ROMAIN WACZIARG

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WHEEL MOUNTAIN - DEVILS CRAG #1 - MOUNT MCDUFFIE


Ascents of Wheel Mountain (Southeast Ridge, class 3), Devils Crag #1 (Northwest Arête, class 4) and Mount McDuffie (Southeast Ridge, class 2-3), with Ronald Kleber and Robert Zeithammer, June 7-12, 2020.

 

A Sierra Adventure in Memory of Alberto Alesina


Timeline:

June 7, 2020. We left the parking lot at South Lake at 9:25 with full packs laden with food for six days. We made our way slowly to Bishop Pass, reaching at 12:42. We stopped there for lunch, and then started the long descent toward Le Conte Canyon. We reached the ranger station at 16:42, and continued on to Grouse Meadow, reaching a nice campsite at 17:30. Several parties of JMT/PCT hikers were around. It was an unseasonably cold day, and we made a fire in camp. We started to worry about the likely frigid crossing of the Middle Fork of the Kings river the next morning. (A 8:05 hour day, 14 miles, 2,150 feet of elevation gain).

June 8, 2020. We packed up and left camp at 8:30. The crossing of the river turned out to be uneventful, with only knee-deep water. Ronald lost a pair of pants hanging from his pack, probably while bushwhacking on the other side of the river to gain the slopes leading to the Rambaud Creek drainage. We would look for them in vain on the return. Hiking up the steep drainage was hard work and we reached a nice campsite at Lake 10,400 at 12:30. We pitched our tents and had a nice lunch followed by a strong cup of coffee. We left to climb Wheel Mountain at 14:10, climbing first to Rambaud Pass. This was facilitated by a good snow cover, avoiding much loose rock (except at the very top). We proceeded along the Southeast Ridge of Wheel Mountain. This is an easy climb, mostly class 2 with a bit of steep class 3 toward the very end, right before the summit. This we reached at 16:50. No parties had signed the register since September of 2018. We were back at Rambaud Pass at 18:20 and stashed our climbing gear for the next day: two 30-meter ropes and a very small rack. Returning to camp was quick thanks to glissading / boot skiing, and we were back in camp at 19:07. (A 10:37 hour day, 7 miles, 4,400 feet of elevation gain).

June 9, 2020. We woke up with the rising sun around 6:00 and enjoyed the morning sunlight on the Devils Crags. I set out toward Rambaud Pass at 7:52, a few minutes ahead of Robert and Ronald, who quickly caught up. We reached Rambaud Pass at 9:00 and retrieved our gear. From there the route to the base of the Northwest Arête is a bit circuitous, over a knob, down a steep ridge, along the flank of White Top, to a notch between White Top and Devils Crag #1. We roped up there for a steep diagonal pitch which I led. We stayed roped up for most of the steep bottom part of the route, Robert and I alternating leads. At some point we unroped and I proceeded forward, only to find myself at a steep class 4 descent into yet another notch – the crux of the route. This I was not about to do unroped, as the exposure was stunning. The rope came out again for a short while, and we were soon on the easier 3rd class rock to the summit (I had the immense privilege of getting there first, at 13:05). We were the first to sign the register since Bob Pickering's guided ascent in August of 2018. We spent a good amount of time there, having lunch, enjoying the stunning views in all directions, and signing the register. We left the summit at 13:40 and proceeded downward mostly roped-up and simul-descending. The descent involved two 15-meter rappels and one 30-meter rappel into the last notch. There were old slings at each of these rappels, but we backed everything up with new webbing. On the return to Rambaud Pass we initially stayed a bit lower than on the way in, along the route described in Secor, coming across two old pitons above a steep class 3 descending move. We were back in camp at 18:30, and were content. Devils Crag #1 is an incredible adventure, a true rite of passage for a Sierra climber. (A 10:38 hour day, 3 miles, 2,100 feet of elevation gain).

