With October sliding into November, I had hopes for one more climb before the season changed for good and the snow locked up the mountains. At the entry station to the Ansel Adams Wilderness, in California’s Sierra Nevada, a white-haired ranger lectured me.
“It dropped two feet of snow in there last weekend,” she said.
“If it snows again, we won’t come get you out. Your truck’ll be there till next June.”
“I’ll keep an eye to the west,” I said.
The ranger shook her head and let me through. “It will be beautiful back there,” she said. “Certainly will be.”
In 1866, on a trip to climb the 11,527-foot Mount Clark, a geologist named Clarence King spotted a mile-long row of nail-sharp peaks to the southeast. He named the range the Minarets, capturing their soaring geometry.
The dangerous and inhospitable-looking Minarets kept climbers away for nearly 60 more years until Charles Michael climbed the first of their towers in 1923.
Michael was Yosemite’s assistant postmaster, a position that entitled him and his wife, Enid, to a year-round residence on the Valley floor, and the freedom to explore the vast walls.
The Michaels camped at Ediza Lake the day before they climbed their Minaret, and so did I. Perhaps those who come to catch trout and devour the views are unaffected by the history of this place, but I felt ill at ease here. In 1933, Walter Starr, Jr., a young, strong, Stanford-educated lawyer with a practice in San Francisco and a love for the Sierra, died alone on Michael Minaret trying to climb a new route. A search party five strong and led by Norman Clyde spent 10 days unsuccessfully searching the flanks of the Minaret for Starr’s body, but in the process managed to establish a number of new routes in the range.
The search was called off, but Clyde stayed, determined to find Starr. He finally found Starr’s body on the west face, and buried him there, where he remains. The last picture taken in Starr’s camera was of the lake with the mountains in the background. To me, the place feels haunted.
I had a book, but I did not want to read. I sat with my back against a rock and stared at the strange silhouette the Minarets formed with the backlight of the setting sun. I thought about the Michaels, ropeless and risking it all for these peaks over 80 years ago. My wife and I often climb together un-roped. Some couples take afternoon strolls around their neighborhood. Ashley and I go for afternoon climbs that take us to high places. Sometimes we chat, sometimes we move in silence. At the top we always feel refreshed and relaxed.
By next morning, the sun touched the meadows above Ediza Lake, warming away the frost that had cased every blade of grass. Red-and-black grasshoppers exploded from beneath my footsteps. There could have been a hundred thousand in a few acres. Judging by the number that escaped I must have crushed many. The land swelled up toward the Minarets and the meadows ventured no farther, giving way to great piles of brown rock, which in turn led to a solid, steep blanket of snow.
The Michaels carried no equipment for snow climbing—no ice axes or crampons. In faithful imitation, I climbed as they did, eschewing modern gear both to better appreciate what they had done, and to experience the Minarets on their own basic terms.
One step onto the snowfield suggested that matters were more serious than my soggy boots and numb hands. The freeze/thaw cycle had consolidated last year’s soft powder into steel-hard ice. On top of this lay the loose, new snow from the recent storm. My first kicked step collapsed as soon as I weighted it—the snow broke free and I slid back.
I clawed my way up, digging through the upper layer to find hand and toe holds in the ice. I gained a hundred feet, then 200. I cursed the Michaels for not bringing ice axes, and myself for following them so slavishly. But mostly I thought about gloves and wool-lined pockets and cups of hot chocolate and all the other soft, warm things that I would give my fingers when we returned. I couldn’t see or feel the chinks in the ice supporting my boots, and imagined the fragile ripples and crusts crumbling and melting and sending me on a toboggan ride into the boulders hundreds of feet below.
I reached North Notch 40 minutes later, damp, cold, somewhat shaken, and feeling foolish for having let myself be abused by the approach. Air spilled down toward the stone-bound lakes far below. Twisted pillars and sharp points queued to the horizon. The Minarets are ancient metamorphic remnants hoisted skyward by the uplift of younger granite below. The way they jut out seems violent, as if the spires are trying to tear their way out of the earth.
From North Notch, the Michaels had looked for a route to reach the skyline, but steep cliffs and dangerous climbing turned them back each time. Eventually they had come upon a narrow groove that ran up immediately to the north of what appeared to be the highest peak. They entered this deep chimney of water-worn rock and pulled, braced and pushed themselves higher and deeper.
In three places, car- to house-sized chockstones wedged in the chimney forced the Michaels out onto the wall, where holds appeared.
“Once more we must climb out [of the chimney],”
Michael later wrote. “The walls were sickening in their smooth sheerness.”
Michael first explored a tantalizing line he spied from his position below the third, and largest, chockstone. He called this section “the ladder with the lower rungs missing,” and though he tried several times, he was never able to reach the upper bars.
Looking for other options, he found a subtle series of holds on a less-steep section of cliff. He managed to surmount the 30-foot chockstone, but felt as though this line was “just a little too thrilling.” He requested that Enid stay where she was. She agreed.
