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It's About Time


by Dingus Milktoast

September 11, 2002

There have been a few recent discussions about the virtues of speed climbing. The context is often presented as a contest where one team pits their route time against another.

It has been mentioned and it bears repeating, speed climbing isn't just about competition. It's also about safety in the mountains and is pretty much a requirement in the alpine zone. And speed climbing is also about having or making the time to pursue our passions in the first place. I jealously guard my climbing time, but even so, compromise and trade offs are part of life's program. Speed also comes to play in getting up early, in making long drives, in getting home that night. It's all part of the great game.

What follows is a TR about some wonderful moderate granite rock climbs in the Yosemite high country. None of these routes are hard or serious. Each taken alone is an easy day's outing, no big deal.

But we all tilt at windmills of our own making. One of my great pleasures is in knocking off miles of trail and hundreds of feet of rock in a day. I love that worked, numb feeling your legs get after 12 or more hours of continuous movement. I love the aches and bruises that seem to take longer and longer from which to recover.

But mostly I love that feeling of uninhibited freedom I get when dancing on granite above the clouds. And I love doing it with a close friend and kindred spirit. When it works right, good partners feed off one another's strengths and watch each other's backs to cover the weaknesses. It all works out to climbs accomplished, memories treasured and smiles earned.

Anyway, this TR is all about time, in it's many forms. But time on this journey, though measured by the stop watch, ticked at it's own pace. In the end, our time of completion was irrelevant and serves only to map our progress through one particularly fine Sierra day.

Hope you like it.


It's About Time

(it really is...)

By Dingus Milktoast

It's about time. Angus reaches the summit at 1:59 PM. His "gotta be there by" time is two. He has a decision to make and the stunning time he has turned in thus far is a strong vote for continuing. He need only descend a couple thousand feet to begin the 3rd leg of his journey. Yet even as he sits there he feels a familiar burning sensation across his groin. As he weighs the pros and cons his body is telling him the ultimate truth. If he continues he will hurt himself worse and he won't make the climb tomorrow. Life's clock ticks away as he contemplates his fate.


"Hey Angus, what you end up doing last week?"

"Well, I had a day to kill remember? I got up to Tioga Pass around 10 and didn't feel like bouldering all day. So I decided spur of the moment to climb the north ridges of North Peak and Conness."

"Right on dude. Nice climbs. So what?"

"Well... I decided a Trifecta would be really cool. I wanted to climb the West Ridge of Conness too. I told myself that I needed to be on the summit by 2 PM to have enough time for it. I got there at 1:59."

"Wow! So you did all three?!"

"...uh, no. I was hauling ass bud. Somewhere on the north ridge of Conness, probably at the down climb, I pulled my groin again, same as I did on the DNB. Pretty bad too. Hurt like hell. So when I got to the summit I had to decide. If I kept going I was really gonna hurt myself. So I bagged it."

"That's too bad Angus. I mean, you were there, practically had it in the bag. That sure is a lot of fun, moving fast and light like that. The linkup really calls to me. I'd love to do it. Let me know if you decide to go for your Trifecta again man. I never thought of doing it, but now that you mention it, count me in if you'll have me!"


Three AM rolls around pretty damn early. Especially when you go to bed at midnight. But this is about time. If I'm going to make this work, 3 AM is the time I have to get up and get moving. And even that is cutting it close.

These early morning drives to the mountains are a concession of sorts. The climbs of my desire are often a long drive from home. Ideally speaking I'd get to the trailhead at a reasonable hour the night before. But the realities of family and life's obligations mean I have to maximize my home time. A few extra hours with my kids are hours I will never get back, at the mere cost of some sleep and predawn driving. Oh, but the time we Sierra climbers spend behind the wheel of a car. As my bro Stu says, "You can sleep when you're dead."

Angus and I are to meet at Saddlebag Lake at 7 AM. The 'loser isn't going to show' time is 7:30. He won't hang around any longer than that. Even though I travel straight through and make excellent time, good intentions and powerful wishing cannot squeeze a 4-hour drive into 3 and a half. It's 7:31 when I reach the lake and see my partner raise his fist by way of greeting. I can tell just from body language alone he's happy to see me, relieved he will have company today.

