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Bear Creek Spire North Arete (5.8) — Car to Car in 13:45

L to R: Bear Creek Spire, Mt. Dade, and Mt. Abbott

L to R: Bear Creek Spire, Mt. Dade, and Mt. Abbott during the approach


I just got back from a great extended weekend (Fri through Wed — how’s that for extended!).  The highlight of which was climbing Bear Creek Spire via the North Arete (5.8) car-to-car on Tuesday (2009-08-25).  Awesome climb.  My friend Tom has apparently really gotten me hooked on this alpine climbing gig …  Big cool routes like this are just lying about everywhere.  I mean dudes, this thing we could see from the trailhead.  How could you not want to climb it?  This was probably his last big Sierra trip for the season (something like a pesky job getting in the way or something like that), so we wanted to make it good.

We left the car at the trailhead at 6:15 am.  I launched us up pitch 1 at about 10:15.  I tagged the summit block as the follower at 4:00 pm.  We chilled for a while after rapping off the summit, before starting the hike / scramble back at about 5:15 pm. We tagged the car again at 8:00 pm, give or take a few seconds.  Total time 13:45.  I know it’s weird, and if I wasn’t there, I’d think the times were rounded to the closest 15 minutes, but I swear these are the actual times.  Guess we were climbing on a schedule?  We made great time on the descent, completing it in under 3 hours, and making it back to the car without needing our headlamps (Whoo!).

North Arete (5.8) with our route & belays

North Arete (5.8) with our route & belays. We did the route in 9 pitches (4 in the bottom half, and 5 in the top due to rope drag)

Holy coordinates batman!

Holy coordinates batman!

And with beta like this from supertopo … how could you go wrong? Guys get this — the climb actually disappeared from view once or twice on the hike in!  Without some help, I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t have been able to find the peak, let alone the climb!  Luckily, Supertopo provides — wait for it — 12 latitude / longitude coordinates for the approach, climb and descent! It’s really not a complaint, just surprising about the crazy amount of detail.  I know — I shouldn’t make fun, after all I did buy and do rely heavily on that book 😉


The route was first climbed in August 1971 by Galen Rowell and Jeanne Needle.  The FA note in the Supertopo book (page 96) disagrees with the History by Andy Setlers on the same page.  As his story goes, Rowell did the first ascent of the “South Face” solo, in August, 1971, and on his way down (he approached via a hike in from Pine Creek) to the Mosquito Flat trailhead, he first saw the North Arete, and vowed to return to climb it.  (aside: It’s hard to believe that such a strikingly obvious line had not yet been climbed!)  Anyway, he then came back the following June (which would be 1972 by my counting) with his Berkeley neighbor Jeanne Neale to bag the FA.  Galen led all the pitches, and they topped out by 11am.

According to my research, I believe Setlers got the FA info wrong.  Four-to-one, with the man himself weighing in is overwhelmingly in support of August, 1971 instead of June, 1972:

  • Rowell himself in the 1973 American Alpine Journal (Google Books Result)
  • Chris McNamara in High Sierra Climbing (page 96, no link)
  • R. J. Secor in The High Sierra: Peaks, Passes, and Trails (Google Books Result)
  • John Moynier and Claude Fiddler in Climbing California’s High Sierra: The Classic Climbs on Rock and Ice (Google Books Result)

I assume the majority of the story is correct though, including the summit time: 11 am!  That’s fast!  It took us a good 5:45 to climb the route — and we had the supertopo, and linked pitches wherever we could.

So I didn’t know this before (supertopo forum to the rescue), but apparently Rowell was getting a little … cough … you know … cough … on the side from Ms. Neale, unbeknown to his wife Carol.  Apparently she eventually caught on and divorced him in the early 1970’s.

Enough of that … gimme the details of your climb!

