Dirt­bag Dis­patches

Solo scram­bles with Derek Cheng.

Adventure - - Contents - Words and Images by Derek Cheng

The suit­case-sized block dis­lodged as soon as I touched it, trundling to­wards me as I twisted awk­wardly to keep my sa­cred bits out of its path. It brushed my foot and crashed down the slope be­fore oblit­er­at­ing on the glacier be­low, leav­ing only dust, si­lence and the dis­tinct gun­pow­der smell that comes from huge masses of rock slic­ing against each other. I col­lected my­self. Checked my foot. In­haled deeply. The dawn was just be­gin­ning to kiss the tips of the nine peaks of the Evo­lu­tion Tra­verse, a prized moun­tain scram­ble in California's Sierra Nevada. A mo­ment ago, I had barely es­caped be­ing swept away into obliv­ion, but now ev­ery­thing was calm, tran­quil, be­nign. The still morn­ing. The val­leys and glaciers and jagged peaks. The ex­quis­ite soli­tude. Moun­tain tra­verses have long drawn out­door en­thu­si­asts, not just climbers. Most tra­verses are sim­ply a great day of steep tramp­ing in the moun­tains. Oth­ers might have a move or two of tech­ni­cal climb­ing, an ab­seil or three, but are not usu­ally en­deav­ours that dip into any se­ri­ous dan­ger zone. And then there are oth­ers, like the Evo­lu­tion Tra­verse, which has sec­tions of steep rock, ris­ing from the rugged con­tours of the re­mote back­coun­try. Here, two types of ex­po­sure are at play: the kind that makes your belly shrink be­cause of ver­tigo, and the kind that leaves you ut­terly alone and self-re­liant to drag your­self to safety if you get hurt, be­cause you’re sev­eral hours from any­thing. The tra­verse was first done by leg­endary Cana­dian climber Peter Croft in 1999, and he de­clared it one of his favourite routes of all time. "I spent all day on this great spine of gran­ite," said Croft. "To climb for miles and never leave the sky­line." Therein lies its beauty - it stays on the crest for al­most the en­tirety of its 13 kilo­me­tres, leav­ing only a few times to skirt steep gen­darmes and sharp drop-offs. Along the way, your knees en­dure over 3000m (no one is re­ally sure ex­actly how much) of el­e­va­tion gain as you drop and then rise again to the next sum­mit, each above 13,000 feet (3962m). Just get­ting there is fairly ex­haust­ing. It be­gins by a tarn at the base of the first peak, 16 km from the carpark at North Lake, near the small town of Bishop. A trail takes you up 1000m of ver­ti­cal gain to La­marck Col, be­fore drop­ping down along­side a se­ries of glacial lakes, as the first three peaks of the tra­verse glare at you from the sky­line. My two friends and I glee­fully jumped into the tarn be­fore set­tling in for the night, know­ing that we were ris­ing at the un­godly hour of 330am for a pre-dawn launch. Our strat­egy was sim­ple. We would each solo the route and, given its length and dif­fi­culty, go at our own pace and re­con­vene over a tri­umphant din­ner back at the bivouac site. The cold dark­ness of the morn­ing quickly dis­si­pated as we made our way up a gully to­wards the first peak. At our first chance, we trudged out of the scree and pulled onto rock. Bul­let hard. Cold and in­sou­ciant. Within min­utes, my quads started to burn with the steep up­hill. By the time I started the first tech­ni­cal sec­tion down a ver­ti­cal hand and fist crack, the oth­ers were nowhere to be seen. Within a few hours, I pulled onto the sum­mit block of Mt Dar­win, the high­est point, signed the sum­mit regis­ter, and thumbed through a wa­ter-dam­aged sum­mit copy of Ori­gin of Species.

