The Winter RouteI awoke on a ledge two-thirds of the way up the 1000m south face of Lone Pine Peak. By turning my head slightly, I could see the Milky Way out of my sleeping bag's fist-sized breathing hole. It was midnight and calm. I wiggled and struggled in my claustrophobic bag until I rolled onto a fresh side, the rope coming taut on my waist as my pad slid down the sloping ledge, and I dozed off again. The next time I woke up, it was because a breeze was chilling my cheek; I adjusted my balaclava to put a layer between my skin and the sky and went back to sleep. Before I was fully conscious again, I knew the breeze had picked up; pinpricks on my face meant that spindrift was falling on the bivy site. When I peeked out of the bag, I noticed a black, hazy crown on the crest. Stars to the west started to wink out; clouds were lapping at the ridgeline, the highest obstacle they had met since they were born over the Pacific, and I watched, through fits of sleep, as wispy tendrils reached farther and farther down Tuttle Creek Valley, eventually engulfing us in mist and blotching out the rest of the sky. At three it began to snow.
north ridge of Lone Pine Peak in May 2010, I felt like I left a cocoon. I don't mean it was a rite of passage--it was just a personal boundary between a time when I required mostly external justification for climbing choices, and the present period when I can mostly trust myself. After that experience, I became a little obsessed with Lone Pine Peak. Alpine climbers are always talking about suffering and postholing for miles with enormous loads to remote places, so it's natural that the peak which receives the most attention from us is the one which sticks farther out from the crest and closer to the 395 than any other peak on the east side. For better or for worse, winter mountain access in California sucks, so maybe this is a forgivable hypocrisy. With a 1000m big wall on one side, three 2000m ridges on the other, and the weird, charming Ashram under its massive southern flanks, it is really a distinguished mountain.
My fixation after the north ridge was the mythical and expansive south face of Lone Pine Peak. I saw it for the first time from the north Ashram window, dabbled in moonlight, during a skiing trip to the northeast couloir of Langley in May. It looked every bit as tantalizing, imposing, and awesome as trip reports proclaimed. Kellen approached me in the summer about climbing together, and we decided we needed to familiarize ourselves with this massive face for future--particularly winter--shenanigans. We hopped on the easiest climb on the face to get to know each other and to get a feel for this colossus of a granite wall. This was our first time on Winter Route.
The approach was straightforward--take a trail to the Ashram, then walk up and across a brushy river valley to the first gully--but it did try our patience. The crux is a maze of house-sized boulders on the other side of the creek, and I didn't figure out that it's less formidable on the up-valley (west) side until much later. Even with the labyrinth, it only took two hours to get to the first gully from the car. The gullies themselves were choked with dizzyingly fragrant electric blue wildflowers. We roped up for seven pitches: two between the first and second gullies, one at the top of the second gully, and four on the headwall. We also did three 25m rappels. Alois later told us that in winter, the two rock pitches in the dihedral above the first gully can be skipped because a steep connection between the first and second gullies fills in.
After Winter Route, I fixated on the northeast ridge, which is a little longer and more technical than the north ridge. From Michelle's pictures and the description on SummitPost, it looked like the sort of climb which I could enjoy alone or with a fast partner and spartan gear. My great red steed (pictured--farewell, dear) died in the prime of summer, which meant that it was only a matter of time until Kedron, Dan, and I cracked and rented a car to get to the Sierra. They planned to drop me off at Lone Pine campground at the foot of the ridge and to pick me up from the same place late the next day. They were headed to Tuolumne or South Lake for ice.
Aaron had convinced me that the first 600 vertical meters of the ridge were awful sand, but I guess it was nastier in winter when he tried it, because we flew up at 500m per hour and reached a giant, flat bivy in little more than two hours from the car. We hardly needed mats that night, since the sand was so warm and soft. The next day we flew up the rest of the ridge, and when it looked like Dan and Kedron might make it all the way without using their rope--the one on my back--they made some excuse about loose rock to belay a short pitch, since they didn't want me to feel like I wasted so much effort. Aw, thanks guys. Dan was exceptionally comfortable scrambling low fifth class; Kedron and I were impressed and a little jealous, since the northeast ridge would have been far above our heads during our first year of climbing. Kedron and I found that the headwall is climbable at class 4+, which means that the loose death gully, which Dan took, is unnecessary. The PullHarder guys reported a 5.7 finger crack on the headwall when they did it in winter, but they must have been forced into it by snow conditions because it was definitely not fifth class. We also never needed to rappel, since all the notches can be reached by 4+ or 5.0 downclimbs. We skipped the last tower with the 5.6 pitch because we were too lazy to rack up; instead, we descended a gully on the east side for 50-80m, traversed a knobby face into a neighboring gully, then climbed that for 150m until the final notch under the headwall.
