Thunderstorm season is in full swing in the eastern Sierra and many a climbing plan has been squashed, so I didn't feel too bad being one of the casualties. With the inclement weather I decided to choose a route with a relatively easy approach. With its gentle gain, something around Bishop Pass was an obvious candidate. I had Winchell's E Arete on my to do list, but the approach from Glacier Lodge didn't sound overly appealing and the more technical western side routes were a bit more to my liking. I also figured that I could possibly traverse over to Agassiz.
I headed out at 7:30a under mostly sunny skies and made it to the top of the pass in under two hours where I encountered a helicopter dropping off supplies. It didn't occur to me that the search for a missing climber on Mt Goode was still ongoing, but I suspected that they were looking for someone. I was glad to have my mp3 player to block out the drone of the circling helicopters given that I would be soloing. On the way up I scouted out possible breaks in the ridge before the pass in case I had to downclimb one of the eastern routes.
I had a somewhat vague description of the SW chute of Winchell from Secor, which rated the route class 4-5. That led me to ponder the obvious question of "5.what"? The description noted several class 4 variations, so I figured that I would have bail out options if the answer turned out to be "5.9+". I contoured around the base of Agassiz, noting how jagged the ridge from Winchell appeared. From below a traverse looked out of the question, but it was difficult to know for certain without closer investigation.
I identified what looked like the SW Chute from Secor's route drawing and headed up through a break in the lower cliff band, which appeared to lie directly below the route. Once through the break I saw an obvious chute flanked on each side by aretes. The rock looked solid, but vertical, on the left hand side of the chute and easier, but loose and lichen covered on the right. I chose the the left for obvious reasons. The clouds were starting to thicken over the Palisades and surrounding valleys, but for now they were continuing to move east. I kept a watchful eye on the weather, knowing that easy class 5 wasn't as much fun when you're downclimbing it in the rain.
The chute appeared to top out so I headed right to get a better assessment of my location, only to find that I was one chute over. My options were to continue on the arete or to drop down into the SW Chute proper. After noting a very large gap in the arete formed by a huge overhanging boulder it seemed that it would be best to drop down into the chute. By this time clouds had started collecting over the range and I could see a downpour in the range to the west. I probably had time to summit, but neither the prospect of downclimbing the route in approach shoes in the rain nor heading down the E Arete and getting all the way back over to the Bishop Pass trail didn't seem too desirable.
Not wanting to end up as the next SAR target I decided to cut my losses and head down. After some deliberation I decided to head back down the same chute I came up. Initially I tried to check out the easier class 4 rock, but after experiencing one disintegrating foothold and one detached handhold I headed back over to the more solid class 5 rock that I had ascended. At the base of the chute I consulted my Secor description and noticed that I had taken the Roper/Waddell variation, which was incorrectly depicted in the route diagram. I wondered if they too had "accidentally" discovered the variation.
By the time I got back to the top of Bishop Pass I was not regretting my decision; Dusy Basin was socked in with thunderheads and I could feel rain drops. On the way down the trail I ran into one of the SAR guys from Lone Pine. He was looking a bit haggard so I offered to shuttle his pack down, but he politely declined. I hiked with him for a while, discussing his volunteer work. They were already on day 9 of the search with 3 helicopters and 30+ rescuers. I wondered who dictates how long a search lasts and whether the can the family call if off if the chances are it is only a body recovery operation. I would rather leave my remains in the backcountry than be buried in a box under a lawn. I decided that I should probably discuss this with my mom (who is probably stalking my blog) just in case. By the time I reached the South Lake the storm was all the way down to Hurd.
That night I emailed my friend Chris, as he was the only person in summitpost to have registered as climbing the SW Chute. He gave the route stellar reviews, but noted that the top section felt dicey, especially the exposed arete. I hope to be back after the t-storm season dies down, armed with climbing shoes.