North Peak (North Couloir) and Mt Conness (North Ridge)

20-22 Jul 2001 - by Jim Ramaker

When Bob Suzuki and Charles Schafer invited me to go with them to climb the North Couloir of North Peak and the North Ridge of Mt. Conness, they didn't have to ask twice. Both climbs are high-quality alpine routes in the gorgeous and easily accessible country just north of Tioga Pass. The plan was to hike in a few miles on Friday evening, do both climbs on Saturday (they're less than a mile apart), and then play it by ear on Sunday. But with the usual delays getting out of town on Friday afternoon, it was 8 p.m. before we arrived at the trailhead at Saddlebag Lake. Nevertheless, we decided to hike in a bit, which actually worked out well. As the last afterglow faded from the sky at 9 p.m., we found a nice campsite next to Greenstone Lake -- much nicer than spending the night in the barren, gravelly area near the Saddlebag Lake dam.

Saturday morning, we left camp at 7, hiked up past Cascade Lake, and crossed the moraine to the foot of the North Face of North Peak. Our goal was the right-hand couloir, which looked fairly moderate -- 40-45 degrees and only about 600' high. The left-hand couloir was very impressive -- much longer, much steeper, and with a mini-crevasse that created a short vertical wall of snow near the top.

We started up the right-hand couloir, finding good neve with a few hard icy patches. Bob set up the first belay station at the right end of the bergschrund, then one on rock on the right wall, another one on pickets in the middle of the couloir, and two more on rock on the left wall. With just an ice axe, it was nice to be roped up, though with two ice tools, soloing it would've been a possibility. The weather was cloudless and warm, and we passed a leisurely morning in the rhythms of climbing, waiting, and belaying.

By the time we finished the last short pitch and arrived on the saddle, it was 2 p.m. Instead of rushing off to Conness, we decided to take a badly needed snack break, summit North Peak, take our time, and do the second climb on Sunday. The last 200' to the top of North was the most enjoyable part of the climb -- a steep class-3 gully on beautifully solid rock. The top of the gully has a class-4 move, which you can bypass by escaping to the left. On the summit, we ran into three guys from Western Mountaineering, one of whom knew Bob because of his years of lavish spending on climbing gear. They had just completed the North Ridge of North Peak, and were planning to do the North Ridge of Conness on Sunday from a well-chosen camp on the saddle between the two peaks. Not us -- we had to descend 2000 feet to our camp, and then drag our gear back up Sunday morning. We needed the exercise though.

Our late-afternoon descent was pleasant and unhurried, though the sharp knife-edge that was tomorrow's objective, with a deep gap halfway across it, was far from comforting. Wandering cross-country on the descent, Bob and I strayed too far left (north), and ended coming down into the maze of the Wasco Lakes instead of directly to Greenstone. As I said, we needed the exercise, and sometimes it's just too much work to stop and get out the map.

We arrived in camp at 6, leaving plenty of time for a leisurely dinner and rest. During supper, a ranger lady stopped by and told us we were illegally camped -- while we were well over 100' from the lake, we weren't aware of another rule saying that you're supposed to camp at least 100' from the nearest trail. (Seems like an odd rule -- wouldn't it be better to concentrate use along trails, instead of scarring pristine areas with camps?) We'd also failed to pick up our permit, though Charles did reserve one. Clearly a highly disreputable group. But after gazing into our exhausted faces, and listening to some diplomatic explanations from Charles, the ranger lady let us stay put.

Sunday we again got moving at the non-alpine hour of 7 a.m. and hiked up past Greenstone and the lowest Conness Lake, picking up a nice use trail the roughly followed the watercourse up to the central and then the westernmost Conness Lake. Just north of that lake, we climbed a sandy gully through a cliff band and then began a long traverse left on a brushy scree shelf perched above a major cliff. This shelf looked airy from a distance, but had a nice climbers use trail all the way.

