Climbing Mt. Conness Southwest Face (Harding Route) car-to-car

August 30, 2016. The alarm went off at 3:30 AM. Incredibly, I had already been awake for the last 20 minutes; I suppose the anticipation of the alarm in conjunction with an epic day ahead woke me up. I pulled on my R1 hoody, Prana stretch pants, beanie, and socks, rolled over to bid Cass farewell and trekked over to Tyler’s sleeper. He already had the coffee going. Epic.

After our hasty breakfast (Schatz’s coffee cake, eggs and coffee), we drove over to the Saddle Lake’s campground and started our long long day.

We decided to go car to car on the Southwest Face (Harding Route) to avoid all the hassle of packing tent, sleeping bag, food, etc. over the cross country trek. We also considered it “better style” to complete the route car-to-car. Our rack consisted of a double set of aliens from blue through red, a yellow, red and green c3, a set of RP’s, a set of nuts, yellow and orange metolius TCU’s, a #6 Wild Country cam, a blue Big Bro, 16 slings and a 60m rope. For those who haven’t done the route, the approach hike puts you close to the summit of Mt. Conness, after which you scramble down steep loose scree to the base of the route, climb the route to the top of the mountain, and then scramble slightly down from the summit back to the trail in. We decided to hike in with our larger more comfortable packs, ditch them at the descent notch, and carry our summit packs the rest of the day until we arrived back at the notch.

Our hike began at around 4:30 AM by headlamp; nice and cold. Neither of us had done the approach previously, and on-sighting the approach by headlamp was a bit challenging. After cruising through the campsite, we followed the road until there was an option to cross the stream. We passed the Carnegie Institute (dilapidated old building) and continued on the nice hard beaten trail for around a mile. We started to get anxious with the beta of “leaving the trail to cut cross country” as described in the Supertopo approach beta. As I was scanning the sides of the trail for any signs of a climber trail, a pair of eyes glowed back at me from about 150 feet away. Eyes that were about 6″ apart and about 3 feet off of the ground. I pointed them out to Tyler, who confirmed “some kind of large cat”. I yelled a growly yell at the eyes and watched them close and move away. This was quite the adventurous start to our epic day, and we both continued to scan the landscape with our headlamps and look nervously behind us on the trail for the next mile. Mountain lions or cougars are serious animals, and if you end up in a fight with one, you are literally fighting for your life! We were quite thankful to have strength and intimidation in numbers.

After a while, we found a couple cairns and decided that the cross country trek was at hand. We scanned the dark silhouette of the mountain against the black skyline to confirm the shape of a saddle as shown in a picture from the Supertopo guide book. We headed uphill, scrambling cross country while looking for a light trail. After a quarter mile, we found a trail and continued on more easily. By this time, twilight was bringing in just enough light for us to really start identifying our surroundings, and we were excited to find that we had nailed our approach and were on the right path. We scrambled uphill and through the described notch which consisted of a water run off area.

Tyler on the approach hike in

Tyler on the approach hike in

After we arrived at the top of the notch, we trekked across a quite dry meadow for about a quarter mile before heading steeply uphill, following spaghetti trails and aiming for a ridge line silhouetted against the skyline. Once we neared the ridge, we headed climber’s left for a mile, eventually arriving on a large sandy and rocky plateau. We could now see Mt. Conness looming in the distance, and we hiked towards the summit for a while. At last, we arrived at a concrete rock stack statue. We should have stashed our larger carry backpacks here and donned our summit packs, but instead we carried our larger packs all the way to the descent notch, about 100 yards to skier’s left and downhill from here. A couple large cairns marked the decent notch. For those who have not done this descent on the approach, it is quite important to find the correct descent notch. Most of the descent notches cliff out in steep terrain; an uncomfortable ending to an unhappy “oops” situation. Fortunately I had done this descent once before and remembered the approximate location of the correct descent notch. We ditched our carrying packs and donned our summit packs with our water, food, and alpine clothing and other essentials. We arrived at the base of the route at around 8:30 AM and started climbing around 9. The route was still in the shade, but the temperatures were tolerable.

looking up at pitch 1

looking up at pitch 1

We decided I should lead the first pitch, Tyler would lead the technical crux second pitch (5.10c), and I would lead the off width Harding slot pitch. Other than that, the rest of the pitches would “fall as they may”.

Tyler coming up Pitch 1

Tyler coming up Pitch 1

The first pitch was quite dry for us except for a 20 foot section well up the route. This section was quite easy and the wetness did not prove to add any difficulty. I could imagine that earlier in the season the situation could have been quite different. The first pitch was rated 5.9, and it proved to have two sections of rather sustained 5.9 with an easier section in between. Protection was adequate and soon the 100 foot pitch was over.

