It was a June Saturday in 1974. I was stuck on Mount Winchell. To get off, I had to traverse the overhang before me. The climber ahead, had struggled for hand holds, swung out, inched back, swung again and disappeared behind it. I avoided looking at the rocks 1,000 feet below, my basic rule to overcome fear. I didn’t know if I could get past the overhang but my life depended on it.
I wasn’t a climber. I was without climbing equipment, not even a down coat. Now the sun was preparing its final rush to the horizon, a horizon frightful to view from my precarious perch. A cold updraft blew into my face, a reminder of how cold atop the mountain it would shortly be.
What was I doing up over 13,000 feet on a spur crest of Mount Winchell? I didn’t like climbing. No, I hated it, the acrophobia, the risk, what for? It was incomprehensible, beyond stupid. Now, I was preparing to traverse an exposed overhang with extreme elevation exposure. I’d never done an overhang, a feat where one clings to the rock with hands to defy gravity.
I struggled to quell my fear as I belayed two climbers, a basic climbing no-no. I coiled the belayed rope retrieved from the unseen rear climber over my outstretched right leg, the leg the front climber had shouted back to lead with when attempting the overhang. It was an instruction opposite of what one would expect.
The coiled rope on my left leg splayed out loose as the lead climber tugged it off when he moved forward, unseen too. I didn’t know if I could catch either if they fell. Tied in the middle, belaying slack rope, if one fell, I figured it would be a tritifica death. I broke my rule and sneaked a peek down and made a rough calculation of where we’d land.
The night before, I’d awoken in my down sleeping bag, a recently purchased prized possession. Despite its chevron, mummy design, it didn’t prevent the cold from seeping in. The cold drifted off the nearby Palisades Glacier, California’s southern-most. It fed Sam Mack Lake next to where I lay, attempting to sleep. It wasn’t shivering cold. It was dull, bone cold.
Camped at a 12,000-foot elevation, the moonless sky revealed thousands more stars in Milky Way’s canopy than at home, in Santa Clara Valley, with its rug of smog. Scanning the Galaxy again suggested, millions more. It was they which illumined the white glacier.
It wasn’t the cold which awoke me. I’d turned over in sleep. The physical effort of rolling over with the altitude’s lack of oxygen, caused hyperventilation. With oxygen equilibrium restored, I slipped a hand out of my sleeping bag, reached over to my knapsack, retrieved my Lucky Strike cigarettes and lit one. With a nicotine high, I was awed again by the stars, viewed through the exhaled smoke. I promised myself it was the last pack, a promise which took another 30 years to keep.
With the butt snuffed out, I coiled into fetal position and a listless sleep.
Once the sun’s rays lite our camp site, I unzipped my sleeping bag and stood up. It wasn’t the cold which I felt. It was sore thighs and calves. We’d trekked nine miles from the trail head to Sam Mack Lake the late afternoon before, an elevation gain of 5,000 feet. I’d slept in my Levies’ and nylon coat for added warmth. From Boy Scout training, my feet were in two thinner socks rather than single heavy ones. It was still difficult to stuff my feet in my old army boots I used for hiking, boots Craig had given me.
There were four of us. I and two others were up and shifting about to get warm. There was no wood to build a fire this high above the timber line. Craig, was heating water in a metal cup he held above a little Sterno can’s fire.
He and the one still tucked in his sleeping bag were my friends. We’d met when we worked at San Jose’s, Frontier Village amusement park while students at San Jose State College. Our friendship then bonded when we rented an apartment together. Penury made our $37.50 each, month rent payment, cut into our food budgets. Craig and I specialized in Texas long grain rice but his drowing it in cheap imitation maple syrup grossed me. I smothered mine in a cube of trans fat margarine.
Bob, who remained in his sleeping bag, often snuck home to mom for a real meal. The apartment was close to a McDonalds where we balanced our diet with 15-cent hamburgers and if flush, with a 29-cent fish filet. My regular diet was glazed donuts, black coffee, Lucky Strike cigarettes and a Pepsi finish, all of which I could imbibe while driving by using knees for steering.
