Category Archives: Climbing

Christmas part 4: More Stronghold West

Muttonhead (Mystery of the Desert, 5.9), Sheepshead (Ewephoria, 5.7)

Sheepshead (r) and Muttonhead (l of Sheepshead) from approach

Sheepshead (r) and Muttonhead (l of Sheepshead) from approach

Muttonhead and Sheepshead are two large, adjacent formations west of the main part of the Stronghold. Neither looks even vaguely like an Ovine head. On the advice of some friendly locals, we started off climbing Mystery of the Desert on Muttonhead, then finished with Ewephoria on Sheepshead. Both were fun climbs, with Ewephoria standing out as a fun, well-bolted romp with fun face climbing and an exciting, exposed finish.

Mystery’s first pitch follows a left-facing dihedral between two of the many bolted lines on the left-hand side of Muttonhead. I clipped the first bolt to the right, and was glad that I did so when I slipped on the next move. Trying again, I made a few more tricky moves in the dihedral, then found easier and better-protected climbing up to a bolted anchor.

The next pitch featured some delicate climbing up to an easier-than-it-looks roof, then various options to go over, around, or through the “wedge”. Jen thankfully chose “over”, sparing me a narrow grovel. Easy bolted slab climbing around a nasty bushwhack led to a sunny belay below the crux lieback, which started easy but became steeper and more off-balance toward the end. After an easier face traverse to the next anchor, the final pitch followed bolts up a steeper face to a tree-filled grotto below the summit.

From the top, we spied another party partway up Ewephoria, a mostly-bolted line on the neighboring Sheepshead. Descending around the back and down the gully between the two formations, we chose to quickly run up Ewephoria in the afternoon.

The first pitch, up a crack/dihedral, was okay climbing all on gear; after that, the route was sport-bolted as if someone had just found a bolt kit in his Christmas stocking. Someone had even helpfully attached a stuffed sheep to the anchor at the top of P3, which would otherwise be hidden behind a huge rock plate. As is common, we opted for the harder finish straight up the arete. This requires a delicate mantle onto an outward-sloping ledge, followed by another mantle onto the arete itself, but both moves are well-protected.

We topped out at sunset, racing darkness back down the descent gully. After briefly losing the trail in the brush below, we found it again and made it to the car headlamp-free.

Cochise Dome (What’s my line, 5.6 A0)

Cochise Dome from approach

Cochise Dome from approach

On our final day in the west Stronghold, we climbed the classic “What’s my line,” an easy route up an amazing chickenhead highway on Cochise Dome. The dome can evidently be approached from the east side, but the western approach seems easier. The tricky part is reaching the chickenheads, which don’t quite reach the ground. The standard approach takes a tricky slot up to a ledge left of the route, from which one pendulums across the nearly-blank face to reach the easier climbing. Both the route and its approach a must-do if you visit Cochise.

After much wandering, we finally found the slot, making our way to the ledge with the bolted anchor for the pendulum. I led this move, trying several running pendulums as Jen gradually paid out more rope until, with maybe 20-25 feet out, I managed to grab a big chickenhead and haul myself onto the highway. Climbing in an arc at this radius, I found a large, secure plate about even with the anchor and ledge, and carefully slung it to serve as a pivot for Jen to follow the pendulum. The climbing above this took some getting used to: there were many possible moderate lines, so my choice was determined by which features looked most sling-able.

Reaching the bolted anchor near the end of our rope, I clipped in, then took in as much slack as I could before Jen launched herself off the ledge with a barbaric yawp. The big slung plate held fine, but she got a bit more of a swing than anticipated when one of the higher-up chickenheads became un-slung when pulled sideways by the straightening rope. Another pitch of the same type of climbing led to an awesome triple-sling anchor, from which easier, traversing climbing led to the top. Two raps off the back and a short scramble got us to the base of the dome for the hike out and the dirt road drive around to the other side of the Stronghold.


Christmas part 3: Cochise Stronghold, Whale Dome (Moby Dick, II 5.8)

Cochise panorama

Cochise panorama

Cochise Stronghold is a large area of National Forest land southeast of Tucson. It features mild temperatures, ample free camping, good granite, moderate approaches, and a large number of established (and, probably, unclimbed) multi-pitch trad lines. Though it is in the middle of nowhere, it should be far more popular than it is. Climbers driving or flying long distances for winter climbing in Joshua Tree, for example, might have a better time flying into Tucson to spend a week at Cochise.
Whale Dome

Whale Dome

After miles of driving on mostly-good dirt roads, we pulled in late to what was hopefully the end of the correct road in Cochise Stronghold. After breakfast the next morning, some locals helpfully pointed out Whale Dome and the classic line “Moby Dick,” our first objective. The approach was straightforward, mostly following a rocky wash and avoiding unpleasant desert flora. The climb was fun, but not exceptional.

