August 15, 2017

The Kaweah Traverse

Recently Kevin Burkhart and I climbed the Kaweah Traverse in Sequoia National Park. Ours was the third or maybe fourth ascent of the traverse and the first time (that I know of) that it's been guided. 

Yours truly on the approach with most of the traverse in the background. Photo by Kevin Burkhart.
In a big mountain range full of fantastic alpine ridges, the Kaweahs are a bit of an anomaly. This group of 13,000 foot peaks are not, for the most part, made up of the granite for which the range is famous. Instead they are of a rock that is significantly lower in quality. The original Kaweah Traverse was accomplished by Andy Selters, Claude Fiddler, and Danny Whitmore in July of 1997. This trio traversed about two miles of ridge line, from Black Kaweah to Second Kaweah, taking on 6 other named 13'ers and a bunch of unnamed bumps and towers in between. Climbing California's High Sierra rates the traverse IV 5.9. There is minimal information available about the route. 

I think Kevin first mentioned the Kaweahs to me when he, his wife Heather, and I did the Palisade Traverse (Thunderbolt to Sill) several years ago. As someone who is fond of Sierra ridges it was on my radar, and the fact that he brought it up piqued my interest. Here was somebody as interested in this obscure route as I was!

A year passed and Kevin returned to the Eastern Sierra last summer to climb the Sun Ribbon Arete on Temple Crag. Again the Kaweahs were spoken of. Then we had one of snowiest winters ever. I knew that we would need to bivy on the ridge to succeed, and that meant we would need snow to melt for water. As soon as it became clear to me that there would be no lack of snow, I reached out to Kevin and the planning began. 

Kevin somewhere on the East Ridge of Black Kaweah.
I was up front with Kevin right from the start that not only had I not done the traverse, I had never even been in that part of the range before. Some climbers want their guide to be intimately familiar with the route and peak(s), but Kevin was fine with the fact that it would be an onsight for me. On a route of this nature that could mean backtracking or doing more or harder climbing. We had, I think, built some trust on our previous two trips, and I think he was looking forward to something with a few more unknowns than usual. Without the unknown, after all, there is no adventure. 

A climb of this nature also required that I put some serious trust in Kevin. Though I brought guide skills, climbing experience (and alpine ridge experience in particular) to the table, this climb would need to be a real partnership to manage the risks posed by loose rock and unknown terrain.  Kevin is an experienced trad climber, and has done a ton of 4th and low-5th class around the country. This somewhat rare pairing of skills was combined with some serious interest in this route. Kevin's research meant that not only did he get local beta for an approach that cut our hiking distance almost in half, but he also went in with eyes wide open about the loose rock, something that I think is necessary for success on the Kaweah Traverse. Though there were a number of surprises along the way, low quality rock was never one of them. 

Looking north from Red Kaweah with Black Kaweah, Pyramidal Pinnacle, and Koontz Pinnacle in view.

There is minimal information available about the route. In the interest of adding to that I include slightly more beta than I might normally, but please understand that in endeavors like this a sense of urgency is necessary and quality note taking often fell by the wayside.

We left Mineral King a little after 9am. Kevin's to the Big Arroyo, our basecamp, wound over Glacier and Hands and Knees Passes and through the Little Five Lakes Basin following trails, abandoned trails, and our noses. Towards the end of the day we shed our shoes for several creek crossings, some of them more than knee deep, fast, and cold. Near the old Big Arroyo ranger cabin we ran into a backcountry ranger who warned us that the Kaweahs had a lot of loose rock and that it could be snowy up there. We spent the night comfortably under my tarp.

The next morning there was no alarm. I thought we'd be working hard each day on the route and wanted to leave our basecamp well rested from the hike in. After a leisurely breakfast we started hiking northeast uphill through open woods and granite slabs. eventually we reached the treeline. That ranger was right, there was a lot of snow, and we were happy for it. The last mile or so of our approach to Black Kaweah would have been endless talus was it not covered in supportive snow. 

