Routes: East Ridge, South Ridge, Southeast Slopes
Elevation Gained: 4,200'
RT Distance: 16 mi
RT Time: 10hr
Trailhead: Lake Sabrina
Summit Elevs.: Mt. Haeckel: 13,418' Mt. Wallace: 13,377'
Rating: Class 3
By this time there were far fewer people showing up for the Sierra Challenge. Today Bob Burd, Michael Graup, and Matthew Holliman were going to climb Mt Haeckel via the class 3 East Ridge and then follow the class 3 South Ridge over to the summit of Mt Wallace. Haeckel was supposed to have some interesting class 3 scrambles while Wallace, considered a good peak to do in combination, was described as a talus pile. Dave Wright showed up at the trailhead with plans only to have a nice hike, but none for really summitting anything. Joe Dawson was also going to join us. At 6:10 everyone left the trailhead except Joe, who had failed to show up.
We hiked along the edge of Lake (Reservoir) Sabrina as the trail gradually ascended the southern slopes. The hiking was easy, and today I seemed to be having an easier time keeping up with Bob and the gang – I was finally getting used to the pace of the hiking. The beautiful trail switch backed up some slopes and cut across the east end of Blue Lake. The scenery was beautiful and everyone stopped briefly to take pictures.
We crossed the outlet of the lake on some stepping stones and followed the trail as it wound up and down around the hilly landscape, passing by the Emerald Lakes. Soon after passing Dingelberry Lake we began to cut back to the east as the trail meandered up a different drainage. The trail was well maintained and fairly level, so the hiking was relatively easy.
As we headed into the next drainage we passed a large group of people heading down the trail carrying a lot of gear. They were volunteer trail workers heading out for the day. Some of the workers asked about why we were carrying ice axes since there was no snow around and we explained to them what we were doing for the day. They were rather surprised at our ambitious goals and wished us luck on the climb.
Soon another rise was topped, the trail dropped, and we neared Hungry Packer Lake. The imposing “Picture Peak” towered majestically above the lake and again everyone was taking photos. Bob announced that he was going to stop by the lake shore to refill his water and that he would catch up, so Matthew, Michael, and I cut off the trail and headed up the steep cliffy slopes of a ridge spur to the west. We easily picked our way through the cliffs. Thinking that we were getting ahead of Bob, I was surprised to find that he had had enough time to refill he water and intercept us at a saddle in the ridge. We then followed him as the terrain turned to some class 3 scrambling. Bob led us along the south side of the ridge and we soon began climbing some terrain that was definitely more difficulty. One exposed traverse was particularly tricky, requiring some awkward bending postures and scarce handholds, but soon we were past the ridge and crossing the outlet of another picturesque alpine lake.
Bob led the way, heading up the steeper but more solid looking east side of a buttress on the south side of the lake. As the terrain became more questionable Bob explained his intent to us – the actual route passed on the other side of the cliffs, but he wanted to see if he could find his way up these cliffs and over an unnamed high point before continuing on to the East Ridge of Haeckel. He had no idea how difficult this improvised route might be, and we all opted to take the easier and more certain option of traversing back around the cliffs rather than following Bob.
We climbed up and to the north and soon were over the cliffs and above the loose talus slopes leading down to the alpine lake we had passed. From there it was a somewhat tedious boulder-hop to a point where we could traverse to a snowfield leading to the East Ridge of Mt Haeckel. Haeckel was beautiful, rising like a white citadel high above the snowfield before us. Michael and I were out in front cramponing up the steep snowfield and Matthew followed about 5 minutes behind. The final chute of the snowfield was about 35-35o and composed of very hard packed and sun cupped snow, providing some good practice for our French Technique.
At the saddle I looked up at the imposing east ridge of Mt Haeckel. We obviously couldn’t head straight up from the saddle – that was definitely harder than class 3. Michael seemed to know where he was going and charged out in front. I followed close behind and Matthew fell further behind. We traversed onto the south slope of the peak. The terrain was very steeped and composed of granite terraces, rising like steps toward the summit. I kept looking for a way to get onto the East Ridge but could find no such class 3 route. Meanwhile, Michael kept heading west until he was nearly at the South Ridge of the peak before cutting up! I thought that this route was very strange since we were nowhere near the East Ridge. In fact, I was rather disappointed, since the granite terraces only offered intermittent class 3 scrambling on a line not nearly as aesthetic as the rugged skyline of the East Ridge.
The final scramble to the summit cut through a notch in the ridge and traversed around the north side of the ridge before entering a notch at the base of the summit block. The summit block was exposed and required some mantling. Michael and I barely stayed on top long enough to sign the summit register – the wind was howling and it was very cold on top.
As we headed down we heard someone coming up through the first notch in the summit ridge. ‘It’s probably Matthew,’ we surmised to each other. Suddenly Bob appeared. Apparently Bob had passed him a ways down and Matthew was moving about 10 minutes behind. The summit was cold enough that we all decided not to wait for him. He could catch up to us on the South Ridge.
Once again I was somewhat disappointed with the route. It was called the South Ridge, but it traveled some 100 ft below the actual ridge! I would have like to stay right on the ridge, but it seemed rather silly to do so when traversing along the east slopes slightly lower down was so much easier, and I didn’t want to make myself any slower than I needed to since I had two fast scramblers to keep up with.
As usual, Bob and Michael pulled ahead and I was left to my own enjoyment of the ridge. Once I got to Mt Wallace I was pleasantly surprised. Although the chutes one could ascend were talus piles, it was not only more fun but also easier to ascend some class three walls and chimneys along the sides of the chutes to reach the summit.
