Wednesday, August 6, 2014

The Sphinx (9,146 ft) - Cotton Mouth Khafra (FA) 1800 ft, 5.11-

Immediately after I saw the Sphinx I wanted to climb it –  striking feature rises over 4,000 ft above the Kings Canyon and overshadows the surrounding formations. That was in October of 2011 on the approach to ascend the mega classic South Face of Charlotte Dome. With a little research, I learned of a few short technical routes that were climbed to the top of the Sphinx’s striking sub-summit. The massive Northeast portion of the peak remained ignored. Back in 2011 following a detailed topo of a multi-pitch 5.8 route seemed like an epic adventure – putting up 2,000 foot first ascents was not in the cards. The time passed and rock climbing became more addictive than I would like to admit. With the addiction came the abilities, desires and the most important – passionate partners. 
Our route takes the NE buttress and gains 1800 feet. Not bad for a day-hike FA!
The big overhanging sub summit - a cool feature!
Last water of the day!
 For me and Daniel, the summer of 2014 did not turn out as free as we would like, but that did not prevent us from making ambitious plans. Wake up early, do the approach that gains 4,000 feet, descent down an unknown canyon, climb a new route up the menacing east face and descent down to the car – at least it sounds simple! 
The day turned out to be a wild one. Looking at the East face from across, we did not spot a free-climbable weakness. Through the binoculars, we saw multiple cracks filled with vegetation and blocked with roofs. Unwilling to back down we chose to descend down the unknown canyon and look for a line that would trace the Northeast Buttress. The challenges arouse from the git-go. We expected a straightforward romp up the face that would gain approximately 700 feet and brought only a liter of water each, a bare minimum. Descending deeper down the canyon meant climbing many more pitches than we expected. In addition, the variation we took to descent and traverse to the start of the proposed route was getting into 5th class territory. 
The Sphinx as seen from Kings Canyon, on the approach.
"Looks big!"
Alpine columbines in the gully!
Massive fucker
Looking down into Kings Canyon
After surviving the approach we looked up the “weakness” that split the massive overhangs. I got the first lead and found solid 5.10 moves off the ground. The protection was tricky and a ground fall from 30 ft was an option I managed to avoid. The climbing however was surprisingly fun. After I climbed partway up a an easy hand-crack in a corner I reached a left leaning fingercrack and built an uncomfortable belay. Daniel went up the next pitch and pulled a ballsy lay-back with an insecure mantel and minimal pro. 

Bubbs Creek - I thought of this water a lot through the last 2/3rds of the climb!
Looking up at the start of pitch 1. Looks "fun" (Picture by Daniel)
The fun of pitch 1! (Picture by Daniel)
Good rock, fun climbing - pitch 2 (Picture by Daniel)

He protected the next section of face climbing by hammering a knifeblade in a seam. While following I was impressed with his effort. The belay anchor was from gear I would not trust my backpack to and a bolt he hammered from a terrible stance. I had to follow up his impressive lead by more ballsy climbing. Clean face climbing on tiny edges took me to a flake where I finally placed a first solid piece, 25 feet or so up from the belay. With solid pro I pulled over the easy roof and avoided a dirty looking wide overhang by running it out right on a prominent dike. This pitch was probably not harder than 5.9 but after I built an anchor I took in a deep breath of relief.

Do I really want to climb that?
"Yes, I DO!"
Monkeys are sendin

Next pitch was straightforward. It took us to the giant ledge one-third up the formation. Lack of water and unknown difficulties ahead led to a quick discussion about bailing. Neither of us gave it much thought before Daniel led the first pitch off the ledge. We expected the climbing here to be easy, but ran into a thought provoking move on a dirty traverse. Next pitch was mine and ended up being a true epic. 

Still having a lot of fun, but where is the pro?!
Kings Canyon, looking up Bubbs Creek

Daniel climbing up towards top of P3
Daniel and the dome across. Resting on a giant ledge, third of the way up.
When you get into clusters on classic climbs imagine how bad it could get on a first ascent. First, I went left and up. The thin crack over the roof looked hard, it likely would not accept my fingers or cams. I down-climbed to below the belay, traversed right and went over a roof. I ran it out to prevent a nasty pendulum fall for Daniel and placed my first cam. Crap! A flake in a roof prevented me from flipping the rope no matter how hard I tried. I took the cam out and down-climbed about 15 feet, 30 feet above my last gear, before I could fix the situation. Climbed back up and confronted a big overhang. I tried to do an insecure traverse right but the climbing there did not look good and I down-climbed to below a right leaning crack. My position was awkward and protection shitty. I tried to make a blind placement in the overhanging crack, but my gear pulled as soon as I gave it a good jerk. Since the crack was there I knew something would go in and tried again. My next try was successful, but I was unwilling to risk falling on gear I could not see well. After making a few moves I asked Daniel to take and placed a few more pieces before being confident to pull the next (5.11a?) moves over the overhang. The pitch would not let up. Next up was a reachy mantel that took all my height to pull. I tried to continue up a direct line and ran into more trouble. About twenty feet above a solid piece I placed a crappy cam. Climbing above did not look too hard from below and I ran it out for another 20+ feet. After I climbed into another awkward stance, I found the crack I saw from below to be flaring. The obvious belay ledge was only seven feet away. It looked like a 5.10a face move to reach the ledge, but lichen-covered rock, burning muscles, unknown difficulty and being 45 feet above solid pro did not fuel my confidence. I tried to clean the crack and place something that would stay. It seemed like the right spot for it, but the purple cam came out as easily as it went in after every yank. After at least six failures the cam stayed.
Daniel thinking about the moves ahead with a lone pin to his right
Thirsty, hungry, tired, still going!
View of the sub summit
Can you spot Bubbs Creek Wall?!

I trusted it to hold a fall as much as I would trust myself to not eat in an all-you-can eat buffet. I could have asked Daniel for a bolt kit, but with our clown hammer it would take at least 45 minutes to hand drill. My stance was not getting any better and I had to move somewhere. The climb was taking us much longer than we expected and the sun was going to set in a few hours. I rushed into trying to traverse on top of the crack and my feet slipped on lichen. Thoughts of a 100-foot whipper resulted into a death scream that scared the shit out of Daniel. To my surprise, I slid down for only 25 feet before the rope stopped me. The cam I had no business trusting held my fall. To say I was happy was an understatement. I took the obvious ramp to my right and belayed Daniel from a giant dead tree. We were happy to be safe and he took the next pitch back to the ridge crest. His pitch was difficult and fun. On the pitch that followed I pulled another 5.10 layback through an overhang and we reached easier terrain on the crest proper. We swung the lead thrice more and finished the climb with a 400ft simul climb. 
Taking in last rays of sun! Looking good!

How I really felt
Cotton Mouth Khafras!
Yellow - part of the approach
Red- Cotton Mouth Khafra (1800, IV 5.11a)
It was quite rewarding to bathe in the last rays of sun on a beautiful summit with our limbs intact. Even though neither of us had much water or had peed in several hours, we knew that an hour or so later we will satisfy our thirst. A few snacks and photo snaps later, the sun set and massive towers of North Guard got dark. It was a sign to get out.
If someone wants to repeat the route, you may, or may not have to cross the line between bad-ass and dumb-ass on multiple occasions. Bringing a drill would not be a bad option, and I don’t think neither of us would care if protection bolts are added. If you like climbs like Windfall-Windchill, Ho Chi Minh Trail and other long adventurous routes, you may like this one. The line it takes is classic, but it is no Serenity to Sons link up.