Mount Dade via the Hourglass Coulior | TRVRS Outdoors
by Ricardo SoriaJuly 13, 2019
Mount Dade is a 13,600 foot peak in the Abbot group sitting along the Sierra Crest between Mount Abbot and Bear Creek Spire. It borders both the Inyo and Sierra National Forests and has been accessed from all sides. However, the peaks least technical and most popular approach is the east Coulior (otherwise known as the Hourglass Col). The Coulior can be reached via the Little Lakes Valley; a gorgeous glacier carved valley that hosts a chain of alpine lakes and offers ease of access to the rarified High Sierra as the Mosquito Flats trail head starts at an altitude of 10,300 ft.
Months before our outing, we obtained permits for Thousand Island Lakes months in advance and intended to reach Banner Peak, but were challenged by heavy snowfall. A secondary plan was to ascend Mount Dade via Little Lakes Valley. Although we had not struck a permit, we were confident that we could obtain one at the Interagency Visitor Center in Lone Pine.
Approaching the weekend, Victor had mentioned that he was planning on leaving early Friday morning for a relaxed drive including visiting the local hot springs and breweries. This was a no-brainer and we were on the road by 6:30 AM with an initial goal of collecting permits and having breakfast in Lone Pine. By 9:45 AM, we had reached the Visitor Center. We approached the counter and a young ranger monotonously asked "...Are you here to climb Mount Whitney?" "No, we were wondering if we could get some permits for Rock Creek." The rangers face lit up and he was immediately far more interested in helping us. He went on about what a great area it was and probed us more regarding our plan. As we elaborated on our attempt to summit Mount Dade, he gradually became less concerned with whether or not we had a bear canister and seemingly more interested in joining us. We shared his stoke and took to the road.
Victor and I must have set the record for the shortest amount of time spent dining in the Alabama Hills Cafe. We hardly shared any words once the plates hit the table and even had room for a liquid brunch at Mountain Rambler Brewery by the time we hit Bishop. Our next goal was to pick a campsite at the East Fork campground located along Rock Creek. By the time I had set up my tent, I was spent from accomplishing all of the stressful errands of the day, so we decided to head over to the hot springs for some soaking. This would be my first time visiting Mammoth's local hot springs and they were pretty damn amazing. Right as we finished a couple of beers, a huge family of maybe ten showed up and we took our cue. After returning to the East Fork Campground, we cooked up some steak over an open flame and enjoyed dinner. Just as we finished up, we were joined by Gil who was able to drive up earlier than the remaining four in our group. He mentioned that they were held back due to some last minute inconvenience and we all headed for bed.
ROAD CLOSURES TO ROCK CREEK TRAIL
Saturday, June 8th, 2019 -- At 7:45 AM, we made it to Rock Creek Lake. The recent snow activity was cause for a road closure up to this point. We would walk an additional 1.3 miles on a relatively flat and somewhat icy road before reaching the Rock Creek trail head but the plethora of restrooms along the way were a nice bonus.
HARD BREAK AT HEART LAKE
We traveled for 2.6 miles, passing two lakes and playing leap frog with two very attractive day hikers, eventually arriving coincidentally at Heart Lake (2.6 miles, 700 feet of cumulative vertical gain). The day hikers were parked near the toe of the lake along with a couple of fisherman, so naturally we decided it looked like a good place to enjoy the view as well. From here, Bear Creek Spires's North Arete stood center stage between the obviously named Pyramid Peak, and Pip-squeak Spire while Mount Dade was still hidden further east behind Treasure Peak. After twenty minutes of staring at the jaw dropping beauty...of the lake of course, we made some moves for the trail which continued along the western side of the valley.
LEAVING THE TRAIL AT LONG LAKE
It wasn't until we passed Box Lake that we encountered our first creek crossing just before reaching Long Lake (3.54 miles, 950 feet of cumulative vertical gain). We hugged the straight side of the lake right along the shore and questioned moving toward higher ground since from where we traveled, a fall would likely have meant taking a spill in the lake. Being the only one who opted against trekking poles, I decided to ready my ice-axe before carrying on.
