Scrambling on Conness: Best Rehab Ever
By Scotty Strachan
Date Climbed: August 28, 2006

The year 2005 was not exactly a watershed hiking year for me, having snapped the Anterior Cruciate Ligament in my right knee playing Ultimate Frisbee in July. Dr. Jeff Cummings with the Tahoe Fracture Clinic expertly put that mess back together, and PT Boyd Etter got things moving again, albeit painfully. Having accepted the fact that I would not be cavorting about the Sierra again for at least a year, I put my focus on other things and had to settle for reading about others' adventures. Annoyingly, much of my work during the winter and spring involved a desk, and I found regular exercise a difficult task that was convenient to push aside.

Jump to August, when after a summer of work in Alaska I was ready to get back to familiar territory. Barry pretty much demanded that I go on a little expedition to climb the North Ridge of Mt. Conness in Yosemite, a route that both of us had been meaning to visit for some time. It sounded reasonable --- 10,000ft trailhead, 3.5mi approach, and quality granite. Throwing in the class 4 North Ridge of North Peak as a warmup was not a big deal either, as two peaks are always better than one. On paper, it looked like an easy day. So, I duly informed Barry of my sad physical state, mentioning that between my recovering knee, summer at low altitude, and over a year without any peaks, North Peak would probably be my only summit of the day, if I was lucky. He promptly called me a sandbagger, or something of that ilk. Well, I figured my used-up La Sportiva Exum Ridge shoes had a couple peaks left in them, so what the heck.

Monday, August 28th, found Barry, myself, and David Rodriguez exiting the car to a chilly morning at Saddlebag Lake, just as the sun was hitting the surrounding peaks. Breathing deeply, I realized that it had been nearly two years since my last Sierra peak. For some reason, that made me feel guilty, like letting a friend down or something. All the more reason to give it a good effort, I thought.

As we passed Greenstone Lake a few minutes later (right photo), it was obvious that it was going to be a classic Sierra day, with endless deep blue sky and bright sunlight bouncing off pure white granite. As we left the trail and continued cross-country to the start of North Peak's North Ridge, the bouncy turf ledges and easy slabs made me feel as if I had never left after all. By the time we began negotiating fun obstacles on the ridge, I had forgotten all about being out of shape.

North Peak was a kick in the shorts --- technically easy, with a few great sporty sections with reasonable exposure (left photo). Bridging a couple of the deep gaps in the ridge was an interesting exercise, but the rock was solid all the way. At some point I had to finally ditch my sandals and switch to the approach tennies. So much for the first sandal ascent of North Peak.

We made our way past the technical sections and plodded across the class 2 talus to the top, finding the high point at last. Although my slow pace had required 3hrs to get there, my first peak with a new ACL was not a disappointment. Upon summiting, I was feeling great and couldn't wait to get over to Conness. I guess the thrill of being back in the mountains, with good friends, on a great day, just took the weight of my water, rope, harness, and jacket from my shoulders...we took our ease on the summit for a bit, just soaking in the scenery.

Descending the south slope of North Peak was quickly (and comfortably) done. A short easy sidehill brought us to the very bottom of the North Ridge of Mt. Conness. After hearing all about the approach past the Conness glacier to this point, and seeing the route that slog takes, I would have to say that going around and doing North Peak as a warm-up is really the only way to go.

I hung back and took a short "rest stop" while my partners clambered on ahead, allowing me to get a couple of shots of them at high zoom with the white wall of Conness' north face in the background (right photo). It wasn't long before the scrambling got steeper, though.

I changed my socks out, and got ready for the real fun, wondering if we would really need the short 8.5mm rope I was carrying. While this route had a reputation as an easy solo, I wasn't certain that my somewhat weak and inflexible right leg would be trustworthy in a tight spot, adding to the fact that I'm not a strong rock climber to start with. We could see a roped party ahead of us leaving the first tower.

We passed the first tower without incident, and as we started up the second one I led to the right side (left photo), remembering some tidbit I had heard about a shorter rap from lower down. The roped party was finishing their first rap from the top of the tower and starting on the second as we got to the edge of the gap obstacle and peered down. The downclimbing from that point didn't look too good, and after I reconned up to the regular route I reported that the difficulty would be similar. Barry consequently got the rope out of my pack and we all harnessed up and rapped 30-40' to some ramped slabs, climbing up them a little to another rap station. The scrambling here was dicey, with no good holds and steep consequences. We did another rap down about 50' to the bottom of the main gully and looked around.

Fortunately, we were now in class 4 heaven. Large ledges and holds seemed to be everywhere we looked, and although the face back up to the ridge crest stayed steep, it appeared very appetizing. It climbed as good as it looked, and we reveled in the bliss of it for a few hundred feet, saying hello to the roped party on the way by (right photo).

All too soon we were at the summit, enjoying the view and congratulating each other on an exciting climb. It was now 2pm, and I started to feel the tell-tale start of an altitude headache, so I took an Aleve and put it out of my mind. Surprisingly, I wasn't too worn physically, but the continual exposure and 1.5hr delay with rappels had taken a toll psychologically. When we departed the summit, I was glad to be heading back.

We took the hike back very casually as I was careful to protect my knee from hyperextension on the steep descents, getting to the car around 5pm with plenty of daylight left.

It is hard to imagine a better re-introduction to Sierra peak-bagging than this one --- it had all the elements of a perfect day, and was not extremely demanding physically. It certainly whetted my appetite for more Sierra vistas and granite! My only regret is not doing this classic pair of routes sooner.