Craig and Bob were climbers, not me. Bob was a sunny day one but Craig a real one. He’d started climbing in high school with his close friend, Jim Bridwell. Bridwell went on to become famous in Yosemite and even Europe and South America climbing lore. He got a half page obit in the New You, Times when he died.
I was partly responsible for skewing Craig away from a potential similar famous climbing career by badgering him to stay in college until he graduated. Once he did, like Bob, he drafted and sent to fight in Vietnam. Back in the real world, they got married and jobs, too settled to give everything over to climbing. I too was married and had a three-year old son. Our wives had granted us a three-day mountain retreat. I’d already turned 30, the age no longer to be trusted as Jerry Rubin, a Berkeley riot protester, proclaimed. More apt, I wasn’t the fit 21 anymore. Craig and Bob were one and two years behind me, the three of us shifting to middle age spread.
The fourth member was Jake, an 18-year old. I didn’t know him. He wanted to be a real climber. Craig, who still had a climbing reputation from his Yosemite and Bridwell climbing days, including first assents, had let him come to show him the ropes.
By age he didn’t fit in. He retained the idealism and righteousness of youth. He also had expensive climbing gear which suggested family wealth. We spared on the trail up and by the time we reached our bivouac, I didn’t like him. With my cynic comments about climbing, he disliked me more. Climbing just wasn’t my thing. I’d done a few climbs at the Pinnacles, Castle Rock and Yosemite with Craig but due to camaraderie. That’s why I was standing about at Sam Mack Lake, warming up with the rising sun, to stay friends with Craig and Bob. My excuses for being at the lake were for the hike, to enjoy the scenery, to take pictures. It was not to climb some stupid mountain.
In my turn, I heated a cup of water over the Sterno can fire, dumped in some coffee grounds, stirred it, scooped off grounds which floated and enjoyed the morning delight of coffee, one of God’s great gifts. With my awakening finished, I grabbed some trail mix and washed it down with water from the lake. We made our own trail mix, a combination of M & M’s, chocolate chips, nuts, oatmeal in corn syrup, raisins and salt, not too dissimilar to Texas long grain rice meals of college. We carried our mix in empty bread bags, except Jake. He had store bought trail mix which included dried banana chips.
With breakfast complete, I went over and nudged Bob to get him out of his bag. He groaned and said he was sick, too sick to get up. I felt his head, no fever. It was altitude sickness. He was breathing heavy to get oxygen balance, almost gasping. I teased him for being a weakling, my normal friendship deportment when physically superior to Bob or Craig. They eagerly reciprocated the cajoling when I evidenced weakness.
Craig and Jake busied themselves with their climbing gear as I smoked, poked around and disturbed rocks. I tossed a few into Sam Mack Lake but none could be found which would skip across the surface. After I’d moped around, managed to get a few larger, close to boulder-hood rocks to roll down a bit, Craig came over and asked if I would take pictures. Not on the mountain just at the base of their assent up. He asked because I’d brought my other prized possession, a SLR, Minolta camera, purchased in Hong Kong after a long morning of haggling.
To his question,
“Can you come up and take our picture at the base of our assent?”
“Sure, something to remember you by after you fall?”
It was the wrong response.
Craig possessed a little booklet, a climber’s guide for Mount Winchell. Mount Winchell had various routs to the top. From the east it could be ascended without the necessity of climbing equipment. An athletic hiker, boulder maneuverer, could do it, so I was told. Craig and Jake intended to make a north assent which would be in the class 4 category of climbing, ropes but no pitons. An ascent west of the north route meant real climbing, class 5.
By noon, warmed and fed, climbing gear sorted, Craig and Jake, finally at agreement on a route up, the three of us left Sam Mack Lake. Bob left behind, was finally up but still winded and ill. We clambered over strewn boulders to the beginning of the assent point they’d chosen, still fussing about the route to take based on cryptic information in the booklet. My camera hung from my neck in its leather case, the strap across my chest for its protection.
At the base, looking up, it was time for another booklet consultation. Craig finally made the assertion of which was the right way up.
