The weather forecast for the Sierras was looking splitter. Clear skies and warm weather. We were still over a week out from our trip. Surely the weather would hold right? At the turn of the week it was already looking dicey. A storm system was moving through the Sierras, Thursday onwards the forecast was for chance rain and thunderstorms. I had permits for the weekend (1st Aug) to climb Bear Creek Spire in Little Lakes Valley. I nervously kept checking weather.gov for updates. If all went as per the forecast, we would have a weather window on Sunday to do the climb.
After the customary breakfast at the Alabama Hills Cafe in Lone Pine we rented a bear can and headed towards Bishop. Little Lakes Valley trail head is at the end of Rock Creek Road which is a little further north of Bishop. We reached the trail head before noon and there was not a single parking spot open. We anticipated a long wait but luckily a sweet elderly couple with their dogs had just finished their hike to Long Lake and were on their way out.
Bear Creek Spire was visible on the horizon right from the beginning of the trail. It looked very majestic with a back drop of storm clouds and a break in the sky making it stand out amongst the rest of it’s peers. The North ArÃªte itself was a striking line even from afar, luring us.
The trail head already being at 10,000 ft, (didn’t feel that high at all) made for a very comfortable approach. As it’s name suggest, the Little Lakes Valley is a lovely little valley with lots of pretty lakes. We probably passed half a dozen of them by the time we reached the fork to Gem Lakes. We made our way to the opposite shore from where a faint trail made its way up the higher slopes of the mountain towards the top of the tree line and the ensuing boulder fields. We soon lost the trail and kept moving towards the spire in search of Dade Lake which would be our camp site for the night. We saw more lakes up ahead but the map pointed further. By this time the clouds had taken over the sky. The wind was picking up and distant rumblings were sounding ominous. It started to rain soon. We did a quick stop to put our jackets on and as we crested a small hill, Dade lake was in sight. The rain quickly turned into hail. The distinct sound of hail lashing against the surrounding was every so often drowned by booming thunder. Corinne found a decent sized boulder we could hide under.
Come in she said
I'll give you, shelter from the storm - Dylan
We waited out the storm. The hail died down but we had to scrape it off the ground so we could set up the tent. After fidgeting with the tent a bit it was set up. Crawling into the sleeping bag didn’t require any invitation. Bear Creek Spire was visible from the tent. It didn’t seem as alluring now. We had only packed sandwiches and salami for dinner after which there was nothing else to do but sleep. I took a short nap while Corinne read on her iPhone. I woke up and took another look from the tent window but I could see nothing. I stepped out. The rain had stopped but the fog had taken it’s place. It was eerie but beautiful at the same time. We went back to sleep with no idea what tomorrow would have in store. The alarm was set for 5am.
The moon was up and shining brightly through the tent window. The clouds and fog had cleared, now only if the route would be dry. We got going around 6am in the morning having filled our water bottles by the lake. We walked along the right shore of Dade Lake and began to gain the adjacent talus slope. After about an hour of ascending boulders we were at the base of the Spire. On the right was the notch which had streaks of icy snowfields still intact and the occasional rumble of rock fall, our escape route if we decided to bail early on the climb. The left of the Spire was flanked by the North East Ridge, our alternate escape route if we bailed higher on the climb. We roped up right at the base of the climb and semi simuled-pitched to the actual base of Pitch 1. The sun was up and it was a beautiful day. I was glad the rock wasn’t terribly cold, my main concern as my fingers get numb at the slightest cold sensation. It was fun climbing on flakes which were slightly vert to keep things interesting. P1 & P2 were fairly similar in style with P2 moving onto the right side of the arÃªte with some fun slightly airy moves. We short pitched P2 as the rope drag started to be a pain. Getting around the arÃªte and onto a belay ledgeÂ I passed a set of rap rings. Looking further down the mountain I saw a full length of rope just lying on the mountain side. Someone’s rappel into the notch didn’t seem to have gone as per plan. Not a good sign. Corinne seconded up and lead the remainder of the pitch to the base of P3. P3-P4 were low 5th class and we cruised up even though we pitched it out. P5 was the 5.8 slightly off width crux pitch. I had built the anchor using a number 3 & 2 cams, my biggest pieces. Corinne suggested we rebuilt the anchor so I could re purpose the number 3. It had crossed my mind as well but I decided it would fine, a decision I would soon regret.
