REWIND. 72 hours prior. Still in Fresno.
“Jett, I just got off the phone with Kal. When I asked him ‘what’s your fitness level for this climb man? You wanna hear what he said?”
“Zero fitness man.”
Zero fitness. That’s what I’m working with here on a serrated ridge on Mt. Emerson’s Southeast face. Every year since 1994, my two best friends from childhood and I gather for what we call a Tri-Pole Expedition. Years ago we founded a three man exclusive alpine club called Tri-Pole Expeditions based on the fact that we each have Polish heritage. Our earliest summit flag was a hand drawn cartoon of a gnarled fist clutching thee ski poles with the motto “Thee Poles are Better than Two.” Over the years we’ve paid dues, written by-laws and had our emblem embroidered on hats, mugs, t-shirts, neckties and polo shirts. Over the past 19 years we’ve climbed Cascade Volcanoes, paddled the open ocean and sat on some really nice summits.
But the years have caught up with the group. Jason is now a venture capitalist in Southern California and Kal is an insurance salesman in Fresno who’s a tad heavier than his college climbing and rugby days at Western Washington U. We’ve bagged a couple class III summits and caught some nice fish in the last few years, but recent trips have been more about a short hike and nice meals than steep cracks and snowy cornices. I still climb a lot for a pedestrian dad and small business owner, but since blowing up my knee on Lurking Fear last Spring, I haven’t done much other than a couple longish rock routes. Close to the road. Add Kal’s “zero fitness” to his propensity to pack large amounts of red meat and scotch on his alpine trips and there will be nothing fast or light about this year’s climb.
According to Supertopo
Avg time to climb route: 2-4 hours
Approach time: 45 minutes - 1.5 hours
"With a breathtaking summit view of many surrounding Sierra Peaks, Mount Emerson (13,204’) is an easy-to-access peak just outside the town of Bishop. It is a rare, enjoyable Sierra peak that can be completed quickly. With a short approach and straightforward, easy climbing, the Southeast Face can be done in a half day by soloists, or a short but full day for teams roping up. It is similar to Laurel Mountain, but even higher quality climbing. "
Short Approach. Nice Ridge. Right up our alley.
“We’ll probably knock that thing off by mid day and be fishin in the stream by lunchtime. Its gonna be light duty up there boys.”
Thanks to the imbecilic Govenrnmental shutdown, we are forced to take the southern route to the East Side. We’ll pick up Jason in lovely downtown Mojave. There will be no idyllic drive through Tioga Pass in the Fall. Kal is depressed about having to drive the long way and finds his way into the Scotch by 9:40am. “Down down down…down into my belly….scotch scotch scotch…mm mm mm.”
We make it to Mojave with only minimal hassle and pick up Jason who is in a foul mood cause we’re making him leave his precious little Prius in a truck stop parking lot with about a 90% chance of vandalism in the next 72 hours.
But soon we are barrelin up the eastside…..where dreams are made…where the air fills your lungs with spicy sage promise and you get that deep feeling of adventure in your gut.
We arrive at the North Lake Parking area to find a low budge governmental word doc pasted on the gate that says, “Due to the recent governmental shut down, this gate is to remain locked until further notice.”
Kal calms down and soon we are swallowed by the brilliant colors of Fall on the East side. Yellows and reds and golds explode from around every corner. The forest is on fire.
Kal plugs along well, considering his pack holds steaks for the first night, three kinds of Scotch, cigars, and an iron skillet for cooking eggs and hash on our last morning.
We round a bend just past the ruddy Paiute crags and Mt. Emerson comes into view. It’s a handsome peak and our route can be clearly seen as the deep chimney and crack system to the right of center.
“Yeah, its probably an hour or two up to that notch….then a bit on the ridge then to the summy. Good call Jett, this little climb is just what we needed. Did you guys pack mainly coachmen or caddis for that creek? I’m catchin us dinner after the climb.”
We make camp just past Loch Leven.
Kal makes an “F-The Gubmint” camp fire from a nice stack of firewood chopped and left at a fire ring by some deer hunters we passed on the way up. Its good to be up in the hills with my boys.
We dine like champions on cubes of ribeye topped with Bleu Cheese that would make you slap your mamma. Full on five star at 10,784. A couple nips of the Macallan 20 for hydration and its off to bed.
We’re up and gunning by sunrise and we’re sitting at the base by 8:30am.
We are alone on the route and the sun is warming the rock as I start up the first pitch.
I actually thought it was kinda huffy and puffy and steeper than I was expecting. I’m calling it closer to 5.5c than 5.4.
