West Arete of Mt. Winchell

West Arete of Mt. Winchell

Page Type Page Type: Trip Report
Date Date Climbed/Hiked: Sep 6, 2009

Hatching a Plan

West Arete

Having been to the eastern side of the Palisades plenty of times, I felt it was time to give the west side a little love. The pictures and maps I had seen had put this less popular side of my favorite section of the Sierra Nevada on my list for a while. With my favorite climbing team mascot (my dad) already planning to be there on a backpacking trip with his brother-in-law, what better time would there be to hike in, spend some time with my Old Man in the backcountry, and hopefully get a climb in?

My first objective was finding an objective. Having never been up close to this side of the Palisades, I turned to my favorite resource: RJ Secor’s “Peaks, Passes and Trails” guidebook. My eyes were drawn to the West Face of Mt. Winchell rising up above Dusy Basin. This was the only major Palisade peak north of Middle Pal that I had yet to climb, and this side of it looked to be by far the most impressive. The West Arete was mentioned in the Fiddler/Moynier book as a classic, but there is little to no information about the route other than lines drawn on aerial photos and very vague descriptions. Thanks to Misha for the info posted on Summitpost, and an especially big thank you for keeping the descriptions to a minimum and keeping the adventure level high.

Now all I needed was a climbing partner. Brett and I had talked about getting out and doing something in September, but he had some previous plans with his girlfriend.

I said, “Why not bring her along?”

She seemed amenable if her work schedule would allow it, which ended up not happening. I think this turned out to be for the better, as you will see in the report that follows.

When I pitched the idea to Paul, he was up for it immediately, despite not knowing that this route even existed. I guess I told him “West Pillar of Mt. Winchell” when we made the plans over the phone. I don’t remember this but I also don’t remember how I ended up sleeping on my buddy’s couch after being at the bar that night. Despite my blunder preventing Paul from finding any information on the route, a plan had been hatched! Labor Day Weekend was just a few days away and the weather forecast looked great.

Getting There

The first mistake of the trip happened before the trip even started: eating sketchy Chinese food at a Reno casino the night before. My stomach would bother me for the entire walk in and all night while camped underneath Mt. Winchell and Thunderbolt Pk. in Dusy Basin.

Just before we crossed over Bishop Pass, we talked to two guys who were looking for Paul Aaron’s brother. They wanted to tell him that Paul was camping on the opposite end of the lake his friends were supposed to meet him at. Now, my climbing partner was Paul, and Bill Aaron was my dad’s brother-in-law, and we were supposed to meet them at the lake we were talking about, so we decided the guys were definitely trying to pass a message along to us. They got just enough details right for it to not be a coincidence, but they botched enough details that they weren’t very credible. The only thing that was for certain was that they were stoned as hell.

Camp in Dusy Basin

We decided to check the end of the lake they talked about first, and sure enough, my dad and Bill were there. We had a quick dinner, watched the sunset and accompanying alpenglow on the objective for the next day and tried to get some sleep. Between my upset stomach and headache, I barely slept a wink. I told Paul there was no way I’d climb in the morning if I still felt like I did, and he gave me 800 mg of Ibuprofen. Luckily I woke up feeling fine. We ate a quick breakfast and began the walk over to the base of Mt. Winchell.

The Climb

We crossed some cool granite slabs behind the lake that were speckled with tussocks of alpine grasses to reach the talus field at the base of the peak. After maybe an hour or so of mostly easy going we started the real climbing, a few hundred feet of moderate 4th and 5th class scrambling to where the route started to steepen. We broke out the rope and gear here and Paul led up a steeper pitch of surprisingly solid granite. I thought to myself, if the rock quality on the whole route was this good, we may have unearthed a relatively unknown gem. This would turn out to be the case---this route is truly a classic.
On the West Arete

When Paul passed me the sharp end, we had joined the ridge proper and there was fabulous exposure back down to Dusy Basin below us. If the West Face of Mt. Winchell looked convoluted from down below, it looked absolutely chaotic once up in it. Many twisting ribs, steep ridges, spire-like pinnacles and deep gullies decorated the wall. This wouldn’t be a good place to get lost or have to retreat from. Luckily, route finding on our line turned out to be pretty straightforward. I led up a steep layback crack, crossed over to the south side of the ridge, and brought Paul up. We were able to stay mostly on the crest of the arête, and though this made the climbing more difficult in spots, the enormous drops to both sides of the arête made the climbing exciting the whole way.
On the West Arete

One pitch in particular, about mid-way up, traverses a horizontal section of the ridge for about 100 feet. Though the climbing was easy, this was the most spectacular location on the entire climb.

