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Storming Castles: New Routing in the High Sierras

My home in Colorado is day-tripping distance from the Diamond, but every summer for the last few years I have forsaken the Rockies to answer the siren call of California’s High Sierra.

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My home in Colorado is day-tripping distance from the Diamond, but every summer for the last few years I have forsaken the Rockies to answer the siren call of California’s High Sierra. It happens like this: some time in early May, after a winter of short days and long nights, gleaming white castles of cleanly cleaved granite begin to occupy my imagination. Then my friend Chris Brown calls to pitch some impossible Sierra itinerary involving airborne reconnaissance and first ascents.

This year was no different. Although I knew Chris’s half-baked plan would inevitably change, I also knew that in the dirtbag paradise of the Sierra, that’s half the fun. Soon we were headed west, speeding down a lonely highway across basin and range until finally emerging from pine forests to a wall of steep mountains rising 10,000 feet from the Owens Valley. The Sierra is far more than what you’ll find in the guidebooks. It’s more even than what’s contained in the latest edition of R.J. Secor’s High Sierra compendium Peaks, Passes and Trails. It’s more because those books only document what has already happened, and a lifetime of first ascents in the Sierra still awaits discovery.

Mount Whitney

Even among flatlanders, Mount Whitney needs no introduction. Hiking to its summit, the highest in the lower 48, has become so popular that the National Forest and Park Services have been forced to institute Whitney-specific regulations. Notable among these is a strict requirement to pack out all solid waste. Unfortunately, when imposed upon people unaccustomed to handling their own poop, like nearly all of those walking to the top, these regulations result in a trail strewn with abandoned Wag Bags, toilet-paper flowers, and raw human waste. To an experienced backcountry traveler, the irony is palpable: an army of city folk waiting in line for a permit to join the throngs as they wind past piles of poo on their way to an “I Climbed Mount Whitney” T-shirt. At least the impact is concentrated.

For a more pristine experience you will find refuge on the trail along the North Fork of Lone Pine Creek, which provides access to the technical climbing on Whitney’s impressive East Face as well as Keeler Needle, Day Needle and numerous other cliffs and spires on the ridge. Although still crowded by Sierra standards, the North Fork sees a mere fraction of the traffic of the Mount Whitney trail. High camps have been established at Upper Boy Scout and Iceberg Lakes, and the classic rock climbs on Mount Russell are accessible via the Russell-Whitney col above Iceberg Lake.

Having never visited this historic area before, we hiked up the North Fork trail in late July with our friend Joe, intending to solo the East Buttress of Whitney while we waited for Sara, a willing fourth we had just met in Bishop, to show up at Upper Boy Scout the next day. Chris and I had been scrambling around at altitude for a few weeks, but Joe was coming straight off the couch. We brought along some rope just in case things got interesting.

As we crested a ridge on the approach, the iconic east faces of Whitney, Keeler and Day appeared, bathed in the soft orange light of early morning. We hustled up variable terrain to the base of the route. The climbing was engaging but never difficult, with memorable sections past a 5.7 finger crack and the famed Peewee block, a giant, insect-shaped ridglet named by the first ascentionists. We reached the top without making a claim against our nylon insurance policy and quickly slipped past groups of haggard hikers into the so-called Mountaineer’s Route, a loose scree gully that offers a rapid descent back to Iceberg Lake.

Sara met us at Upper Boy Scout that evening. We had asked her to bring a rope and, jokingly, fish tacos, and indeed, she showed up with a half rope, two pounds of raw tilapia, tortillas, cilantro and a liter of tequila. Also with her was a foster pit bull she had taken in a couple of days earlier.

“She’s really sweet,” Sara promised.

The next morning as I contemplated leading all of Russell on a half rope, Chris bent down to pet the beast. It lunged for his face, narrowly missing as he lurched backward. Tempers flared, and various epithets were exchanged. Eventually we made it out of camp and over the Russell-Whitney col to the south face of Mount Russell. Joe and I enjoyed a low-drag ascent of the classic Fishhook Arete (5.9) courtesy of Sara’s half rope, and Sara and Chris patched things up over a trip up the Mithril Dihedral (5.10a). Meeting up again on top, we enjoyed 14,000-foot vistas. Looking further southwest, we could see Guitar Lake and the Arctic Lakes Wall, with its fissures too numerous to count. “Sure would be nice to get a look at this area from the air,” I remarked. And with that, the seed was planted.

