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Bear Creek Spire Solo


by Karl "Baba" Bralich

December 29, 2001

It was Labor Day weekend 1996 and, like a lot of folks, I was smoked out of Yosemite because Central California happened to be on fire. I was with my oldest friend, Brosig, whose loyalty to climbing was tenuous at best. I had to seduce him into climbing with all kinds of compromises and plans designed to appeal to his tastes.

We looked over a couple of books and wound up driving to Rock Creek Canyon, just South of Mammoth Lakes, partly because I had seen some threads posted on Rec.Climbing titled "Rock Creek" and "Bear Creek Spire." I hadn't read those threads but assumed some climbing must be there.

On a scholarship from the Universe, we miraculously found a campsite and woke the next day to first class Sierra Splendor. After some cragging low in the Canyon, we hiked up and got a view of the crest. I'm not known for alpine climbing, but when I saw the North Arete of Bear Creek Spire, I knew it would be a route worthy of the trudging and humping that might be required.

The first step would be selling Brosig on the idea. "Come on, Brosig! It is a gorgeous stone and it's only 5.8!" Brosig said 5.8 alpine routes bore no resemblance to Yosemite 5.8s and since I wasn't an alpine climber, I was naive to think we could waltz up to a nearly 14,000 foot peak and pluck it like beer from the cooler. He added "If it's so easy, maybe the Forest Service will install ramps so people can cruise up in their electric wheelchairs!"

Brosig got one of his quirky feelings to explore the desert, and I encouraged him to take off on his own, I was beginning to hatch a sick and rash plan that I didn't want anyone to meddle with. I would wake up early, hike up to the route and, if there was time, start soloing. I figured as long as I could safely retrace my steps at any point, and was mindful of time, I could stick my nose where it hadn't been before with relative impunity. I was armed with a topo from Fiddler's 100 classics book, but I didn't know if the route was even doable from the car in a day, or if the glacier required ice axe or mountain boots. I have since learned that this route is widely known and climbed (usually in two days) but it was a mystery to me.

The alarm went off at 3:30 and I began lengthy negotiations with myself over how long I could lay in my van and still have a shot at the climb. I couldn't help but talk myself into snoozes amounting to a couple more hours, after all, I knew all the right things to say to myself. So, when it was the last possible moment to fire up to the trailhead, I jumped into the driver's seat, turned the key, and nothing! The damn battery was dead! It was definitely a bad omen but I chose to view it as merely the first obstacle to overcome. My van has an accessory battery in the back. I yanked it out and jumped the engine battery with it. The day had begun.

There were shadowy impressive figures staging in the parking lot at Mosquito Flats: Helmets, Axes, Crampons, and even a dog that was bigger than me. They were gearing up for an alpine traverse. Trolling for beta, I hooked one of the guys who had done my route. The good news was, nothing was that hard on it. The bad news was, he didn't know if he could do it all in a day. It was already 6:30 am so I headed up the trail resigned to only scope out the approach, and at least work off some poochy belly. Those were the latest lies I was telling myself; deep down, my will was still set on making something happen.

I hiked to Dade Lake at the base of the Spire in my Tevas. The anathema of 3 1/2 hours of hiking was fully ennobled by sublime natural bliss: countless splendid lakes and lofty peaks. I was even enraptured by the talus slopes that I had to climb: they were strewn with clean, elegant, and steady stones of practical size. There was often water melodiously gurgling under the rocks. I got lost in the Zen concentration of moving efficiently in sandals from stone to stone without breaking my rhythm.

At Dade Lake, a group of climbers breaking camp said they had done the climb the previous day. I was 1 1/2 hours behind their starting time, and they only returned to their lake camp as it was getting dark. I knew I had to keep going for it since soloing can be much faster than roped climbing.

I scrambled another hour to the base of the climb and stashed the body of my B.D. Super Genius pack along with everything I dared leave behind. I wanted bare minimum weight for free-soloing. I realized when I climbed the last little bit of glacier in my Nike Water Sox that I just made the descent the crux of the climb. The featherweight water sox have no bulk, and are just the ticket for descending El Cap or Sentinel. Unfortunately the smooth soles and rounded edges make them useless on snow and I only made it up the glacier by high stepping from sun cup to sun cup.

The route itself was a joy; fun climbing, lovely rock, stunning views resplendent with alpine light. Two gracious parties allowed me to pass and soon I found myself at the base of the crux pitch. The steep offwidth listed in Fiddler's topo was obvious and highly uninviting as an onsight free solo. I heard rumors that it was possible to climb off to the left and while that looked much better, there were several inobvious options, and getting offroute is definite free-soloing party foul. I choose the far left and it was fun 5.7+. Happy Happy, Joy Joy! I danced around a collection of impressive gendarmes and after 1 1/2 hours of climbing, celebrated the summit. I thanked the Universe for the day and good fortune of my life, and was blessed with a soaring heart that could barely contain all the good feelings inspired by the sweeping vistas of beauty.

I had eyed downclimbing the class 4 Northeast Ridge to avoid the snow but laziness overcame me when I noticed some folks just walking toward the North shoulder. After my summit beatitudes and a snack, I made my way down to the North shoulder and scrambled down to the glacier. When I reached the snow, I tried to tell myself that I had skied down snow that steep, but I knew when I fell skiing on that angle of snow, I kept going, and going, and going. I found some hand-sized and pointy rocks and anointed them as ice tools. The routine was downstepping in my slick water sox from sun cup to sun cup with my tools for balance until I couldn't make a connection, then I invariably fell and used my talus rocks, I mean ice tools, to self arrest. This routine was taking its toll on me until the angle of the snow lessened and my water sox became a blessing. Now I could glissade standing up until I fell on my ass and slid on it until I hit a sun cup deep enough to stop me. There was a rock in the very last sun cup I was sliding for. I saw it in time to have a microsecond to decide whether to roll out of the way or not. I thought the snow under my butt would cushion the rock but WRONG! DOINK! I would be sitting on one butt cheek for a day or so.

Hikey, Hikey, by the time I reached the car I had been moving almost 12 hours; enough to get that dazed epic feel in my body that makes life so real. I knew I got what I was after when I got out of my van in the middle of the night to take a leak. My system was so depleted that I began shivering wildly even though the cold was minimal. It took all my concentration to keep my feet dry. The weekend war with myself was over.

Enjoy the mountains and their sublime beauty!

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