I'm an alligator, I'm a mama-papa coming for you
I'm the space invader, I'll be a rock 'n' rollin' bitch for you....
I'm not really sure what David Bowie meant by all that, but I guess you could roughly translate it to
"Hey, dumbass - maybe keep a better eye on avi conditions next time"
Vitaliy and I had already been up Moonage this season, but we fancied another go with hopes of an icier 1st pitch. Hamik and Casey are always game for some lulz, so we loaded up the trucks with our gear and poor estimations of recent snowfall, and headed for Sequoia and a brief sleep before the climb. Heads were tucked into pillows at Wolverton for a couple/three hours, dreaming of fixed pins and burning calves.
Leaving one car at Wolverton, we shuttled up to the visitor center lot at Lodgepole and set off up the trail that runs the north side of the Kaweah for a mile or so before you cross. Temps were reasonable, and the skies were a little less cloudy than I would have liked. Vitaliy and Hamik started off ahead of us - they were going to take on the climb first, and Casey and I would head up when we felt they had made enough of a gap. We crossed the river and headed up the slope to the base of Moonage Daydream - the snow deepening a bit as we went up. Across the valley a thin layer of ice and snow caked the granite, beautiful in the early light of the day.
Watchtower looms above (Vitaliy)
Hamik loves to stomp trout (Vitaliy)
H and V up first, Casey and I keep it real while we wait
While Vitaliy and Hamik organized pro and flaked ropes, Casey was airing his butt out below - intermittent doses of snow sloughing off the steep cliffs above us. There was more ice formed in the lower section than previously, but we were still looking at a mixed variation on climbers right to start the first pitch. Because Vitaliy is a gentleman and Hamik is a scholar, Hamik took the lead - methodically cruising up the oddly formed ice in the beginning, then traversing right for the rampy/chimney thing. Passing a fixed pin, the route takes you to an awkward rock bulge that requires several picks placed in a crack and a sweet stem move.
Spindrift comin to get Hamik on Moonage Daydream (Vitaliy)
Hamik finding purchase (Casey)
Hamik moved beyond these to an odd traverse with a committing step-across. Instead of stopping at the first signs of good ice for an anchor, he continued up to a more comfortable position higher up, running the half-60s almost all the way out. Beautiful long 1st pitch. Vitaliy followed with the pack on, moving rapidly up the moves I'm sure he recalled from his lead a few weeks before. He stopped only to pop a pick from the crack, splitting his forehead above his right eye. Pausing long enough to clean the blood off with snow so he could see, he headed up the rest of the pitch to meet his lover, Hamik, at the belay.
Vitaliy starting up the corner on pitch 1 (Vitaliy)
Our turn to gittit
Vitaliy in the rocks, I'm in the ice (Casey)
Shaking off the cold, it was my turn on the lead. I headed up the weird blobs in the lower section, finding rotten ice on the traverse as I moved to the rest spot just below the thin ice in the left-facing corner. It looked like things were a little fatter and more solid than last time, and I was happy to have the smaller pack this time. Clipping the rusted pin, small delicate sticks and feet moved me up toward the rock section. A stubby fit nicely in the ice near the top of this little gully, and it was a few more moves until the weird stance below the bulge and the old HB lodged in a small crack.
Yes, I'll clip that.
First mixed lead for this old biscuit - M4+?
On our last visit, I followed through the lower corner, but did an odd swing to stay out of Mike's way up above on the other line. This was the first time I'd be hacking through the next section, so I was a wee bit nervous. I crammed another tiny cam next to the HB, and moved up a bit, working the stem as I went until I got a good pick in the crack above/right. Another small nut placement and shaking-o-the-pump later, I pulled up to the upper rock section - finding a pick in a small amount of frozen dirt in a small corner, or a small amount of ice above that on a slabby boulder. There was a nice pocket for a cam or nut, so I filled that, and tried to see what was next.
To the left, there was a little moss and a smear of ice, but I couldn't see much more than that. Long story short, I had to just stop thinking and go - right tool hooked on one tooth worth of ice, left tool on my shoulder as I stepped across with my left boot, looking for a place. Just as my toe touched, I lifted my left tool from my shoulder and sunk it in a narrow vein of ice on the far side of the boulder I was straddling. Relief! Bottomed out a stubby in this vein, then removed and reset a foot lower. Success.
Clipped it so Casey wouldn't have a big pendulum if he blew it, and continued across and up the rest of the pitch - decent ice for another 25-30 feet or so. Snow was still coming down in these big clouds from time to time, but didn't do much other than kill your visibility for a bit. I tied off a 16cm with some webbing as I moved up, and placed one more screw before stepping out from the corner and topping on the mellow slope above.
