Posts Tagged 'solo'


I woke up to the chilly morning air at the bottom of Lee Vining Canyon, wondering what I was doing today. I was supposed to climb with a new partner today, but we hadn’t talked about it since Wednesday and I wondered if she was even up in the Meadows. I piled back into my car, shivering violently as I started the motor and cranked up the heater, even though the temperature gauge was sitting below C. Whatever.

A stop at the Mobil filled my coffee mug with wake-the-f-up juice, and I was on the road again to the Meadows. I pulled through the gate and fell in love with Toulumne Meadows all over again.

At the TM Store I bought another cup of coffee and left my maybe-climbing partner a voicemail, before pulling over to the visitor center and re-organizing the incredible pile of junk that was overflowing from the back of the Subaru. By the time I was done she had called and canceled – injuries to a ring-pulley and motivation-psyche to blame – so I got ready to commit to a solo climb I’ve thought about for a while.

I called PG from the carpark, who grilled me: where? what? Thankfully, she didn’t try to tell me that I shouldn’t go. I clipped a pair of shoes and chalk bag to my belt, put on a pair of headphones, intentionally left my watch in the car, and started hiking.

About 30 minutes later I was cursing as I realized that I missed the climbers’ trail and started running back down the trail, stopping and scanning carefully each time the faintest mouse track slipped away from the main trail. I ran into three guys, who suspiciously had that “look”, and opted to take the trail that they were debating about. Five minutes later they slipped in front of me from a second trail and I slowed down a bit to give myself some solitary and enjoyed the walk up gray slabs and through the dry woods. Climbing the slopes near the bottom of the tower, I passed one of them armed with a very threatening and professional-looking SLR camera. Hmmm.

At the bottom of the face I ran into the other two fellows – we said our greetings, made jokes about how all the cool kids were here, and then looked up at the audience. I counted at least three teams ahead of us, using traditional methods to protect their climbing. We quietly strapped on shoes, said our goodbyes, and one-by-one we started to solo up the cracks and overlaps. I caught up with the first team on pitch one, and then took a left-hand variation to avoid a second team on pitch two. I pulled through a flaring corner over a bulge while an older climber watched silently as he belayed his partner. On pitch three, the famous chimney, I climbed a thin crack and knobs to the left again to avoid getting entangled with the third team, who cheerfully let me pass on the fourth pitch. I had to really focus on the next five feet, committing to the knobs and edges and ignoring the feeling of 400 feet hanging under my heels. The fifth pitch featured an unprotectable knobby face finish and I was suddenly on the summit, still on the heals of the two soloists in front me.
When we descended, they broke right to join their photographer friend on the ridge while I 3rd-classed over to the smaller Eichorn Pinnacle, a 2-pitch 5.4 that featured 200+ feet of exposure. Fun moves past ancient pins lead to a pedestal finish, with the win whipping my shirt and hair. How cool. I looked over and saw the photographer pointing his camera my way, and waved.

Just as I finished down-climbing, I felt something slide down my shirt and watched in dismay as my prayer-bead bracelet – a gift from PG – slide down the sloping ledges. I watched intently until it stopped on a ledge about 75 feet below, retrieved my approach shoes, and headed down to get it. As I descended, I watched the two other soloists and the cameraman begin to step down the west slopes – a maneuver not mentioned in any guidebook.

I decided to follow their lead, suspecting that the descent would lead to a trail following the bottom of the valley below. Sure enough, cairns led to open forest and then the trail appeared unexpectedly. A fun run down the trail, around the north buttress wall, and soon I was back to my car.

Statistics: South East Face of Cathedral Peak and North Face of Eichorn Pinacle, 7 pitches up to 5.7 with variations. 5:10 hours car-to-car. Musical accompaniment by Built to Spill.


June Climbs

Its summer time, and all the guides on the Sierra East Side are slammed with work – but we’re not complaining! My June was highlighted by a possible FA and a guided ascent of the rarely climbed Moynier Couloir on Mt. Thompson.

I had a free day off on 5 June, so I decided to make it a “training day” and climb something I look at every time I hike to Whitney: The Impala. This rock spur of Mt. Carillon towers over Lower Boy Scout Lake, the lower false summit appearing as a distinct spire. Last September I was part of a three-man team that climbed a new route on the shield of rock to the right, on a formation we named “The Springbok”. As we climbed we could look over to the left and scope a long rock ridge that climbed almost directly to the Impala’s false summit. I wanted to climb this ridge.

Remarkably, both formations have relatively few routes, despite a short approach, solid rock, and obvious presence. The Springbok had only one other line, The Winged Horse, a III 5.8 A3 route that splits the face right down the middle, established by Beckey and Miller in 1970. Our route from last summer, Adios Yahoos, is a 4+ pitch II 5.8 A0 route following cracks and a low roof directly to the summit. It could be freed at a low 5.10 if anyone gives it a go.