The first two pitches both ended in run-out, moderate face climbing, which somewhat intimidating, and not entirely to Jen’s liking. The third pitch featured easier climbing and more opportunities for protection, including the first of the slung-chickenhead belays common in Cochise. The fourth pitch continued over easier terrain past several bolts to a comfortable “stegosaurus” ledge. Another pitch of steeper climbing on “alligator skin” led to the summit.

Having lugged a second rope all the way up the climb, we finally put it to use for the free-hanging 40m (35m with a bit of scrambling) rappel off the back. After an easy scramble and hike back to the car — headlamp-free, for a change! — we found a pleasant campsite and amused ourselves lighting things on fire.

Christmas part 2: Table Mountain (Cherry Jam, IV 5.8+)

Table Mountain (l)

Table Mountain (l)

Rolling into Tucson sometime around midnight, we crashed at a pseudo-trailhead in a residential section at the base of Table Mountain, then got a semi-early start on what seemed like a reasonable day: Cherry Jam, “6 pitches of wonderful climbing” with a 2-1/2 hour approach. Fortunately we both brought headlamps this time, since Cherry Jam turned out to be a mediocre climb with a long approach and a hideous descent involving multiple wet rappels and a steep desert bushwhack. There is doubtless some great climbing in the Mount Lemmon area, but Cherry Jam ain’t it.

The approach, taking about the advertised 2-1/2 hours, started on a well-ducked and -used trail through a saguaro forest. It eventually deteriorated into a not-entirely-horrible bushwhack through various desert vegetation. Jen got a bit too friendly with some cactus, but it mostly painless. I led the first pitch, most of a rope-length spent tunneling through oak-brush to a belay below a short cruxy section. The rock was solid, though often lichen-y or polished, which took a bit of getting used to.

Jen led the second pitch, including the move for which the climb is named: a short, chest-width traverse well-protected by a huge angle piton. She left her pack and helmet behind in the process, and ended up doing a short pendulum off the angle piton to bypass the jam. I collected her pack and helmet, then had to leave the gear behind and haul it to execute the move. I managed to pull it off — barely — by inserting myself horizontally head-first, taking a deep breath to wedge my chest, then pivoting to gain purchase on the left wall.

There were, I think, three more pitches, two with some steep climbing on big, positive holds, and one more of easy scrambling to the summit. We topped out a bit before sunset, and regretted not bringing more food and gear to take advantage of the well-built fireplace on the summit. There are at least two steep gullies southwest of the summit. We chose the second, and found brush, water, and several bolted rap anchors. The gully opened up shortly after we donned headlamps, but the terrain only got worse, with a loose, steep mixture of oak-brush, cactus, and various species of yucca. There’s a reason it’s called “alpinism” and not “desertism”.

We eventually reached the car, re-stocked on food and water, picked up some bad drive-through burritos, and got the hell away from Mount Lemmon.

Joshua Tree blood drive

Aiguille de Joshua Tree

I spent this year’s Thanksgiving week climbing and donating blood in Joshua Tree. Since the rock there is granite that is usually both grainy and slick, and since most of the climbing is crack, struggling often results in cuts. This is even more true for someone like Yours Truly, who is not much of a crack climber. After 5 1/2 days and over 30 pitches of climbing, I have various cuts on my ankles, knees, and the backs of my hands, and my fingertips feel strangely numb while typing. Hopefully I am also a somewhat better climber.

For those who are interested, here is a list of some standout routes:

  • Double Cross (5.8)
  • A classic crack on Old Woman Rock, near Intersection Rock. While it is crowded, there are other 5.8-ish routes nearby to climb while waiting.

  • The Flake (5.8)
  • A long route (160′?) on the road-facing side of Intersection Rock, which involves just about every type of climbing, including chimney, offwidth, crack, liebacking, and slab.

  • Yasmine Bleeth (5.9, 5.10a)
  • A sport route on Siberia. The first pitch (5.9) is a fun, balance-y climb on a steep, partially-varnished face. The second pitch (5.10a) is a delicate slab affair leading to the top of the formation. Both are well-protected. From either of the “first” anchors, it is possible to toprope the next 5.10a face climb to the right, which is also excellent.

  • Fote Hog (5.6)
  • A face climb with a roof, located on the Sentinel in Real Hidden Valley. What’s not to love about doing an epic both-feet-off-the-rock mantle in front of an audience?

  • Feltonian Physics (5.8)
  • A varied lieback/crack climb on Hemingway Wall. Neighboring Prepackaged (5.10a) is also good.

