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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

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

Charlotte Dome with Jay, Haimei and Ray. 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

August 24, 2009 at 2:15 pm

Posted in Rock Climbing

Crystal Crag

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20090803:  Day 3

After yesterday’s adventure on Walker Tower, we had a late breakfast at the Base Camp Cafe before taking a more mellow day – the North Arete on Crystal Crag.  This is a classic II 5.6 route outside of Mammoth, featuring three pitches of steady 5.6 and another 600′ or so of 4th class ridge scrambling.  After the “II 5.6” of the previous day, this was a nice walk in the park for Jay and Haimei.

 
crystal crag / the north arete follows the right-most corner 
for a pitch / pitch 2 follows ramps up and left / and the 
final fifth-class pitch climbs a chimney to the crystal band / 
about 600′ of 4th class ridge climbing gains the summit

smiling on another summit!

In only 5:30 hours we had approached, climbed the North Arete, tagged the summit, descended the SW Ledges (3rd class), and hiked back to the car.  Nice day!

Chris Simmons is an AMGA Certified Alpine Guide and a Rock, Alpine, and Ski Guide for SMC.  More about his adventures can be found on his personal website, Climb.Ski.Run.Sleep.Repeat.

Written by Chris

August 22, 2009 at 6:35 pm

The Walker Tower (5-6 pitches, 5.7)

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20090802:  DAY 2!  In R.J. Secor’s book, a multi-pitch climb is mentioned to exist in Bloody Canyon, just north of June Lake.  The first tower on the left supposedly had a route following the right side of a larger corner on the prow of the tower, up to 5.6.  The whole description took up three lines as a “wrinkle”, fitting for a route established in the early 1970’s:

“There is a II 5.6 route on the easternmost pinnacle.  Climb the face to the right of a black open book, and then the book itself for eight pitches to the top of the pinnacle.  This was first climbed October 1972 by Art Buck and Allan Fletcher.”

Secor, The High Sierra, 2nd. ed., pg 376

walker tower / the buck-fletcher route follows a corner 
system in the shade just right of the arete

Three previous attempts, as a solo, mock-guiding, and an actual guided trip (thanks Carlton!) had gotten me up the first three pitches, but two more were clearly needed to top out.  A 60-meter rope cut down on the number of pitches that Buck and Fletcher had established, but I’m still scratching my head over how an 8-pitch climb could be called a grade II.  I talked a good game to Heimei and Jay, so they bit the bait and signed up to go for an adventure.  Oh boy.

haimei and jay finishing pitch 3 / this could normally 
be pitch 2 with a 60-meter ropes / they’re smiling!

First, we were using 55m ropes (chopped 60m’s) and suddenly those great belay ledges on the right side were just out of reach, so we had to belay, and climb in and out of, the dirtier corner, and it took three pitches to climb the lower corner instead of two.  Then I climbed through the roof pitch instead of staying on the right wall:  The climbing through the roof was cool, but the remaining 100′ was un-inspiring.  The next pitch was the meat and potatoes – a steep corner requiring careful stemming.  Again, a 60-meter rope would have put us at a great belay stance instead of in a cramped corner.  And it didn’t let up!  The final corner was a squeeze chimney, complete with pack-hanging-off-the-waist before gaining some blessed 4th class terrain to the summit.

still smiling on the summit!

A quick bit of short roping gained us the notch behind the tower, and the descent.  We finished the hike to the car right after dark by the light of a full moon and two headlamps.  Jay won’t make that mistake again!

Now that a week has worn away the edges of my memory, the climb wasn’t so bad, but it needs an early start (plan for an 8-10 hour day), a 60-meter rope, some cleaning to make it worthwhile.  Its also stiff for the reported grade – my compromise is to call it a II/III 5.7.  Jay and Haimei still insist that it was the adventure they had been looking for.  Not sure if I’ll head back there anytime soon, but I can be talked into it…

Chris Simmons is an AMGA Certified Alpine Guide and a Rock, Alpine, and Ski Guide for SMC.  More about his adventures can be found on his personal site, Climb.Ski.Run.Sleep.Repeat. 

Written by Chris

August 20, 2009 at 6:33 pm

Posted in Rock Climbing

Tagged with , ,

Big Springs Rock Climbing!!

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Jay and Heimei joined me again this year for a few days of rock climbing.  August 1st was day one, so we took it mellow and went to a sector of Big Springs that’s new to me:  The Stumps.  Big Springs is better known for Clark Canyon, but the stumps featured 60-150′ trad climbs up remarkably good welded tuff.  We climbed a 5.6, 5.7, 5.7, 5.9, and finally a 150′ 5.8 with a great finish not shown in the guidebook.  What a great time!

Chris Simmons is an AMGA Certified Alpine Guide and a Rock, Alpine, and Ski Guide for SMC.  Check out his adventures at his personal website:  Climb.Ski.Run.Sleep.Repeat.

Written by Chris

August 13, 2009 at 4:33 pm

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