Before my trip, I had asked Ashley whether she would have stayed put under that chockstone. She has spent the last four years in medical school while I had taught rock climbing, so at least at that moment I was stronger. Still, she told me not to be an ass. Under no circumstances would she have sat under a rock and waited. I recalled one winter’s day in Joshua Tree when we spent the day soloing easy climbs together. I blundered onto a more difficult variation of one route and thrashed my way up out of pig-headedness, then spent a queasy five minutes watching her follow me.
From above the chockstone, Michael climbed to a notch named the Portal, an arm’s-span wide that joined the shoulder of his Minaret to the next spire north. Positioned at the Portal, he might have been perched on a windowsill. Below his feet he could see the entire Shadow Lakes chain, from Ediza to Iceberg to Cecile, and in the distance the great eastern desert spread its shades of orange and tan and sage throughout the Sierra rain shadow.
Michael was now only a few hundred feet below the summit, and he traversed and connected precarious ledges that brought him higher.
“I had a feeling,” he wrote, “that the wall might give me a little shove on the shoulder and tip me into nothingness.”
Soon he found himself with nothing left to climb and took in the mountaineers’ rewards: the view, the sense of space above with nothing solid to obstruct the sky, the “billowy sea of mountains” stretching to the far southern horizon.
Down climbing is far more difficult than ascending, and Michael had found his route so unnerving that he opted to take the “ladder with the lower rungs missing” down. From below, still in the chimney, Enid directed her husband to the likeliest footholds. Upon reaching the last “rung,” he let go and dropped down to the floor of the chute, unharmed. Together the Michaels descended, reaching their camp at Ediza Lake at 3 p.m.
The land below the western half of the Minarets was pleated like an accordion. Deep ravines cut downhill from the peaks, crosswise to my own direction of travel. Angular rocks of all sizes made orange and brown piles. Forward progress came slowly. I felt child-sized, my limbs too short for this landscape. When at last I reached the base of Michael Minaret, I could not mistake it even though I had neither picture nor route description with me. A warty finger of rock jutted up from the ground with no intermediate buttresses or peaks to hide its full height. To the north, the chiseled groove of the Michaels’ chimney dropped straight down to a little fan of snow tucked up in its shadows.
After the endless approach, the sight of the peak gave my spirit the lift I had hoped for all morning. I entered the chimney and found a satisfying rhythm as I pushed and pulled and braced, just like the Michaels had, rapidly gaining height.
Large holds set in solid rock allowed me to bypass the first and second chockstones and I soon found myself within sight of the third. I opted to try for the ladder with the lower rungs missing. I was curious to know what had scared Michael so badly on his path of ascent, and after years of pull-ups, was confident that if something there resembled ladder rungs, I’d be able to yank my way up. Surely anything a postman from the 1920s had climbed down, I could climb up.
Half an hour later I had not moved. Lower rungs missing? I saw no upper rungs, either. Instead I found a cryptic puzzle of tiny edges that pointed in all the wrong directions above an uneven landing of sharp rock. I could not even guess where Michael had jumped down from on his descent, or where he could have landed without breaking his ankles or worse.
No matter what sequence I tried, my right hand always ended up on the same fragile-looking flake, with a half-pad grip for the tips of three fingers. I stared at it, and though I wanted to go up, I could not bring myself to trust that scab of rock.
Persistence took me nowhere. I walked back down to the chimney floor, to see what Charles Michael, whom I now held in great awe, had climbed up instead. The line wasn’t that hard to spot, so I started climbing. From ledges big enough to stand up on, there were a few thin edges, a damp little finger slot hidden under a roof, and a vertically oriented fissure that I torqued my fingers into. The climbing was tricky, but the holds were there. I looked down. The wall was blank. From above, every hold was concealed.
Twenty-five feet later, I was committed. The only option now was up. Eighty years after Michael’s ascent, the mountain had sprung the same trap on me. Lulled up a path that I would not dream of down climbing, I had only one option, to climb down a section I had already discounted as too difficult.
Why did I go up? I went up because the holds were there. I climbed because I knew that I could do it, and to back down would allow the mountain to prove me wrong. The mistakes I have made in the mountains usually come about like this, times when I have reduced climbing to a pissing match that the mountain can’t lose, and I can only hope to pull through in a tie.
I scrambled up the easier terrain of the open gully and reached the Portal to the summit ridgeline.
I could not have been more unpleasantly surprised had I leapt from summer to winter in a single step. All day, I had scrambled and climbed through the dry, western aspect of the Minarets. Now, across a distance of 10 feet, I had returned to the east, and the snow. Great streaks of sparkling white slashed the mountain’s face on this side.
The snow! The ranger had warned me, North Notch had tried to dissuade me, but now I had entered its domain. I teetered out above the east face, fighting to keep my wet boots in contact with slick stone. I only managed 30 or 40 feet out the ledge: far enough to see that the snow was just as deep and slippery as it looked, and to find that giddy feeling that dwells above long drops.
Here is the beauty and folly of mountaineering: after all the risks taken and effort spent, the mountain can still shut you down just below its summit.
There was nothing to be done about it. I headed back down the gully toward the dreaded ladder-without-any-rungs-at-all. Just then, something metal and brassy caught the sun. The flash had come from a crumbling buttress far up the left-hand wall of the gully. On it was a plaque dedicated to Walter Starr, Jr. that read:
Walter “Pete” Starr, Jr.
