By Aaron Richards
Most of the big climbs I do in the Sierra are thanks to my friend Ian McEleney. He comes up with stupid ideas and I’m dumb enough to join him. Well, payback is a bitch: When I came up with the idea of stacking Peter Croft’s “Big Four” alpine routes car-to-car and back-to-back in four long days, Ian felt obligated to return the favor. The following is an account of our time on what we dubbed the 4×4.
Day 1: Keeler Needle
CtoC: 15.5 hours
FA: Warren Harding, Glen Denny, Rob McKnight and Desert Frank, 1960
FFA: Galen Rowell and Chris Vandiver, 1976
After a short five hours of sleep (how did we screw that up?), Ian and I find ourselves hiking up the North Fork of Big Pine Creek. We both guide here frequently and could do the approach with our eyes closed. But aside from the familiarity, there’s not much to complain about. The Whitney Zone is home to an amazing number of great routes: the East Face and the East Buttress of Mt. Whitney; the Mithril Dihedral, Fishhook Arête and the East Ridge on Mt. Russell; and many more.
I take the first block to the 4th class, a natural transition point. Above, Ian squirms up the infamous off-width, which—between the two of us—is his specialty. After getting us through the blue-collar climbing, Ian somehow wanders around lost on the upper pitches, costing us at least an hour. (In case you’re doing the math, an hour here translates to an hour less sleep. Not awesome.) After a stupidly cruxy ending, we top out at 4 p.m., transition and head down the old ditch, aka the Mountaineer’s Route.
By 7:30 p.m., we’re back to the car and head into Lone Pine for some calories in the form of Chinese Food from the Merry Go Round. Back in the car, flying up the 395 and listening to the Imperial March from Star Wars (neither of us is big into jam bands), we decide we should aim for at least six hours of sleep. We’re prepped and in bed by 10 p.m. with alarms set for 4 a.m. I keep telling myself that all we have to do is wake up and start hiking; our muscles will do the rest.
Day 2: Dark Star
CtoC: 14.5 hours
FA: Doug Robinson, John Fischer, Jay Jensen, and Gordon Wiltsie; 1975
For some reason waking up this morning doesn’t feel awesome, but Ian’s premade breakfast burritos and a quick VIA get us going. After about two-and-a-half hours of hiking up, we make it to the beach at Second Lake. Here, as if by a trick of our tired minds, we see a man who contributed immensely to the development of the palisades and climbed with the very same party that put up the route we’re headed to climb: Doug Robinson. A charger of his time, Doug is out with his partner Eva to scout a new route somewhere on Temple Crag. He chats us up and sends us on our way feeling like the Celestial Temple has blessed us with an encounter with one of its deities.
As on Day 1, I take the a.m. block and cruise the first 200-foot pitch. It’s the crux for the route so I’m guessing the rest of the day will be casual. As Ian arrives, I grab our gear and blast off again, only to find myself lost in a total vortex of granite; as I climb every inch of rock in a 150-foot radius, the good feelings from the morning’s encounter vanish. In my dazed exploration the only coherent thought I can formulate is the hope that Doug isn’t watching from below. Finally, after an eternity, I build an anchor in the middle of nowhere and, defeated, bring Ian up. Proving that I was truly in a vortex, Ian kindly takes the lead and finds the anchor that eluded me for hours in just a few seconds. I curse, but we’re now off, simul-climbing up to the chimney that’s a few hundred feet above. The lack of sleep tonight will be on my shoulders.
The rest of the route goes smoothly over terrain we can move quickly in. Dark Star is not as much of a rock climb as a mountainous ridge climb, something that Ian and I do a lot of. We tag the summit and head toward one of the worst descents in the Eastern Sierra: Contact Pass.
The following day, in 16.5 hours, Sierra Mountain Center guide Braden Downey will solo three routes on Temple Crag (Sun Ribbon, Moon Goddess and Venusian Blind), summiting three times and, most impressively, surviving the same number of slides down Contact Pass. The night brings us up to Mammoth, where Ian’s wife, Jess, has made a delicious meal, kept warm for our late arrival of 9:30 p.m. She preps our breakfast for the morning and gets us to bed at the reasonable hour of 11.
