Penetrating so many secrets, look we cease to believe in the unknowable. But there it sits, pharm nevertheless, information pills calmly licking its chops. – H.L. Mencken
[SMALL PIC HERE}
There is nothing you can do to eliminate uncertainty on the Evolution traverse. It’s too big. First off, the report of our First Winter ascent is here and my personal thoughts on the route are here. The romance, inspiration, and joking are all in those links. Now, on to the beta:
In addition to its location in the heart of the Sierra and its size and quality of climbing, Evolution has become something legendary in the way of ridge climbs in America. But even though it’s a major route in the Sierra, and even though Peter Croft lists it as his favorite climb, only 15 or so complete ascents have been documented. It is really, really good climbing for almost the entire route. Yet it is so rarely climbed.
Many don’t try because the route it seems so intimidating. Of those that do try, many fail on the route, probably because they did not understand its nature before they went. Here’s an attempt to keep the air of adventure (I don’t think I can fail on this part) while still trying to provide some useful guidance on preparing for a send of the route.
While the Evolution Traverse is nominally a rock climbing route (in summer at least), since it’s so big you have to solo much of it, meaning mountaineering and soling experience are most essential. Endurance is also a major factor. Skimping on scheduled time is a frequent cause of failed ascents.
As the first ascent went relatively recently (1999), the only books that I know listing the route are Croft’s guidebook, The Good, The Great and The Awesome and the 50 Favorites Book.
(Does Secor list it in the 2009 version?)
Most people, myself included relied a lot on the Internet to learn about and prepare for the route. And since the Internet accounts are pretty sporadic, I thought I’d try to compile the details of the route in one coherent place. There is a lot of uncertainty, especially when you compare TRs from climbers that seem to be describing radically different routes. We provide just another perspective, not a gospel account. And like the opening Mencken quote above, this route is such that no matter how much you think you know, there will be even more that you don’t know.
To be clear, this post is not trying to be Supertopo for an 8 mile route that’s technical most of the time. We agree with Croft that it would be impossible anyway to give good beta for such a huge route. And in a different vein, several of the ascencionists seem to like to keep things shrouded in mystery in order to keep the adventure. And I agree with this psychology.
At the same time, I think if people knew a little bit more about the route, it would be less intimidating. If people had a decent grasp of the big picture, I bet more people would be willing to get out there and attempt it. While it’s hard, it’s not prohibitively hard. And it’s really good. So more people should be getting out there…
Everyone I know who has done or attempted the route has emailed a bunch of people asking for beta, so essentially I am opening the door a bit for people who don’t know Bishop climbers to have a similar access. There have been slideshow talks on the climb in Los Angeles and in Boulder. I think it’s a good thing to increase psych on such a great route. There were only 5 sends of the route last year. It’s hardly crowded, and it’s so great that I think more information is good at this point.
It takes the good part of a day to get in there, and then a grade VI route in summer(2 nights or more on route for the average party; 2 or 3 seems to be about standard). Plus the hike-in and hike-out. Many climbers will be able to do the traverse car-to-car in 4-5 days safely. Peter Croft did the route proper in 15 hours solo; I don’t know that anyone has gone faster. Some see Croft’s FA in one day and think they can move faster than is reasonable (Croft had been up there multiple times before in order to pull it off). Remember coherence and fatigue are factors as you’ll be soloing most, if not all, of the route, an onsight requires lots of mental energy and routefinding.
Doing it in a single push is hard. Most people give it several go’s before they are able to make it happen in a day. Doug Tomzik and I failed on our first attempt to onsight solo the thing in a push due to being a little slow (8 hours) at Darwin. Samet and Honnold have onsight soloed in a push, maybe a couple others. Generally single pushers, Croft included, and in fact many of the multi-day ascenders (us included), did some recon before they were successful.
In the Winter, it took us four days on the ridge, and a fourth night in Evolution basin before we got back to base camp. Including a storm day at base and a day to hike in and out each, this was seven days. I think it could be very reasonably (though no, not easily) done in winter in five days car-to-car by someone knowing the route. Or even if you didn’t know it but moved very efficiently and had the logistics dialed. A lot would have to do with Winter conditions that year. It would be pretty difficult to do it in four days car-to-car in Winter, but I’m sure it will be done at some point. One way to bank time would be to get a start on the climb on the hike-in day if you are well acclimated.
