Mount Conness, West Ridge
By: Don Reyes | Climbers: Don Reyes, Larry Scritchfield |Trip Dates: October 23, 2001
Photo: Gary Clark
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At 5 a.m., my partner Larry and I head out of the parking lot near the walk-in campground off of the Saddlebag Lake access road. Our goal is to climb the West Ridge of Mt. Conness.
The night before, we pulled off Tioga road near Sawmill campground and threw our sleeping bags on the ground near the parking lot. A combination of the elevation and cold night air conspired to keep me tossing and turning for a few hours before I finally drifted off to sleep. At 2:30 a.m., a group of motorcyclists on VERY LOUD Harley's pulled into the parking lot for what appeared to be a mini motorcycle rally. I bid au revoir to any further sleep that night.
Once on the trail, we each focus on our own little world illuminated by our LED lights. At the creek, I glimpse a couple of logs spanning the creek, and a split second before I commit my full weight to one of them, I realize that it's a mistake. The cold air is most likely freezing the water splashing onto the logs. Too late; the next thing I know, I'm lying on the log with my limbs in the drink. I quickly pull my feet from the water, but it's too late. I can feel the icy cold water creeping into my boots, invading the private sanctuary assigned to my previously warm and dry feet. Larry asks if I'm okay, but I find it hard to answer as waves of pain from various, and as yet nebulous, body parts sally forth into my consciousness. I soon realize that my leg is the major benefactor of my ill-fated tumble. After a few seconds, I'm able to better assess my injuries. I'm sure the trip itself is not in jeopardy, but then Larry hands me my headlamp. It's totally wet and doesn't appear to be working. He's fished it out of the creek and I'm thinking that, soaked with water, it's now useless. Perhaps a broken headlamp will accomplish what my fall could not. I fumble with the switch and, "Eureka, it works!" My new Tikka passes its first test, and before long we're back in stride.
We pass the Carnegie Institute and I'm amused that it's little more than a broken down shack. One would think that old Mr. Carnegie could afford to do a bit better. We stay to the right of the meadow and make for an apparent breach in the headwall at the end of the valley. We tackle the headwall straight on shooting for what looks like a left trending ramp. Once on the ramp, the going is not too bad except for a bit of 4th class near the top. At one point near the exit of the ramp, I get into trouble in a pseudo chimney, and am unable to retreat due to my pack getting stuck on the wall behind me. I call for Larry, but unbeknownst to me he is having similar problems of his own. I try not to panic, but I soon see my water bottle careen down below me and explode near the base of the wall. I make another attempt to exit the top of the chimney, but realize that, "it ain't happening!" I give it all up for an attempt to back down. I let my feet dangle and scoot myself over a small ledge and try to reach a foothold beneath me. I'm soon back on solid ground, but I leave a good amount of my confidence behind me.
We reach the plateau and make our way toward a notch near the SW face. I then decide to look at the instructions from Supertopo and notice that it suggests to go down through a notch located much farther south. Larry and I discuss our dilemma and decide that since we're already nearer to the first notch, we should just keep with our original plan. My suggestion for anyone doing this approach in the future is to head straight across the plateau, and shoot for the notch closest to the saddle. I'm sure you'll shave at least an hour off the route we took.
By the time we reach the base of the W. Ridge, Larry, is feeling pretty beat. We discuss our options and decide to have some lunch, (breakfast?) and see how things are afterward. In addition, we notice another party just starting out ahead of us. Kicking back for a few minutes will give them time to at least get to the first belay. After about twenty minutes, Larry is feeling much better and we decide to give the climb a go. Our original plan is to solo the route, but we hauled in a rope and a minimal rack just in case. Since I'll be heading up first I tie the rope on my back with the idea that if things get tough, I'll drop the rope to Larry and transition into climbing with a belay.
We head up to the first belay where we meet one of the climbers ahead of us. Her name is Tenaya and she's cool about letting us pass. She and her friend Justin hiked in the day before from Lembert Dome and camped at a small tarn lake south of Roosevelt Lake. They're looking to have a fun trip and Larry and I wish her well and, in an effort to skirt them and give them some breathing room, climb on past to the right. I soon find myself even with her partner Justin. He and I chat for a bit and I find out that he doesn't mind if we climb on by. Very cool!
Unfortunately, just when I establish our intent to climb through, I encounter an impasse. In an attempt to bypass Justin and Tenaya, I may have headed too far to the right. I'm directly on the arête, and I now see that I may have climbed myself into a pickle. Climbing straight up the arête looks too hard for my solo abilities and the traverse out to the left doesn't look much better. Feeling pressure to do something after announcing to the world our intent to "climb through," I begin to traverse out to the left. I slap the arête with my right hand and with my left I grab a small imperfection in the rock in order to "stabilize" myself for the step left. I know that if my foot slips, my handholds won't do much to stop me from heading down to the talus field, which is now several hundred feet below me. I feel strangely confident as I step across with my right foot and find a small nub in the middle of the blank section to my left. I apply my full weight to the small foothold, and step way out with my left foot and find a good hold. I then reach way out with my left hand in search of a bomber hold. None is found, but I find some solace in a weird, flared, sloper thing. It's not much, but it's enough to allow me to bring over my other foot and hand. I'm now on solid ground and feeling strong.
I call down to Larry and let him know about the upcoming difficulties. He and I agree to deploy the rope. Unfortunately, the area I'm at has no placements available. I continue to climb upward in search of a good area in which to set up a quick belay. The other climbing team of Justin and Tenaya are a witness to all of this and are no doubt thinking that we are a couple of idiots. How dare those guys ask to climb through and then set up a belay directly above us!
