TR: Conness via Harding Route (attempt) 2009-09-06


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Berkeley, CA
Topic Author's Original Post - Sep 8, 2009 - 02:51pm PT
Note: I'll post pics at the bottom of the write-up when I get to it. Check back in a few days.

When the alarm rings at 3:30am, I've already been up for a while. It's our big day for Conness via the Harding Route. Each time I woke in the night, I checked the time for fear of settling back to sleep 10 minutes before it was time to get up! The 40mph winds had nudged Footloose out of his bag down in Lee Vining, and he was an hour early to our Sawmill campground rendezvous. After an introductory handshake and quick gear sort, we're on the trail by 4am along with another couple of dudes doing the West Ridge. Our approach is illuminated by the bright full moon a little past it's apex; headlamps were not necessary beyond the forest. Just hours ago this same moon had guided my solitary stroll amongst the wind-blown Tufas at the south end of Mono Lake. It doesn't happen often that I'm driving by Mono Lake with nothing better to do on a full moon night, so I had seized the moment and flew out the gravel road off highway 395 for a pleasant detour.

On the way up Conness, I've got my climbing pack with 3L of water, food, and jacket, stuffed into a bigger pack along with another 2L of water, food, ropes, and a goretex bivy sack for just in case :) Grunt! My new buddy Footloose is an alpine monster. His pack is at least as heavy as mine, but with a couple trips up Mt Russel in the last month, and a steady diet of running at 6500 to 8500 feet, he's having full conversations with a member of the other party. I'm not hacking up lungs yet, but to keep up I'm conserving my precious wind.

Now, the approach for Harding Route and West Ridge requires effort. You hike from Sawmill campground at 9400 feet, up the East Ridge to the summit plateau near the 12600 foot top of Mt Conness, traverse the plateau and drop down a steep climber's approach gulley to the base at the backside of the mountain! By the time you get to the base of the climb, you've already done enough work to call it a good day. My physical training consists of running up the stairs at the Embarcadero BART station in San Francisco. I feel smug seeing all the lazy folks standing on the escalators to the right as I lope past them every day on the way to work. Here on the Conness approach, after the first headwall off the right side of the trail, I'm not feeling so smug as the rest of the morning troop pulls away from me.

After a very pleasant series of meadows and lakes, we scale the main headwall on the East Ridge of Conness. Eventually we reach the lunar landscape of the summit plateau, amidst winds like the storms of the Great Red Spot on Jupiter. My hands are going numb, so I stuff them into the pockets of my Kirkland blue jeans. It's a good thing Footloose has done this approach before, because after the summit plateau I would have taken us to the gulley immediately to the south of the main summit. And this would be wrong. The second gulley looked possible, though pretty spicy. I guess it's good we took the 3rd gulley down the backside, because it looked much gentler and we still had a few exposed moves to get down. In spots we dodged a thick layer of ice on slime. Another party bailed at this point because they didn't relish the prospect of gale force winds on the West Ridge. Well, the Harding Route is sheltered from the wind, so we couldn't use that excuse. Down the gulley, down the talus field, across the valley and up another talus field, and we're here. From the moment we dropped into the gulley, the entire Southwest Face of Conness dominated our view. It looks big. And steep. And a little set of black roofs ominously mark the start of the climb. I try to focus on the next few minutes to keep the horror of the rest of the day at bay. With 5.5 hours gone on the approach, it's shaping up to be a long one.

Now I'm not sure what made me feel ready for this climb. Overall I think ignorance and stupidity figure larger than courage and spirit. It's irrelevant now as I tie in for the first 5.9 pitch. Well, the guide says it's more like 10c when it's wet. I can't say it was a waterfall, but my jeans are soaked from wiping the water and slime off my hands after every jam. At one point I force my fingers into mud and roots for a makeshift crimp. It's an adventure and soon I'm hanging from 2 solid cams and a nut at my belay, about 30 minutes behind schedule. Heck, that's only 5 hours difference for a 10-pitch route? Maybe we can make it up?

I grab the sharp end on pitch 2, which is a 5.10c pitch almost twice as long as the first. We need to set one thing straight. There's a difference between a few minute approach to a 5.10c pitch on a casual cragging day, and a 10c pitch at 11,000 feet after climbing up one side of a mountain and then down the other side just to get there. Most people can probably figure that out just from reading a topo. Nutjob has to learn things the hard way. The only 10c pitch I've led outside is Lunatic Fringe (which I did on-site with no falls). I've followed the crux of Serenity Crack that seemed easier at 10d (maybe I'd think differently on lead), and I slipped while cleaning aid gear on the 10d crux of Lucky Streaks (I almost followed it free with no falls). And that about sums it up? So what am I doing up here on the Harding Route? Good question. I'm going with ignorance, stupidity, spirit, and courage (in descending order).

