In a second straight week of attempting to tie up loose ends, a desire to get back into the Evolution sub-range of the Sierra was proving very strong. Two years prior, Labor Day weekend, Steve B. and I went back on what turned out to be a recon mission scouting the route and seeing if it matched the hype. Timing dictated we did one day on the route, and we made it to Darwin with a descent down its eastern gullies during sunset.
I remember pulling Darwin’s summit block, picking up the copy of the origin of species placed there by a Harvard grad student and staring at the rest of the traverse – “That is a lot of rock to cover,” I whispered to myself. Like a shepherd’s crook, ‘Evo’ wrapped around a total of six other prominent summits [and a smattering of false summits] of the basin. After a day of ups and downs in 2010 getting to our highpoint, that remainder of the traverse looked long and challenging, a testament to the vision Peter Croft had back in 1999 when he shook down the first ascent after scouting various sections and putting the entire route together in a single push. From leaving camp to the final summit on Huxley, Croft’s time of 16 hours is impressive, so too is the report of being one of the finest routes in the Sierra, and the best traverses around.
|In the words of McDonalds, ba ba ba ba ba, I'm lovin it.|
Fast-forward two years. It’s a big summer in the Sierra, with parties finishing the full Palisade traverse and Evo even being guided by a talented local, alpine routes were being ticked off at a great pace. It was time to think about this classic route again, but chumming the waters left only an empty pot of text messages and emails expressing unavailability and other priorities. With weather always a question, and days shortening quickly as fall approached, the window to complete Evo in 2012 was getting smaller. Then Thursday night I get a phone call from a friend of a friend – professor Miller, a Sierra veteran and no stranger to the world’s greater ranges had already planned a trip back there, and when a mutual friend couldn’t escape work duties, I could be a potential substitute partner with sights aimed at Evo. It was happening.
|The hike in isn't so bad|
Before I knew it, it was Friday afternoon and we were sorting out rations on the kitchen table. It was decided to do the route in two days: make it casual and stress-free by planning a bivy mid way through the traverse. It would involve climbing with heavier packs, but with neither of us having completed the full traverse before, and not inclined to blitz the route in a very long day – we were looking forward to the bivy in one of the Sierra’s most beautiful areas. Within 90 min, food was divided and neatly packed, gear parsed and stowed, and packs trimmed to the minimum: one night @ base camp in a BD packlight tent, two full days of climbing with at least one bivy on route and a potential second in the Evolution basin after summiting the final peak. We were on 395 trailhead-bound by 1415.
|Dawn on the first day: It's going to be a fun 48 hours|
Who was my climbing partner, and how was I committing to this adventure with someone I had never climbed with before? Sounds a bit inauspicious, but he came highly regarded by our mutual friend, we shared common interests and seemed like we would have no problem conversing and keeping things civil for the next 72 hours. Experiences we recounted with each other suggested we were on comfort levels with altitude and exposure, and with the desire to climb Evo burning hot in each of our furnaces, this mission was a go. Packed, sun-screened and ready to roll by 1530 at the North Lake trailhead.
The approach to Lamark col is long, and will see you gaining over 3k feet, only to descend at least half of it to get to base camp: the Darwin bench. Very similar to the attempt two years prior, we topped out on the col at sunset, ogling at the largess of Darwin and Mendel before us and then getting to our base camp about 90 min later. I downed a freeze-dried dinner and we were fast asleep by 2130. “What time should we get up?” “0400, packed, ready, hydrated and moving by 0500.” “Sounds good.”
|You'll get some exposure on route...guaranteed|
Having both started the route before, getting things started in the morning was quick and to the point: We were on the upper ridge by dawn, and moving over onto the first peak – unofficially Mt. Gould – summiting our first mountain by 0830. It’s very easy to summarize the next 11 hours with one constant theme: stay true to the ridge line whenever in doubt, and look for the most plausible path. The rock is fantastic until the descent off Darwin, as I rarely grabbed a precarious block or find myself very far from a solid hand jam, chicken head or jug as we happily made our way from Gould over Mendel and Darwin. We did one rappel off Gould to expedite things, and roped up once to get on Mendel, but otherwise, the rope stayed on the pack until Darwin's descent.
|Fill your hands: Darwin, we're comin' for ya|
It should be noted that professor Miller is a well-trained biologist, with a specialty in evolutionary biology. That meant every summit on this Labor Day weekend was accompanied by interesting stories of the men whose names adorn these peaks. Gould apparently pushed a theory of punctuated equilibrium, wrote with frothy eloquence reflective of his education and loved to include snippets of baseball in his writings. We all know Mendel for his gardening skills, dominant and recessive genes in peas and Darwin? Well, there’s a reason for the highest peak in this sub-range taking on his name: He’s a titan when it comes to natural selection, and should you find yourself with a lot of extra time on his namesake mountain, there is a copy of his chez d’oeuvre waiting for your inquisitive thoughts.
