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Ascent of Mount Lyell on 2018-09-06

Climber: Mike Znachko

Date:Thursday, September 6, 2018
Ascent Type:Successful Summit Attained
Peak:Mount Lyell
    Location:USA-California
    Elevation:13114 ft / 3997 m

Ascent Trip Report

This was my fourth Lyell summit attempt - the first two were initiated from the Lyell-McClure col and thwarted by exposure/perceived danger. The third we never got near the summit approach due to excessive snow (attempt was in late May of a high snow year). All three previous attempts were initiated out of June Lakes via Rush Creek.

For this fourth attempt, we changed the game plan, approaching out of Tuolumne Meadows via Lyell Canyon and bivouacking on a small lake adjacent to the PCT/JMT about a 1/2 mile north of the approach/trail turn-off. In addition to crampons and ice axe, we also brought along a rope/harnesses this time. Though novice climbers, we felt it couldn't hurt-giving us the psychological comfort of knowing it was there if needed. The next morning (summit day), we were on the trail @ 0630 and hit the glacier @ 0830 where we paused to put on crampons. The glacier was solid ice and we were taken aback by how much it had receded over the years since the first attempts. The summit block looked imposing/daunting and, between the glacier ice and the extent to which the glacier had receded, we were not optimistic about our summit chances. Our route up this time differed from past attempts. Instead of heading towards the col, we trudged straight up the glacier towards the middle of the summit block. Once there, plan was to work right (west) towards the col in an attempt to find an ascent route. Again, it was solid ice and difficult to get a purchase-intimidating if we had lost our footing and had to do a self-arrest. Crampons/ice axe were critical/a must. After @ an hour we reached the summit block and on the glacier lip/edge was a relatively flat section where we removed our crampons and began the search for a route up. Though the glacier at the foot of the summit block was imposingly steep (a slip/fall would have resulted in a long, ugly run out) we were pleasantly surprised at the absence of any bergschrund, whose presence would have increased the severity of any mis-step exponentially. We cautiously began creeping right to look for an ascent route and our first two possibilities were dashed by ice on rocks and/or the lack of any holds. Our third find (@ 50 ft. right from where we had ascended the glacier/joined the summit block) proved more fruitful and my partner, Nick Dallery (who was leading this part of the effort), began the ascent up. At this point, we had spent @ an hour at the foot of the summit block searching for a route, gingerly working along the glacier lip as we negotiated around snow bridges, crevasses, and boulders - acutely aware that any slip/fall would be problematic. The route up proved to be only @ 50 ft. of ascent before we realized we were on top of the summit block. Nonetheless, it was a challenge - particularly the first section with the crux of the climb in the first 10-15 feet where the steepness, exposure, and lack of holds made it the most nail-biting. If my partner had not led/done this first, am not sure I would have made the attempt. The knowledge, however, that he had successfully negotiated this section boosted my resolve (neither of us could watch/see what the other was doing as the glacier ledge was too narrow - each climber essentially did the summit block ascent/descent solo). After the crux, things got easier (relatively speaking) and the exposure dissipated. We were also reassured by the sight of old webbing/carabiners that we were on to something. Nonetheless, the rock/holds were crap and we were stunned at how easily they would crumble/fall when putting stress on them. As a result, the remaining 35 ft. was a painstakingly cautious class 3 climb as we groped for solid holds and searched for an appropriate route. When we finally topped out on the summit block we were elated and knew we were going to summit. After making some rock cairns to annotate the descent route down, we did the requisite rock/boulder hopping, finally summiting @ 1045 on a crystal clear day with not a breath of wind. We lingered on the summit for @ 30 minutes-forestalling the idea of the descent down which we knew would be dicey. Descending, we found the route easily enough and started the down climb - surprised at how quick and short this whole section was (seemed much longer on the way up). Again, due to the steepness/narrowness of the route, this was essentially an individual effort with neither of us able to observe the other as we descended. This time I was in the lead and, getting to the crux, the ordeal seemed all but done - had only about 10-15 more ft. to the glacier. This, however, was when our luck abandoned us. Testing a foot hold on a large boulder, the whole thing gave way, initiating a large rock slide that wiped out the entire chute we had ascended - removing all holds and leaving an impossibly vertical dirt chute to descend in its wake. This whole sequence of events was intimidating for several reasons. First, if anyone had been below the slide, it would have been fatal. Second, I was left hanging onto a boulder face (of dubious stability now) struggling for a secure foothold. Third, my partner, who could see nothing but was acutely aware of the roar of the rock 'avalanche' I had initiated, was certain I had gone with it. The fact that it took me a few seconds to respond to his inquiries of my well-being (I was struggling to secure myself) only solidified this belief. At this point we paused to collect our wits. After some discussion, we agreed that it would be fool-hardy to attempt any further down-climbing without rope. Me having the rope, I cautiously removed my pack and, while clinging to a ledge of dubious stability, worked the rope out, tossing it back up to my partner. From there, he secured it with some webbing to what appeared to be a stable boulder, tossing the ends back down to be tied off. From there, we used the rope to descend back down to the glacier lip - me going first due to my closer proximity to the bottom, he following from further above. This whole process took a considerable period of time - we were exceedingly cautious and dubious of the stability of any boulder/rocks and made every effort to stay well clear of each other's path to avoid any further rock fall. Once on the glacier, we retrieved the rope and then cautiously made our way left/back again along the glacier edge to our crampons/ice axe - well aware now of the instability of the boulders above us and anxious to get out of their path. Getting our crampons on was a relief and we now began the painstakingly slow (but relatively safe) descent down the melting ice, switch-backing in the general direction of the col until we finally exited the glacier. From there it was a slog back down the path back to base camp and home.

Final comments:
-The glacier was solid ice, crampons/ice axe were critical - self arrest would have been a challenge
-The relatively early start gave us the luxury of time to search out a reasonable summit block route
-The rock on the summit block is trash and can give way just by looking at it - it's a dangerous place to be climbing (at least this time of year)
-The ascent route up the summit block was surprisingly short with minimal exposure compared to the boulder climb/route from the col
-Having rope/climbing gear proved critical- we were confident we were going to pull the summit off without needing it...then things went south
-The descent took longer than the ascent
-This was my 55th CA COHP and the most challenging (though I have North Pal as one of the remaining three to conquer) - I won't be back
Summary Total Data
    Route Conditions:
Unmaintained Trail, Exposed Scramble, Glacier Climb
    Gear Used:
Ice Axe, Crampons, Rope



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