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The cold world of skimo & alpine climbing

The cold world of skimo & alpine climbing

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Winter Climbing in the Eastern Sierra, 2012-13

There is indeed more to the climbing here than the very popular stuff.  Perhaps more than most regions, winter climbing activity in the Eastern Sierra is veryconcentrated.  On a busy weekend Chouinard Falls can have eight or more ropes hung across its width.  The final weekend of “calendar winter” on Whitney’s Mountaineer’s Route can see hundreds of climbers.  Not to mention, of course, the bouldering scene around Bishop. The rest of the range may see fewer alpine climbing visitors in
winter than a single weekend on Whitney. 

However, there is a contingent poking around after suitable winter routes.  Most classic routes have seen first winter ascents, and then very few, if any.  Winter cragging has been, remarkably, limited to the fat flows in Lee Vining Canyon and a handful of more obscure falls.  In general, High Sierra climbing has operated through history in hushed tones.  These truths leave the contemporary winter climber feeling adventurous and exploratory. 

This winter has provided excellent conditions for winter climbing.  In early December, a heavy, wet storm plastered the mountains with a coat of base snow. 
The Minarets in rare rimed conditions. Closed roads, but still thin snow-base made access too difficult to access. There would have been a day or two of awesome rime climbing for the motivated.

Ian McEleney and I got out around that time to take advantage of the drippy and decidedly Cascadian conditions.  First, some “wet-tooling” near thin, early-season ice flows.
Ian on Luke L’s newly bolted dry-tool route “Jango Fett” (M8 or M7 or easier... I on-sighted the 2nd ascent, and I’m no M-rock star) in the Narrows of Lee Vining Canyon. A couple handfuls of newly developed dry-tool routes grace the compact granite walls of this approach-hallway. How many ice climbers have carried their spikes right past opportunities here? How many have climbed without spraying?

Same day, a little later. Decidedly un-Sierra-like wet snow. Contrary to popular belief, here on the high and dry side of the Sierra we are more accustomed to lighter snow.

Ian and I got out again the very next day on “the Eiger of the Sierra”.  Mt. Morrison dominates a climber’s view of the range in the Mammoth Lakes area. Morrison has one of the best peak-bagger’s routes anywhere, an imposing NE face, a few radster ski lines, and a reputation for real crappy rock.  I love Mount Morrison.  With a plowed trailhead right at the base and the heavy plaster-coat of
snow, a scouting mission to the North Ridge seemed in order.  We had ridiculously windy conditions, but otherwise found a classic, metamorphic ridge in great shape. Rumors of loose rock were not unfounded, but somewhat exaggerated.  In short, this ridge is fully worth the effort for a winter climber. 
Ian low on the North Ridge of Mt. Morrison.
The metamorphic experience is unique for us Sierra-spoiled

Given that this is primarily a gear review and discussion blog, it wouldn’t do to gloss over what experienced Sierra ridge practitioners are carrying for a day like this.  Truth is, I can’t speak to exactly that.  But I can tell you what Ian and I carried.  With 5000 feet of vertical relief and most of that relief at least mildly technical, pack weight is crucial.  A day like this reveals the truth in the
oft-quoted Exupery maxim: “Perfection is achieved, not when there is nothing more to add, but when there is nothing left to take away.” As you can see below, we didn’t come even close to perfection, given what percentage of our pack weight we didn’t use. 
Critical gear considerations:

Boots: Silver Trangos for me, some sort of orange boots for Ian.  He’s since “seen the light” and now owns a pair of Trangos. Packs:  I rock a CCW Ozone, basically stock.  Ian now has his own as well, with CT-approved customizations.  Indeed, Ian has copied me twice already in this list. But that’s where it ends.  I won’t even open Pandora’s box of lessons he’s taught me.  Rope and rack:  30m, couple cams, few stoppers.  Never used. Light axe each:  Camp Corsa for me, Grivel something-or-other for Ian. One pair of Darts between us.  Never used.  Light, go-fast clothes.  Crux for both of us was sealing pant/boot interface without gaiters and/or crampon straps.  The now “standard” practice of an instep bungee was inadequate for the big post-holing descent.  Any reader tips?  I know, I know, maybe full gaiters have their place, but it’s tough to reverse the vanity...

