Southwest Face 5.10c
Trip ReportYo Francis - This One's For You!
Yo Francis – This One’s for You!
Unfortunately there aren’t many pictures for this trip report, and instead I’ll have to rely on the dreaded “verbal diarrhea” to convey the Harding Route on the Southwest Face of Mt. Conness. Prior to sharing this adventure, I have to provide some background that, I hope, will add context and enrich the tale.
Six years ago “Francis” asked me to climb the Southwest Face of Conness with him. I was fledgling climber, whose ambition was inversely proportional to his experience. Meanwhile, “Francis” is a bad ass alpinist; a climber I wanted to be like; and who perhaps had too much faith in me. To make a long story short, I left my climbing game at the trailhead that day and 5.7 might as well have been 5.11. “Francis” wisely pulled the plug at the base of the off-width pitch and we bailed.
That failure left a bad taste in my mouth for a long time. I was upset that I was primarily responsible for our failure, and that “Francis” didn’t achieve his goal of climbing the route. Unfortunately, I never found out if “Francis” had a second chance at the climb.
The Southwest Face remained on my ticklist though. But as many failures do, it created a shadow of doubt in my mind: Would I ever be capable of climbing it? Would I ever have a partner with the skill, knowledge and ambition to tackle the objective? The answer came in 2010. Enter Brian, whose skill and ambition are, quite simply, off the charts. In 2009, we had casually discussed climbing goals, and my ears perked when I heard Brian say the Southwest Face was on his list. I quietly kept that card in my back pocket.
In early June 2010, I had the privilege of having a phenomenal experience on the Red Dihedral with one of my best friends, while relishing Robbins’ “espirit de le corde”. Even though it became one of my favorite routes, something wasn’t quite right after that ascent. It was as if our climb felt somewhat guaranteed, and while the climb presented challenges, there were few questions and doubts. Essentially, we knew what to expect, and we knew what the answer would be. I was motivated for something bigger; something harder; something more unknown. Being the objective oriented achiever, I wanted to push it a little bit farther.
The Southwest Face presented itself as the prime outlet for my motivation, yet the doubts that arose from my previous failure still haunted me: Am I good enough? Do I have what it takes? Do I measure up? At the same time, evaluating my development as a climber pointed to the SW Face as being the logical progression. With this sprinkle of confidence, and the dash of uncertainty, the ingredients were set for a grand adventure.
A quick phone call to Brian determined the date and our plan of attack. We rendezvoused at the Sawmill Walk-in-Campground parking lot at 4:45 am. Brian had little sleep after his drive from San Francisco, and I asked if he felt rested enough for the day. As I’ve come to learn, Brian doesn’t let much stand in the way of his climbing goals. A quick exploratory mission along the river brought us to Alpine Lake, as the sun bathed the high alpine environment in soft morning light. At the plateau below the summit of Mt. Conness, we ate and drank in silence; the austere environment a symbol of the challenging objective weighing heavily on our minds.
From the plateau, descending down the gully to the base of route brought the broad and sweeping granite face into perspective. It goes without saying that the worm turned deep and hard in my stomach as the face loomed over our right sides. Each step along base only stirred those haunting sensations that are all too well associated with past failures and big unknown objectives. I tried hard to mask any uneasiness with paper thin self-confidence – half of my brain telling me I was ready, the other half yelling at me to go sit on a beach and drink a beer. It had been a long time, perhaps too long, since I had felt this way about a route.
The first pitch was soaking wet, and the tension I experienced six years ago returned immediately. It was a clear indication that while I wasn’t the same climber, this route wasn't a given. Watching Brian work his way over the roof on the second pitch brought renewed optimism, and at the end of Brian’s spectacular 200-foot lead, sinking my hands in the bomber cracks of sublime Sierra granite fueled my enthusiasm. The chimney was dispatched easily, and our pace boosted my confidence now that we were in a far better position than the previous retreat from this location.
In front of us was the offwidth, and the pitch that seems to cause more fear, doubts, and questions in trip reports and discussions than any other portion of the route. I wanted this pitch. I wanted to prove to myself and to others that I had what it takes to call myself a climber, and this pitch, this route, would be the place. It was time for redemption, and to move beyond past failures. Sinking my hands in the splitter crack and plugging in solid cams brought me upwards, to and through the offwidth, the squeeze chimney, and onto the plush ledge, four pitches from the summit. Relief swept over me, and for a moment, I felt worthy basking in the sunlight.
