Mt. Conness
(West Ridge)

29 Aug 1998 - by David Harris (view roster page)

Bob Suzuki and I climbed Mt. Conness this Saturday by the classic West Ridge. We expected a lengthy 5.6 climb that had been described as "two Cathedral Peaks stacked on top of each other," but were surprised to find the route much easier.

We approached from Sawmill Camp near Saddlebag Lake. The trail petered out very soon and occasionally resurfaced, but the cross-country walking was very easy. We crossed at the low point between White and Conness; there was hard snow but the angle was low enough that we passed without ice axes. We dropped down past a lake on the other side and contoured around to the base of the West ridge above Roosevelt Lake. The approach took about 3.5 hours at Bob's furious pace.

We got off to a bad start roping up when Bob placed a water bottle on a ledge with a hole. The bottle fell through the hole, bounced down the cliffs, followed a graceful arc 30 feet through the air, and smashed to bits. I was inspired by the sight and proceeded to drop my backpack, which rolled a hundred feet down the cliffs but fortunately did not smash to bits!

After recovering the pack, I led the first pitch. The bottom of the west ridge is a tower with a triangular west face that borders the magnificent cliffs of the southwest face. Just to the left of the triangular face is a scalloped face with many flakes which also forms a wall of the tower. I led the first pitch up the left side of the triangular face, just left of a small roof, then crossed rightward over the roof. The scariest part of the pitch was a ledge about a foot wide sloping upward at about 45 degrees next to a face with no hand holds or pro; fortunately, it was no harder than about 5.4. Bob led the next pitch left and up a bunch of moderate angle vertical flakes that were mostly 4th class. From there, it appeared one could continue up 4th class terrain, but I cut right onto the face again, then straight up some very fun solid rock that was again about 5.4 to gain the top of the tower. The three pitches took about 1.5 hours.

From there, we were surprised to find a long low-angle knife edge ridge leading to the summit. We kept expecting difficulties, so we remained roped and simulclimbed. There was striking exposure almost 1000 feet straight down the southwest face in places to our right, but to the left was a gentle gully. The rock on the ridge was excellent, solid 2nd and 3rd class granite with perhaps a few 4th class moves. The entire climbing time was 3 hours 15 minutes; we moved efficiently, but with no particular haste.

The ridge had been fun, but the technical part was much too short and calling it "two Cathedral peaks" is a huge overstatement. Since we were on the summit much earlier than expected, we decided to explore the north ridge as a descent route. It was supposed to be 5.6 as well, including a rappel, on the ascent. We kept within a few feet of the ridge, bypassing difficulties on the west side, and found it to be 4th class. We never roped up, even as we climbed up past the rappel slings! In hindsight, the exposure might have justified a rope even though the difficulty did not. It's the classic 4th class conundrum. We're not sure where the 5.6 route goes; perhaps if one religiously sticks to the top of the ridge and climbed every block on the crest, the route would be harder.

Once we passed the major tower on the north ridge, we continued along the 3rd class knife edge ridge which descends toward the saddle between Conness and North peak. This section was also great fun, reminiscent of the long ridge on Ruskin. I proved that my peakbagging lust was greatly diminished by passing up my chance to climb North peak from the saddle by class 2 slopes even though it looked only 20 minutes away and though I'd never climbed it. I'd like to save North Peak for a more elegant route.

The descent from the saddle involved a short bit of brush and some steep scree and moraine, then a pleasant walk past a series of lakes to the north end of Saddlebag. Our feet were sore from a long walk in approach shoes, but we found the day very enjoyable, if not as technical as expected. These routes on Conness would be a good introduction to Sierra roped climbing.

Butch Suits adds:

David, I enjoyed your account. I did this route a week before you and Bob. While agree that the route does not live up to its billing as two Cathedral Peaks stacked on top of each other, my partner and I found 5th class climbing on the upper ridge by staying religiously on the crest. Yes, most if not all of these difficulties can be avoided by staying farther to the left.. Or perhaps you guys are willing to 3rd class steeper terrain than the average climber (Hmm, I recall Bob soloed much of Mt. Sir Donald, for example).

I also agree with you that the only 5th Class on the North Ridge would be downclimbing the notch (Kai Weidman and I rappeled it when we did it). I think the West Ridge is a much better climb.

Steve Sosa adds:

A friend and I ascended the North Ridge approximately the same period you descended it, and I'll have to disagree with your assessment of it being entirely 4th class. True, most of the ridge leading up to the first rappel is exposed 3rd class. Yet, when simul-climbing the section above, because of the exposure and the aesthetics of staying close to the crest, we found it to warrant a 5th class rating (and I climb 5.12). Somewhere between the East Face of Whitney and the SW Butt of Cathedral for difficulty. One probably could safely piece together a 4th gully and ledge grovel, but why bother?

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