Jul 1, 2011
I am collecting beta for this route from various sources.
This first beta/TR is from rockclimbing.com user Inominato-- thanks very much. Its original location is here: www.rockclimbing.com/cgi-bin/forum/gforum.cgi?post=1684158;s>>>
OK: Here's the approach beta...
Drive up Hwy 168 out of Bishop, as if headed to the Buttermilks. Continue past that turn-off, pass through Aspendell, then take a right turn at the North Lake Trailhead sign. Don't park here, but continue up the dirt road (narrow) on switchbacks for roughly 5 miles, pass a day-use parking sign, then turn into the lot at the right that says "Trailhead" and "Bishop Mule Packers". You can leave your car here. Also, you need a wilderness permit, free down at the Inyo National Forest Ranger Station in town across (roughly) from Schatz Bakery, if you'll be spending the night. Those guys have maps too.
Head up the road into the campground, then follow the signs for the Lamarck Lakes. Up this a mile or two, then left at the first junction again to the Lamarck Lakes--not right to Piute Pass.
At a 2nd junction go right to the Lamarck Lakes, not left to Cross Lake. Hit the lower Lamarck Lake, then stay left, heading for Upper Lamarck, passing through a narrow canyon between the two lakes.
The trail to Lamarck Col from upper Lamarck is not very well-marked, and I missed it on the way in. If you see some mule packers up there, ask them for beta. Essentially, once Upper Lamarck is in sight, you want to stay slightly left of the lake, looking for the most beaten path. It sort of took off from a small, dried-up tarn as I recall, contouring left around a depression then heading steeply uphill. If you end up contouring right around the lake, you'll hit the Lamarck Col trail much higher on, but you'll have to do a bunch of miserable, sandy scrambling to get there (no fun). Though it looks like a nice ramp/bench leads southwest to the col, don't get suckered in. You more or less want to find this mule-packer/climber trail, which heads more leftward and *up* from the lake, flat at first, then up a steep, slidey hill, and onto a higher, slightly hidden southwest -trending ramp that leads to the col as well, as this has a trail the whole way and is just slogging on sand. If you're in luck, it might be cairned down low. The trail will take you into a large sort of gulch between many peaks, then up to the col proper at 12,900 feet. There was a small snowfield here, but you can go around it or steps are usually kicked in. I didn't need an axe--in August.
Descend from the col, mostly boulder-hopping and sand, and make note of any landmark rock-spires at the col, as, on the way out, it's hard to pick out the col itself from the Darwin Canyon side and the trail is informal (?) at best. There are 5 lakes in Darwin Canyon, and the descent drops you off near the fifth, or highest lake. Continue down Darwin Canyon, headed for the Darwin Bench (marked on the topo maps, I think) at around 11,300 feet. You'll be looking at the back side of the stretch of Evolution between Darwin and Haeckel from the col--very beautiful. Anyway, down the canyon (45 minutes, an hour?), and once you hit a wide alpine bench below the last big lake, trend leftish and make camp near a small pond at the toe of the first, unnamed peak on the traverse. I found a decent boulder-bivy-cave here about 300 feet south of this tarn, where you can get water. The traverse is essentially a big J, and you're camping at the top of the letter J, if that makes any sense.
From here, Croft's book is a great reference (it looks like I stopped taking notes--too busy being gripped). Like he says in the book, the route is almost always dead-true to the ridge the whole way, and dropping down more than 100-200 feet usually means you're off route.
The first peak is right above camp. It's named for its altitude, something like peak 13,289 or something. It's mostly 3rd and 4th class following the easiest path. I stayed right of the big cleft dividing the face and had to do some weird downclimbing at the top of the cleft to get back on the ridge and some fifth class I probably could have walked around, but it was dark. I think Croft recommends following the cleft. From there, you summit the peak (4th class), staying on the ridge, then drop down, heading eastish. As I recall, a little snowfield between this and the next peak--the first named one--had a litttle trickle, which I drank from without treating it. As you move toward this peak, named after one of those evolutionists, you'll hit one gendarme. I went straight up and over it, as it was dark and I didn't know what the hell I was doing. Bad beta.
Croft says to go either right or left around the thing, not losing much elevation at all--follow his beta. Maybe this is Mount Mendel, or Huxley, or ... I can't remember. Fuggit.
