There are guidebooks galore for alpine rock climbing and easy winter routes in California's Sierra Nevada, but there is a dearth of information on technical winter "alpinism." You can pick up Peaks, Passes, and Trails by Secor, the SuperTopo High Sierra Climbing book, or any of several others--see the club Library--to select a beautiful alpine rock route or snow couloir, but hard winter routes which combine the techniques of rock, ice, snow, and mixed climbing with arduous approaches by ski or snowshoes with necessary bivouacs or hallucinogenic sleepless pushes are not described in conventional guidebooks. This is because this sort of climbing, which has been going on for decades abroad and in other parts of the United States, is relatively new to California's High Sierra. Many of these routes are already described in places like SummitPost, Mountain Project, or in guidebooks as summer, snowless routes, but there isn't a unified compendium of climbs which would be interested to the so-called aspiring alpinist. Add routes which you think fit this description! It's OK if you haven't climbed them; a lot of excellent routes of this sort haven't even been identified yet, let alone climbed.
Route Conditions, Weather, and Relevant Geology
With a few minor exceptions which don't affect climbing much, the Sierra is an unglaciated range. It was recently glaciated, so its granite still looks and feels a lot like the granite of other, more "alpine" ranges such as the Mont Blanc massif. While we have no Grandes Jorasses or Eiger, we do have some huge granite faces and some fantastically long, technical ridges which should be able to amuse even rather skilled climbers.
Because there are no glaciers and no permanent ice (with a few notable exceptions--see Sierra Ice Climbing) our winter routes accumulate snow from a completely dry, rocky base each year. Combined with meteorological reasons which the author doesn't quite understand, this means that although the Sierra receives prodigious snowfall most winters, few routes feature bona-fide alpine or water ice. Unlike the Alps or the Alaska Range, the Sierra does not feature ubiquitous ice gullies; it takes effort to find them, and where they don't exist one must simply rock climb with the added delight of deep, loose snow and cold. It's likely that many such routes just haven't been discovered yet; one such route, which is on one of the most popular alpine climbing destinations in the Sierra, was only climbed for the first time in winter in 2007. It has not had a second winter ascent, to our knowledge. See this Winter Chimney trip report.
The weather pattern in the Sierra is dry, snow and rainless summers except during brief thunderstorm events and long winters of heavy snowfall. Much more snow falls on the west side of the crest at moderate elevations compared with around and east of the crest at high elevations; Orland Bartholomew reported an average snow pack depth of 4 ft at 12000 ft during his epic solo three-month journey north along the John Muir Trail in the early 1900's. The snow pack around Donner Pass and around Mammoth Lakes can easily reach 20 ft, however. Single storm events drop anywhere from 1 to 10 ft of snow and last between one and seven days. The Sierra is also a particularly windy range; it is not unusual for winds to gust well over 100 mph during storms on ridges. Temperatures, however, are usually moderate; high-pressure winter temperatures at high elevations are 10-40 degrees during the day and 0-20 degrees at night. Storm events or cold systems can drop those ranges by 10 or 20 degrees, but temperatures far below zero are uncommon.
The topography of the Sierra can be visualized as a rectangular prism with long side parallel to longitude lines and rotated (wild guess--excuse me, geologists) about ten degrees along an axis parallel and close to its eastern side so that its east edge is highest. This rectangle is a few hundred miles long and a few tens wide. This means that the face west of the edge--the "crest"--has a gentle slope and relatively low relief, except in valleys such as Yosmite, King's Canyon, Kern River Valley, etc. The eastern side has comparatively large relief, with peaks towering up to two vertical miles over the desert of Owen's Valley. When we refer to the High Sierra, we mean this east side. The relief isn't as dramatic as the way Mont Blanc stands above Chamonix, but it is awesome nonetheless. A unique feature of the eastside is that some routes start in the high desert at 6000 ft among sagebrush and snakes and finish above 14000 ft far beyond the treeline. The rock is principally granite, although there are vestiges of a metamorphic cap around Split Mountain (and probably elsewhere) and there is igneous rock around Mammoth Lakes (and elsewhere). The rock quality is on average phenomenally good where the rock is granite; at lower elevations where the granite has more time each year to weather, it is more crumbly.