But company comes with a price; me, or rather my baggage! At my insistence we are taking a rope and a rack. Light on both cases; an 8 mil half rope combined with 3 cams, 10 nuts, 8 slings and 18 biners, about 8 pounds total, give or take. We each take a harness and so end up with about 5 extra pounds in the bottom of our packs.

Doesn't sound like much, that 5 pounds. But we need more water, more food and more weather gear to go along with it, and 5 pounds morphs into 10, maybe even 15. Last time he tried this he took water and food and really, nothing else. As we heft the packs I can see the mental groan as he lifts his load. He wants to ask me if I really, REALLY need the rope for the West Ridge. He just has the good graces not to ask out loud. He knows the answer anyway.

Yes, I really need the rope. I've done the route 3 times sans rope. But last time I did it, two years ago, I suffered some moments of doubt when I found myself free soloing off-route 5th class rock unbargained for. I decided it wasn't right for me to risk it all on a route I'd already done, with my family totally unaware of the shared risk I was asking them to bear, all in the name of speed, or ego, or whatever.

I promised myself I was done soloing the West Ridge and I intended to keep that promise. And truth be known, I just didn't want to carry the burden of having to face that solo, all day long. Sometimes our mental burdens weigh even more than our packs. Today I'd carry mental doubt enough, just wondering if I could keep up and last till the end trying to follow this set of legs with lungs.

I know Angus can hike and climb much faster than I, always could, always will. I learned a long time ago that I needed to discover my own pace and stick to it. Yet we have set for ourselves a mission and that mission calls for a passel of climbing and many miles of hiking. So while it's important to hike at one's own pace, it has to be within the context of the climb and the amount of daylight there is to work with.

The slow man sets the pace. How could it go any other way? I intend to hike as fast as I am able, all day long. I'll go into the aerobic state while climbing, if I must. But generally I'll be a bit below that metabolic rate. Angus will have to hold himself back some, but he's used to it. While time is a crucial ingredient of this climb, so is relaxation and friendship. We intend to enjoy ourselves today, and a simple fixation on time and speed can spoil that mood.

We hit the trail at 8:30, hiking fast around the west side of Saddlebag Lake. As we near the far end of the lake the ferry comes motoring past, docks and disgorges a handful of people. We turn on the steam so as to dispel any illusion that some of these folks would get the jump on us. A short while later we pass two women heading up to climb one of the North Peak couloirs. Such is our haste that I don't even stop to talk to them, despite their youth and good looks. The world has indeed turned when I forgo such opportunity. Well, maybe it has, but how the world turns can change from one moment to the next!

A short while later we pass another woman, this one doing some Tai Chi on orange granite slabs above Steelhead Lake in the early morning sun. Angus walks right in front of her without so much as a glance (the fool). I feel a measure of guilt for disturbing her routine so as I cross into her field of view I bow my head in apology. I'm startled when she comes out of her stance, trance or whatever you call it, and starts talking to me.

It's pleasant, standing here and talking to this beautiful woman. For a few moments I forget my dreams and forget that madman who is now not so patiently waiting for me near the mouth of the lake. She is curious about North Peak and wants to know if there is any way to scramble up there.

"Sure, if you feel comfortable scrambling easy 5th class!" The look on her face says she does not. I tell her of the walkup climb in the other drainage and she seems relieved that she will not have to confront the summit demon on this trip. With smiles and good lucks we part ways. Hello again, whoever you are!

Angus is tapping his foot when I arrive. Let's just say he's been on this train before.

"I don't care where we are or what we're doing Dingus. If there is a woman within miles of a place, you're like an old hound dog. I knew you were gonna stop back there. I KNEW it."

"Well Angus, you wouldn't deprive an old man of one of his few remaining pleasures now would ya? Besides, I wasn't going to say anything. She spoke to me first. I had to stop then."