Forty-five years later, my youngest son, age forty, called. He’d developed a hobby of ascending mountain tops and had ready done most of the big ones in Washington and Oregon. Now he’d dropped down to California, started with Mount Shasta then switched to the Sierras. He’d done Mount Whitney at 14,505 foot-elevation, the highest peak in the lower 48, the previous summer. He planned to do nearby Mount Winchell, at 13,780-foot elevation next. He wasn’t a climber but an athletic hiker and snow/glacier traverser and hired a guide for most of his assents. When the cell phone buzzed, his name lighted up. I answered.
“Sebastian, what’d you want?”
“Hey old man, what side of Mount Winchell did you ascend when Craig dragged you up there?’
The apple hadn’t fallen too far from the tree. He had my sarcastic cynicism.
“The northwest side.”
“You lie! No! That’s a 5.8 climb! You did the east side, a class 3 scramble.”
“Well, we started on the north and drifted to the west as we climbed. Craig and the other climber spent the assent arguing which route was the right way up. They used a little climber’s booklet but I knew they didn’t know what they were doing. For all I know, we did a first assent.”
I puffed up a bit with my little claim to fame as the conversation drifted to grandchildren.
Today, due to over popularity, one needs a permit to climb Mount Winchell, no matter which route taken. Back then, we drove to the trail head, there were no other cars, hiked the nine miles to the lake and took the route up chosen on the spot, sans outside input. On our climb, we saw no one the entire trip, up and down.
Climbing equipment back then was much simpler. Craig and Jake each carried a 150-foot length of Chouinard climber’s rope. The lead climber could do a 125-foot pitch which allowed 25-feet for climber’s and belayer’s tying in. The two ropes strung parallel together, allowed a similar length rappel.
When climbing up, the rope was strung through carabiners, looped into pitons. The pitons were driven into cracks in the rocks by the lead climber and retrieved by the last one going up the pitch.
In addition to rope, carabiners and pitons, they carried little hammers for driving in and retrieving pitons, rappel anchors and nylon slings.
The nylon slings were used to drape around rock out copings instead of a piton and for rappelling. Craig made his own by cutting strands of webbing into desired lengths, tying them into loops with a secure Frost knot and singeing the ends by a match’s flame to prevent threads unraveling. The Frost knot was developed by a Yosemite climber Craig knew, his name Frost.
Neither wore head gear or gloves. Climbing shoes and a down coat were the only climbing apparel essentials. I had neither.
Craig and Jake sorted their equipment, strung it about them for balance and did a final booklet review on the correct route up. It was about 1-o’clock before they were ready to ascend.
I took their picture but they weren’t satisfied. There was no angle position which revealed the mountain’s steepness. Craig asked me to ascend a little higher to get a “good” picture. I responded, I didn’t have climbing shoes, just army boots with soles not meant for staying stiff on rock edges.
He pointed out the beginning was just a scramble over rock outcroppings, assured me he was just going up a little bit to a spot suitable for picture taking and I could scramble back down alone. I mistakenly consented.
Craig began the climb using his rope with me in the middle and Jake taking up the rear. He assured it was only to ensure my safety and confidence. It was a sure indication I should refuse to go further and should have understood, I was being committed to more than taking a picture at the base of their assent. He wanted pictures at the top. He scrambled up quickly and soon turned past an outcropping and was no longer in sight.
Following second, I moved up easily then turned past the rock outcropping. Craig was about 50-feet further. He’d traversed an exposed wall. Jake came up and perched himself next to me. The both egged me to move over to Craig’s position They explained the vertical exposure, while frightening, was only that, frightening. There were easy hand holds and foot rests when crossing the vertical wall. It was the worst of it they and assured. Instead, it was the beginning of the worsts.
Route finding is not easy on a mountain, one must pick the easiest looking route and assume what can’t be seen will still allow the next pitch assent. After each pitch, Craig and Jake re-read the booklet as we huddled on insane exposed perches.
After they argued a bit, they concurred on the next pitch assent. I didn’t concur. Craig countered he was going up a north route, a class 4, much less exposed than the technical and very vertical class 5 western routes. He kept telling me to relax, it was going to be easy.
