July 3, 2014

The 4x4 or The Big Four In Four Days

I am tired. I don't know if I've ever been tired like this before. I've been sleepier, I once fell asleep while belaying on El Cap. I've been more physically tired, I remember hiking out to the car over Lamarck Col and barely being able to put one foot in front of the other. This seems different. There are little muscles in my legs and feet that I didn't know existed before. Most telling, even more than being stoked about what Aaron and I did, I'm just glad we're done.

The "Big Four" are four classic rock climbs in The High Sierra. I first saw the grouping and Big Four name in Peter Croft's 2002 classic guidebook "The Good, The Great, And The Awesome". Every other mention of The Big Four I can find references Croft, so the concept might be his (though it turns out there are a lot of other "big fours" out there). And what a concept! Four long 5.10's on beautiful peaks spread along the length of the range. All were first climbed by Sierra heavy hitters. The first ascenionist list includes names like Warren Harding, Doug Robinson, Don Jensen, and Dale Bard. The routes are The Harding Route on Keeler Needle, Dark Star on Temple Crag, The Southwest Face (Harding Route) on Mount Conness, and The Red Dihedral on The Incredible Hulk.

Excellent climbing on a alternate finish to The Harding Route on Keeler Needle when we climbed it in 2011.
Sometime late last year my friend and regular climbing partner Aaron Richards came up with a rather clever idea: climb The Big Four in four days. It's elegant really; four routes, four days. It's also a little rough. All of the routes have significant approaches. They're all at least 1,200 feet long, and Dark Star is twice that! Finally, their trailheads are all over an hour's driving from each other. Of course I agreed immediately. Aaron has come along on a number of adventures that I dreamed up so I felt like I owed him, and it didn't sound too bad at the time. He had a catchy name for it: The 4x4.

As the winter came and went we brainstormed about strategies. We'd have a lot of climbing and hiking to do and then recover from. The fact that none of these routes were adjacent to each other meant that we would have minimal time to rest. We needed to maximize our sleeping, while still eating well, having our gear organized, and driving to and from the trailheads. We thought it would be best to try it when the days were longest, early in the summer. We figured out where to camp between routes, decided that eating out for dinners would be the most efficient and that crashing at my house in the middle of it would be nice. Some time in late April we set aside some time at the end of June.

In May I went to Alaska for four weeks to guide The West Buttress of Denali. While it did require some physical effort at times, it was not the kind to prepare me for the 4x4 and certainly wouldn't keep me in good rock climbing shape. Two days after arriving home I came down with some sort of flu. We were going to start in two weeks. Ten days later I felt a little better and climbed The East Buttress of Mount Muir, a 4th/low 5th class route on a 14,000 foot peak. I felt okay, but not great. I spent the next few days resting, and then it was time to go. At this point I hadn't been rock climbing in seven weeks.

Squirrel Hill on The West Buttress of Denali. Not a great place to train for alpine rock climbing.
I knew I wouldn't be at my best but thought that maybe I could do it. It's hard for two professional mountain guides to get five days off in a row together in the summer (we planned a rest day at the end). I didn't want to let Aaron down, though I knew he would understand. An even bigger letdown would be to get partway through and have to bail. I knew if I started this thing I would have to see it through. I don't think I've ever been less confident going into a big objective. On June 26, after dinner and milkshakes at The Burger Barn in Bishop, we drove south and bivied in the desert at the base of Mount Whitney.

Blasting off on Keeler Needle under perfect skies.
Morning came too soon and found us hiking up The North Fork of Lone Pine Creek. In some ways Keeler Needle is the hardest of The Big Four. It has the hardest approach and descent, it's the highest, and it has offwidth climbing at over 13,000 feet. However, Aaron and I are both very familiar with the approach and descent, and we had climbed the route three years ago. We were feeling optimistic. We kept the pace moderate on the approach and arrived at the base feeling good. However, the higher we got on the route the more I felt the altitude. Aaron dispatched his pitches quickly, as usual, and soon it was my turn to take over the lead. Though it was far from pretty, I got the rope up. After the crux pitch we had some route-finding shenanigans but eventually we were on the summit changing into approach shoes. We filled up on lo mein at The Merry Go-Round in Lone Pine then drove north.

We started walking towards Temple Crag the next day at the decadent hour of 5 o'clock. We stopped at Second Lake to get some water and ran into Doug Robinson, one of the first ascensionists! Aaron took this as a very auspicious sign. Of course we totally forgot to get a photo.

Though Dark Star is the tallest of The Big Four (at 2400' it's about as tall as the Northwest Face of Half Dome) it has the least amount of fifth class climbing. After a warm-up pitch of fairly technical 5.10 the climbing eases and soon you're on classic 4th/low 5th class Sierra ridge climbing. If there's one thing we're okay at it's moving efficiently on that terrain. Higher up this is interrupted by one more pitch of 5.10 featuring a fun hand crack and roof before it's back to cruising. I was feeling slow on the last few hundred feet of scrambling, but a summit snack of double espresso Gu, Jess' homemade hippie energy bar and some ibuprofen had me feeling better for the descent and hike out.

