Mount Conness, West Ridge

By: Aaron Brent | Climbers: Aaron Brent, Andy "Spanky" James |Trip Dates: September, 2000

Photo: Gary Clark

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Headed up to Oakland last weekend to meet up with my bud Andy for one last climbing trip before he moves to Mozambique. Our plan was to head up to Tuolumne and climb the West Ridge of Mt. Conness and Matthes Crest. Arrived via Southwest to Oakland on Friday evening, where we quickly headed to Solano Avenue to down some tasty Full Sail Ales and watch the mad sign language people.

On Saturday, we headed up to the Meadows, nervously watching the large black clouds. At the park entrance, we were already driving in fog. It was chilly and we were informed that it was chillier yet in the meadows, and furthermore, it had snowed the day before. Not to be deterred, alpine wannabes that we are, we headed on in. After a lot of screwing around we got our camp setup at the Sawmill Walk-in campground near Tioga Pass.

From the campground, there was a good view of Conness surrounded by clouds and dusted with snow. Spanky had attempted this route a couple of weeks before and had gotten seriously off route on the approach and his partner got altitude sickness. The approach is about 5-6 miles with 2500 feet of climbing up and over a ridge between Conness and White Mountain and then another 1000' descent to the base of the climb. That evening I took a quick 30 minute stroll up the approach and enjoyed the incredible alpine meadows and scenery.

After I returned, confident that we could find the way tomorrow, we ate dinner and washed it down with a couple of hideous Old Milwaukees, Spanky's beer of choice. We slept well and woke up at 5 am to bitter cold and biting winds. After the normal morning fumbling around, we hit the trail around 6 or so, fully layered in fleece and Goretex. An hour of steady hiking and bushwhacking got us to Alpine Lake. Only wait - there is no more Alpine Lake - it is now a marshy meadow. No wonder Spanky got lost last time.

From here we gazed up at an enormous cliff band that we eventually made our way through via various snow filled gullies. Once on the other side of the ridge we were treated to the full force of the bitter wind and pulled on our remaining layers. We then traversed over to a large plateau at about 11,800' where we ditched our packs and geared up. We headed across the plateau and dropped down through a chute.

After a tedious, ass-busting descent through rockbands and scree covered with snow, we contoured around the mountain and got our first look at the ridge and the SW face. The Harding route shoots right up the center of the face 11 pitches or so, including some 5.10-5.11? off-width - another impressive Warren Harding route much like the Keeler Needle. The ridge looked brilliant - perhaps good enough to live up to its previous touting as Peter Croft's favorite route - like two Cathedral Peaks stacked on top of each other.

We gained the base of the climb, which is a triangular face full of dihedrals that leads up the ridge proper. At this point, it was cold, cold, and did I mention, cold. We had every piece of gear we owned on and our hoods pulled over our helmets. I started out the first pitch, climbing with gloves etc. The climbing was easy 5th class - 5.6 or so, but much of the rock was covered with ice and all cracks were jammed with snow. This made placing pro extremely difficult. At the end of the rope length I could not find a decent stance anywhere to get belay anchors - simul-climbing this section was out of the question due the difficulty of finding gear, as was down-climbing. After an extremely long time, I managed to find an anchor. Meanwhile, Spanky was suffering below, tied into the bottom of the face, being buffeted by the wind. Looking down at him, I felt like I was in Patagonia. When he made it to the belay we were both shivering and our hands were very numb.

For some reason we decided to keep going. The belays seemed interminable, sitting there, suffering in the cold. We finally got into a rhythm and gained the ridge and easier ground (4th class). The exposure at this point was outstanding with a huge drop on the right over the southwest face. The climbing was easy, but we stayed roped up because of the exposure, wind and ice everywhere. The ridge steepened back into 5th class for the last few pitches. At this point, we were completely enveloped in clouds and the wind was still howling. The higher we got the more snow there was - at this point my rock shoes were soaked so I took them off and put my approach boots back on. After 15 pitches we gained 3rd class ground and unroped. Some stumbling around in the whiteout and we stood on the summit. After a few seconds of freezing our asses off, we caught a glimpse of the descent route and headed off. A long, long, long time later we stumbled into camp - 12 hours RT. I don't think we rested for more than 5 minutes at any one time because of the cold. Technically a very easy outing, and would be a highly enjoyable jaunt in sunny conditions, but with the conditions we experienced, it was a very serious alpine undertaking.

After a short recovery we trekked out to our car and drive down to Lee Vining for food and beer. After the pain had faded, we planned our next day's endeavor - Matthes Crest. We vowed not to climb in the same bitter conditions if they were the same the next day. Back to bed and up at 5am again. We packed the stuff into the car and drove to the trailhead. By 6:30 we were sprinting up the trail - gaining Budd Lake in one hour. At this point, we were, once again, absolutely frigid.

The wind was howling and we could see the high notch between the echo peaks that we had to gain to get over to Matthes Crest. Matthes Crest is an incredible 3/4 mile long ridge with 800' drop offs on either side - the classic "Cockscomb" glacier formed feature. After some suffering, we gained the notch and noticed that it was very hard to stand up in the wind. Looking over at the ridge, and listening to the wind howl, the word bail immediately entered our mind. We decided to hole up for a bit and see if the winds dissipated. After an hour, they had not changed. We scrambled up the lee side of Echo Peak #1 - the highest in the area and peeked our heads onto the top for some brilliant views. After some more consultation, we both started shivering - and decided that the game was up. We immediately started the 2-hour descent to the cars. It seemed to warm up, but as we were leaving the meadows, large dark clouds were racing in, which helped our egos out a bit. We felt we had made the right decision.

So, all in all, a brilliant weekend. The high country around Yosemite is probably my favorite climbing area in the world. Brilliant granite, high altitude, spectacular scenery and a complete absence of the crowds associated with the Valley. Loving it! At the same time, it is easy to be lulled to sleep by the normally perfect weather and conditions in the Sierras. There is a reason why is called ALPINE climbing