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Mt Cotter + Clarence King

July 2022

This would be the most challenging alpine ascent of the summer for Anthony and me (he took all these photos by the way, check out his website). What was slated to be an engaging 5.4 climb turned out to be more like 5.10-, more on this later. Both of us had goals of climbing all of the SPS Emblem Peaks, and so naturally we intended to go for Mt. Clarence King. This is a relatively serious peak, and was considered the hardest rock climb of the 19th century. I took Anthony out to Pine Creek for a couple days of multipitch trad climbing to prepare for the ascent. He got the basics down well enough, and so we drove up to the Baxter Pass trailhead in the evening. We would not only be lugging up out hiking gear, but also a 70 meter rope, a “light” rack of gear, our climbing shoes, and harnesses. Needless to say, we were traveling with much larger loads than usual.

 

We crushed a few miles of the climb at night in order to spare ourselves from the intense heat at lower elevations. We had about a 6,000 foot climb total to surmount the pass. After a couple hours of slogging, we found a wonderful campsite and slept soundly. Early the next morning, we cracked on, and eventually found ourselves on Baxter Pass. The trail took some confusing turns, and the fact that the pass doesn’t face east/west like most of the major passes entering the range was rather interesting. 

We poked our way down an ill-defined, and largely nonexistent trail that eventually saw us to Dollar Lake. After a quick break there, we headed up to Sixty Lakes Basin. As we approached what would be our basecamp, Anthony broached the topic of climbing Mt. Cotter to me that afternoon. I was happy to oblige, and so after setting up camp, we set out for Mt. Cotter, a close neighbor of Clarence King. Anthony put down a superhuman pace on the ascent, and I could hardly keep up. I had seen nothing like it before in my life, I was exerting myself fully, and still falling behind. It turns out, the ominous clouds to our south were the chief motivator for Anthony’s blistering pace. We made short work of the climb, and soon found ourselves on the famous “staircase in the sky” section — an airy “Sierra class three” scramble that led us to the summit. Soon we were standing on the summit block, triumphant, but egos tempered by the severe looking ridge of Mt. Clarence King less than a couple miles away. We would be climbing this ridge the next morning.

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A beautiful approach hike

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Staircase in the sky on Mt. Cotter

We made it back to camp, ate some food, and tried to sleep. Unfortunately, a mutant strain of demonic mosquitos resides in sixty lakes basin. These devilish creatures bite and buzz and draw blood with unbridled ire. They also have the curious trait of not needing sleep. The buggers bit me and buzzed in my ears all night, affording me almost no sleep. It was also too warm to burrow safely inside of my sleeping bag to avoid their offensive. All in all, I slept maybe two hours. We “woke up” or rather rose from our hellish night early in the morning. We cracked on for the ridge, and ascended some class three ledges to get there. From there, we followed the ridge up, and roped up once it got considerably steep and treacherous.

 

I led a fourth or low-fifth class pitch, to the base of the famous chimney section. I hate climbing chimneys, so I opted for a nice looking hand crack to its left that I had no beta on. I climbed an easy fifth class crack to the main event, and then realized that this hand crack was slightly overhung, and much more challenging than it appeared from fifty feet below. After pondering my predicament for a minute or so,  I plugged a 1” and .75” cam as high as I could get them, and then made a few committing moves up the crack. The climbing proved challenging, yet quite fun, and eventually I found myself on a nice ledge where the crack and chimney pitches met. I was worried about Anthony getting up this pitch, since he has not done a ton of climbing. I would bet it goes at 5.10-, but probably much harder for someone who hasn’t crack climbed. Anthony made his way up, and was quite stuck at the crux. I ended up yanking him up inch by inch. He would make a bit of a move, and I’d take up all the slack and pull him up as far as I could muster. Eventually, we got him up to the belay station in one piece. 

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The imposing ridge of Mt. Clarence King, as viewed from the summit of Mt. Cotter

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Playing around just below the summitblock

We scrambled to the base of the summit block, and then each took a crack at climbing to the true summit. A 5.4 hand crack led to the summit block itself, and then a delicate face move with no protection saw me to the summit proper. It was a relatively easy, but high consequence move. The down climb proved even trickier. But I made it down nonetheless. I was slightly concerned for Anthony making the summit move on lead, but he managed it well, and opted for the “hop down” option off the summit block, which seemed to work without issue. We were both well pleased with our performance. We cracked open the summit register to find that we were the first to sign it all year! The peak is more seldom visited than I suspected.

 

We descended back to camp, and packed up to head out. After a long afternoon of hiking, we made it back to the original camp along the Baxter Pass Trail. After sleeping sounds, a few hours of hiking saw us back to the car the next morning. This was the last of five back-to-back trips together this summer, and was it ever a good one.

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Rappelling down the overhanging crack system