The good news? Well you already know we survived the adventure. I did make it up pitch 2 with no falls! And it's a darn good thing because I used almost everything on my rack in the first 150 feet of the 200+ foot pitch, and made a sack-shriveling run on territory completely at my limit. We're talking forearm flaming sewing machine leg when the last piece is out of site below somewhere. The good news is it was so damn hard that I didn't have time to contemplate the rope blowing in the wind below me. Eventually I reach a hanging flake and get a no-hands rest overhanging kneebar. Shaking out, I have time to go through the few pieces left on my rack to find gear that will stick. I find a spot for a little guy way out right, and pull the last 6 feet of relatively easier ground to a sloping ledge. Halfway across to the belay the rope goes taught and Footloose calls "that's me!" I lean into the rope and yank out the remaining distance to the belay. I'm happy the only cam left on my harness (a 3.5 Camalot) settles nicely into a crack and the belay is complete with a cordellete looped over a block. There are rap rings here. We are saved.

Honestly I wanted to try the 10a offwidth two pitches higher. I just want to know where my offwidth limits are. But heck it took us 4-5 hours for the first two pitches! By the time we rapped down, ate lunch, and prepped to hike out, it was 4pm. Footloose the Alpine Monster charged up that climber's approach gulley like it was the stairs at the BART station. At least an hour after him, I made it up and collected my hiking boots. The Alpine Monster took pity on me and relieved me of the ropes for the remainder of the descent! I guess karma works, because I once carried a pack down Conness for another buddy. There's not much more to tell... the Alpine Monster flew down, and I got my second wind and made respectable time, reaching the forest below the two headwalls just when headlamps became necessary. A little trail hike and brief wandering in Sawmill campground later saw us to the cars, where gear was sorted a little after 9pm.

So we climbed up and down Conness TWICE to get in two pitches of 5.10c climbing? Maybe next time I should just go to Cookie Cliff and work on my skills? Good times. Good times.

Social climber
Davis, CA
Sep 8, 2009 - 02:55pm PT
Fun report nutjob, way to get out there and get after it.

Trad climber
Lee, NH
Sep 8, 2009 - 03:16pm PT
Good story. Looking forward to the pictures!
Ed Hartouni

Trad climber
Livermore, CA
Sep 8, 2009 - 03:26pm PT
good on you guys for getting on it!
fun story... I'm worried it may be beyond me (or at least my back)... we'll see.

Sep 8, 2009 - 03:38pm PT
Nice try! That second pitch is harrrrrd.
Nate Ricklin

San Diego
Sep 8, 2009 - 03:41pm PT
Dude, cool report! For some reason I imagine it being super cold while reading that. Makes me want to drink a warm coffee.

Trad climber
Ouray, Colorado
Sep 8, 2009 - 03:41pm PT
Nice report! The wide pitch is okay- couple of lieback moves gets you started. Have fun when you finish it off.

Sep 8, 2009 - 03:43pm PT
good on you guys for at least taking a crack at it.
FYI it doesn't get easier higher up.

I was fortunate in NOT getting the sharp on the OW when Brian&I climbed it. i think he said it was the hardest lead he'd ever had in the mtns (we didn't bring WIDE gear; it wasn't much easier following...)
I seem to recall Peter Crofts book said there was a bolt ladder on the OW pitch - Did anybody else get sandbagged on that one? :')

Trad climber
Santa Clara, Ca.
Sep 8, 2009 - 03:44pm PT
The approach would have done me in....
Jerry Dodrill

Sebastopol, CA
Sep 8, 2009 - 04:55pm PT
Nice, NutJob. Tyler and I went up there in July. We got a late start, were moving fast, but these big scary black clouds were building overhead. As Tyler started the third pitch, I was like, "Are we making good decisions here?" It took two seconds to decide to bail.

Social climber
Wolf City, Wyoming
Sep 8, 2009 - 06:38pm PT
You guys will be back, I can tell! That approach is longer than I think anyone expects. We left late at about 8 and I don't think we were on the route until after noon.

We ran the first two or three pitches (Falkenstein,92, topo) together, with a tiny bit of simulclimbing.
4 & 5 went as one; I was a fit 39 or so back then running marathons every other week and I still thought I'd have a coronary on the odub @12k'. I was ready to just catch my breath at the top of the offwidth when I heard Mike yell
"Okay, Jay the rope went tight, here I come." So I went on, up the squeeze with no break but set up a belay before the face move.
I think the rest went in two pitches.
We hiked out and had dinner done before dark. I drove back to Reno while Mike quietly got sick for the next several days while Anne made him soup or something.

