A few years back, I climbed my first alpine route with my two good friends Kevin and Rachel. To be honest, I didn’t really even know what an “alpine” route was defined as. I asked Rachel and she replied with “It’s defined as a route that you can’t just walk to from the parking lot. You know, a rout that takes multiple days to finish. Hike out to the middle of nowhere, camp, climb, and camp again before you hike back to your car. It’s a higher risk as you are typically out of cell phone range. You have to rely on yourself and whom ever else is with you.” I asked Kevin the same question and he replied with something like “I don’t know. Titles aren’t too important.”
The hulk is the northern most big wall in the sierra range of California. It is situated about an hour north of mono lake (outside of Yosemite national park). Rachel, a PhD in high altitude genetic adaptations, back to back marathon runner (that’s one on Tuesday and then one on Wednesday) had done a decent amount of alpine climbing in the sierras before but had never ventured to such an ambitious big wall (very tall climb). Kevin, kind of an all around bad ass who had been a race car driver, chemist, construction manager, long range backpacker (30+ days out in the back country), and solid 5.12 climber, to my knowledge, had never been on an alpine climb before. I, had been on my first crack climb only a few months before, but had been sport climbing for a few years up to about 5.11b in the gym and 5.10c outside. Needless to say, I was the weakest link to our team. Oh and may I just mention that both Kevin and Rachel have less than 5% body fat (they are super ripped). I’m, well, pretty average, you’ve met me right?
We parked in the lot at upper twin lakes in mono village resort at 1pm on Friday. The altitude was 7,100 feet and we would be ascending up to our base camp of ~10,000 feet. We didn’t know if there was any water near the hulk so we carried in about 1.5 gallons per person along with all of our food, camping gear, and climbing gear. I carried the majority of the water since Kevin and Rachel were carrying the two trad racks of climbing gear as well as two 70 meter ropes (heavy, heavy, heavy). We later found an alpine lake within a 10 minute walk of base camp. Of the small amount of hiking I had done with Kevin in the past, he had always been able to breath through his nose while leaving everyone else in the dust and carrying the heaviest pack. Rachel is a ball of energy who will literally walk circles around you, pic flowers, and make fun of you in a way that is so intellectual, you can’t help but admire. On this hike to base camp, I found both of them taking breaks while I did all I could to keep up with the lightest pack. Rachel brought a pulse-oximeter with here which is a little device that clips onto your finger and measures both your pulse as well as how well your body is putting oxygen into your blood (a tool she used during her PhD years). As we got to base camp, Rachel measured her pulse-ox and had a low resting heart rate of 70 with an oxygen saturation of 90%. Kevin, naturally had a pulse of 60 with an oxygen saturation of 95%. We cheered as he read his stats aloud. My pulse was not exactly resting at a rate of 98 beats per minute and an oxygen saturation of 75% (my body was not loving the altitude).
As Kevin and I were setting up camp the night before our climb, Rachel springs into action and pulls out a bunch of fresh (and heavy) vegetables from her bag along with two quarts of coconut milk and seasonings. Kevin, being a vegan, was ecstatic. Rachel said “Well, I thought I would cook us all a good meal before out big day tomorrow.” The three of us cheered in this magic moment. This was very Rachel, similar to the time she hiked to the top of a steep boulder field and pulled out a watermelon from her backpack just to get a rise out of us. Kevin and I were totally impressed in her willingness to lug the extra ~10 lbs up to base camp (which is a lot bigger of a feat than you will ever know if you have never lugged a 65 + 10 pound pack up 3,000 feet of high altitude hiking). That night we feasted on fresh veggies under the stunningly bright full moon which peaked behind the 1,100 foot white granite tusk known as the hulk.
The next morning we would hike out to the base of the hulk in the dark so that we could start our climb at first light. The route we chose to climb was “b line” which was a less popular route on the hulk which is 7 pitches of off-width crack rated 5.10- and a total gain of 1,100 feet. For those of you less familiar with climbing, off-width crack is climbing up a crack in the mountain that is too wide for your hands and feet to jam into, but not wide enough to stem your arms and legs across (with your entire body inside of the crack). The result is an awkward “half your body in, half your body out of the crack” style of climbing.
Kevin started climbing up the first pitch as Rachel belayed him and I jumped up and down to try and stay warm at the base, freezing. Rachel and I were in thick down jackets and to my memory, Kevin wore a flannel long sleeve shirt (he’s also impervious to the cold for some reason). Next I would follow Kevin up the first pitch and my hands were so cold that I could not feel my fingers. This is specifically important because you judge how good your grip is on the rock (and how likely you are to fall) based on the pressure feedback you get from your fingers. No feeling; no idea if you are going to fall or not. Luckily this is only really important for the first person up the mountain who is the only person who is vulnerable to big falls (thanks Kevin).
