by Bruce Bindner
Windhorse (V, 5.10, A3)
South Face of Lone Pine Peak, California
First Ascent: Bruce Bindner, Em Holland August 8-13, 1999
21 pitches, 2,400 feet of climbing. 24 bolts placed, mostly 5/16"
splitshaft buttonheads and 3/8" Fixe anchors. All bolts were hand-drilled
In the land of the highest, harshest mountains on the planet, humans have
developed a way of tending to spiritual concerns while concentrating their
time and efforts on more immediate matters like survival. From porches,
housebeams, trees, and from rough rock cairns on the highest mountain passes,
they string prayer flags. The Windhorse, a mystical creature, carries prayers
from the flags to the heavens on the wings of the wind. Ubiquitous in the
Himalayas, prayer flags are seldom seen in the West. Thus were my partners
and I surprised and pleased this summer when approaching Stonehouse in the
southern Sierra of California, to see tattered prayer flags fluttering in
the ever-present breeze.
Just north of Lone Pine Peak is Whitney Portal, one of the
most crowded and heavily impacted trailheads in the United States. Each
year, hordes of weekend warriors submit their applications for the lottery,
the prize being a coveted "wilderness" permit which allows them
the chance to conquer the summit of the highest peak in the Lower 48. A
few miles away as the eagle flies, the huge and remote South Face of Lone
Pine Peak overlooks a far different scene. Here, in the steep canyons
of Tuttle Creek, no trails reach beyond the Stonehouse, a Hindu ashram built
in the 1930's and long since abandoned, now visited only by the rare hiker
and a few locals. Awaiting climbers hardy (or foolhardy) enough to force
their own trails up the steep talus, brush and boulder fields above Stonehouse,
is a magnificent granite face a mile long and half a mile high.
For those who were still drinking mother's milk when the pioneers of the
Sierra were devouring new routes and boasting of their latest exploits over
brew in Camp 4, the South Face of Lone Pine Peak offers a rare opportunity:
the tantalizing possibility for ascents of unclimbed lines. Magnificent
lines. Terrifying lines. Compelling lines that you notice, then study,
and photograph, and ponder, until they haunt your dreams and entice you
to make the brutal approach hike again and again...
Since the 1970's, my friend and partner Pat Brennan and I have made many
forays up Tuttle Creek, climbing the few existing routes and then making
our own first ascents of routes such as Summer Ridge, Zig-Zag Dihedral,
and Red Baron Tower. In 1996, Alois Smrz, Miguel Carmona, and
Jim Mathews established a beautiful new line up the center of the face,
which they called Land of Little Rain (Ref AAJ). In a 1997 letter, Alois
called it the last mountaineering route on the face. Forecasting the techniques
I would employ two years later, he wrote that the remaining lines on the
face appeared to be "really difficult, multi-day climbs..." lack
of water would be a "real consideration, and one would have to haul."
For at least a decade, I'd been trying to talk Pat into attempting one of
those lines; a huge arcing dihedral, capped by overhangs and a gaping wide
crack. Studying it in different lights and from different angles, I had
seen a shadow that hinted there might be an escape from the roofs, a way
to move right around the huge corner, past a small pinnacle, and continue
up the steep face to the huge, terrifying bombay chimney. Above were faint
lines or shadows that indicated a possible crack, almost reaching to a huge
loose block ("the detached pinnacle") and higher, more faint lines,
another possible crack, leading up out of sight to the broken summit ridge.
Each year I proposed the route to Pat, but the answer was always the same:
"No way, man. That route's a pile of choss. Crap rock. Loose. Dangerous.
