"I began at the first hint of dawn and spent all day on this great spine of granite, coming closer than ever to the ideal traverse. To climb for miles and never leave the skyline." - Peter Croft
I first read Croft's description of the Evolution while leafing through his classic guide The Good, The Great, and the Awesome. It was the summer of 2010, and I'd just come down from my first real "alpine" climb and summit: the U-Notch Couloir on North Palisade. My buddy Zach and I drove south on 395 toward Lone Pine, the hills and summits of the Sierra passing by outside my window. I closed my eyes and tried to imagine what it would be like to be on that great spine of granite, traversing for miles and miles. At the time, the Evolution Traverse seemed mind-boggling huge. 8 miles of technical ridge traversing? 5.9 free soloing? 9 summits above 13,000ft? Hell, it took Croft himself three tries to complete the whole traverse in a push. Surely this was not something for mere mortals to attempt...
And yet, only a few years later, I had achieved immortality. In August 2013, my friend Matt and I on-sight soloed the Evolution Traverse in ~14hrs from Darwin Bench to the summit of Mt. Huxley. Needless to say, stoke was high, and I vividly remember watching one of the more incredible sunsets of my life illuminate the Evolution Basin as we walked back to our camp. We were both worked from the experience, and as we hobbled over Lamarck Col back to our car the next day I told Matt, "That was awesome, but my knees are f&*cked. I am NEVER going to climb that thing in a day again."
Like any good alpinist, however, I quickly forgot about the suffering and my promise to stay away. In the weeks after we climbed the traverse I had looked more into different speed records on the route, and I learned that while a small handful of people had climbed it in a car-to-car push, no one had done so in less than 24 hours. By the end of last summer, the best effort so far was Vitaliy's super proud 27hr C2C onsight push. It seemed ridiculous, maybe even impossible, but I started to wonder: could I do it in less than a day? Months passed, different climbing trips came and went, but the thought stayed in the back of my mind.
In early May I drove south from Seattle with plans to spend most of the summer climbing in California. May in the Valley was an incredible time, filled with good climbs and good friends, but the towering walls began to feel claustrophobic and soon left me dreaming of alpine ridgelines and endless vistas. The mountains were calling. After a trip up Zodiac I developed some biceps tendonitis in both shoulders, and that seemed like as good a sign as anything to rest my arms and head to the hills. In early June I moved from Camp 5 up to the high country.
From the beginning I knew that I wanted to do the Evolution, car-to-car, in under 24 hours. Was it possible? I still didn't know, but I wanted to try. If I wanted to have a decent chance at all, however, I knew I needed to get acclimated and fit. Charging alpine ridges is much different from storming big walls or even big free climbs, so I went to work. In the three weeks leading up to the traverse I soloed, car-to-car: Cathedral Peak; Matthes Crest; the Thunderbolt to Sill traverse; the East Ridge and North Buttress of Bear Creek Spire; and the Temple-Gayley-Sill traverse via the Sunribbon Arete. I also spent 4 days climbing at The Incredible Hulk, and cragged and bouldered in Tuolumne Meadows. Life is good on the Eastside!
Finally, on the evening of the 22nd, feeling acclimatized, rested, and psyched, I pulled my van into the North Lake parking lot. I spent a couple hours prepping gear and making final decisions on what to bring. A harness and belay device? No, a double-length sling and single locker would do. Beer to stash at Darwin Bench? Hell yes. A helmet? No. Crampons? Yes. And so on and so forth. By 9pm I was satisfied with my choices and tried to get a few hours of sleep. I rolled restlessly for what seemed like forever, and even pushed back my alarm from 12:30 to 1:30. I'm still not sure if I ever really slept.
I pressed Play on my iPhone and the opening blasts of Rage Against the Machine's "Killing in the Name" coursed through my ears as I stomped away from the trailhead. Some people might not like the idea of listening to music in the mountains, thereby "drowning out" the sounds of nature. Don't get me wrong, I'm a big fan of birds chirping, wind blowing through trees, bubbling streams, etc. But for big solo days, I turn that s**t up to 11. You gotta fuel the psyche, and as I wove my way up the switchbacks toward Lower Lamarck Lake, my carefully selected mix of pounding rock and gangsta rap blasting in my ears had me STOKED.
I crossed the outlet below Upper Lamarck Lake and tried to follow the meandering trail up the steep hill rising out of the blackness in front of me. Despite my best efforts I completely lost the trail, and not wanting to waste time backtracking, decided I'd just blaze my own path up the slope. I was soon scrambling big, loose talus, and started to think I might have screwed myself. Getting lost less than an hour into attempt to set a speed record is never a good tactic. I started pulling some legit 4th class moves and was even thinking about heading back down to find the trail, when I spied a traversing ledge system out right. I followed this for a ways, and after a bit more 3rd class upward scrambling, pulled up onto the familiar broad, sandy plateau that marks the way to Lamarck Col. Thank god. I continued up snow fields and sandy trails above.
