Mount Conness, West Ridge, June 2002

“Two Cathedral Peaks stacked on top of one another”. It’s 6 a.m. as we shiver out of our sleeping bags at our Young Lakes camp. Surrounding us are tall trees, cold water, high granite, and silence. We haven’t seen a soul since the tourist yesterday who warned us of an impassable river crossing on our trail ahead. Fortunately, a little scouting around soon reduced ‘impassable’ to ‘wet feet’.

The story begins nearly four years previous, when I had met Scott on a trip to Seneca Rocks. Years later, I find out he’s now a grad student in Berkeley. I’ll be passing through this summer. Want to go climbing? Sure. Plans are easy to evolve from the safety of e-mail.

So here we are, Scott and Chris and I, getting ready for the West Ridge of Conness. If you added their ages together you would exceed mine, but not by much. Age and experience, however, are not always correlated; I may be the math professor, but on this trip I’m the student. We arrived in the Meadows a couple of days back, warmed up by the roadside on Stately Pleasure Dome, and now we are getting ready for a 12-pitch extravaganza.

First though we have to reach the base. It’s cold and the patches of steep snow on our 4-mile hike are frozen hard. My stomach is not feeling too good either. On the final rocky slope I have to take some time out behind a convenient boulder. Now I can truly say that this route has scared me shitless.

9 a.m. and we are roping up at the base of the climbing. A marmot appears and starts looking for a handout. He has seen climbers before. Scott tries to deter him with a shower of pebbles. Chris, more pacific, remonstrates with Scott – but even Chris changes his mind when the critter decides to chew on our rope. We drive the marmot away, and Chris sets off on pitch 1.

I remember hardly anything of that pitch. But the next one is different. Scott leads up over a dirty slab, through a lieback/stem section. “There’s a fixed nut here – a red one. Don’t bother trying to clean it”. Now up into a corner, move round the corner to the left, up another slab, towards a little roof. Now he is getting ready to move through the roof. The sun has not reached the rock yet. It is cold.

Suddenly a yell of fear breaks through the air. A single shout – and then complete silence. We cower at the belay, rope locked off, trying to shelter from whatever is about to fall on our heads. After a tense five seconds Scott shouts again: “THERE’S A HUGE LOOSE BLOCK! IT COULD COME DOWN ANY MOMENT! DON’T TOUCH IT!” Actually, he didn’t need to add that last bit. The teacher needs to allow the student to figure something out for himself.

Scott pulls through the roof, which looks frightening from my perspective, and sets the belay. I reassure myself that the pitch is only rated 5.6 and set off. I reach a red nut and leave it, as per Scott’s instructions. Eight feet more and I reach ANOTHER red nut. So which is fixed? I sure can’t move this one! After some shouting up and down I play the lazy student and leave Chris to sort the matter out.

Up past some wide stemming into the little corner. Up, up – too far. I am above the next piece of gear which is over on the slab to my left. I need to find a way round. Fortunately a neat foothold shows up at just the right moment and I ooze around onto the slab just below the roof. Where is the death block? Ah, over to the left. Now I can see that the roof is not hard at all, but I am still nervous about the block even though it is three feet away. Treating every hold with great caution I climb past the roof and arrive at the belay.

Ten pitches to go, but from now on things are much mellower. An easy third pitch deposits us on the ridge, in the sunshine, amid fantastic rock scenery. On our right is the 1000-feet vertical of Conness’ West Face. On our left, steep eroded granite running down to Roosevelt Lake. As the sun gets higher and the view gets better, we overdose on spectacular climbing. About halfway, ten feet of ‘mixed climbing’ – wedged between the rock and a frozen snow patch – gives us a literal opportunity to chill out.

I’m watching Chris and Scott closely. I want to emulate the efficiency with which they move. Downtime on the belay transitions is minimal too. I think about some of the tangles I’ve gotten into and resolve to practise more. Every minute sorting out the rope and the gear is a minute you are not climbing.

Mid-afternoon we’re on pitch 11 and Chris reports, “Second class territory ahead”. We move together up to the summit. The altimeter says there are 400 feet vertical to go but suddenly we’re there with the Sierra spread out below us. We scarf down food and water and sign the summit register. We are the only ones on the mountain today. Then someone asks “What about the eclipse?” Yes, a partial eclipse is scheduled for right now. But how to view it? We take one sheet of the SuperTopo and punch a small hole in it, then hold a blank sheet up behind. Our improvised pinhole camera works! We can see a clear image of the sun with a good-sized bite taken out of it. Science in action….

We are not home yet. SuperTopo describes the descent ridge as “very exposed but trivial”. Very exposed it certainly is, but today the first 150 feet are a narrow crest of frozen snow. We don’t have axes or crampons and Scott doesn’t even have boots. I feel that this is going to be far from trivial, but Scott and Chris exude confidence. Previous parties have left good-sized steps down the snow crest. Scott throws a couple of big cams into a crack in the summit block and we belay down a pitch to securer ground.

Now it’s a race with the setting sun back to our campground and hot food, never more welcome. The camera is waiting for us there too. Chris forgot to bring it, and I’m not sorry. Being there is what counts.

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