No way you're gonna get me to go up there. Nope, no way, man. Don't ask
Since most of those who knew of my proposed line refused to have anything
to do with it, I enlisted Em Holland and Craig Harris in the project, hoping
their enthusiasm would keep them going until too late to back out. Em,
a strong alpine climber with Himalayan experience, was no stranger to the
challenges of the backcountry, with the strength and tenacity of a pit bull,
and with ascents of difficult climbs in the Canadian Rockies and several
first ascents/first free ascents of Sierra routes to her credit. Craig
(aka Dingus Milktoast, an internet friend) was also a good choice, with
decades of walls and backcountry climbing behind him, including the first
ascent of Milktoast Chimney, a stunning 1,000-foot line further up the same
September 1998, first attempt: Em and I, laden with 65-lbs. packs, staggered
up-canyon past Stonehouse, ferrying loads enroute to one of the most intimidating
projects I have ever laid eyes on. Our first effort was halted days later
by the rains and high winds of an early autumn, but not before we had reached
a spacious, sandy ledge five hundred feet up the wall. Here was an excellent
advance base camp, above which the main difficulties of the route were readily
apparent. We cached gear, bolts, ropes, and food on the ledge before retreating.
August 1999, and we're back. A reconaissance up the face the previous weekend
confirms the survival of our supplies cache. Craig, Em and I meet at a cafe
in Lone Pine for breakfast before launching.
"What would you like to drink with breakfast? Coffee, tea, or..."
The waiter, taken aback by this unusual response pauses, studies my face
for signs that I'm kidding, then meeting my expectant gaze, takes a deep
breath and recites the brands.
Equally serious, I respond, "Sierra Nevada is fine. No cream or sugar,
thanks, I drink it straight."
Breakfast finished, we head up the road.
"High Side!!" I roar as the road tilts sickeningly toward the
700-foot-deep canyon bottom, Em scoots across the back bumper of the truck,
adding her slight weight to the mass of gear stacked against the uphill
side of the camper. The truck crawls across this most dangerous stretch
of road, sand trickling down-slope from beneath the outside wheels, rivulets
of erosion dribbling through the hourglass of geologic change, the road
migrating out from under the truck, one grain of sand at a time, to the
bottom of the gorge, thence out into the long alluvial wasteland of Owens
Valley and the Alabama Hills. Moments later we pull into the sandy parking
at road's end, breathing a sigh of relief at having cheated the forces of
entropy once again.
By mid-afternoon Craig, Em and I sit, exhausted, at the tiny, tilted oasis
we have come to call Columbine Spring, our first rest break on the horrendous,
brush-infested struggle to basecamp. I warn Em and Craig to keep their eyes
peeled on the uphill side. Last week I encountered a 400-pound black bear
within 100 yards of this spot. "If it makes a kill of a large
animal (like one of us) it will attack from the uphill side to put
its weight and speed to greatest advantage." Em and Craig exchange
glances and nod, looking a bit green, not sure if I'm joking.
The approach to the base of the face is completed without incident.
"Hello? What?? I can't hear you... Flying to Florida?? Hello???
Take care of the kids???" Craig folds the cellular phone and joins
us on Weakened Worriers Ledge with the bad news. He will have to bail
from the climb to do daddy duty, taking care of the kids while his wife
takes care of a family emergency. A major setback. Craig, having
made a tremendous effort in the vertical freight handling (hauling, then
arduously ferrying loads on his back up the hellish chimney pitches) is
just now due to rotate into the lead for some of the most terrifying climbing
on the route. Instead, with great disappointment, we discuss strategies,
sort gear, and begin leading up the dihedral as Craig departs down the ropes,
leaving extra water, food and gear should it be needed.
Dead end. The crack I've been following vanishes as it turns the corner,
folding into a blank and decomposed groove. As I set a bolt, I smash the
index finger of my left hand between hanger and hammer. Blood trickles down
Time for hooks. Occasional tinking and thunking of copperhead and beak
placements supplement the skittering sound of granite chips flying past
Em's belay, as I scrape the rock with the hammer, looking for something
solid enough to hold a hook. Every once in a great while, a seam opens enough
to place a pin. Mid pitch, the crack swallows a #3 Loweball. (Permanently
-- it's still up there.) We shout farewells as Craig moves his load
of gear back toward Stonehouse.
Standing on one final hook placement, I start drilling a bolt for a belay.
