One evening at the gym, dentist Josh approached me excited about some crazy trip he wanted to go on. Apparently, all his usual climbing partners were otherwise engaged, and he realized that I, being a grad student, was infinitely available to drop everything, and disappear into the backcountry for over a week. On top of that, he knew I had recently finished my first 50 mile running race, so he assumed I was up to suffer. It didn’t hurt that I apparently have a reputation for smiling a lot: I smile constantly when I’m uncomfortable, and I’m always uncomfortable at the gym because there’s a crazy group of guys, running around in colorful spandex, groping each other. So, given my perceived ability to suffer with a smile, Josh was convinced I would be a good partner. I tentatively agreed to go, and Josh emailed me a writeup by Galen Rowell describing our climbing objective. “Netherworld”? Ok, I was in.
(Jenny) (Josh in italics)
Once I’d gotten Jenny to commit to some solid suffering, it was time for some research. I head into the Sierra occasionally, but I’m in no way familiar with them. I didn’t even have a clue where the Cyclorama Wall was. I sat down with the Secor guide for my first time ever, installed Google Earth software, and printed some topos from Caltopo.com. It was on! I sat there looking at near vertical passes in 3D, rotating around looking from different perspectives, hoping that it would be easier when we got there… I was wrong. Luckily, Jenny had full trust in my ability, and it was quite amusing when she mentioned pounding the hike out in a day. I tried not to confirm or deny that possibility, keeping her in the dark as to what she was getting herself into, knowing full well that we were proper fucked.
Ok, so clearly I was a bit of a Sierra nOOb, but if I could run 50 miles, 20 miles with a pack on seemed reasonable, right? Well… not exactly. We rolled up to the trailhead late Saturday afternoon with our food and gear tossed in the back of Josh’s car. It wasn’t until we started putting stuff in our backpacks that I realized we might be in a little over our heads (literally, Josh’s pack was so full it cleared his head by almost a foot and was lopsided), and that we wouldn’t be reaching Cyclorama wall in a day. I struggled to put on my ~60lbs pack while fending off the help of a hiker at the trailhead, and we set out towards our destination for night one, Brainerd Lake, a mere 3.75 miles and 2600 ft in elevation gain away.
Before we left, someone asked me why I chose Cyclorama Wall since it’s such a hard objective. I pondered for a while, and replied, “Because it’s out of my comfort zone.” I’d essentially created the perfect storm. I had no idea what we were getting ourselves into, and I’d never backpacked more than two nights in my life (Jenny just learned this looking over my shoulder). We had two ropes, double rack, gear for bailing if we got in over our heads, about five times the fuel we needed, and a full bolt kit with 3/8″ bolts, since I don’t believe in setting crap bolts, even in the backcountry. We were planning on being gone off trail for over a week, so we had all the accompanying food, crampons, ice axes, and more. Besides the n00bitude resulting in monster packs, I perform MISERABLY at altitude, and I was sick. Oh yeah, it was Sufferfest 2012. Punishment = Glory, right?
Yes, Josh had certainly set himself up for punishment that first day. Sure, I was tired, but as I was casually pushing forward I’d look back and realize that I had dropped Josh, again. Part of the problem was that Josh had chivalrously taken too much weight when we dolled out gear, clearly overestimating himself and underestimating me. I offered numerous times to take more weight, but Josh just wanted to push on, slowly. Maybe he really does enjoy the punishment? We finally crested the trail and were treated to the sight of the full moon rising over the ridge as we snacked. Rejuvenated, we walked for another hour or so by headlamp before deciding that Brainerd Lake, in fact, didn’t exist, and we should just pitch our tent wherever we could.
