Thursday, June 26, 2014

Sierra Solo 3: The Palisades

The day after climbing the Tenaya-Matthes-Cathedral Linkup I drove down to Mammoth Lakes to meet my friend Jimmy. We hung out at Stellar Brew with his friend Tess and I splurged on a salmon avocado sandwich. Then we walked up to Mammoth Brewing and took advantage of high altitude by getting an afternoon buzz from a flight of tasters. Afterwards I went and sat in the local mountaineering store and thumbed through guide books before wandering back to my car and taking a nap. I woke up hungry and sad. I just wanted to go home. I was in the middle of an amazing week of climbing and rambling around the High Sierra, and all I could do was think about hanging out with my friends in Bend and drinking beer. So I ate a granola bar and called my mom to chat. Ten minutes later I hung up the phone grabbed a burrito with Tess and then hit the road. I needed to get out on my own and away from civilization again.

That night I slept down a dirt road somewhere off 395. I slept amazingly as I hadn't camped below 9,000 feet since the previous Friday. The next morning I drove into Bishop and wandered around for a few hours. I got some water, ate breakfast and drove south through the mounting, oppressive heat of the desert. In Big Pine I drove around in circles a few times before finally finding Glacier Lodge Road and slowly grinding my old truck up to the trailhead for the North Fork of Big Pine Creek, a quick access point to the northern Palisades.

In the parking lot I sorted gear and chatted with a nice, stocky guy with bushy white eyebrows and piercing blue eyes. He introduced himself as Doug and said he had been a climbing guide in the Palisades for years. He gave me in depth beta on my objectives and helped me make some key decisions. I had never been into the Palisades so his help was invaluable given my ambitious plans. After the trip I looked him up. You may have heard of him. His name is Doug Robinson and he wrote a short piece for the 1972 Chouinard Equipment Catalog called "The Whole Natural Art of Protection." He's also done a lot of things in mountains that get described with words like "first" and "fastest," but he just seemed like a friendly guy, stoked on the mountain adventures. The last thing he said to me before driving away was, that he wished he could be there when I came back out, to hear my stories.

I then hiked up the North Fork of Big Pine Creek (which is amazing!) and four hours later I hopped around to a delightful and protected sandy ledge above Sam Mack Meadow, at 12,000 feet. I pitched my tent and went to sleep in one of the most beautiful places imaginable.

The first view of Temple Crag as you hike up the North Fork of Big Pine Creek... pretty impressive.

Temple Crag above Second Lake.

Looking over Second Lake with Temple Crag on the left and the Palisades (North Pal, Starlight, and Thunderbolt) visible on the skyline just above and right of the broad snowy gully.
Home sweet home! The moraine of the Palisade Glacier is getting the final rays of sun on the left. The skyline (L-R) starts with the edge of Sill, V-notch, Polemonium, U-notch, North Pal, Starlight, Underhill Couloir/Notch, Thuderbolt.

Sunset from my window.
My plan was simple, climb the classic Swiss Arete to the summit of Mt. Sill and then traverse the ridge line NW over Polemonium, North Pal, Starlight and Thunderbolt Peak before descending the North Couloir on Thunderbolt. This would allow me to tag five 14,000 foot peaks in a day and do the classic Thunderbolt to Sill Traverse (IV 5.8) in reverse.

Mt. Sill above the Palisade Glacier and its terminal lake. The Swiss Arete follows the left hand ridge on the skyline and cuts across the face.

Eating breakfast on the terminal moraine of the Palisade Glacier. Above me (L-R) is V-notch, Polemonium, U-notch, North Pal, Starlight, Underhill Couloir/Notch, and Thunderbolt. The previous picture of Mt. Sill is taken looking just to the left.
The next morning I took my time. Something was lacking, my mental energy was depleted and I felt a lack of motivation. Physically I felt great, I had slept well, felt energetic and knew I was acclimatized. Despite that, I lacked the excitement and motivation to climb. I strolled up to the edge of the glacier and sat for a while observing the peaks and eating breakfast. It was beautiful but as I looked at the gullies I saw that they were filled with hard, blue ice. After climbing around the Yosemite high country (Conness is ~12,600ft) I had been certain that sun cups and soft neve would fill the gullies, but I had underestimated the "most alpine" sub-range in the Sierra. As a result I had guide tennies, no crampons and a light ice axe. This would make descent mid-traverse difficult and dangerous.

