Sometime in college I became enthralled with climbing big frozen mountains. With a background in rock climbing and backpacking, add to it a few books and movies on Everest, put an ice axe in your hand, and stand on top of a big cold mountain in winter at sunset, and you have an instant lifelong passion. However climbing mountains in the winter is a suffer fest, which is at best enjoyed in small doses.
Glaciers are most spectacular when experienced in the summer. Only then can you appreciate them. Their fight for survival against the heat, a reminder of ice ages of the past, and old man winter's year long grasp. In the winter, when all is covered with snow and ice, a glacier is just another girl at a beauty pageant. In the summer however, when surround by rock, it stands out and commands your full attention, like the one girl you share your bed with.
With the glaciers of the world retreating, I wanted to experience more of my local glaciers before they become extinct. A recent trip to Glacier National Park in Montana, left me with a sunken feeling, as the massive glaciers I witnessed 15 years ago have almost all disappeared. In a few years the park should most likely have to change its name to Dirt and Rock National Park.
North Peak is easily the most popular California summer alpine ice climbing route. However I have never done it. I did not even know about it till I started doing research for a route this summer. Its short approach, and average grade, make it a very popular introductory route for the local guide companies.
North Peak is located just north/east of the Yosemite National Park boundary. It shares a ridge with its famous big brother, Mount Conness. The trailhead starts at Saddlebag lake. Saddlebag lake road begins on Tioga Pass (SR 120) just east of the Yosemite Park entrance. The road is partially paved, and can be accessed by most car. The Hoover Wilderness, which the peak lies within, has no visitor quota. One can easily pick up a wilderness permit the day of. We picked up on at the Bishop Ranger Station, however a Ranger mans the Kiosk at Saddlebag lake Friday through Sunday, and permits can be obtained from him. He say his waking hours are typically 6am to 9pm.
From the over night parking lot we found a trail on the east side of the lake. A water taxi can be used to cross the lake $8 round trip. Starting the hike at about 7 PM we hiked into the night. The temperature was cool in the 50 and dropped to low 40s high 30s in the middle of the night. At the southern end of Steal head lake we made a left onto a spur trail then overland towards Cascade Lake where we made camp for the night. We made hot food and repaired Roger's boot that had blown up on the trail. See:http://mrpulldown.blogspot.com/2009/08/epic-boot-failure-trezeta-double.html
Our small food sack was place on top of a short V1 boulder with no tampering. However the tea bag I left under a rock was chewed through.
The next morning we set off for the peak. We gained the North Peak Glacier via the last vegetated ramp on the left. The morning temps was in the low 60s. The night before we arrived saw temps down in the low 20s. However one or two nights of freezing was not enough to form solid ice out the neve that had resulted from a month of warm nights. Once on the glacier one gets a good view of the three snow/ice filled chutes. The left couloir looked steep and narrow. Too unstable with the soft snow to even consider. We cramponed up at the base of the glacier and walked to the burshrund for the right couloir. The shrund was small and did not span across the entire base of the right couloir. At the shrund we roped up and I took the first lead.
Ice screws were not particularly effective in the soft ice, though the longest of the screws bit firmly upon their last few threads of engagement. Without snow protection, I climbed close to the left wall, and protected the climb with primarily passive rock gear. My original plan to simultaneous climb were abandoned. The lack of solid ice protection coupled with a mountaineering boot which sole and crampon were held on by zip ties and toe clip straps, did not inspire the confidence needed for such rope travel. Instead we did the climb in about 4 pitches.
Once at the saddle of the ice we removed our crampons and moved onto rock. A few hundred vertical feet of "California" fourth class lead us to the summit. Do not over estimate this portion of the climb, for I encountered a stiff section of exposed rock, with a high pucker factor. Roping up for this portion could be considered, however it is extremely lose, and the chance of your rope knocking free a rock is almost guaranteed. Careful route finding could have yielded a more forgiving path.
At the summit we meet a Yosemite firefighter and his scientist friend. Our stay was short, as we started the decent. A walk off the back side could have been accomplished, however we chose to leave our ice gear at the saddle, and thus needed to down climb the fourth class section. Beware the lose rock. From the saddle I glasaded down the wet south face snow field. We then slowly made our way around the western shoulder of north peak, till we found a suitable place to descend back to Cascade Lake.
A miss communication resulted in light food rations for the night. One packet of ramen, and four packets of oatmeal were all we had for dinner and breakfast between the two of us. I have brought my fishing pole and had seen strikes on the water surface of the smaller of the Cascade Lakes. However the fish were after flies and had no interest in my lure. Without floating agent and a bobber, my poor flies sunk. However pity was taken upon me and I soon reeled in a small trout which I fried up as an appetizer to our main course: one pack of ramen.
Though I ended the trip with an empty stomach, my glacial desire was completely filled!