Mount Starr King In Yosemite Via The Southeast Saddle

  • Updated: October 01, 2013
  • Post By: Matthew Hengst

September 28th to 30th, 2013

Well crap, end of Sierra season already.

For me the Sierra season is bounded by the Spring and Fall Advanced Mountaineering Program courses that I help teach.  I really enjoy helping but they do keep me local Those keep me local to OC and tend to make a delimiter between run out to the desert time of year and run out to the Sierra.

This year things had started the third week of May with a two day to Mt Julius Cesar and trip #16 has been the hard and fast 9 days on the JMT

And now there was one more.  A laid back, 3 day, 1 peak, 16 person, *16 person*, 1 peak though requiring ropes and two low 5th class pitches...

Starr King was going to be fun :)
Starr King is a peak in Yosemite that many people visiting the park have seen but the vast majority will never climb as it's low 5th class by it's easiest route.

I'd done it before (twice!) but there's a lot to recommend it even as a repeat.  It's a beautiful area, very reasonable stats especially if you stretch it in to multiple days, and you can even have a campfire where we  camp assuming fire restrictions aren't in effect.  Climbing wise you can have a conveniently short approach and while the climbing requires a rope and harness it's mostly friction so worse case you can power belay people past the iffy bit.

It also happens to be a rather impressive peak particularly from the east.  It's higher than Half Dome though not near as dominant from the Valley.

Starr King on the left, Half Dome on the right
The initial email pitch proved to be so popular we were effectively full in about 3 hours.

This was to be the 3rd time up Mount Starr King for me which is unique at this point as far as Sierra peaks.  The first time I day hiked it with Greg Mason using just a single rope in 2010.  The second time Jack and I took a group of 8 mostly WTC staff up to the summit in a three day with two ropes in 2011.  Both times we did the SE face between the tallest and second tallest dome.

This time we complicated our lives a bit bringing in two separate groups from two separate trailheads and meeting for the climb. We planned to have a full 16 people but ended up with 15 including a number of WTC students.  To keep things moving we brought 4 60m ropes so both pitches could be set up at once.  Sadly the continuing fire restriction meant the campfire wasn't going to happen.

And overall it went rather well.

The weekend before has been the tail end of my 190 miles in 9 day JMT hike which was cut short by a day due to the first significant snow of the season nailing me at Rae Lakes necessitated an exit.  Immediately after I got home I had to fly back to Boise for another week of on site work with the client there.  And seeing how I was now back in civilization I decided it would be an awesome idea to participate in their quarterly bloody drive. hindsight that didn't turn out to be the best decision.  (I didn't actually take pictures while being all but passed out on the floor of my cubicle so use your imagination)

So needless to say I wasn't in the best shape when Jack Kieffer, Jason Stone, and myself met in OC at 7 pm for the long drive up to Yosemite.

Still, I rallied and we pulled into Mono Trailhead along Glacier Point Road sometime in the relatively wee hours of the night / morning.

Mono has the advantage of having bear boxes, plenty of places to sleep (as long as your pre October since they don't allow overnight parking then due to the danger of snow closing the road) but no bathrooms.  (You can find a pit toilet at nearby Ostrander)

The valley is a zoo and campground reservations are  a bit hard to come by.  Camp 4 allows walk ins but you have multiple groups in each site and it's generally pretty loud.  Camping along Glacier Point however is nice and quiet.

So we passed out at Mono after managing to wake up a few of our fellow group members

Saturday:  A leisurely stroll in

Jack and I practically leapt out of our bags at 6 am, dove into his truck, and took off towards the valley where breakfast (and coffee!) and our permits awaited.  We asked if anyone wanted to drive in with us but they all seemed disinclined to get out of bed.  Pfft....

Jack and I however indulged.

After eating and slurping down as much coffee as we could manage Jack and I were at the visitors center not long after it opened.  We got our permits issued without incident only to be held up by the bus system.  As a result we got back to Mono to find an only slightly impatient group who had been told to be ready to go about an hour and a half ago.  Oops.

The Mono group left under the care and supervision of Ron Campbell while the rest of us trundled over to Glacier Point and got our things together for the slightly longer hike from Glacier Point.

We had a slight delay while enjoying the views from the overlook.

Then we managed to miss the start Panorama trail and briefly did a little bushwhacking along a use trail that would have worked had we not minded a bit more rough bushwhacking.

But, you know...

Kilts and sharp brush are not a positive combination 

Once on the right trail we made good time.  We could see our peak a bit off in the distance looking rather less impressive than Half Dome despite the fact it's actually higher.  And harder to climb.

