The Sierra Nevada, which I once considered my home range, had been neglected for over a year since moving to Arizona. I made promises to myself that I would make the long drive for the weekend at least a couple times a year, but in exploring my new state, I had not made it back to the Range of Light. So naturally, when I was in Mammoth Lakes over a long weekend for some wedding planning, I wanted to get some climbing in. The original plan was Yosemite and an ascent of Mount Gibbs, but Holly and I were chased down by lightning just 200′ below the summit. So the following day, when we had an open window between meeting with our wedding coordinator and our officiant, I jumped at the opportunity to climb Crystal Crag, the center piece of Mammoth Lakes basin towering above Lake Mary and Lake George. Unlike the loose volcanic rock in the rest of the Mammoth Lakes area, Crystal Crag is solid granite, and considered to have some of the best climbing in the area. I had read a trip report online suggesting that it could be climbed in 3-4 hours, so I set a goal of 1:30 to the top and set out on the trail from the Lake George parking area. The trail was packed on the holiday weekend, and I was constantly dodging slow families hiking to the popular Crystal Lake. Although partially in trees, Crystal Crag was in view most of the way, and it didn’t seem possible to do in so short of a time.
I made it to Crystal Lake in about 20 minutes and crossed the outlet, continuing towards the base of Crystal Crag. A decent use trail continued to the start of the North Arete, the prime rock climbing route rated 5.7. There were at least 3 parties making their way to the summit. I had originally planned to hike directly to the base, then skirt the west side looking for a path up. That is until I heard someone scream “ROCK!” followed a few seconds later by: “FUCK…… YOU GOT ME IN THE ANKLE!” I decided to give the crag a bit wider of a margin near the climbers…
The easiest route to the summit utilizes a series of class III slabs along the south ridge, and I followed a climbers trail in that direction. The trail veered into a steep gully going up the crag that looked like it was probably the preferred route up.
I started climbing, and was impressed by the stiffness of the class III, not a great route for beginners. About halfway up, I realized I wasn’t on the south ridge but climbing the West Face directly, rated class III-IV. But the granite was quite solid and I was pleased with my mistake, picking from any number of lines up to the summit ridge, which resulted in a narrow traverse along the ridge to the highest boulder.
I checked my watch- 52 minutes from the trailhead. Even better then I could have hoped. The views were fantastic, across Mammoth Lakes basin, the backside of Mammoth Mountain and Ritter, Banner and the Minarets. Mammoth Crest dominated the views to the south and east, with limited views of the Sherman Range beyond. Having made such good time, I spent a while at the summit taking photos and eating a late lunch. I tried to get a picture of the giant quartz monolith to the north for which the crag is named, but the traverse over looked spicy and I decided it wasn’t worth it unroped.
I wanted to try and find the easier route down the south ridge in case I wanted to bring others on this climb, and traversed down the ridgeline, trying to stay true to the ridge to keep it sporting. Whenever I encountered too much difficulty, I dropped to easier benches on the east side. I was nearly to the saddle on the south ridge when I encountered an unexpected impasse- some class 5 downclimbing to continue along the ridgeline off the southern most tower. I walked back to a shallow saddle (which summitpost dubs the “main saddle”) and looked down both the west and east couloirs.
Both were incredibly loose and sandy, and looked like they would make very unpleasant descents compared to the solid granite I had been playing on up until that point. Since I wanted get back to the lake anyways, I initally tried the west couloir, but backed off since I couldn’t see far down and was worried I would get cliffed out. I climbed back to the main saddle and looked down east side. It was difficult to see beyond the first few moves, but I know this couloir had been climbed in other trip reports and would at the very least work. I slowly worked down the sandy slopes, sliding in spots, ultimately emerging in a sandy talus fan at the base. I tried to find the way past the southern tower by looking up below but couldn’t quite see what would work. After researching the route a bit more at home, it would seem that staying true to the ridge was indeed low class V (mountainproject), and there was a class III-IV ledge around the south tower that I had missed. Route finding is not trivial on this one. Hiking up and over the saddle to the south, I dropped down the sandy ledges back to Crystal Lake then hustled down the trail to meet Holly, taking an hour and a half to descend due to the routefinding difficulties (50% longer than the ascent). Finding the easier South Ridge route will have to wait until next time…