Carson Peak Epic

Carson Peak (10909ft) via Carson Peak Gully and Pete’s Dream, 2600ft 5.4 M4 Steep Snow, 30 Jan 2020

Last week I headed down from Bend to the eastside of the Sierras in the hopes of swinging some tools with my ice climbing partner, Tim Waring, who I had met last year and had enjoyed a solid pedagogical day with on the ephemeral Californian ice. We met up in Lee Vining, near Mono Lake, and after some sharpening of the tools and crampons, headed up the well-packed bootpack trail, and had a good day of getting reacquainted with the ice. 

The stunning skyline of the Dana Plateau from Lee Vining

We were hoping to get on a bigger alpine objective during this short trip, and Tim had suggested we check out an alpine route on Carson Peak out of the small resort town of June Lake. So after figuring out that dinner options in Lee Vining were all closed for the season, we shot down to June Lakes, enjoyed a nice meal in the Tiger Pub, and tucked in bed, not before completing some homework assignments on pre-historic WiFi. 

Our large underestimation of the day ahead had us waking up to a leisurely 7am alarm, and not hiking before almost 9am. The face was intimidating, but hoping for quick progress up the long snow couloirs, seemingly interrupted by only occasional rock bands, I held hope that we’d motor up the route and be done at a reasonable hour. Quickly the positivity faded, as only 5 minutes into the approach, we began post holing knee deep through a field of dead shrubby trees. A battle ensued, forcing us to retreat to scrambling rock bands to avoid deep breakable crust in the snow, as did much cursing and general sinking of the spirits. Tim asked if we should bail and go climb the nearby Horsetail Falls; I replied a stringent “No,” we were committed now, let’s at least give it a shot. After a good two hours of this, we finally approached the bottom of the first couloir, Carson Peak Gully, which held no ice whatsoever. Thankfully the snow abated here, and we began up the moderately steep couloir. I shot ahead, occasionally sinking to midcalf or more, but was spurred on by the prospect of fun steep snow and mixed climbing ahead. 

Tim joining me at the first belay of the route

The most bomber belay, or pieces for that matter, of the day!

I built a quick belay below the first mixed exit pitch to the gully; Tim threw we the rope and I belayed him up to my stance. We quickly got organized and I launched myself at the delicate mixed climbing. Unable to find any adequate protection, I focused on making each move carefully and immersed myself into the bubble of invulnerability one must tap into on a scary lead. I made it through to a steep snow field, climbed through it and pounded in my first Knifeblades into the most solid looking rock around. Tim came up, climbed through, and pulled the rope up behind him and we launched into the second half of the day, Pete’s Dream, essentially a long steep couloir that in these early season conditions would feature more similar mixed passages.

It was a fight again with the variable snow. The best steps sunk us in to our ankles; the worst consisted of more swimming-like motions fighting seemingly bottomless powder. I turned on some hip-hop to curtail the drudgery and we headed up 1400ft of steep snow. As the couloir steepened, and the daylight began to make a slow retreat, Tim felt that we should pull the rope back out. The snow in the couloir was too steep and too deep to climb safely or efficiently, so I led a simul-block out left onto mixed terrain, ducking back into the couloir to tackle the crux mixed chimney/ chute of the route. Able to find intermittent half-decent protection, I was confident that we were connected to the mountain in the event of any misfortune, and launched myself into the narrow chute. I stemmed and mantled and hooked snow-covered blocks, gingerly making my way though the delicate rock. More snow trudging and a deadman picket later, we were within a pitch of the summit ridge and I brought Tim up just as it got dark enough to turn on the headlamps. Encouraged by the prospect of being close to unroping terrain, I ate the last of my food, two low-calorie “energy” bars looted from the cafeteria at school. By this point my gloves were frozen solid, and Tim saved my hands when he pulled out a pair of relatively dry softshell gloves for me. 

Trudging up

The final pitch to the ridge was hellish. I got within 30 feet of the ridge when I got stuck in bottomless powder. I was 6 inches short of reaching a rock that I could hook with my tools; it took a good 10 minutes to get the footing to make the reach. A few strenuous pull-ups hooked on the rock later, with my feet completely useless in the deep snow, I got footing on the rock and scrambled to the ridge. Here, my heart sank. Expecting a welcoming, gentle summit ridge, I was greeted by sheer drops on the other side as far as my headlamp could illuminate, and an intimidating rock ridge scramble of indeterminable length ahead. Standing here on this windy ridge, in the dark, I felt very, very far from just about anything. Tim’s company brought solace and I soaked in the warm presence of another human being; I was thankful to not be at this alone. 

Tim right below where we roped up for the final simul block

The ridge ended up not being harder than 4th class; I was able to find a couple decent cam placements (even a gold C4!) and a full 70m pitch brought us to the summit around 7:15pm, where the presence of scraggly pine trees brought some comfort and signs of hospitality to this forsaken mountain.

A four-hour process of finding the easy descent to the Fern Lakes basin ensued. In my rush to get the hell out of there, I led us down a doable looking mixed-talus snowfield, appearing to fit what I saw on a low-quality topo map, but which cliffed out after 600 feet of elevation loss. The scale of the endeavor really started to set in as we climbed back out, traversing, downclimbing, climbing again and frequently referencing Tim’s Gaia GPS app. 

By this point it was almost midnight; the need to take it slow, safe, and smart, conserving energy trumped moving fast. Waiting for Tim at several points, I turned off my headlamp to save battery. My eyes adjusted from staring at the blinding white orbit of my headlamp in the snow as I munched on icy snow crust, revealing the majestic ampitheatre of the High Sierras beyond, illuminated by a small crescent of moonlight. These moments were deeply calming and meditative; I felt minuscule, surrounded by these snowy peaks, and inspired by their silent grandeur. On long alpine climbs, it’s easy to get stuck in the focus and stress of moving quickly, yet letting go, I realized that there are no moments as beautiful as these, where time stands still and our existences are beautifully simplified to man and mountain and silence. 

We sat again at the top, having found the correct descent route, and removing the crampons speculated whether we’d see the sun again on this day. Seemingly endless post-holing ensued, yet we took it slow and with surprising equanimity. We followed faint canine prints down the steep snowfields down to June Lake, impressed by this animal’s fearless and direct course. Having strayed too far skier’s right, we had to rappel a final cliff down to the Fern Lakes basin over a beautiful water ice flow. Tim began puking at our improvised rappel station, and I laughingly asked if we should run some practice laps on the beautifully smooth, translucent ice. It was 3am. 

The rest of the night was forgettable to say the least. Criss-crossing skintracks below Fern Lakes brought reassuring signs of human activity, yet we still had 3 miles and 1500ft of elevation to lose through interminable post-holing. Tim forged on ahead. My prosthetic became impregnated with snow, frying the electronics in it and making walking an even more monumental task. 

Sure enough, the sun began to rise as we made the final descent back within sight of the car. I was in a daze as I found my empty bowl of oats from the previous morning. It was already breakfast time again? I couldn’t decide whether to celebrate with alcohol or caffeine. I chose both. 

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