This is an area where it’s really hard to get beta, some reports cite a crux or another, or say the difficulty of a particular peak, but “about 5.5 on the way up, 3rd class on the way down” is really not useful at all. How sustained is the climbing is more relevant.
Generally getting from the start of the route to Darwin is 40% of your time. Passing the Croft Golden triangle (about halfway between Darwin and Peak 13,322) is approximately the 50% mark in terms of time. Peak 13,322 (#4) should be definitely past the halfway time mark. The peaks following 13,322 are very fast, and the last few are a bit technical but not terribly slow either. Project accordingly and adapt on-route.
For summer, Doug and I had the following approximate times:
July 25, 2011
[Approach time: 5 hours, this is pretty fast]
13,360 (Gould): 2 hours
Mendel: 3 hours
Darwin: 2.5 hours
Those times are good, but not quite good enough to do in a single push (and finish in the light), so we bailed from Darwin and swam in Evolution Lake in the afternoon. To single push, we’d need to cut off about an hour from the time, reaching Darwin in around 7 hours. Which would be easy next time, as several route finding errors on the way to Mendel easily accounted for that time. But to do the onsight in a single push, you’d have to climb very fast and probably alone. Even when simul-soloing, having a partner is slower as you wait for each other on the cruxes, to eat a snack, etc. Though a partner can provide psyche on this very intimidating route and might increase chances of completion, they do not provide speed. Moonlight and starting early, very early, can help a single push success. But technical climbing begins right after the first peak, so too early of a start may just be wasting time if you get there in the dark.
In the Winter the times were much slower, due to dramatically different route conditions (i.e. snow), worse weather (cold and wind), heavier packs, and our party of 3. These following times are climbing times, ignoring bivies in between. They may not be completely proportional to summer times as some things (plunge stepping on snow) can be faster in some parts, while generally things will be slower and in different ways depending on the conditions. But I still think they’re useful benchmarks, if only because they indicate the size and relative technicality of each peak that lies ahead. Percentages of the total climb for each peak are fairly similar to what we experienced in the summer.
March 7-10, 2012 (winter ascent):
[Approach time: 12 hours]
13,360 (Gould): 6 hours
Mendel: 6 hours
Darwin: 3 hours
13,332: 7 hours
Haeckel: 3 hours
Wallace: 1.5 hours
Fiske: 3.5 hours
Warlow: 3 hours
Huxley: 2 hours
Descent to toe of ridge: 1 hour
[return to start of route: 6 hours]
[Hike-out time: 6 hours]
Total climbing time 36 hours over 4 days; Total moving time 60 hours (over 7 days, including a storm day).
Most people do this route with a short rope to rappel, and perhaps rope a few short pitches. Both times I used a 100’ rap cord (static line); this was completely sufficient. If you have any issue leading the few crux sections (5.8 or 5.9) on a static line, it might not be a good route for you, as there are a lot of pitches of close to that difficulty with no pro and more exposure. A thin dynamic rope might be safer, but it also might not be worth the weight. In any case, don’t bring a full length rope, it’s just extra weight. 100 feet will suffice.
There are currently 7 (if I remember correctly) or so rappel stations that are used fairly frequently; these have downclimbs as well. Downclimbing may be more aesthetic; rapping is probably safer and faster both. Up to you. We added three others for our winter ascent on downclimbs which are done in summer, but were too icy in winter to be safe. I think it’s reasonable and even better to remove them for Summer ascencionists; they are not necessary in Summer.
Peter Croft did the First Ascent, and is quoted as: “It’s kind of a lost, or it’s kind of an ignored idea, you know, the idea of magnificent failure rather than a kind of mediocre success.”(from here).
Bailing is relatively easy from most places on the ridge. Go for it, don’t be worried about failure. Even being out there in the Evolution Basin is worth your trip. And the majority of climbs on the route end in failure. So you’ve got nothing to lose. Bailing is usually easy, safe enough if you’re careful of loose rock, and you can do it without many (or likely any) rappels.
