Climb: Snake Dike in a Day

The tale of the tape

Total hiking (approach plus descent): 14+ miles // 4,000′ vertical gain/loss

Total climbing (roped and final 3rd class slabs): 1,400′

This climb is often called Snake Hike, and for good reason – you spend a lot more time walking than you do climbing! Going car-to-car is a long day on your feet, and a great way to tune-up for longer days in the mountains.

The approach is found in plenty of guidebooks and websites, so I’ll spare repeating it. The only piece of advice I’ll give is the final bit: walking towards Little Yosemite Valley (perhaps 1/4 to 1/2 mile before the LYV sign), there is only one place where the trail meets/crosses a solid granite slab descending from the small ridge on walker’s left. Turn left here, slip through the notch, gain a highpoint, and sight Lost Lake. Work towards Lost Lake – in general losing elevation before you begin to traverse. From Lost Lake the trail becomes more distinct until you hit the talus. For my money, the slabs are the way to go from here. If you’re wearing approach shoes, just pick a low-angle-looking section and gun it. If you’re wearing boots or trail runners, it’s worth putting on climbing shoes.

Half Dome from Lost Lake - Approach slabs are seen on left

At the top of the obvious slabs, choose either a leftward traverse on a well-defined climber’s trail, eventually turning back on itself to gain the final 100′ or so to the base (easily sighted from a distance as the cluster of trees on the shoulder of the dome) – or climbing some easy 5th class ledges directly up and towards the aforementioned trees. The start of the route is obvious as it has a few trees on the right side and a small (2′) roof.

The route itself is straightforward except for one section: the 5.7 friction stepacross. At the second belay, you need to gain the LEFT dike – DO NOT continue straight up towards the right dike. There will be a very small dike about 15′ above the belay moving up and left towards the BIG dike you obviously want. This small dike, as a further enticement, has a bolt quite near it. DON’T get suckered in to clipping this bolt and taking this dike (that is if you want to climb the 5.7 – feel free to go for it if you’re feeling frisky). Instead, stay well below the dike on semi-obvious small dishes for a friction foot traverse. There’s a bolt about 1/3 of the way across to the big dike that’s easily missed, so keep your eyes open.

Runouts? Honestly, I’m no hero, and I never noticed them in the two times I’ve done this climb. You would have to be totally inattentive or actively let go in order to fall on any of the dike pitches. Pay attention and don’t let go.

Seconding up Snake Dike

From here on out you’d just about have to try to get off-route. Follow the dike up. Efficient parties will unrope after the first seated belay – your feet/achilles are likely to be screaming and this will be a MAJOR milestone on the climb.

After this, all that’s left are several hundred feet of seemingly endless 3rd class slabs to the summit. I think this is the crux of the whole day! People seem to talk a lot about wether to stay right or left, but I just go with whatever looks low-angle and it’s always seemed to work out well.

3rd class slabs above Snake Dike

View downvalley

We were lucky enough to hit the summit just after the cables were closed because of rain/lightning danger and literally had the whole summit to ourselves.

From here, you take the cables down – totally surreal to be the only person on the cables when the number is often >100 – and start the knee-brutalizing trip back down to the valley.

View down Half Dome Cables



Climb: Mt. Whitney – East Buttress

Mt. Whitney from the Portal Road

Mt. Whitney from the Portal Road

Best laid plans and all that… The trip was slated for Mt. Russell’s Mithril Dihedral. Day one was the LONG drive from SF to Lone Pine’s multiagency center to secure (we hoped) a much coveted Whitney zone permit. Fortunately my luck with walk-up permits continued and we were set.

After picking up the new(ish) Bishop area guidebook, we walked in killed the rest of the day with  our first climbing at the Portal. Short story: not much easy rock in these parts. The majority of the routes come in at 5.10 or better, so buck up. Afterwards, we headed back to the car to sort gear, thankful for late light, eventually bedding down in the Backpacker’s campground at the portal (elevation: 8,300′). For the first time, I heard no sign of bears during my stay here – they’re notorious in this area: blame it on a steady supply of ma and pa kettle backpackers coming to “do the big one”, lax with their food storage practices.