We crossed the Illilouette which was a matter of stepping across some small rocks.  Nothing like a few years ago for our Clark & Grey trip where we had to get the ropes out to make it across.

Crossing the Illiloutte Spring 2011
From there we met the other group at a stream south of Starr King and set off cross country looking for someplace isolated to camp.  We ended up arriving at the site we used back in 2011 and decided it was probably our best bet for situating this large of a group non destructively.

Unfortunately the water that we'd seen running at the stream below dried out below camp but we were able to hike down maybe a quarter of a mile to pump our water.  (Yea it's a little weird using a filter here after drinking all over on the JMT but it's mostly a matter of avoiding floaters)

We were all set up back in camp well before sunset so for the first time in quite a few trips there was a relaxed camp / happy hour.

The only thing that would have made it better would have been a campfire.

Sunday:  Summit Day

Everyone woke up well rested the next morning without too much prodding.

Jack Kieffer, Neal Robbins, Jeff Atijera, and myself all left camp 30 minutes before the main group carrying the ropes and all of the gear with the intention of getting the route set so we could get people moving as soon as they arrived at the climb.

What looked like a reasonably clear morning (though with a 20% chance of rain in the forecast) looked much less promising from the saddle below SK with multiple levels of lenticular clouds visible off behind the Clark range.  We hoped for the best and went about getting set up.

Once you reach the saddle there's an easy slab that sometimes gets called very low 3rd class in order to get over the second bump and to the base of the climb.  It's a walkup.  Then you see the actual climb.

Jack and I have both led the climb previously and so turned it over to Neal the lead this time.

Rack-wise Neal used a 2 or 3 rather low and then a 1 or a .75 right below the undercling flake that serves as the crux and a second to protect the undercling.  The belay ledge he used a 2 and a 3 but it's possible to use slung boulders if slightly sketchier than we liked.  (we did rap off them but backed it up for belaying)

Guess which rope belongs to me...
The second pitch he used two cams and backed up the slung horn above with a #3.

He commented he could have used a .5 as most of the placements on the face were thin.

There were existing stations set up at the belay ledge and the top belay which we re enforced for the other climbers and used on rappel.

The biggest challenge as far as rope management is throwing the rope down since you have a sloped slab instead of a more vertical drop.  This means you have to throw it further and avoid a number of cracks and features.  An we had a lot of people.

Once Neal reached the belay ledge he brought up Jack with another rope and after getting the rope to the bottom (after a few tries) we tied a second one to the end.  Tying a butterfly know right below where the ropes were joined we had just enough to belay someone up from the top and use the end of the rope to pull it back down.

So for the climbers the general procedure was clip into the bottom rope, climb the first pitch belayed from the belay ledge.  Get to the belay ledge, clip into the anchor, unclip from the bottom rope, after a short wait clip into the second rope (which was set up similarly), and climb the upper pitch.

The crux of the climb and the thing that makes it low 5th vs just 4th class is the move to get away from the crack and over to the right of a flake.  There's enough to get your fingers under the flake but the feet are a bit sparse if your not comfortable with friction climbs.  It's actually easier if you forgo hands and walk out a bit below the flake.

Most people had climbing shoes but a few of us were just in boots.  I made it up in my Merrells but was damn glad I didn't have to lead in those as a few spots were right at the point of slipping.

From the top belay station it's an easy walk to the summit.  We left the ropes rigged up and went to bask in our victory.

The weather was spectacular so we took our time enjoying the summit.  Ron was nice enough to regale us with the story of who the mountain was named after and we did some elaborate summit shots (as always!)  The WTC flag bags another peak!

Haley wins for best  hero shot up top

After a good amount of time we decided to head down.  With the 4 ropes and both rappels set up at the same time this was to be a much shorter ordeal than last time.

This is the top anchor.  I've seen some really bizarre setups left behind here.

Mark about to rappel off the top ledge
The process down was someone rappelled to the middle belay ledge with someone doing a fireman's belay from below.  From there they leashed into the second anchor, set up, and did a second rappel to the ground also on a fireman's belay.

We trundled down the hillside and everyone was to camp before sunset.

Another happy hour and we managed to finish all the alcohol and a decent amount of the food and had a decently late night for a non-campfire.

Monday:  And Out

The next morning we left camp around 8:30 and retraced our steps to the Mono Trailhead.  Glacier didn't end up being much further but we decided to go out together.  (Permits specify entry date and TH but exit TH is open to be changed)

From Glacier Point it was a quick car shuttle back to Mono.

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