After that the actual north ridge began, with a long level section of moderately exposed class-3, leading to a large double-humped tower, visible from below. The tower was almost vertical but still moderate class-3 on huge holds, and it led to a second, long, nearly level class-3 section. This part of the ridge was solid and blocky, with really big air on the left and a smaller cliff on the right, but it was wide enough on top so that it never really felt scary. The end of this section rose to a sharp pinnacle followed by a 100' deep cleft, the most prominent feature on the ridge and clearly visible from our camp. We climbed unroped to the top of the pinnacle, found a rap sling, and rapped about 50' down to a blocky ledge. A couple of class-4 traversing moves took us to a second rap sling and a second 50' rap, to the slabs at the base of the notch. A piece of fixed pro indicated that you could avoid the second rap and traverse instead, but it looked like hard class-5 on a smooth vertical wall.

From the base of the notch, the ridge turns into a wide, 400-foot high face with a pointed top, inclined at about 70 degrees. From a distance, we thought this face might require several roped pitches, but we ended up third-classing the whole thing. It was the best class-3 rock I've ever climbed on -- clean, solid, rough-textured, with small cracks and ramps angling upward, and even a few small ledges and stances to stop and rest. A party just to our right was roped up, but only because the second appeared to be very inexperienced. Parties who want to make this section sportier can rope up and climb along the left edge of the face, next to the 1000-foot vertical drop to the Conness Glacier.

Since we'd done no roped climbing except for the two short rappels, I expected the top of this cliff to reveal a hideously exposed knife edge leading to the summit. Instead I topped out and was surprised to see a 300 feet of easy class 2-3 boulders leading over to the huge summit cairn. So that was the north ridge -- lots of high-quality class-3, a little bit of 4, two short raps, and no class-5 climbing. Apparently the 5.6 rating applies to climbing it in the other direction -- the two raps could be combined into one long class-5 pitch.

We topped out at 2 p.m. and talked to a couple just off the west ridge, another fine route on this peak. Bob knew the woman from Planet Granite, and in the register, we noted that Noriko Sekikawa and Maxym Rynov had signed in off the west ridge a few hours before us. As the saying goes, mountaineering can be a small world, even in a state with 35 million people.

After a break, we descended the standard class-2 route onto the vast, sandy plateau to the southeast, and then found the east ridge, which you can't seen from the plateau unless you're walking along the very edge of it. We dropped off the plateau onto the east ridge, then stopped to discuss the remainder of our descent route. Charles wanted to continue our classic ridge-running along the crest of the east ridge, directly across the jagged pinnacles at 11,500 feet. He gestured toward the highest pinnacle about 500' away.

"See that white streak over there, between those peaklets?" He said. "That's a trail."

"That's no trail," I said. "That's a dike of white rock on a 5.9 face. I think we should drop down to the Conness Glacier and pick up that nice use trail we used this morning."

"The glacier!" Bob said. "That's steep glacial ice! We don't even have crampons and ice axes. We could get killed."

Smiling slightly at this Suzuki humor, I climbed out a few yards and leaned over the edge of the cliff to get a look at the glacier below. I peered down at an expanse of filthy eroded snow, covered with rockfall and dirt.

"Bob, I've never seen such pure white snow," I said. "It looks nice and soft for glissading too. Almost like white velvet."

"No way," Bob said, gesturing toward Alpine Lake to the southeast. "I think we should drop down to that tarn over there, then contour over to the saddle just above our camp."

"Way down there -- are you crazy?" Charles said. "We'd have to climb back up 1000 feet to get up to the saddle."

And so forth for several more minutes. We ended up taking a route none of us would have chosen -- a sidehill traverse about 200 feet below the base of the pinnacles, circling eastward toward the saddle above our camp at about 11,100 feet. It turned out to be ideal -- solid white boulders and slabs, patches of green grass, beautiful little sky gardens, and easy walking all the way. We passed the "contact zone" between the Conness granite and the reddish east-side rock (supposedly a good place to look for gold) and continued on to the saddle, ending with a gentle climb of less than 100 feet.

Down a talus slope to Greenstone Lake, and finally to our camp at 6 p.m. We packed up our camping gear and hiked out past Saddlebag Lake in the evening light, watching the alpenglow on the vast, barren slope on the east side of the lake. A hearty, home-cooked supper at Tioga Pass Resort topped off a great day of alpine climbing in an especially beautiful and accessible corner of the Sierras.

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