02 Aug New Routes in Sequoia National Park
Over the last two summers Sierra Mountain Guides has visited Lone Pine Canyon in Sequoia National Park on 2 separate guided explorations. The soon-to-be-Sierra-classic climb and ridge traverse that has come to be known as Sabre Ridge and the adjacent formation known as the Prism were climbed by Brandon Thau, et al and reported in the American Alpine Journal. The first known ascent of the Sabre Ridge was by a trail crew member in 2008 and the Prism has seen evidence of an ascent via the SE side of the South Face from an unknown date. It seems incredible that after all of these decades, such significant unknown and barely climbed gems could be discovered to be some of the best alpine rock climbing in the range. Peter Croft, legendary rock climber, Bishop resident, and SMG guide went to climb a badass new route on Angel Wings in the next drainage south in 2012 with some friends and went over to Lone Pine Creek to climb the Sabre Ridge on a “rest day”. Peter verified was that it was indeed excellent and would go very well as a guided climb. We couldn’t resist bringing some of our favorite guests over to help us confirm that assertion in the summer of 2013. That trip went so well that we ran another in 2014.
We are convinced that this alpine rock climbing paradise is destined to be considered among the best in the range in terms of:
- camp setting and aesthetics,
- quality, quantity, and diversity of rock climbs of various lengths and technical grades,
- ease of access from/to camp
After 2 trips, it is time to share some of what we have experienced. This will not be a guide to the area (I’ll leave that to Peter who is currently working on a new edition of his Sierra select guidebook) but hopefully it will be a useful overview for planning an excursion there, and hopefully a interesting trip report as well. We have only scratched the surface of all the unknown potential of the area, and I hope that excellent climbs continue to be pioneered and further developed for the enjoyment of all. Please share your information with us. We predict that, protected by a 16 mile / 4000′ gain approach and the access to the National Park itself, the area will never become overrun, but in our opinion Tamarack Lake is well worth the approach effort for a High Sierra backcountry climbing basecamp trip of 4 days minimum, preferably longer, and if possible supported by mules from Horse Corral Pack Station.
Tamarack Lake is the end of the trail. Beyond that and all around it, the alpine terrain is steep, rugged, and features granite slabs, talus, and low-lying greenery. Unlike the Hamilton Lakes drainage one canyon south, Tamarack Lake is not on the way to any popular places and the trail is relatively primitive. The ambience there is stunning and it is a great place to hang. Not very crowded either. In 12 days over the last few years we have really only seen 9 other people there in peak season, 4 of which were coincidentally climbers and friends of ours from Bishop, 2 were day hikers from Bearpaw Meadow, 2 backpackers for a night, and 1 friendly park trail crew leader fishing on his day off. Classic climbs are as close as 30-45 minutes of easy walking with almost zero bushwhacking, thanks to granite slabs and frequent slide paths. There is a nice 60-foot waterfall that feeds the lake, a 15 foot waterfall at the outlet, and stunning views of Mt. Stewart and surroundings can be enjoyed from anywhere on the lakeshore. Situated at just over 9200 feet, the water is not too frigid for a refreshing post-climb swim in summer and it is teeming with hungry Golden Trout. The west side of the lake hosts a subalpine pine forest that adds shade, wind protection, and beauty to the camping scene. A better situation could hardly be imagined.
Sabre Ridge (III, 5.7)
This ridge is the premiere attraction in the area at this point. That it was apparently not climbed before 2008 might be one of the eternal mysteries of the High Sierra. Nevertheless, it does live up to its beauty and reputation. It is a ridge traverse as much as a climb, in the style of Matthes Crest in Tuolumne, only better. The rock is of equal quality to Matthes, but the Sabre Ridge is longer, more dramatic, more committing, and with better climbing. In any case this climb is by anyone’s measure certain to be a 5-star classic.
From Tamarack Lake, hike down the trail about 3 minutes to the first switchback. Cut off trail toward the Sabre, cross the creek easily and up a slide path to the obvious slabs that drain the east side of the ridge. These slabs can be wet and may force you into the brush, but when they are fairly dry it is a 3rd class slab approach toward the ridge. when the terrain begins to steepen, it is probably best to stay along the left side of the drainage on class 4-5 for around 6-700 feet before cutting back left towards the ridge. Try to get to the ridge as early as you easily can to enjoy the featured and aesthetic climbing on the crest. When the ridge steepens, cut left on exposed and unprotectable 5.6 knobs to regain the ridge. From there, follow the ridge a couple more pitches to the next headwall with is climbed at 5.7 via the large left facing corner. Beyond that is an unforgettable quarter-mile of knife edge ridge on solid rock. You stay virtually right on the crest the entire way (3rd class to 5.6) which climbs steadily with only a few short, exciting but never irritating, down sections. As if that weren’t enough, the route finishes on a nice summit on the Kings-Kaweah Divide (peak 11,775) with spectacular views of Deadman and Cloud Canyons to the north, the Kaweahs to the Southeast, Mt. Stewart, and the north facing terrain of Valhalla to the south. Another 15 minutes of classic 3rd class ridge takes you to an obvious col that leads to a class 2-3 gully that opens to an incredible hanging valley on the west side of the Sabre and a scenic hike with a mountain spring, wildflower meadows, and sparkling virgin granite walls as your companions on your way to the valley floor.
