Sat, Jul 31, 2004
The first day of the Challenge always involves a bit of speculation to see who will actually show up at the trailhead. In the first year there were half a dozen folks signed up, but only one actually showed up at Twin Lakes for the climb of Matterhorn Peak. In subsequent years we had five show up in 2002, four in 2003. Today there were a whopping 16 folks signed up for a dayhike to Mt. Conness. True, it was probably the easiest outing ever planned for a Challenge, but that was still a lot of folks. For an event with very little formal organization and an event coordinator who was far more interested in hiking & climbing than in organizing, I was a bit overwhelmed by the prospect. Wilderness regulations don't require permits for dayhikes, but they do limit the size of parties travelling cross-country to eight. Will someone actually cite us if we have more than that?
As I arrived at the end of the road to Saddlebag Lake shortly before 6a, I found there were already 8 cars lined up with a flurry of activity outside, folks preparing daypacks, ropes, and climbing gear. I pulled up, got out, and with my list of names in hand went around introducing myself and furtively trying to remember faces to names. I'm generally terrible at remembering names and have been known to forget a name less than 15 seconds after an introduction on many occasions, but with my written list I did pretty good for myself. More cars pulled up, and before we were ready to go just after 6a we had our full bevy of 16 plus a few more. The main event was the class 5 North Ridge of Mt. Conness, a route we planned to climb mostly solo, using ropes if necessary at the downclimb from the Second Tower. The bonus peak (bonus peaks came into vogue on the second Challenge when it seemed a single peak wasn't quite challenging enough) was nearby North Peak, and 8 of the participants were planning to climb its Northwest Ridge in addition to Conness. Two participants, Michelle & Tom, planned to climb just the North Ridge of Conness while the remaining 8 headed up Conness's class 2-3 East Ridge. I had climbed North Peak twice already, the last time with Matthew a month earlier by the same route planned for today. We had found it such an enjoyable outing that I modified the route plan for North Peak from the slog up the Southeast Slope to this more enjoyable alternative.
I headed out with the group of 8 to North Peak (+ 2 heading to Conness's North Ridge), setting Matthew loose in the front to set his usual quick pace that no else seems to be able to keep up with. It didn't take long for him to build a lead, but he never got far out of sight. We cruised around the west end of Saddlebag Lake and took the trail to Steelhead Lake, passing around North Peak to our left. Just before reaching it we took a use trail leading to the left (west), a fine trail that Matthew and I had failed to find on our first visit. We followed the trail through the unnamed lakes southwest of Steelhead, and then up the grassy slope to the high alpine benches east of the start of the route. We left the use trail where it seemed to head more north than desireable, and traversed the slopes along the grassy bench to the start of the route.
By the time we reached the start it was 7:40a, and our group of 8 was spread out over a few hundred yards. I hung out near the end of the line with Matthew and Christianne, partly to make sure nobody got left behind and partly because Christianne's company was both novel and more interesting than the standard group of guys heading up the front. Nothing wrong with the guys mind you - all very fine fellows, a number of whom I've climbed with in the past, but having a woman in the group was something new. There were two women who had signed up for the Challenge, and though others had done so in previous Challenges, none had actually showed up at the trailhead. Christianne (never did learn her last name) hailed from Southern California, having made quite a drive up US395 to attend for this one day.
It was a pleasant and enjoyable climb even as a repeat, and I took the opportunity to take a number of pictures at the more interesting gaps to be crossed, and the steeper knife-edge sections in the middle of the route. There were three such gaps to be crossed though Matthew and I both only remembered two previously, a odd fact that we both found amusing since it pointed out the sad nature of our poor memories. It seemed that nobody followed the same route through these gaps, each taking slightly different variations ranging from class 3 to class 5 depending on how the mood struck them. Past the gaps we came to the steepest and most enjoyable part of the ridge. Sam was already atop it before I had even started, though but five minutes ahead that's how short this part was). I moved quicker now, abandoning the back and passing a few others while enjoying the entire experience immensely - great rock, great views, great weather, and great companions. Everyone seemed to be similarly enjoying the day and all that went with it.
