Most of the big climbs I do in the Sierra are thanks to my friend Ian McEleny. He comes up with stupid ideas and I’m dumb enough to join him. Well, payback is a b*tch: When I came up with the idea of stacking Peter Croft’s “Big Four” alpine routes car-to-car and back-to-back in four long days, Ian felt obligated to return the favor. The following is an account of our time on what we dubbed the 4×4.
Day 1: Keeler Needle
Car to car: 15.5 hours
After a short five hours of sleep, Ian and I find ourselves hiking up the North Fork of Big Pine Creek. We both guide here frequently and could do the approach with our eyes closed. But aside from the familiarity, there’s not much to complain about. The Whitney Zone is home to an amazing number of great routes: the East Face and the East Buttress of Mt. Whitney, the Mithril Dihedral, Fishhook Arête and the East Ridge on Mt. Russell, and many more.
I take the first block to the fourth class, a natural transition point. Above, Ian squirms up the infamous off-width, which—between the two of us—is his specialty. After getting us through the blue-collar climbing, Ian somehow wanders around lost on the upper pitches, costing us at least an hour. After a stupidly cruxy ending, we top out at 4 p.m., transition and head down the old ditch, aka the Mountaineer’s Route.
By 7:30 p.m., we’re back to the car and head into Lone Pine for some calories in the form of Chinese Food from the Merry Go Round. Back in the car, flying up the 395 and listening to the Imperial March from Star, we decide we should aim for at least six hours of sleep. We’re prepped and in bed by 10 p.m. with alarms set for 4 a.m. I keep telling myself that all we have to do is wake up and start hiking; our muscles will do the rest.
Day 2: Dark Star
Car to car: 14.5 hours
Waking up this morning doesn’t feel awesome, but Ian’s premade breakfast burritos and a quick VIA get us going. After about 2.5 hours of hiking up, we make it to the beach at Second Lake. Here, as if by a trick of our tired minds, we see a man who contributed immensely to the development of the palisades and climbed with the very same party that put up the route we’re headed to climb: Doug Robinson. A charger of his time, Doug is out with his partner Eva to scout a new route somewhere on Temple Crag. He chats us up and sends us on our way feeling like the Celestial Temple has blessed us with an encounter with one of its deities.
As on Day 1, I take the a.m. block and cruise the first 200-foot pitch. It’s the crux for the route so I’m guessing the rest of the day will be casual. As Ian arrives, I grab our gear and blast off again, only to find myself lost in a total vortex of granite. As I climb every inch of rock in a 150-foot radius, the good feelings from the morning’s encounter vanish. In my dazed exploration, the only coherent thought I can formulate is the hope that Doug isn’t watching from below. Finally, after an eternity, I build an anchor in the middle of nowhere and, defeated, bring Ian up. Proving that I was truly in a vortex, Ian kindly takes the lead and finds the anchor that eluded me for hours in just a few seconds. I curse, but we’re now off, simul-climbing up to the chimney that’s a few hundred feet above. The lack of sleep tonight will be on my shoulders.
The rest of the route goes smoothly over terrain we can move quickly in. Dark Star is not as much of a rock climb as a mountainous ridge climb, something that Ian and I do a lot of. We tag the summit and head toward one of the worst descents in the Eastern Sierra: Contact Pass.
The night brings us up to Mammoth, where Ian’s wife, Jess, has made a delicious meal, kept warm for our late arrival of 9:30 p.m. She preps our breakfast for the morning and gets us to bed at the reasonable hour of 11.
Day 3: SW Face of Conness
Car to car: 13.5 hours
With two days down and what I think is going to be an easy climb ahead of us, I wake up feeling stoked. Ian and I take our time leaving the house and aren’t on the trail until 7:30 a.m., but the late start doesn’t worry us – we have this one in the bag.
How crushing overconfidence can be. Arriving at the gully off of the Conness Plateau and descending to the start of the route, I look up at the huge wall ahead of us and almost don’t want to put words to what I’m seeing: water running off the upper pitches.
Ian and I ultimately agree to failing rather than throwing in the towel at the base, but we take our time racking up. I’m on lead for the first block again, but commit to climbing everything on this mountain if Ian will do the dirty work of squeezing up the off-width. I’m tired and try to avoid some water by climbing a variation. It feels hard, but I get the rope up. On the second pitch, exhaustion gets the better of me and while trying to pull the technical crux of the route I take and weight the rope on an orange TCU. After a few minutes of rest, I send the pitch and curse myself for being mentally weak. Ian, honoring our agreement, puts the rope up on the off-width, despite it being a little damp—strong work that I could only barely follow without weighting the rope again.
Halfway up Conness, both exhausted, we have a rare moment in which neither of us wants to be on the sharp end. We sit for a few minutes. Ian says nothing. I slowly and silently rack up for another dripping wet pitch. In what feels like an eternity—this is mentally the hardest stretch of climbing I’ve ever encountered—it relinquishes itself. The rest of the route covers easy terrain and we sail to the top.
Well off our schedule and feeling a tad defeated, we walk back to the car and are in the parking lot cooking freeze-dried food at 9:30 p.m.
Day 4: Yggdrasil aka Red Dihedral
Car to car: 12.5 hours
Another six hours of sleep has us starting through the navigational crux of the Twin Lakes campground. A crudely drawn map on the bathroom wall produces key beta. Both of us are feeling good. We’re headed to a climb that neither of us has done, and best of all we know that it’s mostly straightforward.
We solo up fourth class to a stance and the start of the first pitch. In about 200 feet, we’ll be at the best bit of rock climbing in our four-day tour. It’s my lead again and I’m stoked; usually you have to fight for the first block of this climb. Immediately I almost blow it on the opening moves of an easy 5.8 bulge. After this performance, I wonder how the sustained 5.9 will feel. I try not to think about it and just keep climbing. The Dihedral holds up to its reputation – it would have been pure ecstasy if it weren’t for incredibly sore hands and feet.
One last pitch of leading and Ian takes over. I feel like I’m done and finally with nothing coming tomorrow, I enjoy the pleasure of just following. Ian dispenses the upper pitches smoothly and efficiently. Together we figure out the descent, which isn’t that bad by Sierra standards. Hiking out, we pray that the hoards of people in the campground will ignore the rope and helmets on our packs. In our state, we’re not sure what will come out of our mouths when asked the standard climbing questions posed by non-climbers. Miraculously, we’re left to ourselves and slink back to Ian’s house for frozen pizza. We even manage a single beer each before falling asleep.
Aaron Richards is a professional mountain guide who lives in Bishop, California and works for Sierra Mountain Center. He recently attempted a climb he’s been talking about for many years.