The V-notch and U-notch couloirs on either side of Polemonium Peak. 'Schrunds, rock fall and bare ice are visible.

I looked over at Mt. Sill and begrudgingly decided that I should at least go look at the Swiss Arete. If I climbed that route at least I would feel like I had done something. I hiked part way across the Palisade Glacier then turned around and went towards the Underhill Couloir on a whim. Then I saw a party of two across the glacier headed to the Swiss Arete. In a mad frenzy to talk to other climbers and relieve my soloist's burden I sped back across the glacier and caught them at the bottom of the gully up to the Gayley-Sill pass. It turned out they were two guys from San Francisco and they were moving slowly, taking their time. It's amazing what a short interaction can do to your psyche... here were two guys going to climb the Swiss Arete, an amazing climb. Hadn't I heard from Doug, just yesterday, how fun it was? That he had climbed it 30 plus times and would love to do it again. Why did I doubt myself? I had let ambition get in the way of enjoying being right here, right now, having an adventure. I was so focused on all the climbing I was trying to do, that I had lost sight of the reason for the climbing. Suddenly I knew that I could do it, and more importantly that I could have a good time.

Lookig across the Palisade Glacier at the Gayley-Sill col with Mt. Sill on the right. Can you see the two climbers on the glacier?

Here is a close up of the gully to the Gayley-Sill col. Can you see the two climbers now?
I scrambled up the rock to the base of the L-shaped couloir, then followed footsteps up next to the Swiss Arete but said screw it and jumped on the rock early. I found amazing climbing, just like I knew I would. The crux came fast and passed easily... I love a solid hand jam. My cracked hands bled on the rock but I didn't care. I took a direct finish straight to the summit and hopped around like a little kid exploring every nook and cranny. I spent over an hour on the summit eating, staring at the mountains, taking photos, and basking in the warm sun.

Looking up the Swiss Arete. Blocky crack climbing on solid rock, a lot of fun.

Looking down the Swiss Arete (the jumbled ridge on the right) from the summit of Mt. Sill. The Palisade Glacier is visible on the left with the terminal moraine (where I ate breakfast) and its lake in the upper left.
I saw this view looking south from the summit of Mt. Sill... and then I jizzed in my pants!

Summit selfie on Sill. Looking south.

Summit selfie looking west along the ridge line with Polemonium, North Pal and Starlight (L-R).
I descended down loose rock and sketchy snow to the top of the L-shaped couloir and whooped with joy. I ran down the soft sun cups and scrambled down the gully to the glacier. By 12:30pm I was back at my tent. I packed up and did the familiar boulder-hop walk-jog routine down to the trail. I stopped at Third Lake and swam briefly before retying my shoes and hoofing it down to the car. I took off my shirt, dumped water on my head and drove. My week of soloing was over. I was going home.

Back in the land of flowing water and plants. An erratic boulder right in the middle of the stream on rock benches above Sam Mack Meadow.

Rehydrating beneath the Palisade Glacier with North Pal, Starlight and Thunderbolt (L-R) above.

Sierra Solo pt. 2: Tenaya-Matthes-Cathedral Linkup

The morning after climbing Conness I took my time... eating, napping, eating, walking around, drinking water, drinking more water, using the out house, staring at the mountains. Conness already felt like an easy climb, amazing but fairly boring too, and I was ready for something more. I drove into the park around noon and headed to the Tuolumne Visitor Center. I badgered a poor volunteer with questions, made a couple phone calls, then headed to Lembert Dome. I couldn't resist and scrambled up the NW Corner route before getting promptly lost, sliding down some moss covered slab, and eventually walking the un-enjoyable road back to the car where I traded running shoes for Chacos and a good book and walked over to the river for a couple hours.

That night I dirt-bagged in the back of my car after a big dinner of potatoes and chilli. In the morning I drove to Tenaya Lake and B-lined from the car to the base of Tenaya Peak, a big buttress behind the lake. An intermittent climber's trail gave way to wet slabs, then dry slabs, then easy climbing. I romped up the buttress making terrible time. The problem with climbing in the Sierra is that every time you glance over your shoulder you waste about ten minutes staring and drooling out of your slack jaw. At least I was enjoying myself. About 1:45 after leaving the car I had climbed some 5.6 or 5.7ish lichen covered crack up the final headwall and scrambled over to the summit.

