The Sierra season is short, neurosurgeon we are told. July through September, internist then the snows come. True, but in the Range of Light, the sun comes out again after the storm and warms the rock faces. So Asa and I headed up this December for a chilly late season (or early Winter season?) ascent of the Strassman Route on Lone Pine Peak.
Leading out on fine granite with Owens Valley beyond
To renew your annual membership in the Winter Club, i.e. to do your yearly Winter ascent, the climb must be at least grade III and must be done in calendar Winter, between Winter Solstice and Spring Equinox. But Asa and I feel that this distinction discourages climbing during the equally good months sandwiching Winter proper.
So it was a little cold and snowy and we wouldn’t get the “credit” for a Winter ascent. A forecasted overnight low of 20 in the town of Lone Pine, and a forecasted high of 32 on Lone Pine Peak could have been nicer. But Honey Badger don’t care about those things; we just wanted to climb the newest classic line in the range. The sun would be our warmth. After all, it was a face route, so our fingers wouldn’t have to dig deep into the cold Sierra granite cracks. And this December weekend was the time that worked best for our schedules.
The Strassman route was not put up by Strassman, but rather a Pullharder team. And you don’t need to pull that hard; it’s thin technical climbing on the Superdike. Which is not really a super dike. If it were super, like Snake Dike, it would be huge and go at 5.4. Superdike is thinner and sometimes disappears. Which makes it trickier, and better.
Enough confusion, Michael Strassman Memorial Route aka MSMR aka Superdike (6 pitches, 5.10c, grade III) is perhaps the most highly regarded of the Pullharder first ascents. The route has been done homage by everyone who has climbed it. It’s currently the featured route on the Mountain Project Sierra page. And with good justification. The story of the route’s name is a good one, a tribute to prolific Sierra first ascensionist Mike Strassman. SP Parker, Andrew Soloman and Doug Robinson even shot a video of their climb to scatter Strassman’s ashes on an early ascent of the route.
The route’s essence is about 200 meters of climbing up a discontinuous but persistent dike on the South Face of Lone Pine Peak. Not only were the first ascensionsts visionary to find the beautiful way up the otherwise blank granite face, but they bolted it perfectly. Not overly runout in any of the hard sections, but not sport-bolted either. You often have to pull the hard moves well above your last clip. Not to mention it was bolted in good style, ground-up.
Asa finishing up the last 5.4x pitch
So how good is the climbing on the route? Asa and I concluded that it was as good as the hyped unanimous 4-star rating it receives. Many times we would call down to each other “man you’re gonna love this part.” Or “those guys were right. This route is incredible.” Pitches 3 and 4 in particular are two of the very best alpine pitches I’ve ever climbed (in the Sierra I think the combination of quality and position compare to the last pitch of 3rd Pillar of Dana or the hand crack on Star Trekkin’).
MSMR’s best and creative moves make use of the dike, but I’ll say that for me the cruxes were slab and they did feel hard. And the rating? A bit of banter has been had that it feels hard for 5.10c, maybe as hard as 5.11-. Certainly as an Owens River Gorge sport route it would go at 5.11. I’ll stick with 5.10+, broken down by pitch: 5.7, 10b, 10c, 10c, 10d, 5.4x. Those middle dike pitches are hard and sustained indeed, but you seldom need to pull harder. You just need to think harder and use good footwork. No pumping out, at least physically. But mental fatigue from the many successive creative moves started to creep in.
Amongst an incredible, classic set of pitches, the most memorable few moves for me was stemming the dike with my right foot and a backstepping stem on a bulge with my left foot, both smears, as I inched my way up to get to a part of the dike with a positive foothold. Oddly enough, it felt completely secure, even well above my last bolt. Maybe it was that cool December weather, giving good friction to the rubber!
No crowds but beautiful scenery: granite walls rising from white snow covered rocks, soaring into a hazeless blue sky. Wintertime is the most beautiful time in the Sierra. But we were the only car at the trailhead, and we only saw one other set of (human) footprints in the snow past the stone hut, which we quickly lost. We too often lost the snow-buried cairns and the ostensible trail (if it even exists in Summer). Our toes got very cold in the snow on the dawn approach, but the sun soon rose and warmed them. And more importantly, the scenery was incredible. Why weren’t more people out there climbing?
When I moved to California I was told the Sierra season is very short– an opinion that I have since come to confront. Sure, approaches are snow-choked before June and again starting in late September. But on good weather days, most routes are still climbable. It just might take a little more slogging to get there. Ok, there is notably less daylight in Winter, and yes it’s very cold except the very middle of the day. But during that time, you’re on the warm(ish) rock face. The weather is generally good in the Sierra with long stretches of sun and no clouds. So it’s actually pretty comfortable out there.
