Yesterday Kellen and I rose at 4:15, ate, dressed, got coffee and were on the road with dawn’s rainbow light and a crescent moon over the dry brush, well outlined ridges of the White mountains to the East (our left as we headed South on the 395), and the darker more dramatic peaks of the Sierras to our right. We were at the trailhead before 6 and hiking a few minutes later. To approach Bear Creek Spire you start on a trail towards Morgan pass from the Mosquito Flat trailhead through Little Lakes Valley in the Rock Creek area. After a few miles there is a use trail that splits off to the right and through smaller creek beds filled with mosquitos you go. You can actually see the route from the car when you start, a huge prominent arete right up the middle of the mountain on the left in the picture below. The first two hours of the hike are relatively moderate, uphill, but not too steep and only some scrambling over rocks. After that it gets steeper, and more aggressive. The last third of the approach is up through boulder fields, snow patches with deep sun cups, and steep scree piles that are anything but settled. Kellen is faster than me, so he would wait for me to catch up, though I wasn’t that far behind! But then he would start hiking as soon as I reached him, so I didn’t really break at all til we got up there. It was a beautiful morning hike, and I was amped to be doing this route, so although it was a hard approach, I was ready to climb it and happy to be putting one foot in front of the other to get there. The north arete on BCS is one of the most popular routes in the eastern Sierra, consistently rated as a classic. My dad actually did the first ascent on the East Arete of BCS with a girlfriend back in 1977, though no one really know if someone did it before he did, 1977 is a late date for first ascent in the sierras and there are other rumored but unconfirmed earlier ascents. He did the first confirmed ascent. Anyway, we got up below the route and much to our consternation there were two groups of three at the base of the route, with kids! Kellen was just pissed and said no way, we can’t do it, we have to do something else. But I was so set on it, had my heart set. I thought the people would let us pass them (which they offered once we were up there). People climbing with children will often let smaller faster groups climb through at a belay as a courtesy, and probably saves them any frustration with kids going their own pace, which they inevitably will. Climbing with kids is really fun, but it doesn’t help to push them, they climb best with encouragement and patience, come to think of it, not much different from how to be with kids in other situations either. Anyway, Kellen suggested going to the East Arete, my dad’s first ascent, since there was rarely anyone over there. It would take another hour to get to the base of it. I preferred to wait a half hour here and get on behind these people, and pass through them, and stick with our original plan. I didn’t want to do any more approach. So we headed up and got on. After we scrambled up what would be the first pitch and got our gear on we noticed some clouds rolling by. I think we both had the same feeling, but wanted to go for it. That was probably a mistake, but in the end I’m still glad we did. Kellen led the first pitch to a big ledge, where we noticed the group ahead of us was off-route. I led the next pitch off to the right, which was up through some flakes to another ledge, over the top of some pillars that felt exposed to me. It was getting cloudy at this point, so I quickly set up and anchor and brought Kellen up to me, and sent him through the next pitch. That next pitch, I climbed up to him faster than I had ever climbed before. Boy that wind was whipping around everything and I was getting nervous. You don’t want to be up hanging out on a lightning rod when a storm starts, with a ton of metal attached to you. Slick rock, wet rope, high voltage, = avoid. As I reached his perch and we started switching some gear for me to lead the next, it began to spit at us. It was a 4th class pitch so I started to climb anyway. The granite was rough, and about three pieces up we hear a roll of thunder about 3-4 miles off. Kellen said “o-kay.” and we stopped to think about what to do. I was more nervous than I think I’ve ever been, never having been on a climb in the rain, not to mention a climb heading to the top of a peak in a sierra thunderstorm before. What I’ve been told, is get out and get down. But it was still spitting, not full on raining, and the thunder was a few miles off, not headed toward us. The weather was blowing from behind the mountain, where we couldn’t see what we were in for. So we sat tight, wondering if the clouds would blow away in a few minutes, or if it would get worse? We sat like that, me on a ledge 20 feet up, my brother at the belay, hunkering when the wind picked up, looking at the clouds, looking for a sign of what we should do. Eventually I down-climbed to his position, taking my gear with me, and we ate a little, and took some pictures.
The group above us had taken shelter below a larger overhang and we began to contemplate together what to do. We decided to get down, to rappel off, and that we would rappel together; my brother and I only had one rope, so this would mean faster rappels and less gear left, or maybe no gear left, because one of their climbers was down-climbing every pitch, so they wouldn’t have to leave gear. They were quite a sight, first climber rappeling slowly setting gear, kids being lowered, bringing the other’s down, and then the last guy down-climbing what the previous guy had set. Then doing it over again. It was a long descent with three kids and the elaborate process to avoid leaving gear. Often the kids would come down over an edge and I would catch them and set them somewhere, or hold the girl’s hands as they lowered off another ledge because the rock was too wet. It felt good to be able to help them, and by the end the eldest girl Cara was asking me if I was sure we wanted to hike back, because she was sure they could make some room for us in their tent. But I think by the second to last rap station, with eight of us huddled on a tiny ledge, the kids sitting on the ground, piles of ropes and stuff all tangled up, then the hail started…we were all laughing a little, and that helped the kids have fun. We had this poncho over the girls heads and they were laughing “it’s just like camping!” It hailed pretty hard, and that was when John said said “let’s just get off.” He attached two kids to his harness, and rappeled with two ten ten year olds attached to him. We took the other two ropes down and set up the next rap while the rest came down, and we were off. We all got down, and it was 4:40 in the afternoon. We had started climbing at 10 am, and stopped at 1 pm, it took us almost four hours to get off this thing. The hail and rain continued, the thunder grumbled and cracked, and Kellen and I, after eating the last of our inadequate food supplies, started the three and half hour trip back to the car. I have never been so physically exhausted in my life. That I can remember. But in the end, it was quite an experience. From mitigating a less than ideal start, making a decision with less than perfect information, to confronting the fears I had of being caught in a lightning storm, not being able to get off in time, having wet equipment, etc. We didn’t finish the route and may go back to do that tomorrow, but I gained something that to me feels more valuable, the experience of what to do in a situation like that; how to act, think, and communicate to make it down safe, efficiently, and even have some fun doing it. I was so happy to be laughing with my brother, and these strangers, on a ledge in the midst of a hail storm.