Without any interruptions I felt almost rested when the alarm went off, and a 5 AM start had us on the trail at 6.

We shouldered packs, mine coming in at 45 lbs. This weight would be terrible if I was just backpacking, but was actually pretty reasonable considering it included half of our rock climbing gear: twin ropes, full rack of protection (including triples of .75-3.0 camalots for the neverending handcrack of Mithril Dihedral, and harnesses, helmets, etc.), 1.5L of water, and I even had the tent – hey, I AM getting more efficient.

White Montains Sunrise

White Montains Sunrise from Whitney Trail

The trip starts along the main Mt. Whitney trail – the superhighway to and from the summit, but pretty quickly branches off to follow the North Fork of Lone Pine Creek (note: this junction is now signed). This year’s snowpack was huge and the river/stream crossings of the North Fork were BANGING. Mandatory shoes off stuff, if you were interested in dry feet, and the infamous waterfall was going to get you no matter what you did to avoid it. Up higher, the Ebersbacher ledges were well clear of snow and and routefinding continues to get easier above the ledges these days as the Forest Service consolidates various use trails. Snow was intermittent from Lower Boyscout Lake to Upper Boyscout Lake. From upper Boyscout we were on continuous snow. Fortunately, the snow was solid and we avoided postholing. No crampons needed, but the ice axes were useful in two places: the ramp up (SW) from Upper Boyscout and the final steep incline to Iceberg Lake. I wear trail runners for 90% of my approaches (which is a big step – I used to wear Chacos on everything up to a few miles), and got VERY tired of having cold wet feet on this trip…

Ryan on the North Fork Trail

Ryan on the North Fork Trail

Day one was to be a bonus climbing day, but the effect of the 6 hour walk in dampened spirits somewhat, and I resigned myself to a day of reading under the incredibly clear and sunny skies. Iceberg lake, our solitary camp, sits at 12,700′, which isn’t exactly the top of the world, but plenty high if you live most days at sea level. I had the benefit of having spent a fair number of nights at elevation this season and felt great.

Ryan Running Barefoot

Running barefoot through the snow (time to quarry some snow to melt).

The sun sets behind Whitney at about 6:30 during June, which makes for a long, cold, dark spell if ambient temperatures dip down. We had no reason to be out and about, and shut ourselves in for the night at 7:30 after running our stoves in a head-to-head race for dinner and snow melting. Iain’s MSR Windpro was the clear winner over my Jetboil (for those that care about such things), which I attribute to the Windpro’s ability to run in liquid fuel mode (inverted). In any case, this was the LONGEST NIGHT OF MY LIFE, laying in my bag, letting the minutes tick by during hours of the evening that most geriatrics would be embarrassed to find themselves in bed. Low temperatures were probably in the low to mid 20’s overnight.

We both awoke to voices at 5 am – basically one phrase repeated over and over: “is your carabiner locked? Yes. Is your carabiner locked? Yes.”… after hearing this five or six times I came to two realizations: 1) this was a guided group and 2) they had left someplace at some ungodly hour to arrive at the base of the mountaineer’s route at 5am. Sadly 5 am feels like time to get up when you’ve been in your sleeping bag 10+ hours, and I once again dug in to my book, desperate to kill time until we had sun on our tent and all of the warmth that would come with it.

7:30 ended up being the hour of salvation, and we made a slow morning of it – boiling water, sorting the rack, etc., as Mithril Dihedral is well known to be a cold route – we wanted every bit of sunlight we could get while climbing.

After weighting the tent, we set off for the Whitney/Russell pass with both crampons and axes. This section is mellow snow climbing, ending in a large windscoured col where one immediately gets a full frontal view of Mt. Russell.

Mt. Russell from the Whitney/Russell Pass

Mt. Russell from the Whitney/Russell Pass

Awesome. Mithril dihedral looked… well, very vertical, to say the least.

