Friday, November 9, 2012
Winter Ascent of Carl Heller's East Ridge
Carl Heller may not be one of CA 14ers, SPS peaks, and is far-off the list of popular mountains that come to mind when one thinks about peaks of High Sierra. While far from trendy to most, it managed to form a select, quality base of admirers within CA climbing community. Mostly due to it's beautiful location, difficult approach, and spectacular East Arête-a route featured in "100 Best Climbs in the High Sierra."
Even during summer months more than a few accomplished mountaineers have had to make multiple attempts to claim Carl Heller's elusive summit. Being adventurous bunch, our group decided to raise the bar and attempt the East Arête as a winter climb. Idea which turned out to be so adventurous that neither of us was able to come across a record of this route's ascent done during this particular season! To most this goal would seem crazy at best, but my confidence was high due to a great group of gentlemen that we gathered for this adventure. After climbing with each one of them in the past I was confident in our ability to work through adversity and make a good team for any ascent!
The road to Carl Heller leads through George Creek. A 'trail' that RJ Secor described as "one of the classic bushwhacks of the High Sierra.” It involves staying on a phantom trail that leads through brush, thorns, rotten logs, for most part it disappears all together, possesses several unstable creek crossings, and large tree branches which force hikers into obscene positions when they attempt to pass through. It is said one has to wait a few years to come back to this nightmare trail-head due to the suffering it puts one through, but I was back after 10 months. In addition, this time there are four other guys to share the sufferings with- one of which (Kevin) is getting back to George creek for his sixth time (an achievement worthy of a Guinness record)!
First half of the approach turned out to be pure hell. We gained about 1,500ft in three hours-a pathetic pace. Navigating through George Creek was only harder during winter- bushwhack hell was also equipped with slushy snow we had to swim through. Some of us began to have big, but reasonable doubts about our ability to gain planned distance before the sunset-5000ft of elevation gain. However as we moved past the tree line, and further up the snow slopes- the snow became increasingly compact, post holing up to our knees (or waists at times) stopped, and our squad made a steady progress up the valley. In addition to the better progress, we enjoyed the view of Mt. Bernard and Trojan towering in the distance, with a beautiful sunny day brewing above. As we joked and talked about different climbing (and not) related subjects the day expired as we barely made it to our planned campsite at 11,500 ft! Carl Heller was towering above, furthermore our desires for an authentic winter climb prevailed- the Arête had more snow pack than in any photos we previously have seen!
The night continued to progress towards the sunrise as the winds continued to pick up and furiously battered our mega-light. The winds didn't subside enough at dawn and postponed our departure time by a few hours, after which we decided to hike up to the base of our route and to make a decision regarding our plans on the spot. As we got closer to the arête the winds died down (they were blowing from the west on the other side and were blocked by the mountain), we had clear skies- it looked like we might get a window to summit.
As we approached the route I was sure that we were going to cruise it in half a day’s length. First headwall is a first 4th class crux, and it appeared easier than terrain Mark and I simul-climbed three weeks earlier on Humphreys. Past that we are supposed to have mellow third class for a couple of pitches at least, I though! Oh boy was I wrong! As soon as we reached the top of the first headwall we encountered conditions that required caution and our full attention. Although climbing stayed relatively simple, the granite slab was covered with unstable layer of snow powder. Patches of it collapsed under our feet and dropped straight over the edge as we moved over the terrain. Due to the danger this snow cover brought up, we were not able to simul climb a single pitch on the route.
At first the pitches were easy, but lacked the pro to facilitate sufficient simul climbing. Than the slab steepened and snow cover thickened. Unfortunately snow did not gain much stability. Several sections on middle pitches were a bit creepy- between sufficient holds one had to traverse on sections of steep and unstable snow pack.