"Because she likes me dude! A woman isn't going to just stop and talk to you in the backcountry unless she's attracted to you in some way, trusts you, likes you. She was cute and my own age to boot! Of course I stopped to talk to her. Sheesh!" Angus is suitably humbled by this bit of male logic and conceit.

He pays me back by leading the charge up to the start of the Shepard's Crest. We stop and tank up on the last free running water at a high tarn. We won't see any more till we descend after the last route of the day, so this has got to last. I drink all I can stomach and then store about 2 liters. That combined with two cans of Rock Star and one can of Starbucks espresso and cream will have to see me through.

2 hours after leaving the car I'm lacing my rock shoes up at the toe of the North Ridge of North Peak. Let the games begin.


What's in a route? A few lines in a guidebook, maybe a topo if you're lucky. I learned a long time ago that such hints have nothing in common with the reality of a route. You can stare at the squiggles and reread the descriptions, time and time again, until you have convinced yourself that the route is within your grasp. And then you find yourself standing at the base of the climb, wondering how it is you so easily lied yourself into this fate. Guidebooks, cursed guidebooks!

I've done this climb many times. The very first time I ever stood here was at the beginning of another long solo day in the mountains. That was the first time I tackled the Shepard's Crest, though I used a different itinerary on that occasion. The next time I down climbed the ridge in fading light, wearing mountain boots, after having lingered to watch the sunset from the summit. Still another, Burl and I did it contending with a foot of early season snow, in rock shoes no less. Other times were less eventful perhaps, but no less enjoyable. This north ridge is a great climb on fine granite.

The ridge rises in two distinct humps. The upper hump looks well neigh impossible from below, but a passage is found on the right side of the arÍte. It's down lower, negotiating the first hump, that the crux is encountered.

There are three gaps to be contended with. Two of them are simple leaps for the bold of heart. The 3rd gap must be climbed however. Two options present themselves and I foolishly take the hand crack. It's overhanging and has teeth inside, but thankfully is only 20 feet or so to a ledge. I'm puffing and wheezing, and bleeding from the back of a hand after I bulldog my way up the thing. Angus wisely opts for the less taxing variation. Moynier calls the North Ridge 5.3. Call that hand crack 5.3d then!

We summit North Peak at 11 AM and take a short break. So far things are moving along well enough. We watch some ice climbers top out on the right hand gully. They belay in the sun a few hundred feet below us. I take in the views as Angus thumbs the registers stuffed in the can. I take a look too. What a mess! The book is filled up. Climbers have recently taken to recording their climbs on the backs of whatever handy scraps of paper they could find. The resulting mess has filled the can. I look in vein for a blank piece of paper and then just give it up and stuff it all back.

"It's like, what's the point Angus? No one is ever going to read it anyway. I mean, when they replace this register they're just gonna huck all this paper in the trash anyway. So what's the point?" Such logic is easy when you've already signed a register more times than you can remember.

Shortly we depart, heading down the sandy slopes leading toward Conness. Its North Ridge sinuously winds its way to the distant summit. It looks very intimidating from this vantage, so I just don't look at it. It won't go away of course, but at least I won't be forced to dwell on my inadequacies getting there!


From "Climbing California's High Sierra"

By John Moynier and Claude Fiddler

on the North Ridge of Conness...

"Once more, the first ascent of a fine Sierra climb was made by Galen Rowell."

"Vern Clevenger remembered accompanying Galen on many of these adventures as a teenager. 'Since I was learning, I figured he knew how to drive better than I did. I would just close my eyes and hope we'd get there in one piece. We must have averaged 80 mph, counting stops, and then once we'd reach the trailhead, I'd have to run to keep up to him.'"

"Frequent partner Doug Robinson added, 'Rowell likes to drive fast. He is like most climbers in that he knows the mountain roads well, has an adrenalized urge to get places in a hurry using them, and does it just for sport. Add a dose of testosterone, and it's easy to see that everyone who has climbed with Galen for any length of time ends up with at least one epic tale of a badly stuck vehicle.' His tight schedule also has resulted in many descents in the dark, followed by the all night drive back to the Bay area. In spite of his driving habits, or perhaps because of them, Rowell's record of technical first ascents is unmatched in Sierra history."


