After freezing on the north buttress of Merriam Peak a few weeks ago, I assumed the Sierra backcountry rock climbing season was over for the year. However, that climb was so much fun that we decided to try and sneak in one last route. The long drive from San Diego (8+ hours) has kept me out of the Sawtooths the past couple years, but the Hulk was calling so we decided to just suck it up, make the drive, and give the Red Dihedral a try.
The most complete information for this route is on the Supertopo web page. It recommends mountain biking from the trailhead to the edge of the Hoover Wilderness as a good way to save time on the approach and descent. I was pretty dubious, having never ridden a bike with a full pack, but decided to give it a try.
The bikes turned out to be an excellent idea. Powering up the trail with my pack for 2.5 miles really had me breathing hard - the gentle slope felt like the steepest hill I've ever ridden. However, on the way down, it was pure fun with no exertion required. I'm definitely going to look for more mountain bike approach opportunities in the future.
We got to our bivy site early Thursday evening and crashed soon thereafter. The weather up to this point was fabulous, and I had commented on the drive up how incredibly clear the Sierra was, with not a cloud to be seen. Such talk can only lead to trouble, of course.
The wind started blowing sometime that night and at our 5am wakeup call the sky was dark with clouds. The wind increased as we climbed higher, and at the base of the climb it was blowing in huge frigid gusts. But we hadn't driven all that way to let a little foul weather stop us, so with frozen hands and feet we started up.
As with most backcountry rock routes, the first pitch was broken and non-descript. Using the Supertopo, we were easily able to work our way up to the base of the second pitch and the real climbing began. This pitch felt like the crux to me: the climbing wasn't super hard, but it was steep, the pro was tricky, and my frozen hands responded sluggishly as I tried to clip the rope. The 170-foot pitch got us to the base of the Red Dihedral itself, which is the technical crux of the climb according to the Supertopo.
Ben was even colder than I, and his lead of this pitch did not go in pure clean traditional style. But he got through it, and I quickly followed. The weather was looking quite grim at this point and the wind was now a force to be reckoned with. Face-to-face communication required yelling, and any exposed flesh was instantly frozen. My ankles have never been so cold.
At one point, huddled on an exposed ledge trying to belay Ben while keeping my hands tucked in my armpits, I tried to think of a rock climb in which I'd suffered more. I decided that every second of this climb was far worse than anything I'd ever experienced. If I were in Joshua Tree in such conditions, I'd already be halfway home. Still, Ben and I both agreed that the route was one of the best we've done in the Sierra, which is saying something considering I spent the belays in the fetal position rocking myself trying to keep from freezing.
The rest of the climb followed the Supertopo very well. Ben decided to skip the "5.9 splitter" crack because the wind kept blowing him off, and the 5.9 alternative he took to the left of the splitter (as described in the Supertopo) was probably equally as fun. We were thankful the route eventually wound to the NE side of the mountain, as it gave us some shelter from the wind.
We summitted at 1:30 pm after 6.5 hours on the route. I moved up the last 30 feet to sign the register, and the wind whipping off the summit sounded like a freight train. I poked my head over and almost got knocked over backward by the blast. The register is full of Yosemite and Sierra hardmen, and many mentioned the howling wind - I guess it isn't too unusual up there on the Hulk.
Getting off was the next challenge. We had to downclimb 300 feet of very exposed "3rd class" ridgeline to some bolted rappel anchors. The rock on the ridge was loose and the wind was really beating us, so the climbing felt harder. The < inch bolts looked pretty new, the slings fresh, and soon we were both on the ground. The first snowflakes started falling 5 minutes later, and I mentally shut the door on yet another great Sierra climbing season.