Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Ben Horne Memorial Climb: Evolution Traverse (Car to Car)

Ben Horne

Ben was no ordinary guy. He was passionate, driven, and multidimensional. Aside from climbing mountains he was a graduate student at UCSD, ran ultra-marathons, loved music, traveled the world, and believed in god. I was lucky to meet Ben back in 2011 while we ate at one of Talkeetna’s restaurants. I was trying to re-gain some of the weight I lost on Denali, and he was trying to fill up the tank before flying onto the glacier himself. Back then I was more into peak bagging, which I had picked up a year and a half before climbing Denali. On the sharp end 5.7+ was my limit, and sleepless nights preceded any climb that had more than two pitches. It did not stop Ben from proposing we exchange emails and climb something in the future.
Ben, parents, and his silver belt after finishing Western States 100 run
Ben after climbing Mt. Whitney from Bedwater! Photo by his friend and partner Andre.
 When Ben got back from Alaska, I emailed him my resume. It was headlined by the Regular Route on Fairview Dome (grade III 5.9) – longest trad climb I had done until then. In rock climbing, a grade III route would take most parties half a day, a grade IV route would take a full day, grade V usually would take more than a day, where as a grade VI would take competent climbers multiple days to complete. He proposed we climb Dark Star V and Sun Ribbon IV – two long classic and tough routes on Temple Crag. Ben was different than majority of people I had climbed with. He believed in, “the idea of magnificent failure rather than a mediocre success.” Climbs that he was after did not involve guaranteed success. I thought it was a bit risky to attempt two long 5.10 routes with a inexperienced climber, but we had a great time and succeeded on objectives. His rock climbing skills were honed and his endurance seemed unlimited. Often he would solo terrain I would have trouble leading and would give me a belay from above. That outing left me wrecked, but got me excited about climbing technical mountain faces instead of easy scrambling to bag summits. Next week I went after North Arete of Bear Creek Spire and led the 5.10 variation on it. “Maybe Ben will climb with me again after all.”
Ben crack climbing in Indian Creek
Even though we were not best friends, relatives, or neighbors, Ben’s beliefs and actions in the alpine influenced me in many ways. Maybe he was not Alex Honnold or Chris Sharma to your average mainstream climber, he was not only a friend, but also a big inspiration to me. We often would chat and I came out to his last run before he left for Peru. Like everything else he was after, his last ultra was a real challenge - Western States 100. He recorded his fastest time for a 100 mile race, which earned him a silver buckle. When he was overdue from his climb I had no doubt he would return safely; he was the strongest climber I knew, it would be impossible for him to get hurt. Unfortunately after several days of search Ben’s and Gil’s bodies were found. They climbed a new route on one of the mountains in the Cordillera Blanca and due to a collapsed cornice plunged to their deaths while descending. I could not accept this outcome but after a few days of resistance my emotions took over and for the first time in years I cried.
When climbing was fun. On the Golden Triangle
First rays of sun
 Picking a Climb

Since Ben made a difference in my life I wanted to dedicate a climb to his memory. Ben went after big objectives, so I wanted to dedicate a big route to his name.
The Evolution traverse was one of his favorites. He attempted to climb it in a push during summer, before succeeding on a multiple-day first winter ascent (read about what it meant to him). This climb was also significant because its first ascent was done by Peter Croft – climber who Ben looked up to. Supposedly it took Peter three attempts before he completed the ridge traverse in fifteen hours. After multiple people climbed the route and posted their reports online it became much more popular and regarded as the "TO DO" ridge traverse in the United States. Even though there were a few camp-to-camp ascents (which still take three to four days car to car – one to approach, one to acclimate, one to climb, and one to hike out), the majority of people take a day to approach, three days to climb, and another day to hike out . Estimated total round trip stats are 34-35 miles with about 15,000-16,000 ft of vertical elevation gain, all at high elevation with much of it at 13,000 ft.
Looking down the first 5.6 crack
Looking back at Mt. Darwin's summit block
A year or so back I wondered if it is possible for a human to climb the Evolution traverse car to car. I heard of an attempt that took 18 hours to complete first three peaks of the traverse. Back than I did not consider climbing it solo, and did not even dream about a car to car ascent. As time went by my curiosity evolved into a strong desire to try it. During my last two weeks in Peru I became fixed on this goal. Since I had not climbed this route I tried to find as much information about it as possible. I spent my free time obsessing over every segment, wondering if my body could handle so much exertion, if exposure and technical difficulties would be too much for my abilities, debating about gear, number of calories, amount of water and clothing I should carry. I must have sent a hundred emails to my friend Michelle, and even though she patiently answered the truth is no one can prepare you for nine miles of ridge traversing. There are a few major landmarks, but aside from those each climber must find his own path.