|Professor, prepare to be on a summit...all day|
Now for the crux: getting off Darwin. The gully is full of choss. As I tried to make the route safer one large loose block at a time, I was reminded by the grizzled mountain veteran “Trundling is ok until you have fun doing it, then you’re a delinquent.” We rapped twice shortly after Darwin’s summit, and were scrambling around ridgelines until voila! Peter Croft’s Golden Triangle. “I got it.” The professor quickly chimed, grabbing one end of the rope, racking up and taking off on the exposed fin of golden granite with a most spectacular backdrop. The descent off Darwin had taken longer than expected, and after taking extra minutes to dry out our sleeping bags on the summit, we found the sun angle to be getting increasingly lower.
|Looking back: Mendel's sunny south side|
It was now when the ingrained mountaineering instinct chimes in: “Sun is getting low, you should be descending or be very close to the easy, 2nd class retreat from the route for safety.” Anxiety was building and a sense of urgency and shadow of doom began to descend on my spirit. “Remember,” I said to myself, “you’re bivying up here, so relax, and absorb yourself in the beauty of climbing impeccable granite during the golden hour.” It really takes a change in mindset to let that sink in: we had gone into this endeavor with the strategy of bivying on route. We had prepared for it properly, so instead of losing composure because the advancing hours at altitude, it really was time to stop, take a deep breath, and look around at the breathtaking vistas available at every angle of our periphery.
It’s worth noting that in the Evolutions, more than any other place I’ve been in the Sierra, you are completely surrounded by mountains: large mountains greater than 13k feet. Other climbs in the Sierra are mostly clustered closer to the Owens Valley. The mountains you summit are gorgeous with precipitous drops and views of the interior Sierra to the west, but usually they are close to the desert and its flat or undulating hills as the valley picks back up to the White mountains to the east. For all the cursing you might do getting over Lamark Col, this is the time where the effort pays off: you are immersed in a sea of vertiginous granite. For 360 degrees you turn and see signature and unnamed peaks, serrated ridges, deep valleys and isolated alpine lakes. Save for the occasional glimpse at a foot trail far below, some periodic rap tat and summit registers, there are no signs of human presence: It is humbling, and it is unforgettable.
|Peter Croft's golden triangle during the golden hour: spectacular|
We didn’t quite make it to Haeckel col on day one – the desired spot for a bivy. In early season, melting snow on Darwin for water is an option, but then it’s dry until Haeckel. In our case, we could have down climbed the east face of Darwin for a ways to get snow but it would have done us no good – we had no stove. Word to the wise: I’ve heard bringing a black bladder is a way of saving weight – keep it in the sun and the solar energy will overcome the latent heat of fusion and poof! Water. We bivied just shy of peak 13332: we carved out a spot and at least I slept comfortably. The temperatures were casual, and there is something to be said for crawling into your sleeping bag tired and fulfilled at 4k meters knowing you’re going to get an unparalleled view of sunrise in a few hours. And the evening alpenglow on the surrounding 13k foot peaks? Worth the price of admission.
|Haeckel: The ridge line forming the right of the peak is our ascent route|
Day 2: Because we were already at altitude and faced technical climbing off the bat, it was decided to leave a little later to let the temps warm up the rock a little. In hindsight, this is another reason for hitting Haeckel col: The ascent on Haeckel takes its wonderful 4th class northwest ridge, so you could do that as the sun was rising and not worry about cold tendons and chilly rock. For us, it was a bit of rappelling and some technical moves on the 13332, and from there, 3rd class across a ridge and a quick pit stop at Haeckel lake to fill up water.
|Where is the granite? Everywhere|
The lake was completely undisturbed and the views were [surprise] stunning. Because it wasn’t necessary for both of us to descend the ~300 vert to the lake, I volunteered and scampered down to the water. Another amazing view of a hidden gem in the Sierra, which brings about another theme of this route and area: Many of the peaks and locales here are worth a trip on their own, so you as a climber get to take them all in at once: another reason for making it more than a day and not rushing things. Case in point: above the lake back on the ridge was a little peaklet along the ridge: it was great to scramble up what certainly looked like a granite radio tower: two spikes of granite sticking 10’ up: you can chimney to the top and again feel like you’re on top of the World. When you’re pressed for time, little side excursions are all questioned in light of the objective: not being benighted.
|To the ridge line stay true, and disappointed you will not be|
Haeckel passed quickly [the ridge is a fantastic scramble], and we bested the time of a summit entry claiming 45 min to Wallace. With that much time between peaks, we figured we were going to wrap up this traverse and be back base camp in time for dinner…whoa were we naïve. There were a series of false summits en route to Fiske, and all passed uneventful, but after all that hiking and scrambling, the question starts to surface, “does this thing end?”