I also took some photos:

Red Rocks climbing

Red Rocks from campground

After getting shut down by rain a few weeks ago, I was determined to make it back to Red Rocks and climb this season. I had that chance this past weekend, spending three days climbing a grab-bag of routes, and two nights socializing with a grab-bag of climbers in one of the large group campsites. Quote of the weekend: “Bears are basically giant wolf-pigs.” Think about it.

Of the routes we climbed, the best were Black Magic, with 2-1/2 excellent pitches, and Dark Shadows (all the way to the top), with lots of good climbing and an amazing second pitch. Lotta Balls was also very good. Rainbow Buttress, though it has three stars in Handren’s guide, was a mediocre climb in a very scenic area.

Lotta Balls Wall (Lotta Balls, 5.8+, 3p; Black Magic, 5.8, 3p; Trihedral, 5.8, 3p)

Lotta Balls Wall (black, lower left)

After both arriving late, Jen and I spent our first day on several shorter climbs on Lotta Balls wall, a popular area a short hike up First Canyon, a trailhead outside the scenic loop. Finding another party at the base, we let them get on Black Magic first while we climbed Lotta Balls. Jen led P1, climbing a flake/block to a corner and some cracks. I led P2, the highlight of the route, which climbs a face covered in marble-sized but amazingly durable balls to another crack/corner. Pinching and standing on the tiny sandstone balls was unnerving at first, but fun and quite secure. P3 continues up the crack/corner, over a sort-of roof and onto easier ground.

The descent is somewhat obnoxious, with 2-3 rappels through oak-brush and cracks which catch at your rope. The first rappel was a rope-stretcher for our single 50m, but was just doable by aiming for the high side of a slot on the climber’s right. The second, short rappel can be avoided by a bit of awkward chimneying. The third, from two brand-new-looking bolts, leads to some scrambling.

Next, I led P1 of Black Magic, which starts up a face with two bolts, then steps right across a vertical-to-overhanging wall with the help of a huge edge. I could not resist pulling a “Cliffhanger” and letting both feet swing free. The pitch continues up a steep face with awesome holds in the black varnish to a belay at a bolt and slung column. P2 consists of more fun, steep climbing on varnish holds. P3 has one steep move to the right, but soon tops off in scrambling terrain.

Reaching the base after a second obnoxious descent, we found a sizable crowd on both of the routes we had done so far. With plenty of daylight left, we decided to climb Trihedral, which follows the corner to the left of Lotta Balls. While P2 had some fun stemming, it could not compare to the first two routes. However, it did give me a chance to chat with and snap pictures of fellow climbers on other routes.

Mescalito (Dark Shadows, 5.8, 10p)


After a proper night’s sleep, we got an early start for what we knew would be a long day. While most people only climb the first three pitches of Dark Shadows, the route continues to the top of Mescalito, the small-looking peak between the north and south forks of Pine Creek. For a peak-bagger like Yours Truly, the choice to continue to the top was obvious. The descent via the north fork proved as “adventurous” as promised: we took full advantage of our late exit permit.

We reached the base of the route to find an older man seconding the first pitch (the absurdly short P1 and P2 in the guidebook), and sat down to let them get ahead. P1 starts with a step across the creek onto some slabs, threatening soaked feet and/or a wet rope, then continues up a crack to a comfortable belay ledge. Jen spent awhile on this ledge waiting for the other party’s second to start climbing, then belayed me up to join her, where we spent most of an hour waiting for the other party to clear the next belay. This was an inauspicious start to a long climb, but we hoped to pass them higher up, and passed the time reading the guidebook and talking to a friendly British couple climbing behind us.

P2 started with what I chose to climb as a bit of ugly, awkward offwidth/chimney, then turned awesome, following a straight, near-vertical corner with fun stemming and miraculous holds on the right wall. I clipped into the two-bolt anchor on a comfy ledge, then hung out staring up at the huge roof and down at other climbers. P3 skirts the roof to the two-bolt anchor where most people stop. We continued for six more pitches from here, repeatedly trying to pass the other party and being cut off at choke-points on the face. While the climbing could not compare to P2, it was still fairly good; I would have enjoyed it more if I was not watching daylight tick away while waiting for the other party, dreading a long and complicated descent in the dark.

These first nine pitches led to a large plateau below Mescalito’s summit, which we reached by hiking west, climbing one pitch up a wide crack, and scrambling up some easier terrain. After very briefly enjoying the summit view in the late afternoon light, we scrambled west along the ridge, picking up a line of cairns and bits of use trail on the north side of the ridge.

Things started well: while the path led west and away from the car, it also lost elevation with very little bushwhacking and no rappels. However, somewhere in the slabs still well above the canyon floor, the trail disappeared. We first followed some sporadic cairns to what looked like a very long rappel. Doubting that our rope was long enough, we found another rap station into a narrow, twisty slot. This looked fun and doable with our single 50m, so down we went. Another rap off a tree took us into a brushy slot, where the way forward became less obvious.

