At an elevation of 13,726′, Bear Creek Spire dominates the head of Little Lakes Valley. It’s not the tallest peak in the cirque but it is by far the most stunning. Climbing the North Arete is considered one of the classics of the High Sierra.
By way of confession, I’d like to say that Wes and I “slayed the Dragon” of Dragon Peak. That would be the macho mountaineering thing to say, but that’s not exactly what happened. We did get to the summit. And we did return. But “slayed” would be a little misleading. One could argue that the Dragon simply wanted to be a good sport, so she played dead and let us walk away.
We made our way above the glacier and saw the beginning of the Red Rocks Shoot. This was our route to the summit. A couple of climbers went ahead of us up the shoot. We gave them a 15-minute head start so we would not be in the firing line of rockfall. I overheard one of them say to his partner, “That looks scary as hell!” The other climber nodded with a concerned look on his face. The same thought crossed my mind, but I decided not to overthink it.
Every summer, I do a backcountry Sierra trip that’s at least 60 or 100 miles. Last year I did a loop in Mineral King. Most of the time I go solo, but this year I talked my friend Manny into coming along. We decided on the North Lake to South Lake Loop, a trail that begins at a small lake just above Lake Sabrina, links up with the John Muir Trail, and ends at the Bishop Pass Trailhead.
Tom Smith from Summit Adventure asked me if I wanted to help him lead a Half Dome day hike with a handful of guys at the beginning of 2020. It’s on the Sierra Peak Section list, so I said, “Yes. Of course.” at the time, but one of the guys got COVID, so we postponed it to May 1. I drove in the night before and Tom picked me up at 5:00 am at the Summit Adventure Lodge.
As I walked on to the 12,887 ft summit of Mount Rixford, the view was spectacular. It was 1:00 pm and there was no wind. There was not one person at the trailhead, on the trail, or on the mountain. I was completely alone on this big mountain and I felt this sense of euphoria.
I convinced Manny to come along with me to Coyote Gulch. And with a little bit of planning, we decided to leave on a Friday morning and drive all day. With the time change, it took us a full 12 hours to get past Bryce Canyon and to the end of the dirt road that lasted an hour and a half.
I reached Baxter Pass by 1pm. It was like being on the surface of Mars, with its vast, desolate red landscape. It was quite beautiful. The vastness of it all gave me that strangely comforting feeling of being insignificant. I lingered at the summit a little longer than I typically do, just to take in the stark beauty before heading down toward Baxter Lake.
By 11:40am the sky had turned dark and I felt the first drop of rain on my head. Contrary to the weather report, my instincts told me to turn around and get lower, so I headed back to the lake where I thought I’d wait it out for a while. When the first thunder came, it was close and powerful, followed by more of the same. Now my instincts told me to run, so I did. As I did, nickel-size hail rained down in almost biblical fashion.
…soon the class 2 ridge turned to class 3/4 so we roped up alpine style and continued walking. There were a few sections of the ridge Neil climbed ahead and gave us a hip belay, but we never needed to set up any belay anchors along the ridge. This place was so beautiful it was hard to take it all in. And I got to do this with my son – who gets to do that?