Mithril Dihedral

Mithril Dihedral

Our first thought, though, was the incredible wind. Back at camp there was little to no wind. Up here on the pass it was whipping – probably gusting to 40-50 mph. The rest of the approach is easy, crossing talus and a well-tracked scree field. Closer to the base of the route, we agreed to stop and take shelter behind a huge boulder, waiting for the route to come in to full sun. 20 minutes later, we stood back up from behind our improptu shelter and were nearly blown over. The wind, if anything, was picking up.

Still, this is why we had come here, and we decided to make the last bit of the approach before making a go/no go decision. In the end though, our fate was sealed. This would be a tour de suffer – we were both wearing plenty of insulation, hats, and gloves while moving. Sitting at belays would have been miserable at best and dangerous at wost. It was decided: we’d go for the fallback route – the East Buttress of Mt. Whitney.

We tucked our tails and headed back over the Whitney/Russell pass, dropped back down to the tent, dropped off 2/3 of our rack (bringing singles of BD 0.3-3.0 and a single set of nuts), and began the climb up the snow finger leading to the roped first pitch of the East Buttress.

East Buttress, Mt. Whitney

East Buttress, Mt. Whitney

For some maschocistic reason I volunteered to take both ropes (2 x 70M 8.8) for this approach – probably thinking I was tough and wanted the conditioning. Oops. The approach to the base of the route proper honestly felt like the hardest part of the whole trip for me, and Iain agreed. Just a sloggy bit of vertical gain, I suppose, but it had us both sucking wind.

After a short discussion about how best to approach ropework – we decided to pitch it out with simuling when it looked favorable – Iain was off. I love alpine climbing because you’re lucky to see ANY of the features noted in the topo, and this climb was another great example of why an adventurous spirit is required to go beyond cragging to alpine rock climbing. Iain said a number of times, “this isn’t in the topo”… and each time after noting that, simply kept going. In the end, this is one of those routes where, once the grade is established (5.7), the guidebook might simply say “don’t climb anything that’s harder than 5.7”, because the possibilities are endless. I imagine there are places you could get yourself in to trouble from a routefinding perspective, but we quickly abandoned the topo in favor of discretion and judgement.

The one section that felt, to me, sketchy, is the section marked “tightly packed cracks” in supertopo. There is a LOT of very loose rock in this section, all sizes – a veritable sampler pack of lethal gravity’s rainbows waiting to rain granite on you, your rope, and your belayer. Avoid this in favor of the alternate path noted in supertopo (to climber’s right, I believe). Otherwise the route is casual, with as little or much difficulty as you choose. The final two ropelengths (200+ feet) were the only place we asked aloud: “where do we go”?, as we were getting a bit of summit fever. Why? Not because of any particular yen to stand atop the highpoint of the lower 48, but because we were FREEZING OUR ASSES OFF.

By the time we had finished our Russell out and back, touched base, and made it to the base of the East Buttress, it was noon. My one piece of advice, and you’ll find it in all the guidebooks, is to start the East Buttress early. The upper half goes out of the sun at around 4pm in June, and it is a cold, cold, little slice of the world once in the shade. It’s been a long time since I’ve shivered uncontrollably. I was glad to have most of my insulation and wind layers with me, and would have brought a full-on belay parka if I’d known what the overall feel was going to be, with wind and ambient temperatures combining to be, well… low.

Being cold adds a dimension of “epic” to a climb in the high and wild. Big wind (it was catching up with us) always ups the perceived drama of a climb. We had both in spades.

We summitted a little before 6pm (not terrible for 1400 feet of roped climbing), realized we were really the only idiots up there in those conditions, coiled ropes in the now gale-force wind, and started walking around the perimeter of the summit looking for the entrance to the Mountaineer’s route: our descent. After one false alarm, we found it.

Ryan on Summit

Ryan on Summit of Mt. Whitney

Whitney Summit Plaque

Whitney Summit Plaque

Entrance to Mountaineer's Route

Entrance to Mountaineer's Route

Iain, being British, is always describing routes in terms I don’t understand. His accent lends an incredible amount of credibility to whatever he says, though, and this first section was apparently Scottish grade II… whatever that means. What it meant to me is that I wouldn’t have minded a second ice tool, given angle and conditions (quite firm at this relatively late hour).