I admit, I had too much weight in my pack, but it wasn’t chivalry, it was idiocy. I don’t think I picked up both packs until after we stopped, and realized the weight difference was too big. While I enjoy a good suffer, I was moving way too slow and holding us up, so I gave Jenny another rope the next morning since she was the pack animal, uh.. I mean endurance machine, I had hoped she would be. Combine my cold, which kept me from breathing, with altitude sickness (did I mention I’m MISERABLE at altitude?), and I probably didn’t sleep more than an hour that night. The next day, head pounding, we continued up through some beautiful terrain past Brainerd Lake, eventually experiencing our first of much off trail travel to come. Perhaps I should let Jenny explain her first experience with this thing called, “talus,” which she became intimately familiar with…
I’m not really sure what I thought “off trail” terrain would be, but I definitely wasn’t prepared for this. Every step traveling through the talus fields was unsure and off-balanced, undoubtedly exacerbated by the weight of our packs and unstable rocks. Slowly, I learned tricks to navigate more efficiently, and trended towards the mid-sized talus that was large enough to stay in place but not too large to require using my hands. After crossing over talus for a of couple hours, I was finally starting to get the hang of it. I was even comfortable, maybe. Then Josh spotted a somewhat steep gully full of snow and proposed we head that direction as opposed to the larger boulders on the right. Ok, sure… Josh tried to kick steps for me in the icy snow, but he took huge steps and the ledges he was leaving behind were shallow and sloping. So much for being comfortable! Little did I know, I was about to feel like I was in a room full of people all trying to simultaneously hug me (i.e. very uncomfortable, because I don’t even like people).
As we approached the end of the valley, looming above us was the ominous South Fork Pass. Now I just might be a total sissy, but having only ice climbed once in Ouray for a couple of days, doing some trivial snow travel around Bear Creek Spire and an early season descent off the Incredible Hulk, this pass looked pretty damn imposing. My altitude sickness and our heavy packs slowed us down, so we had over an hour to stare at our looming obstacle as we plodded closer. The pass was a pair of nighmarishly miserable chutes that became ever steeper and thinner, eventually turning into mud and loose dirt. We could hear and see rocks plummeting down the chutes as the afternoon heat melted out the existing snow and ice. I have to admit, a big part of me wanted to pull the plug on this plan, but the idiot in me couldn’t give up that easy. We ate some food and hydrated in the talus field, listening to ominous rockfall in the pass, then Jenny and I pulled out our ice axes, crampons, and helmets, and started up the steepening snow field. Again, it was another first for Jenny, who had never even put on a pair of crampons before this! We chose the chute on the right, and approached from the right side, trying to avoid a bergschrund on the left.
As we reached the most narrow section of the chute, the ice axes became necessary, and I coached Jenny through the trickier sections. A slip would have most certainly resulted in a multi-hundred foot plummet down the chute. With our massive backpacks we proceeded with utmost care. The most dangerous part was the transition from snow/ice to mud/dirt, where ice axes didn’t help, and we moved right onto very loose very steep dirt and loose rocks. In the middle of making the transition, I heard a noise and glanced up to see a 2-3′ flat rock spin loose of the mud and ice directly above us and come barreling down the chute.
“ROCK!!!” I couldn’t bring myself to look up as I quickly assessed my situation. I was in the middle of crossing from the snow and ice on the left side of the chute through a flowing mud gully several feet wide to the more solid right side of the chute that was lower angle and started to resemble something like passable terrain. The toe of my left foot was kicked into ice, my left hand was free, my right foot was “kicked” into the mud gully that was sliding downward, and my right hand was holding my ice axe, which was in a solid ice placement. Ok, I thought, focus on keeping my left foot solid in the ice, my ice axe engaged, and hold on like hell with my right hand. Just stay on the wall! Josh was to my right, on more solid terrain, and had a solid hand on an embedded rock. As I was waiting for the impending impact, Josh reached over with his left and and grabbed my right wrist and held on like hell.
I honestly don’t even know where the rock hit, but it had passed and we were both still there. Josh stayed collected, and emphasized that we needed to move to the right, quick. After establishing on more solid terrain, he assured me that I just had to make a few moves through the sliding mud/dirt and I’d be able to reach a solid resting place. I tried to stay focused and move carefully despite the fact that all I could think about was another rock coming down, and this time I wouldn’t have any solid placements in the ice to rely on. I eventually moved right and somehow ended up sitting down on a large sloping rock, facing down the chute. Oh. My. God. I started to internalize what had just happened. That would have been a very large fall, had the rock knocked me off. I realized my knuckles on my right hand were all bloody and I was a bit spooked, to say the least. I was stuck on this rock, too timid to move off it, worried that the weight of my pack would set me off balance and I would tumble to the bottom of the chute that I was staring down. Josh was up above me and was able to take off his pack so that he could down climb and grab my pack off of me. I’m positive I wouldn’t have moved from my perch if he hadn’t. We slowly moved up the rest of the chute and were over-joyed when we verified that the other side of the pass was easier terrain and led to a meadow with a series of gorgeous alpine lakes.
