12 Oct A Guides Reflections on Summer ’22
The great Ella Fitzgerald is spot on as she sang “Summertime and the livin’ is easy.” As the snow melts out from the high country and we transition from boots to approach shoes, it’s hard to find a more enjoyable mountain range in the United States than the Sierra Nevada.. Climbing in the High Sierra is predominantly on high quality Granite, the approaches are world class treks over sweeping mountain passes and through lush meadows, the camping is often accompanied by a high alpine trout filled lake and as the sun sets each day, the sky turns into a technicolor show of light and color.
For this guide, after returning from a springtime Alaskan expedition with weeks of slogging heavy loads up a glacier, digging two-meter-deep cache holes and melting snow for water, one deserves a reprieve from work it takes to effectively ascend North Americas largest mountain. For me, it’s a treat to return home to the mountains of Eastern California. While other friends and colleagues of mine find themselves lapping one or two glaciated volcanos of the Pacific Northwest. I find myself backpacking into the Range of Light to rock climb on some of the most majestic alpine ridges and faces anywhere.
After setting roots down on the Eastside in 2019, most of my summertime here has been disrupted by closures, a pandemic, wildfires, and crippling smoke. This summer was special for me, as it was my first full, uninterrupted summer season in California’s high country. So, what does that look like for this rock and alpine guide? Well, this season I found myself on several classic Sierra peaks; Mt Whitney 5 different times via 3 different routes, Mt Russell’s East Ridge twice, Bear Creek Spire on 2
occasions and 2 different routes, trips up Mt Conness, Mt Emerson, Matterhorn Peak, Mt Williamson, Charlotte Dome, Mt Sill, and a few laps up the low-hanging fruit of Crystal Crag. I was even fortunate to stand on top of some lesser know summits like Polychrome Peak, Pyramid Peak and Mini Matterhorn.
This list omits personal forays into the alpine which included a personal trip to Charlotte Dome, an attempt of the Evolution Traverse and a solo scamper up the North Ridge of Lone Pine Peak. As I write this all down, it becomes evident how much time I spent above tree line, and for that, I am grateful. Long multi-day and big single day alpine objectives was not the only type of work enjoyed this year. I also found myself guiding and instructing rock climbing down at lower elevations. Logging days in the Mammoth Lakes area guiding classic such as Horseshoe Slabs in the Lakes Basin, Benton Crossing Crags, Clarks Canyon, June Lake Slabs and even a few days suspended from the towering slabs of the PSOM Wall in Pine Creek Canyon. Most of my time spent below 10,000ft was spent instructing up-and-coming climbers. Improving movement and technical skills needed to safely move up and down rock climbs. From first timers out for their college orientation to experienced climbers looking to up their game on long routes, each day on the rock provided engaging experiences for learning and growth.
When reflecting onto my season I immediately think about how lucky I was to spend each day with guests I truly enjoyed. So many lively conversations ranging the gambit from music, art, culture, climbing, training, history, geography, economics and even the taboo, politics. There were numerous shared sunrises and sunsets and so much great, freshly brewed Black Sheep coffee enjoyed from the comfort of my sleeping bag. I truly believe I made personal connections with every guest I was fortunate to climb with. Lucky for everyone involved, because spending three to five days with a stranger you don’t enjoy in a rugged mountain environment does not sound like fun. Thank you all for being such great humans, for being vulnerable enough to put your trust in me and allowing us to share an experience together.
One of my most valued memories was my first day of work of the summer. A few other colleagues and I spend a half-day out on the June Lake Slabs working with the Wounded Warrior Project through Disabled Sports Eastern Sierra. We had a variety of adaptive and traditional climbing opportunities for these veterans. Everyone involved in this experience was engaged, excited and grateful. As the frequently echoed quote from the late great Alex Lowe goes “The best climber is the one
having the most fun.” I was surrounded by nothing but the best climbers that day. Experiences like this is where I find the greatest value in sharing my skills, helping those with limitations or fewer opportunities experience the power of accomplishment found on the side of a rock face. The joy and excitement of the participants was infectious and helped me find a deeper layer of gratitude towards current and past service members. Thank you to all the individuals that served and continue to serve our country.
