Del Norte High Point Trip Report

Bear Mountain - "The Chutes of Del Norte" (6,400+ ft)

Date: July 6, 2002
Author: Adam Helman

For the incognoscenti, Del Norte is the most northwestern of California's counties - tucked neatly just underneath Oregon along the Pacific coast. Bear Mountain is the county highpoint - and is a 16 mile hike with a 4,500 ft total elevation gain. Class 2 or 3 depending upon the exact route.

Ken Jones' road directions are right on target, while, in contrast, Suttle's road directions are misleading to say the least.

I began from the Doe Flats trailhead at 6:42 AM and, by 10 AM, had both hiked 2.5 miles down 800 vertical ft to the trail junction leading to the Devil's Punchbowl (see below), and ascended the steep switchbacks to the little lake immediately to its north.

The crux of this climb is going from the Devil's Punchbowl (a beautiful turquoise lake on the north side of the mountain) up any of several talus-filled chutes that top out on a ridge leading northwest from the summit proper. Each chute is some 1,400 ft in vertical extent and have slopes ranging from 30 to 45 degrees. They are separated by impassible cliff formations.

The talus is loose and makes for difficult passage since they are neither boulder-sized (whence they would not budge under your motion), nor pebble-size (whence it is not possible to twist an ankle by stumbling on one).

Gary Suttle's book calls for climbing the broadest chute located closest to the summit. Heeding his advice and starting at 10 AM from the lake, I advanced perhaps halfway up the chute until I encountered hard, crusty snow that blocked the entire width of the chute (some twenty feet at that point) from cliff wall to cliff wall.

Remarkably, the snow was shaped like a concavity, with some 2-3 feet of air underneath it - the lowest parts having melted away next to the ground.

I squirmed UNDER the snow, hauling my daypack alongside me since I would not fit inside while wearing it. On popping out on the upslope side of the snow (there was a one foot opening that barely admitted passage), the rock face was seventy degrees, had no handholds, and was continually slick from meltwater thanks to a snowfield higher still.

This was extraordinarily dangerous: I bailed. Then I tried my ice axe on the snow itself - but without crampons (who would believe HARD snow in July at just 6,000 ft?? hence they were back at my car), my boots could not get any purchase on the snow.

Oh, I suppose that I could have chopped steps in the ice with my axe, and do so for the short distance of 30 feet. I decided against that since there were more snowfields above and I had **no idea** how long that would really take. So I bailed again.

I reluctantly headed downslope to nearly the lake's level, then cautiously traversed to the NEXT chute to the northwest and reattempted the climb. The talus was mixed with foliage and made for slow rate progress. It was also heating up considerably since by now it was past 11 AM - and I was drinking water voraciously to retain complete physical stamina.

An hour later and some 1,000 vertical feet above the lake I encountered a chute-choking mass of hard snow that effectively blocked passage in this second chute.

However the adjoining rock was class 3 and I felt like giving it a try since there appeared to be good handholds. Those handholds disappeared after some 30-40 feet and I was left nearly stranded on a route that I could get up (albeit with great risk and considerable handstretching) ... but in-no-way could I get down safely without something drastic like throwing down my pack first to allow for additional mobility. It was dicey to say the least since I was solo and since I had no protection.

I continued with two realizations:

1) Should I fail it would mean an end to my California bid until a return trip in the Fall (possibly in the presence of Edward Earl and Andy Martin who also "needs" Del Norte for a CA state completion).

2) Once on the summit boulder I would have a bird's eye view of all potentia descent routes - so allowing me to select the one with the greatest chance of passage.

Perhaps 45 minutes later I was on top after a 1/2 mile slog through deadfall and shrubbery along the northwest ridge. It was 1 PM.

I hollered at the top of my lungs "eeeeeaaaaaaaawwwwwww" to let a camper / swimmer at the lake know of my success (we had prearranged this on my leaving the lake three hours previously). She responded with "helllooooooooo" some five seconds later [recall the time for sound to travel twice the diagonal distance of some 1,600 feet vertically and horizontally]. I responded in kind.

Boy this beats a 9-5 job!!

The Trinity Alps were visible to the southeast ... while Mt Shasta (14,162 ft) shone as a snowy white beacon to the east. The jewel-like glacial-borne Devil's Punchbowl was immediately at hand some half-mile diagonally downward.

So is described this nearly cloudless day in the rough, subalpine wildnerness of our National Forest lands.

After an abbreviated lunch of sardines in olive oil on pita bread (the oil dripped on my trousers and a fly got stuck in the oil-laden tin itself), I visually selected the THIRD chute to the northwest as the one least likely to cause difficulty. I then verified this with my topo map: no hidden cliff formations apparent that could blockmy descent. If cliffs became a problem, I was prepared to ascend subpeak 6,214 further northwest and proceed directly down its northeast flank.

Of the three chutes traveled on this climb, this third chute is the least steep. It may be identified as the one that tops out on the ridge just where the latter begins to climb in a concerted manner towards subpeak 6,214.

Unfortunately ascent by this third chute results in the greatest horizontal ridge walking southeast towards the summit area. In doing so it is best to keep as close to the lake as possible to avoid the worst of the deadfall and heavy brush.

I return to the Devil's Punchbowl about 3:45 PM. The lady camper was preparing to swim with her family. She kindly pumped purified water from the lake to refill my empty bottles. I had prehydrated AND had brought a gallon of water for the day.

It turns out that by day's end I had drunk 27 cups of fluid (water, milk, soda pop) - so pointing out both the serious amount of physical effort for this climb AND the heat factor.

I returned to my auto at 6:58 PM confident that the most arduous of the remaining climbs for a CA state completion was behind me - and that, should I succeed on the three counties remaining (Mt Eddy, Brokeoff Mtn, Lassen Pk), I will have earned the title of "California state completer".