Thursday, August 27, 2015

First Ascent of the Granite Creek Spire!

Recent internet chitchat about things that don't really matter gave me something to dwell on as I crawled up a steep, sandy slope. While simultaneously fighting manzanita, I used the thicker branches to aid the slow progress through the brush. Thank god it was about an hour till the sun rose and the beam of my headlamp allowed me to focus on twenty foot sections of what was ahead, any more and it would be a bit overwhelming. At some point the sun did come up but it was often hard to see further than twenty feet anyway. It helped me stay "focused on the present," as my yoga instructor suggested! At this point the reader may wonder where in the world was I going and what was I dwelling on. I was going up the south fork of the Granite Creek. According to Google Earth, own eyes and photos from the internet there is a big spire with giant summit that overhangs on all sides, a spire with no recorded ascents.

Heading into the mist of unknown. Outline of Granite Creek Spire, what we named the formation, can be seen through the smoke in the distance. Range of light delivers the goods! Photo cred: Brian Prince
Looking up at the giant Sequoias - Redwood Meadow
First time we came across a backcountry giant Sequoia grove.
Brian capturing the goods
The air quality did suck on the way in. The smoke from the Rough Fire obstructed our lungs and the views.
Granite Creek
Preparing for the battle. Soaking our feet in the water, life is rough.
Friends which have done adventure climbs with me in the past may praise the lord they couldn't be on this one, unless your are Daniel - the single person I know who expressed voluntary interest in going to Granite Creek. One of the few people I know who is genuinely excited about diving head first into the unknown. Someone I am pleased to call a friend. Even though at moment he is likely sharpening a giant needle to prick Voodoo doll Vitaliy, to prevent me from climbing other formations that belong on his hit list. Daniel is the guy who was crazy enough to invite a complete stranger from the internet to participate in the First Ascent of the Fortress. It was in the end of summer of 2012, our first true adventure climb, armed with much stronger Tom Ruddy. Fortress was the spot from which I noticed multiple domes on the ridge-lines south of the Angel Wings. From the limited information available in the comprehensive Secor's Sierra Nevada guidebook I knew there was plenty of adventure to be had in the area. Aside from a few sentences about the first ascents of the major formations available in the American Alpine Journal, I was unable to find any record of other humans getting out there and had a lot of excitement about diving into the unknown.
First view of the giant
Granite Creek Dome
There were a few pleasant things to look at though.

The bushwhack was so horrible that we moved down to the creek-bed. As Brian and I continued the never ending approach I looked at my pedometer and calculated that on average we had covered less than one mile per hour. WAYYY less. Boulder hopping from one slippery rock to the other I thought about my own motivations to participate in such outings. But it was a different thought process than what is usually found in the whiny "Why do I climb" write ups. My legs had already acquired multiple cuts, the body was covered in orange dust, the shirt was soaked with sweat, we had no directions for approaching the peak we intended to climb, likely an un-climbed one. Being able to explore things for myself is one of the main reasons I climb and even though this particular approach was especially grueling, there was no second guessing of the decision to come see what it is like. I was wondering what is it in particular that attracts me to the climbing with uncertain outcome and why was I actually enjoying the day. It was tough, but did not feel like a 'suffer fest' - label I see climbers using to describe something that they supposedly enjoy.
The beast looming above
First pitch - scrambled in approach boots..seemed easy at the time. It wasn't.
Brian hiking the first pitch.
We took the buttress on the right. Four rope stretchers and one more pitch later we stood on the incredible table-top summit.
Looking down at the first pitch
Another jam crack we "hiked"
 Few more hours of trucking and we got close to the slabs that led into the unknown. I scrambled up the lower angle dihedral, but after 40 ft of 'hiking' had to pull several solid moves I would use a rope for. Another 20 ft of climbing 5th class slab in approach boots had me fairly terrified and reaching for my harness. Brian and I wisely changed into our climbing shoes and roped up for the next pitch. If I tried to continue 'hiking' it would mean certain death. We un-roped for another 300 ft of scrambling and roped up for five pitches above it. To no surprise, the rock was solid and the face features incredibly cool. That's what I am used to climbing on multiple Western Sierra formations. Knobs and large chicken heads reminiscent of the rock on the Tokopah Domes and the Shuteye Ridge. Even though the climbing was fun and the route was pushed to the knife-edge summit ridge, we did not know if it would be possible to summit the formation till I traversed out from the belay and reached over the low point in the bulge. I was able to grab a chicken head and heel hook another feature so I could mantel onto the final slope which led to a perfect table-top summit! By a table top, I mean a table that could cover the whole dining room - a giant FLAT summit, on top of an airy overhang!!!
Brian running it the F out.
Best rock in town! :)
Tied off chicken heads for pro, with the heaviest imaginable rack. Photo by Brian Prince
WOOOOOHOOOOOOOO!!!! Awesome face climbing! Photo by Brian Prince.
Chicken heads led to the final knife edge and the overhanging summit
Suddenly we were in heaven. Shoes off, getting stuffed with snacks, in comfort, far above the bushwhacking and surrounded by the magnificent views of the other High Sierra formations. Even the smoke from the near by wild fire was now appreciated and added a mystical touch to the sight no one had ever experienced. In our modern goal oriented society it is a small step away from the norm of ticking off objectives - having the chance to explore an unknown valley without move by move instructions of what is required to conquer the summit. Figuring one thing at a time without knowing if everything you do is gonna work out. The harmony of mayhem, where I find my peace. There was nothing to dwell on. At the moment I am in the right place - a place where I belong. The place where I feel alive.

