Dirtbag Dispatches – Solo Scrambles

Published in Adventure Magazine New Zealand, Oct/Nov 2016

by Derek Cheng

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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.

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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.

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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.

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About Derek Cheng

Derek Cheng is a journalist and photographer whose work has appeared in publications in several countries, including the US, New Zealand, Australia, Canada, and the UK. Since he discovered climbing about ten years ago, he has worked as little as possible so he can travel widely, chasing rock faces in all corners of the world - from stalactite-blessed limestone in China, to the alpine granite of the Bugaboos and the Sierra Nevada, to quartzite giants in Morocco. His work can be viewed at dirtbagdispatches.com
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