Fri, Jun 11, 2004
Although we didn't get to bed until midnight the night before, we were awake before 6a and surprisingly I was feeling pretty good on less than six hours of sleep. Still, it would not be an early start today by any means, and with the harder day planned the following day, we needed something of an easy one. I'd suggested Lone Pine or Thor Peak, and Matthew took an instant liking to the former, particularly the North Ridge. We knew that if we roped up for every pitch it'd take all day and then some, so our plan was straightforward, if not entirely reasonable: we'd solo as much of the 5.4 route as we could, and carry a rope and gear for any difficult pitch we ran into. After our success on the 5.6 West Ridge of Conness, this seemed a far easier prospect. What we didn't account for was the difficultly of route finding.
We drove from Bishop south to Lone Pine, then west on the Whitney Portal Road through the Alabama Hills and on up to Whitney Portal. Lone Pine Peak stands out as the most striking peak on the drive up, even more so than Mt. Whitney which sits a number of miles further west and pokes out more shyly. We parked our car at the Meysan Lake TH and headed out at 8a. We hiked through the campground, through the summer cabins, and picked up the Meysay Lake Trail, never seeing another soul until we returned to the campground later in the day. Having been up the trail before on a climb of Mt. LeConte two years earlier, the trail was quite familiar. It climbs steadily with switchbacks to keep the grade reasonable, but never really relenting. Almost from the beginning we had the North Ridge in view, and we stopped several times trying to assess the best way to approach the ridge. From across the canyon the northwest side of the mountain looked quite steep, and it wasn't obvious where one could breech the defenses to gain access to the ridge. For almost two hours we hiked up the trail, finally deciding to leave it where Secor recommended, just below Little Meysan Lake. We never saw the lake until we were higher on the mountain, and only then did we discover it wasn't really a lake but a small meadow, even in early June. Whether there ever is significant water in the lake any more is doubtful, and like Mirror Lake in Yosemite Valley, the "Lake" part of the name is worn out and should probably be replaced with "Meadow." We traversed across slabs and thin forest cover to Meysan Creek, filling our water bottles after crossing it, the last place we'd get water for many hours. On the other side we unxpectedly found short portions of a use trail, but not enough to take us to the base of the mountain. We headed across some easy moraine fields, aiming for a break in the northwest face that we had seen from the trail. This not only proved to be a viable way up, but an easy one at that. The whole face here was much less steep once we were at the base of the mountain, and a perfectly good use trail was evident where we started climbing. It was easy class 2 climbing diagonally up to the left for maybe a quarter mile. We crossed two small gullies then a larger one, before climbing the last several hundred feet over talus and boulders to the North Ridge proper.
It was 10:30a when we reached the ridge. Looking down, the lower part of the ridge had some large blocks that would certainly have provided some difficultly had we attempted the entire ridge starting from its base. Looking up, the route did not appear difficult at all - mostly class 2 and then maybe some class 3 higher up, as far as we could see. What we didn't appreciate was that we could only see to below the start of the First Tower, and all the technical climbing happens after that point. Up we went along the ridge, nothing ever more than class 3 until we got to the top of a small pointed tower. We realized pretty quickly that this wasn't the First or Second Tower, but an unnamed one at the base of the First Tower. A rappel sling around one of the summit rocks was a warning that we weren't on the easy stuff any more, and a look down to the gap between the towers confirmed it. Going first, I found a way down the south side of the unnamed tower that had a good deal of exposure but good holds. Near the bottom was a short class 4 section requiring some chimney moves, but at least the exposure wasn't bad and we both made it down safely.
Then our luck seemed to change. With Secor's directions in hand, we read that we were supposed to go down the east side of the gap a short ways before climbing back up towards an overhanging rock. We had seen the overhanging rock well enough earlier, but we couldn't figure out an easy way to get down the gully. We explored two possibilities, one rather exposed with better holds, the other confined in a chimney with poor holds. Both ways looked like class 5, and neither one was appealing to us, having been lead to believe that the descent should be straightforward. We hemmed and hawed for some time before giving up entirely on that route. I turned my attention to the west side of the ridgeline, and found a low class 5 route that followed some flakes up a trough not far from the ridge itself. It had only a little exposure, so I went up to see how things looked further while Matthew waited. We had paused here to put on our rock shoes, expecting that things weren't going to be easy for some time. Once up about 25 feet, and satisfied that the way ahead was reasonable, I called for Matthew to follow. He had some trouble at one point, where I had executed a bit of an awkward move that I was unable to verbalize to Matthew in assistance. After trying several times, he found another way around to his right. It had better holds but held him out over some certain death exposure (I wish I had a picture of it), and I was relieved to see him follow through without incident so I could breath a little easier. With some more class 3-4 climbing, we continued up along the west side of the ridge a short distance before returning to the ridge not far below the overhanging rock. This rock was huge, a single slab maybe 30 feet high and 3-4 feet thick, standing nearly straight up, but bent to one side against another rock slab, like a book leaning against a bookend.