But even as I ran along this golden granite ridge, and even as I breathed the warm, dry puffs of air swelling up from the desert, balanced with left arm outstretched a mile above one valley and right arm outstretched a mile above another, I couldn't help but think: this would be so awesome in winter. Come Thanksgiving, the first big storm of the season had dropped a meter of snow over the Sierra, and it was time for the third Thanksgiving Sufferfest--the annual, misguided ritual of wallowing in arctic temperatures and bottomless early-season snow because somehow turkeys and pumpkins aren't good enough. The team this year consisted of Pratyush, with whom I traveled in India in summer 2009, and Tim, who flew here from Rice and who joined Garrett and me on Orizaba many years ago. This first attempt was ill-fated for no reason other than that the steep snow in the gullies had to be swum rather than climbed. By the time we arrived atop the first gully, it was clear that we didn't have enough time to finish the route before a storm the following afternoon, so we bailed. The previous evening in the Ashram was fantastic, though.
After the biggest storm in twenty-five years dropped three meters of snow in late December, January and half of February saw nary a cloud. While skiers were cursing "Juneuary," climbers were hitting it hard, and the coveted winter Palisades traverse was finally subdued by Shay and Konstantin from San Diego. Kellen, Aaron, and I took advantage of the same window to climb the Winter Route. Aaron was adamant at first about running some absurd distance that weekend, but he was wooed and thus was formed Sand Unit (though I think Kellen and Aaron have too much dignity to call us that).
I had work until nine on Friday night, so I didn't get to Aaron's place until ten. I forgot to eat dinner, so we visited the local In N' Out and crammed two hamburgers and an order of fries down my gullet. We drove surprisingly far up the Tuttle Creek road given that I had to park several miles before the Red Lake trailhead a couple weeks ago; we arrived at the lower parking lot around two, crashed for two hours, and were at the Ashram as the first hint of sunrise came from the Inyos. The approach went off without a hitch, and we had skirted the boulder maze on the west and were at the entrance to the first gully by a little after sunrise. We stopped for sunscreen, sunglasses, and water around here and looked up for Alois's bypass of the roped pitches between the first and second gullies, but we couldn't find it. I got antsy as Kellen and Aaron hanged out, so I told them I would go look for the bypass and would meet them at the top of the first gully.
After some wallowing and some sporty scratching to avoid moats, I made it to a small notch from which I could see the bottom of the Winter Chimney at eye level. I trotted down the couloir on the opposite side into the middle of the second gully, where I took a nap in the sun and waited for Aaron and Kellen. I heard Aaron long before I saw him, which is typical; when we saw each other, I waved and got ready to walk towards the Winter Route notch. We had optimistically brought four ice screws for the chimney pitch before the notch.
Aaron and Kellen had a rope, but I tossed mine down and belayed them to speed us up. As I belayed Aaron, I saw a yellowish thing sticking out of the snow--could it be? Our rappel sling from August! When Aaron arrived, he admonished me lightly for wandering up the pitch alone, as he should have. Kellen was less annoyed with the solo than with the connection incident, since if that hadn't gone we'd have lost several hours. This is when I learned that climbing is not just about learning to climb.
Aaron rappelled to the giant ledge to start looking for a bivy site as I belayed Kellen. The snow below the headwall was high-angle and would have required a lot of excavation, so we descended thirty or forty feet along a narrow ledge to a better spot. Aaron and Kellen leveled a site for themselves as I hammered in an anchor for the party; I chose to sleep on the ledge, since it had no snow on it. The ledge was three-quarters as wide as my pad, so I made a hammock out of several coils, each clove-hitched to the anchor, then tied in, wiggled into my bag, and immediately dozed off. Actually, I guess I had dinner first, but since it consisted of nothing but salami and tortillas smothered in Nutella, it wasn't particularly memorable. I put my food in my bag so I could eat inside in the morning.