Lightweight emergency kit.  More than first aid, but not much more. 
Higher, dancing with slivers of sun.  Wind and cold
conspired to make the sun little more than a photo-enhancer.
Even higher, another bit of sun, and the Great Basin desert beyond.

Lee Vining Canyon has long been California’s ice climbing headquarters. Beta here:
Chouinard’s well-known early instructional piece shows photos of climbing and training in the drainage that shades a frozen fall bearing his name.  Countless climbers, between sunny boulder sessions, big-time ski mountaineering endeavors, and 5-days-a-week in one of the Golden State’s countless industries, have learned, do learn, and will learn, their icy trade here. Busy weekends at LVC prompt a cringe from even the most dedicated climber.
Ian on Plumb Line on the Main Wall, LVC. With fat ice and fat bolts, who’s to blame folks for mobbing Lee Vining Canyon?  Find a mid-week day, get there early and stay late, and crowds won’t be a problem.  Show up at 10am on a holiday Saturday and all bets are off...
Avoiding the crowds and getting as much sun as you can safely get while Cali ice climbing.  Late afternoon refraction on the Main Wall. 
Yet another crowd-avoidance strategy:  Rocking out on the
locker-tool-cams-in-a-blank-shallow-corner, pull-up-party that is “Carless Torque”.

Ian and I grabbed a day for each of us to clean up some old projects.  He ticked off a scrappy mixed line right of the main flow on Chouinard Falls and then we swung leads on the mega-classic,  “Heel Toe”.
Topping out pitch 1 of Heel Toe.
Ice and mixed climbing and splitter granite.  Indeed folks,
this is the same batholith that underlies Tuolumne Meadows and into which Yosemite
Valley has cut.  This alone is worth the price of admission.

It seems that each winter I climb with just one partner the entire season.  This winter it is Ian.  Ian and I both guide, climb at similar standards, have similar aspirations and have remarkably similar backgrounds.  We are both new to dry-tooling and mixed climbing and have appreciated reviews and gear recommendations from this site.  Perhaps more than anything else, Ian isn’t afraid to try and fail big.  I too love trying and failing big.  Well, the love of failing is a complicated love.  But isn’t all love that way?  Anyway, there’s nothing like a buddy that will invest it all (and has a lot to invest) in some harebrained mission.  One day in mid January this year we set out to tackle such an endeavor.  We’ll keep the details few and the photos fewer.  It can be summed up thusly...
So much promise... (and no, that’s not where we were headed)

And so much punishment. (and no, we don’t recommend that amount of post-holing, especially up hill, and especially early in the day when psyche is so vulnerable. Lesson: Given the choice, post-hill downhill and toward home. Obvious, right. I wish we could claim to be “thinking outside the box”.)

Needless to say, we didn’t send that day in Rock Creek.  We have, together, failed on larger endeavors with greater heartache.  Individually we have come up short on even larger undertakings.  We will keep trying, keep sending, and keep failing.  I wish you all the same!

About the author:  Jed Porter climbs, skis and lives in the Eastern Sierra of California.  He works full-time, year-round as a guide there. 
Check out his website
at    http//


Adam T. Burch said...

Jed - keep doing what you do. Great read.

PK said...

Another outstanding post Jed. Thanks!

Is what you're calling the North Ridge the same as what Secor calls the North Buttress?

Also, which peak were you guys after up Rock Creek?

[hi Adam!]

Jediah Porter said...

Thanks guys!

We did what Secor calls the NW ridge. And he calls it 3rd class. It is kinda NW, but not any sort of 3rd class.

Up Rock Creek? Top secret.

Unknown said...

However, there is a contingent poking around after suitable winter routes. Most classic routes have seen first winter ascents, and then very few, if any. Winter cragging has been, remarkably, limited to the fat flows in Lee Vining Canyon and a handful of more obscure falls.

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