What does this mean for the type of climbing to be expected in Sierra winter? Since the east side is taller and steeper, the best routes are along the 395 corridor. This is good news for people in Southern California; people from the Bay Area have to take a circuitous route north or south of the entire range because of winter road closures, so their commutes to the east side take 8 hours compared with 3 or 4 from Los Angeles. Because there is little real ice, the routes are almost always snow-covered rock. Ridges shed snow because of wind, and it is usually possible to climb the technical parts as normal rock climbs though with warmer clothing and other conventional winter gear. For example, see the Northeast Ridge of Lone Pine Peak. Faces and other wind-sheltered places behave differently, and the climbing can be mixed snow and rock (though little to no ice); these routes are at least partially climbed in crampons and with at least one short, technical axe. See Alois Smrz's trip report on the first winter ascent of Moon Gooddess on Temple Crag. Routes which feature gullies can feature steep snow (45 to 65 degrees) and, rarely and under unusual conditions, some ice. The classic example for this type of climb is Lone Pine Peak's Winter Route. Generally speaking, people seek out moderate rock climbs for winter ascents (e.g., 5.8 and below), but there is no reason why harder routes cannot be done. Due to steepness, they just don't accumulate enough snow to have any winter character other than low temperatures. Routes which are almost never done in summer because of loose rock can make interesting winter ascents after enough snow falls. Conjectures are the gullies between Mount Whitney and Day Needle and Day Needle and Keeler Needle.
Note the bias towards the Southern Sierra! Add more routes.
- Winter Route
- Winter Chimney
- North Ridge
- NE Ridge
- Direct South Face
- East Buttress
- East Face
- Couloir between Whitney and Day Needle
- East Ridge
- Fishhook Arete (has there been a winter ascent?)
- S couloir right or left
- Northeast Ridge
- North Palisade by Chimney Variation
- Moon Goddess
- Sun Ribbon
Routes Without Winter Ascents
These are only listed as undone in winter to the best of our knowledge. If you did it or know who did it, remove the route or add a note. If you know any tantalizing routes lacking a FWA, tell us! We won't promise not to spoil your schemes, though...
- Matthes Crest traverse was featured in a 2010 Climbing Magazine article.
The Sierra Mountain Center has some small PDF guidebooks, mainly by S.P. Parker as well as with assistance by Todd Vogel and Andy Hyslop. The following PDFs are available:
- The Palisades
- Mt. Sill, The Swiss Arete and description.
- Temple Crag and description.
- guide.pdf N. Ridge of Lone Pine Pk, and description.
- Horse Shoe slabs (a top-roping crag near Mammoth
- Clyde Minaret, SE Face 5.8 and description.
- Mt. Dana, 3rd Pillar 5.10 and description.
- Charlotte guide.pdf S. Face of Charlotte Dome and description.
- Staying in Bishop, guide to camping/hotels/restaurants ..., RockFax MiniGuide from 2003
Some of the guides are still a work in progress. Much thanks to SP and the SMC for publishing these on the web!
|Mountain||Route||Number of pitches||Difficulty|
|Temple Crag||Sun Ribbon Arete||16||5.10a|
|Temple Crag||Moon Goddess Arete||14||5.8|
|Mt. Whitney||Mountaineer's Route||N/A||3rd class|
|Mt. Whitney||East Face||13||5.7|
|Mt. Whitney||East Buttress||11||5.7|
|Mt. Russell||Fishhook Arete||8||5.9|
|Mt. Russell||East Ridge||N/A||3rd class|
|Mt. Goode||North Buttress||9||5.9|
|Mt. Conness||North Ridge||12||5.6|
|Mt. Conness||Southwest Face||9||5.10c|
|Mt. Conness||West Ridge||12||5.6|
|Matterhorn Peak||North Arete||6||5.7|
|Laurel Mountain||Northeast Gully||N/A||5.2|
|Keeler Needle||Harding Route||13||5.10c|
|Incredible Hulk||Positive Vibrations||13||5.11a|
|Incredible Hulk||Sun Spot Dihedral||12||5.11b|
|Incredible Hulk||Red Dihedral||12||5.10b|
|Incredible Hulk||Falling Dihedral Var.||8||5.10a|
|Eichorn's Pinnacle||West Pillar||5||5.9|
|Eichorn's Pinnacle||North Face||1||5.4|
|Charlotte Dome||South Face||12||5.8|
|Cathedral Peak||Southeast Buttress||5||5.6|
|Bear Creek Spire||North Arete||10||5.8|
|Bear Creek Spire||Northeast Ridge||N/A||5.5|
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Pages in category "Sierra Alpinism"
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