September 27, 2015

The Minaret Traverse

Scott Sinner and I did The Minaret Traverse a couple of weeks ago. We climbed all of the named Minarets in a day, which added up to 20 peaks. I don't think anyone had done exactly this before and though it's a rather arbitrary guideline, all of the rules in climbing are arbitrary. Why climb the Dawn Wall when you can walk up the back side of El Capitan on a trail? It was really fun, particularly the northern half. The rock quality was good when it needed to be and occasionally great.
Scott somewhere in The Minarets.
I'm not 100% sure why I like this kind of thing, but I know that I really really like it. When I started climbing I remember stumbling across an article by Matt Samet in Climbing Magazine about alpine traverses. In the article he climbs The Cirque Traverse (in The Wind River Range), The Grand Traverse (in the Tetons), and The Evolution Traverse (for what might have been it's first onsight) in a long road trip. He may have done another, I can't remember and lost the magazine a long time ago. 

Something in that article was the spark, though it was a while before I had the chops to really turn it into a fire. Obvious natural lines have always drawn my interest (Indian Creek is one of my favorite crags) and I like alpine climbing. Long ridges are the most obvious and aesthetic lines in the mountains and if that ridge takes me across multiple peaks, so much the better. As Josh Wharton said, "What could be better than climbing? More climbing."

After climbing all over the country I was drawn to The Sierra in no small part because of it's ridges. I believe it was Viren Perumal who suggested using Peter Croft's The Good, The Great, And The Awesome as a tick list. What do you know, there are a lot if ridge climbs in there, including four big traverses. One of them draws the eye insatiably every time I'm driving home on the 395. I usually find myself going well under the speed limit on the straightaway past the Mammoth Airport. 

For these reasons and more a few Sundays ago I woke up at three in the morning at a small bivy just east of The Gap, a pass just before the northernmost Minaret. It had been smoky lately (from The Rough Fire) and there was a slight chance of thunderstorms in the forecast. I popped in one earbud from my iPod, so I could get psyched but still converse with Scott, and fired up the stove. I was feeling some nervous anticipation. I wasn't scared about the climbing, but I was excited to finally get my hands on this ridge and I really wanted to send. We got our gear sorted out, Scott turned on his wicked bright alpine-start-routefinding headlamp (essentially the sun in a bottle strapped to his head), and off we went. 

There's not a lot of beta about this traverse. The guidebook write ups vary from inspiring to cryptic but none are particularly useful. I found trip reports online (here, here, here, and here) (oh yeah, and here) but none of those climbers did what I wanted to do: climb all of the peaks named "Minaret" in a day. Somewhere on the third page of search results I came across a Supertopo forum post from a few years ago. Scott Sinner was looking for a partner for this traverse. Most of the folks posting to the thread did not want to climb with Scott and seemed only interested in nay-saying. I barely knew Scott, but he was the only other person I had met who had expressed any interest. I sent him a message to find out if he still was and he replied quickly and in the affirmative. 

We met for beers to talk strategy and logistics. I wanted to get the earliest start we could without compromising a good night's sleep. My frequent partner Aaron Richards pointed out that if you're going to climb in the dark no matter what you might as well do it first, when you're fresh. Scott had the brilliant idea of going north to south, so as to front-load the more technical climbing. I had learned from experience that it's best to, whenever possible, shift walking to the end of the day. So we camped at The Gap and started real early.

In the interest of encouraging more people to climb this thing I included more notes about our particular route than I usually do. Please understand that in endeavors like this a sense of urgency is necessary and quality note taking often fell by the wayside. For clarity I capitalize an aspect (Southeast for example) when it's in the official name of an established route that I'm sure we climbed. This happened rarely. 