Tom cruising up the steep flakes on pitch 2

Tom cruising up the steep flakes on pitch 2

Dudes, OK, OK.  I’ll quit with the ancient gossip.  Anyway, we had absolutely perfectly blue skies without a cloud in sight.  The day was a bit chilly, but we got lucky enough to have most of the belays in the sun.  In fact, this was a motivating factor for doing the first half of the climb in 4 pitches.  On all of my leads in this block (P1, P3, P4, with Tom getting the beautiful P2), I made it a point to stretch the rope as far as possible to a good sunlit belay ledge.  At this, I was successful and all of my belays were comfortable and sunny.  It wasn’t until the second half of the route, while I was belaying Tom on P5 that I had to put on more layers.  Pitch 1 was a real rope stretcher.  We used a 70m rope, and it required about 10 feet of simulclimbing for me to get to a belay on the ledge.  Not to mention, that the rope drag was horrendous due to the traversing nature of this pitch.  Should also be doable with a 60m rope, since the start is pretty much third class for a ways, until just below the big ledge.

I climbed the first half in a synthetic Prana t-shirt with a long-sleeve midweight synthetic North Face shirt on top and  Smartwool long johns under a pair of synthetic Prana pants (yeah, and synthetic REI underwear too, dudes).  Anyway, at the top of the P4 belay (after the crux of the climb), I added a stocking cap, a Prana synthetic sweatshirt and my Marmot gortex shell for wind blockage.  Mostly I was too hot in this, especially while climbing, but it started out windy and chilly while belaying.  In my pack, I had a softshell coat and gloves that I never had to break out.

Tom & Tad on the summit of Bear Creek Spire

Tom & Tad on the summit of Bear Creek Spire

Signing the summit register

Signing the summit register

Tom led P5, scoring the fun tunnel-through from the right to left side of the ridge.  This was a fun pitch.  I took off up P6, heading up a corner, where I encountered the only scary loose rock on the whole route.  Committing to a table sized block on top of a ledge that I first tapped on to find it solid — only to have it start to move as I yarded myself up on it.  Yikes!  I ended P6 up some twin hand cracks splitting a low angle face after traversing left and up out of this corner, and ended my pitch at my first shady belay at the top of this section due to rope drag.  Tom took off up P7 gaining a belay just below the ridge after a bunch of wandering low angle climbing.  Then I took our 8th pitch mostly horizontally along the ridge.  I found a rap station near the beginning of the traverse after dropping over onto the right side.  I clipped this, then climbed up above it to continue along the “high ramp” described in Supertopo.  Looks like the rap station was where Supertopo puts the top of the 9th pitch.  I got the rope stuck and had to putz around to free it before continuing across the ramp, ending our 8th pitch (with a tiny bit of simulclimbing) below the “5.6 chimney” shown in supertopo.  We dropped our packs here (mistake!) and Tom scored P9 to the summit block.  I scampered up behind him, and we basked in the views for a few minutes before heading down to sign the register.

At this point, we realize we have a dilemma — our packs are about 60 feet down-and-left of the rap station (slings not too sketchy when we were there).  After a bit of back-and-forth, we figure out the quickest solution is for me to downclimb with a toprope back to the packs (easy 5.6), grab the packs, and then finish the downclimb to the base of the rappel (also 5.6 or so).  This works out well, and within a few moments, Tom has joined me.  It’s downright hot on this side of the mountain!  I strip down to my t-shirt and synthetic pants, removing all of my layers including long johns.

The scramble down is not too bad, except for the endless talus hopping which seems like it goes on forever.  We make it back to Gem Lakes at 7:00 pm, and hit the trailhead at 8:00 pm.  Yes, we pushed it fast and hard down the trail.

That’s it.  Other than the speeding ticket (81 in a 65) I got trying to make it to the Mobil station before they closed.  We hit the turn onto 120 at 9:01 pm, and that’s where I got pulled over.  grrrr.  Mobil mart closes at 9pm.  Close, so close!  Luckily a joint in downtown Lee Vining was still open so we scored some food there.  Tom had to continue all the way home to take his daughter to her first day of school on Wednesday morning.  Luckily I didn’t have any obligations so I bivied in my car near the Tioga Pass Resort and scored a great pancake breakfast before heading home at a leisurly pace on Wednesday.

Boo yeah.  what an awesome climb with a great partner!


  • Metolius Master Cams size #00 through #2 (used all of these)
  • Single set of Camalots from #0.4 through #3 (used all of these)
  • Single set of nuts (used many of these)
  • Single set of DMM offset nuts (used a couple of these)
  • 70m rope (not necessary, but worked well for finding sunny belays for us!)
  • many long slings

More photos


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