Inner Battle

My logic told me I had no business attempting to solo Evolution Traverse car to car. For one, I had never hiked much over 20 miles in a day and never gained more than 10,000 ft. My solo experiences are limited to soloing Tenaya peak, Emerson, Laurel Mountain, and an outing to Wells Peak where Michelle and I soloed the majority of the route we found. On the other hand, earlier this summer I did onsight Positive Vibrations on the Incredible Hulk and knew there were mortals who were able to complete the Evolution traverse camp-to-camp. On top of that all I had to do was hike in and hike out, which is only about 25 miles with 5,500+ feet of elevation gain. People can tolerate physical exertion that is much more impressive than that. Hiking is my strength, and in addition I was acclimated after climbing several 6000 M peaks in Peru.
View of Darwin from Mt. Mendel
For some reason I took I dive on the way to back was MUCH worse than my hand.
What stopped me from finding an easy way out was pure excitement and deep desire to climb. I wanted to get on this route for a few years. I did not have more than two days to try it with a partner, and I was not willing to wait for another year. Even though I had no idea if my body would break down, or if fear would force me to quit, I decided to take it one peak at a time and go for it. From the second I stepped out of my car I felt good about it because my mind was in the right place – driven by excitement, not by negative events in my personal life, and not by desire to impress others.  In addition, this was a good setting to connect with Ben and see what his favorite climb was like. He wasn't going to come in person, but I expected him to be around in spirit. Before the climb I knew thoughts of Ben's 100 mile runs and winter ascents would help me fight my own insecurities and self-doubts.
Ben loved Polemoniums, so I made sure to find some
I met JD in Peru and we briefly talked about how possible c2c of Evo would be.
The Climb

As someone from the Bay Area it always seems like my climbs begin right after work with a fierce two-hour 5.10R traffic pitch. Around 9 PM I arrived at the trailhead. Even though I had time to catch a few hours of sleep, I couldn’t do it. I lay in the back of my car with my eyes closed but my inner battle raging:

“You could get a full night of sleep and run up Emerson. You can’t do Evolution, why are you even considering it?”
“Look at people who onsight solo the ridge – Alex Honnold, Matt Samet. Who are you? You are an internet wanker.”
“Evolution Ridge is 9,000 ft of technical climbing; you have done that maybe twice in your life but on trails!.”