From The Gap we slogged uphill and north over talus and scree on the west side of Waller Minaret until we could turn east and scramble up 4th class to the summit. We retraced our steps to The Gap and then headed up the West Ridge of Leonard, a fun 4th and low 5th class scramble on mostly good rock. Folks call this the West Ridge, but since it comes directly from The Gap "Northwest Ridge" might be more accurate. Climbing down to the notch between Leonard and Turner Minarets was not memorable, but the excellent 5.7 climbing out of that notch was. We went slightly downhill to the west and then followed a crack system on good rock for a while passing an old piton in the process. 
A cool polished ramp on the west side of Turner (or was it Jensen?) Minaret.
Somewhere above this we walked up a cool polished ramp on the east side of the peak then climbed a really fun low 5th class corner with a finger and hand crack in the back. However, one or both of these climbing items could have come on the way up Jensen Minaret, as I can't particularly recall how we got to it's summit from Turner Minaret. I definitely recall how we got off of Jensen though. This was the first time we got out the rope. We probably could have down-climbed all of this terrain, but I think rapping was ultimately faster. We made one rappel from near the summit to a ledgy area. From here we climbed down and skier's left, on unlikely looking terrain, closer to the ridge crest. Then we made two more rappels, interspersed with some scrambling. The last rap put us in the chute on the west side of North Notch. Scrambling up North Notch Minaret was fairly easy, but I think we might have rapped off the top because there was a really good station already there.
A fun corner of Jensen (or was it Turner?) Minaret.
Next came Dyer Minaret, which Scott and I both thought was some of the best climbing on the whole thing. From Highway 395 near the Mammoth Airport you can pick out the little finger of Dyer sitting above North Notch. The northwest ridge is steep and exposed 5.6 - 7 on really good rock. The small summit of Dyer featured a rap station with a fixed pin and stopper equalized with a horn. One 30m rappel (watch the ends of your rope!) down the northeast face got us down to easier terrain. There's a good bivy for two on this side of the peak, from above it looked like a little nest jutting out into space. We climbed over the west shoulder of Dyer and down to the notch between it and Dawson Minaret.
Scott on Dawson Minaret. Jensen Minaret looms behind.
On Dawson we followed low 5th class ramps up and around the west side of the peak to the notch between it and Bedayan Minaret. Then we turned north and climbed up making moves up to about 5.7. Once again we were happy to take advantage of a not-bad in situ rap station. We climbed Bedayan by it's northeast face, which was mostly 4th class. This was notable because it was the only time we climbed a peak in the northern half of the traverse on it's east (our left) side.
I don't remember much about how we got up Rice Minaret, but my notes say "west-northwest ridge". I do remember making a shortish rap from a bomber natural feature down a cool looking tight corner/chimney. Getting onto the summit ridge of Eichhorn Minaret was walking. It was literally class 2/3. At one point I wished aloud for trekking poles.
Scott pulling onto Eichorn's summit ridge. Clyde Minaret is on the right.
There are several big towers between Eichorn and Michael Minarets. We traveled around these towers on the west, passing the big plaque memorializing Pete Starr, and dropping into and then climbing out of the tight gullies that separate them to reach the Portal. We passed through the Portal and climbed the face above and left of it. The rock was impeccable and the climbing was never harder than 5.6, which was good because the face was quite steep. I don't think we took the path of least resistance but it was fun. As we topped out it started to drizzle briefly. Three rappels got us down.

Crossing back over Eichorn we dipped into a bowl on the southwest side of the summit ridge to avoid it's sharpest parts. A little bit of exposed 5th class downclimbing got us onto the northwest ridge of Clyde Minaret and from there to it's summit. From here we followed Croft's path in reverse. Down to Amphitheater Lake for a welcome drink of water, up to Amphitheater Col and over the first bump of Adams Minaret to it's true summit, which involved some 4th class scrambling. Somewhere in there we waited 30 minutes for a thunderstorm we couldn't see (because of the smoke) but that sounded really quite loud and close.
We found this cool little piece of obsidian on our way up to Amphitheater Col. It looked like some kind of arrowhead or man-made tool to us. Anybody out there have any ideas/expertise in this sort of stuff?
Back down to the lake and up the Southwest Face of Ken Minaret to it's summit, where we made a few 5th class moves near the top. We retraced our steps back down and hopped talus over to South Notch Minaret. This little tower had what might have been the hardest climbing of the whole route, we weren't surprised everyone skips it.  We climbed it by the northwest face, which had consistent class 5 climbing on good rock up to maybe 5.8 or so, and descended with two short raps.

Now a bunch of talus walking led to Starr Minaret. We cached the climbing gear somewhere on the way and climbed Starr as the light faded. Our route to the summit was not the easiest way up and the descent even less so, but eventually we found our way back to the gear and hiked up Kehrlein Minaret. I had been on Kehrlein before, on a previous attempt traveling the other direction with my friend Dale Apgar. It's east ridge is the most complicated terrain feature connecting two minarets that we would travel on. I felt confident that we wouldn't get lost and would take a generally efficient route. Little did I know that our time getting from Kehrlein to Pridham Minaret would be well over 4 times the average time it took us to get between all the other summits. Though morale was still high and we were both still functioning well mentally the 17 summits before this one were making themselves felt. We moved more slowly in the dark, and made five rappels as we ground our way east. I don't know if I speak for Scott on this but I hope to never climb Kehrlein Minaret again. 

From the top of Pridham we could see Reigelhuth looming in the dark when we turned our headlamps off. Robotically we hiked over to it and climbed steep low 5th class terrain on the south side of it's west end. We stumbled, down-climbed, and butt slid down some loose gully and picked up a path that took us to the trail by the outlet of Minaret Lake. 

Success! As is common for me on these things, I was just glad to be done and figured I'd probably feel good about it later. I was more excited about the supplies we had cached by the outlet on our way in. We snacked (Fritos!), changed headlamp batteries, and psyched ourselves up for the death march back to The Gap.

This area is worthy of more climber traffic. The northern Minarets in particular (from The Gap to Clyde Minaret) were fun and engaging and certainly not the nightmare of loose rock and routefinding that they're often made out to be. Most of the skepticism I've heard about the Minarets has been from folks who have done minimal actual climbing there. If The North Ridge Of Conness or The Incredible Hulk is your standard for alpine rock quality, be prepared to be disappointed in The Minarets and in every other mountain range in the lower 48. Come to the Minarets understanding that these are mountains and that mountains (especially those that aren't overrun by other climbers) often contain some loose rock and I think you'll be pleasantly surprised by the climbing. If you are interested in this traverse (or part of it) and want more beta feel free to get in touch.

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