2004 Sierra Challenge - Day 1: North Peak & Mt Conness

July 31, 2004

Routes: North Pk via Northwest Ridge, Conness via North Ridge, East Ridge

Elevation Gained: 4,126'

RT Distance: 10 mi

RT Time: 9hr 30min

Trailhead: Saddlebag Lake

Summit Elevs.: North Pk: 12,242' Mt Conness: 12,590'

Rating: III, 5.6

Northwest Ridge of North Peak

North Peak seen from the approach to the Northwest Ridge

The sun was barely rising and the temperature was just climbing above 40oF, but already there was a flurry of activity at the Saddlebag Lake trailhead. There were 13 people signed up for today, making it the largest Sierra Challenge gathering to date, and everyone showed up. Most of the people were planning on climbing Mt Conness via the class 3 East Ridge. I had already done this route before as a descent from climbing the West Ridge, so I was up for something different.

I would be joining Bob and some other die-hards on climbing Mt Conness via the North Ridge, which is rated 5.6. Joining me on this route was Sam Mills, whom I had climbed with up the Crescent Couloir on Round Top in the Spring, and Joel Wilson, a fellow Cal student who I had done many mountaineering trips with.

Although the 5.6 rating was for the downclimb from two gendarmes midway along the ridge, there was still class 4-5 scrambling leading up to them and between them and the summit. Everyone attempting this route was going to free-solo it apart from rappelling off the gendarmes, which made me uncomfortable since one would be committed to finishing the route after that point, and I wasn’t sure how well I would handle the exposure. Luckily Michael Graupe had agreed to join me on the route, giving us the option to set up a roped belay beyond the rappel if needed. He carried the rope, and I carried all of the pro .

True to the trip reports I read of earlier Sierra Challenges, Bob set off 10 minutes after the starting time. The pace wasn’t too bad, but then again, we were on a nice, flat trail at the beginning of the day. Michael and I were probably carrying the heaviest packs of the day, but I managed to keep up just fine. Soon we left the main trail and continued along a series of faint use-trails that wound their way up the boulder-strewn meadows as we climbed higher above tree-line, dropping occasionally into a pristine lake or creek as we ascended.

For those of us heading to Conness’ North Ridge, Bob had planned to also include North Peak as an extra goodie along the route. On the topos he provided online he showed us ascending the class 3 east slope, but when I matched up the peak with the map, I was confused, since it appeared that we were instead heading towards the north ridge of the peak. I guess Bob had a change of plans.

The most exposed part of the Northwest Ridge.

Once we reached the ridgeline the fun began. It was enjoyable class 2-3 scrambling along ridgeline slabs with some spicy exposure on both sides. Spicy – I hadn’t heard this term used before in climbing, but it soon became a part of my lexicon. Along the route we reached 3 notches that forced us onto some ledges on the side of the ridge. Each one of us found a different way to bypass these obstacles, and on one I found an enjoyable 10 ft crack that provided some fun 5th class climbing. The second notch forced us onto some class 4 sloping slabs on the west side of the ridge, before ascending the far side of the notch on the ridge’s east side.

The most exposed part of the Northwest Ridge. The route stays to the left of the ridge and finishes up the chimney between the red patch on the left and the ridge.
David Steel and Michael Graup on the North Ridge of North Peak.

Then we reached the crux – a steep headwall bypassed by ascending some ledges on the east side. Besides being steep, below the ledges was a vertical drop some several hundred feet to the glacier below. Luckily the rock was solid and the pitch was short, and soon I was above it. From this point on there was a tedious and sandy class 2 slope up the final 200 vertical feet to the summit, and soon I was standing on top. It was only 8:30 am, but already I was standing at an elevation of 12,242 ft – not much further to go to the summit of Conness!. At this point I was in the middle of the two main groups that had formed out of our North Ridge party, so I had some time to sign the summit register and enjoy the awesome view the North Peak summit provided of the North Ridge of Mt Conness. The class 4 ridge leading up to the first gendarme looked intimidating, but also exciting.

The North Ridge of Mt Conness from the south slopes of North Pk.

North Ridge of Mt Conness

Joel Wilson on the North Ridge of Mt Conness. The route bypasses the first tower via a ledge on the north side (near side in the photo). The second tower is the leftmost one in the photo.

After a few minutes rest, Joel and I left Bob on the summit and headed off towards the col below. From there we soon got into some very solid and thrilling scrambling across class 3-4 rock. I had had reservations about this part, but free-soloing the class 4 felt very secure. Sam Mills led the way, and soon Bob blazed past us.

The second tower seen from the top of the first tower. Take the jumbled ledge to the left to bypass the obstacle of the first tower.