But you'll be back, my Brother and I took three times to get all the way up McCarthey West Face on Devil's Tower, a three year grade six.

Berkeley, CA
Topic Author's Reply - Sep 8, 2009 - 07:22pm PT
Jaybro, "you's a bastid."

You save that having-a-coronary-when-I'm-in-marathon shape until after we flailed, and before-hand you tell me it's not that bad.

Well, I can interpret that as a supreme sign of confidence (albeit highly misplaced), or you're a sandbagger from hell!

Well, I wouldn't change a thing since I'm on this side of it alive and happy! And we'll be back. But first I must learn to better Use the Force.

Thanks all for feedback, pictures to come!

Trad climber
San Leandro, Ca
Sep 8, 2009 - 07:42pm PT
I feel your pain, slogging behind skinny marathoners as they cheerfully chat each other up...
I was hot for this climb this summer, couldn't talk my partner into it. I don't think I would do it car-to-car though. I would need the slog to altitude and bivy to pull it off. I look foward to the OW, but then, I was dropped on my head as a baby...

Trad climber
Ouray, Colorado
Sep 8, 2009 - 07:47pm PT
Go for it- car to car isn't a problem. The wide pitch is not bad and the pitches above go quickly. It gets a lot of sun so staying warm at that altitude isn't a problem if you pick a decent day. I think it's one of the better "longer" routes in the Sierras.

Trad climber
Wall Climber Wannabe
Sep 8, 2009 - 08:52pm PT
Did you take any extra gear to do it in 70 meter pitches?

The standard rack sounds like a double set of finger size to #3 BD cams with a #6 Camalot for the OW.

Sounds like quite the adventure!


Social climber
Davis, CA
Sep 8, 2009 - 10:28pm PT
I think we took a single #4 camalot as well as that double rack. Maybe just 1 #3 as well. And the 6.

Trad climber
Ouray, Colorado
Sep 8, 2009 - 10:44pm PT
You don't need a #6, when it's that size you can get your leg in.

Sep 8, 2009 - 10:58pm PT
Looking forward to the pics ! A friend just did this one, but not car to car ..

Trad climber
The here and now
Sep 9, 2009 - 01:27am PT
Hey Nutjob,
Good on ya for getting out there! The Harding route is one of those routes I did back 20 years ago. Great climb! Don't listen to donini or jaybro! Those guys are just too good to be a good source of beta...unless you climb at their level.

When I did it, I probably had as much 5.10 crack experience as you, so your judgement is not out of wack. We supposedly did the 5.11 variation, which wasn't so bad, but still resulted in yelps of satisfaction from both of us. I remember pulling on a piece on the next 5.9 pitch though (it was an alpine climb!). I also remember asking about the OW, and my partner, who was a strong climber, saying "we'll deal with it when we get there." When we got to it, it was my lead. He just smiled as he handed the rack to me!

If I remember correctly, the pitch starts out hands and gets wider and wider. I made it up and out of the OW section ok and grabbed a sling (it was an alpine climb!) just as my foot slipped off a smear. Whoa, if that sling wasn't there and I hadn't grabbed it, I would have fallen a ways on one of those old bolts. That was the only drama. No 70+ meter pitches, etc. Some loose rock near the top but nothing major.

We also did it Labor Day weekend, and got to the summit just at sunset. Back to the campground in TM at 10pm. Dawn start, so it was a 16 hr day. Totally doable.

10 years later, I went back up with my partner Wes. I was a high snow year, so the approach was more difficult and it took us 4+ hours to get to the base. We were too tired by then, so just went and did the West Ridge. Found a 3.5 Camalot at the base though, so worth the hike!

I love Conness. Glad I bagged that one before I got too old!



Trad climber
Lake Tahoe
Sep 9, 2009 - 02:52pm PT
Hey, thanks for the writeup, Nutjob! (a) Very funny in places... (b) I know it will serve as inspiration to get back there!

Here's a shot of Conness, Southwest Face, in full, top to bottom:

You all should know Nutjob was modest in his writeup: the gusts over the top were about 50mph, no kidding, even so, Nutjob was still a 9 on the 1-10 motivation scale for getting on it! full well knowing it was at our limit (and probably beyond mine) and even after another team bailed because of the conditions and even after checking out pitch one's wetness that was harboring icicles. Now that's the Nutjob Spirit, woo hoo!

Happy Climbing!
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