As a climber would make a careful traversing step the snow would collapse and drop about a thousand feet off the edge of the cliff. Due to extra care and finesse required to avoid collapsing the slopes the pitches took a while to manage and it was obvious that sun will be down in just a few hours. With merely a few hours left and more than a few pitches to climb most of us realized that our choices are to either bivy on the route, or to find a line to rapel. Personally, I was against bailing from this ridge, it meant a lot to me, and I was willing to suffer through a cold night to attain our goal. In the past, I believed bivouacs are for insane people, but in the present I felt geared up for such occasion.
With a few hours of daylight left the climbing became more sustained, fun, and memorable. We passed through few of genuine knife-edge sections, and a few thin nerve-racking traverses. As we let the sun slip out behind the horizon temperatures declined, and frustration built up. Every one of us critiqued or showed frustration with a speed or work of others. While trying to cheer up our three man group my humor was filled with sarcasm, and did not do much good. These are the moments when climbing becomes a chore- something one must finish before the day could end. Few of the last pitches before the crux ended up being the most exciting. On one of them I had to do an airy down-climb with a great hand-jam move, which was followed by a delicate traverse above big air, and another climb up a fun crack system. As Shane made it closer to the belay ledge he seemed excited about the quality of climbing on the previous pitch. By this point half shivering my excitement about the pitch is long gone, I do not feel any excitement about next pitch neither. As Mark went into the darkness for another lead I dreamed about it being a quick one, so I could move and get warm again. Shane and Mark had put on their parkas, even though by their look they still did not appear warm and cozy.
We got through nine long pitches and were looking at the crux. Mark observed Kevin lead it several minutes ago, and it was obvious that security on this traverse is minimal, with several moves of 5th class coming up after. Watching Maxim follow Kevin's lead was not much encouraging- I have not seen him ask for so much tension, and slack on one pitch, EVER. The pitch started as highly insecure snow over slab traverse. Ice axe was generally useless and method that seemed to work the best was to use the snow as holds for your hands. On this particular pitch I climbed last on rope, and psychological crux was a down-climb after a brief climb up to remove a picket (which protected the leader and first follower). As soon as I took out the picket I was about 15 feet over the next piece of pro with a difficult task- a crumbling layer (12cm or so) of snow over steep hold-less slab I had to down-climb. I placed my right foot on a previously made step, and it collapsed under my weight. I quickly regain my balance and watch the snow fall into the void. I re-gain my concentration- this is a no fall zone. Somehow I make my way down the slope to Shane who belayed me from the rock, and we continue to climb up towards Mark. On the last part we encountered a rock crux of the route- perhaps a poorly protected 5.6, that felt a lot harder in mountaineering boots. Without peeling off Shane and I made it to the ledge and congratulated Mark on a fine lead.
From here we quickly climbed up through the steep 400 foot couloir, which went at about 45 and steepened to about 60 degrees at the top. At the notch we finally saw our friends Kevin and Maxim. They picked out a rock ledge for a bivy, and without wasting much time we were setting up our own spot.
Photo By Maxim B., annotated by Mark T.
East side of the summit pinnacle had snow over 4th class ledges, and we picked a clean crack system on the west to reach the summit. We got over a mid 5th class crack, and traversed right and over to the summit rocks. As I scrambled over the last head-wall I saw Maxim, Kevin and Mark sitting on rocks across. A big smile grew on my face- we did it! I was on top of the world again. Not too far down south I saw a peak which for me was the top of the world exactly a year ago-Mt. Whitney. To the north I saw clouds rolling over another pinnacle of my progression back in May 2010-Mt. Williamson.
March 13, 2011
For several minutes I was in paradise- worries about climbing down, getting back to camp, hiking out through George creek, and driving back to the Bay Area had left me. My reality was here and now- ideal. I was in the place I hoped to see for almost a year, sharing a moment with a group of strong partners who worked hard, sacrificed their comfort, and risked their safety to get here.
We took SW face (cl 3-4) of Carl Heller down, and back over Vacation Pass to regain our camp. Gathered our things, hiked out, and drove 9 or so hours to the Bay Area. LONG DAY.