Summit block of Mt. Darwin
Ridge seen from Darwin. It goes straight for a ways, than turns right, and hooks back towards me. Smoke on the left.
Around midnight I had enough and decided to depart earlier. By 12:30 am I was hiking up the trail. I felt good and kept my hiking speed up all the way to Darwin Bench where I arrived three hours and fifteen minutes after leaving my car. Stuffing my mouth with food I filled up my containers with three liters of water and headed up Mt. Gould. Traversing over false summits took me time, but I knew they were there and did not get ticked off by their existence. There were a few rappel stations, however I was able to find decent down-climbs. At a high point I found a summit register and signed it. From Gould the route finding becomes more complicated and you have to pass around a few gendarmes on the way to Mt. Mendel. My goal was to be on the summit of Gould at dawn so I could see the path to Mendel more clearly, but since I was ahead of the schedule I couldn't complain!
Classic view of the Golden Triangle
View of Haeckel from a smaller peak prior
Climbed up this orange wall to begin NW ridge of Haeckel - super fun!
When I got to the first headwall I found the 5.6 crack people mention in most reports. It is one of the key landmarks on the route. Through the majority of the Evolution traverse it was not difficult to route-find since the route usually follows the crest. Even when things looked desperate the climbing did not get harder than 5.7 or 5.8. On my way to Mendel I climbed two more significant hand cracks. One of them was mentioned as “5.9” in the first Pullharder trip report, and the other was much harder than the other two. Since I did not hear about anyone climbing the more difficult crack on previous ascents, I was likely off the easiest path. Final down-climb into a notch formed by Mendel Right ice couloir, a big step across, and I was minutes away from the summit of Mt. Mendel . By than the sun was hitting Mt. Darwin and I was able to re-warm my hands. The Majority of scrambling to Mt. Darwin was rarely harder than class 3. But on one of the down climbs I managed to sprain my ankle. And on another down climb my foot slipped on loose rock and with elephant’s elegance I fell on my back. It took my breath away and I felt blood underneath my shirt.  It took some time to recover and after I remembered “honey badger don’t care,” I continued my journey.
Haeckel from 13,332. Smoke all around.
13,332 from below
First chossy down climb from Darwin
I took a small food break on the summit block of Mt. Darwin. Aside from being a cool scramble, it has great views of the ridge.The traverse to peak 13,332 is considered the crux of the Evolution traverse by many. After completing the climb I would like to disagree and note the crux is the size. Difficulties keep you engaged all day. The only cruiser sections were from Mt. Mendel to Darwin despite a 5.8 down climb, and from Haeckel to Wallace. Every other section had climbing that demands concentration. In addition, the last three peaks on the traverse take much longer to complete than I expected.

Looking Back at Mendel, Darwin, 13,332 and Haeckel (left to right)
It was great to actually witness this
I was able to down-climb the first 5.8 loose chimney from Darwin but decided to rappel the second. I rappelled twice more on my way to 13,332. Highlight here was the golden triangle, which was as cool as online photos show. Area of a grey slab provided a bit more excitement, and a crack/chimney I took up as I neared the summit gave me a fine dose of adrenaline. The climbing was exposed and the holds were solid. From the top of 13,332 I took no breaks and headed straight for Haeckel. I had plenty of water and decided to keep to the ridge which continued to deliver. Good granite with easy scrambling got me close to Haeckel’s NW arĂȘte. By then I was hitting a wall and stopped for a break. While eating and drinking I checked out the ridge ahead. I was stunned. It looked incredibly long and there seemed to be no way I could finish it, at least not in the same day. By my time estimates I was doing very well and I reminded myself to take it one peak at a time. Next up was Mt. Haeckel! Its classic NW arĂȘte was an easy climb and did not take long to scramble. Route finding here was incredibly straightforward. To my surprise a hand-hold broke as I was climbing up the orange summit headwall. Since I am a chicken at soloing I was testing holds and maintained contact with three points when it happened. It saved my life.