Tenaya Lake from low on the NW Buttress

Looking up the route from where the real climbing starts. "Real climbing" being a relative term on this route.

Looking to the NE at Tuolumne Meadows and the mountains beyond. Sawtooth Ridge is just left of the prominent pass on the horizon.

Looking down on Tenaya Lake from a snowy ledge... it's always nice to get above something like this.

Looking down at the Valley past Half Dome and Mt. Watkins with Cloud's Rest just out of view on the left.
Looking back down the NW Buttress onto Tenaya Lake from the summit.

Another shot of Tuolumne, this time from the summit. You can see Mt. Conness (right most peak on the horizon).

In the distance ahead I could see the dark outline of the Matthes Crest and off to my left the tip of Cathedral Peak nosed over a ridge. A fun little Mountain Project route page under Tenaya Peak had suggested that you use the NW Buttress of Tenaya Peak (which I had just climbed) to access the famous Matthes Crest Traverse (South to North) and then tag the classic SE Buttress on Cathedral Peak during the stroll back to the car. I had never climbed or even been to this area before. I had done some research before hand, however, and decided it was doable. Now I was on the ground and in position, I just had to go and see what the day had in store. That, and try not to waste all the daylight taking pictures.

The imposing fin that is the Matthes Crest. The traverse goes from right to left (S-N) and follows the skyline practically the whole way.

Cathedral Peak from the walk to Matthes. The SE Buttress follows the right hand skyline.
I walk/jogged across the basin behind Tenaya, eating and drinking while I moved. Then I dropped down into the deeper valley west of the Matthes Crest. I tried to keep my breathing in check, moving fast without blowing my load early. From the valley I side-hilled and scrambled over to the base of Matthes. An hour after leaving the summit of Tenaya I was looking up at the first couple pitches. I ate some trail mix and and started up the golden, knob-covered fins.

Golden knob climbing craziness on the first two pitches of Matthes Crest.

The climbing was easy with some minor route finding. The only problem was the grit. Little pieces of decomposed granite sand made a slick coating on some of the knobs and I meticulously brushed them off before using each one. Traversing out left to avoid a steeper section I placed my left foot on a knob. I felt the grit grind beneath my rubber. I started to grind to the side, trying to get the grit off, but the sensation continued. I changed the angle of my shoe and suddenly the knob rolled under my foot. I lifted it away and listened to the former knob bounce down the face. What happened to high quality Sierra granite? Suddenly I felt like I was climbing at Smith Rock... choss and chicken heads! I traverse back right looking for solid knobs, if I could find good rock and get up on the ridge top I would be fine. I saw a solid knob, it looked solid anyway. I reached out to grab it with my right hand... pop! That knob bounced down the face too. "What the fuck?!" I thought. Here I was in Yosemite National Park, on one of the most classic, most famous routes. Every hand and every foot was on these beautiful granite nubbins and they were just rolling out of their sockets like it was free gumball day at Chuck-e-Cheese! I want a refund! This play-place is not safe! Then I remembered, "Oh yeah, this is climbing. You could die. You knew that when you came up here and you came anyway. This is your choice, deal with it." It let my anger trickle out, just enough, focusing my attention. I tested the next knob. It held. I slowly oozed my weight onto it. One knob at a time, then a crack between fins. A shitty hand jam, then the edge of a fin, then a leveling. The ridge crest. My body let out a little shiver. I twisted my neck like a turtle trying to hide in a shell I didn't have.

The view from (relatively) level ground.
I stood there for a few minutes, numbly snapping pictures. "Why not? I'm here right. Might as well take a few photos." I thought about the climbing. Easy, yes. Fun? Not really. Why was I here? I had forgotten. I looked forward along the ridge. It was easy climbing. I thought about descent; there was probably more rap tat further down the ridge, so I continued. Then the climbing was easy, suddenly fun and not even exposed as I walked between large fins. The rock was obviously improving. I thought there must be a reason this route is so highly regarded so I decided to continue as long as I felt like it. Soon after, easy down climbing led to a ledge traverse. On the balls of my feet I scooted along with my arms over my head and a few hundred feet of air beneath me. My stomach clenched but I looked down anyway, comfortable but uncomfortable. The broken knobs weren't forgotten but neither was my enjoyment.

