The Grand Dike
14 June 2015
When Ephrat is out of town, I generally opt for mountains that I know she may not particularly enjoy and this time was no exception.
Having a strong partner like Nic, I proposed to tackle a very remote and hardly known feature in Kings Canyon: the Grand Dike.
The first time I saw the Grand Dike was during the outing on Mount Harrington. I am always amazed by the number of rocks in Kings Canyon
and especially by how little is known about them.
All I could find about the Grand Dike was on Secor, who dedicates a full page to the 8 1/2 towers that compose this jagged ridge.
Nic picked me up on Friday evening at around 7 pm. We both knew we were going to get little sleep during the weekend, but we didn't realize
how little sleep that would be.
We agreed on trying a long car-to-car day, trying to bag as many towers as possible. Our real objective was to do the entire traverse, but we later realized how unlikely that is to happen if you are not very familiar with that area.
After a quick Trader Joe's and Sports Authority break on Merced Park we were ready to roll, looking forward to the challenging time ahead.
We managed to get right outside of the SEKI entrance on Hwy 180 around 12.45am; we quickly found a pull-out and bivvied under a moonless ski.
Alarm was set for 4.45, giving us less than 4 hours of sleep. Ugh.
The drive to Roads End is very pretty when you didn't do that for a long time (I and Ephrat were there two years to climb Harrington, then I went back with John to climb State peak). Since I took the morning drive, Nic used the time to nap until we reached our trailhead, Deer Cove.
We started hiking shortly after 6am, after a breakfast of Toblerone. The backpack was seriously heavy, since I was carrying two 70 meter ropes
and Nic had all the climbing gear.
The Deer Cove trail climbs very steeply for the first mile, gaining nearly 1000 feet. Maybe because the sun wasn't toasting us yet, maybe because we were really eager to get to the climb, the approach went very fast and we got to the "trail" junction (Grizzly creek "trail") in less than 2 hours.
Disclaimer: I really thought that the Grand Dike approach would not be so bad and I genuinely thought that the whole approach would be something like two hours. I had no idea about what was coming...
The trail to Grizzly creek quickly disappears in a plethora of dead trees. The navigation here was still fairly easy, but things were starting to get worse.
Both I and Nic were wearing shorts, which turned out to be a crucial mistake. Past Grizzly peak, we went up and down rolling terrain and crossed Choke creek, which had a pretty decent amount of water considering the extremely dry year we had. Right after crossing, we coated the creek moving north until we were about even with the southern-most pinnacle of the grand dike.
We saw a gully going up between what we think was pinnacle number 1 and pinnacle 1/2; we looked at the map, looked at the Secor cryptic description and we decided to go.
The deal seemed to be fairly straightforward: keep following the gully exactly west and get to the base of your first climb, then do an epic traverse
of all the pinnacles and get to happy gap, where there is an unmaintained trail that is going to take you back to Deer Cove. Sure. Keep dreaming.
From the instant we started climbing the gully, we knew we were going to suffer big time. Vegetation, which was knee-high until then, was getting more intense and we had to go through a great deal of buckthorn while wearing shorts.
We were still very pumped, it was little after 9am and we were feeling great. I set a waypoint on the GPS for the saddle we were aming for and while we were about 500 feet away we could see the southern impressive pinnacles of the Grand Dike. That's when I told Nic we were "almost done" with the worst part. I lied. The last 500 feet were some of the most excrusciating bushwhacking I have ever done, to be surpassed only by the bushwacking (spoiler) that we did on the way back.
It took what felt like a lifetime to reach the gully. We were bleeding and really shaken by the unexpected effort, but were glad to see some rock. Then what?
We were trying to decide which one "Tower 1/2" would be. Secor describes it as a "small pinnacle to the south of tower number 1". Thanks very much.
I was able to determine with certainty which one Tower 6 is, because it has a precise elevation on the USGS topo map and it does match exactly what Secor reports.
Working south from tower 6 I believe I found on the map all the other towers, except it was still unclear which one Tower 1/2 would be.
Just to be clear (if anybody is ever going to use this writeup as beta, which I strongly discourage): what we saw at the top of the infernal gully was a big
tower on our left (south), a big tower on our right (north) and what appeared to be a smaller formation between them. This little formation split the wider gully
in two smaller gullies, so we had something to choose from. We decided to go left, thinking that tower 1/2 would be the southernmost one we could see.
We were soon presented with an impassable obstacle on the sub-gully we selected, which was well beyond my comfort zone while scrambling. Nic was scoping out
possible routes upward, but I suggested to backtrack and take the right gully.
The right gully did go with some difficulties (it was class 4~ish) and brought us to a notch. Time to breathe and decide how to proceed.
