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A Climber’s Guide to the High Sierra (1954), edited by Hervey H. Voge


Introduction

Sierra Camping and Climbing

CAMPING is the customary mode of habitation in the Sierra, although more civilized accommodations are available in the national parks and forests at a few places, and at a few pack stations. The climate in summer and fall is quite suitable for camping with a minimum of equipment, but a small tent or a large tarpaulin is advisable since rain can fall in spite of the fabled California climate. Wood for fires and trees for shelter are usually found up to about 11,000 feet; the knapsacker equipped with air mattress and primus stove can camp higher—even on the summits. The temperature at night in the summer is usually in the thirties; or low forties at timberline, and ice on puddles is not uncommon. Daytime temperatures are usually much higher.

Campers are rarely bothered by animals in the High Sierra. In the national parks, when near popular centers, it may be desirable to hang food out of the reach of bears at night. Otherwise the only likely thieves are small rodents or birds. Rattlesnakes are very infrequent above 8,000 feet. Mosquitos are the insects most apt to be troublesome; they are worst near moist meadows and just after the snow has melted. In early spring or late summer very few mosquitos should be encountered. Often, if they are numerous, a camp a few hundred feet higher or lower will largely solve the problem. And the active climber, high up on the peaks, is never plagued by insects.

Access routes for the principal regions are described in the individual sections of the Guide. The whole subject of trail routes is well reviewed in the Guide to the John Muir Trail and the High Sierra Region, by Walter A. Starr, Jr. (see References).

Climbing in the Sierra is largely rock climbing, although some steep snow and even ice may be encountered. The rock is chiefly granite and is quite firm compared to that of many mountains. This granite tends to fracture on planes at right angles, producing cubical or rectangular blocks and horizontal ledges well suited to climbing. Metamorphic rocks of various qualities are found in certain small regions, particularly in the Kaweahs, near Rae Lakes, the Black Divide, Convict Lake, and in the Minarets. With a few exceptions the metamorphic rocks are also fairly sound. Loose rock must be guarded against, however, and particularly in gullies or chutes will the climber meet loose rock which must be trod with care. The high Sierra Peaks have been deeply carved by glaciers in the past. Steep glacial cirques, common on north and east sides, sometimes have overhanging upper edges or are bordered by sharp arÍtes. Avalanche chutes cut by winter snow slides are the most notable additional characteristic of the peaks.

The easier routes up peaks are commonly chutes or ridges, since the faces are generally more difficult. In almost all ascents an approach must be made over intermediate terrain where one thousand feet or more of talus, broken shelves, snow slope, or meadow are ascended. The actual climbing may then involve one to two thousand feet of rock, snow or ice. It is always interesting, while passing over the intermediate terrain, to choose the best route of approach, which will depend to some extent on the personal tastes of the climbers. In May or June the approach may be entirely over snowfields, while in August or September it is more likely to be over talus.

There are dozens of small glaciers remaining in the Sierra, but they are usually hidden under the northeast faces of peaks and are not major geographical features. Except for the bergschrunds that separate the moving glaciers from the fixed rock and ice above, there are no crevasses of consequence. The hazards of the glaciers are largely those of steep ice and snow, although sometimes a certain amount of difficulty is met in crossing a bergschrund. The largest Sierra glacier, the Palisade Glacier, is quite flat, and may be crossed without difficulty. Steep snow is fairly frequent, especially early in the season, but the late-summer climber can often avoid all snow.

Annual and seasonal variations can cause a considerable variation in the difficulty of climbs. A chute which is ascended by easy rocks one summer may be filled with steep ice and snow in another year. Or a feasible snow slope may be replaced by a rather difficult rock climb. No attempt has been made in this Guide to judge all such variations and the climber should not be too surprised if a supposed class 3 climb actually turns out to be class 4 or 5.

Weather in the Sierra is quite dependable, and summer storms, when they occur at all, are usually mild. Furthermore, storms most often come in the afternoon. Thus a cloudless morning sky will sometimes be transformed by noon or mid-afternoon into a region of towering cumulus clouds and a little later lightning and rain may develop. Because of this it is well to start and finish a climb early in the day. Occasionally the thunderstorms are quite violent, and then the climber should take pains to remain well off summits and ridges, where lightning may strike. Chutes or couloirs are also to be avoided, for rain or hail can loosen dangerous barrages of falling rock. Since such storms are usually rather brief it is well to wait them out in some safe place rather than to try to proceed in spite of weather. In late May and in June there may be general storms of the type characteristic of the California winter climate. These will bring rain or snow in moderate amounts, but they will pass in a few days. July and August are normally fair except for infrequent thunderstorms. In September or October the first fall storms may be expected. These, like those of June, are usually brief and are followed by fair weather, so that foot travel in the High Sierra is often quite possible in September, October, and November. It sometimes happens, however, that quite heavy storms bringing much snow strike in the fall.

Equipment needed in the Sierra depends largely upon the type of climbing to be done. All climbers will want sturdy pants, a strong shirt, a sweater, windproof jacket, and a hat. Rock climbers will bring a 120 foot nylon climbing rope, a 200 foot Manila rappel rope, slings, pitons, carabiners, and a hammer. Those who go early in the season, or who visit the Palisades, the north face of Darwin, the Minarets, the Sawtooth Ridge, and other areas likely to require crossing steep snow and ice, will need ice axes and boots suitable for snow work. There is seldom enough hard snow or ice to justify carrying crampons. Footwear depends somewhat on individual taste. Formerly nails were used on snow and a change to light rubber-soled shoes was made for dry rock. At present, stout leather boots with rubber-cleated soles are the preferred all-around footwear. Those who plan to avoid snow can use sneakers or shoes with composition soles, but the Bramani, Vibram, or other lug-type cleated soles are generally better even if snow and wet rock are never crossed.



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