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That Time The Mountain Called My Bluff

By February 21, 2023No Comments

I’m a boulderer, and unapologetically so. That said, I also like being on top of mountains. Sometimes, I go for long outings in the mountains that are hybrid hike/scrambles. I wrote about the WURL, Tenaya-Matthes-Cathedral, and Mt. Emerson, if you wanna read those trip reports.

Previous scramble outings have always gone well for me. Weather has been generally good, routes uncluttered, and companions have been awesome without exception. And, most importantly, everyone has always gotten home safely.

I knew it couldn’t go perfectly well forever, but I told myself that I would always be in control. I’ve never soloed anything I couldn’t downclimb, which meant that if I got off-route or got spooked, I could always bail by simply turning around. That had never been tested, until I decided to go for a stroll up the awesomely named Cloudripper.

Most of my summer was spent recovering from an ankle injury, so I didn’t get to spend as much time in the mountains as I might’ve liked. I hiked up Mt. Tom (Winuba) and the ankle felt alright, so a couple of weeks later I decided to go for Cloudripper. I didn’t know much about it, except that it had a reputation as a fun scramble. A quick internet reading suggested that the obvious route was the West Chute, a 3rd-class romp on clean rock to a ridge just below the summit, with an easy walk off the north side of the mountain. The photos of dad-bods in New Balances told me it would be a quick, easy climb.

I got a nice early start, leaving the parking lot at South Lake at 10:30am. I managed to miss the turnoff at about 2 and a half miles thanks to some erroneous internet beta, and when I wasn’t seeing the sign I was looking for but was seeing Cloudripper pass by to my left, I realized my error and started marching cross-country toward my quarry. The mistake cost some extra time and not a few epithets, but the real sandbag was the aspect I approached Cloudripper from.

The route beta I was following was to march up the talus to the base of the obvious chute, and climb the chute. Should be pretty easy, right?

To avoid descending and re-gaining a few hundred feet, I’d opted to hike alongside the talus field and then cut over to the chute along the zone where the mountain met the talus. As I was coming from the side instead of straight on, this gully-riven mountain seemed to be full of chutes, with one bigger than the others–obviously, this ought to be the one. Reaching the base, I was greeted with a 20 foot tall wall that was less than vertical, but steeper than I was expecting. “No worry,” I thought, “it’s pretty well featured, and it sure looks like it eases considerably once you get into the chute.”

When I solo easy stuff in the mountains, I wear a chalkbag and approach shoes. For this excursion I’d left the chalkbag at home, and I was breaking in a brand new pair of trail runners, figuring a couple thousand feet of 3rd class would really help me get a feel for them. I climbed the first section hesitantly, seeking bigger edges for my feet than I normally would, and then came a somewhat awkward little groove with some big blocks that didn’t look like they wanted to come loose, but might’ve with enough persuasion.

Finally I was through the weirdness and onto easy romping. Well, after a brief little steeper bit. And after that, it looked…still somewhat steep. I wasn’t eager to reverse what I’d already done, so despite a few nagging doubts, I kept on.

Routefinding became quite challenging, as I had to find the sections that had solid rock, and weren’t too steep. Wait, wasn’t this route advertised as having good rock? I could swear I did some 5th class climbing down there, but maybe it was 3rd class and my shoes just felt insecure.

Suddenly, I gradually come to realize, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that I am in the wrong chute. And I don’t have time to downclimb, find the correct chute, and climb it, before it gets dark and very cold indeed. I’m a few hundred feet up already, so I decide to keep going, figuring the chutes must meet somewhere further up the mountain. The first snow of the season had fallen recently, and to my right, the shade had allowed a light dusting of powder to remain. I am inadequately equipped to survive a night on the side of a mountain. This was supposed to be a casual stroll. I sincerely hope I don’t have to downclimb.

So I keep going up. What feels like ages go by and the chute I’m in starts to pinch, so I hop over a little ridge to the left, hoping I might be joining the main chute. A lower-angle face, but not an obvious chute with clean rock. I carefully traverse across snow-covered rocks. The sun is getting close to the horizon. There is a big chute at the end of the traverse, but it might not be the one I want, and anyway I can’t see a good way to drop into it. I’ve got maybe an hour of daylight left, a paltry wind layer, and very little food.

That was that. Cloudripper had called my bluff. I was going to be reversing all of the delicate, sketchy climbing I’d done, all 1,000 feet of it, in unfamiliar shoes and without chalk. There was no time to contemplate. I found a perch, rolled and smoked an herbal cigarette, and began reversing my steps. The first part, at least, had my tracks in the snow as a guide.

Down-soloing was certainly no easier than the way up, and I didn’t have a bread-crumb trail of my own chalk to guide me. The strategy that I fumbled into was to identify a solid stance a bodylength or two below me, try to reach it, and then evaluate from there. If I needed to, I could reverse it, and try a different tack. It was excruciatingly slow, and it was exacerbated by the constant repetition of song lyrics in my head…I hate the Killers…

I had had moments soloing in the mountains when I’d thought “this is a little more serious than I was bargaining for,” and once they’re over, the ol’ amnesia kicks in and the scare was just a little spice in hindsight. My Cloudripper experience turned into several hours of “more serious than I bargained for.” At times I would’ve happily left every single nut, cam, sling, carabiner, jumar, rappel device, and rope that I own, if I could only just rappel to safety…of course, all that stuff was sitting in the garage. The little satellite phone in my pack wasn’t much use either. Even if I had wanted to just give up and dial 911, there was no chance anyone would be reaching me for several hours, and I wasn’t about to just curl into a ball and wait. So I kept downclimbing.

The sun drops below the horizon as I reach a point just above the initial steep face I began on. It’s beginning to darken, but no headlamp needed. I find a way around the awkward groove, and now I have just 30 or so feet of steeper, but secure downclimbing. Reaching the ground is the sweetest relief I’ve felt in a very long time. I don my headlamp and start picking my way down the talus.

What I Learned

Objectively speaking, this was a huge failure. I got off-route on the way to the climb, and then I tried to climb the wrong part of the mountain. I didn’t summit anything, and I got back a couple of hours later than I meant to. This is what I get for following the Honnoldism, “Don’t spoil the adventure by planning ahead.”

While I’m not proud of the results of the effort, I can say that I’m proud of how I handled the situations I was in. Up until this outing, nothing had ever gone particularly wrong in the mountains for me. I’d had to bail due to lightning, but that’s about it. This time I was finally faced with one of my nightmare scenarios, where I’d climbed into an impasse, and had to reverse lots of sketchy, committing terrain. And, thankfully, it was fine. Quite unpleasant, and not something I want to do again, but fine. And knowing that I can trust my own judgment a little more is probably more rewarding that standing on the summit of Cloudripper would’ve been.

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