The ridge tops out while little more than half the way to the summit, and the rest of the route is an easy class 1-2 hike to the summit. Because it followed such a good bit of rock, this part seemed tedious, but it wasn't all that bad. One could stay closer to the ridge for a more boulder-ish experience, or move right towards the sandy slopes/ledges of the west side. I followed behind Sam at some distance, not intentionally - I just couldn't keep up his pace. The rest were behind me at various distances. A few hundred yards from the summit I caught up to Sam, resting himself on a boulder to catch his breath. As I approached he looked up at me and jokingly commented, "I don't know if I can make it." I looked at my watch and replied, "It's already 8:35a, well past our turnaround time. We'd better head down." And so we headed off to the summit, clambering over the large-sized boulders at the summit, topping out a few minutes later. Within 10 minutes Rich, Joel, Michael, and Mark had all joined us, and we took a short break for snacks and to sign the summit register. We took particular interest in Mt. Conness's North Ridge, quite formidable-looking from our perch a mile away. After about 20 minutes the others were getting ansty to head off though Matthew and Christianne had still to put in an appearance. I told the others to head off while I waited atop for the other two (an unusual amount of patience on my part). I would have loved to have headed off earlier, but some sense of responsibility kept me back. Perhaps a bigger reason was a pang of guilt (only a small one, mind you) in having conned Matthew into carrying one of the ropes (Mark was carrying another one). Here I was with a virtually empty pack, carrying little more than a light jacket, climbing shoes, and a few water bottles, while Matthew was hefting the 50m, 10.5mm rope weighing it at something less than painful, but certainly more than annoying. I had arranged to have Matthew carry it to the summit of Conness, and then Sam to carry it down from there, myself getting off scott-free as the reward for acting as rope-broker. Matthew and Chistianne arrived shortly after 9a, smiling and in all appearances having enjoyed themselves as much as everyone else. Matthew was all too happy to let me take the rope from him. I stuffed it in my pack, and in hindsight I have to say it was a good trade, weighing in less than the guilt I was carrying in its stead. I took a last photo of the two taking their break at the summit, then headed down the southwest slope towards Mt. Conness.
I made good time cruising down to the saddle, across the southeast face of the intermediate peak, and to the start of Conness's North Ridge. The other 5 had a good head start, and it took until about halfway to the first tower before I caught up with them. The climbing was steep, enjoyable class 3, not terribly difficult at all, but some route-finding fun had us following in single file up the exposed ridgeline. It would not have been a good place to fall, and everyone seemed pretty deliberate in their moves as we made our way up. Down below some five hundred feet to the Conness Glacier we saw a lone figure making their way towards the headwall that reaches up to the North Ridge. Though we didn't know it at the time, he was one of our party, John, who had changed his mind and broken off from the East Ridge group earlier. He was looking for the reported class 3 route up the headwall to the North Ridge, but had little luck. It wasn't obvious at all to us above that a route up could be found, but John turned back after crossing the glacier due to altitude sickness. Our group of six traversed left under the first tower, then made the easy climb to the second tower. Up to this point the climbing had been relatively mild and enjoyable, but not overly challenging. That was about to change.
It was 10:15a when we reached the top of the second tower. Most parties use one or two rappels to descend the notch to the start of the summit tower. Rated 5.6, we'd brought ropes for this bit of spicy downclimbing, but I was hoping to be brave enough to find my way down without the rope. We saw Michelle below at the top of the second rappel station. Tom was ahead of her, having soloed both sections, Michelle had soloed the first rappel but had brought out the rope for the second. Heck, a girl could solo it, why couldn't we? Four of us started down from the top of the tower, but we soon found it wasn't quite so easy, and our twosome ahead of us were more skilled than we imagined (we were to find that of all the participants, they were the most skilled rock climbers among us). "You walked across this?" I called over. Michelle responded with a very casual "Yes, it's not that hard," which gave me some hope that maybe I'd overlooked something, but it was a frightful traverse across some grainy rock, and even with rock shoes on, neither myself, Sam, or any of the others could work up the nerve to give it a try. I voted for breaking out the rope and got no objections. Mark was perched atop the tower still, so he used his rope for setting up the rappel while those of us that had downclimbed some put on our harnesses. Sam dropped his belay device down a crack, and we probably would have made fun of him for it had we not all done similar moves in the past. Fortunately with some limber manuevering he was able to crawl down and retrieve it.
I went first down the rappel, then hiked over to the top of the second rappel. By this time Michelle had already descended, retrieved her rope, and joined Tom halfway up the summit tower. I pulled out my rope and set up the second rappel, tossing the rope down a near vertical dihedral to a ledge about 40 feet below. I waited atop the rappel as each of our large group descended the first rappel, then down the second. It was almost comical the number of people (now ten) that we had spread out on the North Ridge, possibly the most people that have ever been on this route at one time. With two rappels and eight people, it took over an hour to negotiate through this stretch. Matthew and Christianne timed it perfectly, joining us atop the Second Tower before the rest of us had completed that first rappel. Matthew came down second to last, hating rappels as much as always. He had a great deal of trouble just getting the rope on his rappel device. All his previous rappels had been with me, using a much thinner 8.5mm rope - it was easy to get the rope on the device, but more difficult to rappel with due to the lower friction. Christianne went over to offer some advice, and after more struggling she finally took over the task for him and got it on properly. Coming down last, Christianne claimed novice status at rappeling, but her form was very smooth and flawless - clearly she was a liar. Rich was another of our group claiming novice status at rock climbing, but he never lagged and I never saw him have any trouble anywhere the whole day. Maybe we had a pack of liars with us, but at least they were good fun.
