Alpine Climbing in Sequoia
Sequoia National Park, California
“Mountaineering is cleverly finding the easiest way up a mountain. Alpine climbing is cleverly finding the hardest.”
Sequoia & Kings Canyon is a land of giants. The largest trees on earth (Sequoia), the highest mountain in the contiguous United States (Mount Whitney), the deepest river canyon in North America (Kings Canyon), the tallest granite dome in the Sierra (Tehipite) and the longest ice route in California that forms every year, (Moonage Daydream). Needless to say, that it has always been on top of my hit list, however, there are many other hidden alpine gems in this area as we were to soon find out!
During the winter of 2018, my friend Cam and I had been looking for a good weather window to climb Moonage Daydream. We found a good break in mid-March and immediately drove up north to climb. On the approach, we looked very closely for our route and the river crossing that lets you to the base of Moonage Daydream. We crossed the river and approached the route, we thought was Moonage Daydream only to find out it was not. There had been heavy snowfall the week before and since neither of us had ever been here we were not quite sure how to identify Moonage. Moonage Daydream can look wildly different based on the year and conditions. Some years, it starts with a pitch of water ice in other years the first pitch is completely dry and has a dry tooling start. Since no one we knew had been here or had shared any recent pictures of the route online we were not exactly sure if the route was even in. Besides, as many climbers will testify sometimes it is hardest to identify a line when you are standing right beneath it. Even though we could not find Moonage we, could see a fantastic ice line in front of us which seemed to be at least 3-4 pitch long and looked like it would go around WI4. Instead of wasting any more daylight we decided to climb what we could see!
Neither one of us had any beta or topo for this route! As we had been obsessed with Moonage, we had a few pictures and description of that route and that was all. Neither one of us had downloaded any Mountain Project route info of this area either. Furthermore, Cam did not even have his phone on him and my phone had no reception. To most folks, this would be terrifying, but in a world where everything is documented, mapped, tracked and photographed, to us, this seemed liberating! When do you get to onsight a multi-pitch alpine/ice route in California? Many of us go climbing to be one with nature but when do we ever actually do that? Even on remote multi-pitches, there is always a party ahead or below. This was our chance to be able to climb what seemed like a Sequoia classic, undisturbed!
Fearless as he is, Cam started leading into the unknown. The first pitch seemed easy around WI2, so we decided to simul-climb it. We encountered either thin verglas ice on top of granite or rotten ice and snow, neither of which can be protected. The verglas ice made it impossible to use rock protection into cracks and as the ice was thin (about 2-3 inches) placing an ice screw was impossible. Only after we climbing up about 240 feet that Cam was able to place a piton, the only solid piece! The climbing itself was fun, in true alpine fashion one had to utilize both rock and ice to ascend. As we climbed higher there were thin seams from rock outcroppings which could be protected with small brass stoppers. Finally, Cam was able to build an anchor on a comfortable ledge and bring me up, we swapped leads on classic alpine terrain consisting of a mix of rock, ice and snow and all seemed to be going wonderfully well until we hit the final rock headwall!
Cam, ready for the challenge!
The first real piece of pro, 240 feet above the start!
A lot of Verglas on the rock marked this route
The architecture or look of a line is really important to me, and often ice can add something to the look of the wall. A dry rock wall is often not very dramatic. You add ice and snow and the features stand out in greater relief and it looks much wilder.
Some fun drytooling, pulling up a fun little rock seam
On the traverse just between the rock headwall and ice pitches
Who says California does not have amazing ice/alpine lines.
Between simul-climbing and pitched out sections, we had climbed at least three rope lengths and the only thing standing between us and top was a 45 – 50 foot rock headwall! It was very steep and featureless, the only weakness that we could find in it was an off-width crack. The crack had some ice on one side and a lot of vegetation growing out of it. We had only brought a small alpine rack with us which consisting of a hand full of hexes and cams. This off width event though not as hard as the things Pamela Shanti Pack climbs, in mountaineering boots, with ice and vegetation growing from it seemed like a daunting challenge.
A 45-foot off-width crack on top of the ice section that stood between us and top-out
F@#% it! Calling it off and getting out of here
Cam, tried various climbing techniques on this off-width. He aid climbed a section of the crack, leapfrogging on a large hex and a #3 Black Diamond cam. He then tried to, take off his crampons and jam mountaineering boot inside the crack. He even tried to cam his ice tool in the crack, drytooling his way up, to no avail! We were pretty certain this variation of the climb had never been done before! So we were trying extra hard to climb this sections with the limited gear we had. We knew if we topped out this would have to be a first ascent! We will then name this route and walk off the backside of the mountain down to Wolverton ski area and then back to our car. Unfortunately for us in winters the days are short and the afternoon sun was moving westward by the minute. There was snow forecasted for the next two days and even though not a lot of snow was predicted, it won’t be fun if we had to hunker down here without any bivy gear. So with heavy hearts, we decided to call it off and started setting up the rappel!
Rappelling off this mountain was also very tricky! As most of the rock on the route was covered in verglas ice we could not find cracks where we could have left some rock pro to rappel. Since the ice on the route was thin and unreliable it was impossible to build v threads in such ice. So we knew we will have to be creative if we were to get down this way. For the first rappel we were able to find a decent rock outcropping but since there was nothing solid on the other end of the rope, Cam had to cut out a snow/ ice seat upon which he would sit and wait while I rappelled down to him. From this snow seat, I then belayed him on a traverse which led to another rock horn which we were able to sling and rappel from. After a few innovative rappels, we were able to make it to flat ground and soon to the car. Getting to climb on rock, ice and snow all in one climb on a route we did not know anything about, undisturbed was a tremendous experience for me, one which I will never forget!
Rappelling off the route
Two happy climbers after a fantastic day of alpine climbing in the High Sierra.
A look back at the fantastic line we climbed!