Not being an expert, subject to his whims, unable to get back down, I was stuck going up as he chose. Soon Craig was wandering up routes he alone selected, the booklet stuck in his coat pocket, forgotten. His paths became more vertical, broken and exposed. Soon they required pitons for protection. Taking pictures was no longer in my thought process. I only thought of clinging to the rock, leaning back to stay vertical and where to reach out and cram an army boot for support. I was too terrified to retrieve my camera for picture taking. It often dangled vertically down from my neck, instead of across my chest.
We climbed up tricky vertical open books, me strung in the middle, harping about not wanting to be perched on rock walls with extreme exposure. We proceeded in steps, three on the rope and moved slowly. First Craig scouted and maneuvered a pitch up, he belayed me, me slowed by fear, then I belayed Jake who removed the pitons. As we continued our assent, Craig kept skewing westward. Soon we overlooked the giant cirque of the Palisades peaks, Mount Sill, Thunderbolt Peak and North Palisade. When I peeked, all I saw was the rock talus far below.
It was late afternoon when at last we attained the top of the arete, which makes up the summit with its razor sharp, ridge and pinnacles. Craig selected what appeared to be the highest pinnacle and shimmed up it. I finally could hold my camera and take pictures. I took his then Jake’s summit photos as they exalted atop Mount Winchell and their successful 2,000-foot ascent.
They found and signed their names in a summit cairn. I didn’t bother. I just wanted off, off the mountain. Craig signed in for me then took my picture, not atop the cairn but hugging it. My coat was tied around my waist, my head was covered by a bandana, dark googles cover my eyes, facial fear still evident.
Craig knew we were in difficulty. Not of getting off of the mountain but of getting off before dark. He rushed us out on the sharp summit ridge to the southeast. We scrambled over intervening pinnacles amid tremendous 1,000-foot exposures on both sides. The northwest side dropped almost vertically to the giant U-shaped cirque valley. We proceeded rapidly until faced with a modest overhang with extreme vertical exposure.
Craig was a good climber. As the leader, he took the greatest risks. By now we were in grave danger of being stuck on the mountain at night when temperatures drop precipitously. In truth, it was only I in danger of freezing but on another level of truth, Jake was in danger too. I mulled in my mind murder, murder for a down coat if night fell on us.
In our rush to get down, Craig led ahead without my actually belaying him despite the danger of doing so. The rope simply coiled off my left outstretched leg as he went forward, my only responsibility to him was to keep it from snagging. My main task was to belay Jake, keep his rope line snug in my grasp as he moved toward me.
At the overhang Craig tarried, felt about with hands and feet and tried to conjure how to make the swing under. With hesitation, he grasped what he determined were the best hand holds, set his left foot down on a little protruding granite knob and attempted to swing around to the unseen side by moving his right hand to his left’s hold and then find a hold on the other side for his freed left hand. Unable to find one he dangled and moved his left foot under to search for a support spot. His left foot scraped about but found no unseen foothold.
As his strength waned, he retreated, repeated his movement in reverse and swung back next to me. His failed attempt wasn’t assuring.
He remained calm, rested, regained his strength, shifted position and made a renewed attempt by another method. Instead of starting with his left foot, he arched his right foot past the left to the little granite nob he’d first tried with the left foot. Again, he swung out with is hand holds and stretched his left foot beyond the overhang and scraped about. Extended by the extra inches of reach, his left foot found a hold. He tested his weight on it. Assured, he released his right-hand grip and moved it to where the left held. With his left hand free he swung under the overhang and on to a little ledge beyond my view. He shouted back.
“When I belay you, lead with your right foot!”
Having watched him, it was an unnecessary instruction.
I belayed Jake, until he too, was before the overhang.
“Jake, Craig’s going to belay me then I’ll belay you. When you start your traverse, lead with your right foot, not your left.”
By then Jake had zero respect for me, as a person and much less as a climbing companion. My constant second guessing and harping on the way up, my expressions of fear, my exhortations to get off the mountain once atop while they enjoyed the exhilaration of the summit and my having my picture taken hugging the cairn instead of atop, made me unworthy of being with him and incompetent to belay him, let alone give climbing advice.
