Sunday, August 2nd – Tuesday, August 4th: The Obelisk!

 Most direct route from Mammoth Lakes to our trail head.

We packed up camp and headed to Oakhurst.  We wanted to have coffee and breakfast at the Cool Beans, where we had stopped earlier this trip, however, it was closed, so we headed to Starbucks.

Keeping up with the blog can be stressful.

After breakfast and electronic updates, we grabbed some pizza for lunch before heading towards the Dinkey Creek Ranger Station for backcountry camping permits.  The volunteer run station had no one present, so we organized and packed in the parking lot in case someone showed up in the meantime.  Based on our past experience, we wanted to go light, keeping our climbing and camping gear to a minimum.  There would be no fluffy extras on this trip, like flip flops for camp.

Nearly four years ago to the day (literally within a day or two), the three of us set off to climb the 700ft West Face of The Obelisk. At this point we aren’t really sure where the original idea came from to climb this obscure, seemingly little climbed peak, 10 miles from the trailhead.  This turned into an epic trip involving a heinous approach over disappearing trails, through groves of fallen sequoias that involved belly flopping onto and rolling over rather than trying to walk around, to a late start on a long route with headlamps forgotten on the ground.  If you have some time, ask one of us about this adventure, because there is too much to relate right here.  The end result was us unknowingly climbing a detached tower, having to retreat, leaving gear to makes the rappels in the fading light to touch down on dirt in darkness.
This peak has been looming over us for four years.  We have shared the story, talked about it among ourselves, and promised ourselves we would get back there as a group to reach the summit.  It was casually brought up in the planning stages of this summer, but with so many other big objectives, an several hours out of the way, we did not see it as a real consideration this year.  It was only after several negatives hit our big wall plans that we decided to set our sights on conquering The Obelisk. We decided it was way to hot, and we were too slow, for us to reasonably climb The Nose.  Our weather window for climbing Washington Column over 2 days was disrupted by poor weather.  We had family/friends flying out in a few days for a backpacking trip.  Looking at our schedule, location, and weather, The Obelisk fit in.  We were sold.  It was going to happen, and we were stoked!  Each of us, however, held some nervous anticipation inside as we prepared for this trip.  This climb was well within our abilities, we would never think twice about it, it was our history with this peak that had us.

At the Crown Valley Trail Head, we stashed our extra food bins in the bear boxes, made final adjustments to our packs, and hit the trail around 5:15 PM.  Our plan was to hike in to Lower Geraldine, set camp for the night, climb in the morning, and then hike out.  As we made the first creek crossing, Doug, wearing his Monopoly shorts, stashed celebratory beverages in the creek to chill until our return.

As we walked, most of our conversations revolved around the familiar landmarks along the approach, conquering the peak, and what we would eat when we were done.

Statham Meadow

As we passed Statham Meadow, we were excited, knowing we were moving at a good pace.  We knew we had a decent amount of elevation to gain ahead, and that trails may disappear, but we were still stoked.  As the human trail disappeared, we found ourselves following the paths of the free range cattle that wander the wilderness.  These appeared to be smart cows, as the were generally following the path we wanted, and had cleared a path for us.   Their trail was fairly easy to follow, however they did leave large, mushy, smelly, trail-markers along the way.

As darkness began to fall, Doug navigated us through the meadows, forests, rock fields, and the final pass to Lower Geraldine Lake, as Alex tried to grumble quietly about hiking in the dark.  As we came down from the pass, we knew we had to be getting close to the lake, which would be our camping area.  We scrambled down rock, bushwacked through various types of foliage, and soon found each of us saying “Hey! This (rock, tree, boulder) looks familiar…”  Wait!  This WAS our exact campsite from four years ago!  A quick check that they lake was near confirmed it!  We were beyond stoked to be there!  We made excellent time, just under four hours, far less than it took us the first time, and we felt much better as well!  As Dave and Alex set up their tent, Doug began to prepare dinner and make a small fire.  Once our bellies were full, we headed to bed to dream about conquering The Obelisk they next day.

We awoke at 5:15 AM to make backpacker breakfasts, coffee, and tea.  We finished prepping our day packs, filtered water for the day, and started walking the last 2 miles off to the base of our climb at 7:30.

