Like any alpine climb in the Sierra, the North Ridge of Conness warrants an early start. In the afternoon, thunderstorms can blow in and turn a pleasant climb into a desperate struggle. Never one to follow prudent advice, my inner couch potato whispered to me:
"Sleep in dude. Take the boat. Hiking's for the birds. Besides, boats are fun!"
So it was on Sunday, 8/19/01, that Hutch and I arrived at the boat launch at 7am for the first taxi across Saddlebag Lake. As we crossed the lake, our route slowly unfolded, following the skyline above the massive northeast face of Conness. Nice!
The approach to the ridge is through a beautiful green valley full of lakes and wildflowers and surrounded by granite walls. Route-finding is pretty straightforward - stay low, and when in doubt stay right. The trick to getting up on the ridge is to head to the right side of the upper most lake at the base of the ridge, then pull a couple bouldering moves to get through one of two chutes on the backside of North Peak. Above the chutes there is a faint use trail that traverses left onto the route.
Our sea-level lungs made pretty good time, getting up on the ridge in just over 2 hours. From here it was easy to trace the line of the crest by following the path of lenticulars stretching out to the north and south. No cumulous clouds though, so although it might be windy it didn't look like we'd be dodging thunderbolts. Up the ridge we went. We had a lot of fun picking our way through broken blocks on this first section. Third and fourth class with lots of exposure. There are one or two tricky moves but it's all there. At the top of the first tower we made one fifth-class move downclimbing to the notch (probably easier to the left), which was about as much as we wanted to solo, so we decided to break out the rope. This proved to be a bit of a mistake, as the section between the first and second tower is the easiest part of the route, second and third class all the way.
At the top of the second tower we expected to see rap slings. A bit of looking around and we spotted them about 40 feet below us. Downclimbing to the slings was the first real fifth class climbing on the route. While belaying Hutch on the downclimb, it was easy to see when he made a move as the wind immediately picked up the slack in the rope and sent it arching up and out over the top of the ridge. The wind played another trick on us when we tossed the rope for the rap, picking it up and blowing it into a bunch of jagged flakes 30 feet to our left. We held our breath and pulled the rope (it pulled clean) then waited for a lull before tossing it again.
From the base of the rap, you can see most of the rest of the route. 4-5 pitches of 4th and easy fifth class climbing. This section is beautiful, exactly what I had in mind when I started bugging friends to show me how to make a figure eight knot a few years ago. To the west, 2000 feet below, a chute empties into Roosevelt Lake. To the east, boulders that have fallen from the northeast face leave paths on the Conness Glacier 1000 feet below. To the north and south the ridge cuts a jagged path through the sky. The howling wind only adds to the alpine setting and feeling of remoteness.
Half way into the fourth pitch and loving life I came across a puzzle in the form of a sling. Uh-oh, what's with that? I looked down but it didn't look like there was a route below. I continued climbing up to the top of the tower and then met a blank section of 5.12X down climbing. Whoops. I backed down to the sling and looked around. There was a down climb through a chimney that looked kind of doable, or an exposed move around and down an arete that might be easy once you commit to it. Hmmm. My inner big fat wuss decided to set up a belay and bring Big Wall Hutch up for a consultation. My inner genius quickly concocted an alibi. "Looks like people rap here. Didn't want to put you on the sharp end for the down climb bro!" I think he bought it. We decided on a quick lower/rap (the rap was actually a monumental pain in the arse) which set us up for the last pitch.
Hutch started up the edge of the ridge, then, finding himself on a flake that overhung the top of the wall, downclimbed 30 feet to his right to a pair of twin 5.6 handcracks. A bit of traversing later and we were a short walk away from the summit cairn. Yeehaw!
No views to write home about today! Smoke from fires in the Sierra limited visibility to 3 or 4 miles at best and there was little reason to linger in the wind. While packing up our gear a hiker came up the East Ridge. We quizzed him about his route and he told us there was a 2nd class route up what appeared on the topo as a vertical wall. We headed down the east ridge and across the summit plateau to a good use trail down a sandy slope. A bit longer and we came to the wall. Sure enough there was a path down a seasonal waterfall, now dry. It was more like third class than second class, and probably not doable earlier in the season. A short while longer and we were in the meadow near the Carnegie Institute. The crux of the day proved to be 400 feet of slogging through scree to get back to the car at Saddlebag Lake.
p.s. On the drive home we went through Groveland, temporary headquarters for the huge fire working its way east. Smoke lit up the sky south of Priest Grade road and many worried residents were parked on the side of the road watching the flames advance up the hill.