The upper third of the mountaineer’s route was snow, the middle third (including the notch crossover) was dry, and the bottom third evil, evil, evil, suncups and old postholes. It sucked.

On the descent, as much as I was not enjoying myself, more than anything I was just glad that I wasn’t going to be in bed as early as the night before (seriously, it was grim being holed up for so long. I do NOT know how mountaineers can deal with being tentbound for days on end). And after another stove race (again, the MSR killed the jetboil), we were off to bed with a good long day behind us.

The wind continued to pick up overnight, with big gusts (the NOAA had a ridgeline gust advisory that night, apparently)… the kind that tries to flatten even a burly mountain tent to your face, but I think we were both sufficiently tired enough to basically sleep through the straightline hurricane. Bummer, though, the next morning I awoke to many small holes in my beloved Awahnee tent. Off to Black Diamond – hoping their customer service lives up to their reputation and my expectations.

The descent from Iceberg lake to Whitney Portal was the only reminder I’ll ever need to NEVER again forget trekking poles, but otherwise uneventful. We did meet a number of parties headed up for Iceberg lake, but gave each of them our personal opinion: with the kind of winds we were feeling at the lake that morning, there is NO way that we would attempt for the summit. Something felt deeply unsettled in the weather, and our suspicions were proven when we saw that Mammoth Mountain, north of Whitney, got 3-6″ of new snow that day (June 30th!).

Climbers: Bring an incredibly light rack. We were glad to have brought the #3 BD, though, as there were numerous obvious and helpful placements for it. Overall, we averaged 3-4 pieces of protection placed per 200-250 feet of climbing – less a testament to our climbing (we are both low 5.10 trad leaders) than the nature of the route. There’s tons of 5.5-ish climbing with occasional 5.7-5.8 cruxes throughout.

Final analysis – yes, it’s a long walk for a rock route, but it really is a great package: high-quality rock, lots of it (1,4,00 feet of vertical gain on 5th class rock), and you get to touch the highpoint of the lower 48. I’d go back and do it again without reservation.

Climb: The Stumps

The Stumps is a small climbing crag near Mammoth Lakes, CA.

We had a day to kill before our shot on Bloody Couloir, and decided (more like I insisted) that we get a little climbing in on our free day.

The Lewis/Moynier guide’s directions were not quite as good as I’ve found them to be for other areas. I used the GPS and AccuTerra quad topos a few times to get us to where we were going, but we arrived only having mis-spent about 10 minutes in asutin powers-esque episodes of 20 point turnarounds. Roads are high quality, graded, USFS dirt, and passable in any car.

The Stumps

This area is interesting – essentially the beginnings of a canyon being eroded through the top layer of volcanic bedrock – with two main areas, one roughly north and the other roughly south facing, so finding or hiding from sun is easy. The approach, however, is short (<5 minutes) but highly sucky. The volcanic rock has created a pumice field that one climbs to gain the base of the climbs. Three steps forward, two steps back kind of stuff, and your shoes fill quickly with sharp little crystals and volcanic dust. I’d wear gaiters here next time.

Dusty Shoes

Climbs measure from 5.6-5.10, all trad, and some of the easier climbs have bolted anchors and a walkaround approach to the top, making toproping easy.

We started with  ZigZag crack (5.9), which the guidebook called “the stumps classic”. I would have called it “Illinois Crack”, but then again, I may be biased.

ZigZag Crack - Here a little foreshortened. About 60 feet of quality climbing.

It has two well-defined cruxes – one of which is the second move. A fun climb, but I had to get used to using the solution pockets in addition to the crack. While I came up climbing on limestone I now go years without touching something other than granite, and getting used to the techniques used on other types of rock always takes a few minutes. The top anchor on this one is awkward (2 x .75 BD is a good start) no matter how you slice it.