The first ascensionists list Spring, Summer, and Fall as the seasons for MSMR. I guess by that they mean it’s not appropriate for dry-tooling. Certainly it’s climbable in winter proper though. A Sierra Winter ascent is very different than in the Alps, where the idea of “Winter ascent” really came into being. In the Alps, approaches are often by gondola, so it’s about a route itself in more gnar conditions, less light and unstable weather. And mixed climbing—crampons not rock shoes.
Most hard Sierra routes done in winter are climbed in rock shoes after a snowy approach. And the weather is actually usually stable in Winter in addition to sunny. The steep, sun-drenched south face of Lone Pine Peak is perfect for a Sierra Winter ascent—a quick snow approach and then time to put on the rock shoes–followed by rapping the route. MSMR starts high on the wall as well, assuring it maximum sunlight and snowmelt.
South Face of Lone Pine Peak at Sunrise. MSMR climbs the face just right of center.
So what is implied by the designation “Winter” ascent? The range matters a lot, and the Sierra weather is pretty mild by comparison, allowing for more technical climbing. In the Alaska Range this summer, it rarely got above zero at high elevations, often as cold as -15F in June. Seemingly Wintery conditions. Perhaps the coldest climb of my life was in late March one year, just after Spring Equinox. It was on Peak Uchitil in the Tien Shan and featured -30F temps and instant nose frostbite (kind of amazing to watch your partner’s nose turn white and back again as he takes his scarf off and on).
The first (and only) Winter ascent of Everest was done in December before the Solstice. So technically this was not a Winter ascent, and indeed armchair mountaineers did tell Krzysztof Wielicki he needed to wait a week or two longer to make it “count.” Shipshapangma was likewise saddled with the same absurd controversy after its first December climb—it was not technically a First Winter Ascent.
In December there is notably less light than February and March, and temps aren’t really any warmer in December either. There is probably less snow on the approach. But that might not really make it easier, as slick snow on rocks can be a problem in early Winter season. The weather on the day you climb means a lot more than the season. On our climb, temps were 5 degrees below average, but there was a bright sun and not a whole lot of wind. When it did blow, it felt like icy cutting though.
All this said, we are not claiming a winter ascent of MSMR, nor are we opening the Winter Club for the year. It’s just to say that the binary 1/0 “Winter/ not Winter” designation is somewhat arbitrary. Climbing can be just as fun and challenging in the surrounding time frame and it’s worth going out there in the pre/post season. MSMR is in the Sierra, not the Alaska range, and it gets enough sun and has a short enough approach that climbing it slightly out of prime season was a joy, not a pain. Cold fingers offset by the cold weather sticky rubber friction bonus!
Asa Firestone and Ben Horne
Dec 4, 2011
MSMR. 4 hours on route. 11h 15 min car-to-car
The Two Person Continuous Loop System, neuropathologist
aka The Infinite Loop Method
For a long time now, recipe
I’ve wanted to (and attempted to) climb The Diamond on Longs Peak in the winter. Each attempted has ended for one reason or another: pinned down by a blizzard at the base of the North Chimney, buy cialis
a partner with altitude sickness after a bivy on Broadway, ext. The most memorable precursor to retreat was looking down at my partner after leading the first 100ft of D7, he was shivering more and more the longer he sat there. It was still early in the morning; the sun was still on the face, but it wouldn’t be there for long.
In order to move fast, we planned on the conventional strategy of leading long, rope-stretcher pitches and leading in blocks. But obviously, there was no way he could stay warm while sitting stationary through a long belay. On the other hand, if we did shorter pitches, we most likely wouldn’t make it to the top before the end of the day.
A year or so later, I ran into Joe who had also attempted The Diamond in winter. He mentioned trying to use short fixing tactics as a means of both moving a bit faster, and staying warm. The idea was that if the leader placed an anchor before the end of the pitch, and continued upward while self-belaying, the second could start cleaning the pitch sooner, and both people would keep warm.
Traditional Short Fixing
Short fixing strategies have been developed and employed primarily in Yosemite, where bolted belays are often established about 150ft apart. The general idea is that the leader arrives at a bolted belay and sets up an anchor, but he still has maybe 40ft of rope left. Instead of sitting around waiting for his partner to arrive at the anchor, he starts rope soloing the next pitch. Because cleaning a pitch usually takes far less time, the second typically shows up at the belay when the leader is about twenty feet up the next pitch. It then takes the team a few minutes to pass gear up to the leader. The leader may still not be at the end of the rope, so the slack in the rope as to be carefully transferred back to the second in order to put the leader back on a traditional belay. This all takes a fair amount of time, but hey, the leader is twenty feet up the next pitch.