We started heading towards what we initially thought it was Tower 1/2, but paused at the bottom. Secor describes two routes to climb the pinnacle: northwest face
and east face. That is when we started disputing what Tower 1/2 was. Nic suggested that the much smaller formation between the two bigger pinanacles must be
tower 1/2, because nobody would describe the southern bigger tower as "small pinnacle" and he convinced me in doing so, especially given that Secor's descriptions
made no sense whatsoever when compared with what we were seeing.
The small formation (from now on Tower 1/2 as far as we are concerned) did not seem to have any easy way from the north, the west or the south. We inspected it for a great deal of time and Nic saw a crack that definitely led to the summit, but was probably more in the 5.10 range. How could that be rated 5.3?
We went around to the east side and found a gully that was mostly fourth class with a class 5 finish involving climbing a tree with a sling that was so old that moss grew on it. I led that pitch and pulled the rope up, since Nic elected to solo it.
The flat summit had a cairn but no register of any sort. I was really hoping to find some registers on top of these peaks, just to see who is crazy enough to do the approach for these remote climbs.
Next on the agenda was Tower 1. We decided to skip the taller south tower because we decided that could not be one of the listed towers.
This is when matching the description we had became really desperate. We were looking for a class 4 west face, so we headed west of the big tower that was standing just north of us and that we were (and still are) convinced was tower 1. On the way, we found a camera lens, a pretty serious Nikon one. It looks fairly new, but I'll do some research to check how old it might be.
The west side of the tower was very hard looking, so we tried to continue to see if we could reach the gully that would bring us to the notch between tower 1 and tower two. No luck, we were blocked by pretty hard terrain.
Nic scoped out what appeared to be the north-west ridge; it was looking not too bad and he decided to give it a try. The pitch was maybe 60 meters long, with the crux being pretty far low and consisting in a very precarious crack, which was dirty and surrounded by not-so-solid rock. Nic elected to downclimb few feet and do a very sketchy traverse to the left, then continue up to easier terrain. He belayed me from a very solid tree, about 30 or 40 feet higher than the notch.
I followed and as usual was astonished by Nic's competence as a climber. Every move seemed difficult and precarious and Nic made it look extremely easy. I would rate that pitch 5.7, but being there and leading that pitch without knowing anything about it is a very bold statement for me.
From the point where Nic belayed me, we had one more pitch to go. We decided to pursue a seemingly straightforward slab system to a hidden corner that would hopefully bring us to the summit. I was very relieved when Nic got to the part we could not see and said "I think we are good". Again, another tough pitch for me.
The initial part featured some pretty steep slab with dirt on it, but then a double-crack system eased the rest of the climb.
At the summit, we found another cairn, but again no register. If what we climbed was really Tower 1, then I think we climbed an "unclaimed" route (I am very careful not to say "first ascent", since the route from where we were seemed to be a pretty obvious choice for a savvy climber).
We spent a lot of time debating how to get down. Eventually we decided to use a tree and do a single rappel to the notch north of the pinnacle, between tower 1 and tower 2.
It took a very long time to set up the rap, mostly because we wanted to prevent rope drag. On top of that, I was being pretty paranoid about that rappel, maybe because I was very tired. I rappelled first and was faced with a monster knot about half way down; time was ticking fast and everything was taking very long.
The rappel barely reached the ground with two 70's. I guarantee that there isn't a class 4 route on that pinnacle: where were we? Is the description really so off? Or could we miss an "obvious" class 4 and climb a much harder route instead? All good questions that I'd love to answer one day.
After Nic came down we started to pull the rope. Yes, it happened. The rope was completely stuck. Rats.
We tried to go as far out as possible, but the rope kept being trapped. At some point I started wiggling the other rope and Nic pulled with his entire strenght and I could feel my end of the rope moving by less than one inch, but there was some movement indeed. We joined forces and we started pulling with everything we had. The rope eventually came down, but that was a pretty scary moment.
It was getting late, it was already 3pm by this time. Nic proposed to climb as many pinnacles as possible, then bivvy and complete the hike the following morning.
That sounded appealing and became the plan of record for the next three hours.
Once again, we tried to match the description of tower number 2. There was supposed to be a class 4 going up the east face: how tough would it be to find a class 4 route when all the rest is class 5? The east-facing gully we climbed split about half way up. We stopped at the split and I suggested to head right, since it appeared to be much easier, then I was confident we would find some sort of way up. Nic was pretty convinced that the class 4 gully was the impossible-looking left fork. Seriously, that looked scary loose stuff and I talked to Nic into going to the right. We did so, overcoming a small class 5 section for which I requested a belay and got shut down once again. There was definitely no fourth class we could see from the notch. Damn it!
I read the description again and there was supposed to be a north-western route via another chimney; with our hopes pretty high we descended from the notch heading west and shortly after Nic shouted "I think I found the route, yes, this looks like it". I am serious when I say that only Nic could think that route could go as class 4, it looked much, much, much harder to me. But Nic decided to give it a try, warning that he is "slow" when it gets to chimneys.
