Meet the "Hard Men"
The left skyline is the west ridge of Mt. Conness. It is about 20 pitches long.
Paul Morgan joined me on my return to the West Ridge of Mt. Conness on September 11, 2002. Three days before, we had climbed Cathedral peak, then after a short backpack we had done the traverse from south to north of Matthes Crest. These were great warm-up climbs to get us ready for the 20 pitch-long ridge on Conness. I was pleased to note on these climbs that we could easily climb 3 pitches an hour. We'd need that speed.
Speaking of warm-ups, we started our approach to Conness at Echo Lake, under the shadow of Matthes Crest. A 5 mile backpack brought us to my truck where we reloaded our food Then we hiked on to Upper Young Lake, 7 miles away which was to be our basecamp. Since we did no climbing, just 12 miles of backpacking with 47 pound packs bulging with climbing gear we referred to this day as our rest day.
We got up in the dark at 5:40 AM so that we could eat, pack up our camp, and then depart when it was bright enough to hike without headlamps. Things went smoothly until I heard Paul's voice. He spoke in a feeble croaking whisper, not a good sign for someone starting out on a long hard day in the mountains. He confessed that he had come down with a very sore throat, but he wanted to push on, so we did. We hiked east a bit then contoured back as best we could to Roosevelt lake just below the west ridge. Here I stopped and picked out a route up the granite slabs to the talus pile that led to the base of the climb.
We arrived at the top of the talus after a two hour hike from camp, at 8:30 AM. I could tell that Paul was working hard due to the throttle restrictor in his throat, and gave him one last chance to retreat. He thought about doing the approach again tomorrow and decided to press on. The Guidebook "Tuolumne Ultra Classics" shows the route going up just right of the right facing corner at the base of the ridge. I dumped that route immediately and decided to climb up the ridge itself, or just as close to the ridge as I could. The route looked classic and aesthetic. I thought that ridge-master Hal Murray would be proud of me for this choice, and I hoped that the route would "go."
I traversed left for the first pitch from the top of the talus cone to just below a small dark orange overhang and belayed. It looked steep above me and I couldn't see a continuous line of handholds or protection placements high above me where the route ascended a right facing corner. But I decided to go have a look. I knew it wasn't as steep as it looked. And I have confidence in my own ability to find protection.
As I climbed I felt that the angle was low, handholds and footholds came into sight, and protection cracks appeared. My gamble had paid off, it was a wonderful route. Looking down we could see another group walking up to the top of the talus cone, then another, and then more and more people. I realized that these were people who had hiked in from Saddlebag Lake road. We had an hour lead on them, but the first group started free soloing and managed to catch us after one more pitch. The other groups were using ropes so I expected to be able to stay ahead of them. We got to the top of the first set of slabs after 7 pitches, we had been climbing for 2 hours and were taking less than 20 minutes a pitch.
The going was easy for the next bit so we simulclimbed a couple of pitches. Then the wall steepened again and I went back to roped climbing.
There was a cool wind that kept us wearing windbreakers and warm layers even after the sun rose on the climb. The rock was wonderful fun to climb and we kept having a good time moving fast. We came upon one fine pitch after another. We particularly liked the cracked green wall 14 pitches up. Above us the wall remained steep and there seemed to be an overhang blocking the way. But I had been here before and knew the secret. The route went right and bypassed the overhang. However going right meant going out on a ledge at the very top of the spectacular thousand-foot-high wall of the cliff face below us. The climbing was easy and the exposure was fantastic. The ledge dead-ends so I backed up a bit and climbed a crack straight to the top. I love this pitch.
Above the airy traverse the route eases up and curves a bit left. We got to look down the entire route to Lake Roosevelt far below. We had a fine view of the easy but deadly gully to the north of the ridge. The guidebook calls it a bowling alley for rocks. Below we could see four other groups strung out along the ridge. For some of them it was going to be a long day, for the others a long night.
A fast party of two passed us on the next to last pitch. Dan was the leader, he had just led a 40 day-long mountain trip in Alaska and was in great condition. Hi team was the same speed as we were on the roped pitches but did more and faster simulclimbing. It was, after all, only Paul Morgan's second time ever to do simulclimbing.
We shared stories with Dan on the summit. He said that he thought that Cathedral was the best climb he had ever done, but that now, just a day later, he thought that the West Ridge of Conness was even better. I agreed that they were great climbs and then mentioned that we had done Matthes crest two days ago. He said he had seen us on the crest of Matthes while he was traversing the Echo Peaks. Then I said that yesterday, on our rest day, we had backpacked from Matthes to Conness. He looked at us and at our grey beards and said the words that every climber loves to hear,"You guys are hard men."
We got to the summit at 2:35 PM finishing 18 fine, fun pitches. We left the summit at 3:30 PM and returned to camp by 5:30. We had plenty of time for a fine dinner and a glass of wine to celebrate our "Hard Man" status.
Read about the first time I climbed Conness by the West Ridge.
Return to Climbing
Scientific Explorations with Paul Doherty
15 September 2002