I clambered over Lamarck Col (12,900') and the faint dawn light on the horizon illuminated the hulking outlines of Mt. Darwin, Mt. Mendal, and Mt. Gould across the valley in front of me. Even this stretch of the traverse seems huge, even though it's only about 1/3 of the full ridge. I couldn't wait to be up there.
After leaving some food and beer at Darwin Bench, and trading out my trail runners for a pair of sticky rubber approach shoes, I started up the gully that marks the beginning of the traverse. Back at the parking lot I'd hemmed and hawed for awhile trying to decide whether or not to bring a pair of aluminum crampons, as it seemed like a lot of weight for something I'd only use once or twice. I'd brought them, somewhat begrudgingly. But now, as the gully steepend and filled with hard, icy snow, I was happy to be able to strap on the spikes. Damn that gully is long! It took forever to reach the ridge.
In the first third of the traverse it is easy to "get lost" amongst the towers. Not literally, as the way forward is always fairly easy to see, but more in the sense that you don't really know which peak you're climbing. You're surrounded by pillars and corridors of stone and exposure, and there's not much to do except keep running the gauntlet. As I passed the 3hr mark, I had no idea whether I was on Mendel or Darwin. I had already climbed through a number of steepish sections, and I really, really hoped I was on Darwin. If not, well, I was in trouble. My buddy Zac West has a really good beta sheet for the traverse, and he calls Mendel the 20% mark. I did some quick mental math as I scrambled up steep 4th class and low 5th ledges, and realized that if I was only on Mendel, I was on pace for 16+hrs on the ridge. There was no way I could still break 24hrs with this kind of time. I figured the slowest I could climb the ridge and still make it was 14hrs. I scrabbled up a few more steep sections and up onto a flat summit plateau. I looked south and saw the even larger summit plateau of Mt. Darwin still far away. F#*k. My heart sank and I heard a voice in the back of my mind tell me, "You can't make it. You're too slow." My eyes scanned past Darwin and fixated on a peak way, way out in the distance. Mt. Huxley. The final summit of the traverse. It was so far away that it seemed silly that I was even trying to get there.
If I had been trying to onsight the traverse I might have bailed at this point. But I knew the road ahead. I knew that I had had similar feelings in this spot a year earlier, and we'd still made it with plenty of time. Looking at the whole ridge it seemed impossible, but just looking at the next section to Darwin I could see the line I would take and knew I could climb through it quickly. One step at a time, I thought. I sped across the summit of Mendel with increased urgency and climbed faster as I wove through gendarmes toward Darwin.
The summit block on Darwin is definitely one of the coolest features on the route. About 10'x10' on top, it is vertical or overhanging on all sides. I pulled up the exposed moves and sat down on the granite sofa. This was the first time I'd truly stopped since leaving Darwin Bench and I needed a break. I'd made up some time since Mendel and arrived at Darwin in 4:20. (For the record, I'd say that Mendel is more like 25-30% of the whole thing, and Darwin is spot-on around 35%.) I spent about 20min on the summit eating, drinking, and reading the tattered copy of On the Origins of Species. Someone should take up a new copy soon. I eyed the steep and exposed down climbing beyond Darwin and was glad I'd done this part before. This was the only section that I felt like I was truly taking risks by soloing, and I carefully picked my way past precariously perched blocks and many fixed rappel stations. I pulled out my rope for one 15m rappel in this part, but other than that I free-soloed everything.
After motoring past the Golden Triangle (so cool!) I'd made it to Peak 13,332' in 6.5hrs since leaving Darwin Bench. The climbing in this section is definitely some of the best on the entire route. A lot of true crack climbing and knife-edge traversing. At one point I deviated a bit too much from the correct line and ended up down climbing some pretty steep and flaky 5.9 cracks, but it wasn't too bad. I was starting to feel the fatigue in my knees and thighs, but I knew I was moving faster and was now on pace to do the ridge in ~13hrs. I popped an extra strength Tylenol and headed toward Haeckel. For the next few hours I stopped only briefly. The climbing is much easier in general from 13,332 to Warlow, but this section also contains some of the worst rock on the entire traverse, particularly right before Haeckel and mid-way between Haeckel and Fiske. There are very few parts of the traverse where you can truly let your guard down. In some of the flatter sections I actually willed myself to run along the ridge, and even on the technical parts I consciously focused on moving as fast as possible. It wasn't comfortable, but then again, I thought, I'm not here to be comfortable. I thought about my friend Hayden, who had once wanted to retreat off a climb in Pakistan in bad conditions, but who continued when his partner told him, "No. We knew it would be this way. This is why we are here. We must continue." I knew it would be this way. I knew I was going to have to suffer. I continued.