The summit block was composed of two tall granite blocks, seemingly cleaved apart by some powerful force. Bob and Matthew were on the taller block to the north. This block required a slightly exposed mantle to surmount and barely had enough room to fit the three of us. I had arrived at the summit at about the same time as another couple heading up the same final route on the peak, and we all chatted for a bit on top. They were climbers visiting from Alaska.
The man was nice enough to sit on the opposing summit block and photograph us. He was perfectly silhouetted against the dramatic mountains in the distance, so we took some photos of him perched on the summit block. Bob ferried cameras back and forth for the photo ops, climbing the Wallace summit several times. Then we were ready to head down. Matthew was still no where to be seen.
We descended the miserable steep scree on the Southeast Slope of Mt Wallace. R.J. Secor described the route as “Class 2. Loose scree makes this a good descent route. Caution is needed when crossing loose blocks near the top.” That was an understatement – the slope was at the angle of repose and was an accident waiting to happen. I was the unfortunate one to be involved in that accident.
Bob and Michael were ahead of me again as I descended the slopes. I didn’t know at what point they descended, so I gradually descended as I traversed south along the bowl at the top of the Southeast Slopes. The terrain was an odd mixture of loose sand and scree, with a lot of medium and large rocks scattered about in this shifting matrix. I found that it was easy to start skiing down the rocks since they were so loose, but I avoided the temptation since I didn’t know if Bob and Michael were below me.
As I headed toward a subtle ridge to head down, I walked across a seemingly innocent open stretch on the slope and I stepped on a BIG booby trap. Suddenly I was sliding down the hill on a cushion of rocks. A patch about 20 ft by 20 ft around me suddenly let loose. Before I knew what was happening several suitcase-size rocks drifted together around my ankle, pinning me into the slide. As I began to accelerate I managed to grab onto a large boulder as I passed and held onto it for my life. Luckily I was pried free from the clutches of the larger rocks in the slide, and it swept past me with a deafening roar. By this point the rocks had picked up enough speed that the large blocks that had imprisoned me were ricocheting off of the walls of the chute below, setting off slide after slide.
“Rock! Rock! Rock!” I shouted at the top of my lungs, as if it wasn’t obvious what was happening. Soon the roar of the rock fall drowned out my warnings to Bob and Michael below. I felt awful and prayed that they had enough sense to be on a protrusion from the slopes by that time. The rocks just kept pouring and soon I couldn’t see the valley below as the dust from the rock fall began to rise up. An updraft blew the dust back up the slope and a wall of dust rose past me. As the rocks continued to pour the dust cloud, perhaps rising over 600 feet, became so thick that I couldn’t see further than 10 feet away.
After what seemed like an eternity the rumbling subsided and I shouted out for Bob and Michael. Bob let out a whistle and we all shouted to each other to make sure everyone was all right and to confirm where we all were. Luckily Bob and Michael had gotten onto some subtle ridges on the slope and were out of the line of fire.
Needless to say I descended the rest of the slopes much more carefully. Each time a section of the slope began to give way I stopped my movement, paranoid of starting another large rock fall. Near the bottom of the slope I passed a couple of feet away from a rock the size of a hamper, and my disturbance of the soil supporting it caused it to roll toward me. I pushed back in vain as I tried to jump out of the way, and it rolled over my foot. After a few anguished howls, enough feeling returned to my foot to tell whether or not it was broken. Luckily the soil beneath my foot was soft enough to have protected my foot, so I limped on down the slope.
By the time I reached the safety of flatter ground and was nearing Moonlight Lake I realized that Michael and Bob were far ahead of me. I also realized that I had no idea how far behind me Matthew was, and I really didn’t like the idea of waiting a long time at the trailhead for him to get down. Food, drinks, and a shower were just too appealing to wait for possibly another hour to have. I HAD to catch up with Bob and Michael before they left me to such a fate! I picked up the pace and once I was back on the trail I began jogging. I jogged on the down hills and some of the flat ground, and I hiked like a madman up the occasional hill. I figured that they were heading downhill at a fast 3 mph and had perhaps a half hour head start on me – I had my work cut out for me.
Despite my fatigue I pressed on as fast as I could. As I neared Dingleberry Lake I passed the volunteer trail maintenance crew again and inquired as to whether they had seen Bob and Michael. They said that they had seen the pair about 10 minutes earlier, so that meant that they were still probably another 20 minutes ahead of me – I’d better pick up the pace!
I ran down the trail, moving as fast as my feet would carry me. Hikers that I passed heading uphill probably thought that I was a madman. I asked a few if they had seen Bob and Michael, and each time they seemed to have seen them more recently. I was catching up! I was nearing Lake Sabrina when I had them down to about 10 minutes ahead of me. I had no idea if they would wait one minute for me at the trailhead, so time was running short. At one point I tripped, fell flat on my forearms, and immediately jumped back up and continued jogging.
Finally I was at the home stretch and I bounded off the trail and down the dirt road to where the cars were parked. And then there was my salvation – the car was there! Bob and Michael were still unpacking their gear in preparation to leave. I had arrived about 5 minutes behind them. Panting, I dropped onto some grass beside the car in relief.
Bob and Michael seemed amused at my exhausted state, for reasons I wouldn’t know until Bob wrote his trip report of the event. They had mercifully planned on waiting for me! I felt so satisfied having caught up to them that it was probably for the best that they didn’t ruin the moment by telling me.