Brian below the summit overhang!
Top of the formation as seen from Eagle Scout Creek Dome
Little register I left. 5.9 could be a bit of a sand-bag, there may be a need for a BIG R and the route may be a little longer than 1000 ft after the re-calculation. Who knows, most people would find the effort to tough to be worth it! :) First and last ascent - KABOOM! . :)
Place where I belong
West side sunset near our cozy camp
Philosophical discussions aside, we had to get off our lovely formation. We walked all around and found no opportunity for a natural anchor, no bolted ones either. We were definitely the first ones to reach the top! After drilling a bolt for an anchor, first and last of the day, we rapelled to the notch. Another roped pitch of down-climbing and we were off. We hiked over to the ridge-line to stare at the granite formations in the neighboring drainage. Several hours of hell on the way back to camp and we had our dinner. The challenges of the day that passed, the bruises, the cuts, it was all overshadowed by the excitement about the near future. What do we want? What are we gonna end up with? The possibilities seemed endless, North Fork of Granite Creek it is!

Monday, August 10, 2015

Valhalla Diary pt. 3: The Prism - (FA) Monkeys In The Clouds (IV 5.10)

7am. Upper Hamilton Lake. I force my eyes to open. Feeling like a truck rolled over my semi-conscious body I realize it was not a truck - about 9 hours ago Luke and I stumbled into the camp after climbing The Valkyrie (V 5.11+/5.12-) on the Angel Wings.  A few minutes of hesitation, I gather my thoughts, turn over and exclaim, "Rise and shine brosef!" I notice no excitement in Luke's eyes as I pour the water into the stove. Honestly speaking I am not excited about hiking seven miles and attempting to climb a 1,500 ft new route. I am even less excited to eat oatmeal with instant coffee for the fifth day in a row. But I can't let Luke know that there is a way out of our plan! "Today will be a blast and you will remember this day for a long time," I promise. A plan is a plan and the only way out is if one of us needs medical attention. Even though we feel like our lower extremities are falling off and the arms can barely move, we don't pay much attention to common sense or a faint voice of reason screaming for a rest day.
Route outline
The Prism came out of the clouds to say 'Hello'
Clean granite on the first pitch

Luke following the second pitch
After the final date with the world's best pit toilet I realize instant coffee is not that bad and we start the descent to Lone Pine Creek cut off. My smile is quickly removed by the two annoying blisters on my right foot. "Fuck, it will be a long day," I mumble and continue following a deer down one of the five hundred switchbacks.
In the beginning of the year I made a commitment to avoid climbing with annoying people and to avoid climbing on the days I don't feel like climbing. We drop the backpacks, set up the tent and continue our journey towards the Prism. There are giant clouds hugging the surrounding ridge-lines but the sun continues to burn through our skin. We sweat our asses off as we slowly gain elevation hiking through the overgrown jungle in the beginning of the Tamarack Lake trail. Our feet are not any better and neither is the weather. There are multiple reasons to bail but the easy way out seems like a silly option a mere mile away from our climb. I dread every step I make towards the cloud infested peak in the distance, as I question the above mentioned commitment. Even though I have one of the best possible partners, this is not the day to tackle a challenging climb. Luke looks even less excited as I shout "The honey badger don't care!" As we gain more elevation, I wonder if he questions the sincerity of my act.

