Mount Perkins/Colosseum Mountain

May 28 - 30, 2005

By: Daryn Dodge

Participants: Beth Epstein (leader), Asher Waxman (leader), Patty Rambert, Jennie Thomas, Garen Yegpairiank, Alexander Smirnoff, Alex Amies, Paul Garry and Daryn Dodge

This was a re-scheduled SPS trip that had been delayed 2-weeks.  But a paperwork snafu changed it to a private trip.  After introductions near the Sawmill Pass trailhead near the Division Creek power station, the 9 participants drove to a parking area at Scotty Springs and then piled into two 4-wheel-drive vehicles for the drive up the old Armstrong Canyon mining road.  This mining road is rough, necessitating a high-clearance vehicle.  However, there appeared to be only 1 or 2 locations of loose pumice where the 4-wheel-drive was necessary.  Also, do not take a car with a new paint job on this road.  The brush overgrowing it will provide your vehicle with ‘racing stripes’.

We parked the cars at a turnout just beyond a road fork that leads up to a mine.  It’s possible to drive all the way into Armstrong Canyon, but a big snow bank and someone else’s pickup blocked the narrow road.  At 9 am we made the relatively easy hike up Armstrong Canyon, which was mostly snow-filled above the nine thousand foot level.  R.J. Secor’s guidebook isn’t kidding about the lack of running water in this canyon.  Even though we had warm weather and plenty of snow, we could not find a single drop of running water and had to melt snow for our water supply.  We set up camp only a little more than two miles from the cars, in a group of trees at about 10,000 feet.  The afternoon was spent setting up tents, eating lunch, catching up on gossip, and exploring the upper reaches of the snow-filled canyon.  The owner of the pickup blocking the road came by camp in the late afternoon after day hiking Mt. Pinchot.  He reported that the snow conditions were poor, resulting in a short ride down in an avalanche while descending Mt. Pinchot.  This information somewhat deflated our enthusiasm for the next days’ climb.

During the evening strong gusting winds arrived.  You could hear the wind gusts hit the ridge tops above before reaching down into the canyon, allowing us time to brace for impact.  Asher’s tent was shredded by the wind gusts necessitating his move into Paul & Alexander’s tent.  Beth, who was sharing the tent, moved into a rock cave that Alex A. was using.

The group started hiking towards Armstrong Col at 5:20 am with crampons, ice axes, and helmets on; Asher stayed behind due to lack of sleep and continued strong winds.  The objective today was to first climb Colosseum Mtn, then Perkins if time permited.  We cramponed all the way up the Col following the main chute in the SW corner of Armstrong Canyon.  The maximum angle reached was about 35º.  We then followed the Sierra Crest towards Colosseum Mtn.  The winds were much stronger up here and we were continually knocked about by strong gusts.  Even though we were right next to each other, we had to yell to be heard.  Beth said wind gusts this strong are at least 40 mph.  But we grimly continued on.  About 400 feet below the summit we came to a deep gully that stymied our upward movement.  Beth, Alex A., and I dropped down about 100 feet on the west side looking for a way to cross.  The steep-sided gully contained rock-hard snow that increased the difficulties for crossing.  With no clear way to cross the gully, and no guarantee that we could easily reach the summit if we did find a way to cross (the north sides of the peak looked steep and loose, and the chutes leading up may have been ice-filled), we turned back and decided to give Mt. Perkins a go instead.  The howling wind was also a factor in this decision.  Back at Armstrong Col, Beth decided to head back to camp due to remnants of a nasty cold from previous weeks.  Paul’s knee was bothering him and he decided to head back as well.  That left six of us to tackle Perkin’s southern ridge approach.

Reiner Stenzel’s previous report on this approach noted it was quite arduous with numerous ridges to cross.  We were not disappointed.  We crossed a myriad of ridges and gullies staying below the summit crest on the moderately steep western side.  There were more than 10 significant ridges to cross.  Most were 15-30 ft. high with a few of them involving some class 3 climbing.  Two members of the group asked for the rope up one ridge and Alex A. efficiently belayed them up.  Secor’s guidebook lists this south side ridge approach from Armstrong Col as class 2, but we didn’t see anything that would stay class 2.  Often, Alex A. and Alex S. jumped ahead to scout for the best way to cross the next ridge.  Once found, they waited for the others to catch up.  This helped keep the group moving.  With 3-4 ridges left to cross, we could see a dark red ridge looming up ahead above the others.  This ridge signified the gully we needed to reach before beginning our actual ascent of Mt. Perkins. 

When we finally reached this gully, Patty’s GPS/altimeter indicated we were 0.15 mi. from, and about 400 feet below, the summit [on a future trip, Patty “donated” her GPS/altimeter to the summit of East Vidette].  This wide gully had a noticeably greater abundance loose scree and talus.  Just short of the summit we came to a small rock buttress, which gave us a choice of moving left around the main buttress over a small cliff band with loose rock, or moving right up a steep chute with loose rock.  We choose the chute with loose rock and climbed up it one-by-one to avoid falling rocks.  Near the top of this gully was an amazing array of very loose rock that was ready to fall if one so much as breathed on them.  One rock the size of a basketball was set free and careened down the chute.  It then proceeded to thunder down out over the open talus field below.  As it picked up more speed, it took a huge hop and then came crashing down, smashing itself into oblivion.  This was quite a humbling site from above, but those below still waiting to move up the chute were not impressed.  The last two in our group decided to go around to the left over the steeper rock band, thus avoiding the loose chute and falling rocks altogether.

We reached the summit around 5 pm and radioed Beth of our success.  According to the register, we were the first group since Oct. 3rd of the previous year.  Mt. Clarence King, Mt. Wynne, and Mt. Pinchot were all impressive sites, as was the totally snow-bound Pinchot Pass area.  For our descent route, we continued north, looking to reach a broad chute leading into Armstrong Canyon from its northwestern side.  It had been reported by Beth that this was a much easier route to Perkins.  We crossed a few easy ridges, then followed the east side of a large plateau-like area.  An east-tending ridge that went down and narrowed considerably followed this.  Most of us put our crampons back on at one point to negotiate a short steep section of hard snow.  Once at the top of the broad chute leading down into Armstrong Canyon, we descended first on loose rock, and then plunged-stepped without crampons down poorly consolidated snow that was thin and hard on the surface but powdery underneath.  These snow conditions did not allow for glissading and was quite exhausting.  However, this side was definitely the easier route to Perkins.  We arrived back at camp at 8:20 pm tired and hungry – a 15-hour hike.  I wasn’t sure where I was going to find the strength to dig up frozen snow, start the stove, and fix dinner. Much to our surprise, Beth had already fired up most of our stoves and was boiling water before we got back to camp. Tears of joy and group hugs ensued. 

We hiked out of the canyon the next morning after an axe-tossing contest started by Jenny.  Beth had the best toss with a quadruple flip-double axel, and stuck the landing with a perfect spike plant into the snow.  It only took a little over an hour to get back to the cars.  Armstrong Canyon makes for a wonderful early season trip into the High Sierra for some alpine climbing.  With enough water bottles and a 4-wheel drive vehicle, Mt. Perkins or Colosseum Mtn. should also make a good summer dayhike and climb.

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