Ever since I first tied into a rope I've wanted to climb Blitzen Ridge. I'm not exactly sure what the attraction was - probably the spectacular setting as one of the dramatic arms encircling the gorgeous Spectacle Lakes Cirque and the large size of the route.
In the fall of 2006 I lined up a bunch of partners, got our bivy permits squared away, but the weather did not cooperate. We ended up bailing on the climb and instead headed south where the weather was better. This resulted in our ill-fated attempt at Gash Ridge.
Thus I had to wait a whole other year to make my attempt. I lined up some more partners, arranged the bivy permits, and showed up at The Beaver Meadows Visitor Center Saturday afternoon to meet Dan, Brian, and Fabio and pick up our permits.
We sorted out our racks, left a car at the visitor center, and headed over to Lawn Lake Trailhead. We were hiking toward Ypsilon Lake by about 15:00. We set a leisurely pace and arrived at the Lake around 18:00. It took us a while to find a reasonable bivy spot but we finally found a few relatively flat spots in the middle of a boulder fields about 300' feet above Ypsilon Lake.
After setting up our bivy we hiked back down to the lake to filter water and cook some dinner. With dinner eaten and all our water filtered for the climb we hiked back up to our bivy site, made a few last minute organizational adjustments, and went to sleep.
I slept fitfully and was already awake when Brian's alarm went off at 03:30. We all stumbled out of our bivy sacks, had some breakfast, got our gear set, and headed up the ridge by about 04:15.
We found a nice route slightly to climbers' right of the obvious grassy gully. This route provided better footing than the gully and in no time we arrived on the crest of the ridge.
I think all of us were under the impression that the ridge was more or less flat until we got to the aces, but this was not the case. We gained quite a bit of elevation while we hiked along in the dark. After a while the ridge did begin to flatten out. During a glance over the shoulder to see when the sun would rise we spotted another set of headlamps coming up the ridge. This second group of three climbers caught us right at the first ace - they had bivied at Spectacle Lakes.
As the sun began to rise we geared up for the technical climbing. Fabio and I made a team, Brian and Dan made the other. Fabio led off and climbed up a ramp system on south side of the first ace and soon gained the summit. We had planned to simul-climb, but once on the summit of the first ace Fabio decided to just bring me up because simul-climbing over the top and down the other side would have caused too much rope drag. I followed easily with Dan leading right behind me. There might have been a few low 5th class moves on that first pitch but mostly it was 4th class.
At the top of the first ace Fabio and I swapped gear and I headed down the other side. I found a nice ledge system along the south side of the second ace and followed it along looking for a way to the top. I found one opportunity that looked like some stout 5.7 and chickened out. The ledge system I was on was just too comfortable to leave. I continued along the ledge system angling up toward the ridge crest. I gained the ridge just west of the summit of the second ace. At about that point Fabio began simul-climbing behind me and I continued down into the notch between the second and third aces. I began to make my way up a ledge system on the third ace but rope drag was becoming an issue so I found a very spacious belay ledge (big enough for all four of us) and set up a belay. Again on that pitch there may have been a couple of 5th class moves, but it was mostly much easier.
Soon Fabio joined me and we swapped gear. I had set up the belay right below a nice slabby ramp that looked like it might actually provide the first interesting climbing of the day. Once Fabio had all the gear he set off. As he made his way up the pitch Brian joined me at the belay and began bringing Dan up. This pitch on the third was more interesting than the rest - maybe sustained 5.0ish with one interesting 5.4 move in the middle. At the top of the 100' ramp Fabio set up the belay and brought me up.
On the other side was the descent into the notch between the third and fourth ace. There was a rappel station there and Fabio and I debated what to do. It was obviously a lot further than we could rappel with our one 70m rope, so our options were to consider making two rappels, waiting for both Dan and Fabio to join us, or downclimb. Because the rappel wasn't anywhere near vertical, and we really needed to do a descending traverse to get to the notch, we decided to downclimb it. I had absolutely no problem with this because it was my turn to "lead" it. Therefore I would get a really nice belay. It would be Fabio that would have the very poorly protected downclimb as the follower. Fabio was cool with it so I set off. The first bit was pretty stiff and exposed but the holds were where I needed them. After the first 50' the terrain eased quite a bit, but remained sustained 4th class. I made my way down it trying to remember to place a bit of pro below the tricky section. Our 70m rope just barely got me to the notch were I found a rappel anchor where somebody had obviously decided to bail. I set up the belay and brought Fabio down. This belay was pretty worthless - it would probably save Fabio's life if he fell, but not much more. He didn't though, and soon he joined me in the notch.
Brian showed up a few moments later and Dan followed soon after. We all took the opportunity to have a little rest, a big snack, and joke around. There were some clouds forming to the west so we didn't waste a whole lot of time though.
After our snack Fabio and I swapped gear once more and he set off around the fourth and final ace. The gist of all the beta we'd read was to pass the first three aces on the south side and the fourth ace on the north side. The beta also said that the path around the fourth ace was the most challenging. Fabio set off on the north side looking for a ramp system that would go. Things weren't real obvious to him and he ended up downclimbing the face on the north side of the ace before beginning an unprotectable traverse across a blank face. A little ways into the traverse caution got the better of him and he backed off and retraced his steps.
Meantime Dan was getting antsy so Brian and I encouraged him to try a different line. Dan was by far the strongest rock climber among us so we encouraged him to try to attack the arte directly. It looked doable from where we were so Dan set off. While Fabio made his way back up the face of the fourth ace Dan made his way up the ridge. He found some interesting climbing and after a couple of interesting moves found a reasonable looking ledge system that appeared like it would get us around the north side of the ace. Midway across the ledge system rope drag began to become and issue for Dan so he set up a belay and brought Brian up with Fabio close on his heals.
