Warning: Long TR follows. Stop now.
In the land of the highest, harshest mountains on the planet, humans
have developed a way of tending to spiritual concerns while
concentrating their time and efforts on more immediate matters like
survival. From porches, housebeams, trees, and from rough rock cairns on
the highest mountain passes, they string prayer flags. The Windhorse, a
mystical creature, carries prayers from the flags to the heavens on the
wings of the wind. Ubiquitous in the Himalayas, prayer flags are seldom
seen in the West. Thus were my partners and I surprised and pleased this
summer when approaching Stonehouse in the southern Sierra of California,
to see tattered prayer flags fluttering in the ever-present breeze.
Just north of Lone Pine Peak is Whitney Portal, one of the most
crowded and heavily impacted trailheads in the United States. Each year,
hordes of weekend warriors submit their applications for the lottery,
the prize being a coveted "wilderness" permit which allows them the
chance to conquer the summit of the highest peak in the Lower 48. A
few miles away as the eagle flies, the huge and remote South Face of
Lone Pine Peak overlooks a far different scene. Here, in the steep
canyons of Tuttle Creek, no trails reach beyond the Stonehouse, a Hindu
ashram built in the 1930's and long since abandoned, now visited only by
the rare hiker and a few locals. Awaiting climbers hardy (or foolhardy)
enough to force their own trails up the steep talus, brush and boulder
fields above Stonehouse, is a magnificent granite face a mile long and
half a mile high.
For those who were still drinking mother's milk when the pioneers of
the Sierra were devouring new routes and boasting of their latest
exploits over brew in Camp 4, the South Face of Lone Pine Peak offers a
rare opportunity: the tantalizing possibility for ascents of unclimbed
lines. Magnificent lines. Terrifying lines. Compelling lines that you
notice, then study, and photograph, and ponder, until they haunt your
dreams and entice you to make the brutal approach hike again and
Since the 1970's, my friend and partner Pat Brennan and I have made many
forays up Tuttle Creek, climbing the few existing routes and then making
our own first ascents of routes such as Summer Ridge, Zig-Zag Dihedral,
and Red Baron Tower. In 1996, Alois Smrz, Miguel Carmona, and Jim
Mathews established a beautiful new line up the center of the face,
which they called Land of Little Rain (Ref AAJ). In a 1997 letter, Alois
called it the last mountaineering route on the face. Forecasting the
techniques I would employ two years later, he wrote that the remaining
lines on the face appeared to be "really difficult, multi-day climbs..."
lack of water would be a "real consideration, and one would have to
For at least a decade, I'd been trying to talk Pat into attempting one
of those lines; a huge arcing dihedral, capped by overhangs and a gaping
wide crack. Studying it in different lights and from different angles, I
had seen a shadow that hinted there might be an escape from the roofs, a
way to move right around the huge corner, past a small pinnacle, and
continue up the steep face to the huge, terrifying bombay chimney.
Above were faint lines or shadows that indicated a possible crack,
almost reaching to a huge loose block ("the detached pinnacle") and
higher, more faint lines, another possible crack, leading up out of
sight to the broken summit ridge. Each year I proposed the route to Pat,
but the answer was always the same: "No way, man. That route's a pile of
choss. Crap rock. Loose. Dangerous. No way you're gonna get me to go up
there. Nope, no way, man. Don't ask me again."
Since most of those who knew of my proposed line refused to have
anything to do with it, I enlisted Em Holland and Craig Harris in the
project, hoping their enthusiasm would keep them going until too late to
back out. Em, a strong alpine climber with Himalayan experience, was no
stranger to the challenges of the backcountry, with the strength and
tenacity of a pit bull, and with ascents of difficult climbs in the
Canadian Rockies and several first ascents/first free ascents of Sierra
routes to her credit. Craig (aka Dingus Milktoast, an internet friend)
was also a good choice, with decades of walls and backcountry climbing
behind him, including the first ascent of Milktoast Chimney, a stunning
1,000-foot line further up the same canyon.