Day 3: SW Face of Conness
CtoC: 13.5 hours
FA: Warren Harding, Herb Swedland, Glen Denny; 1959
FFA: Galen Rowell and Chris Vandiver; 1976
With two days down and what I think is going to be an easy climb ahead of us, I wake up feeling stoked. Ian and I take our time leaving the house and aren’t on the trail until 7:30 a.m., but the late start doesn’t worry us; we have this one in the bag.
How crushing overconfidence can be. Arriving at the gully off of the Conness Plateau and descending to the start of the route, I look up at the huge wall ahead of us and almost don’t want to put words to what I’m seeing: water running off the upper pitches.
Ian and I ultimately agree to failing up rather than throwing in the towel at the base, but we take our time racking up. I’m on lead for the first block again but commit to climbing everything on this mountain if Ian will do the dirty work of squeezing up the off-width. I’m tired and try to avoid some water by climbing a variation. It feels hard, but I get the rope up. On the second pitch, exhaustion gets the better of me and while trying to pull the technical crux of the route I take and weight the rope on an orange TCU. After a few minutes of rest, I send the pitch and curse myself for being mentally weak. Ian, honoring our agreement, puts the rope up on the off-width, despite it being a little damp—strong work that I could only barely follow without weighting the rope again.
Halfway up Conness, both exhausted, we have a rare moment in which neither of us wants to be on the sharp end. We sit for a few minutes. Ian says nothing. I slowly and silently rack up for another dripping wet pitch. In what feels like an eternity—this is mentally the hardest stretch of climbing I’ve ever encountered—it relinquishes itself. The rest of the route covers easy terrain and we sail to the top.
Well off our schedule and feeling a tad defeated, we walk back to the car and are in the Mobile parking lot cooking freeze dried food at 9:30 p.m.
Day 4: Ygdrasil aka Red Dihedral
CtoC: 12.5 hours
FA: Dale Bard, Bob Locke, Mike Farell; 1975
You guessed it: Another six hours of sleep has us starting through the navigational crux of the Twin Lakes campground. A crudely drawn map on the bathroom wall produces key beta. Both of us are feeling good. We might send, we’re headed to a climb that neither of us has done, and best of all we know that it’s mostly straightforward.
We solo up 4th class to a stance and the start of the first pitch. In about 200 feet, we’ll be at the best bit of rock climbing in our four-day tour. It’s my lead again and I’m stoked; usually you have to fight for the first block of this climb. Immediately I almost blow it on the opening moves of an easy 5.8 bulge. After this performance, I wonder how the sustained 5.9 is going to feel. I try not to think about it and just keep climbing. The dihedral holds up to its reputation and is great; it would have been pure ecstasy if it weren’t for incredibly sore hands and feet.
One last pitch of leading and Ian takes over. I feel like I’m done and finally with nothing coming tomorrow, I enjoy the pleasure of just following. Ian dispenses the upper pitches smoothly and efficiently. Together we figure out the descent, which although not great isn’t that bad by Sierra standards. Hiking out, we pray that the hoards of people in the campground will ignore the rope and helmets on our packs. In our state, we’re not exactly sure what will come out of our mouths when asked the standard climbing questions posed by nonclimbers. Miraculously, we’re left to ourselves and slink back to Ian’s house for frozen pizza. We even manage a single beer each before falling asleep.
I (Sp) am back in New Zealand for a few weeks and filling it with some hiking, climbing and enjoying the country.
The great thing about NZ “tramping” is that there are lots of tracks, fantastic views and a great hut system. The bad thing is that there are lots of biting sandflies, rain and nothing is easy. But sometimes rewards are directly proportional to effort.
With my brother-in-law Martin I did a two day hike up to kiwi Saddle hut, up Mount Patriach and down to John Reid hut and out down Chummies track. The huts here are small 6 bunk ones, basic but shelter and no need to carry a tent. We awoke to cloud and gloom but after hiking for less than an hour were out and on top of it all with cloud filling the valleys and perfect clear blue skies above. More of a route than a track along the tops, but easy to follow in fine weather the route gives views from one side of the South Island to the other.
