|The Evolution Ridge near sunset
The Evolution Traverse is an impressive length of continuous ridge on the Sierra Crest not far from Bishop, CA. It features an aesthetic wilderness setting, spectacular climbing on the very crest of the ridge, and reasonably solid alpine granite for much of the way. Peter Croft called it “…the best traverse I have done.” in his Sierra rock climbing guidebook. He first ran the complete ridge in 1999 by himself. Since then there have been less than 20 complete traverses by some calculations. Not surprising given the length and remoteness of the ridge, but a little surprising since the climbing aesthetics really are quite a bit better than many other alpine ridges in the range.
|Solid granite on Mt. Warlow
To complete this ridge requires high-level fitness, solid alpine rock climbing skill, as well as light and fast backcountry gear and technique. Croft, and most others after him, have sent the ridge in a single big effort with no bivies, from a camp at Darwin Bench. To do this generally involves climbing ropeless for nearly, or entirely, all of the ridge. Not all climbers are willing to take that risk for themselves. Some bring the weight of a small cord and a very lightweight harness for rappels, to avoid soloing some challenging downclimbing. Most have gone without bivy gear and committing to the full distance, or possibly opting off the ridge early if out of daylight. Jed Porter, one of our guides, has been spending some time up there lately. He and his partner Alex showed that using common guiding rope management techniques it was possible to protect many of the most challenging and exposed climbing sections with a rope and minimal climbing hardware. SMG started offering the Evo Traverse this year on a custom basis as an advanced guided climb, which means it will be roped for maximum safety on all technical sections.
It takes a lot of skill and experience to traverse the Evolution Ridge, guided or unguided. That doesn’t mean that you can’t opt to bite off a bit less of it in order to experience the majestic location, scenery, and aesthetic climbing it has to offer.
|Glen Plake beneath Mt. Haeckel
Famous ski athlete, and international ambassador to the sport, Glen Plake (yes, a friend who put extreme mohawk skiing on the map in the 80’s) and I went out for a little mountain romp and found that the “Evolution Half-Traverse” is a way worthy outing to consider if you are up for a lighter version of the original Croft itinerary. Here are the details:
- About 3.5 miles of ridge line from Haeckel Col to Mt. Huxley. This avoids the crux section of the full Evolution Traverse, just south of Mt. Darwin, but some would argue that it features the best rock climbing sections in terms of aesthetics and rock quality.
- First, bring some excellent mountain fitness, prior acclimatization, climbing skills of around solid 5.9, and solid rope management skill and climbing systems application (if you choose to use a rope).
- Have some prior mileage on exposed, technical alpine rock ridges to improve routefinding and comfort in exposed terrain.
- Have backcountry camping experience, but also the ability to go light and fast, and take care of yourselves (stay warm, fed and hydrated) overnight with a minimalist bivouac kit.
We did this as a trailhead to trailhead 2-day summer trip which was fun, and recommended for some, but I suggest to consider going for 3 or 4 days to make it more comfortable and reasonable, without any more ridge climbing weight. The full Evo Traverse generally takes 3-5 days roundtrip to trailhead with 1-3 days on the ridge, versus this itinerary at 2-4 days with 1-2 days on the ridge.
Recommended Itinerary: 3 or 4 days
Day 1 – Hike in from Sabrina Lake trailhead to the alpine lake just below Haeckel Col (Lake 12345). there is a beautiful sandy campsite just north of the lake. The approach can be done either up through Midnight Lake or from Hungry Packer Lake finding the line of weakness and some class 3-4 on ledges that lead up to the cirque above.
|Near Mt. Fiske
Day 2 – Decide if you wan to try to do a big 1 day blast or 2 days on the ridge. This will make a big difference in what you carry and climbing strategy. Most 1 day climbers will be comfortable soloing the majority of the ridge, which will save time. Be prepared for a total of around 8-20+ hours of ridge travel for the full distance. You will have to know enough about your own individual or team climbing speed to anticipate whether to go for it in a single push or a 2-day climb. Obviously, going as a 2-day requires a heavier pack and will slow things down considerably. That said, 2 days can still mean a light load in the Sierra. The slower speed and security of having the ability to spend the night as needed is refreshing, and the ambience of a night on the ridge is unforgettable.
|Approaching Mt. Warlow
Mt. Haeckel is a delightful 4th class romp. After that it gets pretty non-technical with lots of class 2-3 and some looser sections, until the ridge turns southwest toward Mt. Fiske. On the entire traverse be sure to stay as close to the ridge as seems practical. When you see an easy, obvious sidewalk around complicated gendarmes, it makes sense to take it. Otherwise, stay right on the ridge crest as much as possible. There you will generally find the most solid rock, the most exposed and beautiful climbing, and plenty of good juggy handholds and cracks. The best bivy spots are just East of Mt. Fiske, many of which hold snow for melt in early season, and some even late into the summer. Just east of the Fiske summit is a big plateau with tons of awesome sandy spots that are as comfy any alpine bivy site can be. This is also a good stopping point for breaking up the effort into 2 days.