Looking along the ridge at easy ledge scrambling.
I continued along the ridge and nothing was as hard as it looked. It was like the rock version of Casaval Ridge on Shasta, just real climbing instead. I was finding the easy gaps through intimidating rocks in a fun exploration that seemed like it was part of a planned maze, each new space revealing itself to me as I moved. I passed over two other guys rapping off before the South Summit. They said it looked too sketchy, but I was just hitting my stride and their lack of confidence buoyed me up. I knew exactly what I could and couldn't do. Minutes later I stood on the South Summit.

The next tower looks hard but when you get on it, it's easy, not to mention fun.

Looking at the North Summit from the South Summit... at least there are lots of options.
The direct down climb to the notch below the North Summit is called 5.7. I guess I do a lot of down climbing practice but it felt easy to me. I saw it and knew it would go. From the notch I mantled onto a sandy ledge. I looked around before finding the start of the left-leaning diagonal crack (it was behind me), that is the "crux" of the route. I looked at the crack for a minute before finally breaking out my rock shoes for the first time that day. The feet are not good and the moves are strenuous for 5.7 but luckily this part is short and the best quality rock on the route. A mere ten feet later I pulled onto a ledge and scrambled the easy remainder to the North Summit.

Looking back along the Matthes Crest from the North Summit.

I gave a whoop and and took some photos before heading over to look at the down climb. This next section was rated 5.8 but after the last down climb off the South Summit I felt it might be doable. I went down to a rusty piton/bolt stance and considered using it but instead continued. I laybacked off a hand jam (strenuous), and dropped down to a notch. One more committing step-across and that was it, I was done. I started up the next tower but suddenly felt unmotivated and tired of the ridge. I went back to the notch and looked down the west face. I saw some rap tat and easy slabs so I headed down there. I got to the tat and found it to be sun bleached on a hollow flake. I looked down again and made a poor decision... to down climb the rest of the slab. It took me 45 minutes to slowly move down 200 feet of rock. The flakes were thin, hollow, and some moved. The slab was grit covered and decomposing. It reminded me of rolling nubbins. I got to the bottom feeling less-than-stoked about the "classic" Matthes Crest. It was good, bad and everything in between.

Looking back up at the chossy down climb section.

Looking back south at Matthes Crest before I drop down to Budd Lake.
I knew I needed water and a look at the topo map showed the fastest way to Budd Lake was around the right side of Echo Ridge. Unfortunately, not being familiar with the area bit me in the butt and some sketchy glisading followed by wet-slab down climbing got me to Budd Lake later than anticipated. Having seen the north side of Echo Ridge now I would instead go over the high saddle between Echo Peaks and Peak 11,168 (USGS topo).

Looking back up at the convoluted terrain I had to come down to reach Budd Lake.

Budd Lake and Cathedral Peak... time for a drink.

At Budd Lake I looked up at Cathedral's SE Buttress, now imposing and dark in afternoon shade. I considered just heading back to the car but then ran into some National Park Service scientists on the far side of the lake fixing a fishing net. A girl in the group asked if I'd just done Matthes. We got talking and she told me she had already done Cathedral and reassured me that the rock was excellent and the climbing phenomenal. I headed over to at least take a look. Two parties were just retrieving their packs at the base and one of their number was kind enough to show me a topo. I waited til they left, ate a sandwich and put on my rock shoes. It was 5pm. I started climbing, traversing around to find the ideal route up the slab. By the time I passed the belay ledge at the top of pitch two I was absorbed. This was by far the most fun and interesting climbing of the day. I even followed the NPS lady's recommendation and climbed in the chimney despite having a pack on. I topped out on the summit less than an hour later, took some photos, down climbed, scrambled and B-lined for Cathedral Lakes.

Looking up at the SE Buttress of Cathedral Peak.

Relaxing on the ledge right after the chimney pitch. My socks portray a stick figure farting with the words "powered by burritos." Thanks for those TJ, they are pretty awesome!

Looking back on Budd Lake from the summit of Cathedral Peak. The peak's shadow is visible in the lower left.

Looking SW over Eichorn Pinnacle and the Catherdal Lakes from the summit of Cathedral Peak. My car is in the valley yonder and I need to get hiking.

I was elated and so pleased that I had topped my day with this perfect climb. I walk-jogged to the right of Cathedral Lakes in the setting sun and headed down smooth slabs next to cascades of water. I ran through the twilight forest singing Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer and Frosty the Snowman at the top of my lungs to scare away any bears. I hopped the creek and was back at my car at 8:01pm, having left at 9:06am. Almost 11 hours on the go and I even had time to take some pictures! It felt like Christmas, only better.

