How we got spanked on the Evolution Traverse

As usual, monday came and I started to bother my roommate Nate about his plans for the following weekend. What should we climb? It was Labor Day Weekend so we had time for something larger than a typical weekend.

If this were a couple of months ago, we would have been content with simply camping out somewhere in the Sierras and climbing a route. However, a recent trend in our group of friends has brought the concept of car to car excursions in the Sierras into reality. First it was Nate and Charles with Sun Ribbon Arete, then Nate and I on Mithral dihedral which allowed us to return to the car before dark. Finally my C2C trip with Scotty to do the Palisades Traverse (Thunderbolt to Sill) left us standing atop of Polemonium at 3pm with plenty of daylight to spare. All of these recent trips made us confident, no…cocky, about these oft traveled Sierra lines. It wasn’t that they weren’t challenging, rather, it was that there were plenty of hours in the day to send them C2C. We needed to find something bigger.

Introducing the Evolution Traverse. I don’t know how it came up but the more we thought about it, the more we liked the idea. An 8 mile ridge in the evolution range, a relatively remote region in the Sierras. Peter Croft cites it as his favorite climb and it is widely believed that not many people have done it in a day. We started discussing the logistics. We would hike in on Saturday, start the climb on Sunday, bivy on the route and on Monday we would finish the ridge, descend, break down base camp and hike back out to the car. As the weekend drew near the forecast predicted thunderstorms so we packed a tent to leave at base camp near a small lake below the first unnamed peak (Peak 13,360) on the ridge.

We drove in on Friday night and the hike in on Saturday was pretty uneventful with a few threatening clouds but nothing materialized. We did stop under a big overhanging boulder on the approach for lunch, but we still didn’t expect the approach to take as long as it did. Arriving 7.5 hours after we left we were tired but relieved to have around 12 hours to recover and start the route. After setting up camp we had our dinner of hot soup and mashed potatoes with stuffing (Mistake #1).

evolution-13.jpg Base Camp

By 4am we were on the way up the gulley to the top of what we thought was Peak 13,360. The gully is mostly easy 3rd class though it could possibly be blocked with snow earlier in the season and hence an alternative route can be taken just to the right, which also appeared to be easy. When we got to the top of the gulley we saw a ramp and then another gully leading to what looked like the real Peak 13,360. Upon ascending the second gulley we noticed that there was an even taller peak just along the ridge. After going through some notches we finally arrived on top of Peak 13,360.

evolution-17.jpg The first gulley above base camp

In the distance we spotted an even taller peak along the ridge, it must be our next objective: Mt Mendel. Following Croft’s recommendation, we attempted to pass gendarmes by going on the left and at one point dropped off of the ridge on the left by more than 100 ft (Mistake #2). As the climbing got more difficult we realized that we weren’t avoiding a gendarme but rather an entire mini-peak. This cost us about 45 minutes as we had to backtrack to get back on the ridge. After spending a little more time on the ridge we ascended the next big peak thinking that surely, we were on top of Mendel. However, standing on the summit we could see that the next peak in the distance was in fact Mendel as we could clearly see the glacier. Perhaps we were only now standing on Peak 13,360.

Mendel as seen from Peak 13,360 Mendel Glacier as seen from Peak 13,360

Fortunately at many of these false summits we were able to find flat rocks with huecos/dishes which had collected water from the previous day’s thunderstorms. Thus we were able to preserve both the water in our bottles and the weight of our packs for most of the climb simply by slurping water directly from these formations.

evolution-20.jpg Shay going K9 at 13,000 ft

On our way to Mendel we arrived at our first crux, a 40 ft headwall split by a 5.6 crack. It looked like it had solid holds through the entire bottom part and a perfect hand crack at the top. Since we hadn’t taken our rope out by that point in the climb, we did not vacillate for long before deciding we would solo it. In the name of safety, I suggested that we put on climbing shoes to give us an extra advantage over the 30+ lb backpacks (Mistake #3) that would be trying to drag us down to our deaths.