By the time I dragged myself onto the summit of Warlow I was definitely feeling all the miles and hours of exertion. Descending off of Fiske I'd felt my quads in both legs start to seize up, and had to stop for a bit to massage them back to life. I personally think Warlow is one of the sleeper cruxes of the entire traverse. The climbing isn't particularly hard (it's actually pretty cool low 5th) but it is fairly sustained and there are so many goddamn false summits! So many times I wanted to sit down on a ledge and just take a break, but I knew I couldn't stop. I knew that I was never, ever going to try to do this again, and I couldn't stand to bear the thought of putting in so much effort and not succeeding. There was not going to be another time. There was no tomorrow. I had to give it everything I had right now.
I vaulted a few more granite blocks and pulled up onto the summit of Mt. Huxley. Whew! I looked in amazement back across the Evolution basin at the entire great granite spine I had just traversed. Those who have climbed the route will understand what I mean when I say that the whole thing seems even more improbable after you've done it. It's just so damn LONG. I'd climbed from the Darwin Bench to the summit of Huxley in 12:33 and felt pretty psyched on my time. Even though it had hurt a few times, I actually had a LOT of fun surfing that huge granite wave, and I had a huge smile on my face. I took a few minutes to soak in the view and the experience, snapped a couple of silly summit photos, and headed down. I had 7.5 hours to beat the 24hr mark. Walking alone through the Evolution Basin as the setting sun covered the walls around me in golden light was a wonderful experience.
Back at the Darwin Bench I ravenously ripped open my cache. I'm not sure what I was more excited to see, the sandwich and the beers, or the clean, dry pair of socks. My feet were starting to feel pretty worked and my socks were damp from sweat. I could feel a couple of blisters forming. I was very glad I'd left a pair of comfortable trail runners at the cache to replace my approach shoes. I turned off my headlamp for a bit and enjoyed the silence of the mountains at night, a kaleidoscope of stars above my head. I pounded one of my beers, popped a Percocet, and headed off up the canyon. To my surprise I was still feeling really good at this point (all those other c2c missions were paying off!) and with 4.5hrs to complete a section that only took 3:20 on the way in, I was very confident that I had it in the bag. (cue the Scooby Doo "ruh roh" voice)
I stared up at the hill leading to Lamarck Col, even though I couldn't see a damn thing. My headlamp illuminated the first 20 yards or so in front of me, but after that it might as well have been a black hole. The beer and Percocet were doing wonders for the soreness and pain in my legs and feet, but I think they were starting to impair my mental faculties. I was having trouble making decisions on which direction to head, and my balance felt off. For the first time all day I ate s#*t hopping some boulders just before the hill. Without any moonlight I couldn't tell exactly where the tiny notch of the col was, but I figured I'd just follow the cairns up and over. No problem, right? I spied a stack of rocks ahead and plodded off up the slope.
About 20min later I realized it had been quite some time since I'd seen a cairn. I looked around hoping to see one. Nothing. I turned off my headlamp to gauge my position against the ridgeline above, but I could hardly tell where the rocks stopped and the sky began. For the first time in many hours, doubt began to creep back in. I truly did not know if I should head further left or further right. I went left. I picked my way up steepening stacked blocks, and I knew I wasn't on the right path. Nothing looked familiar, it was way too steep. But I knew I was eating away at my time, and the thought of retracing my steps back down the slope was unthinkable. This is so f*#ked, I thought. I kept looking for some trace of passage, a cairn, a footprint, anything, but each time my headlamp scanned back and forth there was nothing to be seen. I pushed onward and after what seemed like forever I finally came to the crest of the ridge. I turned off my headlamp and peered into the murky blackness below. After a moment my eyes adjusted enough to see that I'd come up the hill about 300 yards too far to the left of the col itself. I briefly thought about traversing the ridge over to the col, but I could see a number of gendarme-type features in the way and didn't want to waste any more time going in the wrong direction. The lizard brain was starting to take over. I looked straight down at the slope below me. I could see steep snow and a couple of rock bands, but it seemed like I could do a bit of down climbing and traversing that would deposit me into a broad snow slope that led into the basin below. I pulled out my crampons and started down the steep, icy crust. Quickly I came to a rock band, but I was too lazy to take off my spikes. How bad could it be? Well, let's just say that the next five minutes involved some shenanigans that I hope to never repeat, including hanging from a single hand-jam with my feet kicking at nothing but air. "This is so f*#ked," I said out loud to myself multiple times. I made sure to take off my crampons at the next rock band (much safer) and stumbled down the easy snow slope below.