If doing the entire “half-traverse” in a day combine Day 2 & 3 as described here.
|On Mt. Warlow
Day 3 – continue over Fiske to Warlow. The Fiske-Warlow col to the summit of Warlow is the highlight. A nice long section of rising ridge traverse on excellent granite. Again, stay on the crest or risk missing the best climbing. The ridge to Huxley is super fun, and the ridge that ascends to the peak has some of the most fun climbing on the entire ridge. After the summit of Mt. Huxley, continue north on the ridge, past the first gully to the west that you can see from the summit. Look for cairns that mark the ridge entrance to one of 2 descent gullies. The gully to the left of the ridge is probably a bit easier to get into than than the one on the right, but either go with some loose, steep scree sliding.
At the bottom of the gully, there are options for getting into the Sapphire Lake basin. Beware that the north facing gullies hold snow from the winter. Unless you have crampons and ice axes (because it is early season), we recommend either descending the small gully that starts at 11,400, assuming there is no unavoidable snow in it, through talus. Or, alternatively, play it safe by descending gently west to the John Muir Trail.
Either way, cross country east up the drainage west of Mt. Haeckel. Haeckel Col is accessed via a surprisingly stable scree gully just left of a major slabby granite cirque. Pass below the giant chimney to the right (class 3) to a stable talus field. Aim just left of the rounded rock outcrop on the ridge and you will arrive at the ideal spot on Haeckel Col. Descend to your camp by the lake.
|Route back to Haeckel Col is just left of granite slabs
Day 4 – Hike out in the morning. Consider some fishing on the way out, or if feeling randy, tag Picture Peak via one of the NE face routes.
This lollipop loop offers a “lite” but fully worthy outing for those with time constraints or for any skilled climber who really wants to take their time to make ridge traversing more safe and enjoyable. It avoids the most technical sections of ridge and can be done relatively easily with light packs, no ice axe or crampons, and with few to no rappels or belayed pitches.
Recommended Equipment (typical summer conditions):
- Lightweight shelter – for camp
- Food hang kit – to keep rodents out of stashed food at camp
- Bivy kit (for 2 days on ridge)
- bivy sac (optional, weather dependent)
- sleeping bag (30-45 degree down)
- ultralight sleeping pad
- ultralight cook kit (stove/pot/fuel capable of melting snow for water)
- ultralight meals (just add water, cook in the cup style for saving fuel and weight)
- Weather resistant shell(s)
- Light fleece
- Light down or synthetic insulating sweater
- Climbing pants
- Sunscreen/lip balm
- Technical Gear (totally depends on group and climbing strategy)
- 30m single or half rope, (or emergency dyneema/spectra rap cord). Note that small diameter ropes are less strong and take extreme caution to avoid being cut on sharp edges during use on rock.
- Very light alpine rack
- A couple slings, extra carabiners, and a belay device
- Helmet (highly recommended)
- Ice axe and crampons – may be needed early season.
- Sticky rubber approach shoes (if climbing shoes and chalk seem necessary this route may be beyond your skills)
- Cup & spoon (a titanium or aluminum cup can help collect firm snow if without an ice axe)
- Stuff sack – for collecting snow
- First aid kit
- Knife, tape
- Snacks, bars, gels, sandwiches, etc.
- Toiletries – remember to Leave No Trace, pack out your TP or burn it completely.
- SPOT or other satellite communication – consider that this area is very remote for rescue and there is likely no cell service in this area in the event of an emergency.
|Evolution Ridge from Evolution Basin
Enjoy this classic traverse and we would love to hear how it goes for you! If you like it, come back and do the first section of the ridge. If you are interested in some technical instruction or review on light and fast alpine climbing technique, adding security and efficiency on classic ridge traverses, or alpine bivy technique feel free to contact us and we are happy to put together a custom course for you and your climbing partners.
Howie Schwartz, UIAGM guide & SMG co-owner