The base of the North Ridge of Conness is a wonderful place. The climber has either just climbed a gully up from the glacier or traversed a towering pile of rubble. She will find herself in a notch with two walls falling away toward eternity and the other two soaring up that way. The North Ridge itself seems a mile long and just as high. It has a rough and tumble, chock-a-block appearance. As I lace up my rock shoes, Angus stares out in the clear distance toward Half Dome.

"So Galen's dead, huh Dingus?" Angus didn't even know till I told him, two weeks after the fact. He watches almost no TV and leaves for work before the morning paper arrives. Rowell's death certainly made headline news in Modesto. Angus just missed it.

He still seems to be coming to grips to a world without Galen. Not obsessed with it or anything, just thinking about it. I mean, it's only too appropriate, seeing as how it's Galen's route. And here we are, at the foot of it, thinking of the man and his impact on our lives.

Much of the civilized world knows of Galen Rowell's photography. His artistry and expertise are on display in major cities across the globe. Many, perhaps most of his admirers, don't know of or appreciate Galen's other career, his climbing career. Angus and I speak quietly for a few minutes, of that 'other" Galen Rowell.

"Fast and light, that was Galen's way dude. He taught a lot of the Sierra greats their game. He wrote part of that book."

"Most people don't even know about that, about THIS. We're doing it today, playing Galen's game. The driving, the climbing, moving fast; it's how he did it."

"That's just it. He had amazing success in two different careers. I'd be happy with just the one."

I have to be frank; I don't dwell on the passing of Galen Rowell. He lives on in his work and in his routes, for those who wish to see either. Each speaks individually as to the soul of the man, and thus reveals a small piece of the man in return. I never knew and now will never know, the man behind the lens, the climber who first did these routes. And yet that man, hidden now as never before, still has lessons to teach, if I will but open my eyes, my ears and most importantly, my heart to receive them.

But after thinking about him those brief few moments, Galen is quickly forgotten in the flow of the climb. I'm sure he would understand. You really can't be thinking of the dead as you're soloing in the mountains. At least, you shouldn't be.


It usually happens on these outings. At least once we cross the line and touch the face of the beast. We end up doing something we shouldn't be doing. It happens to me on the North Ridge of Conness.

The climb is easy scrambling for most of its length. Only the last 500 feet present a formidable obstacle. The previous quarter mile looks rather sedate by comparison. Separating the two is a gap and crossing that gap is the crux of the route. It can be either down climbed or rappelled. I've done it both ways. The down climb is accomplished by doing some heart in the mouth scrambling on the absolute edge of the abyss, this to gain a lower rappel station. From there it is a 50-foot down climb through a 5.6 corner system. The other way down is in two raps from a higher station.

When we get to the upper rap anchor, Angus queries if I want to rap. I pause just long enough to give him an out and he disappears over the block without another comment. I haven't gone THAT way before. So I follow, thinking the 5.6 climbing is below the lower station, not this one.

Immediately I step down into a hand crack. Angus is several moves down below me, moving very carefully. It's straight down to a ledge, a long way down. That ledge won't hold a falling climber and it's the Pearly Gates below that, maybe 500 feet of tumbling and grinding. OK, can't think about that right now. I have to decide, immediately, whether to continue or go back up. Cause this ain't the route!

Angus assures me it's all there so I elect to continue. Three solid hand jams in a row, with good edges for the feet, get me down to a slab. OK, no more solid edges for the feet. I have to down smear over to a shallow corner grove. Yummy, just now the hand crack flares out to lie backs and eventually nothing. This is some scary shit. I say so, out loud to Angus. He doesn't respond, so my quavering ends up echoing in the thin air.

Two lie backs on smears, the cold rock clammy under my palms, gets me to the corner. It's crumbly over here, but at least I can renew some locks in the new crack. A few more moves allow me to squirm into the top of a short chimney.

