The idea sprouted two years ago during an ascent of Galen Rowell’s classic Winter Route
in April 2005. While battling through snow, ice and rock for 3000 feet, we were intrigued by a steep corner system to the right. From our vantage point, it looked like it might be dripping with ice. Not possible in the Sierras…..right?
Charles and I didn’t make it back to the South Face that winter, and that summer the line was climbed by the prolific Tuttle Creek first ascent duo of Joe Lemay and Miguel Carmona. The two stormed the route, making the first ascent in a 15.5 hour car to car dash, and christening it the Winter Chimney
Upon hearing the news of the first ascent, we were both disappointed. But the feeling soon lifted. Yes, the Winter Chimney had been climbed – but not yet in winter.
March 11, 2007
We are back at the Stone House for our third winter attempt on the route. Last winter (2006) we tried the route twice, only to be denied once by soft snow conditions, and yet another time by route finding errors. The burning enthusiasm we felt last year has been tempered by these failures, and reports from our friends about a lack of snow on the South Face.
Due to scheduling conflicts, Charles and I had only one weekend to try the route before the official end of winter (March 21, 2007 7:07 PM). In the weeks leading up to the climb, we debated style and tactics. We knew that due to its’ steepness, this route would be much more difficult and sustained than the Winter Route
. We weren’t quite sure if we could pull it off in a day. So often, the equation for success on an alpine climb is governed by a myriad of unknowns. It was only after reading the latest Alpinist
article about a new route on the North Face of Mt Alberta that we were inspired to try the route in a committing style, as light as possible and without bivy gear.
3/10/07 10:30 PM.
The alarm clock goes off, and I shrug off my Ambien-induced sleep. I have to admit, I am impressed – when it comes to going to bed at 5 PM, Ambien is the shit. I put some water on the stove, and we both stare listlessly out the window of the Stonehouse. The shadow of the South Face stares back at us ominously.
Half an hour later we are in familiar bushwhacking territory, making our way through the complex topography of Tuttle Creek towards the South Face. Our experience in the canyon allows us to make good progress, even in the dark, and we find ourselves at the entrance chute to the Winter Route
by 2 A.M.
We make good progress up the chute, until we are stopped by a rock buttress. Charles changes into rock shoes and dispatches a pitch of 5.7. To save time, I remain in my mountaineering boots and jumar the pitch.
We continue up the snow chute, and I make a route finding error. To correct it, Charles heads up a pitch of 5.7 in his crampons and tools to put us back into the couloir. This pitch is a taste of things to come.
At 6 AM the sun rises, and we find ourselves at the intersection between the Winter Route
and the Winter Chimney
. For the first time we are able to get a good view of the route. Right away, we notice two things about the route: 1) it is steep! and 2) there is ice!
After some more snow climbing, Charles leads the first ice step, a 165 foot pitch of 65 degree snow and ice. His tools sink solidly into beautiful alpine ice, until he sets a belay and brings me up. We both cannot believe our luck! I continue upwards, making a small tension traverse around a buttress and into a 50 degree snow chute. I bring Charles up and we simul climb up snow slopes for a ways until things start getting sketchy. I put him on a proper belay and he leads through some runout mixed ground to a semi-hanging belay.
I follow, and upon arriving at the belay find myself staring at a beautiful 100 foot pitch of baby blue water ice. Looks like we are going to have to make our 2 ice screws go the distance. I pick my way up the pitch of WI2/3 ice and set a belay in the back of an intimidating bombay chimney.
Charles comes up and we discuss our options. According to the first ascentionists, the chimney above is 5.5, but I have my doubts. It looks too hard to drytool, so I change into rock shoes. Since Charles will jug, he remains in his mountaineering boots.
I lead off, picking my way delicately up the chimney, which starts out as a full body stem on verglassed holds. Luckily, gear starts to appear and I work my up through the chimney and past some chockstones. Emerging out the other side, I am relieved to find I can rock climb around the ice-choked corner system.
I set a belay, and Charles jugs the pitch. After a lot of cursing and grunting, he emerges, battered but victorious. By now we are about 5 pitches up the route, and are starting to get tired. The upper corner system looms above us, intimidating in its steepness.
