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Ascent of Mount Darwin on 2016-06-18

Climber: JT Newgard

Date:Saturday, June 18, 2016
Ascent Type:Successful Summit Attained
Peak:Mount Darwin
    Location:USA-California
    Elevation:13831 ft / 4215 m

Ascent Trip Report

Last weekend I completed a climb that had been fleeting about my dreams ever since I had gazed upon it from Lamarck Col…has it really been two years? On that trip John and I scrambled up Mt Goddard, another behemoth of the region. Around Memorial Day last year I got completely shut down by the snow conditions below the Col, but this year, the stars aligned so to speak. The winter snows had consolidated nicely, and very few posthole steps were had. I wasn’t in particularly good physical condition at the outset of this trip, so I was very pleased to be able to bag both Mt Lamarck and Mt Darwin from the trailhead in a day. The summer solstice (approximate) was kind to these old Nordic bones.

Certainly the most confusing part of the day involved my random stumblings attempting to determine the location of Mt Lamarck’s true summit. Upon topping out on a nice easy class two scramble from the bowl below the col, I noticed a higher point to the north. ‘Son of a gun!’ I laughed into the silence. As a seasoned peakbagger I should have known better and seen the false summit coming. After discovering some tracks leading to the higher point, I was sure to find the register over here. Back and forth, back and forth, is it higher over there? No register! Well back to the bowl, then. One last look at the first plateau, immediately above the class two scramble, and ‘Aha! The register! With Mt Lamarck written on the cover!’ My peakbagging pleasure centers were overflowing with joy, and so much that I swooped up and over the col and slid all the way down to camp at the frozen tarn.

Well it wasn’t really that easy. The head of Darwin Canyon is bigger than it looks you know! But my campsite was bitchin. I plopped my sleeping bag, foam sleeping pad, AND foam-air sleeping pad down on the nice sandy ground behind a HUGE boulder. It’s perfectly aligned to block the hellish winds that were gusting all day and all night on this unusually cold late spring day. (Throughout the day I had considered sleeping on the roomy summit plateau, but needless to say this plan was axed due to the winds.) I didn’t even bother to bring a shelter, and it looks like it’s not going to come back to bite me in the loins so to speak because there’s nary a cloud, nay, not any cloud at all in the bright blue sky. So calm and peaceful, ‘Ahhhh but I must climb.’

After slurping my fruit smoothie and eating a prodigious amount of smoked almonds I started up the way. Did I mention I picked up a brand new pair of Lowa leather mountaineering boots? These things are so light compared to my heavy artillery-resistant Scarpa Inverno plastic boots. Those things weigh about 10 kilos each. Might be off on my unit conversion, though. Damn Europeans. Well anyway in all seriousness I probably would have been too tired to complete this climb had I not gotten those Italian leather boots. So my hat’s off to those particular Europeans. I saved a whole mess of energy in these lightweight space-age boots.

OK now where was I…it’s the climb…oh yeah, that’s right. The snow was a little soft for my liking on Mt Darwin’s North Face as I got started onto it at about 14:00. No chance for an alpine start on Sunday since I’d probably get back to Sacramento (‘The Sack’) at about 2:00 in the morning after a Sunday summit bid. No this 9 to 5er was all in for a Saturday afternoon climb. For about the first half of the climb I switch-backed up, climbing in an upright position using the French cramponing technique. Eventually I started to get tired and wanted to use some different muscles. So I started front-pointing near the end as the slope rolled back, real steep now. The softness of the snow became a real detriment near the top as I truly needed to pull on three points of contact (1) the ice tool, (2) the ice axe, and (3) one of my be-cramponed boots in order to avoid plunging through the crust to the soft snow beneath. With every unsuccessful pull, I sank in, and compounding my dismay, then found myself in a compromised position from which I had to attempt to make further upward progress.

With the ratio of sinking steps to successful pulls increasing near the top, I started to look for a few exposed rocks here or there to mess around with my mixed climbing technique. This was probably more difficult than simply hoofing it up the snow, but what the hell: I’m up here anyway. The brief dry tooling around on the rocks was a blast. And I was able to practice keeping my balance while gingerly stepping on the rocks with the crampon points. By the time I reached the top I was pretty damn tired! But the best was yet to come.

The summit block of Mt Darwin inspires one to look at it and say, ‘Huh.?’ Truly inspiring stuff. I mean this thing sure is wacky. One must climb down and around and then up again in a counter-clockwise fashion in order to surmount this beast. Why don’t those pretentious blocks just fall down the cliff already? Then some nice easy landing on the broad plateau would become the highpoint. I can honestly say the wildest move below the blocks involved chimneying down just a shimmy or two above a slab which angled toward the abyss. Thankfully I had guzzled some orange juice on the plateau; this mostly prevented my body from cramping up while gripping and testing every move to an extraordinary degree. Panting with some residual adrenaline, I whale humped the summit block like a champion. Some old slings decorated the blocks for an easy rappel if so desired.

The view from the summit was tremendous. My old friend Mt Goddard lay a short jump away. And there goes sweet Mt Humphreys. And there it is…THE WHITE WHALE BREACHES MATEYS – NORTH PALISADE ON THE STARBOARD SIDE! I’ll climb this mountain yet, my soul be damned as Ahab’s.

I felt unusually assured on the downclimb back to the broad plateau: a higher focus was attained. Not being familiar with the West Ridge route, I opted to carefully back-track down the North Face. This worked very well. I avoided any unexpected plunges by simply following my ascent tracks down, down, down. And near the bottom where the steepness decreased, a fine glissade was enjoyed. So much sunlight in the canyon. I barely got my stove working (need to clean that fuel line), thanks to the shaker needle on my trusty Whisperlite. It roared to life. I boiled some water in both of my large 40 fl. oz. (take that Europeans!) stainless steel water bottles. These babies kept me warm all night long.

Come morning it was time to go home, or time to leave home, depending on how you look at it. The warm embrace of the Sierra Nevada lifted, and somewhere around 11,000 feet back on the civilized side of Lamarck Col, I saw the first person of the trip, about 24+ hours in. Funny how long that time lasts when your head flies away to the bright blue sky.

Click on photo for original larger-size version.
Mt Darwin North Face (2016-06-18). Photo by JT Newgard.
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