Whosoever touches this gem shall possess the power of the Crimson Bands of Cyttorak! Henceforth, you who read these words, shall become forevermore a human juggernaut!
With respect to alpine rock climbing, the Sierra Nevada gets more and more amazing every year. Perhaps nowhere more so than the Sawtooth Range.
In 1970, a grade V 5.8 A3 route was completed on a prominent pinnacle on the northeast ridge of Eocene Peak. With its unusual scale and attitude, the wall came to be known as the Incredible Hulk, named for the Marvel comic hero introduced in 1962. In the following years numerous free climbing variations were established including the ultraclassic “Ydgrasil” route (aka Red Dihedral) and Bob Harrington & Alan Bartlett’s classic Positive Vibrations, considered by many to be one of the very best alpine rock routes in the range. Of course the last 20 years have seen the addition of other outstanding, difficult rock climbs on the Hulk by such prolific Sierra climbers as Peter Croft and Dave Nettle, and a host of others. Thanks to the impact of Hollywood, Marvel’s Hulk has grown into an iconic character and major franchise over the last 50 years. Thanks to many climbers pawing and exfoliating the crumbly surface skin of the west face of the Sawtooth’s Hulk, it has become an iconic climbing feature in the Sierra, and a world-class alpine rock climbing destination, in that similar period of time. According to Croft, “The Hulk, even Positive Vibes, used to be fairly crumbly too, but over time climbers have cleaned it up.”
In 1965, Marvel and the creators of the Hulk created a supervillain as part of the X-men comic series they called the Juggernaut. Since then, the Hulk and the Juggernaut have met on several occasions. The Juggernaut is an unintelligent bully (and stepbrother of the X-men’s Charles Xavier, for you comic geeks) who picks up a large crimson gemstone and is granted supernatural powers such as (mostly from Wikipedia): superhuman size and strength, extreme durability, being physically unstoppable once in motion (known as irresistible force), does not tire from physical activity, ability to survive without food, water, or oxygen, ability to shatter mountains, and an ability to heal wounds almost immediately. If this guy had the ability to live primarily in a van, go for weeks without a shower, and eat ramen noodles 6 days per week, would he not be the ultimate alpine rock climber??
Notably, like alpine rock climbers, the Juggernaut is vulnerable to “mental attacks,” especially when not wearing his protective helmet.
In the Sawtooths, The Juggernaut is situated across a ridgeline from the Hulk, the two eyeing each other from 2.5 miles away. It is the minor peak on the north Yosemite Park boundary that divides Mule Pass from Rock Island Pass. Its north face is steep and imposing at around 750 feet tall in the steeper parts. This formation was first climbed in 1973 by a team that included the legendary Fred Beckey and Jack Roberts. Their route was rated 5.9 A2 and went up the center of the face. From climbs on either wall the other can be easily seen. The profile of The Juggernaut looks a lot like the shape of the helmet of its namesake comic villain. The second route that went up on Juggernaut was done the following year, 1974, by a team that included Sierra climbing greats Galen Rowell and Vern Clevenger. It wasn’t until the year 2000 that another team went up to explore a new route on the face. Again, Dave Nettle was a part of establishing a line they called Irresistible Force (III, 5.10+). This line may have been lost to obscurity if not for a pair of local Eastern Sierra climbers (and friends of Nettle) Jim Barnes and Nate Greenberg. Last year the pair established 3 more lines on the face. Being good friends with both of these guys, I heard the stories and saw the photos. They intrigued me…
And so the Trip Report begins. This is meant to add and expound on the comprehensive information on The Juggernaut currently posted on Mountain Project by Barnes and Greenberg.
At SMG we have a wonderful regular guest named Taylor Samuels (I doubt he’ll mind me giving him some notoriety here) who has been coming with us to the Sierra and other places on the glove with religious frequency and fervor since 2008. He has come out so often with us, and we have posted so many photos of him that he has been recognized out in the mountains and Eastside towns as “SMG Taylor.” He is a great guy with a big smile and a sense of humor, so all of us guides love to spend time in the mountains with him. He has knocked off most of the Sierra classic big alpine rock routes at 5.10 and under and we are getting to the point where we have to be creative to provide him with new, high quality experiences here. Fortunately, he is always up for adventure!
After some scheduling challenges and the incredible stormy early summer weather we have had, things finally stabilized and somehow we were able to align our calendars to spend 3 days in the Sawtooths with the idea to go and check out the routes on The Juggernaut that my buddies had been raving about.
We met in Bridgeport at 6am, packed up, grabbed a coffee and a quick breakfast in town, and drove up to Twin Lakes. We were able to get on the trail by 7:30am. The Robinson Creek trail is mellow and scenic to Barney Lake. From there the Eastside high desert landscape meets that of Yosemite and you get a first scope of The Juggernaut. The trail through Robinson Lakes and Crown Lake winds around lakes and small granite terrain features so the mileage and gain feels more than the map would indicate. The Mountain Project guide estimates 3-3.5 hours approach time to the base of the routes, but with reasonably lightweight overnight packs, a strong and steady pace, and two 10-15 minute breaks on the trail, we logged closer to 4.5 hours to camp and another ~30 minutes from there to the base of the left side climbs (to the ledge above the class 3-4 section).
