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!


  1. Interesting approach(north peak pass), but as long as it worked, it's all good.

  2. Yeah, it was actually pretty quick and direct; it would be more so if you were actually familiar with it. I wasn't aware of the alternate approach besides the longer hike in from Tuolumne. I saw the North Peak Pass on USGS topos and read the description in Secor so I knew it would go and I guess I didn't bother to read anyone's TRs... It's always nice to have a little adventure.