We also climbed a few of the moderates on Money Wall (the wall in topmost picture), including the 5.6 (name escapes me and guidebook is packed for a future trip) with a two-bolt anchor at the top. This was a COOL 5.6 and would be a great lead for the fledgeling 5.7 leader, as it has a few exposed but all-there moves. CAUTION: There are two VERY LOOSE blocks on this climb, and either would likely result in realllly bad outcomes for your belayer. They are avoidable, however. Test your holds and exercise caution.

Climb: Phantom Spires

Things I climbed

Over Easy – 5.7 – Yep. Over and Easy. It was wise to start with something that got my head in to tying knobs with slings for pro.

Slowdancer – 5.9 – Cool crimpy start followed by something positive every time you need it.

Shark’s Tooth Arete – 5.10 – Defined crux and grounder potential. Fortunately they don’t happen in that order. If this climb were 2-3x as tall it would be a classic.

Gingerbread – 5.7 – A fair amount of suspect rock in the first 50 feet, but recommended overall. Definitely not a beginner .7 lead as the protection is not always obvious.

Climb: Eagle Lake Buttress

The Falcon guide to Lake Tahoe climbing has a brief but intriguing mention of a formation called Eagle Lake Buttress. Multipitch granite with a backcountry feel near Lake Tahoe had me interested, and even though I couldn’t round up a partner for the weekend I decided to go in and check it out. I figured this way I could sandbag the approach with authority when we did decide to hump ropes and a rack back there.

Eagle Lake

Eagle Lake

The walk in to Eagle Lake is trivial and the lake itself is quite beautiful – so accessible and so beautiful this is no doubt someplace in danger of being loved to death. Desolation Wilderness is the most-used wilderness area per acre in the United States, and I get the feeling that most of the impact is concentrated in a few areas; Eagle Lake has to be one of them.

After Eagle Lake, you get the pleasure of either making your way up some biiig slabs or gunning up a talus chute. I chose the talus, as the slabs looked nontrivial – 5th class in my estimate, though I didn’t investigate up close. I did meet two guys on my way out who had come up that way and they didn’t seem overly shaken. What do I know? Once the ridge is gained weave through the huge boulders, point yourself to the buttress, and pick a line.

Eagle Lake Buttress

Eagle Lake Buttress

After sitting and scoping the lines for a bit, I thought that I recognized the line described in the Falcon guide. After lacing up my shoes and telling myself that I would make no move that I wasn’t certain I could downclimb, I set off on my first real free solo.

Funny enough I had just watched “Return to Sender” at Mark’s place the night prior, and was at turns intrigued and made to feel ill by the guy who is profiled in the SoCal free-soloing feature. He talks about how when you’re soloing you exist within an egg – a kind of reduced sensory reality where your body and its immediate surroundings are the only things that exist. About 30 feet off the ground I realized he was right. It was a beautiful day in the high 70’s, a nice breeze, and I was surrounded by beauty on all sides, but all I knew in that moment was the way my hands, feet, heart, and lungs felt, and the possibility, security, and reality of each move.

I’m not sure I went up there intending to solo a 300 foot route, but I did bring my rock shoes, and that says something about intent. The route (takes the obvious line towards the blown pine tree, but stays vertical where the crack leading to the tree diagonals leftward) was well within my ability (probably 5.6 with the possibility to keep it easier if one chooses the easiest moves rather than the most aesthetic), and I never had a thought telling me to “keep it together” or “man, don’t fall”, and I think that there’s a lesson in there to be held even while leading harder stuff: just do what you can with each move.

The rock quality up there is great – granite with some Tuolumne-like inclusions and laser-cut cracks. The crux for me was the downclimb on the mountaineer’s route; a wrong turn or two on those slabs gets sketchy in a hurry.

Would it be worth it to head in with a rope and rack? If you’re in the Tahoe area and want to feel like you’re in an alpine setting, yes. I think of this place as a big crag with a less-than-ideal appproach, the kind of place you go with a friend when you can’t or don’t want to make a full weekend of climbing. And as I’ve thought nearly every day I’ve spent outside; it beats almost anything else you could have done with the time.