From where we stood a ramp led down the east side, but how far and to where was hard to ascertain. I left Matthew again and climbed up some slabs to the base of the overhanging rock, but could find no immediate way around it. I did however, get a better view over to the east side, and I could see that the ramp lead nicely to some ledges that would take us around the east side of the overhanging rock, somewhat as described by Secor. I climbed back down a short ways until I could get on the narrow ledge, while Matthew reached it from the connecting ramp going down a short ways. Around on the east side of the First Tower now, we found ourselves picking our way along sandy ledges and coarse-grained blocks of granite for about 100 yards. We made upward progress where we could, trying to reach back up to the ridgeline again, but much of the way was too steep. We soon came to a dropoff where we could make no further progress in our upward traversing pattern. A sling here showed that at least one party had decided to rappel down into the chute we could see below. Partly filled with snow, this chute on the east side of the ridge we guessed (correctly) ran up to the gap between the two towers. Still not wanting to get out our rope, we followed a low class 5 line almost directly up (it was some pretty fun climbing, really) to bring us to the top of the First Tower. The top is very much like a 3-sided pyramid, and one side needed to be downclimbed in order to make progress along the ridge. Though I was tentative at first, I found that there were excellent chickenheads on the rock face, and as a bonus there were horizontal breaks in the rock face that were less evident when viewed from above, and provided fine stances. I climbed down 20 feet or so, under a small overhang, and onto some blocks I could rest on and wait for Matthew. Matthew had the same tentative look on his face and I tried to reassure him that it was easier than it looked. Matthew wasn't buying it, and his tentativeness only grew worse the more ways he tried to downclimb it. He eventually managed it, but it wasn't pretty. Another 30 yards of traversing along the west side of the ridge brought us to the gap between the two towers.
By now it was 2:30p, and though it was hard to figure where we'd spent all the time, we'd already been on the ridge for four hours. Where up to now we'd been able to rationalize we were sort of following Secor's directions, they completely fell apart at this point. The directions speak of a class 4 ledge system following around on the west side. What we found instead was a class 2 ramp that lead diagonally down. Judging that the east side of the gap was impassable (by ourselves, anyway), we started down the class 2 ramp looking for any break in the rock above us that could be judged class 4. We traversed farther and farther from the gap, soon dropping over a hundred feet, still nothing we could call class 4 on this side. I was getting frustrated and the warning bells indicating an impending epic were going off inside my head. We could see that the ramp continued down for several more hundred feet before depositing one on the talused slopes of the NW Face, but this wasn't the route we intended. It wasn't certain from our vantage point that we could make it to the top if we continued down that route, but it certainly was beyond all reason that travelling so far afield from the North Ridge would still be considered on the North Ridge route. No, that couldn't be it. Matthew's solution to the conundrum was to take off his pack and announce it was time for lunch. That was probably a fine answer if one wanted to sit back, rest a bit, and consider what the next move should be, which was pretty much the last thing on my mind. I just wanted to keep moving - I couldn't believe it had taken four hours already and we hadn't even used the rope. What if it took another four hours to reach the summit? That would put us on the summit after 6p, maybe back to the car by 9p or 10p. That would pretty much ruin any chance for an early start to Shepherd Pass next day. While Matthew got something to eat, I went back up to check the route up to the gap another time. Nothing looked like a series of class 4 ledges. What the hell is a class 4 ledge anyway, I began to wonder. Wouldn't it be some inch-wide crack that forces you to hang your ass out over some God-awful exposure? Hmm.