No wind, warm temps and easy hiking along the open tops made it a day to remember. The 3000 foot descent is also something to remember too. Classic NZ, straight down the fall line and wasting no time about it. A few steps axed out of the dirt here and there to give the illusion of security. Would not be called a track in the USA and the Park or Forest Service would close it and warn people away. Here it is go ahead, but know the risks and look after yourself. And people do. We even saw a family with two 7 and 11 year old girls doing the trip. “Good on ya”
The Wet West Coast
West side of the South Island has always had a reputation. Annual rainfall here can be up to almost 60 feet of water. The forest is rainforest and often a battle to get through. Rivers come up and people are stranded for days. A bridge on the main highway washed out here three weeks ago after over two feet of rain in six hours.
So getting around is a problem.
With a flight to catch in a few days I could not afford to get stuck so I took a short hike up to the Mt Brown hut, a short but steep four hour hike. In the 1960s and 1970 the NZ Forest Service built a lot of backcountry huts. Over the years these slowly deteriorated, but as is the case with government departments everywhere there is little money available these days to maintain them. Consequently there has been a move to allow local clubs and interested people to maintain them. This is the case with Mt Brown which was completely rebuilt by a group of locals from Hokitika using some materials from an old nearby hut and then lots of new materials flown to the site. It makes for the perfect place to go quickly with few of the problems of the west coast.
The hut even has it’s own Facebook page.
Had the place to my self except for a curious weka. A perfect sunset with the sun slanting in under leaden skies and a small coal stove to chase the chill away.
Doesn’t come much better.
Mt Owen aka Moria Jan. 2013
Owen is the high point of Kahurangi National Park and also had a moment of fleeting fame as one of the settings for Lord of the Rings. Even has a summit dragon.
More importantly it has a wonderful new hut and spectacular limestone karst terrain and is about an hour from my sisters home in Motueka.
About 3-4 hours for the roadhead to the Granity Pass Hut. I got there under clear skies and since you do not want to miss any such opportunities in NZ I headed on up the peak. The route follows rolling tussock covered hills and then into eroded rock with flat slabs and deep slots. Someone went missing here a few weeks ago and has still not been found. From the top views are from one side of the South Island to the other with clear blue skies, but within 30 minutes of getting back to the hut rain set in and has not stopped yet. But a big part of NZ tramping is walking in the dripping forest amidst the sound of bellbirds and tuis. Just got to learn to love it.
Tapi is the highest point in New Zealand outside of the main Divide and I have wanted to climb it for over 40 years. So I connected with an old friend Penny, from the old days of university back in the 1970s, and she flew down from Auckland and we made a quick trip since the forecast was fine for a few days.
It is in the Kaikoura Mountains on the east side of the northern part of the South Island and in the rain shadow of the biggest peaks so although a dry environment there are sill rivers to deal with and the approach is 22km up a river bed with 70 to 80 river crossing in knee to waist deep water and a climb of 1000meters to a pair of small huts.
The huts are typical small NZ mountain huts, sturdy shelter from the storm with bunk ,mattresses and amazing views. The NZ hut system is just wonderful.
From here it is about 1500 meters to the summit up rock and 35 degree snow. We topped out in moderate winds but not a cloud to be seen anywhere. Views down the range to the higher peaks and the endless blue of the Pacific Ocean. Do not get too may days like this in NZ.
My wife Chris and I want to tell you what a fabulous experience the Whitney Cottonwood trip was. Much better than we hoped it would be. It was one, if not the best, vacation experiences we have ever participated in. Our leaders, Aaron and Jessica were marvelous–patient, caring, helpful, knowledgeable, and good-humoured. In addition, they are terrific cooks. We never expected to eat so well! We can’t say enough good things about them. And Max Kozak the packer was a delight as well.
In addition, we want to thank you for all the terrific advice and help that you provided to us before departure. We had a feeling that SMC was a very competent organization from the way you handled your job and we were not at all disappointed. We would recommend SMC trips to anyone. It was an all-around job well done by everyone and we are so glad that we took part. We wish we were back in the Sierra!
Boundary Peak is the high point of Nevada and we get a number of people who are doing all of the high points of the 50 states wanting to do it. This was the case with Jayme and Don Holcomb.
This was a warm up before Whitney, but with no good trail and the dry desert air this might actually be harder.
We stayed at SP’s Nevada place just on the other side of the highway the night before and got a dawn start up the trail, watching the sun come up over the ranges tot eh east.
We were 4.5 hours up and 2.5 down which is a great time and along the way we saw a band of mustangs which was great end to the day.