Monday, June 10, 2013

Evolution Traverse

Evolution Traverse: Sierra Nevada, 2013 from JD Merritt on Vimeo.
Evolution Traverse video edit

Niels Davis (2015) and I were in Bishop and it was too hot to think. Through May we climbed in a persistent rhythm; 2 days on, one day off. It was too hot for the captain but we managed to do the RNWF of Half Dome in a day. The heat chased us out of the valley and up to Tuolumne. As it got worse we tried to come up with a cool plan in the High Sierra. We tossed some routes around, Dark Star, Sun Ribbon, Positive Vibrations... but then the long traverses started to look good.  At the end of our trip we still felt motivated to take on long days. The Palisades Traverse would be good, but we had no mountain gear. Evolution Traverse? I had no beta, just that it was high and long.  Really long.  I could wear myself down until I felt like an animal.
    We did some research in an uncomfortably clean coffee shop. The route begins with a 9 mile approach over Lamark col.  Once you hit the jagged granite ridgeline, miles of technical climbing take you over nine 13,000 foot peaks all named for naturalists. The traverse ends at mount Huxley, and the John Miur Trail offers a 15 mile hike back to civilization.
 The visionary Peter Croft pioneered the route in 2000, first climbing it in sections with partners, then linking it up from a base camp, and then, much later, soloing it in a day from a base camp.  He calls it one of his favorite climbs. As of June it had not yet been climbed in a push and car to car.
    That was not our burden to bear. It was June 5 but snow conditions were typical of august after a hot and dry spring. We loaded up a jetboil, one sleeping bag, two space blankets, approach shoes, and a light rope and rack. We planned to solo as much as possible. The approach went quickly, and we cracked treeline sweating in the morning heat. Darwin canyon was surreal.  The bright granite shined like snow while the bare dark ice of the Darwin glacier looked vulnerable in the heat. 
    We started the climbing in Kings Canyon National Park.  The first few unnamed fifth class peaks went by quickly.  We scrambled with no plans to get the rope out.  We were still full of energy, and it felt good to move fast together.  It was just after noon when we hit the brutally gendermed ridge to mount Mendel. I grew up scrambling over Gendarmes in the sawtooth mountains of Idaho, but never had I seen ridgeline this cryptic. Route finding became complex, and Niels and I rarely agreed. We lost time rapping over pinnacles that we could have soloed around. The perennial question became whether to stick to the pure arĂȘte or to drop down and bypass its limitless undulations.  We eventually hit a golden headwall on Mendel.  On the way up it presented vertical sections where we soloed some memorably exposed cracks.  The golden face gave way to perfect, bright white sierra granite.  Big diorite knobs and chicken-heads presented sporty face moves.
Speed Tactics: Taking a DIRT NAP!
    Mendel offers a sweet flat perch of a summit, dropping sharply on all its faces.  We enjoyed the sunset and made some food. Our summit bivy was sweet, but it limited our water options. We had to burn canister fuel to melt snow, which would bite us later.  Our beds were backpacks and flaked rope, with the one sleeping bag draped over both of us.  We woke up cold and drained from shivering, and got ready to take down more of the ridge.  Breakfast was gu with caffeine and a split clif bar.  As we traversed to the highpoint at Mount Darwin (13,837’), the terrain grew more complex.  We used the rope mainly for rappel, weaving a twisted path through the spires.
    We reached the broad plateau of Darwin only to realize that the true summit was a detached spire on it’s southeast end.  We scrambled a steep pitch.  I felt naked for a few seconds as I mantled onto the true summit block.  At the top we found a register with years of records and beautifully weathered pages from Origin of Species. Looking through the register, we found the names of some soloists, among them Alex Honnold, Matt Samet, etc.  I even saw the names of some Wyoming friends, CC Grads, and others. Feeling that we needed all the good karma we could get, I wrote some shit down about peace and love and we moved on. We were a part of irrelevant climbing history. 
    Things got rowdy. The technical crux of the traverse is usually found on the mile of wild ridge after Darwin. Even soloists bring a rope to dodge natural selection on several pitches of chossy 5.9 downclimbing. At this unfortunate crux, the rock quality deteriorates as the difficulty mounts.  We were gripped, rapping off of wedged blocks, horns, and flakes, most of which didn’t flex or move. We kept moving, finding no snow to melt on the consistently steep ridge. Exhausted and out of water, it was impossible to eat during the day. This made it hard to find the pure focus that the terrain demanded. We had a 10 second discussion about bailing. It was hard being dry all day above lakes with crystal turquoise hues. Routefinding was heinous at this point, and each time we got out the rope we lost valuable time. Unable to build a rap anchor, Niels down-led a pitch of 5.9 cracks and face.  Following on the down-climb with no gear below, I was facing an ankle-breaker at least.  It would have been psychologically preferable to just solo. In the mountains, I’m learning to rely less on the false security of a rope. As the rock got better, we should have enjoyed some of the fantastic pitches, but I just remember being tired. We were able to simul on the true crest, weaving the rope in and out of features as protection. We found the golden triangle, a perfect pitch of face climbing on the arĂȘte.
    Niels has a good mind for soloing.  At crags, I’ve seen him hiking serious pitches in approach shoes, relaxed while smearing on a dime. That ability was essential. I was tweaked following him at times, and became stretched to my mental limit as we ‘3rd-classed’ for hours in full-consequence terrain. I often was the one to call the belay. 
    Getting from Darwin to Haeckel was the most difficult part of the traverse. The sun was low in the sky. On a steep unnamed peak we finally found a drip of water and drank what felt like gallons. We heard a low hum in the air and looked around.  We saw a huge bird, with wings unmoving, flying over the ridge.  A Condor. 


The Ginjer Ninja on top of Clyde Spires

Mount Darwin at first light


Our First Bivy

    We crashed for another bivy. This one was colder and really took it out of us.  Our last day, though technically easier, would be a suffer-fest.  My approach shoes were shredded with large holes on their sides, and my socks had also worn through, leaving me to grind my bloody bare feet with each jam. 
    On one summit register we left a shout-out to our CC people.  Cole Kennedy(2013) and David Fay(2013) would later return the message on their attempt. On the summit of another we wrote, “the first Jamaican Team to summit Clyde Spires!”.  As we knocked out the remaining peaks, we were able to keep the mood light and the rope in the pack until Mount Huxley.  After some steep pitches and false summits, we topped out at 3pm. Niels immediately got naked on the summit.  In the register, I wrote, “Primate ladies get at me, we devolved”.  The Evolution Basin was perfect, but I deleted the painful de-proach from my memory.
     Later on this summer I met Vitaily in Peru.  I shared some beta with him and he went on to make the first car to car solo. He dedicated his climb to his friend Ben Horne, who was killed in the Cordillera Blanca last year.

Evolution Traverse, VI 5.9.  35 miles.
Mendel, Darwin, Haeckel, Wallace, Clyde Spires, Fiske, Warlow, Huxley, and countless unnamed summits. 16,000 feet gain. 
On the summit of mount Huxley.  no comment