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.