North Ridge of Lone Pine Peak Solo
I lost my rock shoes in late November. Fortunately, we had a boon of a winter in California, and there were memorable shenanigans on Tahquitz ice and on a superb Sierra snowpack. This season I managed to haul myself up enough vertical with skis that I became a competent if still unsightly skier--I managed to ski Mount Whitney's Mountaineer's Route! But winter's through and finished, and a month ago I sealed the season by buying a new pair of rock shoes.
I don't care to climb 5.12 trad one day--I just want a skill set and a cool enough head for alpine climbing. 5.10 would get me a long way, and since I've ticked off all the 5.9's I've tried in Joshua Tree and Tahquitz, I think I'll get there before I'm incapacitated by snowlust again. But neither Tahquitz nor Joshua Tree is at all alpine, and after a month of grunting fratboys at the climbing gym and hearing Harleys rev in Idyllwild from high up the North Recess on my favorite local rock, I would have pimped a nun to inmates to return to the Sierra.
Lone Pine Peak has been on my radar for a long time. It's a sort of mecca for alpinism for people from LA and San Diego as the closest interesting Sierra peak without an atrocious approach; it's the only peak to my knowledge which regularly sees technical winter ascents, anyway. It juts far out east of the Sierra Crest, so the summit views are almost vertiginous! One can see over a hundred miles up and down Owens Valley from the top, and the valley seems to be under the feet as if seen from an airplane. The biggest granite wall outside Yosemite dominates its south face, and three colossal ridges spill off the summit at nearly 13000 ft to sagebrush and rattlesnakes at 6000. The famous Frendo Spur in Chamonix is only half as long!
I emailed Alex and Aaron to get them on board for the north ridge, but both were busy with a social life or something like that. Not possessing such a thing, I asked Veronica to come, since she's moving to Texas for grad school, but a couple days later I got an adorably frantic email in which she'd exploded schoolwork apprehension into her keyboard at 300 mph as only Veronica can. I didn't look very hard for anyone else.
The north ridge is 5.5 according to Secor, which is the standard local guidebook, but most trip reports mention a 5.6 layback and a 5.7 off-width. For some reason I couldn't quite defend, I was convinced those were merely variations on a more natural and technically easy line. I wanted to do it alone. I didn't have a good reason for that, either; it certainly wasn't a calculated step towards experience for an aspiring alpinist, and it certainly wasn't for chicks--if Alex Honnold doesn't get 'em that way, I certainly won't! I wanted to learn about my comfort limits untethered on alpine rock with scary exposure. I wanted to know whether I can safely simul-climb on easy to mid class 5 in the future; certainly if one possesses the head and comfort to solo at a grade, it's safe to simul it.
My nerves were a wreck Wednesday through Friday. Weather was unsettled last week, so in that weird, trippy place between wakefulness and sleep each night, I imagined desperate climbing on verglas, or loose blocks, or my 8 mm alpine line snapping. I decided to take a rope and a small rack to self-belay any hard climbing with a clove hitch, but that only appeased my nerves a little. In a worrying gesture before I left to meet Garrett, Kedron, and Dan Feldman for the carpool, I actually hugged my mom for the first time before a climb. I wasn't sure of my motives in undertaking the north ridge solo, and I hoped that in the weak part of my subconscious I didn't want to do something stupid. People say that when they climb exposed stuff alone, they get into a zone wherein they're focused on movement and nothing else. I was worried that my problems from daily life would infect the zone; it would take an instant to open my hands and fall.
We arrived at the Cartago trail head at midnight, where I was tempted at the last minute to ditch the north ridge. If I'd gotten Kedron to promise he'd do Lone Pine Peak with me next weekend, I'd have stayed and climbed Cartago with the guys instead. Everyone went off to sleep among the bushes, and after I brushed my teeth under the power lines on the dirt road, I just hopped back in the car without thinking and drove to Whitney Portal, where I slept on the shoulder from 1:30 to sunrise.
In a little over two hours from the Meysan Lakes trail head, I arrived at the entry notch on the ridge. Too lazy to put crampons on and off, I chopped steps to cross intermittent snowfields. The forecast had called for highs barely above freezing, but I had to approach shirtless unless I wanted to get soaked or run out of water. There was no wind at all. Whenever I sat down that day, I could hear the buzz of silence.