June 10, 2020. We had two options for the remainder of the trip. The first was to move camp to the Ladder Lake drainage, over Henry Col, to better position ourselves for an ascent of Mount McDuffie on the next day. The other option was to dayhike the same peak from our current camp, a potentially long day. The latter option won out. We left camp at 8:50 and made for Henry Col. There are two low points on the ridge separating the Rambaud Creek drainage from the Ladder Lake drainage. Henry Col is the easternmost saddle. Upon reaching that saddle, we realized that the narrow chute on the north side was full of steep, hard snow, and we lacked the equipment to descend it safely. So we made for the other saddle in search of a way down the steep rock on its right side. I was skeptical that a class 3 way would exist, and wasn't feeling very enthusiastic about the day's long adventure ahead after three already hard days, so I resisted. But Robert's insistence won the day, and we proceeded down in search of a class 3 descent. We first angled right toward a prominent balanced rock on the ridgeline. This went, but cliffs loomed further to the right, so we took a left turn over exposed terrain along some ledges and catwalks to rejoin the snowfield on the northern aspect of the ridge. All this was class 2-3, but the way we found implies that crampons and ice axe are not needed to go over Henry Col (contrary to what Secor says). We lost time routefinding, but we were finally in the Ladder Lake drainage. We contoured at an elevation of about 11,400 feet and made our way up to Lake 12,100, just below the start of the Southeast Ridge of Mount McDuffie (some 3rd class scrambling along the way). By now it was 13:30.

The ridge is long, and those attempting it should be prepared to spend a couple hours on it. When we saw how far the summit of McDuffie was, Robert decided to drop down to the lake south of the summit to attempt a snow climb of the South Chute of the mountain. Ronald and I also dropped a bit but flanked the mountain and quickly regained the SE ridge proper. We could see Robert quickly making his way up a narrow ribbon of snow leading almost all the way to the summit, while we struggled on class 2-3 terrain past chutes, gendarmes and the occasional snowfield. We reached the summit 45 minutes after Robert, at 16:04. We spent a few minutes on top, took photos of the outstanding views of the Ionian Basin, Mount Goddard to the north, and the Evolution and Palisade regions to the east. We descended the snow ribbon route that Robert had ascended. With snow cover, this is the most efficient (and pleasant) way to reach the top (without snow, it must be a painful slog indeed) – and also to descend. By now it was getting late, and we rushed to retrace our steps over the SE ridge, back to Lake 12,100, down to the 11,400 ft level, and over our variation of Henry Col. It was 19:50 and the sun was setting when we finally dropped down into the Rambaud Creek drainage, and we hiked the last half hour by headlamp, reaching camp at 21:00. A very full day. (A 12:10 hour day, 8.5 miles, 4,500 feet of elevation gain)

June 11, 2020. This was to be an easy day hiking back to Dusy Basin. Our plan was to perhaps climb Giraud Peak the next day. We took a leisurely morning off in camp, eating, hydrating, and slowly packing up. We left at 11:30 and made our way down the steep slopes of the Rambaud Creek drainage, reaching the river crossing at Grouse Meadow at 13:20. This went without incident. We took a long lunch break just after the crossing, and proceeded on to the Le Conte Ranger Station, reaching there at 15:10. We took another break there before the 2,000 foot ascent to Dusy Basin. We found a nice campsite near Lake 10,742 at 18:00 and spent a nice evening in camp. (A 6:30 hour day, 9 miles, 2,500 feet of elevation gain).

June 12, 2020. We were all pretty exhausted and gave up on Giraud Peak. We left camp at 9:00 and went up the remaining 1,200 feet / 2.7 miles to Bishop Pass. Ronald and Robert decided to hike up Mount Agassiz while I continued down toward South Lake. After a lunch break, I reached the trailhead at 13:25. I settled for a nap in the 4Runner and Robert and Ronald arrived at 16:00. We drove down to Bishop for some barbecue. (A 4:25 hour day, 8 miles, 1,200 feet of elevation gain).

Trip totals: 52:25 hours, 49.5 miles, 16,850 feet of elevation gain.

Post-Scriptum: This trip is dedicated to Alberto Alesina, who tragically passed away on May 23, 2020. Alberto was my PhD dissertation advisor; the man who introduced me to climbing and mountaineering; the best man at my wedding; a guiding light in my professional and personal life; a great skier and mountaineer; and one of the world's best economists. I miss him deeply.

Photos:

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