The High Sierra
The Sierra are currently my home range and I’ll always have an affinity for this narrow strip of clean granite rising out of eastern California desert scrubland. It was here that I first used an ice axe, first took the sharp end of the rope, and planned my own trips and what a place to learn! The Sierra has an incredible variety of terrain and still has plenty of wild places. The long and difficult approaches on the Eastside certainly also really make you earn the perfect conditions up high and can really teach you how to suffer. I take a lot of inner strength to the great ranges when I reflect on some of my Sierra climbs. All of my longest, hardest days have come when underestimating these deceptively soft peaks.
The California 14ers
Okay, it’s true, I have a bit of peakbagger instinct. My love for the mountains comes not from pulling the individual moves, but rather from growing up on family camping trips and wanting to explore everything in sight. It’s nice to have a few longer term projects, and since I’ve been heading to the Sierra for a while, big goals like climbing the 15 14,000 ft peaks in California (13 of which are located in the High Sierra) are a great way to see the range. I also have tried to do them all with a bit of a twist, either by a slightly more challenging route, solo, winter, for speed, or a linkup.
The highest peak in the lower 48 obviously catches the imagination early. My first experience with Whitney was a Thanksgiving attempt of the classic Mountaineer’s Route early in my development. A minor fiasco with decisionmaking reminds me of the seriousness of this activity. It’s still probably the biggest set of mistakes I’ve made in the mountains and the most I’ve ever learned. I ended up climbing it in winter a few years later in an idyllic way.
Russell, Whitney, Keeler Needle and Muir Linkup
This was a fun way to climb a few 14ers in August with a few friends who were new to climbing. I still think the East Ridge of Russell is the most spectacular and fun 3rd class route I’ve done in the range.
I climbed Langley via Old Army Pass over Thanksgiving. A friend accompanied me partway but I soloed the upper mountain as he was feeling the altitude.
I tried to climb the St. Jean Couloir with a friend but absolutely horrendous snow conditions (neck deep!) quickly made us turn back for some rock climbing. I returned a few weeks later and soloed this spectacular steep and narrow chute.
One of the most beautiful places I’ve ever been. I found the Northeast Face fun and the views were fantastic. I believe my 7:28 round trip is the fastest known time on the mountain.
Sill and the Palisades Traverse
The North couloir of Sill was one of my favorite climbs. The hype about it having the best summit view in the Sierra is hard to argue with as well. I also did the Thunderbolt-Starlight-North Palisade-Polemonium-Sill traverse. Still my longest “day” ever in the mountains, we climbed continuously for 26 hours. It was truly a dream come true to climb North Palisade, and I view this group as the heart of the range. The spectacular lakes, the largest glaciers in the range, and the steepest, highest rock makes this the place I’ve visited the most.
I’ve tried repeatedly to climb Tyndall and Williamson. They’re the most remote of the CA 14ers. I finally was able to climb Tyndall in a beautiful and challenging winter day climb. Hampered by poor snow conditions, the 9000ish foot vertical ascent and descent took 23 hours.
Sometimes it’s just about saving the biggest for last. While Whitney is higher, there’s no question that Williamson is the giant of the Sierra. It rises straight out of Owens Valley and requires heinous approaches whatever way you choose. I’ve had Williamson in my sights 4 times now, but have turned away usually due to a lack of time or motivation. Maybe one of these days I’ll work up the energy to try the long and difficult Northeast Ridge, which presents miles of technical climbing to the summit.
Other Regions and Favorites
North Peak and Conness
I love these gems near Tioga Pass. These peaks still present the full alpine feel, but are relatively accessible from Saddlebag Lake. The North Couloir of North Peak was my first Sierra snow/ice climb. And the North Ridge of Conness has some of the most enjoyable moderate clean granite rock climbing I’ve done.
Winchell, Agassiz and Gayley
Agassiz was my first High Sierra climb, so it will always have a special place for me. The hike to Bishop Pass is spectacular and the route is accessible, easy and fun. The views of the Palisades from up high are amazing. The East Arete of Winchell was my first time seeing the Palisades up close. I remember just how long and hard the approach is and realized that I’d stumbled on the heart of the range. There’s also a really spectacular finish and a very airy summit. Gayley is overlooked by everything else in the Palisades. Sometimes it’s nice to climb a shorter, simpler peak surrounded by giants and enjoy the day. Gayley fit the bill after partners abandoned an attempt on North Pal.
The East Arete of Humphreys is the most fun technical climb I’ve done in the High Sierra so far. I’m sure there are more to come, but the rock was perfect, the mountain is huge and offers views of the entire range.
Most recently, I climbed this beautiful granite spire located on the Sierra crest near Mount Abbot in the Mono Recesses. Despite its accessibility, it is seldom climbed.