After a week in the High Sierra in winter, the Pullharder crew was ravaged. Konstantin downed a full packet of hot dogs and a pizza. Ben slept like a baby in the back seat of the car. Shay’s sunburn and stench were epic. And Pullharder Ducky, our fourth? Not an emotion. He don’t eat, don’t sleep, and never complains. This plastic creature may well be related to the Honey Badger.
Rewind a week. After months of banter, postponing and planning, our “super secret plan” to stamp Pullharder on the First Winter Ascent of Peter Croft’s Evolution Traverse was ready to be launched into action. But our planned fourth teammate, Nate Ricklin, couldn’t join us. We needed a replacement. Who could take this type of punishment, the cold, the nerves, the hunger and dehydration, the exhaustion of a remote High Sierra traverse of nine 13,000’ peaks in Winter?
Pullharder Ducky was the obvious candidate. Most of Ducky’s climbing experience had so far been in Winter, and solo, an impressive resume for this China-born climber. Recently taking Pullharder membership, he agreed to join us in what promised to be the most epic send of our lives, or perhaps the most miserable non-sending sufferfest. But like the mantra Croft purports, “It’s kind of a lost idea...the idea of magnificent failure rather than a kind of mediocre success.”(from here)
Some modifications to the plan were necessary. Due to Ducky’s low body weight (two ounces) and inexperience in belaying, we’d go as a single rope team instead of two. To ensure that the newest climbing partner would not be offended, no bird-related dishes would be eaten, meaning no chicken flavored Ramen for us. And most importantly, because of Ducky’s diminutive size, we’d squeeze the four of us in a single two-man tent. Time for spooning!
The approach across 12900’ Lamarck Col took 12 hours and was windy due to the oncoming storm. Altitude was an issue for all but Ducky. We saw some fresh ski tracks on the way in and it puzzled us a bit to see somebody else out there. Skis would have been faster than snowshoes, but we still made it to the route’s start in a day. We bivied at the base of the route and ate lots of food for the last time for a while. We noticed that the rock rib to the left of the gully was clean from snow and might make a quicker way up the ridge in the morning. However, that was about to change.
Sustained 70-90 mph winds that ended up crippling, though not destroying, our tent as we decided to remain tentbound. A few inches of snow also fell, which would make climbing more difficult tomorrow. Supporting the tent poles with our backs was tiring for the abs, but we welcomed some more acclimation time and extra protein from the lichen in the snow water. Except Ducky, who didn’t seem to agree that precipitation and hurricane winds were enough to warrant not climbing for the day. “They sicken of the calm, who know the storm,” Ducky is on record as saying. Or maybe that’s Dorothy Parker. Or someone.
There were still strong winds and extremely cold temps (-7F) but we started up the couloir at the beginning of the ridge in hopes it would subside. Though in the summer it is 4th class to the first peak, the snow on the route meant difficult climbing in crampons on the cold snow-covered rock on the ridge. We noticed some boot tracks going down a side gully, strange indeed. When we returned to civilization we found out that it was Jed Porter and his partner; they had been up there going for the FWA right ahead of us, but didn’t have as long of a time window, so given the slow going and marginal weather, decided to descend.
Six hours of frigid trudging, peppered with huge scary gusts of wind brought us to the top of Peak 13,360 (Mt. Gould). Denali temps in non-plastic Sierra boots meant Shay had to put Ben’s toes in his armpits to restore circulation.
Ben’s pack strap caught the whipping wind and lashed him in the eye: punishment from the mountain for even considering such a warm notion. Ducky gave a pep talk: “If we bivy now, we don’t send, and we’re still miserable. We continue, we are more miserable, but we might send. We came here to send.” This talking plastic duck put us in our places, and we continued another four hours to another bivy ledge, below a sweet 5.9 handcrack on one of the Mendel towers. We’d only summited one peak in 10 hours, but psyche was returning. We had to rope up for some snow pitches bypassing the first Mendel tower, and climbing mixed ground was fun. Variance in the type of climbing-- lots of snow and even some ice-- actually made the already great route even more fun and interesting than in its usual season.
Today saw better weather (a high of 25F!), which was essential as the routes cruxes to Mendel (peak #2) and the descent from Darwin (peak #3) and subsequent ridge were the most technically challenging elements of the trip. We bivied on a sloping, icy ledge along the knife-edge from Darwin, without space for the tent. Shay tied in inside his sleeping bag and constantly asked if we thought it was possible to slip off. Ben was nauseous. Konstantin passed out before the brewing session. Ducky said nothing.