In Yosemite we call this 5.8+ bro
The Wizard's Sleeve belay
The rock is close to top notch
The giant chicken-butt feature in the middle of the wall
As I look up at the wide crack system that ascends up the middle of the Prism, I want to vomit. FML, a hand crack would be much appreciated today. By the time I start the first pitch it is close to 1pm and we are in a full white out. "Should we bail?" I slab climb below a giant overhang placing pro in a dihedral to my left. On the second pitch, I pulled a roof and found that the fingercrack that is supposed to get me into a large offwidth, is actually a seam. "Should we bail?" Even though I was bummed, there was a plan B - continue traversing below the giant roof and look for a way into the second system.

 For a while, I wondered why are these direct and obvious wide features have been ignored by the guys that climbed new routes on this formation in the past. As I dug out more than a body length of bushes and pounds of dirt out of the crack, I realized those guys knew better. "Should we bail?" It took close to an hour to make the beginning of the giant offwidth climbable. If the best climber is the one having the most fun, I must of been very close to the opposite. After the digging was done however, the route unfolded like a dream. I took another full 60 M pitch of fun wide climbing, protected by small to medium cams in the back and we were on the move. Luke took over for two pitches of incredibly fun face climbing and at this point I was challenged with trying to feed enough slack. We resumed having fun and my desire to bail transformed into a prayer to prevent any possible precipitation.
Luke stemming and getting closer to the second crux on the 6th pitch
A mix of fun cracks and face climbing took us to the apex of the wall
Monkey in the clouds!
Both monkeys on the summit
We kept climbing a direct line up the middle of the formation till we joined the other routes at the apex of the wall. Few hundred feet of simul climbing up a cool ridge got us to the summit proper, where we recovered a Nalgene with a register. Turned out we did a fourth recorded new route on the formation and did the sixth recorded ascent. From reading the summit log, I gathered that while climbing one of the 'new' routes on the Prism, one of the parties found an old piton. It made me wonder about the history of the climbing in the region and all the unrecorded climbs that were completed by the mythical someone and many other climbers that passed through the range of light.
A combination of wide, featured face climbing and a variety of cracks we have climbed kept us grinning till we traversed the entire ridge to the rappell stations. Then we faced sad necessity of a three mile hike back to camp. To my surprise the excitement of climbing something SERIOUSLY AWESOME did not wear off till we had our dinner and passed out in the tent. A big thunderstorm kept us from starting the mammoth (14 miles) hike out via the High Sierra Trail till late afternoon, and we did not mind that for a minute. We had time to reflect on a roller-coaster type of a trip. Some pleasant surprises, some unexpected road-blocks, a load of fun, many memories and things to digest for the future. I don't think I was able to take it all in till I had some decent sleep in my own bed...and everyone's surprise.....I wanted to RETURN!

Friday, August 7, 2015

Valhalla Diary pt. 2: Angel Wings - Valkyrie (V 5.11+/5.12-)

During the not-at-all restful rest day, Luke and I discussed our options for the remainder of our stay. My preference was to attempt a direct new route on The Prism. His was the Valkyrie - a recently established V 5.12a which goes up the Angel Wings proper. Both options seemed tough and preferably followed by a rest day. Since we had three days left, one of which is reserved for a 17 mile hike out, rest day was not an option. We had to compromise, AKA suffer - climb the Valkyrie first, wake up as early as possible on the following day, move camp to the Lone Pine Creek cut off and climb a new route on the Prism. Fortunately sussing out plans at camp is not as hard as executing them...
Valkyrie takes the right prominent buttress in the middle of the formation. A really aesthetic line.
Hamilton Dome and other granite domes as seen from the last pitches of Valkyrie
Luke in an exposed chimney high on the route
Slot canyon on the approach to Hamilton Lakes
Valkyrie seemed like a great way to top out Angel Wings. It follows a beautiful buttress on the SE face for 2,000 feet - an intimidating line you stare at from the pit toilet at Hamilton Lakes. The climbing stays sustained in 5.10 range for majority of the climb, with tough 5.11 pitches and a single 5.12a. We split the route into blocks of three with Luke getting the first. For a route that has likely seen less than 6 ascents, the quality was good and most of the pitches were clean. The exposure reminded both of us of something that belongs on El Cap - BIG AND STEEP.

