Trip ReportSABER RIDGE - obscure gem? or new classic in the California alpine
Saber Ridge (FA: Scott Thelen & Justin Dille '08 / Brandon Thau & Chris LaBounty '09), for whatever reason- became both a rallying cry as well as a distant goal- for myself and my friend Gil, somewhere along the road of the sweet summer of 2016. It was more of a faint hope to help get us through the complete lack of rock we would be seeing in CA's snowy months, after some of our most active yet in our personal climbing journeys. Both Gil and I managed to get after it a few times in winter, reaching mountaineering objectives here in CA, but made plans for SABRE as we yearned for the dry, velcro-like granite of the CA high country.
In all likelihood, Saber leapt into our thoughts after climbing Charlotte Dome in a smooth & fast send that had us psyched for more. We wondered what else out there might have a LONGER approach than Charlotte (10mi + some gain) that would require actual pitches of climbing... and figured whatever that might be would result in a grand adventure in our home range.
'The Saber' became an idea and an obsession probably also equally as much because we came across this article & writeup from Sierra Mountain Guides ( http://www.sierramtnguides.com/new-routes-in-sequoia-national-park/ ) that described the route and the area, and had us blown away.
' This ridge is the premiere attraction in the area at this point. That it was apparently not climbed before 2008 might be one of the eternal mysteries of the High Sierra. Nevertheless, it does live up to its beauty and reputation. It is a ridge traverse as much as a climb, in the style of Matthes Crest in Tuolumne, only better. The rock is of equal quality to Matthes, but the Sabre Ridge is longer, more dramatic, more committing, and with better climbing. In any case this climb is by anyone’s measure certain to be a 5-star classic.'
We are also both of course bigtime fans of Peter Croft, and hearing his positive stoke on the route and the area was also another factor influencing our decision to make visiting the area our Memorial day weekend priority for 2017.
The FA was also supposedly relatively recent, and this AAJ article from Neal Harder about the Saber contained the names of more legends, and more positive hype ( http://publications.americanalpineclub.org/articles/12201109300/Tamarack-Lake-Area-New-Routes )
the route's mountainproject page had some majorly helpful photos, and Gil had been through the High Sierra Trail years before. We figured the climbing and the approach wouldn't be too much of an issue for us, but having the opportunity (family, work, life) to spend two nights out would be. For this reason, it was set.. Memorial Day, opening weekend of permit season- would be our window.
As this beast of a winter settled in on the Sierra, Gil and I started realizing that it was highly unlikely that the area would be snow-free by the time our trip arrived. We always knew we could push it back, do it in summer... or move it by a few weeks. But we had seen reports from trips as soon as early-April that looked semi-dry.. and figured late-may with some snow on a big year would be fun, if not simply much more of an 'alpine' experience, in the best way possible.
I only had the heart, or managed the strength really- to tell my wife about the trip about 72 hours before we left.. and let's just say that there was substantial strain on the relationship for those few days before and after, and I'm sure many other ST patrons have felt in their personal climbing and travel histories. The raw beauty of the alpine, the rare chance to achieve something substantial with a very capable partner, and the lure of an early-season visit to the Saber were all factors at play, and It did mean a weekend at home alone for my loving wife.
The mileage was severe, the scenery and the views were pristine, and the mettle of each of our core-being was tested on the 3-day, 2-night trip. We didn't realize how legitimate the recommendations were to use pack-mules if you were pitching it out (as opposed to soloing it!) and so we knew it'd be a bit rough being our own human pack-mules. We chalked it up to early-season training. Gil even brought two cameras (a DSLR and a film camera) against my repeated requests for him not too for weight-wise. We also carried a tagline that was going to be our emergency stream-crossing / tyrolean line if needed, which we of course ended up leaving at camp on the day of the send.
I'll keep the photos section of the TR as condensed as I can, but please enjoy the plethora of images, and the video (sorry its long, skip to minute 4 if you just want to see the ridge : ) and enjoy an armchair trip along the HST's early miles, to a blessing of a ridge that gifted us with lasting memories.
Saber Ridge - 5/27 - 5/29
Colin Video: https://vimeo.com/219595499
Gil Video: https://vimeo.com/219950099
After settling in to our camp for the evening, we found it extremely easy to zonk out after hauling our heavy gear (even though we try to swear by the UL approach.. we just often fail to achieve it) for the 13+ miles to our little bivy near the river. If we had gone 300 yards further we would have found softer and more protected ground with some established-ish sites under massive trees.. but we liked the view and were content just starting off from there in the morning. To be fair we kindof dropped everything to be sure we could shoot some through sunset : )
The day of the send was a calm, focused, and very happy outing. We kept quiet, saved our energy, inhaled deeply the dry yet snow-moistened and still sierra air. Good choices were made pretty much the entire way. We made the very n00b like error of not bringing enough water, (even though we drank as much as we thought we could during the approach and re-filled from a falls right before the send) and of course the send took much longer than the sandbag-ish quote of 5.5-6hours camp-to-camp as mentioned by the Sierra Mountain Guides crew : ). with lighter packs and a camp at tamarack I could see 6-7 hours being easily achievable though, as mere mortals & off-the-couch'ers.. if you can get there.
Still, the winds were calm, and none of the precip that was slated as possible for saturday and sunday afternoon seemed to be present. We were starting to believe.. know now really- that it would go off without a hitch.
