American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

Wheeler Crest: Many New Routes

California, Sierra Nevada, Sierra Eastside

  • Climbs And Expeditions
  • Author: Richard Shore
  • Climb Year: 2016
  • Publication Year: 2017

In the fall of 2015, I began exploring the expansive Wheeler Crest, repeating a few of the classic routes with friends. We became entranced with the wildness of the place—long approaches, no trails, no crowds, and just the occasional bighorn sheep, peregrine falcon, or golden eagle to keep us company. We didn’t complain about the lack of attention, and those early efforts opened our eyes to the vast scale of the Crest and its mind-blowing potential for new routes.

On December 14, 2015, Myles Moser and Amy Ness started a line up the steep southeast buttress of Wells Peak. They climbed two pitches through an intimidating black diorite band before reaching the excellent granite above, and then did one more pitch up a classic 5.10 crack before rappelling back to the ground. A few days later, on December 18, I joined the duo for the summit push. We quickly regained their previous high point and swapped leads through the virgin terrain above. The sun exposure on this subalpine tower was surreal—climbing in T-shirts on a forecasted 41°F winter day? Then shade hit the route and we soon recognized why there was still snow on the ground. Two pitches of thin face and slab climbing gained the headwall crack system, which we followed for two more pitches to the top. The route ended on the peak’s prominent southern subsummit, from which we rappelled the line of ascent. Keeping with the Adam and Eve theme on the nearby Rabbit’s Ears, we called our climb Forbidden Fruit (IV 5.11).

The weather pattern then returned to “normal” after an extended five-year drought, and snow kept us out of the Wheeler Crest until the following April. Taking advantage of the short prime season (longer days, cool temperatures, and, most importantly, running water), we ventured deeper into the canyons. Our efforts focused in the Grey Band, a series of pinnacles hidden behind the well-documented routes in Mayfield Canyon.

On April 5, Myles Moser and I made the painful uphill approach to the most prominent tower in the Grey Band, the unimaginatively named Big Grey Pinnacle. This 1,000’ tower was already home to two vintage routes on its eastern side, and we were aiming for a potential new line up its featured southeast face. After scrambling up a blocky orange buttress at the base, we found four continuously challenging pitches (5.10+, 5.11-, 5.12, 5.10-), which included excellent cracks, imposing roofs, layback flakes, and a boulder problem crux. Pleased with our progress, we decided to leave the haulbag on a vegetated ledge at the base of the headwall for retrieval during our descent. Racing the fading afternoon light, we continued up a rope length of moderate cracks and run-out face to the shoulder of the tower, and then a polished 5.9+ corner brought us to the top. I dropped our only headlamp and the extra webbing high on the route, and rappelling off the tower into darkness became infinitely more interesting. Staggering back to camp hours later, bloodied and bruised, we had been treated to a Bighorn Beatdown (IV 5.12).

Lost Pink Tower, showing the new route Love Line (III 5.10+). Photo by Richard Shore

On April 19, Natalie Brechtel and I hiked back up into the Grey Band with intentions of climbing the Lost Pink Tower. Sandwiched between gray spires, this 700-foot peak of magnificent pink granite was not only “lost,” but also completely neglected by climbers for decades. Our proposed line was obvious: a long, blocky ramp that led diagonally up and right from the base to the solitary weakness in the center of the wall. This left-facing corner system was then followed for two pitches of stemming and jamming to a small ledge (5.9+), and another varied pitch of chimneys, underclings, and liebacks brought us to a tree belay. Broken cracks led up and left through bushes to the shoulder of the tower (5.8), and a right-trending ramp took us through a short headwall guarding the top (5.7). With the virgin summit now deflowered, the Love Line (III 5.10+) had been conceived.

On April 23, Tony Lewis and I made the three-hour slog up into the Grey Band once again, with eyes fixated on the unclimbed 1,200-foot pinnacle hidden behind the Cobblers Bench Tower. After establishing our base camp, we started up the toe of the pinnacle’s east buttress. A right-facing corner (5.8) led up and left to a bush belay, from which three wandering pitches (5.10, 5.9, 5.8 R) of exhilarating slab and face climbing went up, right, and finally back left to a ledge from which the upper crack systems were finally visible. Exhausted from hand-drilling many bolts, we fixed a few ropes and scrambled back down to camp for the evening.

The next morning we woke to dark skies and a building storm. We quickly ascended the ropes to our high point and tackled the short face crux (5.10+), which gained the long dihedral we’d been aiming for. It was snowing steadily at this point, and weighing our options we quickly decided to push onward. The corner was followed for another rope length to its end, where an unprotected rightward traverse along a dike (5.8 R) joined another dihedral. A sustained pitch up the bushy, flared corner (5.9+) led to a large pedestal and a final scramble reached the top. We snapped a few celebratory photos on the untrodden summit and rapidly descended the route by rappel as the weather deteriorated into whiteout conditions. Sticking to the Grey Band theme, we named our new tower the Super Grey Pinnacle (IV 5.10+).

While climbing this route, I spotted a continuous crack system on the north face of Big Grey Pinnacle, a few hundred feet right of the original 1976 Rowell-Belden east face route. It was still holding snow and an attempt would have to wait until autumn, after the scorching summer heat in Bishop had subsided.

It was still quite warm on September 16, and Johnny Karagozian and I hiked up to the base of Big Grey Pinnacle at night to avoid the sun and the infamous “buzztails” that guard the strenuous approaches to these towers. We were treated to a spectacular alpenglow at sunrise, and much to our delight the climb quickly went into a shady respite for the day. The route provided us with eight pitches of interesting and physical climbing—mostly 5.8 and 5.9 in grubby chimneys, flares, and offwidths, but also an exposed 5.10 arête halfway up and a clean finger-to-hand splitter above. The peaceful day was only occasionally interrupted by the shrill cry of a curious and acrobatic avian, and our new route was named in his honor: the Peregrine Pillar(IV 5.10).

Over two weekends in early October, Tony Lewis, Andrew Soleman, and I returned to the Wheeler Crest and established a new route up one of the last unclimbed monolithic features in the area, the southeast buttress of the Cobbler’s Bench Tower. Three pitches of moderate cracks and face climbing led to the bulk of the route, a highly featured yet technical slab up the ever-narrowing buttress. We climbed six pitches before running out of steam on our first attempt.

A week later we returned and reclimbed the lower pitches, hoping the difficulty above would ease off and allow for a summit push. We kept to a minimalist ethic while taking a serpentine path up the steep face, hand-drilling protection bolts from stances and utilizing natural belay anchors whenever possible. The result was a fantastic, sustained, and committing climb, with only two fixed belays over 1,100 vertical feet and some healthy runouts on most of the nine pitches. A bit shaken from the heady climb, we were elated to reach the summit and give our nerves a chance to cool off. After descending the gully between the Cobbler’s Bench and Super Grey Pinnacle, we left a bighorn sheep’s skull at the base as a reminder to future parties of the wild beauty and serious nature of climbing on the Wheeler Crest. Watch your step, because you might get bit by the Rattler (IV 5.11 R).

– Richard Shore

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