We call him “The Pusher,” because Chris Brown is an idea man, and when he gets one in his head, woe unto those who stand in his way. After scrambling around on the majestic east faces of Whitney and Russell, I was stricken with a strange illness that confined me to the van for the day. Never one to sit idle, Chris announced that he was going out to find us a pilot with a high-wing plane. Never mind that we were in Lone Pine, where maybe three people are licensed pilots, and even fewer own high-wing planes. Convinced I was hallucinating, I promptly passed out. When I came to, coated in a clammy sweat, Chris was in the van’s front seat. He told me we were scheduled to board a souped-up Cessna 182 at 7 the next morning to scope some of the lesser-known gems of the Sierra, from the Evolutions all the way down to the Golden Trout Wilderness.

Turned out, there was one high-wing plane in town, piloted by a local motel owner Chris had tracked down in a string of back-room dealings. We met him at the tiny Lone Pine airport, where he pulled his plane out of the hangar by hand. Fifteen minutes later we were aloft. The protocol was informal: We pointed at mountains on a topo map, and he flew us by whatever aspects we found interesting, circling back and forth according to our fancy. All for gas money.

It’s difficult to comprehend the enormity of the Sierra until you see it from the air. As our pilot banked the Cessna 182, soaring over the crest near the town of Big Pine, ridges and troughs unfurled to the west. Innumerable high peaks recalled the jagged edge of a serrated blade. Engravings of lower canyons revealed hidden buttresses of steep white granite. We flew over the entire expanse of the Palisade Traverse with Temple Crag below, a grizzly gatekeeper obfuscating access to the upper ridge. Spotting these familiar landmarks calibrated an internal GPS, gauging heights, distances, angles and aspects. From our vantage, ground that would normally take weeks to cover on foot panned by below in minutes.

Over the course of an hour we laid eyes on Mount. Tyndall, Bubbs Creek Wall, Charlotte Dome and Mount Barnard. As seen from above, the potential for climbing in this range, from third class to V16, was more than we could have imagined. Just before we circled back to the east, we buzzed the Whitney region. A stream of hikers ambled along the unmistakable Mount Whitney Trail, congregating on its broad summit. Just to the south, however, we flew multiple passes by the most impressive wall we had seen on our sortie: the northeast face of Mount Chamberlin.


Mount Chamberlin

A few miles south of Whitney lies the northeast face of Mount Chamberlin, three steep buttresses of golden granite described by Claude Fiddler as “one of the grand walls of the Sierra.” This 2,000-foot precipice is the realm of Sierra hardmen like Galen Rowell, Dave Nettle, Brandon Thau, Mike Pennings, Nils Davis, Jimmy Haden. In fact, the face has probably seen only a handful of ascents by climbers other than these, and for good reason: it’s a 12-mile hike over the Sierra Crest from Whitney Portal, and information about established routes is scarce. Few of the routes have ever been repeated. Adventurous climbers who pay the high price of admission will be rewarded with immaculate granite and a beautiful base camp in the Crabtree Lakes basin.

Rowell’s first ascent took place in 1979 via the North Pillar, an obvious weakness on Chamberlin’s westernmost buttress. Since then about 10 more routes have been added, most of them on the central buttress, the largest and most monolithic of the three. Established routes range from Safety First (5.10+) to Asleep at the Wheel (5.12). Potential for completely independent new lines is difficult to assess given the limited information available about established lines, but at least a few plums remain to be plucked, and there are plenty of major variations to satisfy the curious. Given the size and angle of the northeast face, future FAs will likely be in the 5.11 range or harder.

Visiting climbers should expect a decidedly more adventurous feel than at the Hulk or Whitney. There are few climbers or hikers in the area, and there is little in the way of fixed anchors or fixed pro. Mount Chamberlin is Sierra backcountry climbing at its finest. Please keep the mountain and surrounding areas in the pristine condition you find them.

