First Ascents near Mount Clark

by Paul Doherty

Mt Clark traverse

Hal and Bob and I went on a 5 day long Sierra backpacking trip to do some rock climbing on Mts. Clark and Starr King. Mt. Clark is a prominent but remote peak which had defeated our attempts to climb it three times apiece. The peak is shaped like a giant hand, we planned to climb up the thumb over the top and down the little fingers, a complete traverse of the peak. Mount Starr King, is a beautifully shaped triple Sierra dome with large expanses of quality granite. We'd all climbed it before and hope to climb a different way to the summit.

Our packs were light &emdash; until we added over a dozen pounds each of climbing gear &emdash; then the weight went over 50 pounds. Bob and Hal carried a rope apiece while I had the rack. It's tough at the trailhead when you know that every ounce counts to choose just what pieces of protection you'll need, Since our plan included a fifth class traverse of Mt. Clark and some long 5.7's on Starr King I opted for a rack with every stopper and about 8 camming devices up to about 3 inches across. It seemed like too few pieces, but it also seemed too heavy, so I hoped it would be just right.

The first day we got a crack-of-noon start from home and hiked in four miles to a wonderful hilltop site between Starr King and Illouette creek in Yosemite National park. On the way in, we met a family who had all of their food stolen by bears, they were camping behind Starr King just where we planned to camp. We decided to take extra care hanging our food this trip, we've lost food to bears before. As we went to bed the first night, a great bright meteor lit up the sky. I wondered whether the meteor would be a good omen or an evil one.

On day 2 we moved camp up to 8000 feet, closer to mount Clark, and did some bouldering on mushroom shaped rocks straight from a Dali painting. Day three we got up early and started the long uphill climb to the ridge on Mt. Clark. The ridge rose above us and looked impossible. A twenty foot smooth face capped by and overhang guarded the middle of the ascent. I hoped I could find a way around it, but the ridge looked so narrow that alternate routes didn't look promising. As we approached the overhanging barrier wall our eyes gained a better perspective and its height shrank to ten feet. When I finally got my hands on it, they sank into excellent handholds, I went up the wall and over the overhang quite easily. A large chicken-head on the lip of the overhang proved to be a great foothold. I stood on it, on the edge of the world with thousands of feet of nothing below.

Above the ceiling the angle eased and we found ourselves walking on the "sidewalk in the sky" a one meter wide ridge with thousand foot dropoffs on either side. What a great day. We ate a late lunch on the summit, and thought about getting down the south ridge. The first moves proved exciting. We had to walk along a sloping 3 inch wide ledge over an exposed dropoff with poor handholds, we chose not to break out the rope. The moves got my attention! After that, we chose to stay on the ridge top. The climbing was great on superb firm granite. After getting off the ridge we descended down a thousand feet of sand and returned to camp 11 hours after we had departed. We were tired but celebrated with a bottle of wine to accompany our freeze dried dinner.

A First ascent

The next day we shouldered our packs and went on a cross-country trek off-trail toward Starr King. On the way, in the middle of no-where, we met two hikers on their sixth attempt to climb Mt. Clark, it is a tough mountain! We wished them well. Then, ahead of us rose a classic small Sierra Dome, two hundred feet high with a stunning gash slicing up its east face. It looked too terrifying to ever consider climbing. Within a few hours however I was standing at the base of that gash tightening my harness, contemplating putting in a first ascent with Hal. I didn't plan to climb the steep to overhanging flared off-width crack, because next to it there appeared to be the promise of a smaller crack. This crack, if it existed, would be a classic route, so I knew we had to try to pioneer it. After decades of climbing I felt I was well prepared to put in another first ascent. To climb where no one had climbed before adds great spice and adventure to the route. I laced on my low-top climbing shoes and wished I had remembered to bring some socks to protect my ankles from sunlight, I slathered them with sun block instead.

Hal led the first pitch. which went up the right side of a buttress to the right of the gash. He climbed up using the top of a good flake for handholds and protection, then he climbed a chimney to the top of the buttress. I followed him. The first pitch was enjoyable climbing &emdash; even the chimney&emdash; but I was thinking ahead to the unknown and my mouth was getting dry with anticipatory fear.

I took the rack from Hal and started up on a great finger crack that traversed left and up then ended. I put in a bomber stopper and then stepped left and down on poor holds across a wide place in the fearsome gash, I looked up at it and recoiled in horror, the offwidth was overhanging and outward flaring, I'd never try that route... unless I could con Curt into leading it. Traversing across the gash was hard, I found only one handhold from which I stretched left to a small nubbin and a sloping foothold. I shifted my weight left on uncertain terrain and was glad when my hand reaching left even further curled around the near edge of the crack I had hoped would be there. The good news was that I had found a crack, the bad news was that it was wider than my hands &emdash; I was carrying no protection that would fit a crack this wide. Ten feet above me, there was one chockstone stuck across the crack. I rocked right, curled my hands over the steep edge of the crack and walked up the wall in a layback until I reached the chockstone. It was great climbing; solid, steep and fun. When I stood on the chockstone and looked up, fear returned. Above me loomed over 40 feet of unprotectable climbing. I wrapped a sling around the chockstone to hold the rope in case I should fall, then without pause, launched up laybacking into the unknown