Weather was starting to deteriorate and we could see heavy rain in most of the high Sierras and in the monarch divide, just few miles north. My hope was that being fairly low in elevation (7700 feet) we would be spared. That proved to be almost true; we got maybe 15 minutes of light rain, just enough to make me pretty cold.
When Nic leads a route I gauge the difficulty of the pitch by the speed that he is moving; it took Nic a considerable amount of time just to climb the first 30 feet and I knew I was not going to like that pitch. After 40 or 50 feet the route was getting spicier and spicier and Nic asked me few times to watch him on some precarious moves.
On top of that, rain was picking up. Nic had still maybe 30 or 40 feet to complete the pitch, but I wasn't even sure I could follow it (seriously!). I suggested him to come down, so he left a sling behind a I lowered him.
Things seemed pretty straightforward, no? No. When he got back to the belay, I untied and we pulled the ropes; one of them was stuck. Nic tried over and over again to free it, but with no success. This was getting very frustrating.
Below the belay there was a gully with a large chockstone that created a mini-cavern; Nic suggested to rappel there so we could get some relief from the rain. I rappelled down there after pulling the first rope (this was before we discovered the second rope was stuck). After few minutes of me being in the "cavern" and Nic trying to pull the rope, he decided to climb the route again. That very same crappy pitch. I felt incredibly bad and guilty that my friend had to go over that dicey climb again, this time wet. Also, this time he would have to downclimb it!
It took Nic maybe 30 minutes to retrieve the stucked rope and go back to the belay station. At that point the rain stopped and it was time for me to rejoin in. Only one problem: the spot were I was had a cliff in front of me and walls on every side; going back to our belay involved climbing far beyond my abilities. I tried some moves climbing on top of a dead trees and decided to gain every possible inch. My climbing strategy was to do one move and ask Nic to take, then take a break and keep climbing. In less than 10 minutes, I was back to the belay point. Phew!
We looked at the improbable route Nic just climbed, at tower number 3 and at the extra brushy terrain east and west of the Grand Dike and we both agreed we had enough.
The rock quality was not as good as we hoped, all the descriptions made no sense and there was no easy way to traverse the dike. We were demoralized and we lost interest in pursuing the full traverse. On top of it, Nic ran out of water, which really removed the bivvy option.
Somehow we thought that a push to the car was not going to be so bad and then we could relax, so we went for it.
We descended one gully north of our ascent gully. We were pretty bullish about our choice, because the first 500 feet or so were pretty much free of vegetation.
We kept bragging how much better this was than the way up and how awesome it would be to sleep in our sleeping bags at the car.
But that was wishful thinking; soon the gully turned into a creek bed and the decomposing granite became wet and slick. Soon after that, the worst vegetation I've ever hiked through materialized. My legs hurt to an insane amount due to all the micro-cuts I got on the buckthorn and various trees and every inch of that route was just plain torture. In comparison the bushwhacking we did the week before in Ventana wilderness to reach Uncle Sam mountain seemed like walking on a golf course.
Nic never complained, not a single moment and his positive attitude greatly helped the pretty desperate situation. The progress was almost zero; I'm pretty sure we moved 100 feet in about 30 minutes.
I inspected the GPS and suggested that traversing 300 feet right would take us to our ascent route; we tried, but what we saw was more of the same. I have clear recollection of walking on top of manzanita and other brushes and being 3 feet off the ground. At some point I was balancing on some flimsy branches and was literally suspended by some weak brushes when I broke through my "support"; the scraches on top of my already injured legs were almost unbearable.
At some point I remember moving a branch to see what was behind and the branch slipped from my hand slamming my face. I don't know what gave us the strength to continue, but suddenly the thick vegetation ceased and we were soon retracing our steps up. I could not believe it. It was almost midnight.
Down at grizzly creek Nic refilled water and shortly after we took a good break where Nic offered me some of his food, claiming to be the payback for the water
I shared with him when he ran out. As usual, I survived a 100 degree day drinking little more than a liter, but I must force myself to drink more during these outings.
Anyway, navigating with no moon and with pitch dark proved to slow us down quite a bit and retracing our steps took longer than it took to hike up in the morning.
We were at the car by 2.50 am, making it a nearly 21-hour day. We crashed within minutes at the deer cove trailhead and woke up at around 8.45 am.
Nic later informed me that I passed out nearly instantaneously, while he had a misadventure with ants crowling all over his body as soon as he lied on the pad.
In retrospect I am glad we got to check out the Grand Dike. As a Sierra lover, I am very attracted by off-the-beaten patch, unknown objectives and all the monarch
wilderness seem to receive far fewer visits than the average Sierras. Going through wild bushwhacking with nearly zero beta on the climbs made me feel like one of the
early pioneers of the Sierras.
There are still many obscure rocks and formations in Kings canyon, but I can take only that much beating once a year, so i think I exausted my quota for 2015. Maybe next year...