Back at the gap, I decided the best route was probably to forge the low class 5 way up the ridge, just to the right of the very ridge. It had an awkward start, but looked to go ok without too much exposure. That settled, I turned my attention to Matthew. How could I get him to have some sense of urgency about this venture? Was that even a fair thing to do? If we broke out the rope it would probably be another four hours for sure, but from the start he had never signed up to solo the entire route. Even more immediately, how do I get Matthew to come back up and join me without climbing back down that ramp again? He was off around the corner and out of view, and my shouts and whistles had no effect as I expected. Grudgingly, I dropped my pack and started back down again. Matthew had started up as I was going down, and we met at the small rise about 2/3 of the way down. I tried to verbalize the situation as I saw it as succinctly as possible: "It's 3p now. We've spent over four hours on the ridge already. I'm afraid it's going to take us another four hours at the slow rate we've been going. Either we have to turn back now, or keep going without any breaks." Matthew considered this, seeming to get stuck on trying to figure out how we could have taken so long without using a rope. I assured him we'd been going fairly slowly, but it didn't seem so to him. As usual, Matthew couldn't openly admit defeat and agree to retreat. But he also didn't think he could go any faster, and so he sort of stuck in locked position, unable to offer an opinion. "What do you want to do?" he finally replied. At this point I didn't want to force an advance without Matthew's permission to push him onward, so I offered that we should turn back.
We both climbed back up to the gap and while changing back into rock shoes (we'd taken them off for the class 2 sand & talus ramp), I showed him the route I thought would lead upward. Matthew pondered this for sometime, wondering out loud how long it would take if we got out the rope. I offered again that I'd be willing to continue, but he'd have to let me ride him. This came out a bit harshly I fear, as Matthew was not about to let me drive him to some fateful accident. Nothing more was said about it, and we shouldered our packs to head down. I traversed ahead of Matthew to the top of the First Tower, setting up for a rappel. Matthew was none too thrilled with the prospect of downclimbing, so I planned to set up rappels as needed for the toughest spots. After Matthew went down this first one, I sent him ahead while I pulled up the rope and stowed it along with the slings in my pack. As I was about to start downclimbing the section, I noticed another sling nearby with a carabiner attached - booty! I wouldn't make it to the summit, but I would at least collect some meaningless booty on the way down. By the time I rejoined Matthew he had traversed partway around the First Tower but at a lower elevation than we'd taken on the way up. When I pointed this out he was unaware it was a different route, but after studying it for a minute it seemed as good as the original. Down we went through a series of sandy ledges with steep downclimbs, angling as we went around the tower. We ended up climbing down much further than necessary, and consequently having to climb 70-80ft back up to the ridge below the overhanging rock, but without much trouble. Back on the west side of the ridge we were faced with the awkward low class 5 section we'd taken on the way up. Going down first, I was none too happy with the lack of footholds for the last section, but made it down without incident. Matthew started down but then got stuck at the critical place and backed off. Twice, three times he tried it, each one ending in frustration. He was no longer under any delusion of having fun, in fact later he admitted that the fun ended when the retreat started. A fourth time he started down, facing into the mountain, his feet shimmying for position amongst the feeble cracks available to hold them. He was about 12 feet above me, and though it might not have been a fatal situation if he fell, it sure as hell felt like it. Matthew felt his hands slipping, and as they did so he repeated in louder and louder tones, "Shit!", "Shit!", "Shit!", "Shit!", "Shit!!". From below I couldn't perceive any slipping of his body, and after the fifth repetition of the word he found that his rock shoes had held quite nicely, even without the reassuring addition of handholds. With a good deal more trepidation, but no more swearing, he completed those 12 feet to join me. After catching his breath and giving his tensioned muscles a chance to relax, I commented that at least now I knew what Matthew's final words in this life were likely to be.
After that bit of excitement you'd think we'd had enough for one day, but no, we had some time left for a wee bit more. Before the exciting downclimbing bit, Matthew had asked whether we couldn't bail off to the west down a series of class 2 ledges and chutes away from the North Ridge. While Matthew had been contemplating the downclimb, I had been studying his proposal - most of it looked like it would go at class 3 or less, but there was one section, the narrowest part of the chute at the bottom that we couldn't see. From previous adventures such as one down Michael Minaret's west side, I knew that these unseen sections could hold hidden surprises - huge chockstones that might make downclimbing impossible. If we ran into one such obstacle after downclimbing a thousand feet, it would feel like death to have to climb back out to retreat down the ridge. And it could cost us hours of time and valuable daylight. On the other hand, we had a rope and gear with us that could be used for a rappel if the drop wasn't too far (it was a 37m rope). Deciding that might be the better option than having Matthew go through another downclimbing episode like we just had, I agreed that we ought to give the Northwest Face a go, though I expected we'd have a few spicy sections to deal with.