Sabre Ridge is pretty straightforward for routefinding after the first few pitches, but after that the climb is exposed and committing. retreat once past the crux is certainly not impossible, but it would be a real pain and you would lose a lot of gear for sure. It is important to realize that the approach slabs can go from an accommodating uphill sidewalk to a raging waterfall very quickly in the event of a rainstorm. We watched it happen from camp a few times and in one heavy storm surge the wall of water came down within 5 minutes of the start of precipitation. This means that retreat due to rain may actually be more easily accomplished later in the climb than in the early stages. With some of our more capable guests our times have been between 5:15 and 6:30, camp to camp.
The Prism, South Face (III, 5.10)
Peter Croft, Howie Schwartz, Betsy Grant, Ney Grant – July 2014
Brandon Thau and his group climbed 3 different routes on the South Face of the Prism in 2009 & 10. The Right Facet line was repeated by our Eastern Sierra friends in 2013. They reported seeing a piton on the route and suggested they thought that it had been climbed earlier than 2009. They reported lower quality for the rock and climbing on this route, and it looks like some of the least solid on the face. We figured that, like in other places, the rock that gets more water flow tends to be the most featured and compact. For this reason, and because the line looked incredibly appealing, Peter Croft and I guided SMG guests Betsy and Ney Grant this year into the lesser known central part of the face for an adventure. Peter, like the master of stone that he is, sniffed out a great line like a truffle hound. We were immensely satisfied with the quality and the ease of the climbing day. Only two of the pitches were runout at all, and one of those was severely so, but the immaculate and featured nature of the stone combined with moderate technical level of difficulty made the runouts feel reasonable. [For the record, none of us care if anyone feels like putting in a couple of bolts on this climb. No need to ask first, but please tell us if you did just so we know for the future.] The crux of the route is an obviously steeper orange block on the right side of the upper face. This rock was slightly more crumbly in places, but cleaned up quickly and was well protected. Very cool short crux section of liebacks and underclings to golden knobs on an airy perch. Fun.
The climb finishes with a ridge traverse like Sabre but much shorter and mostly class 3 with 2 short rappels. Descend same as for Sabre. Prism is shorter and less committing than the Sabre Ridge. I would say that the route we did on the Prism is at least as good as the Sabre, and it would be hard to make a strong argument that it isn’t possibly even better.
Mount Stewart, North Face (III, 5.10)
3 routes: Neil Satterfield, Peter Croft, Howie Schwartz, Taylor Samuels, John Bank, Bill Kind – July 2013
The North Face of Mount Stewart is a very cool place. It is unique because it has a plethora of vertical cracks that allow ascent via many different variations. The way you can tell if a crack has been climbed there is by the consistent absence of large. fragile, foliose lichen. In 3 separate guided groups, we climbed 3 different variations on the North Face of Mt. Stewart beneath the main summit. two of the routes merged several pitches up and crossed an older route with some pitons on a ledge. That route may have been to the left of our routes and we do not have any other information about it. In any case all 3 routes merge just below the near the true summit and finish together on airy, steep 5.9 terrain to the top. The rock here is incredibly good. Most cracks are finger to hand sized splitters. The lichens are beautiful. The aesthetics: the quality climbing with the glacierettes below, the position, the alpine ambience, the scale of the face, and the views from the top make these routes exceptional. The only problem, a major one that may prevent these from becoming classics, is the descent.
Traversing the ridge from the summit in either direction is a major, and perhaps not so enjoyable, undertaking. After a bit of scouting, we opted to descend the SE slopes and hike around to the Nine Lake Basin and over the col just south of Lion Rock. This was a 4-5 hour slog, albeit beautiful indeed. We returned to camp before dark, but the lack of an easy descent makes routes to the summit difficult to recommend. Perhaps if a decent rap route gets put in that will change. In the meantime, Dave Nettle and partners found two nice looking lines on the West Pillar of the North Face – one in the ’80s (in the old Moynier & Fiddler guidebook) and again in 2003. Can’t speak first hand about the climbing myself, but the fact that the descent looks way more casual and appealing makes me want to go check them both out sometime.
Angel Wings, Northeast Ridge (II, 5.9)
Peter Croft, Howie Schwartz, Betsy Grant, Ney Grant – July 2014
One of the great things about a chance of thunderstorms is it advises you to shorten the climbing objectives. This may lead to discovering classic climbs you might not otherwise. We saw this ridge in 2013 but never had a chance to get on it. This year we did, and it proved to be even better than could be expected. I don’t think it has been done before but it is hard to know for certain. I do think it really belongs on the list of “must do” climbs for this area, perfect for a shorter outing from camp.
After a thoroughly enjoyable hike across slabs, the route gets up on the ridge and stays there, slightly left at times, and features improbably steep alpine ridge climbing with perfect fingers and large knobs right where they are needed. The summit views are most spectacular and the descent is a pleasant and expeditious class 3 jaunt.
Peak 9800′ (subpeak to the NW of Angel Wings)
This is worth mentioning because it looks interesting from afar and Peter and I did manage to squeeze a route in on the North side before the threat of t-storms. The best we can say about that experience is – now we know. I was calling it the “Anti-Prism.” The rock was dirty, lichenous, and crumbly. Not ever scary, but not very fun. There seems to be potential for fun routes on other aspects of this formation, the best of which could take some work and a generous supply of bolts – both of which seem unfitting for a short trip to such an idyllic wilderness vacation spot.
So there you have it. I hope you find this information useful and feel free to share it with others that may find it interesting. We had a great second trip this summer and we can’t wait to return for more soon!