Mission: The Northeast Ridge of Lone Pine Peak in Winter. This route rises 6,900 feet from the valley floor. Over three miles of knife-edge ridgeline lead to the pyramidal summit of Lone Pine Peak. From the moment Scotty suggested we try it, this route appealed to me. It’s so simple. Start on the desert floor. Get on the ridge. Climb all the way to the top.
When rating the purity of a line, I use the Badass Scale. This line gets a 10.
The only beta we had was deliciously vague: “Climb the first tower mostly on the North side and the second tower on the South side. The exit gully follows the ‘right’ side of the upper NE Ridge.” What does that even mean? Other than a vague mention of a dicey snow-covered slab and scree traverse near the end, that’s all the information we had. So with a photo of the ridge taken from the valley, we loaded the car and drove to Lone Pine.
Our first attempt was about a month ago, the same weekend that Kostas and Charles sent NERW. We encountered some pretty rough conditions: The excursion ended up more swimming than climbing. Seven hours of tedious and soul-destroying postholing got us to our high-point: this rocky outcropping pathetically low on the ridge. We called Kostas and Charles, who were passing through Lone Pine at that very moment, and got them to try to spot us on the ridge. While on the phone with them we decided to bail, due to our seriously slow pace. I rationalized it by assuming that the NERW team would surely also bail, since they’d be heading up into the same crap conditions that we did.
Well, I was wrong. Those assholes persevered and sent the route in an epic four days. They were the new kings of Winter Club, while Scotty and I were just poseurs, relegated to the Winter Club laundry room, whining about deep snow and drooling over their sweet send.
We get spanked pretty hard on our first go. Postholing up to our waist in typical LPP fluffiness, I think of a million other things I’d rather be doing. I can tell Nate is pretty psyched to keep going, but this is plain ridiculous. My need to be back for school on Monday offers us a convenient excuse to fail.
We watched conditions for a couple of weeks, but the weather was bad and Scotty was busy with school. I think Scotty had completely given up on the season, thinking he was going to let his WC membership lapse to try again in 2009. A weekend of good weather came in early March, but Scotty was busy. But the forecasts said that the high-pressure system would last through the next weekend. Realizing that this was our last chance of the season, I sent Scotty a barrage of emails until he, too, realized that this was it. He put his other shit on hold and we packed up and went for it, leaving early on Friday so we could relax on the drive up and go to sleep early.
I had midterms coming up, didn’t want to go. But I but felt guilty since I had planted the seed in Nate’s mind. In the end I decided to honor my commitment to Nate, God and Alpine Glory.
Those pastries are disgusting.
After a last-minute decision to ditch the snowshoes we’re off and hiking toward the ridge. The snowline is noticeably higher than last-time, and we’re making good time. Scotty promptly falls into a thorn bush and I have pick the prickers out of his arms and ass.
I think I still have some of those thorns in my ass.
We pass our previous high-point by dawn, (unbelievable!), after only two hours of hiking up mostly-solid snow. The ridge becomes more defined and we do a lot of scrambling with some fifth class here and there. Doing it in boots makes it interesting. We arrive at the base of the first tower and change into rock shoes, and I lead out. Scotty follows, and after a couple more lead swaps we simul a long snow-traverse to the right around the crest of the first tower.
A few pitches straight up to get back onto the ridge and Scotty pulls off a really sketchy lead. Powerful liebacking up a rounded edge with lichen and ballbearings threatening to skate you right onto your crappy gear. I’m gripped and pumped just following it. Holy shit, nice job, Scotty! We arrive at a small nook on the knife-edge ridge, and realizing that this will be a very shitty place to bivy, we cast out across the ridge in search of a suitable flat spot. We simul for a quite a ways, with mindblowing exposure until Scotty spots a ledge about thirty feet down the South side of the crest. I climb down to it, and declare it perfect. We spend some time chopping off snow and trundling rocks and create our awesome bivy spot.
The sun was getting pretty low, and I was getting worried we wouldn’t find a bivy spot. It was starting to get cold and windy, and the ridge looked knife-edge for as far as I could see. I had flashbacks to the night Charles and I spent on Mt Temple (Canada), although this time at least we had sleeping bags. Then I spot the candidate for the Lone Pine Peak Luxury Suite. It’s a jacuzzi-shaped ledge on the non-windy side of the ridge. Perfect. After a little excacation and dinner we snuggle into our bags, kiss each other good night and PTFO.