"It's easier in there Dingus. More secure."

The hell you say! Both are true, but this merely gets the line back to the original rating. With my pack on the damn thing is awkward and immobilizing. I slide and squirnch and grabulfluk (yes, those are chimney climbing terms) my way down to a sloping ledge and finally, traverse out onto a secure stance. I breathe a big sigh of relief. Angus has already made his way over to the 2nd anchor.

"Goddamn Angus, that was more than I bargained for! 5.6 my ass! That was some scary fucking shit." Angus nods and agrees.

"Fatal too, if you fucked up. D'ya look down? You'd go for several hundred feet!"

"Dude, I didn't even want to think about it."

"So whaddaya think? Wanna down climb this corner or rap it?"

"RAP IT!" I reply with conviction, not even looking at it. I know what we just did is harder, significantly harder. But my brain is frazzled just now and I don't want to have to get the lid back on just yet. A rappel will let the steam off and allow my frontal lobes, the 'constantly on guard" lobes, to relax momentarily. Bing, bang, boom, the rap is done, we're at the notch and the rope is coiled and repacked.

And now we're with Galen once more, climbing and joking our way up the rock we came here for. The final tower of the North Ridge has some fantastic granite. You can pretty much climb it anywhere. It's hardest out by the edge, eases off in the middle and gets harder again out right. We weave back and forth, taking a steep line up good cracks and ledges. After a short bit I begin to get that granite astronaut feeling, where I'm just a move above the past and a move away from the future. All external input is filtered through some security guard. I know it's steep and any fall fatal. But that's all locked away for future use. Just now it's all about climbing.


"It's 2:20 Angus. Didn't you say you got here at 1:59? Surely we're not only 20 minutes off your pace?" Angus smirks at my ignorance as we regroup on the summit.

"I left a bit later than we did." He says something so low I can't hear him. I ask him to repeat it and same thing.

"What time did you leave again?"

"ELEVEN! I left at Eleven Dingus. It took me about 3 hours to get here." I'm stunned. 3 hours. It took us six, he does it in three? Whud he do, run up the routes? Three hours! To do what we just did? That isn't just impressive, that's damned impressive. Not just any punter is going to climb the north ridges of North Peak and Conness in 3 hours, from Saddlebag Lake! I thought OUR climb was about time. Hah.

The weather is holding, though some puffy gray clouds are loitering about. We're both getting that Sierra dried out leather look and our water rations are getting low. I didn't bring enough food really, for the amount of work we're doing. I've been scrimping so far and have one Gu and an apple left, plus a Rock Star and the espresso. Angus has about the same. He voices the doubt we both feel.

"Dingus, I'm pretty happy with the day. I'm OK with it, so if you want to bag it, let's do it." I'm surprised to hear this from Angus. I'm tired. Hell, I'm worked if you must know. I can feel the lowlander's headache on the verge of a full brain slam, pain in the making. My legs are very tired and I feel as though my total reserve of energy is in serious question.

And the day is getting on. But I didn't come up here to repeat a combo I've done a few times before. As enjoyable as it has been, as it will be in years to come, I didn't dedicate this day to just quit here. I set out with something more in mind and really, if you want to do these things, there is but one thing required. Show up.

"Hell no Angus," I say almost immediately, quietly, without emotion, but firmly as if to brook no dissent. "We came up here to do something and we should do it. I'm tired too man. And if we keep going, I'm gonna have to dig deep. Real deep. The payback will be on the descent tonight. But we have the time. I say we keep going."

Angus looks me over, as if to assess if my actions will speak louder than my tall words. He's gotta be thinking, 'hell, if I'm THIS tired, how worked is my old buddy right now?' But once again, he spares me the doubt.

"All right Dingus, let's keep going then. You sure?"

"I'm sure old friend. Let's do it." My mind is already made up. I suppress all second thought until we start down the descent gully to reach the start of the West Ridge. It's after 3 PM now and dark gray clouds are continuing to build up around the summit. Lovely, that we don't take notice of a potential storm until we've crossed the point of no return. It's unspoken, but we consider that gully a make or break point. Unless we're stormed off the climb, or worse, we're not coming back up this way. It's over the top or until we drop.