When you take these basic strategies and apply them to aid climbing on a cold alpine wall, there’s still a lot to be desired. Leading 150ft before setting an anchor still leaves the belayer courting hypothermia. The twenty or so feet the leader advances is nearly negated by the time it takes to shuffle the rope and put him back on belay. Finally, the rack needed to lead 170ft is a pain in ass to carry all the way in to mountains.
The Infinite Loop Method
The new Infinite Loop method builds upon the continuous loop method for aid soloing as discussed on www.rockclimbing.com. Keep in mind that this is a very complex system and as usual, messing it will likely result in a very bad day. Each person involved should have ample experience with rope soloing, and the climb should offer some good, solid pro at least every 20ft or so. This is not a good way to belay A4 terrain.
At the base of the route, the team flakes out the rope with the middle of the rope at the bottom of the pile, and ties the ends of the rope together with an in-line figure-8 knot. The leader then attaches a solo belay device to the rope, right next to the knot. A Grigri works best, but which ever device is use, the leader should load the rope into the device with the knot on the “climber” side of the device and clip it to his belay loop. The side of the rope coming out of the “climber” side of the Grigri will hereafter be referred to as the lead side of the rope, while the side of the rope coming out of the “hand” side of the Grigri will be referred to as the “tag” side of the rope. To double check the setup, the leader can give the knot a sharp tug. If the Grigri doesn’t lock up, something’s wrong.
Next the second attaches his belay device to the lead side of the rope, a few feet away from the leader, then the leader can start up the first pitch. At first it takes a bit of care to make sure that the leader clips the lead side, and not the tag side, of the rope through the protection as he goes. If the leader falls, the leaders and seconds belay devices will lock up, and the fall will be caught as normal.
When the leader is about half a rope length up the first pitch, he places a reasonable belay anchor and fixes the lead side of the rope to the anchor. A butterfly knot, just beyond the in-line figure-8 works will for this purpose. Unlike a typical belay anchor, this anchor is never the only anchor holding the climbing team to the rock; two good equalized pieces may be all that are needed. We’ll call it a mini-belay.
When the first anchor is set, the second starts ascending the lead side of the rope, and the leader keeps on climbing. Starting at this point, the leader begins belaying himself with his Grigri, passing rope from the tag side of the rope, through the Grigri, to the lead side of the rope. Meanwhile, the second is ascending the rope cleaning pieces as he goes. Cleaning the lower pieces makes more rope available on the tag side of the rope, so the leader never runs out of rope.
Once the team is done with this initial setup phase, they can keep on going indefinitely, so long as they stick to the following guidelines.
The Leader should place a new mini-belay and fix the rope every 80ft or so.
The second should never clean one mini-belay until the next has been placed.
The second should never get too close to the leader. Keep at least one mini-belay, and three bomber pieces between the leader and the second. This is key to making the mini-belay concept work. Otherwise, closer is better, as it leaves more gear at the disposal of the leader, helping him go faster.
The leader will naturally set the pace of the team, so the second should take the time to sort gear well, and send it up to the leader when needed using the tag side of the rope. The second should also carry most of the group gear that isn’t being used.
Every rope length, the leader will need to pass the knot in the lead rope. The leader should make sure to have a back up during this transition. One way is for the leader to place a mini-belay when he reaches the knot. That way he can clip into the mini-belay and one other piece while re-configuring his belay device. Clipping directly into the rope with a figure-8 on a bite would also make a good back up.
Once the leader gets going, it will be a long time before he and the second are in the same place at the same time. He should stuff his pockets with plenty of GU and bars, bring a water bottle, and take the time to eat and drink regularly.
I gave this system a try with my friend Andy on a winter day at Lumpy Ridge. We climbed a link up of Howling at the Wind, Cheap Date, and Outlander. Right away we noticed numerous significant advantages. For starters, you don’t need nearly as much gear as conventional aid climbing. The leader is never more then half a rope length above the second, so there aren’t nearly as many pieces in the rock at any one moment.
You don’t need a second rope or tag line because the tag side of the rope can be used to pass gear up to the leader. If you need another rope for the decent, you can keep it in the second’s pack and save lots of time in rope management. The second can carry a reasonably heavy pack without slowing the team down. The lead rope never has to be stacked or flaked or shuffled back and forth, and finding two good pieces for a mini-belay is much faster and less gear intensive then setting a full, three point, equalized anchor.
Though developed with alpine aid in mind, the Infinite Loop method works just as well on a warm sunny big wall. Hauling a haul bag is out of the question, so think in-a-day routes or the summit push.
We climbed our practice route in one long block, and both stayed warm because we each stayed moving the entire time. Overall, we shaved over two hours off of our time from the same route using traditional short fixing tactics.
Bio: Chris Sheridan works as a Mechanical Engineer in Boulder, CO during the week, and attempts to climb in Rocky Mountain National Park during the weekends.