Looking back up at Tenaya Peak's NW Buttress, my first climb of the day, now illuminated by the setting sun as I run towards the car.

Back at the car and a little out of it. I guess I forgot to smile despite a sense of deep satisfaction.

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Sierra Solo part 1: Conness, West Ridge

I grew up on the east side of the Sierra Nevada mountain range with parents who valued outdoor activity. It's no surprise then, that when I think of summer I remember hiking up through endless glades of aspen, refreshing plunges into clear alpine lakes, and scrambling around on flawless granite under a perfect blue sky. While I love the Northwest, I often find it lacking in this particular flavor of mountain environment.

Desolation Wilderness, one of those places I grew up exploring.
Still, I am an alpinist, drawn to big icy walls and self-knowledge derived from suffering. With a week-long chunk of time in June I was set on going north to Washington, but after a winter of climbing on Oregon's volcanoes my initial plan looked less and less appealing. After looking at side-by-side weather reports for the High Sierra and the North Cascades I could no longer deny the logic or the allure. I gave into my childhood memories. I was going home.

Sawtooth Ridge, the northernmost part of the High Sierra and possibly my favorite part of the range.
I finished work on Thursday and packed the car that night. I awoke and drove. Dad's house for dinner: ribs. I slept like the dead. Was I too tired? Was my body ready? Should I have waited? Rested? Too late...

The next morning my dad and I drove down 395 to Tioga Pass. We found a campsite and then drove into Yosemite National Park. We arrived at the May Lake Trailhead and leisurely strolled up Mt. Hoffman. I took the binoculars and we discussed my plans while I trained my sights on Mt. Conness. I felt both lucky and burdened by my father's support and acceptance. Sometimes you just want to tell everyone to screw off before a big climb, especially a solo. But I also believe that the only way for me to do this sustainably is in balance with the rest of my life. For me that means I need to accept my relationships into my psyche when climbing, not push them away. If I can't achieve inner peace with my whole self while climbing then the experience will be worthless in the end.

Mt. Conness from the summit of Cathedral Peak two days later. The West Ridge is on the left, following the edge of the shaded face.

My dad and I hiking into the Conness Lakes Basin.

The next morning we drove to the Saddlebag Lake Trailhead and hiked around the lake. We started heading up into the Conness Lakes basin before stopping for a snack. I said good-bye to my dad and started a brisk pace up to North Peak Pass. This pass is given a class 2 rating in the Secor Guide but this requires a careful traverse of steep talus from the east. Instead I went the other way around a small tarn and across the glacial moraine before scrambling up a cliff face. This was definitely a pitch of 5th class. I followed slab up a corner until it blanked out and then traversed out a horizontal crack to blocky arete. A high-step foot jam with significant exposure led to easier, albeit vegetated climbing. I then dropped down to Roosevelt Lake and walked around to the base of the West Ridge.

North Peak Pass, it's not class 2 from this angle.
The base of the West Ridge on Conness. Can you see the two climbers on the face?
A party of two was already on route so I took my time going over my gear and hastily ate a sandwich before starting upwards. The first two pitches involve easy "laybacks" on high friction slab. I passed the two guys as the second prepared to follow pitch two. After that the climbing eases considerably while still staying fun and exciting. I took my time and enjoyed the spectacular views of Tuolumne and the surrounding peaks. I had slept poorly the night before since it had been my first at higher altitude and was in no rush. I reached the summit just after 3 pm, a little over 6 hours after leaving the car. I took plenty of photos and sent text messages (atrocious I know) to a few people, letting them know I had safely completed the "technical" section. I then hiked down the East Ridge back to Greenstone Lake, which involved some soft sun-cupped snow, and made my feet pretty wet in their guide tennies.

Looking up at pitch 2 of the West Ridge route as I prepare to pass the party of two.
Looking up at the upper portion of the West Ridge.

Looking down into Tuolumne Meadows and Yosemite Valley.

Summit selfie!
Looking down to the north at the Conness Lakes Basin that I had hiked through earlier in the day.

The huge SW Face with the West Ridge behind it.
I was on the go for just under nine hours, a little more than expected and I felt dead tired. I ate as much as I could and passed out in the back of my truck. I slept heavily for over ten hours and woke up feeling great. Time for a rest day and then on to the next objective!