Larry is hanging out on the arête, the other team is close behind us, and there's no place in sight where I can set up a belay. All of this is going through my mind as I climb higher and higher, frantically searching for something, anything, that will accept a couple of pieces for a belay. One would think that a climb like this would take pro everywhere and anywhere, but unfortunately, I'm finding out that this is not the case.
By now I'm a good sixty or so feet above Larry, who has spent the last five to ten minutes hanging out on the arête waiting for me to drop him the rope. I finally find a spot where I can throw in a few pieces to set up a belay, but I soon realize that I've got other problems. The rope tails, being way too long, have been wrapped around my waist about three or four times. I try to gently free the rope, and when that doesn't work I try wrenching the rope free. Soon I give up and reposition myself on the small footholds I'm standing on. If I were on level ground this wouldn't be a problem, but hanging onto a mountain with one hand, and trying to manipulate a stubborn rope with the other hand, while at the same time standing on a small stance, is no easy feat. Spurred on to another try by the party below us getting closer and closer, I finally pull the rope free, and immediately tangle it into a huge mess while trying to get it ready to throw down to Larry. In disbelief, I gaze at my version of the Gordian knot. "What's going on up there?" Larry is getting impatient and I don't blame him. He must think I'm kicking back for a spot of tea and crumpets. In a frenzy I shake, pull, untwist and cajole a length of rope free. Since I'm not wearing my harness, I've got to tie in directly. Now how does that bowline knot go? The rabbit comes out of the hole and around the bush?..no...no..no...he goes around the bush and then into the hole... no... that's not right...I think he... "HEY! Are you okay?!" Dang!! Screw the rabbit! I quickly wrap the rope around my waist a few times and tie it off on what at least looks like a solid knot, though I know I wouldn't want to put it to the test. I then gather a bunch of rope and send it flying down to Larry. "You're too short" he shouts. I quickly gather up the rope for another try and toss it down. "Hey, you hit me!" Success!!
Before long Larry is climbing on past and sets up a belay on a ledge forty feet above me. I realize that the hardest climbing is behind me and I decide to untie the rope. Before long the rope is strapped back on and we are on our way. But, before we go, I apologize to the other team. They're really cool about our shenanigans and tell us "no worries." We wish them well and are on our way.
To my mind the key to this route is staying as close to the right arête as possible. The views of the SW face are amazing and a bit intimidating. At one point, as I'm looking over the edge, I'm shocked to realize that I'm on the equivalent of a rock cornice. The rock below me is undercut and sweeps away hundreds of feet down to the talus below. I quickly back off and breath a sigh of relief. If the rock weren't so fractured it wouldn't be so scary, but it looks like the rest of it is likely to come apart any moment, and in geologic time at least, it no doubt will. We soon come to a weird spot where the arête steps down about ten feet or so and the climber has no choice but to step down with it. The problem (cool part?) is that the arête falls away on both sides and the climber is forced to down climb onto a true knife edge, while trusting himself to totally loose looking blocks. This section definitely gets the adrenaline flowing!
Higher up, I do my best to stay as close to the arête as I can. At one point, another step down is encountered, though this one is not as extreme as the last. At this crossing, I can look down through a cleft in the rock to the magnificent SW face below. We see the Harding route and decide that from here it looks much more intimidating than from the base. I make a mental note to move the route back a number of spots on my Sierra tick list.
Larry and I notice that a big gully is available to the left. But why come this far only to top out in a gully? We stay on the right and I'm very surprised to find steep climbing this high up. My original perception of this route was that it would be steep for the first few hundred feet or so, and would then level off to third class to the summit. But here we are, still encountering steep fourth and fifth class climbing with almost a thousand feet of climbing beneath us. At one point we diverge. I head to the right and Larry moves to the left. I encounter solid fifth class moves heading up to the arête while Larry finds only fourth class on his variation. I suspect that one could significantly alter the difficulty of this route by consistently staying to the left. The farther one moves to the left, the easier the climbing.
We are both noticing the effects of the altitude. I make a few moves in a row and find myself catching my breath. I find it difficult to get a good rhythm going. Larry says the same is true for him. We feel like we're not getting the O's we need.
Within a few hundred feet of the summit, we finally stop for a break and to change into our hiking boots. In my opinion, the climbing was such that before now, taking off our climbing shoes wasn't an option. Before long we are sitting on the summit, basking in the satisfaction of a climb well done, and a day well spent. The weather is absolutely perfect! Not a cloud to be seen. The sun feels good on the skin and even the occasional breeze isn't enough to pierce it's veil of warm comfort. Certainly a rare gift for October, at least at this altitude.
After a leisurely snack and some time soaking in the views, we start back down. We want to make sure we make it past the cliff band before nightfall. Neither of us is eager to negotiate that section of the descent in the dark. On the way down we meet a lone hiker on his way up to the summit. His name is John and he came up via the East Ridge. He says that he climbed some "buttress" located near the ridge route. He also tells us he became interested in climbing Mt. Conness from his friend's web site "summitpost.com." We bid him adieu and head back down toward the saddle, wondering if he'll make it back before dark. We ourselves make it back to the parking lot by about 7:00 p.m., fourteen hours after we started. We didn't push it too hard, yet didn't lollygag either. Like little Goldilocks, our pace was just right.
We decide to stop at the Mexican restaurant in Bridgeport for dinner. The restaurant was cold, the service was lousy and the food was disappointing, but at least the prices were high. We'd have been better off finishing Larry's stash of dried organic bananas. Cest la vie. But not even this experience can dull the glow of the great day we've just had. On the drive back, Larry quickly falls asleep. No doubt satiated with the meal as well as with the accomplishment. As for me, my mind is on fire with the scenes of the day. I drive in solitude on the lonely road back to Nevada. From time to time, and for no apparent reason, a smile appears on my lips.