West Ridge of Mt. Conness

23 Aug 1998 - by Harlan Suits

Roosevelt Lake is a trudge from Tuolomne Meadows, but there's great scenery along the way. On our hike to the west side of Mt. Conness, Roy Lambertson and I enjoyed views of the Cathedral Range and the beautiful lower Young Lake, a grand reflecting pool for Ragged Peak. Seventeen years ago I had camped there on my first PCS trip, a climb of Conness's southern slopes led by Roger Crawley. But the best part of the walk was the last--almost a mile of green, boulder studded meadows with the huge southwest face of Conness towering above. This is the face visible from the Tioga Road and so many other viewpoints within Yosemite.

Roosevelt is beautiful elongated lake with a lovely small canyon at its outlet. The lake can also be reached crossing a high pass from Le Vining Creek, but the next day's events proved the wisdom of our chosen route. We set up our tent and relaxed. I took a dip in the lake and there was enough of a breeze to keep the local mosquitoes away while I dried in the sun.

In the flat light of mid-afternoon, the west face of Conness looked like a nondescript hodgepodge of features canted at about 45 degrees. Where exactly was the west ridge? The guidebook said it formed the left side of the southwest face, a Grade II 5.6 in difficulty.

As if on cue, a tall man and a small blonde woman carrying a rope arrived at a nearby pile of gear. Before I could wander over to see what they had been up to, they dashed a few hundred yards up the shore, doffed their clothes and dove off a big rock into the lake. "Pretty hardcore," Roy and I agreed.

Later I cornered them fully clothed. They had climbed the west ridge and they had loved it: clean granite, fun exposure, and not too hard, though the man considered it a Grade III rather than II. Yes, we would need to get an early start. They had simulclimbed it (placing protection but not establishing fixed belay stations) in only 3 hours. Maybe we could do the climb Sunday and get back to the car at a decent hour, I thought.

Before turning in, Roy and I enjoyed the fiery alpenglow on Conness. Gradually the sinking sun delineated an incipient ridge on the left side of the shadowed face. With good beta and the promise of good weather, we were ready to give it a go.

Sunday we got up before dawn and headed up the talus. The start of the route is a huge, tilted "flatiron"-type formation that narrowed to a tip a few hundred feet above us. In the shadow of the mountain, it was cold and windy, and we wore most of our clothing. The first 40 feet were solid mid-5th class. The difficulty soon let up, however, easing to a pleasant mixture of solid flakes, grooves and ledges. We began to simulclimb, establishing belays only when the leader ran out of pro or the topography generated too much rope drag.

The tower was big. We didn't reach the apex until the third pitch. As the flatiron narrowed, I climbed a beautiful tilted dihedral on the right edge, experiencing for the first time the exhilarating nearness of Conness's southwest face to my right. At the same time, the sun hit us, cutting the chill. The fun continued as a short knife edge, exposed on both sides but with big holds, led to a notch.

After the flatiron, we could see the slightly raised ridge zigzagging up the edge of the face. This is a long route. Looking up the mountain, the ridge forms a right triangle with the face, so most of the climbing is on the left side. If you stay too low, however, you encounter more third and fourth class. The real treat is to stay right on or under the edge. In one memorable place the ridgeline was a sharp flake we could easily wrap our hands around, periodically peering through notches straight down several hundred feet. One time I could see most of the face and saw a patch of red in a chimney far below. A climber? I detected no movement. In other places the ridgetop was a 5-foot wide slab tilted up but not to either side. Consistently, the rock was at a pleasant angle and contained copious holds and opportunities for placing protection.

We continued to climb long pitches, some up to 300 feet in length. Still, it became clear that we were much slower than our recent acquaintances. At last we pulled onto the summit after more than 6 hours of simulclimbing--7 long pitches in total. We shared some food and chatted with a man who had "run" up the peak in tennis shoes from Lee Vining Creek. He had planned to solo our route, but had run out of gas--He blamed it on too much partying at a friend's wedding.

The west ridge is ideal for people who have climbed something like the southwest buttress of Cathedral Peak and are looking for something longer. Using conventional belays, I would estimate the route to be 12-14 pitches, but most of the climbing is easier than Cathedral.

We located the west-side gulley descent just south of the big face. Now the immense granite wall dwarfed us with its majesty. It's certainly one of the most impressive pieces of granite I've seen in the Sierra--on par with Whitney's east face. High above us, we saw two antlike figures a few pitches from the top. They were probably on the Harding route, which is the classic southwest face route. The red blob I had seen earlier had probably been one of them belaying low on the route.

We reached camp at about 4:00 and tried to psyche ourselves up for the hike out. We were both pretty tired. On the trudge back to Tuolomne we distracted ourselves, first by reciting memorable Arnold Schwarzenneger quotes. This didn't take very long, however, so we proceeded to recite lines from Star Trek and challenge each other to "name that episode." (For example: "You're a very agile man, Mr. Atoz" and "You belong in the circus, right next to the dog-faced boy!"). We reached our car an hour after dark.

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