Once Fabio had set up a belay he brought me up. This was by far the best pitch so far. There were some fun moves on great rock. It ended too soon though and soon I was swapping gear with Fabio. The ledge system was easy and after about 100' I was on 2nd class terrain. I set up a quick belay and brought Fabio over. We coiled the rope and trotted after Brian and Dan.
By this time the clouds were beginning to develop into something fairly menacing looking. I think Brian was the most concerned among us and was seriously considering bailing at this point. From the notch between the fourth ace and the headwall there was a walkoff down to Spectacle Lakes. This was pretty much our last opportunity - above the headwall we were pretty much committed to going up and over Ypsilon Mountain and down Donner Ridge. Fabio didn't seem that concerned and neither was I really. Once through the two pitches or so of the headwall we would be beyond all the technical climbing and into 3rd class terrain. We hadn't heard or seen any indication of thunder or lightning and I had my rain gear. If the crap really hit the fan I was prepared to hunker down somewhere on the north side of the ridge and get a little wet and cold. That was a small price to pay for a successful ascent of the route.
I radioed ahead to Brian that we would follow them if they continued up the ridge. Continue they did. By the time Fabio and I caught up Dan was already out of sight. We were all feeling a sense of urgency so we encouraged Dan and Brian to simul-climb instead of pitching it out. However rope drag became such and issue that Dan didn't feel comfortable simul-climbing. He set up a belay and brought Brian up. Fabio followed right behind. I hoped that with Fabio's deeper alpine knowledge that he could place pro in such a way to reduce rope drag to enable he and I to simul-climb, but it was not to be. The terrain was just not steep enough and the rope drag was tremendous. Before reaching the end of the rope Fabio set up a belay and brought me up. The first 50' of the pitch were up an interesting gully thing with a couple of fun moves but once up that it was 3rd class to the belay. Soon I joined Fabio and we swapped gear for the final time. This was our 8th and final roped pitch of the climb.
I followed Dan up a nice little dihedral with some 5.2ish moves and then up a face. Towards the top the face became completely vertical, if not overhanging. I pulled a couple of pretty stiff moves through the overhanging section before topping out on the headwall. Those were certainly the stoutest moves I've pulled on lead in a while - probably in the 5.7 range. When I joined Dan at the belay he was coiling the rope and Brian had already set out up the ridge. It looked like non-technical terrain from here on out. Dan took off while I set up an anchor to bring Fabio up. Fabio made quick work of the pitch and when I commented that the moves at the top were rather stiff, he informed me that if I'd moved a meter to my right I would have found trivial terrain. Oh well - it was fun anyway.
Fabio and I packed away our gear and had a snack while we looked warily at the building clouds. We still hadn't seen or heard a hint of lightning or thunder but it looked like the rain could start at any minute. After our snack we headed up after Brian and Dan.
Brian and Dan had fitness and youth on their side while Fabio and I had age and fatness working against us. Thus Brian and Dan quickly pulled ahead. After rounding a gendarme, dropping down on the north side of the ridge a little bit, then scrambling back up to the ridge proper we spotted Brian and Dan far ahead of us. Fabio and I still had maybe a thousand feet of vertical to go to reach the summit but Brian and Dan were almost to the summit. Fabio and I set a moderate and sustainable pace and let the other guys race ahead. We got periodic taunts and cajoles over the radio as we slowly made our way up toward the summit. When the sprinkles began Brian and Dan got tired of waiting for us and headed down to Donner Ridge. They said they'd wait there for us unless the weather got really bad.
After much 3rd class scrambling Fabio and I reached the summit of Ypsilon Mountain at about 13:20 - nearly an hour after Brian and Dan. The sprinkles were persisting so we didn't waste any time on the summit and kept heading down. We met up with Brian and Dan on Donner Ridge and began the descent down into the basin between Donner Ridge and Mount Chiquita.
Luckily the weather held off and from there it was just a death march back to the Lawn Lake Trailhead. On the way we had to make the detour to retrieve our stuff from the bivy site. Dan raced ahead and grabbed Fabio's stuff and filtered some water for of us. The rest of us straggled into Ypsilon Lake and then dragged ourselves back up to the hill to grab our stuff. After packing up and reorganizing our kit we resumed the death march back to the car and arrived at the Lawn Lake Trailhead at 19:30.
It had only been a 15.5-hour day, but it felt like a lot more. I was totally wrecked, but incredible satisfied with another great day in the hills.
P.S. On October 31, 2007 I received the following note from Charles Ehlert (currently of Seattle, WA):
Found your site while Googling Blitzen Ridge on Ypsilon Peak. Many years ago (about Sept 1958) Phil Ritterbush, Clint Brooks, Jim Walker, Dave Fedson and I (students at Yale at the time) did the first ascent of the Blitzen Ridge. We were slow, got to the summit just before dark. Spent a cold night out, wrapped up in a climbing rope - not that it did any good... Walked down to Fall River Pass in the morning and hitch-hiked down. We named the two ridges "Donder" and "Blitzen" ridges - thunder and lightening. It's fun to read of others' adventures up there, remembering that great day all those years ago...
Our ascent was informed by at least three guidebooks, a couple of websites, a handful of trip reports from friends and acquaintances, and I'd been up Donner Ridge before and had our descent doped out. It's hard to imagine what an adventure the onsite FA must have been!