After our multi-hour battle with South Fork Pass, we were destroyed but astonished at the beauty we were rewarded with on the other side of the pass. It looked like amazing glacier carved lakes forever, surrounded by beautiful green grassy meadows. It was not only physically taxing to get through South-Fork Pass, but mentally as well, which certainly takes its toll. We dropped out of the pass, set up an unbelievably picturesque camping spot, ate tons of food, and decompressed. I’m sure we both passed out almost immediately after dark, a day and a half into our little excursion and only one of four passes done… yikes!
We woke up the next day, refreshed, and dropped toward the Palisade Lakes marveling at our surroundings. We followed rivers, passed many lakes, and saw the back side of the Palisade range. When we hit the Palisade Lakes, we cut south toward Mather Pass where we started making good time on the John Muir Trail. It was interesting to actually see people again, as the occasional solo hiker blew past us. All of them commented on our pack size, and I’m sure they laughed at us later. We nicknamed them the “little-pack people,” and did some laughing of our own. We tagged Mather, ate some lunch, and quickly headed back off trail. From there it was a couple of miles off trail to the West to an unnamed pass that was, at best, sketchy when I saw it on Google Earth. When we arrived exhausted, we dropped packs, fueled up, and I started to search for a way down the other side. After some poking around, I found a massive steep dihedral that looked passible at very solid 4th class just north of the lowest point on the pass. Happy to have found a way, but sad to have to now put my pack back on, we started to head down out of our third pass for the trip.
The “passable” way Josh found down was still pretty damn intimidating, but I figured it had to be easier than ascending South Fork Pass. We descended down the dihedral, and I was surprised that is was in fact relatively easy. As the steepness of the terrain decreased, the dihedral disappeared and we were left to descend across a large talus field to another series of sparkling alpine lakes and meadows. Maybe it was because we were so tired or maybe it was that we were headed towards a mythical oasis, but it seemed as if we were descending that horrible talus field forever! As we got nearer to the lakes, I realized the idyllic setting that I was motivated to reach was not so much of an oasis but rather an environment for the world’s most heinous creature to thrive. MOSQUITOES. They were everywhere. We contemplated where to set up camp as I hysterically swung my arms around. Josh thought the location we were currently at would be ok, wanting to take his pack off as soon as possible. He luckily wasn’t as bothered by the mosquitoes as I was because they were too busy eating me alive. I vetoed spending another minute here, and we decided to ditch our packs and search for a less mosquito-infested camping site. We found a location that was between the two lakes, was a little higher up (and thus less mossy), and had a slight breeze. The mosquito population was definitely less dense here, but they were still bad enough that we affectionately named our base camp the Mosquito Pit. Again, I’d like to stress that Josh suffered maybe a bite or two, while I was constantly having to defend myself. I discovered that soaking my buff in repellent, and using that to protect my neck, worked somewhat well, so at one point the only exposed skin I had was between my hat and my chin. This resulted in a line of bites on my forehead for which Josh teased me about for the rest of the trip. (It was REALLY funny!!!) Regardless, this seemed like the best location in this valley and we decided to set up camp here. It seemed like an impossible task to travel back to our backpacks, put them on again, and walk back to our chosen site. It wasn’t until the next day, when we traveled the same distance to get water that we realized how short and easy it was, and how utterly destroyed we were the day before. We decided to forgo carrying our heavy packs through our 4th and final pass to get to Cyclorama and instead opted to put on lighter day packs and go for a line that Josh had spotted on a nearby wall. I was stoked to finally get roped up, and more importantly on the rock away from the mosquitoes!
Jenny didn’t even come close to imparting how pathetic the 200 yard walk back for the backpacks was after we found a place to set up camp. My hips were bruised and bloody, my shoulders were in agony, and we were stumbling after so many miles of talus hopping. However, after 2.5 days, three passes, and endless off-trail hiking, we were rewarded with this:
Waking up the morning of the 4th day, four things were apparent:
1. It is amazing how much good a single night of sleep can do!
2. Still, today needed to be an “easy day” and miles of off trail travel through unnamed passes that looked gnarly was not appealing.