I changed out of the rock shoes once again and took the lead down the Northwest Face. There were several places where the route constricted in the upper reaches, but always with a class 3 way to let us make further progress. At about the halfway point I stopped to wait for Matthew to catch, and watched him make his way down the zigzag series of mostly class 2 ramps. At one point he stopped just out of view, and after several minutes of no progress I whistled for him. His head popped up and he started again - I think he was probably having a needed rest and was probably hating me about this time. He was moving very sluggishly when he joined me. His legs and hands had cuts and dried blood on them from abrasions during the climbing sections, his fingertips were worn to the nerve from the coarse rock, and he looked rather disheveled and beat by this time. I offered him my leather gloves, but he refused. Continuing down, it was another 15 minutes before we got to the head of the narrow canyon marking the bottom of the route. This was the section that we couldn't see from above. The first part went fairly well, though steep and loose we were able to make it down ok. Then we came to the "spicy" parts I had warned about earlier. Looking around while Matthew was making his way down to join me, I found no possible way to get around a huge chockstone that choked the chute the entire 20 feet of the chute's width. Further inspection found several chocks wedged into the left side of the chute just above the chockstone - evidently we weren't the first to exit down this way. It took me a few minutes to dislodge the firmly wedged chocks (more booty!) and I then used some slings to set up the second rappel that we would need. This was a very clean drop, going down a smooth wall for maybe 25 feet, the 37m rope more than sufficient. Matthew went first, and to save him time digging in his pack I gave him my harness, and down he went. At the bottom he tied the harness to the end of the rope and after pulling it back up I was able to go down in turn.
While I was pulling the rope I suggested to Matthew that he ought to go ahead and check out the route to see if there was another rappel needed. This would help me decide whether to pack the rope or simply carry it to the next obstacle. I'm pretty sure he heard the words, but he just stood there, catching his breath perhaps, but in no rush to lead down the talus-strewn gully. Maybe he heard them but didn't understand them? I finished coiling the rope and started down, carrying it in one hand. After another 50 yards we came to a second impasse - again a huge chockstone blocked the way. This time it was not easy to see over the edge of the chockstone to see how far the rappel went. There were two possible ways to go down, and for one I could that the rope would easily reach the shelf below. But if it could reach down the other way it might obviate the need for another rappel. I set the rappel up on the same rock used by a previous party, their slings still hugging the huge horn of stone. Setting Matthew up again to go down first, I asked him if he'd like to borrow one of my gloves for his brake hand, but he declined. I instructed him to walk out to the end of the chockstone until he could view down both sides, and then choose which side to go down. There was some confusion in Matthew understanding the instructions, and it was impossible to tell if I was being unclear in my haste or he was just too numb to comprehend clearly, but the reader can imagine which reason each of us might have attributed to the problem. As Matthew started walking back onto the chockstone, he kicked down a number of rocks in the process. I yelled sharply for him to watch his step least the rocks dislodged would cut the rope if they fell on them, but it came out as a gibberish sort of "aaahhh! ahhhh! the rocks!!" and Matthew didn't at first grasp what I was choking on about - and consequently knocked some more down. After he got out to the end of the chockstone, he reported that he couldn't see the rope down below off to the one side, so I told him to go down the shorter route, down to his second life-flashing-before-the-eyes experience of the day.
