After a relaxed four-hour approach, mostly cramponing up the abundant snow remaining from the past winter’s bumper crop, we arrived at the moraine at the foot of the buttress. It looked steep, and there didn’t appear to be any attractive way of bailing off the route should circumstances mandate it. We hydrated and munched a few energy bars while contemplating the route and the impressive avalanches that had fallen from the convoluted east ridge. Huge cornices still threatened most of the gullies, including the most obvious bailout line to the left of the arete.
Brian doesn’t like to talk about bailing. That’s one of the characteristics I find most appealing in him as a climbing partner: he’s success-oriented, unwilling to be intimidated by difficulty and determined to overcome problems that dust him off on the first, second or even third attempt. According to him, we were going to make it. Period.
The first pitch isn’t necessarily obvious from the route descriptions, and we had three. But once we scrambled up the fourth class terrain at the toe of the buttress, there was only one line that seemed to match our beta. It didn’t look too hard, but looks proved to be deceiving. As Brian climbed higher up the face and crack system above us, his pace slowed noticeably until he seemed to be just hanging out analyzing the mineralogy. When it was my turn to climb I understood better. The climbing becomes progressively more difficult, ending with mandatory hand jams in a sharp-edged, ice-cold crack.
A few yards of easy class four/five scrambling lead to a ledge below an impressive pair of dihedrals. None of our beta mentioned this fact, and we debated which one to try. It was my lead, so I briefly explored both options. The left corner looked easier, but getting into it proved more difficult than I expected. The right side turned out to be sustained 5.8. It took me a couple of tries before I committed myself to the opening moves, but once into it, the climbing was interesting. Water ice at the back of the crack was a reminder that we were on an alpine rock climb.
Finding a suitable belay in the fourth class mess above the dihedral proved to be a bit of a challenge. It was almost impossible not to knock debris off the sloping, sandy ledges. I poked around until I found what seemed to be the best stance. There were a pair of fixed pins at the back of a small ledge that, had they not looked so decrepit, would have been an ideal anchor. But the eye on one of them looked cracked, and both were seriously rusted. Fortunately, the cracks in the headwall above offered good placements, and were situated high enough above the traverse to afford Brian a slightly better situation as he launched out around the arete.
The third pitch is a long traverse that is every bit as serious to follow as it is to lead. After a brief reconnaissance, Brian disappeared from sight around the arete. I guessed at the level of difficulty from the pace at which I paid out rope. A particularly long delay after he was about a hundred feet out had me wondering how long this climb would take. The unseasonably cold weather and persistent breeze left me hoping my calculations were wrong. Most of the route was in shadow, and we were both on the cold side.
Reaching the arete was a case of good news/bad news; the sun was out, which was good, but the empty space below my feet and the sight of the rope running horizontally for twenty or thirty feet made me take extra care. Fortunately, the moves weren’t all that hard. The angle backed off enough to catch my breath after negotiating the corner, but it became serious once again after I unclipped the fixed pin that protects the leader on the second step-around. I peered around the corner to discover that the next piece was twenty feet horizontally, and six feet below me. I moved slowly and deliberately, now appreciating the cause for Brian’s slow pace.
The route now follows either a short chimney, or a slightly harder face. Neither protects particularly well. I opted for the chimney, dragging my pack from my waist. It was a grunt, but felt less scary than the exposed face that Brian climbed on lead.
We were both thankful for the fact that the sun now shone down on us. But we were moving more slowly than we hoped, and the steep crux wall loomed menacingly above us, still in the shade. I wasted no time starting up pitch four. The route descriptions are vague about this pitch, but make it sound easy. It wasn’t as easy as I hoped. The climbing is quite athletic, involving semi-strenuous moves over big blocks and hanging off flakes. To my dismay, the most sensible belay stance was in the shade on the opposite side of the notch separating the small tower the route climbs and the main wall of the buttress. I wasn’t looking forward to another frigid belay stance.
As Brian came up I pondered the potential descent routes. It all looked ugly. I came to the conclusion that once we got past the next pitch it would be faster, safer, and easier to complete the climb that to bail. That didn’t do much for my mood, though. When I get cold I get grumpy, and all I can think about is getting the hell off the mountain. Brian sensed this, and thankfully he launched immediately into the next lead.
