Some routes or formations you climb for a physical challenge, and some because they are beautiful, but some things you climb because they explode out of the ground like granite rockets promising to take you to the moon. That’s the initial allure of the Incredible Hulk (11,040 feet) on the east side of the California Sierras.
The Hulk’s summit comes to an archetypal spike, its shape like something a child would create when asked to draw a picture of a mountain. Its 1,200-foot flanks are steep and etched with shadowed corners and cracks in ivory-colored rock. There are many options to choose from, but none are more approachable than the Red Dihedral (IV 5.10b). The guidebook author Peter Croft places this route in his list of the quintessential “Big Four Free Climbs” of the High Sierra.
When I first flipped through Croft’s book The Good, the Great and the Awesome in 2002, I put a big red dot next to the Hulk.
Eventually I had my chance to face this granite superhero. And as a consummate comic-book fan, I had to do it in style. I prepared a secret outfit for the climb—a Spiderman costume I planned only to reveal once at the base. The night before our approach in to the Hulk, my pal Allen Currano and I crashed at the Search and Rescue site in Tuolumne Meadows, which we lovingly called the SARcus for the highline antics that often occur here while the crew waits for climbers to get lost or rap off their ropes. Scruffy bearded performers have hung slacklines and Bachar ladders 50 feet up in the trees, and late-night entertainment consists of party tricks performed on, in or near consuming fire. I felt right at home.
The next day we approached Little Slide Canyon via a meadow that was straight out of The Sound of Music—cerulean alpine flowers, weightless butterflies and twittering birds. After crossing the meadow, we sloshed across a creek, hopping between stones and logs. We made our way up a talus field, and found our bivy spot in the cirque. Alpenglow lit the summits.
From my pack, I produced a set of large Incredible Hulk toy punching mitts. These green foam fists bellowed “HULK CRUSH!” whenever I punched something, a feature we enjoyed way too many times. Bears can be problematic in this area, so I hung my fists in a tree near our food stash for “security.” Sure enough, HULK CRUSH! awakened Allen and me in the middle of the night. We shot upright with our eyes as big as headlamps, and poked our heads out of the tent, but saw nothing. Hulk mitts: 1, Bear: 0.
In the morning we approached the base via a shortcut up a 200-foot snowfield, as opposed to the slightly longer thigh-pumping talus ramp. Allen and I each selected a pointed rock to use on the snowfield as a makeshift ice axe. Allen topped out no problem, and just as I was about to join him, I slipped, lost my “ice axe” rock, and a took a butt-toboggan ride to the base. I bounced into the talus like a Nerf football. Despite losing a few fingernails and gaining some bruises, I was OK. I found a sharper rock and trudged back up.
Finally, I reached the start of the Red Dihedral—the moment I had been waiting for! I prepared to surprise Allen with my Spiderman suit, which was already on beneath my clothes. However, before I could unzip my shell, Allen emerged from behind a boulder in his own Spidey suit! Dude!
Apparently, word of my costume had gotten around the SARcus site, and I had been double-crossed. No bother. Two heroes are always better than one.
We began our super-powered assault, digging our Spidey-mitts deep into perfect white and amber alpine granite. Of the Red Dihedral’s 12 pitches, most are 200 feet long and only a few sections dip below 5.8, making for sustained as well as rope-stretching climbing. The crux for which the route is named is at the end of the third pitch–a crimson stemming corner with a final steep exit onto a ledge. From here to the summit ridge, the line zigzags, following the path of most fun and least resistance, on true splitters. At the ridge, another hand-sized corner pitch and a final bit of tight chimneying led to one of the best views of our life.
On a summit four feet in diameter, Allen and I high-fived, found the hidden rubber Incredible Hulk Superball and then hoofed it down the descent gully, feeling like we saved the day.
Drive: Head 30 miles north of Lee Vining/Tuolumne on 395 to the town of Bridgeport, then take Twin Lakes Road 14 miles west to its terminus at Mono Village.
Hike: The trailhead is at Twin Lakes/Mono Village. To camp, you must have a Forest Service permit. Parking at the Marina costs $10. Hike west into Little Slide Canyon on a nice flat trail. Cross Robinson Creek via some boggy wading or log hopping (sandals encouraged) then head south up some steep but short-lived switchbacks that take you above treeline to the talus. Stay east/left of the creek here, following cairns up to a ramp with trees that passes beneath a picturesque mini waterfall. The trail is vague from here, but cairns will help pinball you through the talus to a flat area west of the Hulk. Look up and southeast: The Hulk is the one that looks like a gigantic granite slice. The approach takes 2.5 to 5 hours depending on your pack weight.