Even before I started climbing, I always wanted to get to high places. I’m a sucker for views, I guess. I wanted to be able to traverse any terrain I could, and climbing was a big component of that, which I was missing. I had always been intrigued by high altitude pursuits, and thought that it was something I might really enjoy. When the opportunity came to go climbing in the Sierra, I saw it as a time to see if my curiosity was founded in something real, or just the perceived glamour and status of alpine pursuits.
My good friend Jacob invited me to climb Bear Creek Spire: a Sierra granite peak that sits around 13,000 ft. He had done a few objectives in the Sierra and we had spoken about getting together to do our first alpine objective together. Having someone that shares the desire to climb in those environments is great, and he took the lead on getting permits and planning the climb. We didn’t want to leave it up to chance to get a walk-up permit, though I’ve heard one can have pretty good success that way.
The drive up to the Bishop area was par for the course: stuck behind trucks on 395, good conversation, coffee, and sunflower seeds.
We made it up to the pit campground outside of Bishop and crashed for the night. We planned to do some multi-pitch cragging the next day; I hoped to shake off a bit of rust since I hadn’t climbed consistently in months.
We climbed on Gong Show Wall in Rock Creek and I definitely felt a bit jittery on the first pitch. However, once we got off the ground, you could not beat the scenery. The creek flowed, birds tweeted, and the little canyon we were in gave us a glimpse into the higher mountains.
We climbed a handful of routes and I started to develop a pretty bad headache. I hadn’t slept well the night prior and didn’t get much sleep in the previous nights, either. I was very aware of the altitude, and hoped that our plan of getting to altitude a few days earlier would be effective in helping us acclimate.
We went to bed that night outside of Mammoth where it was a little cooler.
The next day, we knew that we didn’t have to be in a rush. The plan was simply to hike the 6 miles to Dade Lake, where we would spend the night before climbing the spire. We made sure we had everything we needed and then started on the trail. My head felt great and I put a priority on staying out of the sun and cool. I had borrowed a buff from my girlfriend and dunked it and my shirt in the cold mountain creeks every chance I got. That thermoregulation coupled with hiking poles turned a normally tough hike into a breeze.
We made it to camp around 5:30PM, and got started to prepare our gear for the next day. We both felt a little worn down; Jacob felt the altitude a little bit, but assured me that he would be fine. Clear communication is key and I made sure he knew that I didn’t want to put the peak above our safety and to let me know if he didn’t feel up to it.
I’ve always found that waking up before dawn is easy as long as you have something to wake up for. We did, so we quickly forced some food down, geared up, and headed to the base. We still had about a mile of steep uphill hiking; much of it on hard snow. We opted to bring the hiking poles with us, which turned out to be a great decision. At the base of the climb, we got our harnesses and shoes on and headed up.
The actual rock climb was fairly simple: with the topo, route finding was straightforward, the placements were plenty, the climbing was full-body, and the day was perfect. I made sure to stay as hydrated as I could and ate also some snacks along the way. In some easy sections, we chose to simul-climb, which is a lot more fun, but risky if you do it in the wrong terrain. In classic fashion, I climbed all the way around the summit block before realizing that the easiest way up was the first section I got to. We got to the summit, but were too tired to care much about it. We were ready to get off this thing.
The descent was straightforward, but the snow was extra steep. It definitely would have been nice to have an ice axe, and despite a surprise hailstorm, we made it down safely. There isn’t much that gets you moving quickly like a well-timed lightning bolt. Packing up quickly, we made the effort to get back to the car where we could relax a bit. On the return hike, I felt myself feeling better and better; the momentum of our descent aided my recovery. By the time we got to the car, I felt ready to climb another, but it was time to go home.
Having done my first “alpine” objective, I feel confident knowing that I do want to pursue more climbs in the alpine, but I am just getting my feet wet. Alpine climbing is a totally different beast: it takes commitment, grit, practice, and awareness. I’m excited to have begun my journey, and even more looking forward to continuing it.