The frequency with which he placed gear was my first clue that this was indeed the technical crux. I watched nervously as he tentatively moved up, then backed off, tried again, backed off again, then searched for another gear placement. I was rapidly losing the feeling in my hands. I didn’t want to have to deal with a potentially injured partner if he fell.
But Brian is strong. He found his way past the crux overhang without too much commotion, though his comment after pulling past it to easier ground was, “scary, but good”. Following his lead, I had to agree. The crux was pretty close to vertical, and the moves took some figuring out. I had forgotten to put on my belay jacket while he lead the pitch, and my hands were now just lumps of lead on the ends of my arms. The only sensation was the pain of cranking off sharp edges.
The next pitch starts with a long chimney. The climbing is sustained 5.8 and well protected. Shimmying up with a pack is more strenuous than it would otherwise be. At the top of the chimney the climbing got much easier, and I could see sunlight on the crest of the arête higher up. Brian said something about a belay ledge by a tower at the top of the chimney, but I wouldn’t hear of it. I blasted up as fast as he could pay out rope until at last I gained the arête proper. There the sun was out in full force, and remarkably, free of wind. I felt human again.
We were now quite aware of the fact that we were faced with the strong possibility of descent in the dark, and wasted no time in moving out on the last two pitches. We agreed to simulclimb the rest of the route. Brian headed out over big flakes that eventually lead to a squeeze chimney flanked on both sides by crack and face climbing options. Even if I had been able to see which way Brian went, the lay of the rope forced me to tackle the chimney directly. Without a pack it would have been a grunt, but with the damn thing on my back I ended up heaving and swearing through strenuous off-width moves.
To my surprise, I found Brian belaying in the shade of a huge chockstone on the arête. He explained that simulclimbing through the tunnel didn’t seem to make sense. Surveying the situation, I agreed that he was right. Later, I discovered the true reason for his deciding to set up a belay. When the middle mark on the rope passed through my hands I shouted out, "Halfway". Brian mistakenly thought I had said, "Off Belay"! He took one look at the steep face before him and decided to anchor in. I'm surprised he didn't chew me out for taking him off without consulting him first. I certainly would have deserved it.
More gymnastic moves to gain the arête lead to airy, fun climbing until reaching a big table-like block just below the summit, where a short, overhung face blocked the way. A sharp-edged hand crack offered one way past the difficulties, and a slightly less appealing corner offered another. I deduced that these were the hand traverse and bouldering moves mentioned in the route descriptions. After pissing away more time than it was worth trying to grunt my way past these problems I finally opted to take Croft’s advice and simply head up via easier ground.
A traverse down and left lead to a broad sandy ledge amidst talus just below the summit blocks. Done! As relieved as I was, I was now colder than ever; the wind kicked into high gear, and I was once again in the shade. This time I had the good sense to put on the belay jacket. Brian was mercifully quick following. He scrambled up to the summit and signed the register for the both of us.
Thoughts of glissading down the eastern slopes evaporated as soon as we touched the snow. It was hard and serrated. Cramponing down took way more energy and focus than either of us cared to put out, but we had no choice. The line between sun and shadow continually moved just ahead of us, teasing us with the thought of warmth just a short distance away while we gingerly flat-footed it down the snowfield, always on guard against gusts of wind that could easily have blown us off our feet.
Darkness fell as we approached Long Lake. A brilliant full moon rose from behind the hulking shadow of Mt. Agassiz. Brian strapped on his headlamp, but I refused to stop long enough to dig through my pack to find mine. The moonlight would have to do.
With so much snow still on the ground, it was nearly impossible to follow the trail until the last mile. We repeatedly got lost, found the trail, then lost it again. On the way up Brian had commented that he hated hiking. I didn’t mind it as much as he did, but the seemingly interminable descent was definitely trying my patience. We were out of food and water, and facing a five hour drive home.
Thinking back on the climb, I agreed that it was harder then your typical Sierra 5.9. The route was more sustained than others I’ve done, the exposure more appalling, the moves trickier to figure out, and the protection lacking in key places. It was easy to see how some would fear it. But if I ever had the time to come back on a warm day I would. It’s a bold line, not for the faint of heart. However, if you take the time to figure it out, the climbing is easier than it first appears. The exposure is exhilarating, and the satisfaction of having completed a challenging route makes it a worthwhile endeavor.