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Partying Like a G6 on the East Ridge of Carl Heller (In Winter Style)
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Partying Like a G6 on the East Ridge of Carl Heller (In Winter Style)

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Partying Like a G6 on the East Ridge of Carl Heller (In Winter Style)

Page Type: Trip Report

Location: California, United States, North America

Object Title: Partying Like a G6 on the East Ridge of Carl Heller (In Winter Style)

GPX File: Download GPX » View Route on Map

Date Climbed/Hiked: Mar 13, 2011

Activities: Mountaineering

Season: Winter


Page By: PellucidWombat

Created/Edited: Mar 21, 2011 / Nov 10, 2011

Object ID: 705800

Hits: 7112 

Page Score: 92.32%  - 38 Votes 

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  • Climbers: Mark Thomas, Vitaliy Musiyenko, Max Belyakov, Shane Rathbun, Kevin Trieu
  • Trailhead: George Creek (6,360’) (Directions)
  • Summit:Carl Heller (13,211’)
  • Route: East Ridge (Ascent), SW Face (Descent)
  • Rating:
    • Standard:II-III, cl. 3-4
    • Encountered: III-IV, 5.6, 15 pitches (Our winter rating) or Russian I, 4.11b (Vodka required)
  • RT Totals: 3 days (March 11-13), 12.53 mi, 8360 ft gained/lost
    • Day 1: 4.41 mi, 5140 ft gain, 8 hrs climbing w/ +50 lb packs
    • Day 2: 1.17 mi, 2050 ft gain, 5.6, 60o snow, 16-17 hrs climbing, bivy @ ca. 13,100’
    • Day 3: 6.95 mi, 1170 ft gain, 8270 ft loss, 5.5, 45o snow, ca. 16 hrs climbing, +10 hrs driving :-()~#
  • Map Files: Topographic Map | Google Earth File (Download)

The Finest Scramble in the Sierra

It is surrounded by 14ers and has too little prominence to make it visible except from a few select locations, and it is located along one of the more remote stretches of the Sierra Crest. It isn't even an officially named peak or on the SPS list. Yet it is a beautiful peak with an incredibly symmetric east ridge that is often touted by veterans of the Sierra as one of the finest scrambles in the range. The route is like the East Ridge of Mount Russell, but on steroids – and the people who climb it are like other climbers who frequent the area, but on crack. It is extremely knife edged with sustained and exposed class 3 friction and crack climbing interrupted by occasional class 4 obstacles. (Some people insist that some of the moves approach mid-5th in difficulty). Technically the route is only class 3-4, but in winter conditions I found the route to be far harder and scarier than the 5.5 East Ridge of Mt Humphreys that I had climbed a month earlier. In fact the crux pitch was the scariest pitch I have climbed to date!

The East Ridge is also listed as one of the 100 Classic Climbs of the High Sierra, yet few people have climbed this route. Why? The route isn’t done that often due to the difficulty in even reaching the peak. It is situated on a remote section of the Sierra Crest between Mount Russell and Mount Williamson and is most easily approached via two ways, both of which require extensive cross country travel and over 5,000 ft of gain to reach the base of the East Ridge:
  1. Starting from Whitney Portal, leave the trail at the Boy Scout Lakes and climb Cleaver or Carillon Pass, drop down to Tulainyo Lake, climb Vacation Pass, and drop down to reach the route. Then you have climb back through Cleaver or Carillon Pass to get back out.
  2. Joyous George Creek Approach from 6,500’. The first couple of miles are generally ‘unpleasant‘ due to a little bit of bushwacking. ;-) 4WD high clearance vehicles are helpful for making it all the way to the TH.

The final (and most critical) obstacle for reaching the peak (for those who are law-abiding) is the Bighorn Sheep Closure. This closure banned access to the area for all of the year except the short windows of December 15-31 and April 15-May15. Until this year!

Is the Finest Scramble Even Better in Winter?

The idea of the winter climb took place way back on May 7 of 2006 when I joined Bob Burd on my first trip up George Creek. Although I climbed other peaks that day and never saw Carl Heller Peak, it was on that trip that Bob backed off on doing the route after seeing that it was covered in snow, but not without taking an inspirational photograph of the snow covered ridge.

My inspiration for the climb
Photo by Bob Burd

I was strongly taken by the image – an incredible knife-edged ridgeline that jutted up out of the cirque like a rock palisade emanating from the peak, with snow cover that made the peak look like it belonged in a range greater than the Sierra. From above the symmetry of the ridge is eye catching.

The beautifully symmetric East Ridge of Carl Heller.
With annotations by me.
Photographed & shared with permission by John Moynier

After researching the route more I learned that it would be a significant winter mountaineering objective, with a climbing rating that would become much harder in winter conditions. I was especially concerned about crossing some of the snow covered slabs, as well as the steepness and slope stability of the final couloir climb to exit the route. These difficulties and the great amount of unknowns about them scared me, but they also attracted me. I worked my way up to the route demands with other winter ascents, found the right climbers to partner up with for the route, and carefully watched for the conditions to become good and safe.