Another good weather day (one of two on the trip, but placed nicely for the cruxes). We had more knife-edge traversing which included some scary simul-climbing falls on our 6-mil cord due to a broken hold and a pulled block. The entire group almost lost their frayed nerves entirely but psyche returned as we summited the rarely climbed, Peak 13,332 (#4), and perused the original 1964 summit register. A full 22 hours of climbing and two bivies had only gotten us through four peaks, but things began to speed up now as the terrain eased.
The posse charged on with Konstantin singing “Beating like a Hammer” while Ben and Shay traded raps. We quickly bagged Haeckel(#5) and Wallace(#6), both mostly 3rd-4th class, before almost being benighted on the mid-fifth class knife-edge ridge on the way to Fiske. Just as the cold dusk was about to set in, Konstantin spotted a perfect 2.5 man bivy spot next to some crumbling flakes above the abyss. Good enough for 3 men and a plastic duck! Everyone was overjoyed because their exhaustion would be rewarded with a decent sleeping spot.
Our fourth day on the ridge saw increased wind and impending weather in addition to extremely slow climbing due to cumulative effects of altitude and the previous five days of high exertion and low caloric intake. Fiske(#7) was cake but Warlow(#8) was a beast due to chossy and snowy rock, and for a fourth straight day, morale hit low and we began to question our ability to complete the traverse. On the traverse to Huxley, the final peak, a car-engine sized block come off under Konstantin’s feet. His Russian reflexes allowed him to leap to safety.
The weather was closing in, the wind picked up and the sun was enveloped in clouds, and it seemed like our efforts would fall one peak short. We couldn’t seem to move fast enough to beat it. But then the weather took a bizarre turn for the perfect. The wind subsided and the sun shone warmly on us for the next couple hours. “Jesus loves us,” declared Konstantin. This gift gave us the courage to push hard and solo the immaculate granite of Huxley. Ducky didn’t even need to rely on his cahones, because that Ducky is an animal!
We topped out at 1:15pm on March 10, after 35 hours cumulative climbing time on the ridge. Ben whooped. Shay hollered. Konstantin bellowed. Ducky quacked. (Not really, but we thought he looked like he wanted to celebrate.)
The descent was heinous as the group accepted the reality of not carrying the weight of snowshoes on the route: postholing for hours in knee plus deep snow while dehydration took its full effect. Ben began eating snow-- maybe thinking it was yogurt? After several hours, Shay and Konstantin poked through some ice and drenched their feet in a snow-covered stream, and frostbite threatened to set in. In order to avoid the dreaded bite, we bivied on a little island on the frozen Evolution Lake and hoped the snow would harden up overnight and allow a more easy passage in the morning.
The night was one of the worst of the trip, though it is hard to compare nights that are so bad (but yet so good!) in many ways. Most repellent was the collective stench of the sweat of three dehydrated men, the hunger pains and cold due to having run out of food, and the wet conditions due to the creek fallings. Konstantin’s socks froze solid when he took them off, and cuddled with Shay for comfort, sleeping with his head on Shay`s chest. Ben finally let go of his inhibitions and agreed to spoon to keep Shay warm. Ducky made it through the night without a whimper.
The morning was one of the windiest and frozen boots didn’t help things. Breakfast was 1 Gu and 1 Vitamin-C packet between everyone. By the time we made it back to our food stash at the start of the route, our toes were almost numb again and no one had any energy, circulation, or blood sugar. The wind had whipped into a furor, and the group could barely keep the stove going. At the cache, our first bivy site, we had a quick warm meal (with a stick of butter stashed at the cache!) and toe reheating. Then our team was pushed up Lamarck Col by the wind at our backs, and quickly plunge stepped amazing powder almost all the way back to the car.
Stops at both the Bishop and Lone Pine Pizza Factories ensued. While everyone consumed four pizzas total, Ducky seemed to only care about swimming in the beer.
Shay Har-Noy, Ben Horne, Konstantin Stoletov Evolution Traverse, First Winter Ascent March 7-10, 2012 Climbing time 36 hours from start to end of ridge Total backcountry time 7 days. With this ascent we humbly submit our application for Pullharder Winter Club 2012. Of course, this TR was written by all 4 team members.
Note, Pullharder’s beta from the Evolution Traverse can be found in a forthcoming report.