Earlier this year I explored the Rock Creek area when I skied Mt Morgan South but the road closure prevented me from reaching the crest (my hike of Mts Morgan and Stanford barely counts since we more or less made a u-turn out of Rock Creek as soon as we hit the trail) so I was eager to explore some of the picturesque peaks a the head of Little Lakes Valley.
After doing some research I decided to climb Bear Creek Spire, the tallest and arguably most difficult of the major peaks in the area. I was a bit unsure about my ability to climb the peak whose easiest route is Class 4. I’ve done what I would consider Class 4 climbing before but never solo on such a large peak. The easiest route, called Ulrichs Route, climbs to the crest north of the peak and circles around the back. Although this is supposed to be a Class 4 route, I recall being told sometime last year that it was a horrible route and that I should climb the northeast buttress instead. After conferring with The Bible I found that Secor said that the buttress “was a very enjoyable route” so I decided to give it a whirl.
I was aware that this might be beyond my abilities so I decided from the start that I wouldn’t climb anything I didn’t feel comfortable downclimbing and understood that I might have to give up and return another day. I intended to get an alpine start but instead ended up hitting the trail around 7:30 am, disappointed to find that the mosquitos were already out in full force (perhaps no surprise given that the trailhead is named “Mosquito Flat”). Even after dousing my clothes and bare arms with deet they didn’t relent!
Almost immediately Bear Creek Spire was visible in the distance and I tried to make out the route I was planning to take. From here it seemed impossible that there could be an easy scramble straight up the face!
The trail meandered across creeks and around lakes, gaining and losing elevation occasionally, but feeling quite flat overall. Along the whole way the spire rose high above tantalizingly.
Eventually I arrived at a fork indicating a turnoff for Gem Lakes which I took. The trail wound around several lakes, appearing to go in the wrong direction more than in the correct direction and eventually disappeared along the north shore of the largest lake.
I took this as my cue and headed up along a large moraine. I started encountering patches of snow and finally the mosquitos let up. I passed above several dazzling lakes of various shades of blue and worked my way across the talus through dense pine shrubs.
Eventually I arrived at the top of the moraine to find Pyramid Peak directly above me. After trying to analyze the maze of snow and talus I decided to head straight toward Pyramid Peak to the rock at its base before traversing toward the saddle between it and Bear Creek Spire.
I found that the snow between me and the rock was quite steep so I pulled out my axe and started the climb. Luckily the snow was soft enough that I was able to easily get my toes in. I heard some noise below me and saw a group of four backpackers rounding Dade Lake and heading toward the bottom of my climb. Perhaps I’d have some company on the spire!
The backpackers convened on a talus island below and I made extra sure to set a great bootpack — first impressions are important! After a few minutes however I was dismayed to see that they continued on along their original tack, seeming to head for Morgan Pass. I made it onto the rock and spied an old bootpack leading toward Bear Creek Spire far ahead. I contoured along the north side of Pyramid Peak and found it to be some of the most insecure talus I’ve climbed. Even large boulders were all too eager to slide down the slope. I made it to the bootpack and found that it must have been quite old. The former boot steps were now large suncups and I had to point both feet downhill as I hiked so that they would fit, doing a sort of shuffle.
I arrived at the saddle shortly after eleven and, after making sure that there was no more snow above me, I took off my wet socks and shoes to let them dry. After a snack, I grabbed my puffy and found a flat piece of rock to lay down on and enjoy the summer sun. I would have been happy to spend the rest of the day there but I was eager to continue the climb so after fifteen minutes I put on a fresh pair of socks and my now-somewhat-dry shoes and started toward the summit.
The climb progressed slowly, starting off as a fairly standard Class 2 talus hop. Then the buttress would kick up for twenty feet, forcing me to use my hands before easing back off to give me some rest.
Around 13,200 ft Class 3 scrambling became the norm and I’d ocassionally have to connect these portions with some airier Class 4 moves. I wasn’t entirely sure where the route was supposed to be, but I was having fun and so far didn’t feel like I was in over my head.
At one point I followed a tight chimney 50 ft up before finding that the only way to continue would be to step out over 100 ft of air to connect with another chimney. I easily could have done the move, but I realized that this was getting into Class 5 territory and that there must be an easier route. I downclimbed the chimney, making quite a racket as my ice axe scraped on the rock, and tried a different route to the left which went well.