The rack in the topo was spot on and the route finding was straight forward for the most part. Luke got one of the mental cruxes of the route - a 5.11 pitch with difficult face climbing ways above the last bolt. Following the pitch, I was not sure I could have led that one if it was a lead of mine, but with his beta and a top rope I was able to climb it without a fall.

What I liked about the climb is the variety: well protected face, some runouts, hand cracks, offwidths and laybacks. What I did not like is the garbage bolts in a few spots. It was mostly well bolted with stainless 3/8ths, but there were more than a few that will not last, or are already not safe.
The day was partially cloudy but not rainy. The Angels were on our side...
Lower Hamilton Lake
Start of the route - Luke is on top of the 1st pitch
Me on an awesome splitter. Pitch 4, or somewhere around there...
About half way up the route something fell out of the bag we were hauling through difficult sections. "Yo, seems like I dropped your shoe!" said Luke. I could not help myself, but laugh. The descent will not be as comfortable. But if I had to scramble, I would feel more comfortable right? Glass half full! After the news, it was also time for me to lead the 5.12- crux. By lead, I mean you go off the belay ledge, clip a high bolt, down-climb and do the crux traverse on a semi-top rope. Usually, I do not try the crux over and over if I can't get it the first time, but feeling close to getting the move and being close to the belay I went back multiple times before sticking the move. If I was climbing with someone other than Luke, I might have not tried as hard, but his positive energy and encouragement pushed me to do my best. He followed the pitch clean first try (not a surprise) and I got owned like a mule on the next pitch - a physical OW. The route finding past the wide part was not obvious and I was not able to get in the desired pro to continue up a flaring groove. In addition I had incredible amount of rope drag, so I asked to be lowered and back cleaned several pieces of gear before climbing back up and making several thought provoking moves to the belay ledge.
Me following fun face climbing
Hanging out on a cool ledge most of the way up the wall. Hamilton Lake in the background.
Trying to figure out how to get into that corner with a small left crimp and shitty foot jam level with my crotch. After many many failed attempts I got it right.
 Next pitch was mine, but the little coward within was begging I offer the lead to my stronger partner. "SHUT THE F*** UP," said I, "It is only 5.10 and you can deal with another 140 ft." According to the topo there was an "incredible splitter" on this pitch, how can I say no to that?....but also there is a chimney. When Luke got to the ledge he knew I was worked and offered to lead. I said I can continue as planned. Even though the "incredible splitter hands" turned out to be a short section you mostly stem in the back of a vibrating flake, the 5.10 section was not hard and the chimney above it was also mellow. Luke swong straight into the next pitch and found own mental crux of the route. He followed the chalk patch that Mike took on the day when it was raining. While he was dealing with complicated route finding and linking the two pitches to get us to the top of this beast, I was dreaming of Ramen and tuna. Even though I brought what seemed to be a NIAD snack bag, I managed to run out. 
Luke starting the last pitch on Valkyrie - Cherubim Dome in the background
Hamilton Lake
Hamilton Lake from high up on Angel Wings

Insert joke of your choice. Also, this is our summit photo, far below the summit. We looked a lot worse on top! :)
The patch Luke followed was not for those with lack of mental strength. VERY R, and likely pretty X. When we topped out I congratulated Luke with his ability to keep it together. Both of us were amazed with Mike's ability to do this section in a full on rain, but Mike freed multiple El Cap routes and has mental strength of a rock ninja, so no biggie. Rest of the night was spent hiking back to camp and dreading the next morning...