Safety First (IV 5.10+)
I first heard about Mount Chamberlin from the intrepid Mike Pennings, the author of superb and difficult alpine climbs the world over. If Mike recommends a climb, you can bet it’ll be proud, remote and a little more than you bargained for. In early August, Chris and I met up with Mike and Jimmy Haden, another unsung alpine hardman, for what Mike described as a three-hour approach to Chamberlin’s northeast face. Mike and Jimmy started hiking around noon, while Chris and I ordered burgers and beer at the Whitney Portal Store. We figured we could leave at 5 p.m. and still make camp by dark. Twenty-four hours and one open bivouac later, we stumbled into base camp to Mike and Jimmy’s guffaws. Eventually, they stopped laughing long enough to inform us that they had climbed the first route on Chamberlin’s easternmost buttress that day and named it in our honor: Where’s the Boys? (IV 5.11-). After a well-deserved dinner the four of us made plans to heckle each other up Mike and Jimmy’s unrepeated 2001 route Asleep at the Wheel the next day.

By the time Chris and I left camp the following morning, Mike was busy working his way up the first pitch, a 5.10+ corner according to his recollection. The grunts emanating from the corner suggested it might be slightly more difficult than Mike remembered. What’s more, a steady stream of rubble, ranging in size from soup can to microwave, trundled down in his wake. Dodging missiles up the snowfield to the base of the route, we took shelter from the barrage in a small alcove. Even larger debris rained down as Jimmy endeavored to clean things up for future ascents while he followed the pitch.

“It’s much cleaner above,” Mike shouted from the first belay. Chris and I locked eyes. Sandbagged once, shame on you. Sandbagged thrice? We moved down the wall in search of virgin terrain free from trundlebums. Around noon we started up a line we had spotted the day before and were rewarded with a new 1,500-foot route, Safety First, on the west side of the face. The free-standing tower perched on the ridge above the route still awaits an ascent.

Sword in the Stone (5.11-)
Most of the new routes I’ve done in the mountains have been interesting adventures, but not climbs I’d recommend. Sword in the Stone is one of the exceptions. Chris and I glassed the line from the comforts of our deluxe base camp in the pristine Crabtree Lakes basin, connecting cracks and corners as we daydreamed our way up the wall. One uncertain linkage remained, however. Through the binoculars it was just a peculiar shadow, the mere suggestion of a crack of indeterminable size and the only means of access to the upper corners. Nevertheless, we carried neither bolts nor pitons on our attempt the next day. The mystery feature was screened from view as we climbed the first few excellent pitches.

As I led the fourth, a sculpted flake with graceful movement and perfect protection, the apparition materialized into an overhanging hand and finger crack. I whooped and hollered from the sharp end. It was a gob-smacking splitter and the crux of the route, smooth on the inside as if carved with climbers in mind. We topped out after several more sustained, rope-stretching pitches. Adventures like The Sword will keep me wandering the Sierra for a long time to come.

The Hulk

The Hulk is the beast lurking just beyond the northern boundary of Yosemite National Park in the Humboldt Toiyabe National Forest, near the fishing town of Bridgeport. It’s one of the best chunks of alpine granite in the Lower 48, with sustained climbing from 5.10 to 5.13. In 1975, Dale Bard, Bob Locke and Mike Farrell made the first ascent of the west face via The Red Dihedral. The team originally named their route Yggdrasil after a mythological tree, but the name never stuck. Since then around 20 other routes have been added to the west face. They are generally steep and well-protected, from 800 to 1,500 feet. In the early 2000s the indefatigable Peter Croft became very active on the Hulk, establishing testpieces including Venturi Effect (V 5.12) and Airstream (V 5.13), both with Dave Nettle.

Positive Vibrations (5.11a)
This legendary route is so good we climbed it two days in a row. Like many of Hulk’s routes, Vibrations is tucked into a dead-end canyon punctuated by a small lake that dries up in the summer. The flat, sandy bed is a fine bivouac and abuts a three-foot-tall, flat-topped boulder, the perfect backcountry granite counter top. All that’s missing is the hot tub. Which is just a few hours hike down valley.

