By: Roy Gorin
A real challenge!
A stupendous, vertical, unclimbed rock wall - this was the challenge that brought Don Clarke, Harvey Hickman, Si Ossofski and myself to the northeast face of Wheeler Peak, Nevada. Although it was Memorial Day weekend, 1957, the late spring storms had transformed the high country into an out-of-season winter wonderland.
Weldon Heald in the February, 1957 SUMMIT, and Cecil Ouellette in the June issue, had quite vividly described Wheeler Peak, but I wasn't quite prepared for it. Very few mountains in the United States or Canada tower over you so overwhelmingly as does Nevada's second highest summit as you approach its main face via the north face.
But let us begin further back. After driving all night from Los Angeles, we got to Baker, Nevada in the early morning. The Forest Service ranger station there had been closed, but luckily we were able to get some information on the approach to the northeast face from Ralph Kaufman who lives in Baker. We then drove to the public campground on Lehman Creek, three miles above Lehman Caves National Monument. From there, a five-mile trail goes to Stella Lake, but we lost it as the snow level was down to about 8,000 feet. It was soft, slushy snow, the kind that reminds you of wading upstream with your boots on. One and one-half miles from Stella Lake, we turned southwest and literally pushed our way uphill through knee to waist-deep snow. Once we had to dig Harvey out. Our base camp was made finally just below timberline at 10,000 feet.
A portion of the. face was visible to us. It became more and more apparent that this was going to be a real climb. We began planning for a night on the cliff. In our climbing packs we stuffed a few more warm clothes than usual, a large lightweight tarp, a two-man bivouac sack, and some extra food, consisting of a rich date-nut cake, bologna, cheese, and the inevitable chocolate, nuts and raisins. I had bivouacked before and knew that spending a night out at high altitudes after a day of strenuous climbing is a cold experience at best.
Fortunately for us, it froze that night, so at 4 o'clock a.m., when we left our base camp, we were able to walk up a long snow gully which took us directly to the great Wheeler cirque and onto the Matthes Glacier. From there the Northeast face began to look even more formidable.
A series of unconnected chimneys divides the face, with the right-hand side appearing to be somewhat less severe in angle. By this time we were willing to settle for a route that would go-not one which would add to the climbing difficulties. A short snow tongue led to the first of the chimneys. Here we started the real climbing by working our way up the lower part of the face, going up over a series of high-angle small ledges. Snow or running water on the handholds, and occasional rockfalls down the face, made us quite cautious. Although several rocks whizzed by us like bullets, none had our number on it. We soon managed to get out of the direct rock-fall path.
It is an unfortunate fact in a climber's life, that most of the high mountains seem always to have main faces made up of cliffs with the rock overlapping downhill. Wheeler Peak is no exception.
In addition, piton cracks in the quartzite were hard to find. Cracks just didn't exist, or if they did they were mostly too shallow. Another problem on a real tremendous mountain face, is to correctly estimate the climbing difficulty ahead. It is quite easy to climb yourself into a cul-de-sac. We did this once; I was leading! The climbing became so severe that to proceed would have meant hours and hours of 5th and 6th class climbing, with no assurance that it would end in a route to the summit. A fifty-foot back-track got us out of this one, however, and we found another route that took us to a point approximately 800 feet vertically above the end of the snow tongue from where we had taken off.
So far, we had had moderately severe 4th and 5th class climbing and were now about a hundred feet to the right of the chimneys on a high-angle snowfield. It stretched about fifty feet up and down and probably covered a ledge underneath some twenty feet wide. We decided to stay out of the chimneys because of the rock-fall danger, and also because they looked real rugged. The face ahead of us was almost overhanging for two to three hundred feet-too much too late! Later in the year with dry rock and a party of strong climbers, a direct assault on the chimneys might succeed. But now our only choices were to give up and go back down, or traverse to the right on the snowfield, hoping that it would not avalanche, and look for a break in the cliff.
We traversed cautiously, and about three hundred feet to the right found a route on up. Short 5th class pitches were mixed in with easy 4th. We kept going until 8:30 p.m., and then began looking for a place large enough for four of us to spend the night sitting up in our planned bivouac. We used our ice axes to cut away some of the snow on a ledge and made a platform approximately four feet wide and seven feet long. We coiled our climbing ropes for use as insulation between us and the snow. It's an easy thing to stumble off a small platform like the one we were on, especially when you are tired and stiff from the cold. So the first thing we did was to place a piton in the rock at our backs and each of us tied into it. We then changed into our dry socks, put on extra clothing, and got ready to shiver and shake all night. Surprisingly enough, you can sleep an hour or so at a stretch, even if your teeth are ready to fall out from chattering so hard. It got considerably below freezing, as we were about 12,500 feet elevation, higher than all the other mountains as far as we could see.
At 4:30 a.m., we were on our way again. The morning sun was welcome. After a few pitches of easy rock work, we came to a long, steep snow gully that led directly to the summit rim. Step kicking became plain old hard work, but at 7:30 a.m., we were on top. A first ascent of the Northeast Face, with half of Nevada and part of Utah before us.
However, now that the first ascent of Wheeler's main face has been made, future climbing parties will probably spend more time developing new and increasingly difficult routes. When blanketed by winter snows, the Northeast Face offers a real mountaineering challenge in route finding and high-angle rock climbing under adverse conditions. Good piton cracks are scarce and the more or less continuous rock-falls add to the hazards. In early summer, or in the fall, it may be possible to push a route directly up the chimneys, but I'm sure it would take two or three days to do so, and it would requite a strong rock climbing party. I'm tempted to go back again myself to take a look at this possibility. All in all, I was impressed by the grandeur of the scenery as you approach the north cirque, and as you enter it you cannot help but realize that here is a real mountain. The surprising thing is that it has remained so little known for so many years.
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