Did you ever have a love, hate relationship with a Mountain? A mountain that just beats you down, but you keep coming back for more. Conness is that mountain for me, and the West Ridge is the route. Before this attempt I had tried it twice, and failed at our objective each time.
Conness is a bit of mystery. The trailhead does not start very far from the mountain. The main problem is the mountain itself is between you and the route of interest. You have to climb 9/10ths of the mountain and drop down the other side. Not only is it backwards but it is also complex with many ridges. The guides either poorly describe the route finding, or maybe it is just harder in the dark when you don't know where you are going.
My first encounter with the mountain was back in 2005 when I was young and naive. Dustin, and I drove from Carson and arrived at Saddle Bag Lake at around 4 AM. Using the few details out of the guide we set off into the dark. We ford streams, find trails, lose them, and eventually make are way up to some snow fields under the south ridge. This gives us access to the ridge and a line of attack for the main plateau on the mountain. Namely where we need to go. Unfortunately being young and excitable we charge down the other side thinking we following the guide to a tee. Being off by a ridge isn't that bad, right? Halfway down the other side we realize our error, and start traversing back up to the ridge and toward the main plateau. Finally we hit that plateau, cross it and come into view of the West Ridge, and I am in love. It is a beauty. A knife ripping into the sky. By this time we are late, and dropping down yet again on the wrong side of the mountain seems like a foolhardy venture. We quickly decide cut our losses and take the 3rd class route to the summit. We pass the rest of the day uneventfully enjoying the wonder of Yosemite and the high country.
A few years later the memory of my defeat faded, and my brother and I go for another attempt. At the time my brother lived in the UK, so we only got a chance to climb together a few times a year. This was memorial day weekend 2007 and we had spent the previous few days climbing the Dana Couloir, and Matthes Crest.
Again things do not work out as planned. The road to Saddle Bag lake is closed, so we have to hike it. Nothing like making a long day longer before you even begin. We start really early as only Fox brothers can. We cut through the Sawmill campground and past the Carnegie Institute heading up through the valley towards the south ridge (I won't find out this is the long way for another year). We don't descend directly but traverse over to the plateau. Once there we look for the notch where we can see the entire West Ridge, and this is where things start to go wrong.
Seeing the ridge we start to descend, but as we go down we realize our route is nothing like the guide. We are way more than 300 Feet from the ridge. In fact there is a ridge between us and the West Ridge. Becoming frustrated we decide to cut across the offending ridge and drop down into the correct gully. This involves some overly hairy down climbing but gets us where we wanted to go. Finally there is nothing between us and the W.R. Because we are coming in at an low angle to the ridge we drop below the toe of the ridge to where it is indistinct as to what the start is. As we are all cockeyed we start a gully over from where we should be and before we see without a doubt we are not going to end up on the W.R. we are 500 feet up staring across a gully at it. This far in on a ridge that offers fun climbing we continue hoping we can connect with the ridge proper further up.
Our route runs out on a peaklet that is definitely not the W.R or the Conness summit. The ridge connecting us to the main one looks much harder than the 5.6 we had signed up for. To make matters worse it is now early afternoon, and the clouds are gathering. After the euphoria of having climbed to such a precarious perch fades, reality sets in. How much of an epic do we want today to be?
Burn the bridges baby, we are bailing. We down climb the ridge and gully following the easiest path of retreat down the wrong side of the mountain. Once we get near the bottom we find a spot where rappelling to safer ground is possible. Sacrificing a runner slung around a rock, and backing it up with a nut provides our anchor. At this point most of the physical danger is over, but the work begins. We are out of water, and food, it is hot, and we have to climb up that mountain for the third time today.
At this point in our little story I should tell you that I have a reputation for these little epics I go on. It is called "Jon Abuse". Personally I think it is a bit over blown and people just need to be ready for small detours like this. Apparently I have to much fun abusing myself, and those that go with me on death marches, and various other harder than planned adventures. I like to describe this character flaw as me having only a short term memory for the bad side of things. Luckily my brother is of like mind so we carry on.
We slog up the mountain yet again dripping with sweat. Unfiltered muddy trickles of water are our only respite. We make the plateau, and drop down off the south side. By this time the clouds have gone from worrisome to menacing. During a stop on the snow fields a lone pearl of thunder rings out. The race is on. My pole bends in our rush for the tree line. Exhausted, and sore we retrace our steps, and hike out the road to our car. While my body is bruised and battered my spirit is flying. I will be back for this one.
The West Ridge
Forward the clock a year to September 2008. I have been on vacation for a week. I have already logged over fifty miles on the trails this week, and drug my brother on another epic (sorry about that). What better way to end the week than a third attempt at the West Ridge?
The team comes from all corners of the Sierras and converge on Mammoth Lakes, camping at Clark Canyon. The next day we get used to the rock, leading easy sport routes at Area 13.
On to Conness, we start in the dark trying to follow a new guide book that seems more instructive as to which way to go. In the pitch black the streams turn us around a bit, but we find the institute. Where we go wrong is when the guide tells us to take a right off the trail. We huck a hard right and head up a ridge we should not have been on. Finally after some mad scrambling and wandering around forever on this ridge we figure out that we overshot the route. Luckily traversing back over to the left we are able to recognize the correct notch we need to go through.
Dawn finds us on top of the main plateau ready to roll. By the time we cross over to the far side and look down several gullies to find the correct one, doubts creep into our minds. Do we have time. Once we drop down into this gully we are committed to a significant amount of work one way or the other. Everyone now understands what I mean when I say we have to go down the other side of the mountain. As a team we decide to go for it. Why else are we here?
The gully is steep, loose, and sandy, but viewing the West Ridge the whole way we stay motivated. Down lower below the cliff it turns into a tallus field. Walking below the West Ridge it is easy to see where the toe of the wall is. There will be no missing the route this time.
After an hour of talus hopping we arrive at the base of the climb. We only have three helmets so I go bare headed. Good thing it is a ridge. From the base we scramble up a pitch or so until it turns fifth class. Starting out on lead, with the other team ahead, I feel rushed as we are all bunched up, but after we space out a bit things just start to flow, and I start running out the pitches. A couple pitches in a soloist cruises past us. At this point I am running out the pitches with just enough pro to keep the follower from swinging too far. Comfortable as I am, I'm not quite ready to solo it.
Climb, climb, place, jam, set anchors, pull ropes, belay, flop rope, climb some more. What a perfect day. Walking on the edge of a knife we ascend the ridge. The pitches pile on top of each other. More soloist pass us. We sit on belay ledges and stare out at Toulomne Meadows and all the surrounding mountains. If only everyday could be this good. The West Ridge of Mount Conness is every bit as good as booked. We summit, and descend the other side tired but satisfied. All that work and attempts and I have done it. Now on to bigger, and even better things. Note to self still need to take my brother up it, maybe we'll do the North Ridge. Cheers.