September 1998, first attempt: Em and I, laden with 65-lbs. packs,
staggered up-canyon past Stonehouse, ferrying loads enroute to one of
the most intimidating projects I have ever laid eyes on. Our first
effort was halted days later by the rains and high winds of an early
autumn, but not before we had reached a spacious, sandy ledge five
hundred feet up the wall. Here was an excellent advance base camp, above
which the main difficulties of the route were readily apparent. We
cached gear, bolts, ropes, and food on the ledge before retreating.
August 1999, and we're back. A reconaissance up the face the previous
weekend confirms the survival of our supplies cache. Craig, Em and I
meet at a cafe in Lone Pine for breakfast before launching.
"what would you like to drink with breakfast? Coffee, tea, or..."
The waiter, taken aback by this unusual response pauses, studies my face
for signs that I'm kidding, then meeting my expectant gaze, takes a deep
breath and recites the brands.
Equally serious, I respond, "Sierra Nevada is fine. No cream or sugar,
thanks, I drink it straight."
Breakfast finished, we head up the road.
"High Side!!" I roar as the road tilts sickeningly toward the
700-foot-deep canyon bottom, Em scoots across the back bumper of the
truck, adding her slight weight to the mass of gear stacked against the
uphill side of the camper. The truck crawls across this most dangerous
stretch of road, sand trickling down-slope from beneath the outside
wheels, rivulets of erosion dribbling through the hourglass of geologic
change, the road migrating out from under the truck, one grain of sand
at a time, to the bottom of the gorge, thence out into the long alluvial
wasteland of Owens Valley and the Alabama Hills. Moments later we pull
into the sandy parking at road's end, breathing a sigh of relief at
having cheated the forces of entropy once again.
By mid-afternoon Craig, Em and I sit, exhausted, at the tiny, tilted
oasis we have come to call Columbine Spring, our first rest break on the
horrendous, brush-infested struggle to basecamp. I warn Em and Craig to
keep their eyes peeled on the uphill side. Last week I encountered a
400-pound black bear within 100 yards of this spot. "If it makes a kill
of a large animal (like one of us) it will attack from the uphill side
to put its weight and speed to greatest advantage." Em and Craig
exchange glances and nod, looking a bit green, not sure if I'm joking.
The approach to the base of the face is completed without incident.
"Hello? What?? I can't hear you... Flying to Florida?? Hello???
Take care of the kids???" Craig folds the cellular phone and joins us
on Weakened Worriers Ledge with the bad news. He will have to bail from
the climb to do daddy duty, taking care of the kids while his wife takes
care of a family emergency. A major setback. Craig, having made a
tremendous effort in the vertical freight handling (hauling, then
arduously ferrying loads on his back up the hellish chimney pitches) is
just now due to rotate into the lead for some of the most terrifying
climbing on the route. Instead, with great disappointment, we discuss
strategies, sort gear, and begin leading up the dihedral as Craig
departs down the ropes, leaving extra water, food and gear should it be
Dead end. The crack I've been following vanishes as it turns the corner,
folding into a blank and decomposed groove. As I set a bolt, I smash the
index finger of my left hand between hanger and hammer. Blood trickles
down my arm.
Time for hooks. Occasional tinking and thunking of copperhead and beak
placements supplement the skittering sound of granite chips flying past
Em's belay, as I scrape the rock with the hammer, looking for something
solid enough to hold a hook. Every once in a great while, a seam opens
enough to place a pin. Mid pitch, the crack swallows a #3 Loweball.
(Permanently -- it's still up there.) We shout farewells as Craig moves
his load of gear back toward Stonehouse.
Standing on one final hook placement, I start drilling a bolt for a
belay. Below is a complex pitch, the crux of the route, but a likely
candidate for a free ascent someday, after appropriate gardening.
The sun is rushing toward the jagged Sierra crest of Sharkstooth, and
Mt. Corcoran. The pitch has taken the bulk of the day. Above, the
dihedral opens into a bottomed offwidth groove. Looks like a transition
to free climbing. Satisfied, I place an additional pair of belay bolts,
and rappel, reaching camp shortly before dark.
