Mt. Conness Solo Adventure

There are a few classic Yosemite climbs that I haven’t managed to do yet. The reason is always the same: long hike! The West Ridge of Mount Conness is just such a classic and, having a free day, I vowed to correct this omission and ennoble my character at the same time.

I determined to have as pure an adventure as possible. The climb is over 1000 feet but weighs in at 5.6/5.7. I decided to solo it without any harness, gear, map, or topo. I even sponsored an internal debate about whether to wear briefs under my climbing pants. The West Ridge involves a pretty long hike and going briefless would involve a lot of dingle-dangling. I simulated both sides of the issue by walking in place inside my camper van the morning of the climb. The tight underwear immediately put me in a bad mood and I determined that untold evil has probably been done to innocent victims under the influence of tight underwear. I elected to keep things loose.

I started down the trail around 8:30 am. The scenery was resplendent with nature’s beauty and the hike was the quintessence of casual. After all, the hike starts on a flat dirt road. I knew it could only get worse though as I reminded myself that the activity of the day was "Mountain Climbing" Things would start uphill soon enough. Too bad, I was enjoying the saunter through the gentle alpine environs.

The trail got fainter and fainter as I eschewed the usual approach route up by Alpine Lake in favor of a rumored lazier variation that crossed the Conness headwall near its lowest point. I patted myself on the back as a skillful routefinder threading the path of least resistance up the magnificent alpine valley.

I managed to stay on a trail of sorts and passed occasional cairns marking the way. The flora was exceedingly delicate and I went to pains not to squash anything fragile. It summoned in my mind a recent issue a friend brought up regarding cairns. He has a friend who thinks that cairns are bad and knocks them down. His theory is that it is better for people to spread out their impact by taking different routes each time than concentrate impact and erosion by marking a trail for everyone to follow. This doesn’t seem true for the areas that I hike in. I appreciated the occasional cairn or two that helped me avoid squishing some delicate high altitude garden of tiny beautiful things. (If you want to continue the cairn debate please start a separate thread)

Finding the best trail seemed like a seduction: responding to subtle cues and following the path of least resistance. I found a reasonable scramble over the East facing headwall and began contouring down and around to the West Ridge. No more flowers, I felt like I was walking across a barren Tibetan plateau. Eventually, my path involved hopping down a long section of loose scree and I swore to myself that I wouldn’t hike back up the way I came even if I couldn’t do the route.

The approach crossed the ridge at the lowest point on the right side of this photo of the East side of Mount Conness
Higher up, it is still Spring in late August
The hike crossed the ridge on the left.
The view north from the top of the East Facing Headwall on the approach to the route.
When I rounded the corner of the ridge I expected to see the mighty West Ridge soaring above the vertical SouthWest face, home of the Classic grade V Harding route. Instead I found myself at the foot of a bewildering expanse of granite, with three or four impressive ridges descending from a distant and foreshortened summit. The Southwest-facing wall didn’t really resemble my memory of the distant views I was familiar with. I kept walking along the base of this large chunk of rock, hoping that by just going a bit further, the geography would become more clear. It didn’t. There were no cairns or trails anywhere to be seen. No signs of the ground trampled from folks roping up to climb a popular route. The rock was foreshortened and I couldn’t tell if the cliff was 600 feet or 1200 feet high.

I walked back and forth trying to get a perspective on where I was. I couldn’t imagine this massif of stone existing apart from my climbing destination. I knew that routes often look very different once you get close to them, but I really didn’t believe I was looking at the West ridge either. Soloing a popular 5.6 climb is one thing, soloing hundreds of feet of the unknown is quite another.

But…..it did look like good climbing.

I had come for a pure adventure experience. I might as well get it! I picked the ridge bordering the steepest cliff and started climbing. I told myself that I wouldn’t solo anything that I couldn’t easily downclimb, thus ensuring that I didn’t climb myself into checkmate. Unfortunately, I quickly came to a thin face that I wouldn’t have relished downclimbing. so I had to change my rule to allow for downclimbing nearby terrain that might be easier. I wanted to stick as close to the ridgeline as possible to get the sweetest route.
The route was pretty sweet. The complete unknown aspect of it kept things exciting. There were no pin scars, chalk, worn lichen, or other signs of anyone having climbed there before. I had hundreds of feet of excellent rock to explore as if I was the first ascent party. Somebody had probably climbed many of the classic-looking lines on this rock including this one but that didn’t matter to me, I couldn’t see any signs. There were steep sections with big chickenheads for holds, leading up to the ridgeline with dizzying views over a vertical cliff and the sea of rock to my right. Each section was a new puzzle.

I was now on the steepest tower on the ridge. I arrived at a vertical bomb-bay ow/squeeze chimney and hoped I wouldn’t have to climb it; so I looked around the corner of the ridge and there was only a 5.9+ looking shallow steep finger-crack exposed with hundreds of feet of air and I hoped that the chimney was climbable. I could have probably bypassed the tower by downclimbing over and left but I was still game to climb the truest line.

There was no way I could fit in this crack with my pack. I had to crouch in a ball below the roof formed by the bottom of the crack and struggle to get my pack off like Houdini escaping a straight jacket. I clipped it to a sling I used to protect my camera and attached it to my belt. I stood up and voila! I managed to fit in the hole. Squeeze, squeeze and I was on top of the chimney, but a buckle on my pack was jammed inside it! Dang! I fished around with my foot and managed to free it. A short hand-crack later, I was on top of the tower.

One more headwall and things looked easier. There was only one way up without a disgraceful detour onto easier ground: a splitter off-width. I embraced the wide-crack but it didn’t yield any of the secure fist jams I longed for. I had to hump up the crack and it proved to be the adrenaline crux of the day. I could fit my leg and knee in it but sometimes I had to get my knee out to make a move. Commitment and concentration carried the day and soon I was cruising up easier ground to the top of the ridge.

Finally, just after I finished every last bit of climbing, a new vista unfolded from the North: the West Ridge of Conness and the huge, vertical Southwest face! It looked just like I imagined it. I just hadn’t hiked far enough around the ridges.
My Route in Red
Looking down the ridge I climbed
Crux Splitter Off-Width 5.7?
I wasn’t sure how to react. My watch told me that I could still go climb it if I descended by headlamp. My body told me that it had enough adventure for one day. I decided to recognize that, despite failing at my expected goal, I really had a nice day out in the mountains and had all the fun I came for. Why let preconceived expectations detract from that? I guess I have a vendetta now, but that will be another time, another epic.

Life was good. I headed back to my van in a leisurely fashion, taking pictures of rocks and plants, enjoying the changing light of the day. I hope my readers enjoy wonderful days in the mountains and escape their foolishness as I have.

Peace

Karl

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Delicacte Alpine Flora