In the fading light, I spotted another rap station in the next gully east. After finding that it led to a drop much longer than our rope, Jen prusiked back up, and we dug out our headlamp. Singular. Sort of. For some reason, I mistakenly believed that I had left mine in the car. Taking the lamp, I made a diagonal bushwhack/rappel farther down our original slot, where I was overjoyed to find more slings around another bush/tree. Jen took the lamp and got a prusik ready for the blind rappel over the edge. Though the moon had not yet risen, the canyon walls were faintly visible Vegas-light from the east. After a seemingly endless wait in the dark, I heard a joyous shout of “ground!” Rapping the twisty sandstone face in the dark, seeing my shadow cast on the wall by the lamp, was a surreal salvation.

Fearing a costly ticket at 8:00, we hiked back down the canyon as quickly as we could with one headlamp, reaching the car with minutes to spare. Looking back from near the car, we saw a lonely headlamp making its way back from Mescalito; I like to think it was the party who cost us so much time.

Eagle Face (Rainbow Buttress, 5.8+, 6p)

Rainbow Buttress

Despite our late return, we were up early again (too early — neither of us remembered the time change, so we had to wait at the loop gate) for another potentially long day. Determined to avoid waiting in line, we chose a route with a longer, more strenuous approach. There were several parties on nearby routes, but we had Rainbow Buttress to ourselves. Though the scenery was spectacular, and the walk-off would make a fun hike/scramble by itself, the climbing did not come close to deserving Handren’s three stars. We climbed the route as 6 pitches on a 50m rope, linking the guidebook’s P1 and P2 with a bit of simul-climbing, turning P3-P5 into two long pitches, and finishing on the last pitch of Mountain Beast, a 5.8 sport climb.

After reading P2’s description, I led P1, which starts off with some easy scrambling, then finishes up a surprisingly strenuous left-facing corner to a hot, sunny belay ledge. I hung out and sweated while Jen writhed up P2, taking every opportunity to engage in painful-sounding chimneying and offwidth. Following, I was able to reach some holds that let me avoid nearly all of the suffering. I scrambled up a face and through a tree to find her belaying from a comfortable, shady alcove.

P3 follows the crack between a pillar and the main face, then makes a fun, airy step across the gap before traversing to (for me) a semi-hanging belay near the base of the crux left-facing corner. P4 involved some thin but well-protected face moves lower down, and a short section of tricky stemming higher up, but allowed several comfortable rests. The short P5 started with some chimneying, then easier ground to the plateau below the final pitch. Rather than continuing along the original route, we finished up a fun, sport-bolted face to its left.

Heading west and slightly north — don’t be tempted south too soon! — we eventually found a well-used hiking trail which led back into Oak Creek. After some fun slabs and some boulder-hopping, we rejoined the approach route, reaching the car in time to quickly check out the visitor center on our way out of the park.

Needles area climbing

Needles (l) and Olancha (r) from Dome Rock campsite

The Needles are an impressive line of domes/spires along the Kern River at the southern end of the Sierra. The Needles themselves offer multi-pitch trad routes with about an hour-long approach from above (high clearance required) or below (high gnat tolerance required). Nearby Dome Rock has numerous 1-2 pitch trad routes and some hard sport face routes accessed by a road leading right to the top (it was previously used as a heli-pad), as well as a few excellent primitive campsites. Both are a reasonable drive from LA, and the weather, while currently too cold up north and too hot down south, is near-perfect there.

Jen and I drove up late Thursday night and, after deciding not to try the Needles Lookout Road in a passenger car, crashed at a lousy ad-hoc campsite. We then enjoyed 3 days of near-perfect weather and interesting climbing. Both the Needles and Dome Rock are well worth visiting, and White Punks on Dope (Voodoo Dome) and the Tree Route (Dome Rock) are not to be missed.

Dome Rock (Tree Route, 5.6; Left Crack, 5.8; Last Dihedral, 5.8)

Tree Route on Dome Rock

Rather than hiking the rest of the Needles lookout road, we decided to take an easier day at nearby Dome Rock. First up was the easy but highly-rated Tree Route (5.6), which follows amazing hand- and finger-cracks past one live tree and a stump. We simul-ed it without much trouble, then hiked back down around the dome to try something harder.

Left Crack (5.8) had some fun climbing, though I found the starting traverse fairly scary. The pitch climbs 10-15′ off the ground, then follows a horizontal crack to reach the leftmost of two vertical ones. Though the traverse evidently protects well if you hand-traverse the horizontal crack, you first have to pass the crack’s shallow, flaring start. I instead ended up foot-traversing the crack, running it out until I probably would have decked if I had fallen. The climb up the vertical crack to a 2-bolt anchor was much less stressful.

