Yet shine for ever virgin minds, Loved by stars and purest winds, Which, o'er passion throned sedate, Have not hazarded their state, Disconcert the searching spy, Rendering to a curious eye The durance of a granite ledge To those who gaze from the sea's edge. It is there for benefit, It is there for purging light, There for purifying storms, And its depths reflect all forms; It cannot parley with the mean, Pure by impure is not seen. For there's no sequestered grot, Lone mountain tam, or isle forgot, But justice journeying in the sphere Daily stoops to harbor there.
(from "Astrae" by Ralph Waldo Emerson)
My brother, Sean, and I were keen to get in a good climb before yet another season passed us by. It had been more than 3 years since I last stood in the sun atop a pile of rocks and shouted "YAHOOOOO!" across the Range of Light. I researched and pondered, trying to balance all the variables that would make a successful and enjoyable climb, and finally settled on Emerson's SE face route - short approach in a beautiful setting, low tech factor, reasonable descent. However, my research was for naught. Every tidbit of information I could find regarding the route, and the mountain in general, was sparse and frothy and understated. All you who have posted information about this route on the Internet, you are horrible sandbaggers, all! Cruel sadists who are probably going to laugh at our lot upon reading this, then turn off your computers and go climbing.
We left town far later than planned, but were in Bishop before noon to pick up a permit for Piute Pass. While giving information to the ranger preparing our permit, I was surprised when she found a record for me in the database (yes, the USFS has finally joined the 21st century!) that included my vehicle license number. Usually, I only leave the license number in the off-season, which means that the rangers are actually reading the off-season permits and recording that information somewhere. It's not just a piece of paper!
We got a leisurely start and were at the base of the route by 7:00 PM. Rather than finding snow, we found a flat, rocky spot that, with minor modifications, served as a nice bivi site. (We later 're-naturalized' the site to erase evidence of our presence.) We brought fresh sandwich fixins - sourdough bread, Inglehoffer sweet-hot mustard, swiss cheese, salami and turkey - and had a very satisfying dinner. After that, some coffee and a chat, then we set our alarms for 5:00 and crashed.
We woke promptly and had more coffee. The warm night offered little resistance to early rising. We munched a little breakfast, then stashed our camping gear off to the side so other parties would have room to belay. (It seems to be a popular route, so I assumed we'd have company.)
Blast off! I completed the first pitch easily if cautiously. I noted somewhere along the way that we may have made a critical error in gear selection. We're both wearing LaSportiva boots (K2 and Makalu) rather than our rock shoes. Not to worry...if this first pitch is indeed the technical crux.
Our second error reared it's ugly head atop the first pitch. Our backpacks were too large! We decided to haul them up the steep parts, and this caused problems immediately. Sean was forced to downclimb and free them when they got stuck near the bottom of the pitch.
Bypassing the crack was easy but funky, mainly because it is not obvious where to re-enter the crack (as per the route description). I led this pitch easily, too (high class 4), but decided to haul my pack over the last chimney move.
This worked out OK, and we began the upper chute section. Sean's inexperience slowed us considerably in the class 3/4 sections - we used the rope more than we should have. But he had another tool in his shed that more than compensated for his inexperience later.
Eventually we did un-rope, and made better time up to the notch, but not fast enough. It was getting pretty late. We were running out of water, but (miracle of miracles!) we found a dribble of water where there must have been a snow patch a week earlier. We used one of Sean's Camelbak hoses to siphon about 1.5 liters from a tiny pool that did not quickly refill.
Just before we reached the notch, we decided to rope up again. There was an ugly, very exposed traverse just before the notch. The class 4 spec ('ladder on the side of a tall building') really hit home here. The exposure, the setting sun, the lack of water - my mind was starting to crumble under the pressure. This is where Sean's 'other tool' came in useful. He showed remarkable mental stamina and stability, and helped me to keep the lid on my pot'o'demons.
When we reached the notch, I called my wife to break the bad news. Bivi imminent! She was not happy, but she appreciated my call to let her know we weren't in any serious trouble. I promised to call again to confirm our safety once we found a spot.
We managed one more pitch directly on the ridge before it got dark. Our bivi site, which we could not choose, was a cramped notch about 32 sq ft. At least it was partly sheltering us from the wind...for now.
With a little modification, we managed to make seating room. Sean had a Thermarest butt-pad, but I had forgotten mine, so was forced to sit on the rope all night. We had 3 space blankets, so we took off our boots, wrapped our feet in a blanket, stuffed them inside our packs, then used the third blanket as a 'tent' over our upper bodies. This worked great and we were reasonably comfortable until about 1:00 AM. The wind picked up considerably and ripped our third blanket to shreds! Halfway through the blanket's disintegration, I gave up and let Sean have what remained. We sat and shivered for the next 4 hours, gazing out at starlit snowfields and the growing detail on moonlit peaks.
Box seats for morning alpenglow on Mount Darwin! Such a beautiful dawn. Such an unpleasant way to experience it.
