Note: I got some complaints folks wanted a trip report so I finally wrote one.
Cyclorama Wall Trip Report – Aug 2013
I’ve always been a sucker for a good adventure, and for a good while I’ve been curious about Cyclorama Wall. Sunk 20 miles into the backcountry, it’s only been climbed once in 1979 by Galen Rowell, Claude Fiddler and Vern Clevenger. Their classic trip report in the AAJ describes a 1000 foot wall, invisible except from the right angle (north) and enclosed in a tight cirque resembling a “cyclorama” ( a term that isn’t self-explanatory but kind of is). Rowell and his team braved the 20 mile cross-country approach over 4 passes in a long day. The route described is overhanging and difficult to retreat from, involving steep climbing and tension traverses. Rowell drops his tennis shoes and is forced to hike out in his E.Bs. They get benighted on the descent, and spoon the night away. They stumble into camp beat to shit but still hike all the way out that day. Even by the standards of the day, pretty gnarly – right?
So, we had to check it out. During the previous summer, Shaun, Brad and I had schemed on Cyclorama while FA’ing Astro-Gil on Tehipite Dome (which is, interestingly enough, less than 15 miles west as the crow flies). Unfortunately, right before we were set to go, Brad got injured. Contemplating a 20+ mile approach with a full rack and a week of food (aka 90 pound packs), Shaun and I considered bailing if we couldn’t line up a 3rd. Like salesman we took to the streets, pitching the glory of Cyclorama to all who would listen. No takers, everyone had “stuff” to do. In a final last ditch effort I posted up on Facebook a tantalizing photo of the wall and an open invitation. Jon Griffin replied he’d be psyched to go with us. “Psyched” means he did not even need convincing, which is always a good sign for a suffer-fest partner.
We converged in Bishop, as Jon was working in Palo Alto and Shaun and I were driving out from Boulder. (note: Shaun would like to add that he doesn’t live in Boulder, he lives in Golden. He really likes to harp on this point). As we racked up in the parking lot, what seemed like a good idea at the time became distressingly tangible as we started to load our packs. After a number of blind weight tests, voting, philosophical debates on the utility of socks and Nuttella, and final arbitration by Brad (who was hanging out), the bags were packed and we were beat.
One of the endless discussions during the planning phases of the trip had been which route to take on the approach. The previous year Josh had approached Dumbbell Lakes basin via the same route as Rowell and it sounded epic : 2+ days to get in, continuous boulder hopping, snow covered passes, rockfall, some real “Alive” type suffering. We chose a different route that stayed on the trail more but was a little longer, approaching via Bishop Pass to Dusy Basin, leaving the trail and going over Knapsack Pass (next to Columbine Peak), dropping down to cross the JMT, then heading off-trail up Cataract Creek to Ampitheater Lake, to Ampitheater Pass, to Dumbell Lakes Basin. Cyclorama Wall is above Upper Dumb Bell Lake. If you followed all that I applaud you as a true Sierra geek.
A 2 AM start the next morning got us up and over Bishop Pass by mid-morning, the crushing weight of our packs being overwhelmed by our team’s boundless psyche and energy treats. As we crossed Knapsack Pass, we marveled at the view and pondered a very steep black wall in the distance. It suddenly dawned on us that we were looking at Cyclorama Wall. It looked big, quite steep and very far away still. Late afternoon found us camped at the base of Cataract Creek, wiped out from the XC travel with absurd packs. We camped the first night there, and in the morning continued up Cataract Creek to Ampitheater Lake, over the pass and into Dumb Bell Lakes Basin. This place is gorgeous and arguably one of the more remote locations in the High Sierra.
First view of Cyclorama in the distance:
Upper Dumb Bell Lake, with Tehipite Dome in the distance.
After establishing base camp, we did an exploratory recon mission to scope a line. In the AAJ report, Rowell never mentions rock quality. In my experience, if a first ascentionist does not explicitly expound on the rock quality in their description of a backcountry route, this ALWAYS implies the rock quality is bad or at least not good. How often have we read the ubiquitous description: “SuperChoss2000: its a classic and should clean up with more traffic“. Interpretation=choss pile. Granted, maybe a pretty or inspiring choss pile, but not something you recommend with a straight face.
This was our first impression of Cyclorama Wall. The wall was steep but the crack systems were thin and discontinuous. In my experience, finding yourself high and dry on a steep wall climbing only shallow incipient cracks is frightening. As much as we would have liked to establish a new line, we really didn’t see anything that looked inspiring except for a line on the left, which we discerned was probably the Rowell route. We decided that attempting to FFA the Rowell route would probably be good enough of an adventure, instead of forcing a contrived new route.
Next morning found us at the base, where Shaun led the first pitch, a somewhat chossy overhanging 5.9 hand crack in a corner to a loose slab. He ran the rope out and brought us up. Jon led P2, a 5.7 loose corner to an alcove. I led P3, following a thin crack system up 5.10 crack/groove moves to a small ledge. By this time it was getting late, and the next pitch looked cruxy. At this point we were probably 500 feet up the wall and we could see a nice splitter above us that were aiming for, but there was about 200 feet separating us from the base of it. The climbing looked steep and technical, following a discontinuous and shallow crack system that required a series of tension traverses to link cracks systems on the first ascent. Shaun cast off on the lead, carefully navigating 5.11 climbing with uncertain gear, hard moves and loose blocks. Pretty impressive. At this point darkness was descending, so we fixed our ropes and retreated to base camp for the night.
The next morning found us jugging our lines and reclaiming our high point. Shaun TR’d to his high point and linked another 100 feet to complete a marathon 200 foot pitch of 5.11+. Jon and I followed, gasping for air. The next pitch loomed over us, a steep corner with a “splitter” on the face to it’s left. I gunned up this pitch, which had great compact rock (seriously!). Unfortunately I ran out of gas about half way up and Shaun took the lead over and got us up. The moves on this pitch are quite sustained, involving a splitter to a thin layback corner to a undercling face traverse and then up a steep poddy finger crack. I would say 5.12- but what do I know. Unfortunately none of us freed this pitch so we cannot claim an FFA, it’s still up for grabs.
At this point, the hour was getting late and we were getting tired. Fortunately, the angle of the wall kicked back and we appeared to be 2-3 pitches of more moderate climbing to the top. Jon cast off, navigating tricky 5.9+ climbing over chossy death blocks. Shaun and I both led 2 more pitches which put us on top around sunset. We snapped a couple photos and scattered the ashes of Jon’s brother, who had died tragically the year before. Thus began the descent, which would be as tedious to describe as it was. 4 or 5 talus hopping hours later we stumbled back into basecamp, exhausted.
We spent the next day sleeping, eating, sleeping, eating…and then I think some more sleeping. There was also some bouldering and alpine lake diving involved. We soaked in the energy of the High Sierra that night, then braved the hike out the next day. On the way out, after descending Cataract Creek, we followed the JMT up over Bishop Pass (instead of XC over Knapsack Pass), spending one more night below Bishop Pass. While this route added 4 miles, this is the way I would recommend to any future sufferfarians carrying heavy loads. Consensus was that 1 mile of XC is equivalent in suffering to at least 2 miles on a trail.
Bottom line: this was a great adventure, it was fun to finally climb this mysterious wall we’d joked about for so long. The route is still there waiting for the FFA, if you are interested talk to Shaun I think he wants to go back!