May 29, 1903 – August 30, 1933
A bold and passionate mountaineer of the Sierra Nevada, and a Stanford alumnus, Pete Starr died while attempting to solo a new route upon these flanks. He now stands in the grand company of those who have not returned. His name continues to live in the hearts of the young men and women that follow in his footsteps today, tomorrow, and forever.
Grand company, perhaps, but not the kind of company one wants to keep. The immortality offered by the plaque never looked less appealing than from my stance on the crumbling buttress in sight of Starr’s grave.
I descended to the top of the chimney and spent some time inside my own head. The cliff was hidden from view, but I had earlier stared at it for so long that I could picture the 40 feet of rock beneath me. I wanted the whole 40 feet to happen automatically—my mind would press “go” and my body would do the rest. Unlike Charles Michael, I would not jump. I did not trust the jagged floor. I would climb every move from first to last.
I slithered a few feet down, latched my right hand onto the first hold of the rung-less ladder, and began. I leaned far to the left and far to the right off sidepulls. My feet forced clumsy boots onto precise nicks set in the wall. I was worried and pleaded for time to think, but my body followed the program I had given it. I reached the little flake that had given me so much worry before, and used it because it was necessary and it would hold. And suddenly I was down.
Visually, the amphitheatre was the same, of course, but the filters were different. On the way up, Michael’s ladder had been shaded by desire and hope and fear. If I had reached the summit I might have looked out through colors of triumph or elation. But I mostly felt confused and hollowed out, and the rock looked simply like rock: gray, shadowed and cold.
At 15, Daniel Arnold began climbing the Pacific Rim volcanos and basalt crags of his native Portland and went on to climb throughout North and South America. He lives in Southern California. This article was adapted from his first book, Early Days in the Range of Light, available from Counterpoint Press.
What: The Minarets, a chain of 16 serrated peaks, are some of the most beautiful and striking formations in the Sierra Nevada of California. Located in the Ansel Adams Wilderness, the Minarets are part of the Ritter Range. Four alpine lakes—Ediza, Cecile, Iceberg and Minaret—surround the formations and attract fisherman, photographers and hikers.
Dozens of routes range from scrambles to fifth-class climbing. Perhaps the crown tick is the Minaret Traverse (VI 5.9), a long adventure that combines an 8-mile approach with technical and exposed route finding along dangerously loose ridges, not to mention massive amounts of up-and-down climbing as you tag all 16 peaks. It is believed that Josh Shwartz holds the time record for the Traverse, ticking it in just under 17 hours, besting the previous fastest time held by Peter Croft.
When: The Minarets can generally be climbed whenever route 203 over Minaret Summit is open. The road is closed in winter months due to extreme avalanche danger. For a full-on experience, the Minarets can be climbed in the winter, but your approach will begin way below at Mammoth Mountain ski lodge.
Getting There: The trip begins in Mammoth Lakes (pop: 7,093), a 2.5-hour drive from Yosemite Valley (when Tioga Pass is open). After turning off route 395, follow 203 into town, and turn right at the second light to the main lodge of Mammoth Mountain. Between the hours of 7 a.m. and 7:30 p.m., you must take a shuttle bus ($7/person) from here—the shuttle leaves every 30 minutes. If you arrive during other hours, you may continue driving west on 203 (Red’s Meadow Valley) over Minaret Summit. This is a narrow road, one lane wide in many sections, with limited parking at both the Agnew Meadows and Devils Postpile trailheads.
For a more scenic (and recommended) approach, start at Agnew Meadows and follow the Shadow Lake trail up to Ediza Lake (8 miles). On the way out, you can take the Minaret Lake trail to the John Muir trail to reach the trailhead at Devils Postpile (7 miles) and hop on a shuttle back to Agnew Meadows.
Camping: Free permits are available from the ranger station. There are great campsites at Minaret Lake.
Amphitheater Chute (5.7), Michael Minaret: Despite the strikingly similar-sounding features and route description, Amphitheater Chute is on the opposite side of Michael Minaret from Michael’s Chute, the climb described in this article. A more technical climb, Amphitheater Chute begins at Amphitheater Lake and eventually meets up with Michael’s Chute at the Portal to share the same technical ridge to the peak’s summit.
From Amphitheater Lake, hike up talus and the permanent glacier toward the steep and narrow gully/chute right of the mountain.
The three chockstones in the chute are the technical cruxes, with third-class scrambling in between. Bypass the first and easiest chockstone on the right. Consider roping up for the climbing around the right of the second chockstone (5.4) to reach a ledge to the left, then up a slab and finally back into the chute/chimney. The third and massive chockstone has two parts to it: Begin by climbing to its right to a point where you are below the second section of the stone; make some exposed moves left and continue.
Scramble up to the notch between Michael and Eichorn Minarets. Down climb 30 feet and traverse southwest to another chute (look for a cairn) that leads up to the Portal. Follow a series of ledges east (left) to the summit.
Gear: A 30-meter rope should suffice. If you’re worried about down climbing fifth class, bring a longer rope. Small to medium cams, slings, helmet.