Friday, March 11

Note: Perspectives from others are combined in this report. Direct quotes from Vitaliy are in green font.

Pack Weighing Competition

As with any winter climb in the Sierra, the first crux for those coming from the Bay Area is the drive, which is usually about a 9-10 hour affair each way – and worse if it is snowing in the mountains. Vitaly, Max, and I met Shane (from Redding) in Sacramento after work Thursday night and the four of us drove through Tahoe and down the 395 to the Owens Valley.

(Winter Driving Route from the Bay Area) (keep in mind this doesn't factor in Bay Area & Sacramento traffic, Tahoe ski traffic, or how much the winding roads force one to slow down)

Driving To The Trail Head

Friday we finished the drive and met Kevin on the dirt road approach just outside of Independence. With our high clearance 4WD vehicles we were able to make it all the way to the trailhead at 6,360’.

Max and Kevin would climb as one team and Shane, Vitaliy, and I would climb as another. By 9:30 we were assembled with our gear and teams and ready to go, but not without first having the pack weighing competition.
The results were as follows:
  • Kevin – 47.7 lb Ultralight Champion
  • Shane – 48.1 lb
  • Vitaliy – 52.5 lb
  • Max – 55.3 lb
  • Mark – 67.1 lb Does this mean I win or lose?
The G6 Team Ready to Head Out (Our 6th Member Couldn't Make It)

Winter George Creek Approach

Vitaliy describes the spring/summer George Creek approach as:
“A 'trail' that RJ Secor described as "one of the classic bushwhacks of the High Sierra.” It involves staying on a phantom trail that leads through brush, thorns, rotten logs, possesses several unstable creek crossings, and large tree branches which force hikers into obscene positions when they attempt to pass through. For many parts the trail disappears all together. It is said one has to wait a few years to come back to this nightmare trail-head due to the suffering it puts one through, but I was back after 10 months.”

So off we went into the brush, at first cruising and giggling, and soon enough, thrashing and cursing. Still, the lower section wasn’t too bad, and having 6-time George Creek veteran Kevin along really helped smooth the routefinding process. Shane even began mocking the difficulty of the supposedly notorious bushwack.

Not so bad yet
Photo by Shane
Still Pretty Chill
Photo by Shane
The snow begins
Photo by Shane
The G6 Team Emerging From George Creek

Then we reached the snowy sections. The creek crossings became much more difficult, and once the snow got deep enough to get out the snowshoes, things got really bad. It is really tricky crossing a thickly wooded creek with deep unconsolidated snow on both sides with snowshoes on while wearing a large, heavy pack. Each crossing became more annoying than the last. At last we began reaching the clearings and we expected to start making better time, but George Creek wasn’t done with us yet. Things got really bad when we discovered that the snow cover was just deep enough to cover bushes, deadfall, and talus boulders under a smooth sheen of white, but unconsolidated enough to allow us to punch through the snow to the waist in the many moats waiting for us as booby traps.

The snowshoes did nothing to limit the postholing as far as I could tell, except that when one leg went all way in to the crotch, it was actually possible to get back up on the snow surface despite the heavy pack trying to hold you down. Whenever I could find a log, buried or exposed, I tried to walk along it in my snowshoes to stay off of the death snow. All of the postholing in the sun and soft snow got our boots drenched – never a good thing to have happen on approach day.

Our pace slowed to a crawl and our morale dropped. Luckily our mood was lifted when Shane punched through one seemingly benign patch of snow and got his snowshoe stuck underneath a hidden log. He struggled and struggled. He began cursing, but this didn’t help him in the slightest. He attempted to dig himself out enough to take off his snowshoe, but to no avail. Much laughter and video-taking ensued by the rest of us as Shane threw snowballs in retaliation.

Shane mocking George Creek
Photo by Vitaliy
George Creek mocking Shane
Photo by Max

Mark mocking Shane

Escaping George Creek

After some climbing up and down on the side slopes to get around obstacles, the snow got deeper and we started making better time. Still, it had taken us over 4 hours to do the first 2.4 miles and 2,000 ft of gain in George Creek. We were only halfway to camp by mileage, and we still had 3,000 ft to climb!

Fortunately from here on the going was straightforward. I turned on my I-Pod and charged up the hill, taking turns breaking trail with Kevin as we tried to make up for lost time. We really needed to reach our planned campsite so that we’d be properly positioned for the climb the next day, and we really needed to get there before sunset to preview the route. Plus, setting up camp and melting water on winter climbs is always easier before the sun goes down.

Snowshoeing up through some cool little canyons
Photo by Vitaliy
Ascending below Tunnabora
Looking back towards Williamson
Water ice columns! Is the approach worth it?

We covered the last 3,000 ft in a little over 2 hours. As we crested the headwall and reached our camp at 11,200’, Vitaliy admired the spectacular setting we had reached:

“Carl Heller was towering above, furthermore our desires for an authentic winter climb prevailed - the Arête had more snow pack than in any photos we previously have seen!”