With so much time spent walking into and out of the mountains, I had plenty of time to think to myself and find some more random or more obscure themes to my life in the alpine. By midsummer, I began to find a common theme running though all my trips and that theme was bags. A down-filled bag is what I woke up in each morning; bags full of camping and climbing gear, to haul heavy loads in and out of the mountains; eating almost all my meals out of bags and completing the lifecycle of freeze-dried meals with defecating into wag bags. Bags in all shapes, sizes and functions were used on each trip.
Another thought experiment I spent many hours pondering, discussing with guests and other recreational users alike was about summit registers. These ammo cans often resemble a coffee table found in the Delta frat house. Broken hinges, bits of rust, dents, fading stickers and the bits of graffiti, make one ponder their value and importance. We educate and demonstrate Leave No Trace techniques throughout our trip, yet, as we top out a peak we quickly stumble upon these green, out of place metal boxes and give individuals the opportunity to sign their name in a notebook and leave it for others. The more summits I enjoyed, the more random stuff I found inside register boxes; cigarettes, stickers, toys, poems, lots of random trash, plastic and almost always a few decaying register books. It seems like these little boxes adorn with memories of personal accomplishment are slowly turning into the highest altitude trashcans in the United States. Do I believe we need to eliminate these? Not at all, but I would love to see our community of backcountry users evaluate our relationship with the ammo can and possibly treat our summits with more respect, and not like a back-alley dumpster found on the Las Vegas Strip.
Perhaps, I am just being overly sensitive to the increase of trash, micro and macro, found in our most heavily impacted areas. It’s disturbing how many abandoned wag bags can be found in the alpine. The proliferation of summit signs on Mt Whitney, I believe there are 5 now, seems to be a bit much. Don’t get me started the sledgehammer and hula-hoop that found their way to the top of the lower 48. Am I becoming a crusty? Or am I just become more aware of my surroundings and the impact we have when traveling into these fragile environments?
As the summer was ramping up and we were coming out of a lackluster winter, anxiety of fires and smoke often creep into the front of my mind. How long till the fires start? Will they close the forest again? Will the homes of friends be threatened by a local fire? As luck would have it, we were treated to a very clear and safe summer in the Eastern Sierra, something I would never have predicted in April or May. Instead, heavy rains that came in early August would present more challenges than smoke. These rains brought closures to the Whitney Portal, Cottonwood Lakes Trailhead and Onion Valley. The folks at CalTrans were on top of this and got the roads opened back up quickly. This weather pattern also created some noticeable damage on popular trials such as Kearsarge and Shepherds Pass Trails. I find this ironic and the last thing to be expected, but then again, expectations and reality don’t always line up.
As summer wanes into autumn, it brings colder, longer nights. Golden aspens begin to adorn the valleys and the high country gets its earliest blanket of snow; many begin to eye winter. Not myself, this time of year I become infatuated with rocks. Small boulders, big walls, bolts, cams, crash pads and quickdraws. It’s Rocktober! Time to spend more time in Pine Creek, Owens River Gorge, and the Buttermilks. What was recently long approaches to easy climbs is now short approaches to more
challenging climbing. The temperatures are crisp, providing excellent friction for your sought-after projects. For others, it’s time to start training for ski season, but its important to stay present and enjoy the splendors of each season. That Late October, Early November dump of snow is no reason to destroy your skis or knees. Trail running this time of year is supreme, a great way to enjoy the mountains for when you can’t find a sporter or belayer. This evolution of seasons is inevitable and welcomed, it has allowed this guide time to slow down reflect on the season past, revisit endeavors outside of climbing, visit with friends and family and continue to stay excited and motivated for future mountain endeavors. As Jerry Garcia belts out in the U.S. Blues “Summer times done, come and gone, my oh my.”
Author: SMG guide Kevin McGarity