As we quickly laced our shoes, I was trying to finish first so that I could get it over with before Nate got on it. Little did I know that Nate had the same plan in mind and as I was double knotting my left shoe he jumped up and started up the climb…scheizze!

evolution-28.jpg Nate starting up the 5.6 solo

As he reached the top, Nate began hollering with excitement. This is exactly why I wanted to go first. Even though the climbing is only 5.6, neither of us are future Reardons or Bachars. 20ft off the deck, Nate was snapping pictures of me and trying to make conversation about how cool the climbing was, I just kept a straight face distracted by the seriousness of it all. Only after toping out did I finally get to relish the surge of adrenaline. Perhaps this was the highlight of the route.

evolution-32.jpg Shay trying to force a smile as he tops out on the 5.6 crack

Continuing on the ridge, we down climbed into a notch and were then faced with another slightly taller headwall. This one I definitely wasn’t going to solo... shit, I wasn’t even stoked on leading it. With wide jams and an awkward exit Nate didn’t like the look of it either, so we opted to bust out the rope with Nate leading and me following. Nate sent the line in good style though I could definitely hear grunting as he struggled through the slightly overhanging finish with his 30lb pack on. When it was my turn I was able to exit stage right on a big jug that I hoped was solid, definitely easier than Nate’s awkward crack finish.

evolution-33.jpg Nate leading the awkward 5.9ish headwall

The next crux on the way to Mendel was more of a mental crux. We had gotten ourselves into a situation where we either had to do an easy friction move over the void or backtrack 150 ft to find another way to go. “So you think it’ll go?” asks Nate. “Let me see how it feels” I responded. Sure enough it was insecure but wasn’t too bad.

evolution-39.jpg Nate on the mental crux of the route, a 5.4 friction traverse over the void

After a little more distance along the ridge, we finally arrived on top of Mt. Mendel many hours later than we expected. Although relieved, we were still stressed about only being on peak #2 with 7 more to go. Leaving little time for glory we continued right away along the ridge.

evolution-37.jpg Mt. Darwin as seen from the summit of Mendel

Reaching Darwin involved a couple of rappels using slung blocks, but after a short while we found ourselves standing at the bottom of a 3rd class ramp leading to the summit plateau. This is where the slogging began. Nate and I stopped talking for about 25 minutes as we huffed and puffed our way to the summit block of Darwin. It was probably the combination of not eating enough, the altitude, and the big packs, but we were exhausted. When we reached the summit I suggested we grab a seat in the shade and eat something.

It was there that we had a view of the remaining ridge. Even though we were already 11 hours into the climb, we still had a long way to go. Our plan was to sleep somewhere along the ridge that night but the view ahead showed the ridge becoming razor thin limiting the number of huecos to drink from and potential bivy spots. We would either have to bivy on top of Darwin or go until Haeckel and then drop down 500’ to the lake.

evolution-42.jpg A view of the remaining ridge from the top of Darwin

From what I recall, the conversation occurred exactly as follows:

“Dude, I think we should go down” said Nate in his thick New Mexico/Maryland drawl.

“Dude, yo ass must be trippin, cause there ain’t no way I am not sending this humpty dumpty” responded Shay in an odd Israeli/New York accent.

“Ok, but touch my khram.” said Nate.

Actually, that’s not what really happened (though I suspect that like many conversations with Nate it ended similarly). Rather, Nate suggested we go down and I didn’t put up much of a fight. His reasoning was sound. Given how much ridge was still ahead of us we probably wouldn’t be able to finish the climb, collect our base camp belongings and hike out to the car all in the same day. We would probably have to bivy at base camp on Monday night and then leave for the car in the morning. Our main concern wasn’t that we had to be at work on Tuesday or that our girlfriends would be worried. It was calories. We only brought food through lunch on Monday (Mistake #4). So we would have had to hike out over Lamarck Col (12,900 ft) without dinner the previous night or any food on Tuesday. The attractiveness of a warm slumber in our base camp overwhelmed the alternative of a Yom Kippur style death march.

evolution-43.jpg Shay after the descent from the Darwin gullies

Even though we didn’t send, we still had a good time. I will probably still return to do the complete evolution traverse earlier in the season next year when there is still snow on the ridge for water. Though the route was doable, our expectations didn´t match up with the reality of its vastness. Next time I know what to avoid:

Mistake #1) bring a big dinner to have at base camp, not just the same stuff I will have on the climb

Mistake #2) stay to the ridge as closely as possible without getting lazy about going over humps in the ridge

Mistake #3) lighter packs are worth a little suffering at night

Mistake #4) bring food for an extra night after the climb

Here is some Beta we got from Matt Samet before the climb: Evolution Traverse Beta