3. There was no way in hell I wasn’t roping up for that beautiful wall above our tent!
4. This was the first day I could eat a meal without wanting to vomit; I was stoked!!!
It felt so good to pack “only” a full trad rack, two ropes, and a day’s worth of supplies, and we headed up our valley to the beautiful wall looming above. From camp, I had spied a potential splitter above the toe of the rock, using some small binoculars we had brought. We approached following a beautiful stream past a waterfall, up into more talus hopping. Perhaps an hour after we started, we were flaking the rope at the toe of the rock with shit-eating grins! The first pitch was 10- hands and fingers up a corner to a nice ledge. From there, the plan to wrap around the arete to the right toward the splitter I had seen payed off spectacularly! It was another pitch of 5.10- hands and fingers that I climbed until I ran out of rope. I built a hanging belay, brought Jenny up, and did another short pitch to establish on a more comfortable leaning ramp system that was arching up toward the summit. On one of the pitches, I yelled down, “How many multipitch climbs have you done?” Jenny yelled back, “Uh, I climbed Fingertrip at Tahquitz!” Classic! From there, 2 easy pitches led up and to the right, followed by two more pitches of 5.10. One of them had some 5.10+ overhanging hands that were quite fun. The route spit us out perfectly on the summit, and I brought Jenny up for some victory photos. We had brought Ducky, the Pull Harder mascot, and named the route Ducky’s Wild Ride (5.10d, IV).
My favorite part of the climb was the overhanging hands at the top. I was have trouble sticking a good jam and had to take. Josh was anxious for me to top out because he was in an uncomfortable belay position and was yelling down beta. After analyzing my options, I screamed up that I thought I could lie-back through the section. Josh, appalled at the thought of lie-backing a perfectly jam-able crack snuffed, “Who taught you how to crack climb?” I laughed, “You!” (I took Josh’s class at the gym). Classic!
Alright, so now I’d done my first FA and Josh was ready to send another first my way. We chose to descend down a partially snow-covered gully. After descending the steeper top portion along the side wall, Josh suggested that we glissade down the bottom half to save time (and so that he could obtain an embarrassing video of me). Being from Minnesota, I’ve done my fair share of sledding growing up, but there’s something a lot more reassuring about sitting on an inflatable tube as opposed to the rain jacket which I used to pad my backsides (apparently Josh had experience with a frozen bum post-glissade). As I descended, my scream turned to laughter as I realized it was quite fun! We were only half way through the trip and I had already experienced so much. We headed back to camp and cooked up dinner, and our one dessert reserved for celebrating an FA. We had brought an assortment of Mountain House and Backpacker’s Pantry meals to eat on the trip. In addition to all the alpine skills I’d been learning, Josh also taught me that Mountain House trumps Backpacker’s Pantry, always. Each night we’d eat one of each brand, and having picked out most of the Backpacker’s Pantry varieties at REI, I had to reluctantly admit that the Mountain House entree was better. However, I would like to note that MH was dependably bland, while BP was often too spicy for my palate.
Day 5 was spectacular for a number of reasons. It was the first day of the trip I didn’t wake up from a splitting headache, possibly because my cold was breaking and I was actually able to breathe at night and get some sleep. 5 days to acclimatize… I know, I’m a sissy at altitude. The second reason was this was the day we would finally finish our hike to the mythical Cyclorama Wall and scout for potential FA’s! Our day on Ducky’s Wild Ride allowed our legs, backs, and shoulders to recover a little, but we still wanted to go light and just carry day packs. We left our tent in the Mosquito Pit and headed into uncharted territory. It appeared that the dip in the ridge line to the right of Ducky’s Wild Ride was passable, and would allow access into the Dumbbell Lakes region. We packed our bags, and headed up the talus and snow covered hill above. In the picture you can see the lakes we camped between, the tall formation in the background is the back of the Cyclorama Wall, and we proceeded through the “pass” above the left end of the lake, which was 4th/5th class. Once through the other side, we had beautiful views of the back of the Cyclorama wall, and our curiosity increased as we kept hiking.