After top-roping the first pitch of a nearby face route from another anchor just to the right, we finished the climb. P2 followed the crack, then followed either a zig-zag traverse or some off-width to a nice belay ledge. After a bolt and a flake that takes a tiny cam, P3 involves a tricky face traverse over to the “ear”, then some strenuous off-width/lieback action to another bolt, easier slabs, and another 2-bolt anchor.

The first pitch of Last Dihedral was described as a sustained, hard-to-protect lieback, so we opted to scramble up to its right, then toprope it. The description was not accurate: the face has plenty of pockets for no-hands or one-hand rests, and there are two bolts on the nearby face and adequate opportunities to place gear. The second pitch was mostly easier and unremarkable.

Voodoo Dome (White Punks on Dope, III 5.8+)

Voodoo Dome from the Magician

After availing ourselves of the better camping near Dome Rock, we made the long drive around and up the Lloyd Meadow Road to the southeast base of the Needles. While Mountain Project describes a confusing approach through a “perfect 3-dimensional lattice of cairns,” we followed a single well-defined use trail to the base of the route. We climbed the route as 5 60m pitches, with only P2 being a dud. The route would be difficult to climb with a shorter rope.

Jen led P1, up a wide crack next to a nicely-featured face, then across a low-angle face to an alcove. Following, I found it easier to climb the face than to jam body parts into the crack. I led P2, which started out with one exciting, blind move up the left side of the alcove on thin feet and okay hands. Pulling over the top reveals a sea of knobs, leading to easier terrain. With careful rope-routing and/or quite a bit of rope drag, a 60m rope will take you over easier terrain to a comfy belay at the base of the dihedral pitch.

This 60m dihedral, the highlight of the route, can be climbed in various ways. As is her wont, Jen approached it as a hand/foot/finger crack; not feeling it for the final, runout lieback to the belay ledge, she belayed me up from a hanging belay to finish it. Being kind of a scrappy climber, I mostly chimneyed it, flying up the dihedral and thoroughly enjoying myself before finishing the pitch on lead, with one psychological micro-nut for protection.

I led P4, a full 60m of sometimes-delicate slab climbing to a huge ledge, protected by 4 bolts. While none of it was truly desperate, one part after the second bolt made me think, and falling would have been uncomfortable. Talking to an old-timer the next day, I learned that the pitch used to have only two bolts — yikes! There appear to be a few paths from the big ledge to the top; Jen worked her way up a fun, straight splitter crack, then across easier terrain to a belay below the summit, near the end of our rope.

We fortunately had plenty of daylight left, because the descent is non-obvious. After climbing to the summit and rapping off the back (north) side, we initially found a faint use trail down the east side of the dome. This trail faded out above steeper terrain near the base. We were fortunately not the only ones to make this mistake — a convenient bail sling got us through the difficulties. It looked possible to avoid another rappel by descending a gully farther left (east). Our rappel deposited us in the “perfect 3-dimensional lattice of cairns,” which eventually led back to the main trail.

The Magician (Magic Dragon, 5.8)

Magician (l) and Warlock (c) from Voodoo Dome

The Needles lookout road was no more passable in daylight, so we hiked the last two miles of the road, passing two men in a pickup camped near the trailhead. Passing a sign informing us that the historic lookout had burned down last year, we continued along a pleasant trail along the north side of the ridge, with views of the southern High Sierra: Langley, Whitney, and (probably) the Mineral King area peaks. Following a faint, ducked use trail from the final saddle, we reached the base of the route without much trouble in about 1h30 from the car.

Hearing voices as we roped up, we spotted the two men with the pickup truck, who were planning to climb the same route. P1 starts with an avoidable lieback/undercling section, then continues to a comfortable ledge. P2 crosses easy terrain including a ledge with many loose rocks, then climbs some underclings to old gear below a roof near the crux, where I established a hanging belay.

Jen, after exploring terrain to the left, managed to work her way through an absurdly-steep lieback/mantle directly above the anchor, then up some easier stuff to the crest of the ridge. Fortunately she did not place any gear that would have required me to follow the lieback: after falling a couple of times, I took the standard (probably height-dependent) route around to the left, stepped over to retrieve a piece, and finished the pitch.

The rest of the climbing from here to the top is mostly easy slab. We set up a couple of belays, but the whole thing would probably best be simul-climbed. One more short, steep pitch led to the summit and the remains of the lookout, including an Escheresque stairway to nowhere. While the climbing is not that interesting, Magic Dragon is still a fun, scenic route. If you choose the formerly-standard stair descent, note that the Forest Service has installed an easy 5th-class gate with barbed wire near the base.

SoCal cragging

I have unexpectedly found myself doing a fair amount of sport and trad climbing in southern California of late. Here are brief descriptions of the areas I have visited, and of a few recommended routes at each.