I hiked up in quick time to Upper Boy Scout Lake, before turning and descending down to the Impala. In the future, I’ll probably approach from the right side instead or from the glacier slabs between UBS and LBS, but I wanted the perspectives as I neared the ridge. It also gave me a chance to scope out the other two routes that are documented on the Impala, both II 5.7: the Diagonal Route and the South Face. The East Ridge started at a perfect notch on the far right side of the face, and I started up a long line of cracks. Twice I was stumped by notches that forced me to descend onto the South Face briefly to get around and regained the ridge. At the very top, perhaps 30m from the summit blocks in view, I chose to follow a ledge system around onto the South Face for the last time and then climbed onto the summit. I couldn’t find any register, so I tore my permit in half and wrote a quick note, pinning it down with a rock. I goofed and called it the Ibex, and didn’t realize that this was the false summit until I got down that evening. Descent was simple – a 4th class chimney and ledge system led to another notch on the backside, then following sands and slabs lead back to the bottom of the South Face. I figured the route was approximately 800 feet long, and graded it II 5.7.

PG came out just a few days later for a weekend away from school, and I finally got to show her the Whitney Portal, where we climbed my favorite 5.8, the 6 pitch Premier Route on Premier Buttress (III 5.8 A0, or 5.10b).

I also got to guide the rarely climbed Moynier Couloir on Mt. Thompson. This route is usually melted out by the time other alpine ice climbs are in shape. But this year SMC decided to attempt guiding these routes in earlier summer conditions, and we found awesome climbs! The Moynier Couloir featured three pitches of gradually steppening ice climbing, then a steep short ice step around one chock stone on pitch 4 followed by a mixed 5.6 step around a second chock stone on pitch 5. Incredibly climbing up a narrow line. Really good times!

I actually haven’t had time to climb anything else, or run for that matter. My sister and her husband brought my 2 year-old nephew out for a visit, and I’ve been working ever since! You can read about those adventures on the Sierra Mountain Center Blog. So that’s that.




5 June 2008. East Ridge, The Impala, II 5.7, 800 feet. Possible First Ascent and solo.

8 June 2008. Premier Route, Premier Buttress, III 5.8 A0 with PG.

25 June 2008. Moynier Couloir, III 5.6 AI3 Mixed. Guided ascent with one client.

Sierra High Route Solo, 1-3 May

I’ve always wanted to do the big tours and traverses solo and as quick as I liked. I’m not into setting any speed records; I simply want to experience the feeling of going fast, all day, every day, for days on end. So when my boss asked me if I was interested in skiing the Sierra High Route before guiding it, I thought it would be a perfect opportunity to do something new.

As the start date came nearer, plans changed and the trip grew. I eventually planned to ski the Kearsarge Extension, and budgeted three days.

I left my house early on the morning of the first of May, and after a sunrise drive arrived at the defunct Wolverton Ski Area. Change clothes, a final mug of espresso, and I was on my way at noon.

I was able to put on my skis only 15 minutes after leaving the car, and steadily climbed up Panther Creek and on towards Right Pass. My friends had said to follow the ski markers, but which ones? They were everywhere! I saw yellow diamonds, yellow squares, and yellow or blue triangles. Eventually I gave up and just continued to follow the terrain, first skiing down to Heather Lake and traversing to the Pear Lake Ranger Station, then climbing up to the Table Meadows. I was in complete awe of the rock and snow lines in the basins around Pear and Emerald Lakes, and made a promise to come back next winter to stay at the Ranger Station. Simply amazing terrain. I finally reached the Tablelands at 7:30pm and decided to turn in for the night. As I cooked dinner I looked over the maps and my route plan with trepidation. I had a long way to go and only two more days to get there. My GPS said that sunrise was at 6:00am, so I set my alarm for 5:30am and quickly fell asleep.

The pre-dawn light woke me at 5:15am, and I cursed when I realized I could be skiing already. I was on the go by 6:30am, and made quick work crossing Pterodactyl Pass and dropping toward The Finn. Another short climb gained Horn Col, and on the far side I skied down 1000 feet into the bowl before slapping on skins and climbing back out to Copper Mine Pass. On the far side of Copper Mine Pass I was able to make good time skiing a descending traverse across the bowl to Glacier Lake, and another climb gained Triple Divide Pass. Another descending ski traverse, more aggressive this time, and a short climb led to Lost Lake and Lost Pass, only 30m higher, and a longer descent into the bottom of Milestone Bowl. In my mind it was crucial to get up and over Milestone Pass today if I wanted to ski the whole extended route and not bail early out through Shepherd Pass. I climbed quickly up Milestone Pass and made my first route finding mistake – I was on the far east side of the pass, the lowest point, looking down an 80-foot cliff to the basin below. I lost 30, 45 minutes climbing down, across, and back up to the proper point to cross through Milestone Pass. All day, I watched clouds grow to the north, and now as I looked out towards the White Mountains for the first time, they were covered by a dark, mean, angry wall of clouds that seemed to be reaching out to me. I wanted down. Now. As I put my skis back on, I also strapped my headlamp to my head and turned on my GPS before putting it in my jacket. 30 minutes later I needed both, and spent another 30 minutes skiing in the dark, following my GPS directions, until I finally reached a point that I was satisfied was low enough into the tree line to protect me from the trees, and far enough for the day. The starts were being blanketed by the clouds that worried me, so I rigged my bivy sack and decided, If the weather is crapped-out in the morning, I bail to Shepherds Pass. Otherwise, I continue on.

