Like some of the other TRs, this one came about with the onset of an Arctic cold front over Bozeman, which kept me inside more than I could bear this past week. Anyway, it's my first TR, so please critique at will!
The alarm wakes us up at 4:30 AM on the morning of July 3rd, 2009. We hop out of our bags, put on the light layers we'd laid out the night before, cook a quick oatmeal breakfast, double-check our packs and drive away from our bivy at the south end of Twin Lake towards the Barney Lakes trailhead, gateway to the Incredible Hulk.
Though it's our first trip of the season to this beloved crag, we somehow navigate the confusing maze of RV park without error all the way to the trailhead, actually quite a feat in the predawn darkness. We blaze through the relatively flat first 40 minutes of trail, covering quick ground while the sun slowly lights the aspen groves and sage meadows of this wide Sierra valley. Eventually we reach the spot I remembered from last year, a large tree overlooking a meadow near Robinson Creek and just before the mouth of Little Slide Canyon. Leaving the trail at this point is always a small act of faith, as I've been buggered before attempting to cross the runoff-swollen creek in an inopportune spot. Luckily, my intuition serves me well and we cross the creek uneventfully, in more or less the same spot I used last summer.
With the approach crux behind us, we climb the steep lower headwall, switchbacking through a gorgeous shady forest. Reaching the middle of beautiful Little Slide Canyon, we're treated to a gorgeous display of orange alpenglow as the spires and cliffs along the western side of the canyon gather the day's light. In these perfect, inspiring conditions, we blast through the approach and find ourselves in the sandy, alpine bivy zone beneath the talus leading to the base of the Hulk.
We pull out the rack, rope, shoes, and a light daypack with a couple of small extra layers, food and water for the route and hang our packs on a stick extending off a boulder.
Before hiking up, we run into a pretty large group of climbers who I assume will be starting up the Red Dihedral and Positive Vibrations shortly. After chatting with them, I learn they probably won't be climbing today due to getting worked on Solar Flare and Tradewinds the previous day. I sheepishly regret my assumption and ask if they had any heads-up beta for Sunspot. From one of them, we learned that topping out that route in particular somewhat sucked, and that since we'd brought a tag line, we might as well rap Solar Flare from the top of the sixth pitch. Leaving our approach shoes on the ground sounded great to us, so Miranda and I decide to rap. Armed with this new info, we set off towards the shady wall of the Hulk.
We flake the rope out at the base of of the popular Positive Vibrations start, which our topo showed as the proper way to start up the Sunspot (I later learned, in the new edition of Secor's book, that Sunspot has its own independent start, but the popular PV start works really well). Having climbed Positive Vibes once before, I knew the first two guidebook pitches would link in a full 70m pitch (and the tiniest bit of simuling).What a way to start the day! 70+ meters of 5.10 crack climbing on the side of an immense flank of impeccable granite- more than enough to get any climber started on the right foot.Miranda leads the next short pitch and brings us to where Sunspot arches out leftward from PosiVibes. Pitch 3 proves the mental crux of the day (for me). Miranda had been on this route before to just beyond this point, and had this lead. When we'd talked about the route before, she'd always downplayed this lead in her characteristic badass style, revealing nothing and making it sound “not so bad”. Our Supertopo rates the pitch 5.10 “spooky”, but withheld an R rating. At the least, all of this spotty info arouses my curiousity.
The pitch starts out easily enough, classic Gram Traverse-like underclinging out a roof with great crafty footwork underneath. The gear is tiny but good, and slinging everything long, I transition into a beautiful handcrack.
Too quickly, the handcrack ends. What's left is a low angle, 90 degree corner, totally devoid of features or a crack in the back. For some reason, there's a hangerless bolt way out to my right. Totally out of slings from the wandering nature of the pitch, I slide a nut over the bolt, cinch it up, and use the double length I have for belay anchors. With this somewhat questionable pro, I carefully press on, aiming for a bolt (with a hanger this time) about 15 or 20 feet above me in the little corner. Putting my faith in friction gets me to a good stance and a bolt, which I thankfully clip with a locking carabiner and make a crazy, unrateable jump-like move to access yet another corner. A few more adrenaline fueled moves bring me to the belay anchor, grateful for two bolts easily equalized with the rope.
Above us, the beauty of the Sunspot that we've viewed from the ground and numerous photos unveils itself. And I'm stoked to have the previous pitch behind us! The pitch above marks the spot where Miranda and another partner had been shut down the previous summer. In fact, their bail gear was still situated in the crack about 30' up, where they'd rapped from- a testament to how even with the Hulk's increasing popularity, a megaclassic like this still can go unclimbed for almost a calendar year!
It's Miranda's lead, and she's psyched. This pitch shut her down last year. Now after a spring spent in Indian Creek and Yosemite Valley, she feels a good bit more prepared. Though the technical crux, the first 15 or 20 feet off the belay, looks thin, both gear and climbing wise. Aggravating the situation, she'd accidentally dropped a good selection of our tiniest nuts, apparently kind of crucial for the crux here.
After a bit of psyching up and some careful up-and-down climbing, she gets a decent small TCU, commits to beautiful stemming and crimping on square cut edges that pepper the corner, and reaches a good fingerlock. From here, it's a test of enduring 160' of beautiful, sustained stemming and jamming on the Sierra's finest face. Needless to say, Miranda cruises. Still one of the greatest leads I've ever seen in the mountains.
From here, though the technical crux of the route lies above us, we feel relieved. Both of us had been curious to see how our time in the Valley benefited us this summer, and we saw the corner pitch as the true test of how much we'd gained. We were pretty pleased with the result.
The crux above us, my lead, is a short, overhanging corner with a large dike running diagonally across it. Two bolts and some thin gear protect it. I'm pretty worked by this time, and pulling the moves are a struggle, to say the least. But it's done clean, the reward being the remaining 70' of beautiful handcrack corner, climbing through the Sunspot itself, with gorgeous orange lichen on the left wall and typical white Hulk granite on the other.
One more pitch of sustained fingerlocking and liebacking bring us to the anchor where Solar Flare and Sunspot meet, the end of climbing for us. Both of us sort of regret not topping out, but have a pretty hard time feeling anything negative after such an amazing route.
A few double rope raps lead us to the ground again, where we recollect some of the dropped stoppers, pack up and leave the Hulk behind once again. Though I'll return a couple more times this summer, there's nothing that I find on either of the routes that can compare to the quality of climbing a spectacular route with an incredible partner, making moves at the edge of your ability pitch after pitch, and having the whole shebang run so smoothly.