Mt. Clark winter ascent

  • Mt.Clark is a stunning peak when seen from Glacier Point or the Tioga Rd. Frank Brown and I decided to climb it in winter.

    We made plans towards the end of winter. Our plan was to leave at midnight after Frank’s dinner shift at the Ahwahnee Hotel ended. With a midnight start we would have all night and the next day to reach the base, and the next morning for the climb. If we were late, a friend would cover Frank’s next shift, but we were hoping it would be enough time.

    The Ahwahnee dining room closed and Frank slipped out the door at midnight. Our packs and skis were already loaded in Jerry Rupert’s car, which sat idling in the parking lot with the heater on. Jerry drove us to Curry Village and then doused the head lights for a hot lap to Happy Isles. When Jerry drove away Frank and I strapped our skis to our bags and then shouldered our massive packs.

    We were planning on climbing a new rock route, and were carrying rock gear and two ropes, as well as ice tools and crampons. We started out on the paved trail to Vernal Falls until we reached the start of the Mist Trail, where we put on our crampons. We worked our way up the Mist Trail with the sounds of the river rising out of the darkness; the only light was the small bubble of our headlamps. Our skis kept getting in the way, and the top heavy packs tried to pull us backwards on the traversing ice, until we were able to climb straight up towards the regular trail and avoid the final traverse to the top of the falls.

    The snow was deep on the trail and so we switched out our crampons for skis, much better on the feet than on our backs. I had learned to ski a few years before, but Frank was pretty green, so we shuffled along, breaking trail with waxed skis until we reached a point above the falls where we could exit the canyon which we had seen on the topo map.

    Climbing skins were expensive and hard to find in the 1970’s, so we opted for rope climbers, a poor man’s way of improvising climbing skins. A piece of 5mm cord is knotted in the middle and then looped over the ski tip; the remainder is crisscrossed down the length of the ski. They climbed ok, but had zero glide, which mattered little to us as we switchbacked our way upwards. Frank was struggling at first, but he gradually got the hang of it, and we slowly gained altitude.

    Finally we reached the plateau and took off our climbers. By now we were both seriously questioning the size of our loads. We took a break, smoked a bowl, and discussed our options. We quickly decided to cache one rope, one ice tool each, and a bunch of our gear. We found a spot that we figured we could find on the way back and buried our stuff in a clump of boulders, and then moved on, our packs considerably lighter.

    Frank’s skiing improved and soon we were covering ground rapidly, but our goal was still far away. We stopped for another break and smoked another bowl. It was obvious that we had too much stuff to reach our goal, climb it, and return in time, so we decided to lighten our loads again. Abandoning our plan for a technical route, we disposed of all of the rock gear, the remaining rope, some of our food and fuel, and one sleeping bag.

    When we left our second cache our packs were noticeably lighter and we increased our speed markedly. By evening we were near enough to the base that we thought we could summit and start our return that day. We dug a small shelter, more of a wind wall than a cave, and settled in to eat, drink and smoke as much as we could. It was going to be a long, cold night with no tent and only one sleeping bag. Sure enough, it got really cold. We wore all of our clothes, and put our ski boots in the bag to keep them from freezing.

    The night seemed to take forever. Both of us were awake all night, but finally the sky started to lighten in the East. We fired up the stove, had a quick breakfast, and then left our camp, and everything extra for an attempt on Mt. Clark. Each of us had a single ice axe and crampons and a bit of food and water in our day packs, plus the clothes we wore. We were two days into the backcountry with our gear spread out for miles, with no margin for error.

    We skied up as far as we could and then stashed our skis where we could find them later and started up. Frank took the lead and broke trail for the first twenty minutes. The snow was deep, knee to mid-thigh deep with each step. I took over and wallowed upwards for my turn. The west face of Mt. Clark is a steep bowl, loaded with snow after a heavy winter. As it began to steepen I started to question the safety of our revised route with nearly waist deep snow on top of Granite slab. A bit to our left was the beginning of the N. W. Ridge: The climbing on the ridge looked like 5th class, but moderate. Both Frank and I agreed that it made more sense, and was more aesthetic than a snow slog after so much work to get there.

    Once the choice was made, it was only about twenty minutes of wallowing to reach the base. By now the sun was fully up and we climbed bare handed on beautiful, knobby, alpine Granite. The easiest route would follow the crest of the ridge for a bit and then drop off to one side or the other, and then regain the ridge. Frank and I climbed together, un-roped but near one another, on rock and snow. The route continued to flow: Every time the next section looked beyond our capacity a ledge or a snow gully would appear allowing us to avoid the steeper sections of the ridge. After a few hours of fun winter climbing we reached the summit. The view of the Yosemite high county from the summit was spectacular.

    Our time was limited, and our gear far away, so we started down after only a few minutes. We descended the snow, staying as close to the ridge as we were able too, and we reached our skis after about an hour. We strapped them on and started back towards our camp from the night before. Frank’s lack of skiing experience made the trip back to camp difficult for him. Cross country skiing is an art that takes time to learn, and this was only Frank’s first trip on skis. He had gotten good at going up, but descending was all new. After half a dozen falls he decided to use the rope climbers we had used on the approach to slow his descent speed. The climbers helped, although they slowed us down a lot, but we made it back to our camp, and to easier terrain.

    After a couple of celebratory bowls and a sip of whiskey we packed up and started our return trip. On lower angle terrain without the climbers, Frank was able to cruise along much easier, and soon we were gliding along through the trees on our slightly downhill return. Using the map and compass we found our second cache with ease. Our packs suddenly became much heavier, which was all wrong. Your pack is supposed to get lighter on the way home, not the opposite. Skiing became more difficult with the bigger loads, and Frank fell more often, but he maintained his sense of humor. We found our first cache as well, and loaded our packs even more.

    At this point our descent steepened considerably as we started to drop down into the canyon. Frank put the rope climbers on again, but after a short time, and many falls, he took off his skis and began to post hole. I was able to descend on skis by traversing and kick turning, or side slipping where it got steeper. I felt for Frank, a beginner skier with a massive pack, but there was little I could do to help him, but finally we reached the river. The rest of the descent down the snow covered summer trail was uneventful Looking down on the Mist Trail from above and seeing it in the light of day made me glad it had been dark on the way up. One mistake would have led to a several hundred foot slide down into the river.

    The final section on the trail seemed endless. We were both exhausted, but happy. From Happy Isles we stumbled down the road, our blistered feet and tired legs screaming in pain. If I was this tired Frank must have been completely wiped out, but he had a dinner shift to work in two hours. A few years back I saw Frank at a wedding: We both agreed that this had been one of our finest mountain experiences.

  • Nice writting & a nice adventure too. Thank you!

  • Nice. TFPU! Took me back to my first time skiing in the backcountry.

  • @Scole good memory. I used that rope method as poor man's climbing skins on a solo traverse from Lee Vining to the Valley and realized that I no longer had any way to edge and almost took the drop and chop on an iced over section of a snow slide on Tioga road just below Ellery Lake.

    Even good skiers are reduced to near beginner level with a heavy pack at least back in the days of skinny backcountry skins and torsionaly soft leather boots .

    Good writing and amazing memory.

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