At this point, we were feeling a little bit of the work that we put in to finish the last 2ish miles to the base, (heavy, having both crampons and axes in our bags, just in case... ) and knew there was already more sunlight on the route than we wanted... we had hoped to be roped up at 6:30 am, but with the longer approach, ledgy and waterfally terrain that had us climbing fourth-class moss lumps and bushes.. then into snowfields again- we were a tad delayed.
What really took time though, was the '3rd class approach slabs', which felt like they had more than a few moves in the low-fifth range to us, and were a bit heady to navigate with mountaineering boots on. Gil had switched to climbing shoes at this point.. I was hoping to get higher before doing an equipment & backpack changeover, so ended up keeping mine on, regrettably.
It was Gil who ended up wanting a hip-belay for a cruxy slab move on the approach, me above him, having passed it in my boots. It was a left-to-right crawl of sorts around a bulge, with serious exposure below. From there we followed a tounge / right facing blob up to where the ridge emerges from the mass of granite slabs.
Luckily I also had some riccola cough drops and energy gummies that held off thirst for bits at a time.. I love having eyedrops, lip balm, and lozenges for the dry sierra air. Washing your face in the snowmelt streams having a similar and more low-tech affect. But we were high up riding the ridge at this point.. about to get some of our first simul-climbing experience in.
After riding the ridge for a few pitches, and gaining the ridge-proper (the 'flat' part) via the dark 5.7 corner, we found loads of 3rd class, and occasional fifth. What had really spooked me was the slab crux past the first headwall, far above my gear and with a heavier-than-usual backpack due to the snow.
We didn't shoot so much from the ridge, of the actual climbing moves or changeover stations, but everything was very straightforward, and really a gift of a line from God above. The importance of protecting for the second through downclimbs became more critically clear after passing the first steep and blocky downclimbing of the ridge. Beyond that there were a few 'knife edge' moments and boulder-problem style lowers that require alot of commitment, but still exist in the V0 / 5.7-range moves-wise..
There many ways and styles to get around cruxes and moments of exposure, and the variety of choices made it a pleasant and stress-free endeavor from a leading perspective.
At this point, I was taking more calculated compositions with my 35mm camera, and the iphone became secondary. We also just started needing to move, realizing how long the ridge really was, and even worrying for a few pitches wether we would be benighted. The thought of the sun setting on us was emotional motivation more than anything, but our topout did occur quite close to sundown.
From the Summit to the descent, the blocky 4th and occasional fifth was hemmed in by snow and exposure, which added a little bit of spice. We remained roped up / simul-ing until we reached the snowfield that is the descent. It was really pleasant on the knees to be walking down soft spring snow instead of sandy slab and scree. It gave the whole route more of a winter & alpine feel, even though it was quite hot out in the sun. (forecast said high of 48 for the summit. felt hotter)
the walk back was a few miles in the dark, some routefinding through manzanita, and the occasional doubling-back when getting cliffed out near Lone Pine Creek. We were absolutely exhausted by the time we made it back to camp. Gil's Crampons got eaten / removed from his pack by a bush .. (this after I already hammered him on the virtue of clipping any critical gear, when his ice-axe dislodged from its holder and tumbled a good thousand feet down off the saber... making 7 or 8 hops of a 40 or 50 feet in the air, the loud clang echoing around the granite walls. We felt bad for our failure to 'leave no trace' but seeing an axe fall that far was intense, memorable, and admittedly entertaining to the 10-year old inside us.
I fought slumber for a few minutes in bed, watching the night sky open up above us. Holding out for a shooting star, I saw three. All with their own character, angle... speed.. within about 10 minutes. The sky seemed to quiet. We fell deep into slumber, our aching joints anticipating tomorrow's big day.
Monday was Memorial Day. God bless the Veterans. We stomped out through the heat, more stream crossings, butterflies, deer, and the likes. We tried to push the pace and it was still slow-going, especially as we got closer to the westside. Exiting Sequoia from Crescent Meadow was a wild experience, with long lines of visitors near the shuttle pickup, and lotsss of cars coming into the park.
It was already in the 90s down near Lake Kaweah. We had a meal in Three Rivers, hot and exhausted, and made the long drive home in Gil's trustworthy vintage benz. (no AC) We would unpack our gear that night, feeling the buzz of sun energy on our UV-laden skin, and new experiences in the back of our now more veteran minds. It would take us longer to unpack the meaning of the trip, which taught us a few things, including:
believe what they say about pack mules
climb with more water
climb steeper pitches
climb harder closer to the trailhead
don't pump out / take breaks (trail)
there are always logs to cross things, especially after drought then avalanches.
There are many inspirational figures who push us to do more than we might without their leadership, and stewardship. Our trips in the Sierra wouldn't happen without the likes of many. Thanks to our heros...
Norman Clyde, Galen Rowell, Peter Croft, Chris McNamara, Vitaliy Musiyenko, John Dittli, Dr. Dirtbag, Fat Dad, and everyone else out there sending, exploring, sharing, and loving the High Sierra!
When the rolls of film are developed, I'll add them to this post <3
I wrote this in part for the enjoyment and pleasure of all the ST'ers out there, so thank you for your time, I hope we didn't keep you too long.
Recent Trip Reports