Angus carries our collective doubt now, stopping often to worry about the clouds, about the time. He still gets to the base of the climb ahead of me, for all that worrying! As I shoe up he asks if I really want the rope. I'm tempted to leave it in the pack, now in the interest of speed. That bit of down climbing I did earlier was at least two grades harder than anything above me, and I know it. I know it in my fingers and I know it in my toes, where it counts.

But I made a promise and I'm sticking to it.

"Yup, we still need the rope. You want this lead, or me?" A few drops of rain pepper the rock, as I get ready to go. It's dark above us and the subdued lighting lends a serious atmosphere to the route. We're both wondering about lightning, our ears constantly perked like nervous dogs on a 4th of July evening. Oh, to have a bed to hide under once that thunder begins!

The climbing goes fast, we've both been here before too. We simul-climb the first 400-foot tower in one pitch, frugal rack notwithstanding. When Angus joins me I ask if he minds staying on the rope longer. I'm glad I elected to use the rope. Good intentions aside, I managed to find some difficult 5th class rock on that tower.

Having the rope completely eliminates the stress of the ultimate potential consequence. With 50 and 75 foot runnouts, that protection was illusory for at least part of the time, but anyone who's ever been presumptuous enough to free solo knows of the reassurance a simple tying of the knot can bring, warranted or not! Besides, the idea is to use the rope to protect cruxes, not to lace up the entire ridge.

We end up roping the whole climb in 3 long pitches. As we pack up on the slabs leading to the summit, I dread the final up hill walk. These boulders are almost a slap in the face at this point. I'm getting winded with any up hill movement at all. Even Angus moves more slowly now.

And now we're on top of Conness, again. The clouds are gone and the evening glow has set in. Some blokes have just completed the Harding route and are basking in the well-deserved success. Time check: 6:06 PM. We managed the West Ridge in a little over 3 hours, summit to summit. The Harding team watched us descend the gully from 3 pitches up that route. That we caught them on the summit surprised them. Angus tells them what we've been up to and we query them about their route, getting rack notes from a party fresh off the climb. One of them sees our rack and quips,

"3 cams and a hand full of nuts. Now that's a light rack. Man, it sounds so cool to just take it easy one day and do some fast and light shit in the mountains. What are you guys gonna go climb now, hehe?" He's laughing, but he isn't laughing so hard that he can't recover if we respond with another route. Angus laughs in return,

"TPR." Their puzzled looks get me giggling. "Tioga Pass Resort. The crux of that route is deciding if you want ice cream on your pie or not."


Angus nails the trail on the way out. He leads the way, as he has done most of this day. In the growing dark I'd be concerned if it were my route choices to make. But he's been here recently and that confidence has him stroking. We hike full bore, make a few important turns and behold, we're on the trail leading to the Carnegie Institute.

A bit later we hike up that final little hill to the trailhead. I stashed my car here this morning. It will save us from a 400-foot climb back up to Saddle Bag Lake. We surge up through the walk-in campground as more normal folk are tending to their fires, to their dinners. We get back to full circle at 9 PM. So we did our little Trifecta round trip in a little under 13 hours, car door to car door. Almost 6000 feet of elevation and 3 rock climbs thrown in for good measure.

TPR we missed by just a few minutes. We part ways, Angus heading back to Modesto and me headed north on 395. The Chevron station in Lee Vining closed a few minutes before I pull up. I pass up on the only other place in town and head out. Such is my luck that every restaurant I pass on the way home is closed, including Denny's in Gardnerville.

I run out of steam just over Carson Pass. I bivi next to the car, the forest duff serving as my only mattress. Early morning traffic wakes me before the sun comes up. I wearily and achingly rise, attend to the morning rituals and head out. I should be home by 8, in time to help my kids get some breakfast. It's about time...

Thanks Galen.

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