Awesome Pitch

I guess the climb wasn’t exciting enough for Paul up to this point, because maybe 2 pitches beyond this point, Paul says “F*@#.”

“What?” I ask him.

“I left my pack.”

“Oh, at the bottom of this pitch?”

“No, a couple pitches back.”

“What???” I say, more emphatically this time.

At this point, there was no returning for the pack. It would have taken too long and ensured we’d spend the night somewhere below the summit with no sleeping bags. The next few pitches of the climb were highlighted by me realizing, one by one, some other important piece of gear was still in Paul’s backpack.
Still A Ways to Go

Sample conversation:
Mike: “Oh no, we still have to do the descent and the photos and descriptions are still in your backpack.”
Paul: “I’m sorry.”

Another example:
Mike: “If we have to stay out in the cold, your jacket is still in your backpack.”
Paul: “I’m sorry.”

Paul: “Can I have some of your water?”
Mike: “Oh yeah, yours is still in your backpack.”
Paul: “I said I’m sorry.”

When I finally realized Paul didn’t have a headlamp for the descent anymore, I wasn’t too amused. The route fought us until the very end, as we stayed roped together the entire way and the climbing never really dropped out of the low 5th class range.

Mike: “I sure hope we can make it down without your headlamp and the descent description.”

Getting Down Safely

View From Winchell

Summit View

Summit View

This last comment led to a little bit of an argument on the summit before I realized I needed to get over the fact that Paul left his backpack in the middle of the route. Luckily someone had left a guidebook page saying which gully to take down to the Thunderbolt Glacier. Paul was sure we needed the northern most crossing back to the west side but I knew from my trip here with Brett the year before that it was the southern most one. We had to cross a giant unexpected field of hard snow and ice which we were completely unequipped for. Instead of ice axe and crampons we each picked up a rock and started cutting steps up to Winchell Col. This took forever and by the time we were up to the col it was completely dark. I could see back down to the lake by which my Dad was camped so I flashed my light to him so he could see we were OK. He flashed his headlamp back in acknowledgement. As soon as I had done this I realized he would only see one light and be left to wonder whether it was Paul or his son who was still alive. Oops.

Thus began the downclimb of the couloir, with Paul staying within a few feet of me to mooch as much light as he could from the tiny halo of my headlamp. It was slow going to say the least, with the nearly full moon on the other side of the Sierra Crest offering us no help in the deep, west facing cleft that would entertain us for the next few hours. A few rappels were necessary, though I’m sure we would have climbed around them in the daylight. I nixed the idea of any double rope rappels, as this would have led to a higher probability of a stuck rope or rocks pulled down with the rope from above. We had to contend with a fair amount of falling stones, but we were able to find pretty good shelter in the walls of couloir each time we pulled the rope. Finally, after what seemed like hours, we reached the bottom of the couloir and did one long double rope rappel that was free-hanging for the first 70 feet or so. This put us down on the talus and into the moonlight that had finally crept over the peaks behind us.

We limped across the talus, thoroughly exhausted. It was still maybe an hour back to the other side of the lake, and we arrived at 1 AM, 18 hours after we had started at 7 AM the day before. We had definitely underestimated the route. I barely slept because I was feeling nauseous from altitude, and I couldn’t keep my breakfast down in the morning. The walk out was miserable and I didn’t feel normal again until I was back down in Bishop. For once my Dad had to wait for me at the trailhead after the hike out.

Final Thoughts

This was a great trip and a spectacular route. It really deserves more attention. I would certainly give it every bit of Grade IV, 5.8 and would say I liked it better than Sun Ribbon Arete on Temple Crag. With the descent and climb back up over Winchell Col I would say it is probably about the same level of effort for both of these Sierra Classics, but the rock on this side of Winchell is of better quality.

