North Arete of Crystal Crag

Since I was primarily in Mammoth, I couldn’t leave without climbing Crystal Crag. It’s a mini alpine rock climb — the whole mountain experience packed in half a day. Not to mention the quartzite on top, the so-called “Crystal” in Crystal Crag.

When we got to the trailhead, it took all we had to find a parking spot. It was an absolute zoo, and it was only a Thursday afternoon. But, we were sure we’d have the climbing route to ourselves. It was late in the day.

We started hiking, and we soon got our first clear views of Crystal Crag. It was an imposing, granite tooth jutting out of the Lakes Basin

I snapped a few more photos. Unbeknown to me, I got an awesome shot of some friends of ours climbing the route at the same time.

Notice the climber with the pink helmet at the bottom, the climber with the black hoodie at the top, and the pink rope running between them. Crazy the amount of detail I got with a tiny camera from about 0.5 – 0.75 miles away.

After passing Crystal Lake, we didn’t see anyone for the rest of the day. From there, a short and steep uphill hike through use paths and granite slabs brought us to a boulder field at the base of the North Arete. We hunted around for a bit and found the start, the short chimney.

The chimney start.

We changed into helmets, climbing shoes and harnesses. Then, we racked up. I led into the chimney, which has the crux of the route 20 feet from the ground — an airy move on small footholds. It protected nicely with a #3 Camelot and a Blue Totem.

I stretched the remaining pitch almost the entire length of my 70m rope. I only placed 3 more pieces after the chimney. The climbing was only low fifth class, and that kept rope drag to a minimum. I found a nice belay ledge in the perfect spot, and I built a bomber anchor with a rock horn and a cam. I brought Max up.

Belay anchor. Very convenient rock horn and crack.

Then, I continued to lead another pitch. There was another short “crux” here, a small roof that I needed to negotiate. Had I done better route-finding I could have avoided it. But, it was easy to protect.

Afterward, route-finding wasn’t straightforward. I found myself faced with an off-width around the size of a #5 Camalot. I thought of climbing it, but then I backtracked a little bit and found a much easier route. I climbed, with the hardest part being some 5.5 friction moves on airy slabs. Then, I found myself just below the quartz crystals a 35m pitch later. Unfortunately, the rope drag was so bad I had to belay from right there. I built an anchor with two bomber cams and brought Max up.

The second pitch belay anchor, just below the crystal summit.

Now we were by the summit ridgeline. I shortened the rope by half, anticipating we wouldn’t be doing any pitches longer than that. We’d be simul-climbing some too. From our last anchor, it was fourth class to the crystal summit. I didn’t bother placing any pieces. From next to the quartz, I found a perfect boulder to terrain belay on. I brought Max up.

Then, we took the mandatory photos on top of the crystal. Cliché, but iconic.

I led a short 20m pitch from the Crystal. After 10 meters of ridge traversing, there was a short 5-meter downclimb. I protected that for the follower with a #0.5 Camelot and a Blue Totem. That Totem always comes in handy.

While belaying my follower, I heard a buzzing sound. I thought it was a bee, but it got louder. Then, a drone popped over the ridgeline. It circled around, buzzing within 20 feet of us. It was filming us, and it wouldn’t go away. I started off being nice, and I “shooed” it away with my hands. Despite that, it kept on hovering. Finally, I took a stone and tried to take the drone out of the sky. Unfortunately, I missed it. But, it got the message and flew away.

I’d love to meet that drone pilot and give him a piece of my mind, or my fists. The last thing anyone wants is a loud drone illegally flying by you as you’re climbing, disrupting concentration, and invading your privacy. Even when I motioned for it to go away, the asshole pilot kept on hovering by us. The worst part is any idiot with $2,000 to spare can get one of those contraptions. Then, they can use it to annoy people from miles away. The next time I see a drone flying close to me while I’m climbing, I’m going to jump straight to knock it out of the sky.

Alright, ranting over. After the “drone pitch”, we simul-climbed the remaining few dozen meters to the middle summit.

Simul’ing the last portion of the ridge traverse.

The light here was fantastic. I haphazardly handed Max my camera and he took a spectacular photo of me. I haven’t had any decent photos taken of myself in years, so this was a welcome surprise.

Didn’t set the shutter speed fast enough so my left foot is blurry, the only flaw to the photo.

We were a little lazy, and we debated whether to go to the south summit, the highpoint. In the end, we decided to rappel from the rap station and decide from the notch.

The south summit. Photo taken from the rap station.

We rappelled. When we reached the notch, the chute was so inviting that we decided to return to the cars. After all, we already sent the climb — why go to the true summit? That was our excuse, but I know I’ll need to return to send it for real one of these days.

The rappel. Could be downclimbed easily as well, seems to be 5.easy. Could be done with a 50m rope too to reach the 3rd class.

The descent was on sketchy loose scree and boulders, with some class 3 down-climbing on teetering blocks. It didn’t take more than 20 minutes or so, which was extraordinary. It’s a mini Sierra alpine climb in all respects — including a sketchy, loose descent!

After that, we followed a well-worn use trail to Crystal Lake. From there, a wide highway of a trail brought us to our cars at Lake George. I met a few other climbers in the lot. They asked for some beta. I provided, and then we drove back to Mammoth Lakes.

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