The next sec­tion is the most grim - ab­seil­ing down a steep cliff with loose rock that re­sem­bled kitty lit­ter. Know­ing my friends may want the rope for this sec­tion, I left it at the first ab­seil an­chor and climbed down, ro­pe­less and in­tensely fo­cused. Nor­mally when rock climbers fall, a rope catches them in a soft, gen­tle em­brace that can bor­der on fun. But solo­ing in the moun­tains means no such safety net, noth­ing to catch you ex­cept the un­for­giv­ing land­scape that grav­ity pulls you to­wards. What if a hold breaks, or rock­fall sweeps down the face, or a strong wind gust up­sets your bal­ance? Why even take such risks? There’s some­thing strangely alluring about get­ting as close to the edge as pos­si­ble, and emerg­ing un­scathed. Ev­ery­thing about climb­ing is am­pli­fied in a solo out­ing: the height­ened aware­ness, the phys­i­cal and men­tal chal­lenges, the mag­i­cal flow from move­ment to move­ment. The cir­cum­stances de­mand con­cen­tra­tion. You have no op­tion but to con­trol fear and deal with the steep drop-offs, the in­se­cure rock, the stren­u­ous moves above a po­ten­tially lethal fall. Re­ward is pro­por­tional to the in­ten­sity of the ex­pe­ri­ence, and thriv­ing in such con­di­tions has a re­demp­tive, eu­phoric power. The first time I pulled on rock shoes for a solo was in the Cana­dian Bu­ga­boos, up an aes­thetic line up Snow­patch Spire that had me frozen in ter­ror 300m above a glacier, with a hand on a loose rock. If I had been roped, I could have had a snack and con­tem­plated the fragility of life while hang­ing on a ny­lon line that can hold the weight of a thou­sand Soviet tanks. In­stead I whim­pered, trem­bled, and even­tu­ally pulled on the loose rock, pray­ing the whole time for it to re­main in the crack where it was lodged. It thank­fully did. In sharp con­trast, later that day on Pi­geon Spire, I felt ut­ter lib­er­a­tion as I floated ro­pe­less across an ex­posed ridge, with­out a tickle of fear. Last year in the Cana­dian Rock­ies, I was half­way up a 300m cor­ner sys­tem when I stopped on a wide ledge to snap a cou­ple of pho­tos. It was a windy, hazy day and, as I looked down, a thumb­nail-sized rock hur­tled into my hel­met, break­ing my reverie with a clear, crisp sound - a re­minder of how quickly a solo out­ing can turn from some­what ca­sual to po­ten­tially deadly. Sev­eral times on the Evo­lu­tion Tra­verse did I nar­rowly dodge the fir­ing line. Thrice did that gun­pow­der smell seize my senses, as my move­ment pried loose ti­tanic boul­ders that quickly dropped to the depths be­low. In the pre-dawn dark­ness, I broke off a foothold that threw me grace­lessly, drunk­enly, onto a ledge. Luck­ily, the ledge was only a me­tre be­low me, and a mildly sore bot­tom was the only con­se­quence. To­wards the end of the day, I leapt from one rock to another, but landed on lichen that in­stantly dis­missed my foot­ing, leav­ing me to throw down my up­per body in a fran­tic bid for pur­chase. Other times I strayed from the ridge and found my­self on ter­ri­fy­ingly ex­posed ter­rain, grasp­ing at dirty rock that had seen lit­tle hu­man in­ter­ac­tion. Each time, I emerged with noth­ing more se­ri­ous than a scratch. I took a mo­ment to re­set, and then ploughed on­wards. And con­tin­u­ally push­ing on was the key. The tra­verse seems in­fi­nite. It was de­mor­al­is­ing to stare at dis­tant peaks, know­ing that the fi­nal peak lay beyond what could be seen. The best cop­ing mech­a­nism was to lower my gaze, ig­nore the howls from my knees, and keep mov­ing. When I clam­bered across low-an­gled ter­rain and over Mt Fiske, the fi­nal two peaks

ap­peared within my grasp. Bar­ring some calami­tous event, I knew I had enough time to sum­mit Mt War­low and Mt Hux­ley, and be back in time for a swim be­fore dark. In a fit­ting fi­nale, the last peaks of­fered the best climb­ing. Ex­cel­lent rock, steep climb­ing on solid holds, and a ju­bi­lant an­tic­i­pa­tion that grew with each step. From the top of Hux­ley, the fi­nal sum­mit, I could trace the un­du­lat­ing gran­ite line across the sky, all the way back to the be­gin­ning. I sat in won­drous si­lence on top of Hux­ley for al­most an hour, re­call­ing the words of Warren Hard­ing who, af­ter be­ing the first to climb Yosemite’s El Cap, quipped that the con­quered stone seemed to be in much bet­ter con­di­tion than the so-called con­queror. My body was bat­tered. My spine sagged with fa­tigue and my knees, to this day, con­tinue to protest, but my spir­its were ebul­lient. It was al­most dark by the time I stum­bled into camp - a 16-hour day. I wolfed down some food and col­lapsed into my sleep­ing bag, ex­hausted and elated. Some hours later, my two friends dragged them­selves into camp. They had stuck to­gether and bailed from the sev­enth peak, happy to have made it that far. We trudged out the fol­low­ing day in a thun­der­storm, and spent the next days eat­ing burg­ers and loung­ing in hot­springs. De­spite the close shaves, I con­tin­ued to chase solo mis­sions in Grand Te­ton Na­tional Park and the Cana­dian Rock­ies in the fol­low­ing months. A friend and I climbed Mt Rob­son, the tallest and proud­est peak in the Rock­ies, which de­manded a river cross­ing, some bush-bash­ing, and steep climb­ing up rock, ice and snow. On the de­scent, I was solo­ing down an over­hang­ing sec­tion of loose shale rock when one of my hand­holds broke off. Grav­ity swooped in, seiz­ing my waist and draw­ing me to the depths of the abyss, but my other hand clamped down and pulled my tee­ter­ing frame back from the brink. I climbed back up to safer ground and ab­seiled off a tree. Another re­minder of how solo scram­bles up the ante and leave you with a unique sat­is­fac­tion, as long as you come back in one piece.

Keenan Waeschle and Cat Geras sur­vey the view from La­marck Col, look­ing across at the first peaks of the Evo­lu­tion Tra­verse, tow­er­ing above glacial lakes

The view from the sum­mit of Mt Hux­ley, the ninth and fi­nal peak of the Evo­lu­tion Tra­verse, from where you can trace a spec­tac­u­lar line of gran­ite peaks across the sky and back to the first peak, 13 kms away

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