Charles leads up a snow slope and we simul climb to a belay underneath a chockstone. The next pitch will put us into the upper corner system, the steepest part of the route. Fear and intimidation press down on me. As an aspiring alpinist, the majority of my experience on steep ice and mixed ground is from reading Alpinist
and Mark Twight’s Extreme Alpinism: Climbing Light, Fast and High
. Charles starts handing me gear, and I rack nervously.
Suddenly a familiar sound pierces the air. Rockfall? Storm? No -- it is the unmistakable melody of CanCan, my cell phone ring tone. I fish my cell phone out of my pack and examine the caller ID. It is my Mother.
“Sweetie pie! How are you doing? Are you down from your climb yet?” she says.
I laugh. “No Mom, actually I’m about 3000 feet into it, racking up for the crux pitch right now. Can I call you back after I’m done?” After I hang up Charles and I both have a chuckle.
Joking aside, I cast off on the lead. I pull a maneuver to surmount the chockstone, then cruise up snow slopes for about 40 feet. I find myself in a corner filled with a very thin layer of ice.
Arranging some gear, I pause. This corner rears above me, near vertical. The ice looks to be no more than 1 inch thick, and much thinner in places. It looks tough. And dangerous. Is it worth it? An internal monologue ensues. From here, we can still bail. A thousand excuses echo through my head: come back with more experience, more time; you don’t want to risk a fall here.
I examine my gear, and squint my eyes to find the Stone House, some 3000 feet below us. This is it: go time
. It is time to commit. “Watch me” I cry down to Charles I start to claw my way up. Chimneying between the wall and the ice, my crampons scratch on ice and granite. The chimney pinches off and I fiddle in a green Alien. The ice is gone now, so I traverse delicately out on the face, hooking small edges and placing my crampons ever so delicately on tiny features. After 30 feet I reach a nook, where I set a semi-hanging belay and slump onto the rope. “Off belay” I squeak.
Charles follows and congratulates me on a challenging lead. Things don’t look any easier ahead. Above us lies some pure rock climbing, which in rock shoes would be about 5.7. In crampons, who knows? Charles launches off, his crampons scratching on the worn granite. After 25 strenuous feet he traverses right into a steep snow and ice filled gully, full of loose snow. Tunneling through the soft, near-vertical snow is dangerous and tiring work, but he perserveres. He finishes his burly lead by setting a belay off an ice screw, and brings me up.
What we are looking at next is intimidating. The corner opens up into a gaping chimney to a 5.8 roof. The climbing straight up to the roof looks devoid of protection, so the only alternative is to tunnel into the ice-encrusted chimney. It looks frightening.
I cast off, and quickly find I won’t be able to climb this pitch with my pack on. I decide to leave it at the belay, and tag along the 100 foot 7mm trail line, which we had brought along for pack hauling. What ensues is a bizarre sequence of ice chimneying in crampons and bare hands, and I am able to establish myself in the back of the loose chimney. I burrow upwards, until I am able to reach a small ledge beneath the roof. Here, I change into rock shoes and hang my plastics, tools and crampons from a piece. Pulling out the roof, the last 10 pitches of the route fall beneath my heels. I mantel over the lip and onto a ledge, and set a belay. I look up. No, we’re not done yet, but hopefully the hardest climbing is behind us.
Charles jumars up we decide that since I am in my rock shoes I will continue leading, and he can jumar in his mountaineering boots. I cast off on some moderate and enjoyable face climbing. I am expecting we are still 2 pitches from the summit, when I pull a mantel to suddenly find myself on top.
A wave of euphoria overwhelms me: we are on top. I can’t believe we did it! Charles jumars and we clasp hands, happy and proud. I keep muttering to myself like an alpinist Rain Man, “I can’t believe we did it, I can’t believe we did it”. 19 hours after leaving the Stone House we are standing on the 12,000’ summit plateau of Lone Pine Peak, texting and making cell phone calls to loved ones.
The descent is difficult. Deep snow and fatigue slow us down, but 24.5 hours after leaving the Stonehouse, we stumble back in, another Tuttle Creek adventure behind us.
Tonight, we will not be needing Ambien to fall asleep.
1 set nuts
2 sets Aliens (blue - yellow)
2 sets Camalots (#0.5 - #2)
1 ea. #3, #4 Camalot
2-3 ice screws
100 foot 7mm tag line
jumars (aiders optional)