Hamik was waiting at the belay station as Vitaliy was wrapping up his lead on pitch 2. I built an anchor, and brought Casey up as Hamik disappeared over the top of the 2nd pitch- poor Casey had a monstrous pack on - I don't envy following that 1st pitch at all with the small child on his back. We need to work on trimming weight/bulk, just can't bring myself to leave the cheese/salami behind.
Bomber anchor (lulz)at the top of pitch two (Vitaliy)
Casey following up the first pitch
Casey hanging tough on lead with a face full of snow
Hamik on next to last pitch of Moonage (Vitaliy)
We swapped gear and Casey psyched himself up for leading the next pitch. Hamik and Vitaliy were trudging up through the snow field above us to the final pitches of ice, and snow was coming down in spurts as Casey climbed. He made quick work of the lead, taking breaks here and there to snack on the snow coming over the edge in poofs of powdery white. Finding a spot for a bomber nut and a questionable ice screw anchor above, he brought me up with little issue. Hamik and Vitaliy were wrapping up the final pitch of the route - the last sections are mellow WI2+ ice, the final pitch being a crazy wide and thick slab of ice. We postholed up to the base of the short pitch above, made anchors, and I set off up the ice.
Hamik kickin' steps old school up the Watchtower (Vitaliy)
Of course, since we love wasting time, I dropped a stubby. One second I'm climbing, nek minnit my grivel is cartwheeling ALLLL the way down the steep snow slope. We watched it go, and fully expected it to pop over the edge of the cliff, dropping to the base of the climb far below. It stopped...right at the edge.
I placed another screw, and Casey kept me on belay as I ran the length of the 60s all the way out and retrieved the screw down below. Back up the hill I went, wasting energy in the deep snow on the way. As I cruised up the easy ice and snow, it occurred to me that it was awfully sunny and nice out up here. Lots of sun was firin' down on those big pretty white slopes out of sight above the route. As we had progressed up Moonage, the snow seemed to get deeper and deeper - I could only assume it continued in such a manner above. As I approached the base of the long final pitch, I stayed pretty far to the right...didn't think it would make much difference if a slide came down, but it made me feel better. I sunk my tools, placed a couple/three screws, and strung the cordelette for the anchor. I'm not sure if I had called off belay or not yet when I heard the deep rumbling from above.
I instantly knew what it was, and my head whipped up in time to catch those little chunks that precede a slide pop into view over the lip. Without thinking, I grabbed both tools and tucked myself into the ice, not really knowing what to do beyond that. The snow hit immediately, roaring past my body with quite a bit of force, filling up every gap it could find in my clothing and coating me in white. I waited for it to increase in strength, or for a rock or log to hit me, knocking me off my tools for sure. That never came.
As soon as I was clear of it, I yelled to Casey that I was okay. He responded in kind, so I quickly brought him up so we could get the hell off the route. I think our relative position to the center of the slide is what kept us alive - I'm no expert, but my guess is the majority of the energy is towards the center, where I'm guessing most of the snow/debris gathers. Whatever the reason, we felt lucky and foolish, and Casey took over in a side-o-the-route hugging manner as well, bringing me up to safety at the tree belay. We quickly gathered gear and headed up and away from the route, mindful of the dangerous conditions above.
As we climbed, we could see the large exposed granite slab that was home to the source of the slide, and the path it took as it careened down the hill towards us. Vitaliy and Hamik's footprints were visible, entering the avalanche gouge on one side, and thankfully exiting on the other side. Those two were long gone and up on the Watchtower summit when it broke loose, they didn't even know it happened until we told them later. We made our way towards the summit, yelling "Nek Minnit" in case they were still around and hadn't gone back to camp.
Vitaliy emerged from the ridge heading to the summit, and he and Hamik came back down a bit to where they had stashed their gear. We compared stories and filled them in on the rest of our climb, and we all thanked our lucky chodes neither team got caught in a bad way. Even though we lived, I almost wished I hadn't, knowing the shame that lies ahead when Chief finds out and calls up his old climbing buddy to yuk it up on the phone-device. Shet.
We spent a good portion of the walk back discussing how to be safer in the future concerning climbing a similar route after a couple days of snow. I think we spent the rest of the time making fun of other forum members. It was a good balance.
Couple/three idiots on the way back (Vitaliy)
gittem Hamik (Vitaliy)
On the way back down to the parking lot at Wolverton, the lighting and views were amazing. Sequoia never disappoints with the scenery, and the sunset over the cloud layer was something else. Just when we thought it couldn't get any better, this eagle flew out of nowhere, screaming across the horizon. What an end to a glorious day, yes?!
Alois, thank you for the kind words. All kidding aside, we're enjoying nature at its best, and trying to improve our technique and safety every time we go out - learned a lot this trip. Vitaliy has really advanced his climbing in the recent past - I believe he is on the nose right now.