We took the Southwest Face route to the summit. It was fairly straightforward and soon we were on top snacking and snapping photos of the peaks laid out ahead of us. From the summit we descended directly east on technical terrain and got onto the east ridge via a convenient ledge. Looking back later that day, we saw that we could have accessed that ledge much more easily by backtracking a bit. The east ridge was exposed, loose, 4th to low 5th class...and surprisingly fun. Our only snafu came on the one rappel we made but that was quickly fixed and soon we were hiking up the northwest slopes of Pyramidal Pinnacle looking for a place to spend the night. There were a number of snow patches and many semi-flat sites, but for some reason I wanted to keep hiking. Before too long I saw it, a cave! With a shout I ran over to it, expecting the floor to be filled with sharp rocks or guano or both. Instead it was almost-completely-level sand and small gravel, a comfortable size for two grown men. A few moments of work from Kevin, the high-end custom carpenter, and it was perfect. Just a few steps away was a snowfield melting into liquid in the late afternoon sun. Excellent views back up the east ridge of Black Kaweah were the icing on the cake that is my new favorite bivy spot.
Soaking up the view from my new favorite bivy spot.

The following day we left the magnificent cave a little after 7am. We scrambled up to the summit of Pyramidal Pinnacle with ease, and soon found ourselves downclimbing exposed 4th and low 5th class. We could have gone back down the way we came and wrapped around to the other side of the Pinnacle on easier terrain, but we wanted to keep our traverse as true as we could, riding the skyline. A short rappel completed our descent to the notch with Koontz Pinnacle.

Some unnecessary but fun 5th class climbing brought us to the top of Koontz Pinnacle, which has a classic Sierra summit block. In his guidebook Peaks, Passes, and Trails RJ Secor mentions that Koontz Pinnacle is not shown on the USGS Triple Divide Peak 7.5 minute map. It seemed to us, after sitting up there with the gps on my phone, that in fact its Pyramidal Pinnacle that's not shown on the quad. 
Me on top of Koontz Pinnacle. Photo by Kevin Burkhart.

Traveling along the ridge from Koontz was fun but became involved, eventually necessitating a 40m rappel. This was followed by a hike up Red Kaweah, one of the easier peaks on the traverse. There was some kind of butterfly migration happening and hundreds of orange and black butterflies led us along the ridge and up to the summit. Getting off the other side was more complicated, we made one rappel that I can recall.

Climbing up the north side of Michael's Pinnacle was forgettable, but the summit register was not. Placed by Jim Koontz himself in 1953, it had a transcription from Charles Michael's original register and had been signed by a who's who of Kaweah climbers, including the only other parties we knew of who did the traverse. It's a piece of Sierra history. I'm not normally particularly excited to sign summit registers, but I was honored to sign this one. That is, until we discovered the pen didn't work. Kicking ourselves for not bringing a pen, we continued south in the dwindling daylight, eventually dropping off the crest a bit to a bivy overlooking Kaweah Basin. 
The Michael's Pinnacle summit register. It could use a new pen and container.
Looking east towards Williamson and Whitney from our second bivy. Photo by Kevin Burkhart.

In the morning the towers seemed to go on and on and included two 20m rappels, but eventually we found ourselves in front of Squaretop. We traversed onto the west side over at least one rib to get to the Northwest Face route which brought us quickly to the summit. 

A time consuming gully took us down to the col before Bilko Pinnacle. Here fun 4th class on a rib over to the west side of the col brought us to the summit and our first good views of Grey (aka Second, aka False) Kaweah. 
Kevin sailing the seas of choss somewhere on the ridge.

Tales of a spat between the first ascensionists and 5.9 climbing had us wondering if one of the towers before us would contain the crux. instead we found (on I believe the second tower) enjoyable 5.7 climbing on some of the best rock on the ridge. Before long we were fist bumping on top. I know I felt like we were getting away with something. 

We still had a lot of daylight left, and both of us felt like it would make a lot of sense to include Mount Kaweah, the tallest of the Kaweah peaks. It was only a matter of some class 2 hiking, so we signed that summit register too. Our big winter had left snow still parked on the west face of the peak, and a 1500 foot standing glissade sped our descent and put smiles on our faces.

While Kevin and I both enjoyed this traverse neither of us feel a need to do it again. Climbers who are dying to send this one would be well-advised to do some of the other big (and higher quality) traverses first. Though this one isn't as long as the full Palisade or Evolution Traverses, the decision making and risk management is probably harder. Couple this with the low level but continuous loose rock and the Kaweah Traverse is likely as difficult as those longer ones. As Kevin put it, “this one is for the Sierra ridge 'choss-isseur'”.
Somewhere in the Kaweahs. Photo by Kevin Burkhart.


July 9, 2017

Backcountry Water Strategies

Running out of water is no big deal if it's the end of the day and there is only a short walk between you and the car. It is a big deal if you're partway through a route that's taking longer than you expected, or if you hope to recover quickly and send again tomorrow.