Sun Spot (5.11b)
A place as magical as the Sierra is best shared with friends, so last summer Chris and I rallied a posse up to the Hulk for what we dubbed “Hulk-a-Mania.” As is often the case, everybody bailed at the last second, but Gabe Metzger and Taylor Lamoureaux were among the venturesome few who came through. A couple days before they arrived Chris and I climbed Sun Spot Dihedral. My calves were pumped silly as I tick-tacked up the first 5.11 section, a delicate stemming problem protected by small nuts. Eventually, I found a decent handhold but still couldn’t unweight my legs. Desperate, I spun around to face out from the wall and was surprised to find that this unorthodox position offered relief from the toxic pump. When Gabe and Taylor showed up, we toasted Hulk-a-Mania with vodka and Cytomax slushies made from a nearby snowpatch. Eager to keep the party rolling the next day, we all climbed Sun Spot. Gabe inched into the stemming section. Even from my perch 160 feet above him, I could see that his calf pump was building. “Turn around and face out!” I shouted. He assumed the position and breathed a sigh of relief. We never discussed whether he still gets credit for the onsight.


Whitney and Chamberlin Logistics

GETTING THERE/CAMPING Perched high above Death Valley and the town of Lone Pine, California, Whitney Portal is the entry point for perfect gold-and-white Sierra walls. The cragging here on exquisite granite is great training for the nearby bigger backcountry objectives. Expect to find large crowds in the Portal during summer.

Camping is available in Whitney Portal for $12, but often completely full. The nice people of the Whitney Portal Store (home of the world’s most delicious burgers and fries) also operate the Whitney Portal Hostel in Lone Pine. Reach them at (760) 876-0030. If no sites are available in Whitney Portal, camp at the Lone Pine Campground for $10 per night (760)-876-6200.

PERMITS For any activity requiring you to set foot on the Mount Whitney Trail or in the Mount Whitney Zone—you will need a permit from the Whitney Ranger Station in Lone Pine(760) 876-6200. The permits are free, but the daily quota fills up quickly in the summer. Get there early or be prepared to wait a day or two. Federal regulations require that ALL solid waste, including human, be packed out of the Whitney Zone. Wag Bags are available for free at the ranger station.

MOUNT WHITNEY APPROACH The five-mile approach to the eastern flanks of Whitney shares a brief section with the Mount Whitney Trail and then quickly breaks off at the North Fork of Lone Pine Creek. Four hours of walking should bring you to the shores of the trout-stocked Upper Boy Scout Lake. Many bivy sites exist here, or continue on about an hour or so to Iceberg Lake and the Whitney Cirque. To descend from the summit of Whitney, head slightly north until you are able to drop into the gully for the Mountaineer’s Route and down to Iceberg Lake.

MOUNT CHAMBERLIN APPROACH Chamberlin can be approached from the west, but the best option is to start from Whitney Portal and share the 11-mile Mount Whitney Trail to the Sierra Crest. From the crest, drop over the west side into Sequoia National Park through knee- to waist-deep scree for a few more miles, heading toward the granite-lined Crabtree Lakes basin. It will take you about eight hours to reach the base of Mount Chamberlin. From the top of all routes head west north-west to the descent gully leading to the south side of upper Crabtree Lake.

The Hulk Logistics

GETTING THERE/CAMPING Bridgeport is a short drive north from Lee Vining and Yosemite, and is the gateway to the Incredible Hulk. From Bridgeport, continue southwest on Twin Lakes Road to its end. Here you’ll find Mono Village—a large campground, and the jumping-off point for the Hulk and other formations in the Hoover Wilderness. You can park overnight here for a small fee. Camping in Mono Village is $18 per night, but many other primitive camping options exist on National Forest land between Bridgeport and Mono Village. Groceries are cheaper and more plentiful in Bridgeport than in the tourist-filled Twin Lakes.

PERMITS For overnight trips, obtain a free permit for the Hoover Wilderness at the Bridgeport Ranger Station (760) 932-7070. Only eight people are allowed into the Hoover Wilderness via Little Slide Canyon daily. If the daily permit quota has been reached, climb the Hulk car to car in a day.

APPROACH Plan on three to five hours for the approach from Mono Village. Try to stay focused on your main objective as you hike past the myriad towers and walls, some climbed, some not, lining the valley enroute to the Hulk. At the base, numerous established campsites are nestled among outcrops and talus fields. For routes in the Sun Spot/Positive/Venturi area, it is possible to rap Venturi Effect with one 70-meter rope. For routes around the Red Dihedral, continue to the summit, then head down the south ridge and make a short rappel into the descent gully.

As a large group in the backcountry we felt it imperative to minimize our impact. We packed out all waste, and hope you’ll do the same to preserve the wilderness experience.