Belaying Brian up the pitch and admiring the beauty of the high Sierra, I noticed clouds forming over our heads, and a dark sky over the summit of Mt. Dana to the south. I tried to be optimistic, telling myself that these were only puffy white clouds - they weren’t ominous; and the wind was blowing to the south and would keep whatever was over Mt Dana away from us. Even if the weather were to get bad, we had done all of the hard climbing and the next pitches should go quickly. I was overly optimistic.
Between paying out the rope and watching Brian’s brilliant lead, I was doing my best to will the black sky that was now forming over our head’s as far away as possible. My spirit soared each time sun came out with thoughts of standing on the summit in perfect Sierra weather. Each time a cloud engulfed the sun’s rays, ignominious thoughts filled my mind of what could become a very bad situation. Brian worked his way up the chimney, squirming upward inches at a time. In what proved to be another seminal lead, Brian had linked the traverse pitch with the 10a fingers and the 5.8 chimney.
Just as Brian called down “off-belay” the clouds let loose with a frozen rain. “What do you want to do?! Should we bail?” I yelled up at Brian. I didn’t want to retreat another time. The taste of failure is a bitter to pill to swallow, and I did not want to swallow it twice on this route. At the same time, an old friend’s sage advice came to mind: “there are old mountaineers and bold mountaineers, but there are no old and bold mountaineers.” “We’re two pitches from the top! We have to top out now!” Brian yelled down through the wind. Just as he said those words, the sun peeked through giving me a slight glimmer of hope. I tore out the belay and moved through the two pitches as efficiently and quickly as possible.
I was breathless reaching Brian at the belay, and those same dark clouds that had been parked over Mt. Dana, were now weighing down on top of us. Thunder rolled in the distance, and Brian asked “What do you want to do?” Despite downing water and food throughout the day, I gasped through my dry mouth and said “give me the rack.” Taking cams as quickly and carefully as possible, I loaded the gear sling and cast off from the belay.
Six feet out from Brian, scoping the terrain above me under dark skies, a bolt of lightning ignited the clouds directly overhead. Before I could count to "one" thunder ripped the air around us and rattled my spirit along with every bone and organ in my body. This was not a good place to be. I’m not sure I can capture what happened next. I think the best way to describe it is to say that I simply let go and climbed. It was one of those leads where there is no longer conscious thought; there’s no over-analyzing and strategizing each movement; there’s no fear of falling or failure; no fear of the present or the past or of the future; it was about the moment; it was about being there, fully present, fully awake, and fully alive. I don’t recall the moves, but I do remember slinging a block, slamming in a yellow alien, clipping both and collapsing from exhaustion at the belay. Brian would later tell me he had never seen the rope move out of his belay device so quickly. Perhaps there was something divine about that pitch.
My arms were cramping as I brought Brian up and the clouds were pressing down on us even more. He grabbed what gear remained on the sling and cast off on the last pitch. I was shouting encouragement, focusing my mind and spirit trying to will him to the summit faster, all while knowing that Brian was doing the same and pushing himself to his limit to get us off of this face and out of this bad situation. When it came time to climb, my legs cramped on the third class terrain, and as badly as my body screamed to stop and rest that time had expired long ago.
Sheer will and determination carried our haggard bodies up the final third class slope where we tagged the summit, and quickly began the descent back to our packs. Returning to them, we only paused to throw gear in, and got off the plateau as the cold wind whipped around us. Each step was painful, slow, even methodical as our haggard legs dragged us toward Alpine Lake.
Above Alpine Lake, a feeling of security returned now that we were out of an exposed area, and it provided an opportunity to let our guard down for a second and eat and drink. Perhaps it was the peaceful serenity after experiencing such an intense situation, but I recall searching myself for those fleeting impressions our experience had instilled. Maybe it was the beauty of the view in front of us, but it took a while before anything came to mind. What I do recall was that there was no summit elation – not then and not now. There was hopefully no pride – not then and not now. And in that moment, there were no thoughts of measuring myself; of seeing where I stood. In fact, it was quite the opposite. I felt humbled by the experience; indebted to have shared in such a grand adventure. I felt grace – to be provided this spectacular gift of being able to climb and simply exist in one of the most beautiful places on earth. And most importantly, I felt gratefulness for the relationships I have with amazing friends and family.
Despite being exhausted, I lay awake in bed that night unable to sleep and reflecting on the day. While questions were answered, the most important part of the journey was what came to mind above Alpine Lake. I found that stretching the spirit, body and mind had, in a way, created a vacuum. And filling that space with humility, grace, and gratefulness for relationships created a new purpose. These characteristics being the ones that I hope will guide future adventures.
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