Style of Climbing:
Croft scouted the route a few times before he soloed it, I believe without a rap cord. Generally people accept the rap cord being used sparingy. People make reference to pitching out some things, but even in winter conditions we though only a handful of spots required pitching out and another few fery short sections we simulclimbed (on the very exposed knife edge from Darwin). (Note simulclimbing this route is not recommended by some Internet beta).
I personally don’t think anything of roping up for more pitches for safety’s sake and I think if you are uncomfortable you should do it. We had a block pull and a hold break both, resulting in falls—luckily both of these happened when we roped (simuling) and no injuries occurred. If we’d been simuling incorrectly, things could have been bad. In some sense, I think that both falls might have avoided if unroped—we’d probably check for loose blocks more thoroughly. But then again, maybe a fall would not have been preventable. Impossible to observe the counterfactual. We roped and simuled properly; we were safe.
I know of at least two other unroped falls, due to broken holds/pulled blocks on the ridge that resulted in injuries. In many places a fall might result in death, so if a broken hold or pulled block can cause a big fall, test everything carefully and climb methodically.
Bivy spots and Water
In winter, no problem, melt snow. In early summer this will also be an option, depending on the snow year. You’ll at least be able to drop off the ridge and find some snow if you bring a stove to melt. The lake down off the ridge from Haekel col, before Haeckel (peak #5) is the usual refilling spot, and also the usual bivy spot for two-day climbers. It’s around 60%, maybe close to 2/3 of the way, time-wise, through the route. So even if you don’t make it here your first day, you might reasonably expect to finish in a second day. The route has been finished in a second day from a bivy atop Darwin, though there is no water. It’s also more often required a second bivy if you stop this early. Those are Summer times. In Winter, all those bets are off…
In Summer, approach shoes are all that’s recommended. A few spots would benefit from rock shoes, but the consensus seems to be that they’re not worth the weight. In winter, we wore mountaineering boots (Charmoz or equivalent) and brought rock shoes, which were useful on a few stretches that had little snow. In general, the route was quote snow-covered so rock shoes would be used only for cruxy sections, and often only by the leader when we roped up.
Cruxes are short, and we brought only 4 cams (a few of them were link cams) and a handful of nuts, which I don’t think we used. You need some bail gear though. We soloed most all of the route, roping for a few headwalls and sketchy sections. In summer we soloed a few of the sections we roped in winter; mountaineering boots, conditions, and heavier packs accounted for this decision.
Snowshoes or preferably skis for the approach in winter. We used a tent to be able to have shelter from the wind for the stove; in summer bivy sacks would probably be preferred. We also brought crampons and an axe on the route in winter; they were necessary at points. Icy/ snowy rock, as well as some technical snow climbing that even called for roping up. Ice was minimal and could pretty much be avoided, at least this year.
Clothes In Summer, it’s hot; rain is the biggest threat. Having enough water is your big issue. Wear normal Sierra clothes. A helmet is also strongly recommended: yes it’s a ridge, but with oodles of towers and lots of steep climbing.
In Winter, we wore four layers on top—a shell, synthetic puffy, capilene and base layer. On the bottom a soft shell, a fleece, and underwear. You could get away with less, but you’d be pretty cold at the cold times. Wool socks, including when in climbing shoes (so size them big). A balaclava and thick hat, and make sure you have hoods too. Do not drop your sunscreen. Or bring two (yes, personal experience…)
By far, the technical climbing on the route is front-loaded. But the last three peaks also have some technical climbing, so save some energy to focus for those.
Following the ridge crest, especially in the knife-edge sections, is usually best.Start up the gully, or either side of the rock, at the very far end of Gould. You’ll have to go over a bunch of false summits. Up to you if you want to tag them (just like countless later geandermes and subpeaks along the way) but the easiest way is pretty much up and over, at least for this first section. In the summer this is fast and easy, class 4. In the winter sno made it pretty slow and tough for us.
After Gould (Peak 13,360) things get technical quick. Croft says to skirt the first big tower after Gould on the left, this is sketchy but we did it both times and it works. Samet apparently went right over and though it was not a good idea. After this there are a few headwalls with cracks, solo them or rope up. The first one is 5.6; the next is 5.9, though apparently these is a very exposed 5.6 bypass that I didn’t find in both of my times up there. It takes a while, but you get to Mendel. You notice the Traverse is huge. Don’t worry, most of that is a lot easier than what you’re climbing right now. MEndel is a good 30%, maybe even 1/3 of your total time.