While creeks and lakes aren't usually readily available on alpine routes, snow is often not far away in most major mountain ranges. Even here in the sunny Sierra snow lingers in nooks and crannies throughout the summer. I've topped up my water supply from a melting snow patch on top of Mount Darwin even as late as the end of August.

If you've got a stove and fuel turning that snow into water is easy. It was above freezing on top of Mount Darwin that day in August, so I just set my bottle upright on the ground under the edge of the snow patch where it could catch the drip. Sometimes it's a bit trickier than that. In May Mik and I were descending from an ascent of the Freezy Nuts Couloir on Werewolf Tower in the Ruth Gorge. The climb had taken a bit longer than expected and Mik had run out of water. Just to be clear, he's tougher than I am and could have easily just continued down and drank his fill when we were back at camp. However, there was no need for him to remain thirsty.

We had paused for a break in the downclimbing at a flat spot below a small rock band. The rock band was running with water from snow melting above, but it was just a thin film of liquid. A simple trick allowed us to fill Mik's empty bottle with about a liter of water in just a few minutes. He pressed a dyneema sling onto the wet rock. This conducted water directly into his bottle.


Obviously this was a fairly hands-on operation. If we had more time, wanted to collect more water, or wanted to multitask we could have placed some gear in the rock, clipped the sling to it, and set the bottle upright in the snow with the end of the sling inside. Quickdraws or a cordelette could also be used for this task, and could be clipped to each other if more length is required.

May 30, 2017

Thoughts On Alpine Climbing

I just read a really good blog post on the Outdoor Research website. "Want To Climb In Patagonia? Read This First" had some great ideas that I imagine were applicable to the first-timer down there (I've never been) but I think are relevant to anybody early in their alpine career.

May 1, 2017

Lone Pine Peak - Winter Chimney

In early March my colleague Andy Stephen and I climbed the Winter Chimney on Lone Pine Peak. This route has been on my radar ever since reading this trip report. This fun route is worth doing for anybody who is interested in alpine climbing and the Sierra Nevada. All of the photos below are Andy's, as I lost my phone that morning (more on that below).

Andy and I were guiding a trip up the Mountaineers Route on Mount Whitney in early March, so it made sense to stick around Lone Pine and tick this route. After celebrating a successful Whitney summit with burgers and shakes at The Mount Whitney Restaurant I ran a few errands in town and we drove up the Tuttle Creek Road as far as Andy could rally his minivan (a lot farther than I expected).

Though it seemed like we made a plan about what time to wake up in the morning I definitely misunderstood as it was Andy's voice, not the notes of "Illuminate" (my alpine start ringtone) that woke me up the next morning. Andy was a gentleman about it, and several cups of coffee and some unnecessary vehicle shenanigans later we started huffing up the road to the Stonehouse.

Neither of us had ever been there, so we spent a few minutes exploring the place. About 25 minutes later, after we had left the Stonehouse, crossed Tuttle Creek, and were stopping to put away headlamps and put on sunscreen I noticed my phone was missing. Andy was gracious and patient throughout the agitated searching and backtracking that ensued. I felt like an idiot, but after 1.5 hours of frantic looking I also felt like I wasn't going to find it. It being a clear day the temperatures were rising, and we were concerned that it might be too warm on the route after all the time we just burned. We decided to continue up the approach anyway. After all we were there, and at least we could get the approach figured out for a subsequent trip.

The slope of big boulders that precedes the gullies didn't seem too bad, probably because much of it was covered in supportive snow. All the snow meant that we engaged in only minimal scrambling to get up the first and second gullies (about 2000 feet of elevation gain) to the Winter Chimney drainage. We definitely felt the time wasted in the phone search here, the gullies were fully in the sun, the snow wasn't super firm, and it was hot. A bit more hiking (probably to about 10,200ft) and we could see the Winter Chimney route and there was definitely ice!
In the bottom of the Winter Chimney drainage. Andy Stephen photo.

Kicking out a stance at the base of our first pitch. Andy Stephen photo.
A few more minutes of slogging and Andy and I were kicking out a platform at the base of the first pitch. From here on up it got progressively cooler, and I began to regret peeling off my long underwear at a break at the bottom of the first gully.

