This is part 2. Check out part 1.
See Rock and Ice Issue 195 for the full feature on Sierra adventures.
It seems that for every backcountry objective ticked off in the Sierra, a dozen more pop up. The entire range is filled with unimaginable amounts of fresh granite beckoning the adventurous climber. The tricky part – choosing one and getting there. The hike’s are long and the terrain rough, but the payoff is worth it – white castles.
We had heard tall tales of large walls and plenty of unclimbed lines in the Whitney region, so a recon was in order. A quick trip up to tag a few classics yielded great summit views from Mt Whitney and Mt Russel of the surrounding walls in the area. Three things were instantly clear: the stories of abundant walls were true, they would require much strenuous walking to get to, we needed to hire a plane for a better view. Finding a plane and pilot to fly one through the Sierra is no small task. Apparently, all “sightseeing tour” operations have basically stopped. Not willing to accept defeat, I set out on an epic journey through the town of Lone Pine, complete with shifty characters and back-alley deals, in search of anyone with a plane and a willingness to help with the dream that is Sierra backcountry first ascents. Fortunately, everything came together and we had a wheels up time of 7:30am the following morning.
Throughout our flight we saw numerous amazing crags and walls, but our attention kept returning to one – Mt Chamberlin. Our psyche was high and we began planning our journey to Chamberlin immediately. As it turned out, our pals Jimmy Haden and Mike Pennings were also planning on a trip to Chamberlin at the same time. Awesome, party in the backcountry! Being 12 miles out, up and over the Whitney Crest, and wanting to stay for over a week, we knew the approach would be painful to say the least. Time to embrace our inner pack mules and learn how to hike. Mike seemed to think the hike would take 5 hours. We would soon come to learn of his sandbagging nature.
After a 5 hour hike that actually took a day and a half, we were finally dropping in to the Crabtree basin and Mt Chamberlin. Surfing through knee deep scree and eventually reaching grass hummocks and meandering streams, we were immediately struck by the beauty of the place. Towering ivory walls lined the valley while lush flowering meadows and perfect boulders filled its interior.
A quick hacky session with some beers provided just the stretch-out that our fatigued legs needed. We’d have time in the morning to scope some potential new lines.
The possibilities for new lines seem infinite, but the king line by far is a climb that Mike and Jimmy established in 2006 – Asleep at the Wheel. Jimmy had this to say about the route: “We named the route, Asleep at the Wheel, after an interesting encounter with the only other person back where we were. After crashing his car on the drive, he remained so dedicated to his Chamberlin mission, that he grabbed his pack, stuck out his thumb and continued. Asleep at the Wheel (V 5.12-) was completed without hammers, pins, or bolts and is one of the finest backcountry routes in the Sierra.” Well that settles that – we were psyched to go repeat the route with Mike and Jimmy repeating it as well.
In the interest of safety, we decided NOT to follow Jimmy and Mike and their torrent of death blocks up Asleep at the Wheel. Instead, we wandered down the cliff searching for a potential line. It didn’t take long to spot a system of leaning cracks and corners leading up to a detached pillar near the summit. Perfect. Despite the late start, mellow cracks and intriguing knob climbing led us to the summit of our first new route at Mt Chamberlin: Safety First. And to think, we almost spent the day in camp.
Time for a well-deserved rest day. High on the list for the day, in addition to scoping new lines, was catching the elusive Golden Trout, patching pin holes in our Thermarests and quite possibly – bathing.
From Josh: “After a much needed rest day fishing for golden trout in Upper Crabtree Lake, Mike and Jimmy walked over to the Hitchcock Lakes basin one drainage to the north, while we started up a line near Claude Fiddler and Bob Harrington’s North Face route. From behind the binoculars in camp, all of the features of our intended line appeared to connect, with the exception of one dubious linkage where there was the suggestion of a crack of unknown size. This feature was screened from our view as we climbed the first few beautiful pitches. Leading up the fourth pitch, an amazing 5.10 crack with graceful movement and perfect protection, the nature of the mystery crack was revealed: overhanging hands and fingers! We climbed it at 5.11-, grinning ear to ear the whole way. Two more long, excellent pitches in steep, knobby corners brought us to slabbier terrain, then the top. We called our route “The Sword and The Stone” (V, 5.11-) after a block trundled from the upper dihedrals. We felt it exceptional in quality and sustained in difficulty. In the upper corners we found a fixed nut, which we later determined was left by Jonny Copp and Nils Davis during the first ascent of their 2006 line “I Fink Therefore I Am”, with which “The Sword in The Stone” likely shares its upper pitches. A strange coincidence given that friends gave me the nickname “Fink” when I was in grade school. My nickname, and Jonny’s ability to inspire, are still alive to this day. Accordingly, all three routes were climbed hammerless, all free, and onsight.”
With our supplies running low and the weather beginning to turn, it was time to leave Mt Chamberlin. Our plan was to contour out of the Crabtree Basin and into the Hitchcock Basin where we could hook up with the John Muir Trail as well as recon the potential for new lines on the cliffs above the Hitchcock Lakes.
All told, 3 new routes were completed at Mt Chamberlin during the Summer 2010 season, and Mike and Jimmy repeated their climb Asleep at the Wheel for its second ascent. “The Sword in the Stone” shares its upper pitches with the Copp/Davis route “I Fink Therefore I Am.” “Safety First” likely shares its upper pitches with “Barracuda” put up by Dave Nettle and Brandon Thau in 2006.
Mike and Jimmy, having headed over to the Hitchcock basin a few days before us, were able to establish the first line in that area on a formation they dubbed Alfred’s Tooth. Their line, “Pleasure Garden”, follows a continuous splitter to the top of the tooth.
I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking that what you’ve just seen is an anomaly. That all the sweetest plums in North America were plucked long ago. That the climbers you’ve just heard about are mutants who cruise 5.13 in the backcountry and subsist on a steady diet of mountain trout and stewed krummholtz. That the only way you’re gonna get to climb splitter new routes is to hone your climbing skills to the elite level, travel to the far corners of the earth, and endure interminable bad weather, hourly avalanches, and harrowing runouts. I know what you’re thinking because that’s what I thought too. That is, before I put down the guidebook, trusted my instincts, and ventured ever so slightly off the beaten path. Right here in the good ol’ US of A.
What you’ve actually just seen is a bunch of fun-loving guys with a sense of adventure and a little extra time on their hands. Except for Pennings and Haden, who actually are 5.13 backcountry mutants. But that’s beside the point. The rest of us are just regular dudes doing their first first ascents. And loving it.
And you can too. It’s not that scary. It’s not that difficult. All it requires is an open mind and a committment to the process.
Domestic alpinism is alive and well.
Now go out there and get some!