The first part of the ridge is actually a broad talus field, but it soon merges into a knife-edge portion from which there is an excellent but foreshortened view of the route. I think the ridge crest is avoidable at that part, but it wasn't hard in rock shoes and was quite fun. My fifty dollar REI boots aren't as confidence-inspiring as Nepals at smearing and face-climbing, so I kept rock shoes on for most of the day.
Left to right, we have the summit and the third, second, and first towers.
Before I knew it, I had class three'd to the top of the first tower and could see the memorable leaning flake beyond a notch. The descent to the notch is steep, easy class 4, but the climbing out of it on the other side follows a flared, 60 degree crack which is about fifty feet long; it felt borderline class 5.
The giant flake!
I didn't mentally tick the first tower as such, which resulted in mild despair later. There was a large cave underneath the notch between the second and first towers, complete with great icicles. If there's ever a place for a Sierra yeti, that's it!
The slabs used to access the flake area were covered in snow, but, thankful for some scratching experience on Tahquitz, I did some easy drytooling to circumvent them. The routefinding after the giant flake is amusing, so I won't spoil the adventure by saying what I did. It was no more than class four to descend to the next notch. After taking the path of least resistance, you end up maybe 50-100 vertical feet down a gully from the notch. I think most people ascend this gully to get onto the layback and offwidth pitches, but the third tower looked steep and formidable and I didn't want to bother with self-belaying, so I skirted around it to the east.
Tower three, although I thought it was tower two...
"Skirted" perhaps isn't the right word... I had lunch studying the snowy slabs east of the tower for a weakness, and after half an hour of deliberation and pooping I chose a line which avoided water ice and most of the sketchiness. To access the slabs I chose, I had to walk up steep snow. As I came closer to the slabs, the sheet of snow thinned and my crampons started to scratch on underlying rock. Given the wetness of the snow at that hour, it was a little terrifying. I managed to haul myself atop the slab, but I was still in crampons and had some challenging scratching left before I could reach a stance at which to switch shoes.
Snowy slabs used to bypass the third tower.
After some airy face climbing weaving between running water and snow, I arrived just short of the top of the third tower, where I called Janée. I thought that I was only at the second tower, since I hadn't counted the first, and I thought the summit headwall above me was actually just the third tower. Since it was three o'clock and since I'd forgotten my headlamp, I was concerned about getting benighted. I mostly called to hear a friendly voice, although it was ostensibly to tell her to call Garrett to explain the hold-up in case I lost reception or my battery died.
I continued to the top of the third tower, after which it was easiest to stay on the ridge crest, and I had my first good view of the remaining climbing. I still didn't realize I was staring at the headwall.
Summit headwall from the third tower.
The easiest way up the headwall is on a faintly defined ridge where the difficulties were mostly class 4 and low 5, as advertised. The descent into the notch was again just steep class 4. Due probably to snow, I had to leave the notch below the headwall by a hard crack which required bona fide hand and finger jams for fifteen feet. Other than a frighteningly airy traverse which probably wasn't necessary and an apparently mandatory scary slab which was the only piece of rock on the whole ridge without huge knobs, it was moderate climbing. It might even have been enjoyable if I'd eaten enough and hadn't obviously been metabolizing fat; I almost crawled the last couple hundred feet and was quite thankful no one could see my pitiful pace. I stopped every other minute to catch my breath, but I still suspect inadequate nutrition over poor acclimatization, since I don't usually have issues at 13000 ft.
Of course, when I pulled at last over the headwall and saw not more ridge but the summit plateau, I was elated!
Thrilled that I was wrong!
The views were indeed phenomenal from the top, and I wish I took better pictures of them. I ate and indulged in a call again to Janée, then I scree-skied and standing glissaded and trotted back to the car. I picked up the guys from Cartago at 8:30 and the adventure was over, but during the ride back to Pasadena I worried that I'd started down a path which never has a good end. Kedron mirrored my sentiments by wondering out loud whether he should stop climbing after he and Garrett return from Peru. Still, I learned a lot about myself on the north ridge of Lone Pine Peak, and with my sense of fear still obviously intact I think I have a reasonable margin of safety.
Whitney from Lone Pine Peak in afternoon light.
North Owens Valley from Lone Pine Peak.
I think this will be an excellent summer!