Tom and Michelle were at the top of the summit tower (there was still a few hundred yards to the summit, but that part was out of view). Sam and Rich were halfway up as well, Mark, Joel, and Michael lower down. I was still waiting at the second rappel. Since I had to carry the rope to the summit, this seemed a better place to wait than at the bottom of the rappel since I had better views and could see everyone else along the route. I decided to try to solo down this section after Matthew had descended, but I ran out of nerve about halfway down where I didn't like the look of the next move in the dihedral. I would have felt very stupid falling at this point with the rope running down right next to me, unused. I climbed back out of my predicament and then went back down on rappel. Christianne brought up the rear and was the last one down. While the others were scrambling up towards the summit I pulled the rope down and stuffed it in my pack.
Climbing the summit tower was enjoyable climbing on good rock, mostly class 3-4 with some low class 5 in places. I tried to stay on the North Ridge proper where I could, but the easier faces were to the right on the northwest side. An impressive picture I'd seen of an exposed ledge on the left side had stuck in my mind, and I probed every notch on the North Ridge to look for this ledge. I found two places where I could traverse around on the left side where the Conness Glacier way down below presents far greater exposure than on the right side. But neither of these two traverses were as classic as that photograph I had seen, so I figured someone had taken it at an advantageous angle, or perhaps I had missed it. Everyone but Matthew and Christianne were ahead of me and already at the summit before I reached the easier class 2 portion of the ridge. Christianne had been following me for much of the way even though I was going out of my way to make it harder and more indirect. I paused to watch her negotiate down a chimney at one place where we had to backtrack, and there was nothing in watching her that would have made anyone think she was a novice.
As I approached the summit I could see a crowd sitting around, and I paused to snap a picture of one person snoozing away (turns out he wasn't with our group). Joel, Mark, Michael, and Sam were there when I arrived, while Rich, Michelle, and Tom had already headed down. The group that had come up the East Ridge route had come and gone over an hour ago. Aside from being atop the summit, I was most happy to unload my rope and give Sam the priviledge of carrying it back to the car. After Christianne arrived we got another gentleman at the summit not with our group to take a few photos of the six of us that were still at the peak. Another 15 minutes or so went by with still no sighting of Matthew, but I and a few others were ansty to head down, so off I went with Michael, Sam, and Joel.
We had heard that the class 3 East Ridge was a good scramble, so went off in that direction looking for some additional fun before the day was done. After descending the airy class 2 stairway off the summit, we hiked across the summit plateau to the top of the East Ridge. Our first impression was less than favorable as we stared down at what looked like crappy class 2 sandy ledges. Upon descending we found our first impressions were quite accurate - where was the class 3? Once we were down this first several hundred feet it became clear why some parties report easy climbing on the East Ridge. From this point one can descend to the south off the ridge towards Alpine Lake, and then hike back through the Carnegie Institute. Instead, we stuck to the East Ridge and soon came to the famed class 3 scrambling we'd been looking for. Turns out the best section isn't the steeper portion leading to the summit, but the fractured fin located north of Alpine Lake. We stayed on the very ridge as far as we could, or really as far as we could while still having fun, before being confronted with some difficult gendarmes. I'd been in the lead up to this point while we were scrambling along the top, but once I got stuck the others took no time to find an alternative. Michael lead us across an exposed series of ledges on the ridge's south side, several hundred feet above the easier class 2 we could see below. We expected to hit an impasse around every corner, but the ledges never gave out. They brought us back up to the ridgeline again just before the class 3 section ended, and we were soon on the easy class 2 of the ridge further east.
I had originally planned to follow the ridge all the way to its terminus at Saddlebag Lake, thinking it a more enjoyable excursion than the alternatives to the north or south. Michael had no such ambitions and planned to drop north off the saddle up ahead. Looking up at the additonal 300ft of climbing that would be required, and seeing no one else interested in the idea, I gave it up as well. The north side of the saddle is a broad chute filled from side to side with an enormous amount of talus, horrible looking at first glance. But fortune was with us as we spotted a use trail winding its way down through the mess. Michael and Joel went down without pausing, while I waited atop for a few minutes with Sam. Sam had taken off one of his boots, revealing a firmly taped foot, probably 3 yards worth. He was going to take some time to retape it, so on his advice I went down after the others. The chute brought us down to the southern shores of Greenstone Lake where we picked up a trail in the meadow there and took it back to Saddlebag Lake and the mile long march around its western shore. We got back to the dam and our cars at 3p, a very fine 9hr outing. We found Tom in the parking lot - he was getting his car to drive down to the campground where Michelle was waiting with their packs. John was there as well, waiting for Joel who was riding with him. The East Ridge group had all come back and gone by this time.
I went back to Lee Vining for a hot shower, and at 6p we all got together at the Whoa Nellie for dinner and retelling of stories. For pure fun, this was undoubtedly the most entertaining day of the whole Challenge, and most of the participants would concur. I was in bed by 8p that night since we planned a very early start for the next day, the longest of the challenges this year.
For more information see these SummitPost pages: North Peak - Mt. Conness
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