Rounding the corner, we saw the Cyclorama Wall in all its glory, buried 20 miles back through 4 passes. We had entered the netherworld that Galen Rowell described. The long story short was that the right side looked like it had good granite, but overlaps low off the ground appeared difficult to free. I studied the wall with binoculars, and the cracks looked, for the most part, flared and discontinuous. Pair that with the steep nature of the wall, and attempting such a free project seemed quite difficult. I wouldn’t say it isn’t freeable, so don’t let that deter you if you’re strong like a bull, but know there’s a reason that Rowell used aid on the climb. I believe that I could see the line he climbed back in the day, and it would be an interesting proposition to try to free it, but with a partner who had done two multipitch routes in her life, I felt that something easier would be a wise choice. Instead, we gunned for the far left ridge the wall. It was high quality white granite, with nicer looking cracks. I picked a line, and Ducky and I racked up. I’ll let Jenny tell the story…
What Josh meant by “I felt that something easier would be a wise choice” was that, after describing to me the procedure for a tension traverse, I was quite possibly in shock and was most definitely looking at him with shear terror. He wanted me to untie my figure eight knot? Yaaaaaa. I don’t think so. I was relieved when Josh suggested we head for the left ridge. The rock looked similar to what we had climbed the day before, and I anticipated that it’d be easier climbing since it was lower angle. Naturally, I again made the mistake of feeling comfortable. Josh, undoubtedly sensing this, began to inform me that we might have to simul-climb. My only familiarity with simul-climbing came from the 2011 Reel Rock Film Tour clip “Race for the Nose” in which they portrayed it as sketchy. Extremely sketchy. Sure enough, I yelled out 15ft and Josh told me we were going to simul for a bit because there wasn’t a good place for an anchor. Climbing with the mindset that you can’t fall was certainly stressful, but luckily the climbing on the sections we simul-ed was solid and easy. There was a weird section in the middle with a series of parallel cracks separated by a couple feet that Josh had a “difficult” time getting through. I struggled through the section as well, forcing my worst nightmare to come true: I couldn’t get a cam out because it was placed near the crux. I feel like if you’re not going to do any of the work leading, you should at least be adept at gear retrieval. But mostly, the thought of scrounging up the money to buy Josh a new cam was overwhelming (remember, poor grad student). Josh finally told me to leave it as the day was getting late and we needed to push on. A few pitches later we were climbing on a unique slab feature at the top of the wall.
After topping out, our plan was to traverse the ridge towards the center of Cyclorama Wall such that we could boot-ski down the scree on the backside. However, it was mid-afternoon and ominous clouds were developing quickly. Given the technical nature of the traverse and my minimal experience simul-climbing, we opted to rap off on some bail slings Josh had brought. First, we had to traverse the knife edge ridge that was at the top of the slab feature, and then Josh set up the rappel and headed down first. My turn. I was pretty hesitant to weight the sling that was around a pretty rounded “chicken-head,” And though I had watched Josh safely descend, it sure would have been nice to have him there double-checking what I was doing. I also had this weird feeling that by going second I could somehow be abandoned in the middle of the wall. I expressed these concerns to Josh, so he graciously let me go first on our final rappel, to show me that dealing with the rope as the first rappeler is a bitch! Lesson learned. I’ll gladly go second from now on. Josh leisurely rapped behind me to the ground and was even able to retrieve the stuck cam. It was late afternoon and we had put up another quality moderate route which we named Netherworld (5.10a R, IV) in honor of Galen Rowell’s write-up. However, we must have felt that we hadn’t suffered an appropriate amount that day (having opted for the easier climb) because we decided to take the most difficult possible route back to the Mosquito Pit.
We headed back to our tent through Cataract Creek Pass, which dropped us on the north side of Amphitheater Lake. In the picture, I’m smiling, but really I was anything but happy. We were physically ruined, and had just crested a ridge to find ANOTHER multi-hundred foot drop that we would have to regain to gain the pass. It was just depressing. After dropping down the other side, what looked relatively flat was miles of uphill back to the tent. We were practically crawling when returned to the tent, even with our light packs. The only pluses were seeing what we thought were mountain lion tracks in the snow, and seeing a roughly 1000′ face that had promise above the west end of Amphitheater Lake.
Day six we awoke with hope of yet another great climb, planning to climb the wall we saw before. We packed up our gear again, and headed back down the valley toward Amphitheater Lake. On the way, we stopped to fill water and scope the wall with binoculars.