Thanks again to Paul for an awesome climb and to Bill and Dad for hanging out in our camp with us.
Mt Winchell


Post a Comment
Viewing: 1-15 of 15
Augie Medina

Augie Medina - Jan 13, 2010 12:47 pm - Voted 10/10

Great Report

Ever recover the pack? On your single strand raps, I take it you had a pull cord with you?




EricChu - Jan 13, 2010 4:04 pm - Voted 10/10


Excellent report and fantastic photos!


RayMondo - Jan 17, 2010 12:14 pm - Voted 10/10


A border between adventure and epic. Lovely photos.


myles - Jan 18, 2010 11:30 am - Voted 10/10

Great report

Thanks for the great report. I love me some Palisades!


Blair - Jan 18, 2010 11:52 am - Voted 10/10

Nice TR

Thanks for sharing. Good story, will have to remember this route


kovarpa - Jan 18, 2010 5:47 pm - Hasn't voted

this was

one of the best routes I climbed in the Sierra. When we did it with Misha, I think we started around 5 or 6am from Dusy, got back to camp around 8pm, so a little quicker than you but we had the big benefit of daylight the whole time.
If Sun Ribbon is considered Grade IV, then this route should get the same rating.
The info in Moynier is useless.
Nice trip report, btw :-)

Sierra Ledge Rat

Sierra Ledge Rat - Jan 18, 2010 6:49 pm - Voted 10/10

great report

Descent is always the most worrisome part.

PaulinBishop - Jan 18, 2010 9:43 pm - Hasn't voted

Additional route info

The route could be compaired to "Sun Ribbon Arete" in length and difficulty. And it starts about 1000' higher. We thought it was going to be about 10 pitches, but it endded up being much longer, we forgot to count. For those interested the pack had a new Marrot Zues jacket stuffed in it. Hint: the pack is slightly off route. There are a few here in Bihop who want the booty, so the route might see some action the summer. The descent gully was a lot scarier then Mike let on, and since we couldn't find any rap stations we had to rap off my gear, so I paid doubly for my stupid mistake. I remember his words as we started down the gully, "I think we might die". It was a very good thing that we had 60m half ropes.


Misha - Jan 18, 2010 9:49 pm - Voted 10/10


Way to go bro... turning dream and concept into reality. I am with Pavel all the way here; one of the best routes I've done anywhere. After doing one of the 50 NA Classics last summer, Direct Exum on the Grand Teton, I have to say that the West Arete of Winchell is better! Now you have to climb it again to get your buddy's pack back :)


m_dquist - Jan 19, 2010 1:56 am - Hasn't voted

Direct Exum

I've climbed the Direct Exum too, and it's hard for me to say which I liked better. The day we climbed the Grand we had the entire mountain to ourselves, but I think that's rare. Still one of the best days I've had in my life. You'd never have problems with crowding on Winchell though.


woodsxc - Jan 19, 2010 9:11 am - Voted 10/10

Great TR

Nicely written. I've never tried Chinese food before a climb, but I can say with authority that Mexican food, when combined with sudden increases in elevation, produces gastrointestinal distress. Looks like a great climb, thanks for sharing.


Diggler - Jan 19, 2010 1:19 pm - Voted 10/10


Looks like a killer climb. Gotta love the summit too, huh? Palisades are an awesome grouping of peaks. Glad you had such a good time!


ktnbs - Jan 19, 2010 10:51 pm - Hasn't voted

very nice report

and super photos.

Mirgrrr - Jul 30, 2016 12:47 pm - Hasn't voted

Found it

I found your backpack. Only thing left was a few slings, some rap rings, and a cliff shot that expired years ago. Let me know if you want any of them back...:)


m_dquist - Jul 30, 2016 12:53 pm - Hasn't voted

Nice find

I wonder who nabbed the jacket and headlamp that were in there. Was the pack unzipped? The stuff is Paul's, so I'll let him decide if he wants it back or not.

Viewing: 1-15 of 15



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