When I got close to topping Haeckel I came up behind another climber and according to his words, “scared the shit out of [him].” Turned out it was Patrick- a climber I met on one of the trips with Bay Area Mountaineering meetup group. Taking only a few photos, and exchanging a few words I hurried towards the next peak. Here I saved some time by traversing easier terrain to the east of the crest. Finally I got a small break from exposure.
Cool handcrack on Huxley with light fading. Curvy crack seen above it.
On top of the next bump after Wallace I found a summit register and assumed it was Fiske. In reality Fiske was a long way away and took much more time and route finding than I expected. The sustained nature of scrambling on the crest was also a surprise since the crux was supposedly behind me. After a deep notch and some jaw-dropping climbing on the ridge I got closer to Warlow. By then I was really annoyed that in front of me were four distinct peaks and I did not know which ones I had to summit. To avoid any post climb remorse I topped all of them. While signing the register on top of Mt. Warlow I took off my harness and placed it next to me. I took out a snack and accidentally pushed the harness into a crack. It got pulled right in by the weight of my belay device and my hand did not fit far enough to rescue the damn thing. After a round of cursing I continued towards Huxley – last peak on traverse. The sun was nearing the horizon and I decided to jog. With improved pace I climbed majority of the peak in daylight getting past a cool hand crack. Right after a hand-crack there was a curvy fist crack that had me pulling a few difficult moves with incredible exposure. Soon after that it got dark and I wasn’t able to enjoy a beautiful sunset from the top. However I did enjoy the rest of the climbing, which was not at all easy.
When I reached the summit and signed the register I noticed it took me just under twenty hours to get here from my car. Even though that sounds like a lot, to me it was a major victory. From here I only had to hike out. It was another fifteen to sixteen miles with about 2000-2,500 ft of elevation gain, most of it on good trails. Since first ten miles took me just over three hours, and I was planning to jog the down-hill terrain I was expecting to return around twenty four hours after leaving. I totally under-estimated how fatigued I was. On my way down from Huxley it was painful to contract and extend my leg muscles. On the John Muir Trail I made okay time, but as I climbed up to Darwin Bench I was moving at a snail’s pace. Turtle’s pace at best. In this report these sections earned only a few sentences, but at the time each step felt like an eternity. I felt like a zombie and even though I had no doubts I would make it back to the car, I was not sure if it was going to happen in the next millennium. For some reason climbing up to Lamarck col felt better than a long walk through Darwin Bench and the subsequent canyon. Every step was painful and in addition to muscle soreness I developed a pressure spot on my heel. This last stretch to the car was a real battle. Seven hours after starting my descent and twenty seven hours after leaving my car I stumbled back. I took off my shoes, dirty clothes, ate a banana and collapsed in the back of my car. After tough outings Ben liked to use a 0-10 “haggard scale” to determine how wasted he was - here I was a solid 9!

Around 11 AM a man knocked on my window to see if I was okay.
“I guess I missed my alpine start! Will take a rest day!”

The Drive back to the Bay Area was much safer with me getting adequate sleep. In order to obtain adequate nutrition I stopped by Jolly Cone for a milkshake and burger. It was a dream come true and for the next few days I felt on top of the world. Then I remembered that other thing I wanted to climb…
Burgers in Bridgeport are good!
 Evolution Traverse:
Total:  34-35 miles with 15,000-16,000 ft of elevation gain. 27 hours car to car.


I would like to re-assure you that Ben deserved every single compliment in this report. He was an exceptional human being. His “never give up” attitude helped me complete my climb, and no doubt will help me on other ascents in the future. I would like to thank his parents for doing a great job raising such an inspirational person.
Ben after climbing Gannett peak
Also, I want to mention that while we praise those who are no longer with us, we often forget those who are. I would like to thank; My parents and friends for support. Michelle Peot for being a good friend and tolerating my obsession with Evolution traverse. Gleb, Bryan and Maxim for all the work outs, eat outs and climbs we have done together! Amy for teaching me to crag! Chad for Birch mountain traverse, hope we have many more like that in the future! Burchy for being a goofball.  Anastasia for climbing ice with me! Alix for always being psyched! Last, but not least to Hamik for tolerating my gas, all the suffer-fests, great time in Peru, and finally for correcting mistakes in this report! You all help me grow as a human and inspire me in many ways. But I don’t want to do any other “in memory of” climbs, so PLEASE stay safe.

Even though it took me 27 hours to do this traverse car to car, I believe it could be done much faster. Now that I have done this route I can probably shave off at least a couple of hours myself. I thought it was a great test of overall mountain fitness and I wouldn't be at all surprised if well-rounded mountain climbers make yearly ascents of this ridge car to car. However, it is a beautiful location and if I am back to climb it again I will make sure to spent at least one night camping on the ridge!


  1. Obviously you're more than just an internet wanker ;) Congrats on a speedy ascent! I'm glad that someone obsessed about that route as much as I did.

  2. Your writing is great, V.
    You should think about submitting this to somewhere.

    1. Thank you for such a compliment! Never tried, and not sure who would want to publish a report that does not involve v14 bouldering or 5.15 sport climbing :/

  3. Nice photos and write-up, not to mention an epic climb! It's definitely on my list for next year if I'm in the Sierra. I'm looking forward to hearing of your full Palisade traverse... ;-)

    1. Thank you, and I hope to write about it some day!

  4. Dude. Well done. Third or fourth time I've read through this, such a great job.