By the time we were on Warlow, with a glimpse at the last mountain of the traverse – Huxley – the sun was getting closer to the Horizon: we both began to wonder whether we were going to complete this thing in two days. “We could bivy below the peak, summit and get out tomorrow,” I proposed. “Nah, let’s gun it.” And the decision was made.
|The rock was so. damn. good.|
Huxley, as I learned from the professor – was considered “Darwin’s bulldog,” and in the case of the Evo traverse, it was a title befitting of the peak. At this point, psychologically, we were looking for more of a walk up to finish off the experience, but oh were we in for a change. For only the third time on the entire traverse, we roped up and led a pitch – first a 5.7ish hand crack followed by a 5.5 slab move: both on impeccable light granite and well protected.
|Fiske: you were a tough one..."Huxley doesn't look trivial."|
After that, the rope went away for good as we meandered around gendarmes and pulled a couple of 4th/5th class moves to gain the summit. Again, it was golden hour at nearly 4k meters. Huxley is a great summit to end on, too: you see all your peaks you just traversed – the entirety of the route in front of you – a glimpse of the pure mileage of day 2 and seeing why it took so long. After pulling the moves, a technical finish was the best way to end the traverse – another sense of earning it.
|Playing peekaboo on Huxley's ridge|
After a quick summit entry post, pictures were snapped and a few moments were reserved to take a breath and attempt to absorb some of the last 48 hours. So much granite covered and so much fun. With the exception of the bivy, we were moving over terrain above 13k feet for a solid two days. Surrounded by the majesty of the Sierra, blessed with perfect weather and a great climbing partner and getting my hands and feet on mostly all solid granite. There are nearly endless things to do in this mountain range, and I expect everyone to have their opinion on what is their favorite thing to do in these mountains, or at least a short list. I know I have such a list, and this route is there.
|Huxley's summit ridge: a worthy bookend to the route|
We descended the gully as the sun was setting, and didn’t even need headlamps to finish off the descent to Evolution Basin. We bivied lakeside and I was excited to hike through the basin in the morning. Considered by some to be one of the most beautiful sections of the JMT, the Evolution Basin stretches along the east side of the Evolution range. As we walked past gorgeous alpine lakes and soaked in the morning sun, we had only to look up to see all of what we had done the two days prior. It’s worth an overnight in the Basin alone, but we had miles to go, and our fleeting time in the alpine paradise was running out.
|Alpenglow as we descend Huxley|
The Professor’s eagle eyes spotted base camp in the sea of boulders on the Darwin bench, we refueled and huffed are fatigued carcasses over Lamark col and found ourselves back in Bishop for happy hour at Whiskey Creek.
|A morning exit out the Evolution basin: worth an extra bivy|
We rappelled what is considered by many to be the crux – the descent off Darwin. As for the rest of the climbing, we didn’t experience anything harder than 5.8, and when it comes to beta, though there is an increasing amount of detailed information appearing on the web these days, consider the simplicity of Peter Croft’s advice: “Stay true to the ridge.” Crazy but true: seldom did we stray from the ridge, and nearly every time the route finding got a little vague, we just got back up to the high points of the ridge, shrugged our shoulders at the improbability that the route continued to go in such a manner.
|The hike out isn't so bad|
We only roped up three times, and placed each piece of protection [hooray for no frivolities]. I recall a total of 4 raps on route, two to get off Darwin, one off Gould and one or two mixed in the rest of the peaks. One thing that was repeated surprising was during the second day: you’ll go from high exposure and consequence to 2nd class hiking with no threat back to puckering ridgelines in the span of two hours. Where else does this happen all day?
|"Where were we for the last two days?" "Up there."|
The summit registers revealed we were the 9th party on the route this year, this after 3 in 2011 – a rise in popularity justifiable for the quality of the route.
|I don't recall a moment in three straight days that wasn't picturesque|
Instead of detailed beta, I offer a map overview:like google maps with traffic, green implies we’re moving quickly: 2nd/3rd class. Yellow means slower 4th class with some exposure. Red means 5th class and moving carefully or even roped up. B’s are belays, R’s are Rappels.
|Eight miles of bliss|
After attempting the route two years ago, its completion had always simmered as I planned out weekends and outings in the Sierra. In hindsight, the only thing to change would have been starting earlier on day 1: getting us to Haeckel Lake to fill up on water. Interesting, though, if we had done that, we would not have bivied high on the ridge, which I thought was one of the highlights of the trip. A splendid outing, worth a return in the years to come…perhaps to do it differently, perhaps to repeat the experience.