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The Four by Four

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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

Heading to Keeler Needle.

Heading to Keeler Needle.

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.

Ian on the third pitch of Keeler Needle

Ian on the third pitch of Keeler Needle

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.

One down.

One down.

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

Looking at Dark Star.

Dark Star from Second Lake.


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.

Just a little bit of 4th class ridge climbing.

Just a little bit of 4th class ridge climbing. – Ian McEleney

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.

Two down.

Two down. – Ian McEleney

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.

We did a lot of this… hiking in.

We did a lot of this. – Ian McEleney

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.

Ahh, sun

Ahh, sun

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.

Three down.

Three down. – Ian McEleney

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.

The Incredible Hulk.

The Incredible Hulk.

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.

oh yeah - that is some good rock climbing.

High up on the Hulk.

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.



Four down - time for some sleep.

Four down. Time for some sleep. – Ian McEleney


Written by aalrich

July 13, 2014 at 11:07 pm

Clarence King, Mt Cotter and Mt Gardiner with Linda Emerson 7.2012

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This is the eight trip that Linda and SP have done as Linda works her way to completing all of the Sierra Peaks list. We intended to do this trip two years ago and then last year, but things got in the way. The third time was however a charm and went just perfectly with no fuss and no drama. Just what a guide wants.

We were slated to go in on Monday using the services of Pine Creek Pack station, but that day was stormy and unsettled so we delayed a day – much to the joy of Cricket, the packer, who had just come out from a big storm in French Canyon. We were on the trail early and made short work of the 11.5 miles over to beautiful Rae Lakes. Here we waited for Cricket to show with our packs. He finally arrived tired and sore with his horse Leroy limping after cutting a fetlock on the descent from Glenn Pass.

So we shouldered the packs for just an hour over into Sixty Lakes Basin and set up camp just as two Bighorn Sheep rams crossed the ridge behind us. They had no fear and not a lot of curiosity about us. Too many other more important things to do.

Next day we set off about 6.30 to Clarence King. This was about a 10.5 hour day up the southwest side and back the same way. First climbed by Bolton Brown in 1896 and at that time was probably the hardest climb in North America with a 5.4 summit block. The summit is a superb gently sloping block with spectacular drops all around.

Day three was a similar get up when you wake up day and we headed over to Mount Gardiner. From CK the approach looked like ugly talus but it turned out to be pretty solid and the NE gave delightful scrambling. The last 300 feet to the summit is a genuine knife edge and once again we used the rope for security. Back down the same way we went and took a high line back to Sixty Lakes Pass and along the way discovered a superb wall of clean grey granite studded with black chickenheads allover. A flat ledge at the base completed the perfection. If only it was not two days to get here….

Day four we headed to the closest peak, Cotter. This also turned out to be a perfect scramble on great rock.The only fly in the ointment was that someone had stolen the summit register. This is now an issue on lots of Sierra Peaks. Proponents of  it claim it is litter or they are stolen for historical value. These registers are a link to the past and those who have gone before and are the history of our climbing community and brethren. When Linda and I climbed Black Kaweah one of the rewards was to see Norman Clyde’s entry alongside that of Walter Starr junior written in his own blood. Now it is stolen from everyone. Leave them there. They belong on the peaks not in a basement.

We were back in camp before 11.00am so we decided to start on out again over Glenn and Kearsarge Passes. We spent the night under whitebark pines and a bright half moon just shy of Kearsarge Pass and were down in time for breakfast at Jenny’s cafe in Independence.

All in all this was a perfect trip.Not a breath of wind for five days, clear perfect nights and day under the peerless cobalt skies of California. The clear green lakes and gleaming white granite. What else does anyone ever want?


Written by SP Parker

July 30, 2012 at 12:28 am

Posted in Alpine Climbing

2 Day Mountaineers Route on Whitney

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This week I was lucky enough to get to do our most popular trip in a two-day mega push with Luc Peltier.

SMC Trip coming down the ledges.

On our first day, climbing a little higher than usual, we made it to about 12,000 ft.  At one of my favorite spots we set up camp: a set of rock ledges with snow melt for water and a great view of both the North Fork drainage and Mt. Whitney.

