in heavy packs laden with climbing gear to attempt the 5.8 Swiss Arete, and we spent a full day on the approach, camping in Sam Mack Meadow. This time I was breezing along the trail with barely 25 lbs in my daypack.

I was amazed at the comparative difference in progress we made. What had before seemed like a long approach was merely a short stroll along a shaded creek, with barely a glimpse of First, Second, and Third Lakes. Bob, Michelle, and Joe had fallen behind and Matthew had disappeared in the lead, while Michael and I hiked together. We left the main trail just above Third Lake and crossed a marsh before hiking up the final set of switchbacks to gain Sam Mack Meadow.

The meadow was really a ½ mile deep box-shaped notch cut dramatically into the granite cliffs below the Palisade Glacier. The flatness of the lush green ground was a striking contrast to the bare vertical palisades of crystalline granite surrounding the meadow – it was definitely one of the most beautiful base camps that I had the privilege to stay in when I was last here.

Matthew had reached the meadow about 10 minutes before me and Michael, and we regrouped and took a short food and water break while we waited for Bob to catch up. About 5 minutes later he arrived, but Joe and Michelle were nowhere to be seen. Apparently Michelle had been suffering on and off from a knee injury during the trip and had to slow down. Joe stayed with her.

Next was the problem of getting out of the meadow, which unexpectedly turned out to be the crux of the route. A cascade cut through the cliffs on the northwest end, and we scrambled up the talus and boulders along the side of the stream. This drainage had been in shade enough that it was covered in a thick layer of snow undercut by the stream. This large tongue of snow kept us on the right side of the stream. Suddenly we got to a point where the rocks were completely covered in a thin veneer of verglass. They had been drenched from the spraying water and there was not one patch that had not been iced over.

After searching around for an ice free way, I decided to just climb up the verglass – I carefully wedged my feet in the interstices of the rocks to prevent them from slipping out and climbed to the left of a large boulder, right into the spray of the stream. Soon I was through the icy section, and my hands were drenched and cold. Luckily I hadn’t gotten too wet. As the others followed I continued up the drainage.

Mt Sill & The V Notch Couloir
The north side of Thunderbolt Pk seen from just above Sam Mac Meadow.
The north side of Thunderbolt Pk seen from just above Sam Mack Meadow.

Up above was a wonderland of vertical granite cliffs rising above a contrastingly flat drainage bottom composed of multi-leveled granite slabs, with the stream winding its way down the middle. Once again I felt like I was in southern Utah again, familiar territory. Rather than give up my lead, I whipped out the topo map that I brought along, referenced it visually with the slabs, ledges, and cliffs all around, and chose a route. After many years scrambling in similar terrain in the southwest, I had an intuitive grasp of how the rock would go, where to go to stay above the rough boulders in the stream bed without getting cliffed out on the slabs above.

I took off up a ramp to the left. I kept my eyes peeled and found a nice series of slabs that took me over to an unnamed lake at 11,800 ft with little elevation gain or loss. I circled around the south and west sides before scrambling up the unpleasantly loose moraine of the Thunderbolt Glacier. At about this time Bob, Michael, and Matthew reached the outlet of the lake. Because of the arrangement of the cliffs, they had to pass around the north side and we met up at a point where the drainage began to narrow again.

Mt Winchell's East Arete seen on the approach. Travel to the left side of the large buttress to begin the route.
Picture Puzzle Peak seen on the approach to the East Arete of Mt Winchell.
Mt Agassiz from the SE.
First Buttress on Mt Winchell.
East Arete of Mt Winchell.
Thunderbolt Pk seen from the East Arete.
Mt Agassiz seen from the East Arete of Mt Winchell.
Mt Agassiz seen from the East Arete of Mt Winchell.

After some brief class 2-3 scrambling to get away from the creek and onto a subtle spur, we finally had a full view of the East Ridge of Mt Winchell. The bottom buttress was heavily broken, so instead of traveling around to the south to gain the ridge, as the route had been described, we climbed straight up the ridge from where it rose up from the landscape. The class 1-2 slabs soon turned to mild class 3 as we climbed higher. After ascending about 1,000 feet we reached a large bowl to the left of the ridge. This bowl provided an easier bypass around some of the more rugged parts of the ridge near the top, so we began climbing the stepped ledges contouring the slope. The enjoyable class 3 climbing was steep and somewhat exposed, and we gained elevation quickly, reaching the summit by noon.

Looking down the East Arete of Mt Winchell.
Mt Sill, Thunderbolt Pk, and Starlight Pk seen from the East Arete of Mt Winchell.
Mt Gayley and Mt Sill seen from the summit.
The North Fork of Big Pine seen from the summit of Mt Winchell.

After we signed the summit register we noticed some figures standing atop the summit of nearby Mt Agassiz. We figured these climbers were the other participants in the Challenge who had gone to climb the peak. We gave a wave but got no noticeable response (Apparently it wasn’t them. In later conversation in Big Pine that night we learned that the others summitted about an hour later in the day). As we rested our legs and enjoyed the view I read through the summit register. One entry that got my attention was one made in memory of a climber who had been killed climbing on Mt Winchell a year earlier. He was a college student not much older than me, making the connection between us even closer. It was somewhat chilling to come across this summit post, which was certainly a reminder of the harshness of the mountain environment that we were playing in.

Glacier fed lake on the descent back to Sam Mac Meadows.

After spending about 15 minutes on the summit, we headed down. Bob gained ground, down climbing faster than the rest of us. As we descended I kept eyeing a large snow-filled couloir on the north side of Thunderbolt Peak. It looked like a rather nice way up the mountain, and since I had planned on climbing it within the next year or so, I mentally filed this route away as I scoped it out from our high vantage point.

As we headed down Michael soon left me and Matthew behind. As we neared Sam Mack Meadow I wasn’t too happy about down climbing the icy rock that we had come up, and I had remembered spying a possible break in the cliffs just south of where we exited the meadows, so on our descent we stayed on a ridge to the south of where we had come up. The terrain continued to slope away from beneath us, but we always seemed to find a route down through the ledges. The final 20 ft was a mildly exposed class 3-4 down climb over a couple of ledges before reaching the flat ground of the meadows. Soon we were there.

Matthew and I made good time hiking briskly back to the trailhead, arriving at the cars about 5 minutes later than Bob and Michael. We had covered in 9.5 hours what had been a full day’s approach (and then some) during my last visit! My legs were a little fatigued, but they still had plenty of energy left in them. I was rather happy with myself for doing better than I had hoped on the Challenge. I seemed to be able to stay up with the lead group, and rather than tiring me out, the day to day hiking seemed to be working me into a good pace that I could sustain.