As the winds escalated and clouds descended from the west, I remembered the first pitch on the headwall. It was straightforward 5.7 in summer, but it was steep face climbing on small edges, and it seemed like a major obstacle for us, since it would be dusted in snow and would have to be climbed in crampons. I had deep convictions that this pitch wasn't above me, but these convictions didn't reassure my poor stomach, who was knotted out of all utility. I managed to sleep for another hour before the gusts became too violent; my legs were hanging off the ledge, so the bigger ones would lift them and crash them back down. At four I yelled over the wind to Kellen and Aaron, who were twenty feet below me, and asked them if they wanted to start moving. Unsurprisingly, they were wide awake, and we started to gear up.
The rock was covered in enough snow that climbing without crampons would have been impossible. From the belay, I worked up a groove, placed a cam, then reached widely to the left to hook my tool on a flake. I hooked it, stemmed way out to place one of my front points on a dime-edge, committed, and pulled. Ah, relief--I didn't fall. I moved my right foot's front points to the same hold, leaving the security of the groove, and torqued my pick behind the flake to stabilize myself. I placed a small cam--it was thin from there to the next belay--and moved up a step to an insecure, slopey edge. I hooked a hold higher up, and as I shifted my body weight to move up, my stomach lurched as my foot popped and I began to fall. I caught myself on my axe. I repositioned my foot, heeded my balance better, and moved up again. After some more unnerving climbing, I arrived at a narrow ledge and placed a knifeblade and another tiny cam, since it looked unprotectable above. Leaving this ledge was the most confounding part of the pitch; unable to find anything for my picks, I smeared my gloved palms and trusted my front points to frightfully insignificant edges. One particularly wimpy one blew out from under my feet, and I fell a body length back to the small ledge. Eventually, I committed my body weight to a marginal pick placement, hauled myself up, locked off my elbow, and hooked a more substantial hold with the other tool. I repeated the process, walking my feet up and locking off, until edges fit for crampons started to appear. After this point, intermittent smears of ice would take my picks and crampons, and by following them I eventually reached a large ledge.
From here I walked up a short gully and belayed under a giant chockstone. The sun had come out during my long ordeal on the first pitch, but the wind was blowing and fierce vortices came down the face at regular intervals. Kellen and Aaron dispatched the pitch in good time, and Kellen took over the lead for the next three pitches. It was surprisingly hard to free-climb around the chockstone, so he took off his crampons and stood on my shoulders to pass it. He pulled us up by holding his axe out as a handhold. From there we climbed steep snow for twenty meters to the base of the loose 5.4 gully, where Aaron situated himself under a deep crack in the snow (presumably a moat), and Kellen led up and left then right again to get us to the tension traverse into the easier part of the gully. I had great fun following his pitch, now safely on top-rope. Kellen proceeded to tension traverse into the gully, which he warned us was still loose despite a covering of snow, and Aaron and I had awesome swings in when we followed. As I clambered up the gully slightly ahead of Aaron, my foot dislodged a sizable rock from under a foot of snow, which whizzed down squarely towards Aaron's head. "ROCK ROCK ROCK!" Climbers' reflexes kicked in for both of us, and Aaron dodged with impressive agility. From the third belay, it was a quick pitch to the summit plateau, where we all agreed we couldn't make the summit without making Kellen late for hospital duty the next day; the weather had been excellent for a month, but the snow conditions on the summit plateau were frustratingly slow, even as we walked towards the descent.
This time, armed with daylight, research, and paranoia, we hit the descent right on. The couloir showed signs of a massive avalanche, probably from late December; trees and shrubs were uprooted everywhere. The snow at the top of the couloir was as hard as snow can get without being ice, but as we trotted down it got progressively softer thanks to a curve which gives the couloir a southerly aspect at the bottom (and because of the adiabatic lapse rate). Eventually we were wading to our thighs and tripping over hidden branches, but that was only for a short stretch before the saddle. When we finally arrived there, we gazed down upon a sandy, nearly brush-free slope back to the north Tuttle Creek Road. In fact, it was so delightful compared to that horrid Mirkwood from August that we ran it, skipping and whooping, and soon we were across the creek, back in the car, wolfing pizza in Lone Pine, and driving back home, our first winter Tuttle Creek adventure behind us. Of course, there will be many more.