From here, you encounter the first crux section, which is the long (3/4-mile) stretch of ridge leading to Mount Darwin, the high point of the route at around 13,800 feet. I had a buddy that did this in two days, and he and his partner bivied atop Darwin--big enough to land an airplane, and flat, but I don't know about water. Navigating along the ridge, weaving in and out of gendarmes, about 2/3 of the way along you'll cliff out. Either rappel here (slings around a horn) or downclimb a 5.8/5.9 chimney that becomes a hand/fist crack at the bottom. It has good face holds and is on nice rock--about 60 feet long. I lowered my pack down it, then downclimbed. From here more navigating gets you atop Darwin. Walk across the big plateau, bust a 5.6 mantle onto the summit block at the very far left corner of the plateau, sign the register, then back down.
I though the real crux was getting off of Darwin. Croft recommends coming off the summit fairly close (i.e.20-30 feet) to the ridge, on its right side, down a pretty nasty looking offwidth full of big ol' blocks. You could also rappel here with some ingenuity, I imagine. Probably a 150-foot rap.
I went about 150 feet right from the ridge, dropped into a sandy bowl that looked like third class but cliffed out at the bottom into decomposing 5.9 downclmbing (80 feet), and down these horrible rotten, slabby corners, w/o much hope of a decent anchor, as it's a big bowl where all the eroded crap off the summit seems to accumulate. This didn't really seem like the way to go. If I went back, I'd probably just rappel closer to the ridge, on the better rock (150 feet?).
From here is the best part of the ridge, headed toward Mount Haeckel--it's the section of the ridge where you always see the photos, and just the wildest, with spires, spikes, gendarmes, ledges, hanging daggers, crazy geology--but great rock. The best part is a little pyramid hump about halfway along, which you can move across the face (on the right) then bearhug down the knife-edge to descend (5.7). Another section farther along, a traverse across some grey slabs on the right side of the ridge, struck me as the most exposed part, but only about 5.5 and on good rock. Just stay on or very near the crest throughout this entire section, and you'll be on route. The nasty gulleys below the ridge don't really beckon anyway. I imagine, however, that if weather moved in, you could follow any one of a number of these west into the Evolution Basin to escape.
After a little sub-peak, the ridge reverts to Class III. From here, I dropped down about 500 feet to a lake below Haeckel to chill out a bit and refill my Camelbak. It was the closest large water source I could find to any section of the ridge (if you go earlier in the year, there's probably plenty of snow to melt or drink drainage water off of higher up on the ridge). Back up to the ridge, up the absolutely classic north ridge of Haeckel (Class IV, bullet granite), then over and south. From here the peaks follow a predictable pattern--steep on the up, gradual on the down, which is nice on the knees.
Past Haeckel you hit one more peak on your voyage south, then hang a right, starting the arc of the J--some sort of loosish terrain follows. and you have about three or four peaks left. I stopped at the toe of one of these, actually coming down off the ridge a bit, to melt snow for water, but it was a very hot day when I was up there. With proper planning, the water you get at Haeckel should see you through to the end. Most of these peaks are in the 5.4-5.5 range heading up, with good white granite, then nice third-class on the way down.
The final peak is a bit of a bear. Croft puts it well in his book, saying an older guidebook posited a Class III route up the south ridge but that he couldn't find anything easier than 5.6. I didn't either. You basically stay on the ridge, climb some slabs, then hook right onto the peak's east face and climb exposed 5.5-5.6 for 200 feet up onto a bench full of Huge Boulders. Walk the bench to the summit. Voila! Total exhaustion.
Walk a bit north from this summit, then hook back into a broad, obvious colouir, which you follow all the way down into Evolution Basin (you can see the John Muir Trail from here). Head across some tundra to the trail, then bang a right and head down valley. After roughly three miles and passing the Evolution Lakes, you'll begin to hear the stream rushing down off the Darwin Bench. An unsigned (as I recall) trail right in the vicinity of this stream takes you back up about 500 vertical feet to the tarn where you've camped, at the toe of the ridge. If you stay on the John Muir Trail and start losing serious elevation, you've missed the cut-off.
All in all, this ridge is hardest in its first 2/3, with lots of 4th and lower 5th class, and those two noticeable cruxes. The rock is the best of any alpine ridge I've done, and if you were simul-climbing with a partner, or pitching it out, the opportunities for protection seem reasonable and abundant. The key, again, is that you rarely, if ever, leave the crest of the ridge. And therein lies the beauty of the route, too.