I headed up turning the corner and into the off width chimney out of Corinne’s view. The chimney was made up of a couple of flakes pointing right at you. The gap between them was slightly off width and I didn’t have a large enough piece to protect it. I placed my other number 2 at the bottom of the flakes along with a 0.4 and wedged myself up. The left face seemed like it would go so I moved towards it, the first hand hold I tried to pull on felt loose. I took caution and didn’t pull too hard, made my way up and placed a number 1 in the left face crack. I was still standing on the loose hold hoping it wouldn’t give. I decided to get back on to the flakes and lay back my way up. This required standing on a really thin flake to reach onto the flakes in between and then lay backing with my feet on the left face. I began making progress and just towards the top I thought I can get an arm into the off width, as I threw my arm in it didn’t jam and I think I went far over into the off width causing me to come off the wall completely. I gave a loud yell as the wall zoomed passed me
and I landed 10-15 ft below on my right butt. My first fall on gear! I looked back up and all my pieces held. Corinne yelled asking if I was alright. I replied I was fine just a bit shaken. I took a few minutes to calm myself. I wasn’t totally shivering. I knew exactly what had happened and that there was only one way to go and that was up. I recalled,
Karna hai, toh karna hai. - Satya
I decided to face climb it up the left wall. I removed my number 2 from the bottom of the flakes to place in the crack in the left wall. I got back up the dodgy hold and placed the number 2 and started making my way back onto the flakes and as I did, the piece began move and the rock made sounds of being under stress. Surely this was not happening now I thought. I removed the number 2 and down climbed a bit and abandoned the left wall altogether. Stepped onto the thin airy flake and got a good placement for the number 2 in the right most of the flake system. With that piece in I felt better and lay backed my way up the chimney till it got to safer ground. I was panting but I shouted out F*CK! I had criss crossed so many pieces down below it made no sense to continue further. I built an anchor and Corinne came up. She made it look embarrassingly easy. I requested her to finish the pitch and she climbed the remaining 5.6 fairly comfortably.
The view from the P5 ledge was amazing. We took a short break to refuel and take another look at the topo. Rest of the climb was supposed to be < 5.6, we were in high spirits. I think I got off route slightly and ended going up a crack which definitely didn’t feel < 5.6. I got gripped and made a couple of desperate placements which thankfully Corinne could recover. After splitting another pitch we finally made it to where the Northeast ridge route joins the North ArÃªte. I was a little confused about the beta as I thought we needed to continue on the west face along the ridge line to the summit. The traverse seemed rather sketchy so I went up along the ridge. It was fun all the way to the summit head wall, nice exposure but quite secure. But by this point the sun lowering on to the horizon. I quickly started up the head wall and was soon at the base of the summit block where I built an anchor and put Corinne on belay. She shouted back “Let’s get off the mountain!!”. Wise woman. I turned back and down climbed back to where she was. The sun was setting and clouds on the horizon were quite threatening. We made our way down the Ulrich route towards Cox col.
By then the sun had already set. We would be descending in the dark. It was hard to locate Dade Lake in the dark and we seemed to be boulder hopping for hours. I was exhausted. Pulling rope had been probably the most tiring aspect of the climb for me. I was ready to bivy right there amongst the boulders. It was warm enough. I banished the thoughts and numbly followed the head lamp ahead of me. I would shout out to stop and rest when the light was out of sight. An awesome blood red moon rose in the sky. I was too tired to stop and take a photo but Corinne insisted.
We descended along the right shore of the lake as opposed to the left which we had taken on our way up. There were a couple more tents near ours now. I realised we actually had the whole climb to ourselves! It was mid night and we crashed for 3 hours. Packed camp and headed back down at 3:30am. Once again
we chose to do the opposite what we did coming up to Dade Lake. We went down the wash to Gem Lakes. It was terrible 1.5 hours of boulder hopping with heavy packs until we reached the normal trail at dawn. The valley was quite pretty in the morning. We strolled to our car by 7am, drove back to LA by noon, at work by 1pm!