A Lesson on Offwidths: Climbing Mt Conness and Pratt’s Crack

25 09 2009

Sometimes everything just works out. You get good weather, manage not to screw up the approach and have a perfect day.  This weekend the stars aligned, so to speak, and a great day was had climbing Mount Conness.

Typical to any outing, I did my research, read up about the Harding Route as much as possible and shot emails to friends who might know about the route. A recent thread provided a bunch of information and on Friday we were off. A bunch of traffic put us at Tioga pass after 10 pm,  taking more than 7 hours from San Diego.

Psyched that we are not lost and that it is light outside.

A long approach prompted a 4:30 am wake-up and we hoped our timing would land us at the cross country travel section just after the sun rose.  I gulped down some NyQuil to reduce the effects of a cold I was fighting and passed out. The dark morning came too soon and after applying sunscreen in the dark, ( a new favorite activity) eating some food and repacking we were on our way. We re-parked the car near the Sawmill Campground on the side of the road, hoping the lack of No Parking signs was adequate permission. Finally we were on the trail by 5:30 am.


The beautiful Conness Lakes.

The start of the approach is on big trails before we had to cut off across more rugged terrain. Since the approach seems a bit confusing  I made an earlier post with photos showing how we hiked in. In no time we had passed the Carnegie Institute and were trying to figure out when to leave the trail. An alternate approach, shown in the Supertopo for the North Ridge,  requires a few more miles of hiking but goes past the Conness Lakes seen in the photo above. It seems that if time was not an issue this approach would be very pretty alternative.

The initial mile or so of hiking was by headlamp until the morning light flowed into the valley. The air was brisk and I used a trick I had heard attributed to Ray Jardine to stay warm. I am a sweaty hiker so stay dry in the cold wind I reversed my jacket so the back was open and the front still protected me.  This worked really well despite looking a bit funny…


Goofing around as the sun rises.

At the end of the steep switchbacks, that I am hiking up in the photo below, we took a break to catch our breath in the thin air. We were in no rush and  I was trying to be careful with my exertion due to being sick.  All of a sudden two more climbers came up the trail, who we hadn’t seen, and passed us  on their way to the South West face.  Our attitudes dropped a little since we wouldn’t be first on the route but we took it in stride and relaxed even longer to give them some space.


On the steepest section of the approach

A little while later we were on our own again since we had to stop and rack up for the decent. Meanwhile the other party, who had slept near by and already had their harness on, continued down to find the descent gully. The wind was howling across the plateau below the summit so we both decided to bring an extra warm layer on the climb. In an attempt to stay light and fast we decided against a back pack and stuffed food in our pockets.  With a liter of water on each of our harnesses Robb and I switched into our light weight shoes.  Robb in his Deascents and I in my Sanuks made our way to the base of the route via a steep but reasonable gully. We looked for the other party but they were no where in sight and I assumed they were hidden by some rock feature.


The first few pitches, as we climbed them, on the Harding route of Mt Conness.

Our excitement grew as we got closer and closer to the massive Southwest face. The other party was no where in sight and we would have the first crack at the route! Some how they had gone too far and added another mile or so to the approach. The first block was mine and I started up the dreaded first pitch. This pitch is supposedly always wet or running with water and hated by many. I lucked out with only a few damp holds and kept going with our 70m rope to link into the second pitch.  After pulling through the awkward crux on the second pitch  I quickly ran out of rope and had to make a belay as Robb took me off belay and simuled the first ten feet.  Our second pitch linked to a ledge at the top of a chimney before the main offwidth. I think I was about ten feet short of the standard belay but yet again ran out of rope…


Leading up the first pitch. Luckily it was not too wet.

Despite wicked cold on the first part of the descent the route was warm and we quickly peeled off fleeces and tied them to our waists. We both cursed our over preparation since added weight = less speed. Robb, giving me his shoes, fleece and jacket now took over the lead for the crux offwidth pitch. This was the physical crux of the route even though it was graded lower than the second pitch. Robb made good progress figuring out a tricky stem that allowed him past the first 7″ crack. Our #6 C4 was very useful for this section and Robb also clipped the many ancient star drive bolts that Warren Harding had placed on the First Ascent.  You can check out the crazy ring pin hangers in the photo below.


An old bolt at the belay after the offwidth pitch. Photo from  Summit Post


A psyched Robb after sending the famous offwidth pitch.

After we had both sent the offwidth Robb had another exciting lead with a tenuous face traverse and a steep section of climbing before entering the final chimney. I was happy not to  have a pack when I followed this pitch and even put all of my jackets on since the wind had picked up. At the top of this long pitch we switched leads and I led the last 5.9 pitch. With Robb’s long chimney lead, which linked two pitches, we had finally speed up a little and were distancing our selves from the other party who had been making good time.