I woke up at 4:30am to clear skies and was climbing up towards Ericson Pass at 5:45am. The country at the top of the Kern River is called graben and horst, almost flat terrain that a glacier had carved into short benches. Water came after the glacier to form strings of lakes along the benches, and carve mazes of ravines down from one bench to the next. If you tried to stay on the horst, or hill-tops, your route was threatened to be stopped by sudden cliff-drops; if you followed the graben you risked bottlenecks where the streams kept the snow melted back and stopped any traffic. So it was a real pleasure to string my way though this landscape, guided by the notes that a friend had given me, until I reached the upper bowl beneath Ericson Pass.

Ericson Pass is actually two passes, with Ericson Pass on the west side of a broad saddle and Harrison Pass on the east. In my direction Harrison would have been the better ski descent, but I needed to see Ericson Pass for the trip I was guiding in two days, so I swallowed the pill and took the less appealing line. A short down-climb led to a steep ski to the small lake separating Ericson Pass from Deerhorn Saddle, but the technical cruxes were over. I only needed to climb to the top of Deerhorn Saddle to have a long ski, and mellow climb, and another long ski.

What a fool I am.

Deerhorn Saddle was completely melted out, so I was forced to hike down 300 feet to snow on the other side. Since Verdette Creek runs north-south, and is framed by the tall peaks of Stanford, Ericson, East Verdette and West Verdette, it gets very little sun and the snow remained very hard. So I skied in bone-jaring turns, feeling the mountains kick me in the kidneys, and descended as fast as I dared. When I reached the Verdette Lakes, I quickly skated across the ice. On the forth lake, really a pond, I looked around and thought, This ice looks a little too wet and blue to my liking. Then the ice gave way and I was in.

Shit. The shore was only 10 feet to my right, but I knew that these little glacier-carved lakes could quickly drop off in that distance. I sank in past my boot tops and kept sinking. Shit. The water was really slush, half-ice, and it took a few moments before my boots started to fill. Shit. The water was passing my knees, and I started struggling to reach the edge of the hole that had formed around me. Shit. I sank to mid-thigh just as I leaned over and got my arms and poles on the firmer ice.

Then I stopped sinking. Oh wow. Cold. A careful shuffling half-step to the right let me leaver my body out onto stronger ice. But I was still in the shade, cold, wet, and I still needed to get out. So I kept skiing.

In hindsight, I know I had grown too comfortable with the ice. I have a lot of sea-ice travel experience, and I’m comfortable moving about it. But this easily could have been much, much worse. I still skied across lakes – there were two more below this one and Bullfrog Lake a little further on. But I learned a valuable lesson about judging each lake separately.

A little further and I came across my first recent ski tracks. Someone was climbing up Verdette Creek, and had followed the east side of the valley while I was skiing down the west. I must have just missed them.

I continued to ski down to Bubs Creek, looking across at the bare brown wall that I knew lead up to Bullfrog Lake. I took a moment to wring the water out of my socks and liners before strapping my skis to my pack and following the bare trail up the 800 feet before skating across Bullfrog Lake towards Kearsarge Pass.

Kearsarge Pass was melted out too, and I was just able to ski the first bowl before it grew too dark. From there I decided to carry my skies and walk down the remaining distance – which ended up to be half snow half bare. The snow was pretty hard anyways, so I didn’t really care about skiing. I followed boot tracks, snowshoe tracks, and ski tracks, and the trail when I found it. At 9:30pm I tried calling my friend Eric, but my call kept getting dropped while it was still ringing. Maybe Eric would notice that he missed a call from me. I finally reached the trail head at 10:00pm, and resigned myself to sleeping at the trailhead for the night. I had a used tea hot-drink for dinner.

In the morning I was able to walk 500 feet down the road and get a reliable cell phone call for my ride. Connie showed up a few hours later with coffee and a cinnamon roll to take me home.

Statistics: Sierra High Route (Kearsarge Variation), West to East. Day One; 8 miles, 4480 feet elevation gained, 950 feet elevation descended. Day Two; 16 miles, 6010 feet elevation gained, 6050 feet elevation descended. Day Three; 17 miles, 5190 feet elevation gained, 6800 feet elevation descended. Total; 41 miles, 15,744 feet elevation gained, 13,870 feet elevation descended.

banner photo: antarctica / mark allen

The Show - under construction