Now, generally stay on the crest. Where the ridge is broader, and usually not technical, it is sometimes easier to go a bit to one side or the other. Generally you do best to stay on the crest for the first 2/3 of the way to Darwin. The route to Darwin, after the notch, is cairned alone the right side and is class 2-3 even though croft mentions staying on the crest (perhaps he means until that point). Summit the Darwin summit block (5.7) and continue down the spine to a few raps.
Here, things are kind of tricky—safer to stay on (i.e. get back on after the raps) the ridge and not on the loose sand/ scree (snow) at the base of the solid rock. But it’s quite complex here, the routefinding and technical cruxes of the route. Be creative and careful and you’ll get through. Don’t sweat the wasted time and don’t rush. Things are slow here for everyone.
After off of Darwin’s steep section, the following knife-edge is straightforward, though fairly difficult as well, plenty of mid-5th and harder with knife edge and death exposure. Be careful of loose rock; we had two blocks pull on this section. There are a decent number of bivy spots along this way as needed, but being a knife-edge, don’t pass one up if it’s getting near sunset…this peak was out longest one, but once you get there, to Peak 13, 332, it’s smooth sailing.
The next 2.5 peaks, the section from Peak 13,332 to the notch before the knife-edge halfway to Fiske, has very very little 5th class—only a move here or there, and no exposure to speak of. You can cruise this section, routefinding is really however you want it. While Croft and other says there is 5th class, the lack of exposure and minimal amount of it means it’s cruiser. 5th class returns in earnest on the climb up to the knifedge on the way to Fiske, which is easy, but loose (very crumbly rock here) and late in the route, so you’re tired. Once you’re to the knifedge crest, stay on it until the ridge again becomes broad and you can go wherever you want. Fiske proper is then easy, up and down. You can mentally check out for a bit.
Another notable deviation from the crest in on peak #8, Warlow. We didn’t notice this (or read) in the Croft description, but it mentions that you don’t follow the crest. Take it for the first triangle, and to start the peak, but the climbing is blocky with a lot of loose stuff, and not easy. At some point (presumably well before the point that we did) you begin to skirt the peak to the right. Then it’s easy going, though still a bit loose. After Warlow, we also found it easier to skirt (on the left) the big geanderme before Huxley.
For Huxley itself, we stayed on or near the crest for the most part. Lots of mid-5th and higher climbing in Huxley, but it’s solid rock at least. Actually probably the most incredible climbing of the route. And it’s solid. Huxley is short, just over 13k, so the climb goes quick and is really enjoyable. Sign the summit register and take the second couloir on you left going North after the summit. There are some cairns on it. Any gully will work, the first looks easy but the second’s your best bet. The third one also works nice in snow, but is steeper, stays steep longer, and is pretty loose if not snow-covered. Make sure you keep your helmet on…the route ends when you clear the gully.
From here make your way back to the start of the route, on the JMT/ PCT if it’s summer… in Winter it’s a bit bigger problem as you likely didn’t bring your snowshoes with you on route, so tons of knee to waist postholing. But you don’t care, you just sent Evo! Keep toes warm. Frozen lakes are safe but don’t fall through into the creeks.
Other good links:
Pullharder’s Gil Weiss almost completed the route onsight solo in a single push, but elected to keep positive memories of the route rather than suffer and complete the last two peaks without water and in fading light. TR here.
Michelle Peot, who did the first female ascent of the route, and has given several talks on it, also has a good trip report TR here.
Pullharder’s Shay Har-Noy and Nate Ricklin have a good summary and pictures of the first 3 peaks, as well as a link to Climbing Editor Matt Samet’s beta for his solo onsight of the route in a push here:
Jed Porter and Alex Few have a summary of all ascents of the route, as well as many thoughts and a TR here.
Photos from summer are below. Photos from winter can be found here
After a week in the High Sierra in winter, for sale the Pullharder crew was ravaged. Konstantin downed a full packet of hot dogs and a pizza. Ben slept like a baby in the back seat of the car. Shay’s sunburn and stench were epic. And Pullharder Ducky, our fourth? Not an emotion. He don’t eat, don’t sleep, and never complains. More »