Below is a complex pitch, the crux of the route, but a likely candidate
for a free ascent someday, after appropriate gardening.
The sun is rushing toward the jagged Sierra crest of Sharkstooth, and Mt.
Corcoran. The pitch has taken the bulk of the day. Above, the dihedral opens
into a bottomed offwidth groove. Looks like a transition to free climbing.
Satisfied, I place an additional pair of belay bolts, and rappel, reaching
camp shortly before dark.
Our mood is bleak in camp tonight. With Craig gone, our huge stock of supplies
has become a liability. Both Em and I must sacrifice precious time (that
with a team of three could be spent pushing the route higher) to shuttle
material up to camp. The extra hauling has already cost us half a day, with
additional ferrying needed tomorrow before everything reaches our ledge.
The unbending difficulty of the dihedral is also oppressive. As Em struggles
up from below with another load of water, I open a Sapporo, slurp some hot
soup, and sort through the bolt kit in the fading twilight. What happens
tomorrow may determine the fate of the climb.
In the blackness, the gash of the canyon is emphasized by a thin slot of
stars. The wall above us seems to obliterate half the sky. Em and I simultaneously
gasp as a huge shooting star streaks across the night. The Perseid Meteor
shower of 1999 has begun. Then, across canyon, a rumbling. Suddenly the
face across from us is lit with streams of fireworks as a major rockfall
erupts and flows down a chute in a river of sparks. It is incredible, beautiful,
powerful. Optimism returns.
Another clear Sierra dawn. The day passes in a kaleidoscope of images. A
morning of humping loads. A 5.11/A0 crack that feels lined with broken shards
of glass. In the interest of time, after sussing the moves and cleaning
out the crack on aid, I forsake the redpoint and yard through the grainy
crux, knowing that this will go free, probably on the next ascent. A sleet
storm. What follows is a blank 5.10 face. More bolts as sleet collects at
our feet. Finally, Em and I reach a series of tiny brushy ledges below the
terrifying bombay chimney visible from the ground. Climbing capsule style,
we are finally in a position to move camp up here tomorrow, and attempt
the dark slot above. For once satisfied with our progress, we fix ropes
and rappel as the day comes to an end.
Noon, yet another day. The hauling is killing us. We have abandoned four
gallons of water and other supplies at Weakened Worriers Ledge. Finally
established at "Dead Tree Terrace" we do a small bit of ledge
engineering, and I head up the next pitch. The dark chimney looms above,
at one point choking down to an offwidth slot. I slide a #5 Camalot through
the narrowest sections, and occasionally leave a Big Bro every fifty feet
or so. Finally, retching above the crux, at the end of my rope in an easy
5.6 chimney, I stop to drill another two-bolt hanging belay. The day is
over, after only two hundred feet of new ground.
Back at the bivy, we build a small fire, sip beer and Amaretto Alexanders,
and discuss strategy. Depending on what we encounter tomorrow, we may be
in a position to push for the top. A jettison of the haul bag and other
non-essential gear is discussed. Em finally wanders off to a sloping, sandy
shelf, as I settle back on a ledge the size of a toilet seat, suspending
my legs in our single-point hammock. We drift into unsettled slumber, the
questions of the climb still unresolved.
As dawn paints the South Face of Lone Pine Peak a warm yellow-gold, I step-chug-breathe-step
my jumars up the wall, outside the flared offwidth slot that was yesterday's
problem-of-the-moment. Today, above, we hope for easier climbing. Our hopes
dwindle as I head up a 200-foot long, poorly protected groove on the steep
headwall. Three times on the half-day-long pitch, I stop to place protection
bolts. I am moving as though wading through a dream of molasses, slowed
more by fear and uncertainty, plus the drilling and constant cleaning of
unclimbed rock, than by actual technical difficulty. It is afternoon when
I finally collapse into a sloping cave-ledge below the huge, detached pinnacle
visible from the ground. I fix the lead line, shout appropriate signals,
then use the zip line to solo around to the back of the pinnacle, the better
to look at the "crack system" I saw from the floor of the canyon
ten years ago.