We launched on our first route, the Dihedral Route in early afternoon. From the ledge we tunneled through blocks to a fun stem move to access splitter hand and finger cracks on the right wall of the dihedral. In Secor’s guidebook, The High Sierra, he describes this 1974 route as following the corner of the dihedral, which may be enjoyable too, but I thought the splitters on the right were absolutely superb, if you don’t mind the thriving colony of foliose lichen living there. I really think a bit of traffic (and/or nut tool scraping) will clean these up to be super fun at around 5.10+. The climbing stays fun and engaging up the corner, though there is some looseness to give it a raw alpine feel. The money pitch is the awesome dihedral pitch that crescendos through a steep, right leaning dihedral at 5.10. Some fun but grainy climbing leads to the “big ledge” and from there the finish offers a most aesthetic appeal. We opted for the 5.8 hand crack to the top which did not disappoint, though the 5.10 fingers variant that splits off right looks like a must do as well. The summit is a 3 minute walk from there. There is a cairn on top, but no summit register that we found so it is hard to know how much climbing the Dihedral Route has seen over the years. Much of it felt pretty raw and wild, likely not dramatically different from when Rowell and crew checked it out over 40 years ago. Very enjoyable and well protected route with comfy belay ledges and a recommended experience overall. The descent took us around an hour back to camp and we reveled in the sparkling early evening light that faded just perfectly as we arrived for dinner.
The next day we embarked on the new route next to the Dihedral called Crimson Gem. My buddies Jim and Nate rated it 5.10- and, like the Dihedral, I thought it looked like a nice clean line for guiding. The first moves on the route set the tone for the day. Stout off the ledge, with sharp finger locks and creative stemming. Compared to the Dihedral Route, this one was a lot dirtier, grainier, and more vegetated, but I have to say the moves were really fun anyway. We noticed a rap anchor in the crack on the right side of this ledge. Someone had been there and bailed off of the route. There was one other bail anchor above, where the topo shows a “5.10 switch.” This pitch has twin seams and engaging climbing through a steep bulging orange face. The cracks were dirty again and half way through the pitch we had eaten more than our recommended daily allowance of vegetables. The 00 cam and yellow ball nut were nice to have in there. The climbing was insecure and sustained, a bit harder than anything on the Dihedral Route. I think even after it gets cleaned up it will clock in at the 5.11- range (but I am clearly a total pansy for expressing that and should probably tell you it felt more like 5.9+). We can surmise from the bail anchors we found that someone else went up there, and bailed at the crux for some reason. I belayed on a small ledge soon after the crux moves to reduce rope stretch for Taylor and get back some rack which I used more of than expected for such a short section of climbing.
The next pitch was more grain, loose, and vegetated. We dropped a mini fridge sized block off the route here. A nice steep corner could use a #4 cam (which we did not bring) at the psychological crux and I had to make scrappy 5.10 moves on crappy rock above tiny wires. One of the highlights of the route though was climbing through the triangle roof, a major identifiable feature of the wall with beautiful green lichen and exciting 5.9 hero moves. 2 more pitches of loose, blocky 5.6-8 climbing lead to the top. I would recommend considering a new connecting line after the roof (looks reasonable) over to the big ledge and merging with the last pitch of the Dihedral Route.
After the second climb on Juggernaut, with loose rock and sandbag ratings, and considering we planned to climb and hike out on day 3, we decided to leave the other routes on Juggernaut for another trip. The Arch Rival route and Irresistible Force both look attractive. There are at least a few other proud lines on the face to be pioneered for sure. We instead turned our attention to Crown Point and its Peeler Pillar. This is the obvious other climbing feature seen on the skyline from Barney Lake. It is about the same size as the Juggernaut but perhaps a little bit steeper on average on the main north face. Secor’s guide describes a 5.6 line and 5.8 variation on the right hand, northwest facing side. We decided to recon hike and maybe climb if our fancy was stricken. After a nice hike to the base, we found the established old line, more or less, and climbed 4 pitches to the top of the pillar on nebulous and grainy stone to around 5.7 that got better and more enjoyable with elevation. The line goes up the white scar of an obvious and ginormous rockfall event and has different geology from the north face proper, which has stone more akin to The Juggernaut, with less vegetation in the cracks.
We continued the tour down to beautiful Peeler Lake, and looped down the Rock Island Pass trail to our cache. We ate leftover cinnamon spice oatmeal with avocado mixed in it, brewed up a Starbucks Via café au powdered lait, and cruised down the trail to the restaurant at Twin Lakes just in time for another celebratory post-climb feast and reflection on an outstanding 3-day climbing trip in the High Sierra!
I would really like to thank all of the fine and distinguished gentlemen who have ventured into the unknown vertical realm of The Juggernaut and Peeler Pillar to discover great adventures for us all to share. We were able to be incredibly productive on this 3-day guided climbing outing only by the virtue of their hard work and willingness to share their discoveries with us. As Taylor exclaimed near the top of Juggie: “Man, those guys who put these climbs up were total hardmen!” I couldn’t agree more. I hope that this report inspires you to venture to this high quality climbing venue for some excellent experiences and community route development/maintenance. One day maybe we will have another super alpine destination in The Juggernaut to rival even the Hulk.