I ripped my crampons off my shoes and looked at the clock. F&*k. I had 6-7 miles and 3,200' to descend, and less than an hour and a half to do it. I did some quick mental math. F&*k. If I wanted to beat 24hrs, there was only one way it was going to happen. And boy did I want it. Bad. They say cocaine is a hell of a drug. Well, desire is a hell of an emotion. And so I cinched down my pack straps, tied my shoelaces tight, and started to run.
I pounded across the sandy plateau, my headlamp sweeping the ground ahead in search of the trail. There! A footprint! I turned eastward on the path and started running faster. Maybe a little too fast. I'd lost the path almost as fast as I'd found it. I slowed down and traversed back and forth until I regained the faint line in the sand. When possible, I ran, when not, I just tried to move as fast as possible. Snow patches warmed by the previous day's sun slowed my progress as I post-holed downhill. My headlamp had grown noticeably fainter and I lost the path many times. I trusted my intuition and luckily found it again each time. I kept running.
I crossed the logjam at the outlet below Lower Lamarck Lake and stopped for the first time since the lake below Lamarck Col. I checked the clock. I had 27 minutes. "You've got this," I said out loud to myself, and took off again down the rock-strewn path. There was no more pain in my feet. No more ache in my knees. The sound of my own ragged breathing filled my ears as I willed my legs to move faster. Trees and boulders flew past in a dim blur. I wove down the switchbacks, nearly tripping over roots and rocks in the path. Turn after turn after turn. How many more could there be? No time to stop and worry. Just keep moving.
And then I was suddenly out of the forest, across the footbridge, and sprinting the final few hundred yards. It was going to be close. I careened past dark, quiet campsites, their residents sound asleep and blissfully unaware of my race against the clock. A reflection. A car. The parking lot. I ran to the trailhead sign, threw off my pack, and grabbed my phone to check the time.
I'd made it. Just barely, with less than two minutes to spare. But still, I'd made it. I collapsed onto the ground next to my pack, turned off my headlamp, stared up at the stars twinkling high above and chuckled to myself at the absurdity of it all.
Having climbed the Evolution twice now, both times in a push, I don't think I'll be heading back to do it again any time soon. That said, it has to be one of the coolest traverses out there, and if you haven't done it yet you absolutely should. I believe it is FAR easier than most people make it out to be, and I wouldn't be surprised to see more C2C attempts happening in the near future. I certainly think that it would be easy for someone to beat my time, as I wouldn't consider myself especially "fit," I got lost twice, and I stopped many times to eat and drink throughout the day. I can easily envision an acclimated, fit person doing sub 22hrs or even sub 21hrs. However, I still think the "best" way to do it would be to bivy on the ridge. It is so beautiful out there that I really wish I could have spent a night up on the spine. I'd probably remember more of it this way too. The full traverse is so big that even after doing it twice, by cramming so much climbing into such a small period of time there are large portions that I cannot recall at all. I can remember moments or positions, but between them I have no memory of the climbing. Strange.
Lastly, just in case my account makes it seem like it wasn't too hard, I will say that I am completely and utterly worked right now (I'm writing this the day after the climb). My palms feel like they've been raked across broken glass, both feet have a number of blisters, my ankles hurt if I turn them at all, and it's actually difficult just walking around. I'm definitely not wearing anything but sandals for a couple of days. Doing the C2C mission was likely the hardest I've ever pushed myself physically on a climb.
The summer is young. The mountains are waiting. Get after it!
Miles hiked: 26ish
Miles of technical ridge traversing: 8ish?
Hardest climbing: 5.9ish
Elevation gain/loss: 15,000+ ft
C2C total: 23:58
Trailhead (TH) to Lamarck Col: 2:20
TH to Darwin Bench (DB): 3:20
DB to Mendall: 3:30
DB to Darwin: 4:20
DB to 13,332: 6:30
DB to Haeckel: 8:00
DB to Fiske: 10:07
DB to Huxley: 12:33
JMT back to DB: 1:30
DB to base of Lamarck Col hill: 1:14
Going back up over Lamarck Col: 2:00
Base of Lamarck Col back to TH: 1:28
Time resting/eating/not moving: at least 1:30
(1) 30m 8mm rope
(1) doublength runner
(1) locking carabiner
(1) pair aluminum crampons
(1) pair trailrunners
(1) pair sticky rubber approach shoes
(3) pairs socks
(1) R1 hoody
(1) light rain shell
(1) synthetic vest
(1) Cilogear 30L pack
(1) pair sunglasses
(1) tube sunscreen
(1) iPhone & headphones
(1) pair trekking poles
(1) 1L Nalgene
(1) 2L drom
(2) cheese and avocado bagel sandwiches
(5) Clif bars
(3) packs Clif shot blocks
(1) small bag trail mix
(20) Reed's ginger chews
2L worth of electrolyte beverage mix