As we came over the final pass, eager to see the meadow and Obelisk come in to view, a surprising view appeared.  Look at all the fog!  We stopped to take pictures, and scope out our approach to the start of the climb.  The Obelisk is the dome feature towards the left side of the picture below.  We would climb the 700 foot West Face (right side) and rappel off the near what you can see as the left side of the formation.

Working our way through the brush and boulders we realized it was not fog that we saw in the valley, but smoke.  There must be a forest fire somewhere in the distance.  We soon found ourselves at the base of the wall, deciding where our climb would start.  We spied our last set of rappel anchors still on the wall above, we wondered if they would still be there.  Nearby, was where we should have started our climb four years ago.  The (in)famous golf club was also at the base, though broken.  Doug, however, was the only one to see it, as he immediately picked it up and hurled it before Alex and Dave made there way to him.

Anchors left from 2011 Trip

By 9:30 AM, after a quick snack of PB&J, Dave was ready to climb and Alex had him on belay.  He climbed through the starting chimney, and exited to the left, climbing carefully on the knobby face until he was nearly out of the 60 meter rope.  Alex climbed next, cleaning the gear as she went, so that Dave could climb another pitch before she belayed Doug up.  The route finding was obscure, and Dave wound up doing a heady down climb for about 30 feet when the path did not seem right.  He climbed another 60-70 feet to a large ledge, where Alex and Doug joined him to discuss the best path. We all seemed to have similar thoughts, so Dave began climbing up the knobby, plated face in the gully for another nearly full rope length.  The belay was set in a left facing corner up and left from where we started.  We all rejoined at this point before Dave set off up and right onto the face and into the welcome warming sun.  Two more full rope length brought us to a large ledge with interesting chickenhead knobs that looked like a coral reef protruding from the top.  One final rope-stretching pitch brought up to the top of the climb.  Around 3:00PM, after over 1,000 feet of climbing, we were able to un-rope, walk to the summit boulder.  Once on the summit, we celebrated our long awaited achievement,  signed and read the summit register, and took a few smoke-hazed pictures. 

We made our way to the first set of rappel anchors, adding a piece of webbing to the single bolt and chiceknhead station of crunchy webbing before making a short rappel to another anchor below.  We added a piece of cordelette to this station as well and set up a double length rappel with a EDK(European Death Knot) in hopes of avoiding the rope getting snagged when we pulled it down later.  The rappel was AMAZING!  It was free-hanging for about 150 feet off the 200+ feet, and required the full rope stretch to touch ground.  Until this point, the free-hanging rappel of the 3rd Flatiron in Colorado probably had this title, but this was now the clear winner.  Spinning freely in the air as we lowered with open views all around was breathtaking, and even a little unnerving.  Doug rappelled last, and pulled the rope successfully from a connected sub-formation.

After cheerful rejoining on the ground, our jubilant group cleaned up gear and headed back towards camp.  We stopped just before the pass to sit and take in a few more views of The Obelisk, as we intended to never make the long approach to this beautiful place again.  We decided that as it was getting later in the day, we were all tired, still had to walk back to camp, eat, and clean-up, we would camp out one more night, and hike out in the morning.

Tuesday morning, we packed up camp, ate a light breakfast, and took some pictures.  As we did, our “I’m never coming back here… though it is beautiful” turned into “We could come back here on a backpacking trip to fish…  It wouldn’t be so bad without climbing gear.”

We were able to stay mostly on trail during hike out, and were amazed at how soon we found ourselves at Statham Meadow.  The hike out was going very quickly and easily, though we felt we kept a casual pace.  Within 3 hours we found ourselves back at the car.

Alpine Bovine

After retrieving our celebratory drinks from the creek, we headed towards the trail head and met up with a National Forest Service Fire crew.  We talked with a few of them for a while getting an update on where the fire was and even had some “climber talk” for a while.  As expected, the fire was on the other side of Spanish Mountain, and they were using the the large rock formation as well as other techniques to help keep it from spreading in the valley.

Hungrily, we made our way to the nearby camp store to find they no longer serve the fresh made sandwiches we remember from 4 years ago.  We left and opted to wait until we got to the Dinkey Creek store 9 miles down the road to eat.  After eating, we made a quick stop at McKinley Grove so that Doug could see some giant trees up close.  From here, we would be heading to Fresno, getting a hotel for the night, and grocery shopping for the backpacking trip which would start on Wednesday evening after the rest of our hiking crew flew into Fresno.  

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