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West Ridge of Mt Conness

Trip Date: 9.7.19

Sarah and I met up with Andrea in the parking lot of the Home Depot in Pleasanton as usual. We chose to get some garlic noodles but he made the wiser choice with Chick-fil-A. Well fed we headed off to Tioga pass. We didn't end up pulling up to Saddlebag lake road until around midnight. So we pulled out the sleeping pads and slept in the back of the Volvo. The next morning we woke up while it was still dark, ate a couple bars, chugged some cold coffee, and started the hike through the campground. Almost immediately we could see the sun hitting ridge we'd have to reach to get over to the west side of Mount Conness.

Alpenglow on Mt Conness

The walk through the campground was an easy start to the hike. We could see a meadow through the trees. It really seemed like a nice spot to camp if we had gotten in a bit earlier the night before. Eventually the road through the campground ended and we had to cross a stream.

Crossing the stream

After a while we came to the Carnegie Institute, which is now just a dilapidated old wooden building. Another mile and then we left the trail heading up towards a tarn. On the scramble up we ran into some people from Mammoth Lakes, they seemed a little more well adjusted the altitude than us. We got to the tarn where there was a nice spot to stop and filter some water. By then we were at around 11000ft so the rest was welcome. The sun was fully up now but it was still pretty chilly.

View from the Tarn

We had to head up another 1500ft of talus and granite slabs to hit the east ridge. Peering over to the other side we looked down to the Conness glacier. Sarah and I had attempted to ski Mount Conness back in June but ended up mostly sleeping and eating in the tent.

Conness Glacier

After a quick break at the ridge we headed up the last bit of the third class before the plateau. The saddlebag lake approach felt contrived as it ascends up to 12200ft, within a few hundred feet of the summit. It was pretty tempting to just take the 20 minutes to go tag the summit and head down to Lee Vining to drink beer at the mobile mart. Alas, we headed down over to the notch where we would descend to the base of the west ridge. We headed down and finally made it to the base of the climb where we could see Lembert dome and Cathedral Peak.

At the base of the climb we found about 3 parties on the 1st and 2nd pitches. It was about 1pm at that point the approach had taken us six hours. We thought about whether we should just head back up the talus and back to the car at that point but we decided to carry on since the 1000ft back up to the ridge didn't seem appealing. We waited at the base, ate some food and started the climb. We headed up the first pitch without any hesitation but once we were at the belay we noticed some puffy clouds on the horizon which gave us pause, Mt Conness is well known for being a lightning pole in afternoon summer storms. We made the decision to keep going after some deliberation. Another party yelled down from the top of the second pitch saying that they had left a cam on the route and offered a beer for its return. Upon reaching the crux move of the climb, a 5.6 roof, I saw the cam with a sling and carabiner still on it, it must have been missed by the follower. Oh well, we grabbed it and kept moving.

After finishing the third pitch it seemed like we were ready to switch to simul-climbing to speed things up. I had only simul'd a handful of times before, never as a party of three, and never with double ropes. All three of us tied into both ropes. I was leading so I took one end, Andrea took the other end, and Sarah was in the middle. I clipped both ropes into all the pieces so it was twin rope style. This worked out quite well and the ridge was amazing for climbing like this. I think we did a 800-1000ft pitch before I ran out of gear and had to make an anchor.

Simul climbing on the ridge

After that pitch the route finding became a little less straight forward as the usual route people took was not on the ridge so there was a bit of traversing so we decided to pitch a couple rope lengths out. The last bit of the ridge was absolutely wild. There must've been a 1000ft of vertical drop just to our right. The wind was howling since it was being forced up along the ridge. As we were belaying from that spot on the ridge a cloud came through and shot up incredibly fast along that steep drop off. The temperature must've dropped 20 degrees in the matter of 30 seconds.

Shivering in the wind

As soon as we were 30ft away from the ridge the wind died down and it felt warm again. After eating some food and enjoying a little sun we headed up the last 4 or so rope lengths to the 3rd class before the summit. By this time the sun was starting to get low in the sky, which made for a very beautiful setting on all the domes of Tuolumne. While the view was pretty we knew that it meant it was going to get dark soon. We made it to the summit just as the last rays of sun were going away. We didn't even stop to take off our climbing shoes at the summit we just walked over to the other side to find the path back to the sandy summit plateau.

Red Sunset

Once on some less exposed terrain we found a wind sheltered bivouac someone had made. This made for a great spot to stop and have some food before we began the descent. We stopped, sat around, ate some food, put on jackets, and watched the last traces of the sun disappear.

Dreading the walk down

At this point it had been 14 hours since we left the car so we were pretty tired and still had 3 miles of scrambling down 3rd class to get back to the trail. As we headed down we could see headlamps of the parties in front of us, probably including the party that had left the cam, maybe they'd be waiting for us back at the car we thought. We picked our way down and trudged on. Each step got more difficult, I could feel myself loosing coordination so it took more and more focus to stay upright. Occasionally we'd stop and sit down for a moment, during those breaks I'd fall asleep and hope that everyone else didn't do the same. We eventually got to the tarn we had first rested at that morning, we could see the campground we walked through on the way in and could see campfires in the distance. That meant we were close to the trail, which was all I was hoping for at that point since mindless trail walking is so much easier than scrambling in the dark. Once we made it to the trail it went pretty quick despite it still being 2 miles. It was midnight by the time we got back. We had some dinner to cook but we were all too tired to eat. So we just drove the car to where we had slept last night and collapsed. The next morning we slept in and made pancakes on the camp stove.

Overall, this was an awesome adventure, amazing ridge climbing, and breathtaking views. Looking back we made some questionable decisions, starting a 1500ft climb at 1pm and ignoring the storm clouds. Luckily nothing bad happened, but that could've easily gone another way if the same decisions were made again. Next time I might chose to make the trek in from Lembert Dome and camp at the base the night before.

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