From the top of the first gendarme the route finding got more difficult, but we soon found the easy class 2 ledge described in earlier trip reports. It was narrow and hard to find at first, since it cut cleanly across the vertical 1,000 ft face of the east side of Conness’ North Ridge. Luckily it proved easy to cross. Many a climber before had mistakenly rappelled off of the first gendarme, only to have wasted time getting to the second one, and this shortcut saved us some difficulty.

Joel heading up the final portion of the ridge below the first tower.

By the time I reached the second gendarme Bob and some of the others had already begun attempting to down climb the 5.6 route down the backside. They made it down about 15 ft to a ledge before they decided that it was a little too much for them to free climb. Michael got out the rope and we fixed our first rappel for the route. While doing so I noticed that some people were already halfway up the North Ridge, soloing very close to the edge. The route looked very intimidating – a practically vertical face, yet the climbers ahead of us seemed to stick to it easily.

Joel had caught up by this time and he felt confident that he could free-solo the route, but since he hadn’t planned on this beforehand he had no harness to use for a rappel.. Luckily I had brought a 30 ft piece of webbing to use for an anchor, and I quickly fashioned a Swiss Seat for him.

The rappel was straightforward and ended on a surprisingly non-threatening ledge. From earlier photos I had seen of the route this ledge looked very exposed, but it was nothing more than a series of granite ledges with a gravelly slope with some room to walk around. I waited here to collect my rope, as well as to help coach Matthew Holliman down the rope. Apparently he had had a bad experience rappelling on Lone Pine Peak earlier that year and was more than a little tense.

I continued on to the next rappel and then set off on my own route up the western side of the North Ridge. There were many variations possible and I was able to keep the exposure at a level that I was comfortable with by constantly following some diagonally ascending ledges to gain height and then cutting back towards the ridge. The rock was solid and provided a fun variety of climbing – some face climbing here, a few foot and hand jambs there. Staying further away from the ridge, the climbing was more like 4th class with a little low 5th class intermixed.

The North Ridge of Mt Conness seen from atop the 2nd Gendarme.

Although I was still a little tense from the exposure, I had a great time and soon I was at the end of the ridge. From there I could look back on the route. It was covered with people climbing every which way. I could also see another team of climbers topping out on the West Ridge. It seemed that Mt Conness was being attacked by a horde of ants! I doubt the peak has ever seen this much traffic on the North Ridge at one time, much less combined with climbers topping out on the other routes.

Climbers on the North Ridge of Mt Conness seen from the base of the rappel (or 5.6 downclimb).
The North Ridge of Mt Conness seen from the base of the rappel (or 5.6 downclimb). The climbing is easier and less exposed staying to the right.

Bob and a number of the other climbers were waiting at the summit. We congratulated each other, took photos and a short break, and then people began on their way.

Me, Joel Wilson, Bob Burd, Michael Graup, Sam Mills, and ? on the summit of Mt Conness.

It was only midday and we were already nearly done! I waited a long while on the summit for Michael after everyone left – I had left my Gatorade with him earlier on the climb and I wanted it back! Eventually I gave up and headed down the familiar East Ridge. I had descended this route nearly a year ago after a night spent climbing the West Ridge with Dirk. I scrambled down some sandy ledges and walked across the sidewalk-width spine of the ridge near the plateau. It was a steep vertical drop off on both sides, offering beautiful views of the mountain. This section was short – maybe 20 to 30 feet. Then I was on the high plateau. Luckily I had been here before, so I easily found the right part of the plateau edge to approach in order to head down the correct drainage.

North Pk seen from the East Ridge of Mt Conness.
North Pk seen from the East Ridge of Mt Conness.

I descended some unpleasant sandy class 2 ledges and then headed for the class 3 ridge route marked on the topo that Bob had posted on the internet. The ridge had many ledges, but none seemed to last long before cliffing out. At each dead end I dropped lower and never seemed to find a good way to get back up to the ridge without a lot of route finding. I knew that I was getting further behind the group and that I needed to get back to the trailhead before everyone left – I wouldn’t have a ride out of there otherwise. I decided to take the straightforward approach to the East Ridge route that I had taken on my last visit to Conness and dropped down from the ridge, passed by a small pond north of Alpine Lake and scrambled down the wet class 3 ledges to reach a maintained trail. Soon before reaching the Saddlebag campgrounds I cut north cross country and headed straight up some steep slopes to reach the road just short of the Saddlebag Lake trailhead.

I searched for a while and couldn’t find any cars that I recognized – Dave had since left for Camp 9. Luckily Sam Mills was still around – he had been having some trouble with his truck. I hitched a ride with him into town for some R&R before everyone got together for dinner.