The last of the 5th class climbing behind us, we were stoked to scramble to the top of Temple Crag.
Mammoth is about halfway between Temple Crag and Mount Conness, so I got to spend that night in my own bed. We were both stiff when we got out of the truck in my driveway and I was hobbling around the house like an 80-year-old. My wife has enough experience in the mountains to understand what this endeavor was taking and was really supportive. She had an awesome dinner (and ice cream!) ready for us when we walked in the door. We enjoyed hot showers and seven hours of sleep.

The following morning we were strolling through the Sawmill Campground toward Mount Conness a little after 7:30. There are no bear boxes at the parking area for the campground, so we had to stash our goodies at the day use parking at Saddlebag Lake, and this added a few minutes to our morning. The hike up to Conness is always beautiful, but this morning it was buggy too. The mosquitoes were fierce and stayed with us for about 1000 feet of elevation. The approach to the The Southwest Face of Conness is a little unusual in that we hiked up to a big plateau within about 500 vertical feet of the summit before descending a little over 1000 feet to the base of the route. As the face came into view we could see that there was water running on the upper part of the route. The first pitch of the route is notoriously wet, but neither of us could remember water anywhere else on the route from out separate previous ascents. After a quick discussion we agreed it would be better to fail while trying than hike out.

Hiking in. We did a lot of this.
Aaron had the first block and decided to try a variation to the right to avoid the first pitch. I sat down and pretended to eat and change into my rock shoes. Really I was struggling. I was feeling tired and definitely not stoked on the route or climbing in general. I would have preferred to walk around the corner to the much easier West Ridge or maybe just lay down on a boulder and nap for a while. Neither of these was an option. I had committed to this project and now I was responsible for seeing it through. I put on a smile (or something like one), flaked out the rope, and put Aaron on belay.

Our alternate start ended up clocking in at about mid 5.10, and involved a bit of wet rock after all. Even Aaron seemed to be feeling the effort of the last two days. Though he wasn't climbing as confidently as usual, he got us up to the base of the route's infamous wide pitch in good time. I put on another brave face, took the rack, and proceeded to get my ass handed to me by a low 5.10 offwidth. The other time I climbed it I distinctly remember thinking how casual it felt. There were even face holds to work with! This time all the face holds were tiny or sloping or both. After thrutching up the final 5.8 chimney, with only a dubious old bolt between me and a 30 foot fall, I reached the belay. When Aaron arrived I could tell he did not want to lead the next pitch, we could see water running on it. He could tell that I was capable of little more than operating a Gri-gri and staring into space. It was really one of the more gallant and bad ass things any climbing partner of mine has ever done when he grabbed the rack and took off up that pitch.

Somewhere high on The Southwest Face of Conness.
I don't remember much about the rest of the route except that the rock was definitely wet and we simulclimbed through some choss near the top. I don't know if I've ever been more glad to be done with a route, and I think Aaron was too. We did not make it out in time for dinner at The Mobil, and ended up eating freeze dried pad thai instead.

I honestly can't remember what time we hit the trail for the Incredible Hulk. I'm pretty sure we decided to give ourselves another night with seven hours of sleep. We made it through the crazy Twin Lakes Campground with the help of a map at the bathroom and were lacing up our climbing shoes three hours. I was feeling better than I had since we started. Not physically better at all, I was sore and stiff all over and seemed to have acquired some nasty gobies, but mentally better. For the first time since we started this thing I was kind of looking forward to going rock climbing.

Neither of us had ever climbed on the Hulk before. People make a big deal about it here on the Eastside, and folks make long trips from all over just to climb on it, neglecting the rest of what I think is the best mountain range on the continent. If you're a rock climber and you like doing that in the mountains, you'll probably love The Hulk. A lot of people who know a lot more than me seem to think that some of the other routes on The Hulk are better than The Red Dihedral. I thought it was pretty good, so those other routes must be fantastic. It was exactly what we needed right then. Well what we really needed was a nap, but 1200 feet of top notch granite crack climbing was an okay substitute. Maybe it was the fact that we finished our last crux pitch, maybe it was the beautiful granite in front of me, or maybe it was all the caffeinated snacks I had been eating but when we came around the corner into the sun after the Red Dihedral pitch I was actually stoked to climb!

Feeling stoked on The Red Dihedral.
We finished the route without incident, and soon we were walking back through the campground to the car. We had small packs, and I was wearing the rope in a mountaineers coil. This often seems to invite conversation from non-climbers and we both hoped that none of the campground denizens would try to talk to us right then. Surprisingly they complied with our wishes. It may have been the vacant expressions on our faces.

Our Statistics:

These numbers are rounded.
We hiked 19.5 miles uphill and gained 13,700 feet in the process.
We hiked 23 miles downhill and lost 18,000 feet while doing that.
We made 34 pitches (as well as doing a lot of scrambling on Dark Star).
We climbed 6300 vertical feet.
Of the 87 hours between when we started hiking to Keeler Needle and when we returned to the car from The Incredible Hulk we spent 56 hours hiking and climbing.

Though it's hard to find a copy now, word on the street is that Maximus Press will be publishing a new edition of "The Good, The Great, And The Awesome" next year.


  1. Ian, great work pushing through, and a nice read. Cheers!

  2. Pretty rad man! Would be fun to chat enduro stuff on your porch again one of these days.