Once Craig yelled back, he was ready to belay, it was my overhang traverse time. I didn’t look down. I stared only at the rock grain in front of me. Belayed by both Craig and Jake provided a measure of confidence. I led with my right foot on the little granite nob, did the hand holds Craig discovered, swung the left foot out, found the foot hold Craig found, moved the left hand over and, viola, I was perched next to Craig on a little ledge. He secured me to an outcropping with a sling and left to continue moving across the summit ridge. He had to find a spot from which to rappel down.
I yelled out to Jake from behind the overhang.
“I’m ready to belay you. Lead with your right foot!”
As I pulled in slack rope from Jake’s moving forward, he appeared from behind the overhang. He’d led with his left foot!
He’d had no trust in my advice and definitely no confidence in my ability to hold him if he fell. Now he understood my fear. His face turned white. His eyes widened. The minor acne he had stood out clearly against his ashen face. His hand hold strength was ebbing as he desperately calculated how to move back.
To his credit, he managed to swing his left hand back to where the right held, hang free and swing his left foot back to his original perch then back to before the overhang. Once he’d rested, regrouped his courage and led with his right foot, he traversed the overhang without mishap. He remained subdued and quiet the rest of the descent. His facial expression rounding the overhang on his first attempt, imprinted in my mind, assured me I wasn’t paranoid about falling, I wasn’t a coward, I was the only sane one.
We belayed each other as we scrambled along the summit ridge to catch up with Craig.
Craig had stopped along the ridge crest at a spot which he thought provided a possible rappel point down. It was off the south side where the ridge dropped steeply to a broken ledge. From the ledge there appeared to be potential for a second rappel to the cliff talus. Further decent would only be 3rd class scrambling down among the mountain’s scree. That’s what he hoped. The other option was spending the night on the mountain.
He set up a rappel anchor for the ropes with a sling around a rock out cropping. To rappel, we simply put a nylon sling around ourselves just below the waist, connected the front and back near the crotch with a carabiner, strung the ropes through crossed carabiners as a break device, connected the break to the carabiner holding the sling between our legs, turned backward and walked off the cliff.
Craig rappelled first to determine if the second rappel pitch was possible. With his okay shouted up from the perch of the first ledge stop, I went second. The two 100 plus foot rappel pitches were similar to bounding off first one and then another 10 to 12 story buildings.
It’s a harrowing experience the first time but after a few rappels one develops confidence in the equipment. I’d done it enough times to be eager for the fast descent allowed. I bounded down using the left hand holding the rope above my head to remain vertical and the right hand held against my hip to break the drops.
After the two rappels, we were all down among the scree, just as the sun set and to Craig’s complaints of leaving his expensive rappel anchors behind.
To get back to Sam Mack Lake we no longer needed a rope or climbing equipment. It was just boulder maneuvering among the strewn scree. Again, I disagreed with Craig and Jakes selected route. Taking my own path, I stumbled back at dusk. They showed up a half hour later.
Bob had recovered during our absence, had ambled down to the timber line and gathered a little wood. He’d dropped fishing lines bated with grubs he’d found in Sam Mack Lake. We experienced a wonderful repast of 4 beautiful golden trout, roasted on twig skewers. As I climbed back into my sleeping bag, I wondered how trout had climbed up12, 000 feet to Sam Mack Lake with no visible stream down from it.
Most make pact’s with God when faced with danger, usually forgotten once safe. I did. Facing the overhang, I promised God I’d never climb again if God let me get off the mountain. It’s a promise, other than ladders and stairs, I’ve kept.
The next morning, after enjoying my coffee, I looked back at Mount Winchell. I couldn’t believe I was up there the day before. Forty-five years later, I still can’t.
It was a great experience. I’m glad Craig dragged me up Mount Winchell, on the northwest side.
Now in our 70’s, I, Craig and Bob are still friends.
I’ll ensure Sebastian goes up the east side, with a guide.
Author Notes: I, Craig and Bob are now in our 70's. We're still friends. Craig did his last climb about 30 years ago.