Once we reached the south end of Long Lake, we took a short break to discuss the route. In summer conditions, there would likely have been a use trail for this segment, but at this point we were trudging over roughly four feet of snow . This would be our last break before a long push toward Treasure Lakes. The day was becoming warm and the route steeper, and if we ever needed a reminder that we were in the Sierra, it was this last one mile segment which featured an additional 850 feet of vertical gain; nearly half of the ascent for the entire route up to base camp.
If there were a trail that lead to Treasure Lakes, we managed to do a fine job at avoiding it, climbing over an additional medial moraine and crossing the creek earlier than we needed to. This worked out in our favor since the route took us to a landing just above the closest and smallest of the Treasure Lakes system giving us an overview of the frozen lakes as well as a spacious campsite. We spent the next hour making camp and at 2:00 PM, Gil and I decided to use the remainder of the day to go for Abbot. The relatively short hike left us wanting a little more and traveling without a pack sounded even better. We made it a half mile and 800 feet from camp before the sun became unbearable. Each step sent us two to four feet into the ground and we tried rotating lead to split the effort of post holing but overall the experience was pretty miserable. The conversation gradually moved towards whether or not we could make it to summit before sunset and it wouldn't be long before we turned back.
Gil and I were all smiles once we convinced each other to head down to camp. On route, we could see the others in our group finally arriving. They got settled and we spent the evening discussing the climb. From camp, the hourglass col looked like it would be my longest sustained ascent on a slope that steep and if that wasn't intimidating enough, the col was flanked by avalanche paths. We all agreed to to set alarms for 4 AM to get an early start.
A NOT SO ALPINE START
Sunday, June 8th, 2019 -- I awoke to the sound of crunchy foot steps by my vestibule. My phone read 5:15 AM. I hurried out of my tent expecting to see everyone packed and staring silently at me, waiting for me to get my shit together, but they weren't too far ahead. I prepared most of my gear the night before and in good sense, since I would need to spend at least ten minutes trying to cram my feet into my frozen boots.
TIME SLOWS ON THE HOURGLASS COULIOR
We started the approach by 5:56 AM. Heading up the rear, I could see the others walking across the now completely frozen west Treasure lakes. A 300 foot climb would bring us to the base of the Coulior which now looked a lot less intimidating. We took a short break at this plateau and started up the col at first following a faint path of a previous group. Breathing grew cumbersome with each kick into the steepening slope and I very quickly remembered what 12,000 feet felt like. I made an effort at setting small goals for myself but every time I looked up at the next achievement, it looked further than before. This would be a very long slog.
THE FINAL APPROACH
We had just climbed nearly 1,300 feet in under three quarters of a mile from the bottom of hourglass col. I plopped myself down on the first boulder that looked remotely comfortable. Flanked by Treasure Peak and Mount Morgan, the Little Lakes Valley was now completely visible. I glanced east toward Pip-squeak Spire and then west at the final approach to Mount Dade.
The path of our predecessors veered left around the rocky terrain and although climbing straight across looked feasible, we followed their route. Approaching the peak, we could now see a ton of the John Muir Wilderness and the Sierra National Forest. The stoke was at an all time high and as we inched closer to success, the footsteps in the snow disappeared. I wondered what would have caused them to turn back so close to the summit. Investigating further brought us to a cornice along the ridge crest in which a misstep on either side would likely have been fatal, but with a little bit of caution we all made it across to the summit.
The crest had barely enough space for the seven of us to stand without bumping in to one another. We spent nearly an hour admiring the view of the snowy peaks over shared libations before heading back to camp and although I was having a good time, I wanted more than anything to get out of the snow. From the bottom of the hourglass to the summit took us roughly two hours and thirty minutes, while glissading back down took me about thirteen minutes.
I used the extra time at camp to pack for both myself and Victor and as soon as the rest of the group was ready, I bolted for the trail head. I felt a lot more comfortable once I reached dry ground and set up a camping chair to await the others. After saying our goodbyes, Victor and I headed for Convict Lake to snag another campsite. Neither of us had to get back to reality quite yet and decided we needed another night of hot springs and camping under the stars to recoup before the long drive home.
Total Distance (from trail head to summit) : 7 miles
Total Elevation (feet): 4,200 ft.
Trail Difficulty: Moderate.
Class 1 heavily trafficked trail up to end of Long Lake (mile 4). The trail to Treasure Lakes is probably still obvious, but it was covered in snow for us and we traveled as the crow flies for the most part.
Class 2 steep scree and snow depending on time of year.