Saturday, August 7th, 2004

Mt. Conness — A Humbling Experience

On Friday, I cheerfully announced to Allen, “Supertopo says the approach to West Ridge of Mt. Conness is very confusing, but don’t you worry, because I’ve received beta from four sources.” Intimidated by the warning given by Supertopo, I had asked Gary and Ed, whom I met on On the Lamb, for information because I knew they had done the climb recently. They both sent me very detailed and clear description accompanied by a scanned and marked topography map and photos. Hearing that I was going to do Mt. Conness, Steve also offered his summary on the approach. And then of course there was the beta from the Supertopo website. Having not found the Tioga Pass USGS Quad map at REI that Gary recommended, I gave up the idea of getting a compass. Instead, I picked up a lightweight GPS unit. With all these materials in hand, I believed I would hit the approach right on and not waste a single extra footstep.

I hit the trailhead at the Sawmill Campground parking lot with just that kind of confidence at 8:15am on Saturday. The sky was blue and cloudless. I had estimated we would spend 4 hours on the 4.5 mile approach, 3 hours on climbing, and 3 hours on descent. That would get us back to our car around 6pm. What I did not take into consideration was that I could fail the plan in every possible way, which resulted in a 17-mile roundtrip and 13.5-hour ordeal.

The correct approach is split in two halves by a notch in a ridge, which was defined by Gary “the lowest point” in the ridge. (Note: There are a few notches and a few ridges mentioned in the beta.) We headed towards the seemingly lowest point in the ridge, after crossing a couple of snow fields, we reached the notch only to find that the real lowest point was somewhere half mile down the ridge, and we had to go back down in order to access the correct notch. While crossing one of the snow fields again, I suddenly realized that Gary mentioned the snow field in his beta, and we were not supposed to cross it. I felt stupid, but this was only first of the few times I felt stupid during the day. We lost about an hour on this detour.

After we gained the notch, the unmistakable plateau appeared in front of my eyes. We were supposed to head up to another notch in another ridge. Instead, I led us down a gully to the left of the notch. I somehow thought “gully” and “notch” were synonymous. I would like to blame this mistake on my language barrier, but mistakening “down” for “up” was inexcusable. We ended up going around another mountain before we could even see Mt. Conness. By the time when we reached the base of a ridge of Mt. Conness, it was almost 4pm, and my GPS read 11.8 miles on the trip odometer.

Although the ridge in front of us did not resemble the photo nor the description of West Ridge, we were so anxious to reach the summit that we decided to start climb anyway. We had had no idea where we were for the past few hours, and the summit seemed to be the only point where we could reposition ourselves. We climbed unroped. At some exposed spots, we thought we might be on West Ridge, but we rejected the idea frequently when the climbing did not feel so spectacular. The mind swing kept on going until we suddenly ran into two climbers when the ridge we were on merged into the ridge they were on. They told us the ridge they were on was North Ridge of Mt. Conness, and the merging point was the Second Tower on North Ridge. I had no idea how we missed West Ridge on our way contouring around the base of Mt. Conness, but boy, didn’t it feel good to finally know where we were! After rappelling down the fixed line on Second Tower behind them, still unroped, we passed those two climbers and very soon they were out of sight behind us. Our rope and gear never got pulled out of our packs. We reached the summit around 6:15pm, and the sun was going down, but we just collapsed on the summit from the exhaustion. After a 20 minute rest, we started the descent. The light was almost gone when we got back down from the notch. The GPS’s batteries ran out. We used the batteries in one head lamp to keep the GPS going, and with the other dim LED headlamp, we managed to cross country and return back to the car around 9:45.

Although exhausted, I was in a good mood while driving back to camp. Despite all the mistakes I made and cross countrying in the dark, we did not have to spend a night out in the open. We were unlucky that so many mistakes were made, but we were also lucky to have the GPS guiding us on our way back. There were many times on the approach Allen questioned my judgment on the direction we were going, but every time I confidently convinced him that I knew where we were going. It was a humbling experience for me. I was reminded, again, that even when I thought I was 100 percent right, I could be wrong. And I learned the hard way that I really did not know how to read a topography map correctly. Tomorrow, I’m going to the library to get some books on using a compass and reading maps.

On Sunday we climbed Aqua Knobby on Pywiack Dome. I led Pitch 1 (5.9 alternate start) and Pitch 4 (5.8), and Allen led Pitch 2 (5.9) and Pitch 3 (5.7) linkup. Right next to Highway 120, the approach only took 3 minutes. I could not mess up the approach even if I tried. That was exactly what I needed. Perfect!

P.S. To see how I have messed it up, click here.

This is the first ridge we were headed for. The notch (the lowest point) seemed obvious from afar.

Allen was crossing a snow field that we were not supposed to cross.

If I had slipped here, I would have gone for a swim.

As a habit, we took photos on the summit. I tried to hide exhaution behind my sunglasses.