I pushed with my whole might and barely made it up the first pitch. Rachel followed behind me and we all hung with feet dangling roughly 200 feet off the ground on the sheer face of the hulk. For me, this is the single best part of climbing. Not the accomplishment, but the ability to be in a place that only a few hundred/thousand in the history of the world have been. That and the view is so unique. I’m not talking about looking out across the hundreds of miles of peaks, I’m talking about the odd disposition of dangling your feet from your harness with your friends in a completely odd space that you should not ever have been able to get to without the help of a helicopter. That and the complete silence that only nature knows. No other outside stimulation, just cool fresh air, views, and friends.
Our real journey had just begun. We were in high spirits and 900 feet of climbing was ahead of us. Kevin began to climb the second pitch in full morning light while I belayed him as Rachel passed out in her harness. She woke up and said “Wow, I must not have gotten much sleep last night.” She shivered in her heavy down jacket and snuggled up against the hulk. As we continued to progress up the mountain, the belay stations became progressively larger and larger. By the forth pitch, we were walking around on a ledge the size of a kitchen whilst the sun warmed us for the remainder of our journey. Things were looking great. As Kevin was flaking (de-tangling) the first rope and I belayed Rachel on the second rope, he mistakenly knocked a baseball sized rock off the ledge and yelled “ROOOOOOCK!!!!” to Rachel so she could spot and dodge the rock hurling down at terminal velocity and enough kinetic energy to easily break her neck if it struck her helmet. The rock zipped down and missed her by an uncomfortably close six feet. It continued to speed another 700 feet to the base of the hulk and stuck with a force that echoed throughout the granite spires. It sounded like a large bomb had gone off. We paused with a sigh of relief as she yelled that she had not been hit. This scenario happens to even the most careful climber from time to time.
To balance out this unfortunate event, I will have to mention that Rachel mistakenly un-clipped Kevin from the climbing anchor, on two separate occasions. There was a large jumble of ropes and climbing gear and I’m just glad he was paying attention 🙂
We got to this one pitch toward the top where there was a lie back finger crack (just look it up) and as I followed Kevin I saw a very large spider crawl into the crack in which I would be jamming my fingers into. I said “Awww mannnn!” as I slapped the rock near the spider infested crack, hoping to scare all residents out of their rightful home. The slapping must have worked as I progressed up the mountain with no bites.
We checked our watches and realized that we were going to have to pick up the pace if we were going to make it to the top before dark. Kevin began to lead pitches with both ropes so that he could belay both of us up simultaneously to save time. For those of you who do not climb, this is a totally safe technique (if done right).
We ended up making it to the top of the hulk just in time. We were in the “alpine glow”, a surreal experience that few can say they have been a part of. What is alpine glow? When you are in the mountains and you see a far off mountain range glowing golden in the sunset, bright like a burning star as you yourself are sitting in shadows of another mountain; that which you stare at in awe, that is alpine glow. We basked in it for a few minutes, knowing that we could not stay for long. This is one of those space walk moments where you wish you could spend a lifetime in it’s rarity, but you must be willing to let go of it and leave it where it belongs, in rarity.
We walked down a steep and winding stairway that looked like it belonged in the lord of the rings to a rappel site. Just for a moment, we hesitate before re-entering the space ship. We tied both 70 meter ropes together to be on the safe side because we were unsure of how far the rappel needed to reach. We rappelled into darkness as we were on the shady side of the hulk. For something as routine as a rapel, it was kind of a scary moment for some reason. By the time we got to the bottom we were in total darkness. We still need to make our way down the 900 or so feet of scree (loose gravel and boulders). As we began to make our way down, Rachel yelled “stay together so that boulders can’t get too much speed.” The idea is that if you started a boulder a rollin’ it would still be going slowly and your friends would be better able to dodge it. This was hard work getting down. Easy to slip and slide in the ink black darkness. We might as well have been on the moon with only headlamps to pick our lines. I was exhausted from the full day and chose to go down half of the decent sliding on my butt where there were loose gravel spots. Anyone who has been hiking with me knows that I am really good at slipping when going down hill. After a few hours for me (and one hour for them) we made it back to base camp, exhausted and ecstatic. Hugs all around, though there were a few close calls, it was a satisfying day. For a very lucky few, this day would be seen as routine, but I’m fairly certain that we came out of that changed. Closer, of course. Bonded by experience.
The next morning we hiked back to our car after taking a series of silly pictures with the hulk ( you know, the same type any self respecting teen would take at the base of the Eiffel Tower).
Roughly one year later, I would climb angels crest with Kevin, a 13 pitch 5.10c 3,000 foot route up “The Chief” in Squmish (a climber’s wonderland) British Columbia, Canada. But that is a story for another time.