During the day the weather was warm, and the snow felt soft under our feet.  Expecting a change in weather that evening and for the next day we weren’t surprised when the temperature started dropping with the sun.  That night the mercury stooped into the single digits, wind blasted our tent, and snowfall accumulated into a couple of inches of cold fluffy powder.

Creek crossing on the way up.

Creek crossing on the way down.

Morning came much too early, at 3:30 a.m.  I was up to start melting the ice block that was going to be hot water for our breakfast.  Two hours later, after a slow cup of coffee, we headed out to see if we would get lucky in the inclement weather.  The snow was now firm from the night’s freeze, and we made it to Iceberg Lake in less than an hour.  Still not knowing if the precipitation and wind would stop us from making the summit, we started up the Mountaineers’ Gully with one solo climber ahead of us.  The farther we climbed, the better the weather seemed to get. It was still cold and windy, but the snow had stopped and we were making good time.  At the notch we had clear skies and there was no doubt now that we were going to make it.

Starting to look good for the climb up.

At the summit for the second time this season, we were again huddled inside the stone shelter to warm up and refuel.  Going back down always feels fast after the long push up steep slopes. We were back in camp by 1 p.m. after leaving the summit at 10 a.m.  By this time, snow had started to fall again, temperatures were cold and the wind had picked back up.  We climbed inside the tent, lit the stove and waited to make soup and coffee to power us for the 4000-ft descent back to the cars.  The hike out was relatively uneventful despite tired legs and the relentless snowfall that kept up all the way down to the portal.
Grateful to be back at the cars, we decided to support Doug and the Portal Store by grabbing a beer in a warm environment.

Getting a little power for the way down.

Nice work, Luc, on your two-day Mountaineers’ trip.  Thanks for a fantastic time!

Written by aalrich

June 6, 2011 at 2:18 pm

Mount Whitney with a group from Japan

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This has been one heck of a spring in the Sierra. One day is a perfect spring day; the next four are full on winter. The snow pack is still not melting and we have had to cancel trips because of the quantity of snow.

But we have been lucky on Mount Whitney and managed to get to the summit on all of our trips including this one. We have worked with Katsuhiro Yamashita, a Japanese IFMGA guide, before and this year he brought a group of five women and one man to climb Whitney in a quick one week trip from Japan. All of the group was older with the youngest being 59 and the oldest 69. One woman had also climbed all of the Seven Summits as well as a host of other peaks.

We left Whitney Portal on June 26th. This spring has been typified by strong winds and this trip was no exception and was with us all of this trip. Above Lower Boy Scout Lake it is solid snow, but we were lucky to find bare ground for camp at Upper Boy Scout Lake..

Overnight we had cloud and sprinkles and were not sure about the 27th. We left early and made good time with easy cramponing on firm snow. Travel up the Mountaineers Gully went well with the snow but the final section to the summit was definitely hard than without snow. We were on top by midday in a very strong wind but with fantastically clear skies. We were able to be able to see all the way tot he Coast Range, the San Bernadinos and barely, San Jacinto above Pal Springs. These days there are few times you can do this!

The snow had softened a lot by the time we headed down so it was hard work back to camp. But all went well and by midday on the 28th we were back at the Portal enjoying Doug’s burgers and fries.

It was great to work with this group and in particular the ladies were tough.  No one was taller than 5 foot six inches, were not used to carrying a big backcountry pack and had to adapt to the carry out your own waste system. Some had not been to four thousand meters before, but everyone smiled, had a great time and was happy to be in the mountains of California.

Written by SP Parker

June 6, 2011 at 2:14 pm

The First Mountaineers Trip of 2011

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20-22 MAY 2011

Aaron, Heather, Regina, and SMC Guide Aaron

Headed up Whitney for the first, but not the last, time this season with three great clients: Heather Krauss, Regina Froemmiling and Aaron Howell.  The forecast looked more like winter than a mid-May spring trip.  I think that we all dressed a little too heavily for the warm sunny weather that was our actual Friday.  Conditions were great; we hit soft snow on the slopes, clean rock on the ledges and had crystal clear skies.
Up early on day two to beat the forecasted storm we silently forced down some food, strapped on our crampons and started hiking.  Just below Iceberg Lake the morning alpine glow set in and illuminated all 14,495 feet of our objective.

Happy climbers as the alpine glow warms the surrounding peaks.