Tyler onsighting pitch 2

Tyler onsighting pitch 2

Tyler led off on the second pitch. A 5.10a cross-over move followed by a 5.10 roof and more 5.10 climbing above proved to make this sustained 200 foot pitch quite the undertaking! Tyler onsighted and brought me up. This pitch proved to tire me out quite a bit and I was thankful Tyler offered to lead the next pitch as well. Wild and wandering 5.8 climbing that ended in a chimney with tons of rope drag brought Tyler to the base of the Harding slot, and he set up a belay and brought me up. Now it was my turn to lead the physical crux of the route – the 5.10a off width pitch.

The wandering 3rd pitch

The wandering 3rd pitch

Tyler at the 2nd pitch belay

Tyler at the 2nd pitch belay

I was up. I grabbed all the gear from Tyler and headed up the 4th pitch. I climbed out right from the belay at first into what looked like easier terrain. Soon I was well above my gear with ledge fall potential below me and desperately thin and marginal gear. I focused on the climbing, footwork, and breathing, and moved back left into the main crack. The main crack became a beautiful 5.9 hand crack for about 30 feet. This deposited me at the base of the main off width crack.

looking up at pitch 4

looking up at pitch 4

I saw one of the “ancient 1/4” bolts next to the wide crack. It was true, these would be worthless to clip. I was happy to have my big green #6 Wild Country cam. I plugged in the cam discovered that the crack was a terrible size for me. Too big for double fist technique, and too small for a chicken wing. Ugh… After playing around with options, I decided to start stemming on the outside of the crack. The terrain was quite vertical at this point, and the rock quality on the right side of the crack was not great, but I slowly made progress up the crack, bumping my big #6 cam along from solid stances. As I neared the top of the vertical section of the off width pitch, the crack widened and my #6 cam was no longer useful. I scanned a small finger crack on the left wall for any possible gear placement, tried to fiddle in a green alien, and eventually gassed out and took on my tipped out #6. Sad to lose the onsight, but not discouraged with my progress, I fiddled in two marginal blue aliens into the top of the flared crack on the left face. Then I got back into the swing of things, grabbed a decent pinch hold on the right side of the crack and bumped my #6 past the flare and back into “good fit” terrain. From here, the crack eased to maybe 5.8 difficulty and I made good progress with heel to toe jams, body scumming inside the crack, and some marginal smearing on the outside of the crack with my right foot. Toward the top of the pitch, the crack again widened, and this time for good. I abandoned my #6 cam in the last best placement and climbed on. I managed to fit my blue big bro in, and then climbed about 25 feet to the end of the pitch above it. Yay, the pitch was over!

Tyler coming up the Harding Slot

Tyler coming up the Harding Slot

Tyler was pretty tired after following the off width pitch, so I took the next pitch, the last 5.10 of the route. It really came down to an super exposed step across move well to one side of your gear, and then it was over. I linked the 5.10 pitch into the 5.8 chimney pitch (I ran it out pretty far after the step across move to reduce rope drag as much as possible). Despite my efforts at reducing rope drag (extending all the alpine draws, running out gear to reduce rope bends), towards the top of the pitch, rope drag became fairly unbearable. I thankfully pulled out the top of the chimney pitch and arrived at the top of the 6th pitch.

Looking down from the top of the 6th pitch

Looking down from the top of the 6th pitch

Tyler coming up the squeeze chimney

Tyler coming up the squeeze chimney

At this point, we had finished all of the “tough” climbing and we were able to take a bit of a sigh of relief and “finish the climb”. The wind also started picking up at this point; extra incentive to get off of this mountain! Tyler led up the next 5.8 parallel crack section and 5.9 stemming pitch. He remarked “This is so fun!”. He was in his groove…

following the 7th pitch

following the 7th pitch

I took the rest of the gear and ran up the 5.8 stemming pitch 8 and across 100 feet of 3rd class. This brought us to the base of the last 5.9 section. After I brought Tyler up, he handed me the little gear I had placed and I ran to the top of the 40 foot 5.9 section (barely felt 5.7 at this point). After bringing Tyler up this, we took off our climbing shoes and got into our “comfies” and summited via the last 150 feet of loose third class terrain. I was super tired at this point and huffed and puffed at the elevation and stress of the entire day. I had also somehow managed to forget my sunglasses at my larger pack at the notch, and my eyes were really getting burned up…

looking down the third class terrain

looking down the third class terrain

burned up eyes

burned up eyes

summit shot

summit shot

By now, the wind was getting pretty intense with 30 mph gusts and cooler temps. It was 4 PM exactly, and we still had a long ways to go. We ate a quick bite of food and started the trek down the summit ridge to our larger packs. We definitely regretted leaving them at the descent notch rather than at the base of the summit ridge, but trudged down to our packs and retrieved the rest of our gear. We had a quick pull of scotch out of my flask (usually stays in my pack) and headed back. My eyes were burning at this point, and hiking became pretty miserable. We managed to get back to our vehicle 14 1/2 hours after leaving. Success! We then ended our day with Mobil station pizza and beers.