The first pitch was about 30m of nice WI2. Andy quickly got the rope up there and brought me into a cave at the base of a bombay chimney. One wall of the chimney was covered with thin but well bonded (and clear!) ice. A few body-lengths into this lead and I couldn't wind up to swing my ice tools anymore, it was too narrow. At this point I started chimneying in earnest and headed directly out, slinging a seemingly bomber chockstone along the way. Once out of the slot I continued up some ice, then snow, and brought Andy up.
In the first chimney. Andy Stephen photo.
A long pitch of mellow snow above the first chimney. Andy Stephen photo.
From this point we could see the whole upper part of the route. We hiked up maybe 60m of snow and I augered in as Andy took the next lead. It was one of the classiest pitches on the route: a bit of thin ice to some drytooling around a big chockstone with ice pouring over the top, then more moderate ice to another belay in a cave below another chimney, this one topped by a roof.

Once again it was my lead and once again I found myself using a stimulating combination of ice climbing technique and chimney technique. Before long I arrived at the roof. It was kinda long and all dry rock. I wasn't particularly high on trying to pull it with boots and crampons on, so I cast about for an escape. I found a tight tunnel-through behind the roof. Tools went first, then me in just the right orientation, and last my pack dangling from my harness. I belayed in a jumble of boulders just above.
Looking down the first part of one of the better pitches on the route. Andy Stephen photo.
Andy took the next pitch and again it was a great lead, starting with some run-out dry tooling on positive edges as the chimney shrunk down to a corner and finishing with better protected mixed climbing in that corner. This pitch took us to the top, where the wind was ripping. With little more than a fist bump between us we coiled the rope and started hustling across the summit plateau to the start of the descent.



I think this route deserves more action, so below are a few thoughts future climbers of this route might find useful.

I think the ice on this route is formed from snow melting on the summit plateau above. A healthy winter snowpack with some period of melt-freeze action prior to the climb probably provides ideal conditions. Mid to late winter is probably best. That will also give the approach the most time to fill in with possibly helpful snow. The chimney where the route proper exists receives little direct sunlight in the winter (it was cold in there) so refreezing is probably a given too.

We clearly encountered a lot more snow and ice on the route than the 2007 team did. I believe the first three pitches of the Winter Chimney proper that they climbed were covered by snow on the day Andy and I were there. The first pitch we roped up for was the one they described as, "a beautiful 100 foot pitch of baby blue water ice".

We brought one pair of rock shoes for an emergency and they stayed in the bottom of Andy's pack. The only spot where they could have been useful is maybe pulling the roof that I tunneled around. I often find that bringing multiple types of footwear (on any type of climb) ultimately slows things down. Deciding if and when to switch and then doing so often seems to take a lot longer than just making do with what you're wearing. Anyway, it was cold enough that day that putting on rock shoes would definitely have meant risking a cold injury.

After reading some horror stories about the descent I spent some time at home sussing it out on Google Earth.

In summary:

2200 - 2400 feet of easy snow climbing, interspersed with occasional bits of 4th class scrambling led through the first and second gullies. Then we pitched out as follows:

1: 30m WI2
2: 30m Icy chimney
60m snow walk
3: 30m WI 3 M3
4: 28m Icy cave tunnel-through
5: 35m WI3 M3 glory pitch

We brought a couple of ice screws, stoppers, and cams to a #3. The smaller cams (.2 - .75) seemed to get more use. We brought a couple of knifeblades but didn't use them.

April 6, 2017

MSR Hydromedary

I just noticed that MSR no longer makes their hydration bladder, the Hydromedary. This is too bad, because this was probably the best hydration bladder ever made. Not a perfect one, but the best one.

What made it great? It wasn't the lid. The lid was a pretty basic screw top without the added keeper, or positive locking sensation of Camelbak brand lid. The bite valve and on/off valve were also sub-par compared to the corresponding Camelbak parts. Both were a lot bulkier, which was annoying when I tried to stuff them through hydration ports on various packs. No worries there though, both of those MSR parts were easily swapped out for Camelbak bite valve and on/off valve. Yes, MSR will sell you a kit to convert your dromedary bag into a hydration bladder, but these have their downsides and are just not quite the same for the dedicated hydration system user.

What made the MSR Hydromedary better than every other bladder was the fabric. It was made of 200d Cordura. This made it way more durable than any hydration bladder from Camelbak, Platypus, Osprey, or any other manufacturer. I use mine a lot in the warmer months and it's still going strong after 4 years. It gets crammed into backpacks along with climbing gear and other hard sided stuff. On a big wall I like to pack the bladder about halfway down the top haulbag and let the hose stick out the top of the bag so I can easily drink but not have to manage another item out of the bag.

If you are a hydration bladder user and want the best one they're still out there for sale on the internet, get them before they're gone!