New Jack City

Crooked Dick Spire at New Jack City

Located at a BLM campground in the desert south of Barstow, New Jack is a great winter alternative to Joshua Tree. It has a similar selection of single-pitch climbs on rock batholiths, though New Jack is mostly a sport-bolted face-climbing area. It is often possible to set a toprope on a harder route after climbing an easier neighbor. One climb not to be missed is Crooked Dick Spire (5.9). While the climb itself is not that great, the summit is an amazing photo op. The nearby Twin Towers also has an easy 5.8 line that can be used to set a toprope on the 5.10a next door.

The campground is clean and well-cared-for, though dry. BLM eventually plans to start charging a few dollars to stay, but at the moment it is free. Unfortunately, the nearby BLM land is popular with off-road vehicle enthusiasts.


Traitor Horn at Tahquitz

Towering above the rich Angelino getaway of Idyllwild, Tahquitz offers multi-pitch trad climbs on mostly-good granite. With a high elevation, and both sunny and shady sides, it is climbable for much of the year.

  • Traitor Horn / Coffin Nail (5.8)
  • The first pitch of Coffin Nail is garbage, while the second is interesting and sustained mixture of crack and liebacks. The signature move onto the horn on Traitor Horn is crazy-steep and exposed, but has good hands and can be well protected with a #.75 camalot. The move from the horn onto the upper slabs can be protected with a #4 camalot in the crack left of the horn, but may be tricky for shorter climbers; my partner (5’4″) found it easier, or at least less intimidating, to just climb the crack.

Suicicde Rock

Suicide Rock from Tahquitz

Across the valley from Tahquitz, Suicide has many one- and two-pitch trad climbs, including some bolted face routes.

  • Nawab (5.8)
  • Mountain Project calls this two pitches, but it is really a single pitch to a huge ledge, then an easy scramble to the walk-off. A good jam crack and a short face section lead to the base of a squeeze chimney, which can be painful, but perversely fun.

  • Flower of High Rank (5.9)
  • While I cleanly followed the first half, leading this climb is still probably a bit beyond me. It definitely deserves its classic status, with sustained and interesting hand-jamming. Scramble to the base of the steep stuff, build and anchor, and belay there, since the first few moves on the steep cracks are tricky, and the leader can easily deck with rope stretch if you belay from the base.

  • The Guillotine (5.8)
  • Miles of epic liebacks. Most of this climb involves running along the edge of a flake for 15-20′, then standing on top to put in a piece. This makes it run-out, but not in a dangerous way. The squeeze chimney, on the underside of a big flake, is fun to figure out; how you climb it depends very much on your body shape. It is probably better to do a double-rope rappel from the bolted anchor after the first pitch, than to climb/scramble the easy slabs to the walk-off.

Charlotte Dome (South Face, III 5.7)

Charlotte Dome

After my last suffer-fest, something more relaxed and vertical sounded good, and a 2-night climb of the ultra-classic south face of Charlotte Dome fit the bill. Located right in the middle of the Sierra between Road’s End and Onion Valley, it can be approached from either direction. Though it is slightly longer and harder, we chose the eastern approach, camping at Charlotte Lake to make use of the food locker. The route lived up to its reputation, with sustained, varied, and super-fun climbing.

Jen and I got a comfortably late start from Onion Valley and, after dropping our packs at Charlotte Lake, scrambled up the nearby talus heap known as Bago. We hung out there for awhile, enjoying views of the Great Western Divide to the southwest, Stanford and the Center Basin area peaks to the south, and Charlotte Dome to the west. We returned to camp when it started to get cold, meeting the Charlotte Lake ranger couple (I’m not sure which one is stationed there) and their young son. Since Jen was in charge of dinner, I ate well for a change, better fare than my usual dinner when camping (fish and powdered mashed potatoes) or even at “home” (tuna and mixed vegetables on tortillas).

After a long but less-cold-than-expected night, we got a late start with the late sunrise, taking a well-established use trail to the side of the dome, then going down and across low-angle slabs to the start of the route. We saw a party of three ahead of us on the route, where they remained for most of the day. They climbed efficiently for such a party, and we distracted ourselves by trying unsuccessfully to pass them a couple of times, so we did not have do too much waiting. I also managed to slow us down by wasting time failing to clean nuts — it was not my day. We soloed up to the first belay, then geared up on a small ledge next to a tree with many rap slings.

Jen led P1, following obvious cracks up some easy terrain above the tree. I led P2, continuing up, then following a seam of pink, stair-step rock up to the right onto a face crossed by shallow, flaring cracks, where I hit the end of the rope. While it was easy to climb, it was surprisingly hard to build an anchor here, and I spent some time wandering around before finding a decent stance where I could build something dubious. P3 brought us up to a nice belay below and to the right of the other party. I tried to pass them to the right on P4, but retreated from an unprotected slab traverse, and finished a short pitch up to the other party’s belay. I had a chance to chat with one member of the other party for a few minutes while belaying Jen up.

