Things above 10,000 – Crystal Crag

While we had a blast ticking off lots of 3-4 pitch moderates at Lover’s Leap, what Emmanuel and I were really psyched on was going to do long, easy , committing routes that sumitted substantially tall peaks. Emmanuel already had a bit of experience doing this, but the most intense thing I’d ever done in that category was Cathedral Peak in Tuolumne the prior summer… and I followed the entire thing. So, I had only one way to go- up! (pun intended)

We made a list of routes we thought we might like to try with the help of Peter Croft’s “The Good, the Great and the Awesome” and Supertopo’s second edition of the High Sierra Climbing guidebook.

One of the most classic and easiest routes in the High Sierra is Crystal Crag. Crystal Crag is situated right above the Mammoth Lakes Basin and gets you above 10,000 ft but with very minimal commitment. The approach is way shorter than most in the guidebook (45 min) and there are only three pitches. It can easily be done in half a day. For someone totally new to the whole mountaineering realm, it seemed like a great way for me to get my feet wet.

View of the Mammoth Lakes Basin from the North Summit of Crystal Crag- check out the white  chunk of crystal rock!

View of the Mammoth Lakes Basin from the North Summit of Crystal Crag- check out the white chunk of crystal rock!

So, two days after I handed in my last final-exam as an undergraduate, we found ourselves in Mammoth Lakes. The city of Mammoth Lakes itself attracts outdoor enthusiasts from all over the world, so we were definitely not alone in the middle of August. (The Safeway as PACKED with tourists and there was no available camping at Mammoth Lakes) It is a town to definitely check out if you like anything to do with nature, at all.. or if you just like good bread (google : Schaat’s bakery)

The sky was very, very hazy from the nearby “French Fire” (I blame it on Emmanuel) that was blazing in Yosemite. Still, the air quality was acceptable and after a night camping at a BLM campsite we woke up at 5:30 and headed into Mammoth Lakes, parking at Lake George.

As soon as you wind the turn into the Lake George parking lot Crystal Crag rises above the water, like a ruler watching over its kingdom. As we were racking up and preparing, I couldn’t help but constantly look over my shoulder at our objective, a little bit nervous and very excited.

The approach is easy, mainly on an established trail. You have to go off trail for the last ten minutes but you can see the route and there are plenty of nicely placed carins to mark the way. There are two main routes on Crystal Crag, the North Arete and the North Face Variation. We ended up climbing the North Face variation, mainly because it was the first route we saw, there seemed to be another party going up the North Arete… and we really weren’t sure which route was which :).

We decided to simul-climb the route (climbing at the same time) to make things faster, until we felt the need to pitch things out in case it got too hard. (simul-climbing is more dangerous than pitching out something the traditional way, much less dangerous than going unroped). I led the first pitch which started off nicely but I soon got into a terrain that consisted of mainly large, loose rocks. I tried to climb carefully but quickly, knocking on everything I thought looked suspicious to see if it was hollow, stepping around obviously loose pieces. About 3/4 of the way up, I grabbed onto a refrigerator-sized block that seemed very solid. Immediately I sensed it detatching  and moving. I screamed, knowing well that if it dislodged it would crush me and I would likely die. Luckily (extremeley lucky, really), I let go and the rock’s fall was arrested somehow.
Emmanuel could see I was clearly terrified and no-longer attentive and tried to calm me down by soothingly saying “relax, just breathe, it’s okay..” over and over again until I finally heard him over my pounding heart. I focused on the sound of his voice and gathered myself together,  stepping around to a safe ledge. There, I sat and breathed for ahwile in a safe spot with Emmanuel, just giving myself some time to get over what had happened. Rock fall is one of those things that you cannot really truly ever 100% control for but this was the first time that I came dangerously face to face with this previously distant reality.

From then on we decided to climb the next two ptiches traditionally, just to be as safe as possible. Emmanuel led the second pitch, whose highlight was an orange face studded with some nice holds and a crack. He made an anchor just below the “crystal corridor” for which the climb is famous. The crystal corridor makes up the last pitch and leads to the summit; basically, it just is a section of the mountain that is made up of very shiny, polished, smooth crystal. I had never seen so much crystal accumulate in one place and it was a joy to have led it. Luckily, this rock was much more solid but I still was climbing very cautiously, paranoid that something would fall again.

At the summit of the route you are treated to a gorgeous view of the Mammoth Lakes Basin. Our view was a bit obscured by the French Fire (sigh, frenchies..) but was breathtaking nonetheless. As I paused  to take in the view a Clark’s Nutcracker, perched on a particularly well-known jagged piece crystal, its gray and black plumage complementing the strikingly white rock beautifully. Just as quickly as it had landed it flew off, as if it came by just to inspect this creature that had made it up to its territory- weren’t humans supposed to stay on the ground? The Clark’s Nutcracker actually became a motif for me during the whole trip; it seemed every time we would summit, one or two would appear. Granted they are a very common bird in the Sierras, but still.. I found some meaning in it that obviously isn’t real; oh well, if you can’t speculate about such possibilities on your blog, why have a blog in the first place?

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Once we were both at the summit we consulted the guidebook and realized we were not technically at the “true” summit of the route; the South Summit is the highest point (we were at the North) and if we wanted to get there we had to traverse a ridge of mostly 4th and 5th class climbing. Glancing at it, it seemed do-able so we decided to simul-traverse it, with Manu leading. Our other option was to traverse to the notch between the summits and begin the normal down-climb. We decided to just play it by ear and see what it was like.

Well, we ended up down-climbing as we found more of the same loose rock and both felt grateful enough we hadn’t died already. We did what we came to do and felt satisfied. Still I did enjoy the small traverse section that we did as it was both committing yet definitely not very hard; a combination I tend to enjoy.

Manu starting the traverse to the South Summit

Manu starting the traverse to the South Summit

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We both were grinning from ear to ear as we hiked back to our car. I enjoyed listening to Emmanuel explain some basic geology to me as we passed by interesting boulders and he probably did not enjoy my kind of pathetic attempts to identify bird calls.

On our way back we passed by many hikers who were going to Crystal Lake. When we reached the parking lot (at around 1 or 2 PM) one hiker, obviously noticing our harnesses and the rope I had strapped to my back, asked us what we had climbed.

“That” I said, as I pointed across Lake George to Crystal Crag’s shadowed face, jutting out of the water and into the sky.

“Really?” he inquired inquisitively.

Really.

Crystal Crag, creeping out from behind the trees

Crystal Crag, creeping out from behind the trees

 

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