We were starting to get used to climbing with each other, Jenny had learned simul-climbing, her confidence was growing, and we were halfway up the wall in under an hour. The wall steepened throughout, with spectacular looking cracks high above, but it was not meant to be. I knew we’d slow significantly as the wall steepened, puffy clouds kept coming over the top of the wall from out of view, and we heard thunder in the distance. Worried about a growing afternoon thunderstorm, I build an anchor and we bailed off the wall. The storm never materialized that day, but it turned into a forced rest day, which was much needed. We hiked back to camp with half a day to kill in the beautiful Mosquito Pit.
The first rest day objective was to do some laundry, since we had both been wearing the same clothing for 5 days. We had some fun rigging a clothing line between two boulders with cams and climbing rope and used carabiners as clothespins. We also played a few rounds of Farkle, a dice game Josh had brought along. We had been playing throughout the trip, and though winning mostly depends on luck, there’s an element of risk-taking involved so I was constantly loosing. I insisted that we construct a makeshift cribbage board using some paper and rocks so I could be victorious for a change (I never loose at cribbage). Naturally, I won, but for some reason, we reverted back to playing Farkle for the remainder of the trip. Our final objective was to prep me for my first trad lead the next day. I had pointed out an aesthetic line up a flat, low angle ridge, west of Ducky’s Wild Ride, and Josh thought it had great potential for me to finally get on the sharp end. We went over anchor principles, gear placements, and general concepts for leading in the back country, like not sending rocks tumbling down on your follower, while hiding in the tent from the hordes of mosquitoes.
Anxious and excited for what the next day would hold, I slept surprising well our last night in the Mosquito Pit. Our plan was to put up the shorter route and then head back to camp, pack up, and start the long trek back to the car. My anticipation about donning the shiny hula-hoop of gear faded as we got to the base of the ridge and my nerves took over. Josh gave me some final words of encouragement, and I started blazing up the route. By blazing, I mean moving ridiculous slow and trying my whole gambit of cam sizes in each crack. Eventually, I made it up to the crux of the first pitch, a small roof. I sat there for a while trying to find the perfect piece to protect the move, and after overcoming the roof it was just a few more yards to the belay ledge I was gunning for. I built my first trad anchor and brought up Josh who had been patiently belaying. We climbed a couple more pitches to the summit, refueled, and then proceed to boot ski down the gully we had glisaded a few days before. Progression! We named the ridge Jenny’s Training Day (5.6, III). We headed back to camp to pack up, excited that our big packs would be much lighter than when we had last worn them.
I like that Jenny still doesn’t even know that on her first trad lead she was simul-climbing. She’ll figure it out when she reads this. She ran out of rope gunning for a ledge, and instead of having her stop, I just started climbing behind her. What she doesn’t know won’t kill her, right?
We had hoped our packs would be magically lighter for the hike out, but unfortunately they were still monsters with so much climbing gear. We reversed our way up the unnamed pass with the dihedral, Mather Pass, and ended up camping in the exact place we had camped the 2nd night. This strategy meant that we would be descending South Fork Pass in the morning while it was still frozen, before it started bombarding rocks. This strategy made the descent much easier and safer than before, and we were through by early morning. The remaining 5 miles of downhill travel were miserable. It took our suffering to a new level. Our feet were in agony, legs exhausted, and shoulders screaming with pain. Our joy of reaching the car cannot be expressed. We immediately headed for the nearest pizza, and devoured our first real food in over a week.
We learned quite a few things on this foray into the mountains:
I should check Jenny’s pack BEFORE we leave the car to ensure she does not have a pack towel AND a mini pack towel!
It is ALWAYS easier than it looks (with the exception of South Fork Pass in the afternoon).
If you leave the trail, talus will, in fact, become your habitat.
Don’t bring climbing gear “just in case.” If you need it, come back on the next trip with it…
Use chapstick every day, all day
1lb of Jetboil fuel was WAY too much! And we brought 2lbs…..
Filtering water is not necessary when away from trails, neither of us got sick drinking straight from lakes and streams.
Mountain House > Backpacker’s Pantry
Jenny looks funny with mosquito bites on her forehead
Josh is weak like a kitten (at altitude).
Josh & Jenny