My favorite photo from the weekend which captures a bit of the alpine splendor.

I really enjoyed what was our 5th pitch, photo above, with many crazy flared cracks that demanded balance and good footwork. The wind really started blowing as I got higher on the pitch and communication was impossible. Finally I reached the 3rd class ramp listed on the topo and set up a very exposed belay, constantly buffed by wind. Thankfully Robb followed super fast as I struggled to pull up the rope at the same pace. Robb moved the belay to the top of the 3rd class ramp to escape the wind a bit more and I climbed the final corner to the super easy summit ridge.  I likely could have belayed higher on the ramp but couldn’t hear Robb to know how much rope was left.


Team Orange Helmet Summit photo.  I think our angles are a bit off… (see PullHarder.org)

We un-roped on the easy terrain at the top and made our way to the summit. Moving quickly over the low angle rock, we could both feel the elevation, a first for the day.  Amazingly two other teams showed up at the 12,500 foot summit at the same time for a little party. A couple had just done the West ridge and a soloist had climbed the North Ridge. Congratulations were exchanged all around, at a summit photo was taken and we signed the register. 3:30pm was the current time and we had been on route for about 6 hours.  A quick decent down the summit ridge put us at our packs and in no time we were descending back to the car.


Robb at the Carnegie Institute realizing we were going to make it sub 12 hours C2C.

Somewhere along the hike down Robb got really excited when he noticed that it had been less than 11 hours since we left the car. A bit of calculation later and  we placed bets for total Car to Car time. We managed not to get lost on the cross country decent and hit the main trail around 4:20pm which put us back at the car just before 5pm for an amazing 11:35 hour time. Despite being slow on the first three pitches we did a good job using as much of the 70 meter rope as possible and did the route in 6.5 pitches which includes a half pitch for moving the belay up the 3rd class ramp. We likely could have simuled the last 2.5 pitches but Robb was moving so fast as a second that we might not have gained much time. Overall an amazing day and a super classic route!


Ready for some MORE offwidthing at Pine Creek

With more weekend left we camped Saturday night at Pine Creek to set us up for a Sunday of cragging. My previous visit had ended in rain and I had not the chance to climb Pratt’s Crack. After warming up on the comically named Becky* Route on the Mustache wall we moved on to the business. We were both psyched to lead Pratt’s Crack so I went first with all of our big gear. *(Unlike most of ‘Fred’ Becky routes this one is named for the route developers wife)


Getting ready for Pratt’s Crack!


Way too many cams since the crack grows larger than a #6.

Having three #6 C4’s was pretty novel but way overkill. A single #5 and #6 along with some finger sized cams and a bunch of slings is all you really need, as I noted on MP.com.  The crack starts out #6 size but eventually gets too big and you must depend on your technique, the occasional chock stone, and a few small pieces in the back wall. I learned a bunch of squeeze chimney techniques and my TC Pros really worked well for the many heel toe jams that were required.


Gear, what gear… I’m going up!

The main reason Pratt’s Crack clocks in at 5.9 is the many face hold and occational hands free rest.  It was a such a fun climb that I decided to do it again. After getting to the top I pulled up a second rope and rapped cleaning the gear. This gave Robb a chance to lead it, which he did in great style and with a reduced rack thanks to my experience.


Are we excited for the wide?


Robb makes his way up Pratt’s Crack

I seconded Robb’s lead, so I could practice my chimney technique, and then we moved around the corner to the classic Sheila. While this climb may look a bit awkward it was super fun and had a very long, and awesome,  section of #2 camalots in a corner. These bomber hands were so good that Robb just kept running it out and ended up with a single set of .5 camalot and above on his harness when he reached the anchor. Both  layback cruxes were protected by little gear and he placed five cams green alien sized and smaller.


Robb at the first crux on the hyper classic  Sheila.

Sheila was a great way to finish off the weekend and we were happy with all of the awesome climbing and near perfect weather. It had been a bit windy the day before but Pine Creek was amazing in the shade with a nice cooling breeze. Hopefully I’ll return to Conness for the West and North ridges but it was great to tick off the Harding route. This trip also tempted me to start planning a trip up Keeler Needle to climb yet another classic Harding route. Some day!






2 responses

30 09 2009
Mount Conness Approach Beta « Dream in Vertical

[…] can be a bit confusing so here are some photos with the route we took on our way to climb the Harding Route on the Southwest Face. This is the more direct of the two approaches from Saddlebag Lake and […]

6 11 2009
Sweet Gear: La Sportiva TC Pro « Dream in Vertical

[…] beat up and I was very happy to have the high top protection when climbing the offwidth on the Harding Route. I also found the lengthwise stiffness on the TC Pro works really well for offwidths and squeeze […]

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