Dead end. Above me is a black water streak on an otherwise flawless vertical
wall. We're in a cul-de-sac of rock, the options dissolving before my eyes
as the ledges slant away into the void.
Em arrives up the fixed line, disentangles, and catches her breath. After
a brief conference, we decide to attempt a wild tension traverse to easier
ground. The traverse would be impossible as a pendulum. After drilling a
bolt, I lower nearly a full ropelength, and crab to the right across the
off-vertical face. Eighty horizontal feet later, the sideways tension of
the rope threatens to drag me off the rock. I briefly consider the huge
swinging fall into the corner that will result, and how difficult an injury
evacuation would be from this point.
Clinging with one hand and pedaling both feet, I set a Lost Arrow into the
only placement I have seen on this traverse. We both sigh in relief
as the weighted pin holds. More tension follows, but soon I am nearly 100
feet right of my starting point, on a sloping ledge system that connects
with the Direct South Face, and hence the top,.
Drilling another belay station, we fix a Tyrolean traverse back to the top
of the fixed lines, and begin the descent to Dead Tree Terrace one last
time. Tomorrow we will jettison all non-essentials, and go for the top via
a variation of the Direct South Face climbed in the 1970s but never reported.
And so, the following day, completing some of the most rewarding climbing
either of us had ever encountered, we stumbled onto the summit plateau of
Lone Pine Peak with Windhorse (V 5.10 A3) below us.
It's our second night out without sleeping gear. (Last night, darkness
caught us on the descent, 45 minutes from Stonehouse in the jumbled boulders
across the canyon. Completely exhausted, we scooped a flat space into sand
and drifted off, warmed by a small bivy fire and the last of our amaretto.
Mid-morning found us back at the truck, cooking survival tacos, preparing
to return to high camp.) By the time darkness settles over the canyon, we
have recovered most of what remains of our jettisoned gear -- Strewn helter-skelter
across the landscape; shredded by critters and manzanita bushes -- in our
drained state, the sight of the abused equipment is devastating. Finally
we determine that my sleeping bag is 150 feet up the face, tangled on a
brushy ledge. Oops. We pile together all our spare insulation -- stuff bags,
webbing, clothing -- and burrow into the nest, running on empty.
Optimism returns yet again with another flawless Sierra dawn. Tying in on
a bowline on a coil, leading on what little gear we were able to scavenge
at the base of the face, I climb up to the last of our jettisoned gear,
with relief retrieving my sleeping bag, six Big Bros, and four wagonwheel
cams. By burning our garbage and remaining food, we're able to descend with
all that is left of our gear tucked away in 85-pound packs. We complete
a careful breaking of camp, destroying and burying the fire ring and ashes,
re-distributing the topsoil and duff over the site, and erasing our footprints.
By 10:30 am, all traces of our canyon camp are gone. Packed and ready, we
swing the huge loads onto our backs, and after one last look around at this
magical place, begin the long hike out.
It is the intangibles, the memories we will carry with us,that are the precious
treasures discovered on this wall... The Perseid meteor shower; The
rockfall a river of light in the darkness; Night after night of darkened
canyon, no sign of humans visible; The sleet storm; and of course, during
every load carried into and out of the canyon, high on a ridge above forested
slopes, fluttering in the breeze, the Prayer Flags of Stonehouse.
- Recipe for Golden Showers:
- Approximately equal parts fresh-squeezed Orange Juice and Mendocino
Brewing Co. "Eye of the Hawk" Ale
- [Hey, you wouldn't want to spoil a *Real* micro-brew by making this,
Adjust proportions based on desired electrolyte balance-- for more potassium,
use more OJ. For more Sodium, use more ale.
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- Recipe for Amaretto Alexanders:
- 1 cup DiGiorno's Amaretto, 1 cup Nestle's canned table cream.
- Pour both into a Nalgene (NOT lexan) 1-liter day bottle.
- Add 3 small, clean, smooth pebbles, cap and shake well. serves one.