View from the top - Emerald Bay

View from the top - Emerald Bay

Climb: A Farewell to Arms

I came.
I saw.
I whipped.

Totally stolen image

Totally stolen image - same route - not me

Saturday – led p2 of One Hand Clapping, so that’s now officially ticked as a leader on all pitches. Those cupped hand jams around the corner are better than I gave them credit for. Also lead Nova Express, a tricky-to-protect 9+ with a nice section of offwidth up top. All in all I was feeling good and fairly confident.

Sunday – up early and the first ones at Snowshed. I set out on my heroic lead.

I worked my way up to the base of the final crack section (crux), plugged in 2 pieces, and make the first move….. no, don’t have it. Downclimb.

Place third piece. Head back up. Go for it! Up, up! FALLING! 15 footer.

Good, the gear held, and the fall was clean. Hang, shake out, get my head back together.

Go for it! Up, up! FALLING! 15+ footer. Hm. Wonder how deformed that top piece (grey alien, fwiw) is going to be. Hang, shake out, get my head back together.

Finally decide that this is it… It’s TIME! Summit or plummet!

Up, up. Good lock fingerlock, plug the famous .75 camalot. Shit. I’m pumped. Go from the lock to bad hands then to a dicey lieback. Hand/foot shuffle, step. fuuuuuuck! I’m falling! And I’m upside down.

Yes, I took an inverted 20 footer after crossing the rope behind my legs while liebacking.

Before I knew what was happening Iain was just going “shit man, shit. Are you ok?” over and over. I started saying “yes yes yes yes” really quietly, I think just to convince myself that I was, even before I grabbed the rope and pulled myself upright. After being lowered it took me a few minutes to put a full sentence together again, and a few minutes after that I was laughing in that way you do when you know you’ve just dodged a bullet.

I am the proud owner of a black and blue (turning to yellow) harness bruise – the outline is vivid – but otherwise completely fine. No neck pain, no weird soreness or aches.

Time to start training. I know that footwork is really the crucial element, but I’m going to have myself doing thin hands pullups by the end of September just to prove a point.

Climb: Tuolumne Meadows

Nice long weekend of climbing, including

West Country (5.7) – What a fun second pitch that is. I hate liebacks and that thing is still a grin. Too bad that it’s going to have to be re-rated a decade from now due to polish. Somebody tell me what grade the direct 4th pitch goes at. I’d like to hear 10a, but I suspect 9.

West Crack (5.9) – Still probably my favorite climb done in the Meadows. The moves off the deck go (actually worst part of the route for me is that 15 foot runout where the crack peters out just before the first (bolted)  belay), the second pitch roof is awesome, whole thing is fun and pretty continuous, and that fingers pitch is just so much fun.

West Crack - credit:

Zee Tree (5.7) – Don’t bother. The problem with TM slab climbs is that if it’s too easy you’re not interested, and if it’s too hard you suddenly find yourself much more religious than you’d realized… ZT is too easy.

Hermaphrodite Flake to the Boltway (5.10a) – This ain’t TM 5.10, kids, that’s for sure. A bolt at the move? What a joke! This is sport climbing… A worthwhile variation to take a classic climb all the way to the top.

Whatever the easy summit route is on Lembert Dome (5.6) – This is a good sunset route, but you’d have to be pretty novice to find fun climbing here. Don’t miss this if you’re anxious to get tree sap all over your rope, though

Does anyone know if there are any restrictions on bivvying on FS land off on 120 west of Lee Vining?

And finally, an ode to the girls at the Woah Nellie Deli:

Funny. no! astounding.

the amount of nice girls

to be found in Lee Vining

who would have imagined

a gas station with hot food

and quite so much raw talent

but though you’re quite cute

cowgirl shirts (but no boots)

I’m afraid any flirting is moot

as I’m sleeping outside, tired, and dirty

making things tricky you see

Oh, that and my girlfriend would kill me