We waited quite a while after dawn for the sun to warm things up. Lotsa luck! The wind was still howling, probably gusting up to 50 mph. When we accepted that conditions were as stable as they were likely to get, we packed up and climbed 2 short pitches to what would have been a far better bivi atop a beautiful tower with a few sandy flat spots big enough for small tents. Here we sat for more than an hour, waiting in vain for a warm day that would never come.
The chute southwest of this tower (above us on the route) was howling with a river of cold air. The force of the wind had increased as the morning progressed. Though the climbing remained easy, and there were no serious route-finding problems, the wind kept us roped, slowly pitching out the ridge. When we reached the first big 'au cheval' move, I decided to bypass it and drop to the south (left) and traverse. This worked nicely, and didn't disappoint Sean in the least. It did slow us up, though.
Despite all our difficulties, we were still having fun! The scene was spectacular. The climbing was relatively solid, with only occasional piles of rubble. Entertaining to the last...
Then I saw the clouds. Little scuds were forming over the nearby Glacier Divide. I looked south, and there was a large bank of clouds hovering just south of the Palisades. Time's up!
We still had 200 vertical feet to get to the summit, and maybe twice that much horizontal with who-knows-how-much chicanery. Add to that my lack of knowledge about the descent onto the west ridge, and I was ready to bail. I had been looking for bail-out points since we left the notch the night before, with no luck. At the moment I spotted the clouds, I happened to be standing over a very acceptable route down to the south. Down I went.
When Sean reached me, he was a bit surprised (but not unpleased) with my decision. The wind had made communication nearly impossible, so he didn't know that I had dropped off the ridge more-or-less permanently. We then did more class 3/4 down climbing and 3 rappels into the loose chute that drops directly south from the summit. Man, was I happy to be back on terra-not-so-firma.
Throughout the descent, we were rationing our remaining water. About 500 ft below our final rappel, we ran out. We could see the glistening pools below, but could not run down through the loose crapola fast enough. Parched and 'dying' and without a filter, we headed to the outlet of the tarn just above Loch Leven and scooped up a bunch of clean, sweet, unfiltered life-juice. AAAAAHHHHHHHHH!!!!!!!
We took a short break at Loch Leven to have a snack, continue to drink, and jabber on about "Man, are we crazy?!?"
Then, after crawling up the loose slope to retrieve our camping gear at the base of the route, we headed down the Piute Pass trail, now hiking by headlamp. Despite having great luck on the climb itself, I finally managed to injure myself. I tripped on a water bar and fell knees-and-hands-first, my too-heavy pack carrying me to the ground with a thump and a loud "F#CK!" I lay there until I could guess that my knees would support me again, then got up and dusted myself off, wincing as I put pressure on the bruised palms of my hands.
We drove back to town, hungry for grease burgers. I called my wife, and she said she'd called the ranger to report us overdue. I called the ranger station and left a message canceling any potential search, and we wolfed down our dinner and drove south to Coso for a final, restful nap under the stars.
This route is pretty serious. The reports I've read have been authored by folks who climb regularly (I'm guessing these folks do 50+ days of climbing a year?) Thus, I felt I had been sandbagged - not intentionally, but simply because I don't do near the volume of climbing, nor at the grade that these other folks are doing.
Driving from near sea level and sleeping near 11,000' did not help. I felt queasy the night before, and was slow for much of the climb.
We should have used rock shoes and approach shoes rather than mountain boots. Also, smaller packs (or extra 'summit' packs) would have been better. Carrying bivi sacks would have been great, but "They're too heavy!" was an irresistable argument at the time.
The rack I chose was almost spot-on, however: 7 cams ranging from #0.5 Camalot to a #4 HB, about 12 stoppers/wallnuts ranging from #4 stopper to #11 stopper, and one #10 hex, 8 oval and 8 wiregate 'biners, a BD AirLock and a Petzl key-gate biner, 5 short and 3 long sewn runners. Mostly intermediate protection was not a problem, but arranging belay anchors was challenging.
I'd like to thank a few people (from SummitPost) I don't even know for giving me the knowledge and courage to try this route:
Craig Peer, the author of the Mount Emerson page, sent a "Go for it!" vibe that felt like a warm wind at my back. Thanks!
Bob Burd and Matthew Holliman, your adventures in Scramblesville illustrate what is really possible to do in the Sierra and still come back alive. Thanks!
Sam Mills, your pictures were really enticing - made the mountain look like a giant piece of candy, there for the taking. Thanks!
I'd also like to thank some people I DO know:
Sean Kenney, my brother, you kept your cool and helped us stay alive through this adventure. Thanks!
Shinta Maharani, my wife, you gave me support, let me take this trip in the first place, and welcomed me home with minimum anger at having been 'abandoned' for 3 days at home with our naughty cats. Thanks and much love!
Gary Sohler, my friend, wherever you are, you mentored me (in your gruff fashion) and showed me some of the true beauty of the Range of Light. I will never forget you, and I hope we cross paths again some day. Thanks!