We’re cocky, we think we’re in position to finish the route and get down by tomorrow night so we shrug off our snow-melting duty and decide to do it in the morning. We eat a dinner of dehydrated chicken stuff and go to sleep, stoked that we’ve made it so far on the first day. We go to bed early, probably 7pm, and we both pass out, even though we’re both crushed together in our chopped-out bathtub. I awake in the pitch-black, feeling well rested. Scotty is also awake.
“Dude, what time is it?”
I spend the next six hours lying awake, thirsty (there’s no water), waiting for the night to end.
Finally the sun rises, drawing us out of our bags, and we eat breakfast and begin to melt water. And we keep melting water. We sit for probably a couple of hours while the sun gets steadily higher, using our crappy MSR pocket-rocket with no windscreen, trying to make enough water for the day. After a couple liters each we decide we won’t get that thirsty so we pack up and set out on the ridge.
Cannister stoves in winter — just say no.
We’re in our rock-shoes all day. The basic operation goes like this:
- I lead a really long simul-pitch (like a piece of gear every 150 feet) then am stopped by a headwall that takes more gear than I have.
- Scotty leads the headwall, which is harder and dicier than it looks, then can’t go very far because he has to give me a real belay.
The cruxes turn out to be avoiding the snow with your climbing shoes and I remember a freaky no-pro slab traverse on ballbearings and ice. I shudder, internally glad that Scotty is getting all these sketch-fest leads. After a few cycles of this process, we abruptly hit the end of the Northeast Ridge. It just stops, and we’re surrounded by a huge amphitheater of rock and snow.
To our left is a headwall capped with overhangs on the other side of a snow gully. To our right is the abyss. In front of us we see a smattering of snow pasted to steep rock and scree traversing out right to the exit gully. We doubt we’ll get any pro doing the snow traverse. It does not look promising, and neither of us wants to commit to doing it. About the headwall Scotty says “I’ve looked at a lot of overhangs to convince myself they would go, and dude, these aren’t gonna go”. Retreating down the gully to our left doesn’t sound fun either after seeing the HUGE avalanche path in the gully to our right earlier in the day. It’s about 3pm, and we decide to bivy where we are, deciding to try a vague ramp-system we can see farther up the headwall in the morning. So much for getting back to the car tonight. Scotty finds a cave near the gully to our left and we spend some time excavating rocks and thorn-bushes and settle in for the night.
OK, I was being a bit dramatic, but the rock walls did look imposing! If there was an easier way, Alois would have found it, right? The Death Gully exit was definitely out, no question about it. So it was either find a rock solution, or bail…
Another night lying awake for hours staring at the stars. Time stretches on forever and at one point I find myself wondering how many times they will go around us while we’re on this ridge. Soon enough, the eastern sky starts glowing. I can see the headwall in a different light than yesterday afternoon. I’m comfortable and cozy, and things aren’t as ominous as they seemed last night. Scotty is still asleep, but I stare at the headwall, trying to piece together a line that might take us through. I spot some features that might be linkable and take us to a spot where the overhangs are not so huge, and hopefully climbable. Scotty agrees to give it a try. We cross the snow and rack up on the rock. Scotty leads a pitch with some 5.7ish climbing on it. We’re amazed that the climbing is so easy… it’s not as steep as it looked. We’re getting optimistic about making the top. I lead a pitch with a slab crux off the belay and make it to just below the final overhang. It’s obvious it will go but i’m out of rope, so I bring Scotty up. Scotty steps up to the overhang, reaches over the lip and heaves himself up and over the top.
The final move is amazing. A thin tcu crack splitting a slight overhang with a nice ledge to stand on just below. Reaching up over the top there are huge knobs that you use to mantle and throw yourself up on top and into the sunlight. After I get up I set my pack down, and when I look down to the south, I realize we’re above the summit plateau. I shout something unintelligible but enthusiastic, and then pose hard and growl, finally knowing we’ve made it to the top.
Nate gets major points for picking out a good line through the “overhangs”. I am stoked to be on the summit plateau and in the sun. I persuade Nate that we should tag the summit, even though the descent looks appealing indeed.
We pack up the rope and strip out of our long-johns, and after a quick rappel we’re traversing a snow slope toward the summit. We drop our packs and 30 minutes later we tag the summit.
That’s it! Game over, we win, Winter Club!
Four hours of ridiculous post-holing and high-speed glissading later (scotty riding his backpack and sleeping pad like a sled, and me on my ass), we arrive back at the car.
Note to self and everyone else: the ground pad glissading trick is MONEY!
Beta on our direct finish variation: From the notch at the top of the Northeast ridge, climb straight up the headwall, loosely following a 12 inch wide dike from the bottom to halfway up the headwall. Where the dike veers left, go straight up, aiming for the left side of some big overhangs. Pull the final overhang at a splitter finger-size crack.