Our mood is bleak in camp tonight. With Craig gone, our huge stock of
supplies has become a liability. Both Em and I must sacrifice precious
time (that with a team of three could be spent pushing the route higher)
to shuttle material up to camp. The extra hauling has already cost us
half a day, with additional ferrying needed tomorrow before everything
reaches our ledge. The unbending difficulty of the dihedral is also
oppressive. As Em struggles up from below with another load of water, I
open a Sapporo, slurp some hot soup, and sort through the bolt kit in
the fading twilight. What happens tomorrow may determine the fate of the
In the blackness, the gash of the canyon is emphasized by a thin slot of
stars. The wall above us seems to obliterate half the sky. Em and I
simultaneously gasp as a huge shooting star streaks across the night.
The Perseid Meteor shower of 1999 has begun. Then, across canyon, a
rumbling. Suddenly the face across from us is lit with streams of
fireworks as a major rockfall erupts and flows down a chute in a river
of sparks. It is incredible, beautiful, powerful. Optimism returns.
Another clear Sierra dawn. The day passes in a kaleidoscope of images. A
morning of humping loads. A 5.11/A0 crack that feels lined with broken
shards of glass. In the interest of time, after sussing the moves and
cleaning out the crack on aid, I forsake the redpoint and yard through
the grainy crux, knowing that this will go free, probably on the next
ascent. A sleet storm. What follows is a blank 5.10 face. More bolts as
sleet collects at our feet. Finally, Em and I reach a series of tiny
brushy ledges below the terrifying bombay chimney visible from the
ground. Climbing capsule style, we are finally in a position to move
camp up here tomorrow, and attempt the dark slot above. For once
satisfied with our progress, we fix ropes and rappel as the day comes to
Noon, yet another day. The hauling is killing us. We have abandoned four
gallons of water and other supplies at Weakened Worriers Ledge. Finally
established at "Dead Tree Terrace" we do a small bit of ledge
engineering, and I head up the next pitch. The dark chimney looms above,
at one point choking down to an offwidth slot. I slide a #5 Camalot
through the narrowest sections, and occasionally leave a Big Bro every
fifty feet or so. Finally, retching above the crux, at the end of my
rope in an easy 5.6 chimney, I stop to drill another two-bolt hanging
belay. The day is over, after only two hundred feet of new ground.
Back at the bivy, we build a small fire, sip beer and Amaretto
Alexanders, and discuss strategy. Depending on what we encounter
tomorrow, we may be in a position to push for the top. A jettison of the
haul bag and other non-essential gear is discussed. Em finally wanders
off to a sloping, sandy shelf, as I settle back on a ledge the size of a
toilet seat, suspending my legs in our single-point hammock. We drift
into unsettled slumber, the questions of the climb still unresolved.
As dawn paints the South Face of Lone Pine Peak a warm yellow-gold, I
step-chug-breathe-step my jumars up the wall, outside the flared
offwidth slot that was yesterday's problem-of-the-moment. Today, above,
we hope for easier climbing. Our hopes dwindle as I head up a 200-foot
long, poorly protected groove on the steep headwall. Three times on the
half-day-long pitch, I stop to place protection bolts. I am moving as
though wading through a dream of molasses, slowed more by fear and
uncertainty, plus the drilling and constant cleaning of unclimbed rock,
than by actual technical difficulty. It is afternoon when I finally
collapse into a sloping cave-ledge below the huge, detached pinnacle
visible from the ground. I fix the lead line, shout appropriate signals,
then use the zip line to solo around to the back of the pinnacle, the
better to look at the "crack system" I saw from the floor of the canyon
ten years ago.
Dead end. Above me is a black water streak on an otherwise flawless
vertical wall. We're in a cul-de-sac of rock, the options dissolving
before my eyes as the ledges slant away into the void.
Em arrives up the fixed line, disentangles, and catches her breath.
After a brief conference, we decide to attempt a wild tension traverse
to easier ground. The traverse would be impossible as a pendulum. After
drilling a bolt, I lower nearly a full ropelength, and crab to the right
across the off-vertical face. Eighty horizontal feet later, the sideways
tension of the rope threatens to drag me off the rock. I briefly
consider the huge swinging fall into the corner that will result, and
how difficult an injury evacuation would be from this point.
