As fall turned into winter last year, it occurred to me that I had let the Sierra climbing season slip away. Too much cragging, too many expeditions, I'd been away from my favorite mountain range too long. Could I work in a backcountry route, now that winter was here? The obvious partner for such a climb would be my good friend Jason Magness, who was attempting new routes in Patagonia this time last year.
Kicking around ideas, Jason asked about the toughest Sierra backcountry rock climb I've been considering. Well, Angel Wings has the toughest moves of any route in John Moynier's Sierra Classics book. And what about the most remote route? Angel Wings again. The choice seemed clear, and to up the ante we decided that doing the (possible) first winter ascent of the peak and (probable) first winter ascent of the South Arete would be a good challenge.
But was it even possible? In the summer the formation has a 16 mile approach, but in the winter we had to contend with an additional 3 miles as the Moro Rock spur road was closed. Neither of us had climbed in the area, and we assumed that finding the snow-covered trail in the heavy Sierra west-side forest would be the crux of the trip.
Having a party of 3 on the route seemed prudent, but recruiting another partner proved impossible. Jason flew into Orange County from North Dakota, and we left the next morning. There is (or was, it's melting fast) about three feet of snow at the Moro Rock turnoff where we parked, mostly from a big storm that had swept through the previous week. From the car we started hiking in thin poly-pro and no shirts, which was to be our hiking attire for most the trip. It was so warm it almost felt like cheating.
When we lost the trail in the snow in Crescent Meadow after walking three miles, I sensed imminent disaster. We quickly regained the trail, however, and had only a few minor detours over the next 16 miles. Although the trail was about 95% covered in snow, it was fairly obvious most the way. The tough parts were the north-facing slopes, where snow was deep enough to not form a trail-like impression, and the switchbacks, which were difficult to distinguish from the surrounding features.
So, after three days of snow-shoed walking (two half days and one full day) we arrived at the base of Angel Wings. The wall soared above us, completely clear of snow - we were psyched. As a born pessimist, I hadn't given us much of a chance of even seeing the wall, and here we were within striking distance! With the short days, we decided to plan on a bivy. The idea was for the second to ascend the lead line using Tiblocs, while wearing the pack with the bivy gear. However, trying to ascend a near-vertical wall with a relatively heavy pack proved too difficult, so we hauled the pack on any pitch over 5.9.
There was no warm-up on this climb - I pulled off my plastic boots, put on the rock shoes, and started climbing 5.10 off the snow. The rock was beautiful, clean Yosemite-like granite, and it was so warm I could have been climbing in shorts. By the time I got to the end of each pitch, I'd be sweating profusely in my full Gortex suit, but I didn't want to take the time to remove it and I knew it would get cold enough later that I would be happy to have it.
I had quite a scare on the 3rd pitch, pulling around the loose block indicated in the topo. This thing is really huge and appears to be delicately balanced on a small perch. I pulled over a small roof and pulled back on a flake, not knowing it was the block. The flake started moving outward, and I quickly stopped pulling, whereupon the flake settled back against the wall. Jason, ascending the lines after I finished the pitch, didn't even notice the block - it's so big and not obviously loose that it just looks like part of the face.
The route follows a nearly continuous crack system, all the way up to the 5.11+ "Black Roof." To speed things along, I didn't hesitate to French free whenever I felt the need. Also to save time, we led in blocks, which meant my leads got us up to roof, where it was Jason's turn. He pulled on a few pieces to get over the 6 foot roof (including a "fixed" #1 Camalot which I easily cleaned). Then the fun began. After the roof the route traversed straight right, through a gully, and then onto the arete again. I guess the gully is dry in the summer because in all the route descriptions I read, there was no mention of the raging creek that now flowed down it. Plus the gully was steep, much more like a chimney.
This was one of those situations where you feel bad for your partner leading the pitch, but that feeling pales in comparison to the feeling of relief that YOU aren't leading it. Jason did a few badly protected moves to get across the water, then had to move up. At this point the rope stopped moving for 45 minutes. Stuck under the Black Roof, I had no idea what was going on and it was deadly silent except for the water flowing by.
Finally he yelled, "I guess I have no choice but this could be a big one!" The rope moved up steadily and Jason was soon at the anchor. It turned out that the delay was the result of Jason trying to decide which way to face inside the chimney: the side pouring with water, or the relatively dry side. He ended up with his back pressed against the wall with the flowing water, no pro for 15 feet (and only marginal pro below that), water cascading over his back. When I finished ascending the lines, Jason tipped our only chalk bag over and poured out so much water I expected to see a fish come out.
The next pitch got us further up the chimneys, and Jason found a ledge just as it was getting dark. Unfortunately it too was pouring with water, but we found a section way off to the side that was only half wet. A painful but not horrible bivy ensued, and the three packs of ramen we cooked up in our little titanium pot definitely were a morale booster. At least we didn't have to worry about drinking water.
The next morning it was my lead again. At this point we had the choice of following the first-ascent line taken by Rowell and Jones in 1971, or doing the direct variation on the very crest of the arete put up by Leversee in 1984. The Rowell/Jones gully looked full of ice, flowing water, and squeeze chimneys, but seemed to offer a quicker way to the summit plateau, so I picked the gully. Wrong choice. Without an axe or crampons, I tried to chimney above the ice in my plastic boots, eventually wriggling out of the chimneys after two pitches into a lower-angle gully filled with snow. The ice I knocked down on Jason had nearly taken him out, and my new rope took several core shots.
Jason fought through the squeeze chimneys wearing the pack, and we both thought we were home free. No such luck. At the top of the 300 foot snow gully, we looked down from a sharp arete into the next gully west, which is the main gully that splits the south face of Angel Wings. It completely blocked our access to the summit plateau. Moving up the arete looked like several more pitches of steep rock, so we rappelled 300 feet into the main gully and then had to walk back up several hundred feet in the snow. Finally, we were granted access to the summit plateau.
The descent to the west was relatively straightforward, with a few rappels required to get over ice patches before we regained the trail above Lone Pine Creek. We left the now-shredded ropes and climbing gear on the trail to dry, and walked back to our camp at Lower Hamilton Lake. Neither of us slept much that night, the adrenaline still pumping. With lighter packs and food in the car motivating us, the walk out took less than 2 days.