Matthew hadn't much experience in rappelling to date. His first try at it was with me the previous year on Fin Dome, where I had some amusement watching him clutch the rock and practically scrape his body along the length of the short rappel. He said he had some practice in his Yosemite rock climbing class just a week earlier, but not much. Worse, the 8mm rope we were using today is much harder to rappel on than your standard 10.5mm or 11mm rope. The larger diameter ropes provide a significantly larger amount of friction through the rappel/belay device, and if one lets go of the rope with the brake hand, the weight of the rope hanging below is generally enough to stop a descent. Not so with the 8mm rope. It is absolutely imperative that one never lets go of the rope with the brake hand. It didn't occur to me to use additional carabiners to increase the friction in the system or to use a backup autoblock to prevent a freefall, but that would have been a handy thing to do. Though I was adamnant in telling him to keep the rope and his brake hand pulled to one side behind him, I'm not sure I instructed him on the criticality of not letting go under any circumstances. Can you see where this discussion is going? Now, there aren't too many things that will cause you to let go. Maybe a bee landing on your nose, or a rattlesnake popping out of a crack, but mostly it's a pretty natural thing to hold on with that hand and feed the rope through the rappel device to lower oneself. The second thing I wasn't so good about instructing Matthew was to always keep the rope above you between your feet. If you don't, and the rope gets to one side while you're walking down, your body will want to pendulum off to one side. This is precisely what happened as Matthew started descending off the edge of the chockstone. Canted to one side, the rope began to pull him off his feet and he started swinging into the rock wall about five feet to one side. Matthew's natural reaction was to hold up his hand to break the impact of the pendulum. This would have been fine if he'd swung to his left side where he could use his free left hand to brace the impact. But instead he was swinging to his right, and it was his brake hand that he brought up to stop him. This led to a sudden drop as the rope slid through the belay device, and though he was only five feet or so off the ground at this point and might have been better off dropping to the ground, his next reaction was to grab the rope above the belay device with his left hand. This provided only a minor braking force, so he still crumpled to the ground below him - but in addition he burned the palm of his hand and several fingers quite nastily. All the while he pendulumed and fell, he screamed out an unintelligible burst of ghastly sounds, not unlike a large fowl or small mammal being choked. The sounds and movement both stopped at once. Some groans then began eminating, but not of the deathly sort that would have made me fear the worst, so I took some relief that he'd survived the ordeal. After a short pause I called down to ask Matthew if he was still alive. I was pretty sure he was, though in some pain perhaps, so I didn't have any distress in my call. The answer was somthing in the affirmative, though it wasn't sure how or why.
After Matthew detached himself from the rope and harness, I pulled the rope up with the harness attached and then went down myself. In retrieving the rope I found two places where rocks (probably dropped during the earlier portion where Matthew'd knocked some loose) had cut into the rope, one of these cutting through the outer sheaf. I guessed the rope would likely hold me since it had held Matthew's fall, but I was going to have to retire the rope after this outing. When I joined Matthew below I pulled the rope down and coiled it up, asking him about the accident. I rather expected that he had burned his hand when he described the sequence of events, so I wasn't surprised when he indicated that yes, his hand had gotten burned, and he showed me the fresh blisters and damaged skin. At this point he'd felt his second near-death experience in a few hours, and he was looking about as bedraggled as I've ever seen him. Matthew was worried that he had little feeling in several fingers and could hardly move them. If I'd been abused as badly as his fingers, I wouldn't feel much like moving either. With some more class 3 downclimbing ahead (but thankfully no more rappels), Matthew finally relented and accepted the gloves to help protect his hands. After exiting the chute we had maybe 300ft of talus to negotiate before we got down to the river, tired and out of water. It had been well over eight hours since we'd filled up last, and between us I don't think we had 3/4 of a gallon total to start. The mosquitoes were out in force along the creek, so I did a fly by water retrieval - grabbing a full waterbottle as I was crossing the creek. I wandered up the other side away from the creek a ways to wait for Matthew, but the mosquitoes found me after resting for less than a minute. When Matthew came up a few minutes later, I'd been pacing around in circles trying to shake the little buggers, fearful of standing still lest I get mauled (it seemed a shame to put on repellent at this stage when we were heading back down). We returned to the trail at 7:15p and made very good time afterwards. Matthew, who'd been dragging quite slowly on the last section down the talus, picked up his trail pace considerably and was crowding behind me. I let him pass so he could set the pace, and it was all I could do to keep up with him. I don't recall seeing him run much at all, but I had to run something like a quarter of the return route just to keep up with him. We got back to the car just after 8p, giving us a 12hr day, but probably a good deal shorter than if we'd continued to the summit.
We'd failed to make the summit and we'd failed to make a warmup day of it, but I was all the more determined to come back again and try it another day. If I learned nothing else, at least next time I wouldn't treat Lone Pine's North Ridge so casually as we had this morning.
For more information see these SummitPost pages: Lone Pine Peak
This page last updated: Wed May 16 16:48:38 2007
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