I’m a bit worried about Kal as I set up the first belay. He and Jason stayed up last night suckling on the Glenlivet 15. And this morning, I think I caught the two taking a quick nip off the Balvenie. But once on the rock, the boy moves like a granite dancer, borne aloft by the spirit of adventure that still lives deep within him. With a “just like ridin a bike”, he pops his head over a bulge and arrives at the belay.
It feels so good to be back on a rope with these guys. Its really the first time we’ve been on technical ground together in nearly a decade. Its all smiles and high fives at the first belay. We’re doin it.
We let a two man, guided team pass us and then we’re alone for the rest of the day. The route winds up some nice terrain, staying in the main crack for about 800 feet or so.
We cross left behind the biggest pinnacle on the ridge and un-rope for a long slog up a steep gully. We’ve been moving pretty non stop, but somehow the hours are slipping by.
Its now noon, but the stoke is high and everybody feels great. We keep aiming for the notch in the skyline.
Reaching the notch feels like success…..but the sight ahead gives me that “oh man we still have a long way to go” pit in my belly.
2:00pm Air on all sides. We’re at least at 12 thou. An island in the sky. Roping up again. “Committed boys. Commited”
The first pitch feels full on Eiger. Little snow patches remind me that its October……..”what time does it get dark in October anyway?” I wonder aloud.
I break into the sunshine and the world simply falls away beneath us.
Its a splendid, textbook High Sierra ridge. Razor sharp and it looks like it goes forever. The temp is perfect. Steep, jagged gendarmes dot the skyline but they will fall to our bravery, speed and efficiency today. Tri-Pole is in the house. My fellas are climbing like champs and each of us knows we’re going to the summit today. Even if it means going home in the dark.
I’ll let the photos tell the story for a bit.
Soooo….its now like 5:00. We’ve been going for nine hours and the the summit still looks a long way off. I’m feelin the altitude and I’m starting to think a bivy in October would be a big drag. And I’m getting kinda bossy with the guys.
“hey…holler ‘that’s me’ when the slack runs out guys. Its killin me tugging all day on two ropes….”
“Hey, make sure you guys are ready to roll as soon as I’m off belay….its gonna get dark on us if we’re not dialed it at these belays…”
“Hey…..Why does this water taste like Scotch? Seriously Kal?”
We charge on. Like hunted animals. The darkness is on our heels. We can smell it. We hit the ten hour mark and the sky starts to go golden. “Mt. Emerson Southeast Ridge 2-4 hours keeps running though my head. But Wow…..look at these colors. This is why men climb mountains.
Mt. Darwin looms in the distance. We went there in 99 but came up short. We’re basically pin high with the summits of the Evolution Group. I could reach out and touch Huxley, Warlow and Mendel.
With a “hoooweee!” I turn a corner and see the summit, 20 feet away. The rock all around me glows a warm orange like a kitchen hot plate heated by the very core of the earth. I have never been this high, this far from home, with the sun just centimeters off the horizon. And for a moment I just don’t care.
Headlamps? Check. Lemme coil those ropes. Climbing shoes off guys. Gimme my shell. How much water do we have?
Kal is on the phone talking to his wife. “Get off the freakin’ phone man! I mean it. Oh…..Hi Micshel……Kal’s doin just fine…..can You tell Kristie we’re on the summit….awesome, thanks…..see you when we get back.”
We snap a couple shots to timestamp the hour in case SAR needs to piece together a timeframe when we go missing tomorrow, then head due west down the first chute on our left.
The gully goes on and on and on, but the dreaded "cliff out" never really happens. The steep ground begins to fan into a scree field, and Kal eventually sniffs out a hint of a trail in the base of the chute……we’ll be back at camp within a few minutes.
Three stumbling idiots stagger back into camp almost fouteen hours after setting out. The guys go pump water and a crackling, illegal fire is waiting when they return. Its our way of stickin it to the man and it feels really good.
The reality of THIRTEEN hours sinks in.
Thirteen? Really? Are we that lame? El Cap gets climbed in less than that on most weekends. Jim Herson and his gradeschool kids could have done our route twice by now, and they would've been in school shoes and Hello Kitty backpacks. Thirteen Hours....You can fly from Fresno to Hong Kong in twelve.
But with the fire snapping and popping while we fill our bellies with warm food and the stars beaming overhead like fans cheering victors in a sports arena, we don't seem to care how long it took us. We got to spend a full value day high in the alpine crucible, going for broke right off the couch.......and would you rather spend 2-4 hours doing what you love or a whole day? I think the answer is easy. Some times the slow way is the best way.
Stay classy Supertopo.