Beautiful!  Moving into the mountaineers gully we were slowed to a snail’s pace by knee-deep snow  blown in from a recent storm.  But we slogged on…

Descending down, down, down...

Reaching the notch just as it started to snow on us, we grabbed a view to the west before being enveloped in clouds for the rest of the climb.  Excitement to be at the top was only slightly dampened but the lack of a full panorama.  We hunkered down inside the small summit shed to keep warm and refuel our bodies for the descent. Three short belayed pitches of down climbing, 1,500 feet of plunge stepping and a few miles of hiking brought us back to our beloved camping spot, and DINNER!!!

12,000' Kitchen and Camp Site

Day three brought clear skies again, with only our memories of a cloudy, wintery climb the day before.  The hike down felt easy with lightened packs and every step bringing us closer to our cars.  It wasn’t the easiest, it might have been the hardest, but it was definitely a memorable trip.  Thank you Heather, Regina, and Aaron!

Written by aalrich

May 24, 2011 at 2:49 am

Posted in Alpine Climbing

Charlotte Dome with Ray, Jay and Haimei August 9-11, 2009

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Charlotte Dome is one of the finest climbs in the Sierra backcountry. Every single pitch is excellent and the climbing challenging, but not too hard. if only it was not such along walk…..
The approach is about 12 miles one way and makes for a long day.
But the campsite is at one of the best springs in the Sierra with cold clear water bubbling from a hole between rocks.
A wonderful place to hang out.
Jay and Haimei had been here climbing for a week before with us and were tuned up. Ray is an “old school” climber with lots of experience so guides SP and Gonzalo knew that things were going to be OK.
The approach hike went well and we were at camp by 4.00pm, with time to get organized for the next day.
We travelled light and decided to wear rock shoes to the base and down the descent hard on the feet but making the climbing a lot easier.
We were moving to the base at first light and having done the climb before easily found the start, which can be a crux for many.
The route starts out low angle and slowly gets steeper.
The rock is perfect golden granite with knobs everywhere. The ‘Slot” at 5.8 is only about 80 feet long and if you stay out of the crack is not too bad.
For the leader the mental crux is a full rope length of pretty unprotected face and slab climbing on the 9th pitch, but is easy for the followers.
The winds kicked up during the day but this is typical and the clouds and thunderstorms stayed away.
We topped out about 3.30 and the descent to camp is straightforward and easy down slabs and forest, direct to camp where everyone crashed out.
A perfect climb and one all Sierra climbing devotees should do.

Written by SP Parker

May 3, 2011 at 7:05 pm

North Palisade, Starlight & Thunderbolt with Joe Maher and Dan Gelinas. 8.13-15.09

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We have done lots of trips with Joe over the years and Dan was on the Mini Mountain Camp with Eric earlier in the year.
Both guys were in great shape and knew what they were up for so guide SP PArker and apprentice Gonzalo Montenegro were happy to be able to move quickly and smoothly with them for three days.
We hiked in over Bishop Pass on day one and made camp in the upper reaches of Palisade Basin at the small tarn we use for our Fourteeners trip .
The goal of the trip was to traverse three peaks in one day so we were off before daylight and were on top of North Pal three hours after starting. We took the so called “Secor Variation” to the Le Conte Route. This provides an easy traverse onto North Pal above the difficulties of the Le Conte Route and is the fastest way to the summit.
The descent into the notch between North Pal and Starlight is tricky and involves a couple of rappels and downclimbing. More time consuming than difficult and it was lunchtime when we got to Starlight.
Gonzalo lead the no protection 5.7 to the top of the Milkbottle and Joe and Dan sweated their way up.
Then on to Thunderbolt, descending into the Underhill Couloir Notch and then up the South Ridge to the summit block. This is best done by tossing a rope over and top roping the block.
Unfortunately the trend of removing summit registers has reached here and it was gone last year. No reason for this. If someone does not like the registers, then just don’t sign in and leave it for others who do!
A final rappel to the chute north of Thunderbolt and a long talus descent back to camp for a nap.
We were up early the next morning for the hike back down from Bishop Pass and we were out having Joe’s crackers, lox and champagne by early afternoon. A perfect way to finish!

Written by SP Parker

August 26, 2009 at 2:18 am

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