Eventually I found myself on at the top of the ridge, several hundred feet from the summit. I followed the top of the ridge for a while making some airy but secure moves along the knife edge. About 100 ft from the summit I saw a ledge that seemed to lead to the backside and from there it looked like easy climbing to the summit. I followed the ledge, but found that it didn’t connect, instead dropping about 20 feet over a three foot gap. I started downclimbing but got to a point where I could go no further so I climbed back up to the gap. After eyeing the ledge for a minute I found a way to stem across and continued toward the summit.
Reaching the summit was still not easy climbing, and when I arrived I found that the summit block was also not a freebie. I found some shallow handholds and was able to get just enough height that I could mantle up atop, finally reaching the summit at 1:15 pm!
The summit block was not level and I had to be careful to find a sturdy perch while I took my photos. The view back down Little Lakes Valley seemed to miniaturize the hours of hiking I’d done that morning!
I enjoyed the summit for a few minutes, spotting the high peaks of Yosemite as well as the Palisades nearby. I think I even spotted Mts Williamson and Whitney far to the south!
I climbed back down the summit block, opting to reverse my mantle after scoping out the other side, and signed the register. I was somewhat surprised to see that there were no winter entries and that there weren’t many entries yet this year. There were four full notebooks of register, so I didn’t flip back very far before feeling content and starting the trip down.
Rather than reverse my climb up the northeast buttress I decided to take Ulrichs Route down. The northwest slope looked sandy and seemed like it would be a fast descent and once I reached Cox Col I’d be able to glissade several hundred feet to return to Dade Lake. I only downclimbed a couple dozen feet before arriving at a large crack. My immediate reaction was to find a different route, but after studying it for a minute I decided to give it a go. I was able to wedge one leg in and hold myself by flexing my thigh. I lost a bit of skin from my knee and ankle as my pants rode up, but was very proud of my very first crack climb (I’ll have to confer with my climber friends as to whether this really counts)!
The talus which had appeared sandy from above actually comprised quite large boulders and was almost as unstable as the slope I’d crossed below Pyramid Peak. After several hundred feet it became less steep and more stable and I made quick progress to Cox Col.
I climbed down from Cox Col to the top of the snow and was surprised at how many abandoned slings were left in this area. I could understand being concerned about stepping into a bergshrund, but unless I was missing something, there was no evidence at all that someone might fall through the snow. Regardless, I was extra careful stepping out onto the snow with my ice axe as I began my glissade.
I was only able to glissade about 1,000 ft before the angle was too shallow to maintain momentum. I stood up and plunge stepped down the slope following some recent tracks. Conditions were nothing short of ideal for snow travel today!
As I descended I glanced back up at the peak from time to time, trying to appreciate this perspective.
I arrived back at Dade Lake, opting to traverse its west side. Brilliant blue snowmelt collected around the edges of the ice and further up the banks, large swathes of heather were blooming a vibrant purple!
I took a similar route back to the trail as Id taken on the approach, following the moraine and peering over at the nearly snow free Treasure Lakes. Rather than taking the roundabout detour through Gem Lakes I decided to take a more direct route off the end of the moraine. This turned out to be more challenging than I’d expected and I had to do some proper climbing to make it off the rock.
From the end of the moraine I could see Long Lake half a mile down the canyon and I was struck by the inlet to the lake. The creek had overflowed its banks by fifty feet on either side, but its normal course was still visible in the midst of the flood and reflected an eerie turquoise color.
I crossed several streams and swamps, trying to be as considerate as possible to the delicate plants. The mosquitos came back in full force and I found myself constantly scraping them off my arms. Once I arrived back on the trail however it seemed that a gentle breeze had picked up and was almost enough to keep them away.
I hiked quickly along the trail saying hi to several fisherman. One asked me what the ice axe was for and when I told him I had climbed Bear Creek Spire he remarked that it seemed an awfully long way just to get to the base of the climb — spoken like someone who’s done such a climb before!
I arrived back at the parking lot just before five and was glad to find that there was a perfect spot for a bath right next to the parking lot. After cleaning up and making dinner, now all that’s left is to plot out plans for tomorrow!
- Snowline around 11,000 ft
- No signs of instability
Elevation Gain: 4,200 ft