Clinging with one hand and pedaling both feet, I set a Lost Arrow into
the only placement I have seen on this traverse. We both sigh in relief
as the weighted pin holds. More tension follows, but soon I am nearly
100 feet right of my starting point, on a sloping ledge system that
connects with the Direct South Face, and hence the top,.
Drilling another belay station, we fix a Tyrolean traverse back to the
top of the fixed lines, and begin the descent to Dead Tree Terrace one
last time. Tomorrow we will jettison all non-essentials, and go for the
top via a variation of the Direct South Face climbed in the 1970s but
And so, the following day, completing some of the most rewarding
climbing either of us had ever encountered, we stumbled onto the summit
plateau of Lone Pine Peak with Windhorse (V 5.10 A3) below us.
It's our second night out without sleeping gear. (Last night, darkness
caught us on the descent, 45 minutes from Stonehouse in the jumbled
boulders across the canyon. Completely exhausted, we scooped a flat
space into sand and drifted off, warmed by a small bivy fire and the
last of our amaretto. Mid-morning found us back at the truck, cooking
survival tacos, preparing to return to high camp. ) By the time darkness
settles over the canyon, we have recovered most of what remains of our
jettisoned gear -- Strewn helter-skelter across the landscape; shredded
by critters and manzanita bushes -- in our drained state, the sight of
the abused equipment is devastating. Finally we determine that my
sleeping bag is 150 feet up the face, tangled on a brushy ledge. Oops.
We pile together all our spare insulation -- stuff bags, webbing,
clothing -- and burrow into the nest, running on empty.
Optimism returns yet again with another flawless Sierra dawn. Tying in
on a bowline on a coil, leading on what little gear we were able to
scavenge at the base of the face, I climb up to the last of our
jettisoned gear, with relief retrieving my sleeping bag, six Big Bros,
and four wagonwheel cams. By burning our garbage and remaining food,
we're able to descend with all that is left of our gear tucked away in
85-pound packs. We complete a careful breaking of camp, destroying and
burying the fire ring and ashes, re-distributing the topsoil and duff
over the site, and erasing our footprints. By 10:30 am, all traces of
our canyon camp are gone. Packed and ready, we swing the huge loads onto
our backs, and after one last look around at this magical place, begin
the long hike out.
It is the intangibles, the memories we will carry with us,that are the
precious treasures discovered on this wall... The Perseid meteor
shower; The rockfall a river of light in the darkness; Night after night
of darkened canyon, no sign of humans visible; The sleet storm; and of
course, during every load carried into and out of the canyon, high on a
ridge above forested slopes, fluttering in the breeze, the Prayer Flags
Windhorse, South Face of Lone Pine Peak
Grade V, 5.10 A3
FA Bruce Bindner and Em Holland August 8 - 13, 1999
21 pitches, 2,400 feet of climbing
24 bolts placed, mostly 5/16" splitshaft buttonheads and
3/8" Fixe anchors. All bolts were hand-drilled on lead.
Recipe for Golden Showers:
approximately equal parts fresh-squeezed Orange Juice
and Mendocino Brewing Co. "Eye of the Hawk" Ale
[hey, you wouldn't want to spoil a *Real*
micro-brew by making this, woudja?] Adjust proportions based on
desired electrolyte balance-- for more potassium, use more OJ.
For more Sodium, use more ale.
Recipe for Amaretto Alexanders:
½ cup DiGiorno's Amaretto, ¼ cup Nestle's canned table cream.
Pour both into a Nalgene (NOT lexan) 1-liter day bottle.
Add 3 small, clean, smooth pebbles, cap and shake well. serves one.
I met you before you passed, Brutus. This is another of the inspirational articles which I've read over and over as I've grown as a climber. This paragraph is particularly poignant:
The truck crawls across this most dangerous stretch of road, sand trickling down-slope from beneath the outside wheels, rivulets of erosion dribbling through the hourglass of geologic change, the road migrating out from under the truck, one grain of sand at a time, to the bottom of the gorge, thence out into the long alluvial wasteland of Owens Valley and the Alabama Hills. Moments later we pull into the sandy parking at road's end, breathing a sigh of relief at having cheated the forces of entropy once again.