Mt. Winchell, West Arete
Grade III-IV, 5.8+
West Arete is an obscure backcountry Sierra route that deserves more traffic. It takes its path up one of the most complex and intimidating mountain faces in the range, the west/southwest side of Mt. Winchell. Climbing this route is a considerable commitment and a great adventure for an experienced party. Despite it's Grade III, 5.8 rating and understated description of difficulties listed in a popular guidebook, we found 4th-5th class approach, incredible exposure, steep terrain, and eleven long (150+ feet) and mostly sustained pitches, only a couple of which were easier than 5.7. Most of the pitches included at least one 5.7+ section while two stretches felt like 5.9. Hence, this route is not recommended for 5.8 trad leaders. Falling and getting injured on this route will present a major rescue challenge. So, don't fall!
This route (or one of its flavors) was first climbed by prolific Galen Rowell and Warren Harding in May 1976. It features mostly clean rock and varied climbing: steep face moves on positive holds, pumpy liebacks, jamming, stemming, knife edge ridge traversing and chimneys. It maintains its sustained nature throughout and ends on the northwest ridge of the mountain approximately 100' below the pointy summit. Protection is good: lots of nut-eating cracks and opportunities for smaller cams. Belay stations are usually comfortable. It's most striking characteristic, which, in my opinion, makes it classic, is that it unravels in front of you as you progress. Once you gain the arete, just follow the path of least resistence.
ApproachWhile it is certainly possible to climb this route car-to-car in a day (is your name Peter Croft?), it is not recommended due to its long and sustained nature. Several options for the base camp include Dusy Basin, Bishop Pass or somewhere below the west face of the mountain. There are several prepared bivy spots below the mountain but they may be lacking water sources after the creeks dry out in mid-summer. To get to Bishop Pass, drive your vehicle from Bishop to South Lake and follow a mule trail for 5 miles and 2200 vertical feet. From Bishop Pass, go around Mount Agassiz and maintain your elevation as much as possible until you get to below Mt. Winchell.
As you arrive at the base of the west/southwest face of the mountain, look for the 5th class (?) west chute and a broad vertical face to its right. According to the Secor's "High Sierra" (2nd edition), one needs to climb that broad face and gradually move right to gain the arete. You can certainly try that but you will most likely need to rope up right there. Instead, you can skirt that broad face on the right until you reach another chute. Go up that chute and almost immediately angle left. It will be loose and unpleasant for a couple hundred feet. Eventually, you will arrive to more solid and steeper rock. Continue scrambling for 200-300' (some may want to rope up on this 4th-5th class section) until you get to the near vertical wall below a prominent buttress. Here the real climbing begins. You may be tempted to go right and gain the right-hand arete. Don't. Instead, rope up and climb up and left to gain the left-hand arete. For reference purposes, elevation at this point is 12,600-12,700'.
Route DescriptionInstead of giving a detailed pitch by pitch description, I'd list route highlights and give pointers that will help to climb the route while maintaining its adventurous nature.
Once you rope up, go up and left through flakes and crack systems. First two pitches will feature stretches of 5.8 and 5.9 climbing. We found the crux to be on the 2nd pitch where you have to lieback a finger crack up a steep face and stem on insignificant footholds for approximately 20 feet. At first, it will not seem that you're climbing on an arete. However, after the second pitch, this will change. Eventually, you will find yourself tip-toeing on a knife edge and walking on a foot-wide ridge (not recommended for people with vertigo problems). One particular section of the ridge is so sharp, you have to crawl past it on all fours. Approximately half way up, there is a steep and intimidating gendarme. It may be possible to bypass it on the right (we didn't try) or climb on its left side up a very steep face (scary!) with sloping holds and thin cracks. Exposure here is tremendous. As you near the top of the gendarme, there will be a committing move above pro that goes at 5.8+. Past this move, you will regain the ridge proper for easier climbing. Don't forget to occasionally look around and enjoy this outrageous place. On the upper half of the route, it should be easier to bypass certain difficulties on the right side of the arete. When the southwest chute (to your right) comes to its end below the summit headwall, look for a near-vertical chimney/crack system on the right side of the arete. It will place you near the intersection of West Arete and Northwest Ridge. Continue up and right Northwest Ridge for a couple more pitches until the summit.
DescentIt is only fair that after such a great and challenging day on the mountain, you'll find a Class 1-2 stroll to your base camp. Right? Don't count on it. As evident from the summit register, climbers who ascend the west face of the peak are often wondering how are they going to get down. Looking at guidebooks, it may seem logical to descend one of the Class 4-5 chutes on the west face or Southeast Ridge. Under closer inspection, one quickly realizes that it is inherently a bad idea. Instead, use the route description for East Arete. Yes, drop down on the other side of the peak, find the obvious chute (2nd chute after you drop from the summit), follow it down and then traverse to Winchell Col without loosing elevation. Voila! Well, not so easy. Continue to descend on the west side of Winchell Col. Here it gets ugly quickly: loose and steep. There are two forks that drop from the col (they eventually merge), take the left one. After downclimbing a loose Class 3-4 gully for a few hundred feet, you will come across a 80' drop off. On the left side of the gully there should be a rappel station. You would want to inspect the station and refresh the slings/gear if needed before rappeling. After this single rappel, you will find yourself on easier ground.
Recommendced GearTake this with a grain of salt and apply your own judgement:
- Single 60 meter rope (for longer pitches)
- One set of nuts
- One-two sets of cams from 0.3" to 3.5"
- Ten alpine draws
- Some slings (for horns/flakes and rappeling)
- Two cordelettes