Last year Betsy and I climbed the Third Pillar of Mt. Dana with Peter Croft as guide, and it was so much fun we decided to do another climb this year with Peter. We settled on Fishhook Arete, a high backcountry 5.9 climb on Mt. Russell, which is located beside Mt. Whitney. The way into Russell, however, is to hike to the bottom of Mt. Whitney, then over a high saddle and over to the base of the mountain. In other words, its a long way, but we all agreed it was possible for us to do it in one long day.
Having Peter and Howie as guides (Sierra Mountain Guides) is wonderful because it makes doing the climb in one day do-able because they move quickly on the rock, know the route and set up lightning fast belays. Betsy and I are pretty good at keeping our speed up while hiking and climbing so it worked out well. We left the car at 5:00 am and got back to the car around 5:30 pm, and then back down into Lone Pine in time to ride our bikes into town for dinner. A perfectly awesome day.
The day before the climb we flew into Lone Pine and rode our bikes a few miles to the Comfort Inn at Lone Pine. We definitely got some funny looks riding our little folding bikes with backpacks and climbing gear hanging off the back. Peter and Howie picked us up the next morning and we were off.
It was a good time with great people and fantastic rock (often the granite on the highest peaks is not the best quality, but Fishhook Arete is superb granite). The only frustrating part, and this happened to both Betsy and I, is that we both almost completely blew our remaining arm strength on a lie back crack at about 13,999 feet. Give or take a foot. However once we got to the belay Peter said, “What lie-back crack?. That was a hand jam and it wasn’t very difficult”. Ug. So apparently we need to practice identifying and doing hand jams.
The flight into Schafer Meadows may have been a little exciting, but once on the ground what a peaceful and beautiful place. The first order of business after tying down was to chat with the ranger who stays in a cabin there for the summer, with the closest road 15 miles away. We brought milk and fresh vegetables to him, which seemed to be appreciated.
He brought us into the ranger station to look at maps and talk about what trails had been cleared and what he thought would be a good backpacking trip for us. Backpacking permits are by lottery in Glacier National Park to the north of us, so Betsy asked him if permits were required. “Permits? Heck no, I’m just glad to have people use the trails. They are underutilized out here. Spread the word”. But watch out for bears he said, we were in the highest population of brown (grizzly) bears in the lower 48 states.
He suggested fording the Middle Fork Flathead River, taking a right, and taking a trail “up a crik” to a lake. It is a pretty easy 7 miles he said. We grabbed out backpacks and headed out, now pretty late in the day, but determined to do the 7 miles to the lake before sundown.
Well, I forgot the map in the plane.
But he said a left turn up a creek, so we did that. The trail became less and less of a trail until we were thrashing through a thicket of Alder when we heard a grunt/growl, a big rock rolling and a big animal also thrashing through the Alder, luckily AWAY from us. It was likely a bear, possibly a brown bear, and a close quarters encounter can be really bad with the bear acting instinctively in self defense.
We found segments of the trail on and off, until we were high up into a beautiful high-altitude cirque. By now we were thinking that ranger was one tough dude since he said it was a easy hike, but soon we realized there was no lake and no water and fading light. We obviously (now) went up the wrong damn crik but luckily we found a small seep of water to filter, and we laid out the tents for the night. We were all exhausted and a little irritable (I was a pretty easy target, having forgotten the map), but at least a bear didn’t eat us.
The next day we hiked down and camped on a great spot on the river and re-energized. The following day we hiked to the correct creek, up the creek to Scott lake (seeing black bear and mountain goats), then all the way back to the airport for the night so we would be prepared for an early take off.
With a light plane the take off was rough (I think that airstrip must be softer earlier in the summer, but it was pretty rough when we used it) but no problem, and we did the long flight all the way back home, with a short stop in Salmon, ID to drop off Belyn who wanted to retrieve a “dear john” letter she had left in a particular car there. That is a different story.