P5 followed a crack/dihedral to a small overhanging block, which Jen dealt with via a painful-looking knee jam. Easier climbing above the roof led to the belay. I once again tried to pass the other party on P6, this time by heading straight up toward some old gear rather than to the right. Thanks perhaps to my failed nut-cleaning activities, I was not mentally up it, and carefully backed off, cleaning a few pieces. Defeated, I followed the other party to the right, climbing a narrow, painfully spiny chimney and the adjacent face to a semi-hanging belay below the other party. Jen, following, enjoyed the “nicely featured off-width,” but had to leave it to clean a piece I placed on the face.

P7 followed a crack to the other party’s belay, then continued up a fun but hard-to-protect face, finishing with what I thought were some thin moves (I was glad not to lead them). P8 headed right into some huge, steep fins with 3-foot channels and huecos between them, leading to a comfortable belay ledge with some bushes. Protection was weird — I slung a couple of horns, and made a detour to the right to place a cam on a double-length sling — but this was a super-fun and, to me, secure pitch. Several of the channels apparently go, as we were able to climb parallel to the other party.

Jen led P9 in parallel as well, on a roomy, featured face on the left-hand side of the brushy ledge. The pitch ended on a wider ledge with a large tree. I led the last real pitch, which started with a slightly tricky traverse, then finished up an awesome orange face covered with positive holds. From here, it was an easy scramble to the summit. We somehow managed to briefly lose track of each other, and then the use trail, on the way back, reaching camp in the dark after 7:00.

Since the hike out is short, we decided to tag Gardiner before packing up. The 4th class finish was as fun as I remembered, but we were both a bit more tired than we realized; the extra miles made the endless horizontal switchbacks down Kearsarge Pass a bit of a death march. Still, it was a good weekend and a great climb.

Whitney (E Buttress, III 5.8)

Up from top of P1

What better way to spend a day off than hanging around Lone Pine for a walk-in permit to the Dread Whitney Zone? The staff at the Visitor Center still doesn’t seem to have its act together, but it took no more than a half-hour to get one sheet of paper and two empty poop bags, signifying legal access to the north fork of Lone Pine Creek.

The plan was to pack in to Iceberg Lake and do Whitney’s East Buttress on one day, then do Russell’s Fishhook Arete and pack out the next. While it would require both ropes and camping, it would knock out two classic routes sharing a single approach, both slightly beyond my solo abilities. However, thanks to some very un-Sierra weather, we only managed to complete the East Buttress and the night-time suffering.

We climbed the buttress in 6-1/2 50m pitches, with some unroped scrambling before and after. The climbing was fun, if not particularly sustained. Despite what guidebooks say, either route seems reasonable as a day-trip.

We joined the 5:30 AM Whitney starting wave, leaving the main trail at the increasingly well-maintained north fork cutoff. I remember there barely being a trail when I first climbed Whitney in 2007, but the route is now actively maintained, and even appears on the latest Whitney-area maps. We reached Iceberg Lake in reasonable time, despite my totally botching the willow crossing above Lower Boy Scout Lake, and Jen’s being tired and less than her usual speedy self. (Had I known just how tired, I might have been more merciful.)

We dropped the camping gear in one of the many windbreaks above the lake, then scrambled up the rest of the approach. When the scrambling got hairy, we backed off and roped up at the belay ledge partway up the first pitch, mentioned in the route description. None of the climbing to this point was harder than 4th or easy 5th class.

I led the first pitch, following cracks filled with old pitons to a massive belay ledge atop the first pillar. Starting a pattern for the day, I placed very little pro, there being enough fixed pieces to almost make it a sport route. A block on the belay ledge even had multiple new-ish slings around it for an easy anchor.

Jen led P2, across the gap and straight up a face with some flaring cracks, which she had to run out quite a bit, since the multiple pitons had all been pounded in too far to clip. After I moved the belay to the base of the face, she used up the entire 50m rope to reach a shady perch on the north side. With a 60m rope, this pitch would end on a sunny ledge instead.

P3 continued near the spine of the ridge, with many fun options of various difficulty, to another good ledge with a slung block and a comfortable seat. P4 covered moderate ground to the base of the “Pee-Wee,” a large overhanging block. P5, also moderate, passed right of this feature before continuing to a fairly arbitrary belay.

It looked possible to head right to easier climbing at this point, but I saw a fun-looking chimney with a flake in it above. Jen had other ideas (she “didn’t want me to get bored”), finding a harder crack/dihedral to the left of the obvious chimney and out of my view, containing a couple dubious pieces of webbing. I wondered what was taking so long. Then I tried to climb it, and found a tricky undercling, stem, and jam explaining the delay. I climbed it in my classic style, in this case involving muttering and counterpressure with my helmet.

