Bear Creek Spire (Sierra Nevada; 13,713')

Bear Creek Spire is one of many granite peaks in the High Sierra. It is not one of the highest, and from the west it does not even look very remarkable, but on the northeast side it has a striking 800-foot arete that rises steeply from the snow-covered talus fields. This amazing line, combined with an easy approach, makes the mountain a very worthwhile objective. The technical parts are all above 13,000', so some acclimatization is a good idea.

Topo Map

Routes: North Arete (III, 5.8)

Bear Creek Spire from Little Lakes Valley in late July
References: Chris McNamara,

Date: July 21-22, 2007

Party: Paul and Dietrich Belitz

Route: N Arete

Equipment: 2 sets of stoppers, Camalots 0.5 - 3, 2 small tri-cams, 15 slings

Time: Mosquito Flats - Dade Lake 3 hrs
Dade Lake - Base of Arete 1 hr 15 mins
Base of Arete - somewhere near the summit 7 hrs 15 mins
Somewhere near the Summit - Dade Lake 2 hrs
Dade Lake - Summit - Mosquito Flats 16 hrs

Trip report:

We drove up from San Diego on Friday, picking up our permit and the unwieldy bear canister in Lone Pine on the way. After overshooting the Tom's Place exit we drove up to Mosquito Flats, where Paul discovered that he forgot to bring his ski poles. So, no Betalight on this trip, but the weather looked very stable and we were not concerned about the prospect of having no tent. We did, however, find a $18 camping fee stiff, given that we literally just flopped down in the dirt next to Paul's car.

We slept quite well, despite the 10,200' elevation. The next day was meant as an acclimatization day, so it was 9am by the time we started out on the sandy trail up the Little Lakes Valley. Bear Creek Spire, and its North Arete, is visible almost all the way along the trail. An hour and fortyfive minutes got us to Gem Lakes, where the talus hopping starts, and a bit over an hour later we arrived at Dade Lake, elevation 11,600'. We spent the rest of the day lounging in the sun, taking in the view of the mountain, and eventually sorting out our gear. Late in the afternoon we talked to a party of two coming down, who reported a lot of trouble hauling their packs on the route, which prompted us to plan on climbing with only one pack (a mistake, as it turned out, but not a huge one). That night I did not sleep all that well, probably due to the elevation, but only once did I wake up sufficiently to consciously take in the amazing view of the Milky Way.

I woke up at 4:45am in the twilight of dawn, and by 5:15 we were on our way. As we worked our way up the talus slopes the sun hit the mountain, and by the time we reached the unavoidable snow field that leads up to the start of the climb the sun had softened the snow a little bit. We cached my summit pack, put everything in Paul's larger multi-purpose pack, and climbed the snow to the base of the arete. Here we switched to rock shoes, stuffed two huge pairs of sneakers into the pack on top of everything else, built an anchor, and Paul started up the first 5.7 pitch. I was somewhat winded, but otherwise felt good, but the pack almost killed me while following. The climbing was steep and surprisingly strenuous, which intimidated me enough to not want to lead the second pitch either. This turned out to be a bit easier than the first one, though, and after that I led pitches 3 and 4, the first one starting out with a cool exposed move around a corner. At the top of pitch 4 it was not obvious where to belay, and I built an anchor a bit too low and too far to the right as it turned out. To get to the start of the 5.8 pitch, Paul had to do an ascending traverse, which caused the rope to get caught under not just one, but two granite flakes. The lower one I managed to flip it out of, but the upper one was hopeless, and Paul had to downclimb to get the rope unstuck. After that the pitch went smoothly, and I followed, struggling with the heavy pack. I did not think the pitch was harder than the first 5.7 pitch (or rather, the first 5.7 pitch was not any easier than the crux pitch), but it was every bit as physical.

I led the next pitch, which involves squeezing through a keyhole and traversing on the east side of the ridge. Paul had an interesting time getting the pack through the keyhole, it was too bad I did not have the camera. After this we got confused. The topo said there should be only one more pitch before we gained the more or less horizontal summit ridge, but it took us two. We wandered around on the ridge, and finally got to a point where we could see the descent route on the west side. The location of the true summit was entirely unobvious to us. We soloed up some cracks to regain the ridge, determined that this was not the true summit, belayed back down, and pondered our options. Obviously, the true summit was still farther along the ridge, but we were not sure how far. It was getting late, we were tired, we had done the route, and we had been within a few feet of the elevation of the true summit. So we decided to skip the summit and started the descent. Steep scree in between third-class steps brought us to gentler ground and the obvious notch that leads back to the east side. Some more third class got us down to the snow fields, which were barely negotiable in sneakers, using rocks as substitutes for ice axes. We picked up the cached pack and hopped the boulders down to Dade Lake, where I took a nap.

We were unsure whether to spend the night at Dade Lake or pack down, but the prospect of better sleep at lower elevation persuaded us to keep going. The talus seemed to never end, but finally we reached the trail at Gem Lakes. An hour and twenty minutes later we arrived at Paul's car in the light of our head lamps, almost exactly 16 hours after we left our bivy.

In retrospect it is too bad that we did not go to the true summit, but we did the route, and it was a great trip. Most importantly, our acclimatization strategy worked: we were both in good shape and even ate at 13,700'. I should go back some day, maybe on an easier route, and go to the summit!

Photo Gallery:

Click the thumbnails to see a higher resolution image

Paul sorting gear at Mosquito Flats.

Paul on the trail.

One of the many lakes on the way.

Paul at Gem Lakes.

Bear Creek Spire rises above the talus.

Our bivy near Dade Lake.

Bear Creek Spire catches the first morning light.

Paul starts out on the first pitch.

View down Little Lakes Valley.

Dietrich starts the third pitch.

Dietrich on the third pitch.

Paul at a belay stance. Mt. Tom in background.

View from near the summit.

Paul starting the descent.

Dietrich descending the snow fields.