Getting Schooled on University Peak

The big male hopped up the branches of the pine tree, hiding in the sun as his puffed and swelled with each call to his harem scattered in the Manzanita. His tail fanned wide as he eluded our cameras, and we finally shrugged and turned up the Onion Valley trail, his thwump echoing behind us. Snowshoes tucked under the topper of my pack looked a bit ridiculous against the bare ground over which we hiked, but the upper, north-facing slopes on the ridges above Gilbert Lake held just enough snow to make things, well, interesting. As Bob Huey tanked up below Flower Lake, I took three steps up to my knees, punching through the crust, and I threw my pack down in mock disgust. The crampons on the rails bit into the steep slope as we traversed the ridge to Bench Lake.

The sun shone warmly against the light crust, a few sweeps of new snow from the most recent storm huddled in the shade of golden snags. We laughed at our good fortune, once again, with the amazing weather and warmth of the early spring season. Hell, early spring: we never did have a winter. The terrain abruptly changed at Bench Lake, where colors became limited to a chosen few: the white of the snow; the grey granite; brownish sand and scree; an azure sky. Above us towered the great north face of University Peak, its cliff bands on high dark and foreboding. But along the solid edge of Bench Lake, we skipped and stepped our way lightly, smiling in the sun and soaking in the grand arena.

At the base of the chute, we paused upon a great nap boulder to change into crampons and rack the snowshoes. I chomped down a Gu and string cheese, a handful of trail mix as I grinned stupidly at the snow above us. There is just something about this sort of work that makes me dumb with happiness. Huey crossed the snowfield as I threw my gear back in my pack and slowly, solidly, we began picking our way up the mountain.

There is a rhythm to walking in crampons, a little extra swing at the front end of my step to set the points. A gentle lean forward lifts the boot out from behind me, freeing it to be lifted up and forward into the steep slope. I try to keep the weight in my feet, not in the pole or axe, my back staying tall. I struggle, however, with the rest step. I don’t know if it’s excitement, drive, or a deep-seeded desire to move swiftly up the face, but even when following Bob’s perfect cadence, I would find myself moving faster and faster, then having to stop and catch my breath.

But, oh: the chance to turn and gaze across the broadening skyline as we crept up the chute. The slashes of the Kearsarge Pass trail outlined with a touch of snow against the golden sands; Dragon Peak’s blackened, crumbling rock; the stripes on the peaklet between Gould and Rixford; snow filling the Kearsarge Lakes and the bowl on the east face of Mt. Bago; the dark trees lining Bubbs Creek; the Palisades pale and just a trace darker blue in distant haze; and the clouds low in the Central Valley beyond the mountains. I felt the same love and joy last fall from my perch on the opposite wall below the summit of Gould, 5 weeks after my knee surgery. I was home in these heights!

Bob and I topped into the rocky reaches beneath the summit ridge, and, still in our crampons, carefully stepped and scrambled our way to the sand. Third class ledges and fins stacked neatly above us; occasional dykes and cracks reached skyward through the slabs. Nervously, I stepped into the crack system Bob had ascended, searched for an undercling and an opposing outward pull, jamming my boots into the granite. Half way up, hyperventilating from fear, I forced myself to stop and just stand on my feet. “Breathe, Molnar. Dammit, BREATHE.” I yelled at myself, feeling the weight of rope, axe, crampons, snowshoes, trekking poles, and other assorted gear in my pack. I pieced together the final moves, declining Bob’s outstretched hand for fear of pulling him off if I lost my balance.

At long last, the ridge, broken and soft, was within reach, the pinnacle to our right looking sketchy with snow and ice packed between the boulders through which we might scramble. I gave the conditions a hard look: it’s always a bit disappointing to be turned around so close and after so much work, but today was not the day to stand on the summit. Instead, Bob and I shot a few pictures into Center Basin and to Forester Pass, and ate lunch above the steep snowfield between us, and the notch to descend to Robinson Lake.

We had the rope and a few pieces of gear, so we opted to practice some traversing, placing gear, and setting anchors for the climb across the snow to the notch. I led out, the bowline on a coil around my waist as I kicked into the soft snow. On the other side, I found a solid pinch between two boulders which served as another sling anchor, and I worked the rope through the Munter hitch to belay Bob across. It would be our last smiles for some time that afternoon.

The snow slope plunged to the cirque beneath University Pass, but the snow was rotten and crusted. While postholing is a sad hobby of mine, to dive unexpectedly against a rock face and pitch forward into snow through which my axe cut like butter was less than comforting. Grudgingly, I turned into the slope and started the long haul downclimbing the chute. Bob and I both sank repeatedly to our hips, and would be forced to swim and crawl to the surface, only to sink yet again. In agony, we reached the sand of the lower slopes, and looked back up at our track while shaking our heads.

With one final drop to Robinson Lake on the snowshoes, we were at last on trail again, winding amongst the willows and searching for cairns below the moraines of Independence Peak. Even Bob had stopped chatting for a while as we both focused soundly on the beer back at the car. With a final few steps down the switchers, through the aspen, and across the logs, we emerged into the Onion Valley campground.

Our smiles belied the hardship of the past few hours, and we clinked bottles to celebrate yet another grand adventure, the sun shining far across the Valley as we cruised down the winding road.

After a great party with the SCMA folks on Saturday night, I stretched my legs up to Lone Pine Lake with my friend Miguel on Sunday, then plunked down on the patio of The Store for my first burger of the year.

Yup, it’s good to be home.

From the luckiest girl in the world:

Climb Hard, Be Safe.



One Response to “Getting Schooled on University Peak”

  1. David (CaT) Says:


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