From here, I scampered up easy ground on the north side of the buttress to a big ledge in view of the summit, where we packed away the gear. From there, it was a 3rd class free-for-all to the summit, with an optional tunnel along the way. We talked with some of the trail-folk while clouds approached from the southwest, then had a taste of graupel as we descended the mountaineer’s route to camp.

I had hoped to improve upon my last gourmet camp meal by mixing some powdered milk with the instant mashed potatoes. However, having packed too few potatoes and unflavored fish, I ended up with slightly bland potato soup swimming with sardines. Oh well, it’s calories. The full moon on Whitney and the needles was probably spectacular, and I was awake for plenty of the night, but I had my mummy bag cinched over my eyes and did not get to appreciate the view.

We got a late start the next morning, after waiting for things to warm up a bit. Seeing the clouds to the south and west, two other parties camped at the lake abandoned their climbing plans, but we decided to at least start up and see if conditions improved. As it turns out, they did not. We found the start of the Fishhook, and Jen got about half-way up the first pitch, but the weather got worse. One very cold bail later, we hiked back to camp and packed up in light rain. As often happens, it was clear and sunny by the time we reached the trailhead.

Norman Clyde (Twilight Pillar, III 5.8)

Norman Clyde, showing the route

Norman Clyde Peak is Middle Palisade’s prominent neighbor to the north. Not being a 14er, and not having any routes easier than 4th class, it sees relatively few ascents. Its north face, with a buttress rising directly to the summit, has always drawn my interest. While I have long been meaning to solo a 5.4 route on the face, when I found myself in the unusual position of having a climbing partner, it became possible to climb the buttress itself.

We climbed the route from the snow at the base, with one 50m pitch below the ledge holding the circular snowfield, and four on the buttress. We used a 50m single rope, a single set of stoppers, and cams up to #3 with doubles of #1 and #2. The rock quality was mostly good, and the climbing was more sustained and interesting than we found on Moon Goddess, with a 5.8 crux and plenty of fun 5.6-5.7. We downclimbed the standard route on the descent, completing the route in just over 13 hours car-to-car.

Jen drove up from SoCal the night before and crashed for a few hours at the trailhead — something I remember well from the pre-Dr. days — while I got a full night’s sleep at a pullout on Glacier Lodge Road, and we hit the trail at 5:00. Following the increasingly well-established Middle Palisade trail to the edge of the moraine, we reached the base of the route around 8:30, easily crossing the low-angle snow in running shoes.

After soloing part of the low-angle crack right of the buttress, Jen led a pitch to just below the circular snowfield, past evidence of a very sketchy bail-off: twine tied to an old ring piton. We should probably have put the rope away for the next section, a large expanse of class 2-4 up and left past the snowfield to the buttress itself, but we sort-of simul-climbed it, with me placing a piece about every rope-length until I ran out of gear at the base of the first upper Pitch.

Jen led P1, up through the crux right-facing dihedral, belaying from a large flake below the platform mentioned in the route description where she ran out of gear. The bottom of the dihedral was tricky, but there were good feet on the left-hand side, and good protection. I led P2, right around a corner, then up past the platform, staying mostly on the right-hand side of the buttress, and belayed from an unfortunately cold spot on the right (shady) side of the ridge.

Jen led P3, going straight up and back into the sun, then up near the spine of the ridge on some fun knobs, placing an unfortunately large number of small nuts. I leaned back on the anchor to catch what sun I could, but by the time it was my turn to climb, my teeth were chattering and my hands were clumsy and cold. I dreaded every move to the shady right-hand side of the ridge, and struggled to remove the tiny nuts.

I led P4, up the ridge, then to the right to avoid a reportedly 5.10 headwall near the top. The moving to the right made use of a small but nice step in a right-facing corner with a crack at the corner to protect the move. Unfortunately, the corner added brutal rope-drag, and I had to continue by pulling out some slack, then climbing until I was stopped. I belayed where I could no longer make forward progress, just below the summit. Jen led a final, easy mini-pitch, belaying directly from the summit.

I was pleased to find the book with Norman Clyde’s photo still there, containing my entry from 2008. I was less pleased by the fog covering the east side of the ridge, since the route-finding on the descent is not obvious. After summit fish, we packed up and followed the ridge north, easily finding the chimney onto the NNW face.

We bootied most of the ridiculous profusion of rap stations on the face; I picked up a near-new double-length sling and a wire-gate ‘biner, along with various sun-bleached garbage. After a few premature attempts, I found a couple ducks leading to the crossover point to the east side of the ridge. From there, it was a short scramble along the ridge and down a ramp, and a long walk to the trailhead.