Charlotte Dome

19 Jun 1999 - by Dave Ress

The Stoic and I climbed the S. Face of Charlotte Dome last Saturday, the route made famous in Roper's "50 Crowded Climbs of N. America." Here's a full description if you want the details.

For me, the crux was the approach, although the Stoic described it simply as "okay." We came in from the west, from Road's End near Cedar Grove. The initial 7-8 mile hike up Bubbs Cr. was lovely and pleasant, but the 1-2 miles of rugged cross-country climbing 2000' up Charlotte Cr. was, for me, sheer Hell. When I am encumbered with a heavy climbing pack, my damaged right ankle does not perform well on loose or brushy terrain, and this approach had both in spades, often at the same time. I think that most mountaineering folks would have found it to be a rugged and strenuous but otherwise unremarkable little hike. We camped in a small stand of trees about 300 vertical feet below the dome with an excellent view of the route. The entire approach took us a bit less than 7 hours at my paraplegic pace.

The next morning, we left camp at a rather leisurely 6:30 AM. The initial brush gave way to friction slabs and headwalls, but nothing that should have been particularly difficult. Unfortunately, in getting over the final headwall, we made a poor choice of route, and ended up standing foolishly together on a small sloping ledge, blocked by steep wet slimy slabs and unable to downclimb safely. So, we were forced to break out a rope, slam in a few pieces of pro, and I took a delicate and largely unprotected lead up the marshy slab. Finally, we were able to get to the base of the dome. About 300' of class 3-4 climbing brought us to our first belay and the actual start of the technical climbing.

And that was pretty much that. The crux was the approach, as I said earlier, and the rest of the climb was sweet but highly uneventful. The weather was superlative for the entire day. Insects were negligible. Never before have I done a climb that matched the route description so precisely (see Moynier and Fiddler for a topo). About 12 years ago, I climbed Charlotte Dome with my original mentor, John Woodworth, and, I think, never once managed to find a pitch of the "classic" South Face route, although we had a very good time. Our difficulty, I think was trying to find the route by observing the dome from the east, for we had approached over Kearsarge Pass. The start of the route, and many of its features, only become obvious when the dome is viewed from the south.

The Stoic and I traded leads steadily over the 11-pitch climb. The first 3 pitches I would have described as easy class 5 as opposed to class 4. The "Slot Pitch" was my lead, and very pleasing. Although steep, the rock of Charlotte is so featured with knobs and edges that is always possible to make progess without much difficulty. In fact, the combination of substantial holds and high angle makes for satisfyingly gymnastic moves -- great fun! The Stoic got the "ambiguous and runout face," and did an excellent (and stoical, of course) job of both tolerating the runout (30-40') and finding a nice, 5.7 line through the ambiguity. I was graced with the lead on the "Furrows" pitch, and this has got to be one of the best bits of alpine climbing I've ever encountered. This formation is a long sequence of deep water grooves and solution pockets in a vertical portion of the face. You could stem them, mantle them, or just pull hard, but after each fun sequence you were again standing on a substantial ledge -- the floor of the solution pocket above. Repeat this many times and you have one heckuva fun pitch!

No memorable alpine route is complete without at least a little bit of silly difficulty, and, on my last lead, I carelessly went astray. This pitch is labeled "5.6, many ways to go" on the topo, but, I discovered at least one of those ways was not 5.6. My choice of "crack up, friction traverse L, bulge, and reverse hand traverse R" is probably to be avoided in favor of simpler and more asthetic alternatives.

We arrived at the summit at about 6 PM. There is a summit register on top, but someone, probably a climber that doesn't approve of summit registers, appears to have hammered the register tube permanently shut. The summit vista, and that of whole climb, in fact, is very nice, featuring the Brewer group, Stanford, Deerhorn, the Videttes, Gould and Dragon, and many others. Not bad for a little (10,690') bump on the map!

The descent from the summit initially involved a fairly tricky class 3 traverse that would be difficult to do in the dark. The remaining descent was an easy walk down slabs to the east, followed by a pleasant 120 degree rotary traverse at the base of the dome in a rocky gully and adjacent slabs. An obligatory bit of bushwhacking brought us back to camp at about 8 PM.

The next morning, we descended back to Road's End without mishap. To keep me from sobbing and whining about my ruined joints, the Stoic took down a double load of climbing gear, an extra 10 pounds. (When I look at him just right, you know, I can see a halo...) The 9-10 mile walk took my weak body about 4 hours, and we arrived at the car at about 1 PM. I was tired but very happy and satisfied. The Stoic, of course, was a bit dissatisfied because he "hadn't gotten enough of workout." Next time, darn it, I'm gonna give him the double load of rock gear on the way up, too!

-- The Paraplegic

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