At first it was glorious. A solid sharp edge in my hands pulling my feet onto rough rock high in the air with the rope dropping away below me. Then the crack steepened, and I began to sweat. I noticed that I was a long way above my pro, laybacking into the unknown up a first ascent of a wilderness dome. I began to worry. I wanted safety so I bailed out of the layback and threw my left foot into the crack. The greater safety of the foot wedged between heel and toe came at a price, the sharp virgin rock scraped the skin off my ankle, I was too busy climbing to notice the pain of the missing flesh. There was no protection anywhere. I knew that if I waited around I would tire out and fall so I kept going getting farther from my protection, risking an 60 foot fall. Above the crack arced left. I followed the arc as the wall of the crack got thinner and thinner. Then as I grabbed the underside of the sharp left arc the edge began to crumble. I was looking at an 80 foot fall so I crumbled off the loose rock to get to the solid rock below. With one final reach I grabbed a bucket above and pulled myself onto a small ledge. Whew! I had survived. My mouth was so dry I was ready to puke.

I put in two pieces of protection and breathed as I tried to get moisture back into my mouth. I was glad to be alive and near the top. Three moderate layback moves and I joined Bob on the summit. Wow! first ascents pack an addictive rush. Hal followed up the route enjoying the climbing and noticing the crumbly edge near the top. We all celebrated on the summit on top of a dome beneath a clear blue sky. Only two pitches and I had had enough climbing for one day. Hal thought it was 5.7, I thought 5.7+ R/X the view from the lead sure is different.

That night we set up another fantastic camp on the top of an open ridge. The two hikers we had met in the morning dropped by on their way out from Mount Clark. The mountain had repelled them once again. They had reached the base of the ridge, looked up and decided it would take too long to climb so they headed out. We ate our dinner and enjoyed the stars.

Another First Ascent

The next day we headed over to Starr King. Flushed with success we decided to try another first ascent up the south face of the southmost of the three domes of Starr King. This one looked four pitches long. One hard move on any of those four pitches would stop us in our tracks and send us down in defeat. I could see the first pitch up a crack to a ceiling then over the ceiling to the top of a buttress, but bulging rock blocked the view above, so with "that hope that burns eternal" I launched upward.

The first moves up a friction slab were hard, perhaps 5.8 but soon my fingers curved into a crack and the climbing became protectable and easier. It was a glorious crack up clean granite, steep but not vertical. Near the top the crack narrowed curved right into a ceiling and became full of plants. I ripped out some plants (it was me or them honest!) put in some protection (whew!) then searched for handholds. I could only find an undercling, so I stepped up on steep friction until I could reach a rounded hold, I carefully pulled up and made it to the ledge above. Bob came up second and managed to find a bucket hold above the plants that I had missed making the climb 5.7, I sure wished I had found that hold! Hal followed and missed Bob's bucket but with his longer reach easily grabbed the ledge above. He also thought the pitch was 5.7.

Hal lead the second pitch. He encountered a patch of manzanita bush improbably growing on the dome and made the bravest move of the climb by stepping into the bush without knowing how deep it was. He was lucky and only sank in a few inches, not a few feet. He then went up a layback crack in some orange rock and finished at a large pine tree. Above the pine tree a wonderful crack rose above us disappearing out of sight as it became steeper several hundred feet above.

It was my turn again and once again I crossed hard friction moves to get into a wonderful easy crack. I had fun and enjoyed being able to place protection whenever I wanted. After a little over one-half a rope I came to a sloping ledge and put in a belay. Up to this point it was taking us half-an-hour per pitch. Good time particularly on a first ascent.

Hal lead up the steepening crack. It looked hard so he stopped to place pro. But then it went easily, the main problem was avoiding stepping into the crack and having it swallow your foot. Since the crack was wider than our pro, Hal had to place some creative protection, prying dirt out of the smaller cracks in the bottom of the large one in order to insert protection. Hal found a secure ledge that almost swallowed him whole after one rope length. The crack still continued. I wondered how many pitches this climb would be.

My lead brought me to the crux move of the climb. In the middle of the fifth pitch the crack widened until it was five feet wide. I was climbing completely inside the wide crack. Then the crack slammed back together to a mere 4 inches wide forming a steep wall as it did so. I put protection at the base of the short steep wall. Stepped onto the right wall with my feet and pulled with my hands. The rock crumbled under my feet and I slammed back down to the bottom of the crack removing skin from my elbow to make it match my ankle. On the next try I stepped higher onto better rock and managed to struggle up the crack. I wondered what Bob and Hal would think of that move. Once over the crux, the angle of the crack eased and the summit came into sight. I climbed another fifty feet up without protection and then stopped at a belay ledge.

Bob took one look at the steep wall and then climbed back down and over the left wall instead. That brought him onto a smooth face of rock. But Bob is a master of face climbing. So much a master that he walked up the wall even as its never-before-climbed surface crumbled out from under his feet. Hal climbed the crux by a third entirely different technique. He chimneyed up the narrowing crack until he could reach a high foothold then stepped onto the upper face. I thought the crux was 5.7, Bob though his was 5.8 and Hal thought his was 5.7. On the summit we ate our candy and looked around at the Sierra. We all were thrilled to have pulled off a five pitch first ascent that was such a wonderful climb.

We returned to our packs and marched back to the car three tired but happy men.

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Scientific Explorations with Paul Doherty

© 1999

8 Apr 99