Climbing 4 Alpine Climbing Routes in 4 Days

Aaron Richards is a professional mountain guide who lives in Bishop, California and works for Sierra Mountain Center. He recently attempted a climb he’s been talking about for many years. Here are the results.

Most of the big climbs I do in the Sierra are thanks to my friend Ian McEleny. He comes up with stupid ideas and I’m dumb enough to join him. Well, payback is a b*tch: When I came up with the idea of stacking Peter Croft’s “Big Four” alpine routes car-to-car and back-to-back in four long days, Ian felt obligated to return the favor. The following is an account of our time on what we dubbed the 4×4.


Day 1: Keeler Needle
Car to car: 15.5 hours

Keeler Needle


After a short five hours of sleep, Ian and I find ourselves hiking up the North Fork of Big Pine Creek. We both guide here frequently and could do the approach with our eyes closed. But aside from the familiarity, there’s not much to complain about. The Whitney Zone is home to an amazing number of great routes: the East Face and the East Buttress of Mt. Whitney, the Mithril Dihedral, Fishhook Arête and the East Ridge on Mt. Russell, and many more.


One down, three to go

I take the first block to the fourth class, a natural transition point. Above, Ian squirms up the infamous off-width, which—between the two of us—is his specialty. After getting us through the blue-collar climbing, Ian somehow wanders around lost on the upper pitches, costing us at least an hour. After a stupidly cruxy ending, we top out at 4 p.m., transition and head down the old ditch, aka the Mountaineer’s Route.

By 7:30 p.m., we’re back to the car and head into Lone Pine for some calories in the form of Chinese Food from the Merry Go Round. Back in the car, flying up the 395 and listening to the Imperial March from Star, we decide we should aim for at least six hours of sleep. We’re prepped and in bed by 10 p.m. with alarms set for 4 a.m. I keep telling myself that all we have to do is wake up and start hiking; our muscles will do the rest.

Day 2: Dark Star
Car to car: 14.5 hours


Waking up this morning doesn’t feel awesome, but Ian’s premade breakfast burritos and a quick VIA get us going. After about 2.5 hours of hiking up, we make it to the beach at Second Lake. Here, as if by a trick of our tired minds, we see a man who contributed immensely to the development of the palisades and climbed with the very same party that put up the route we’re headed to climb: Doug Robinson. A charger of his time, Doug is out with his partner Eva to scout a new route somewhere on Temple Crag. He chats us up and sends us on our way feeling like the Celestial Temple has blessed us with an encounter with one of its deities.

dark-starAs on Day 1, I take the a.m. block and cruise the first 200-foot pitch. It’s the crux for the route so I’m guessing the rest of the day will be casual. As Ian arrives, I grab our gear and blast off again, only to find myself lost in a total vortex of granite. As I climb every inch of rock in a 150-foot radius, the good feelings from the morning’s encounter vanish. In my dazed exploration, the only coherent thought I can formulate is the hope that Doug isn’t watching from below. Finally, after an eternity, I build an anchor in the middle of nowhere and, defeated, bring Ian up. Proving that I was truly in a vortex, Ian kindly takes the lead and finds the anchor that eluded me for hours in just a few seconds. I curse, but we’re now off, simul-climbing up to the chimney that’s a few hundred feet above. The lack of sleep tonight will be on my shoulders.

The rest of the route goes smoothly over terrain we can move quickly in. Dark Star is not as much of a rock climb as a mountainous ridge climb, something that Ian and I do a lot of. We tag the summit and head toward one of the worst descents in the Eastern Sierra: Contact Pass.


Two down, two to go.

The night brings us up to Mammoth, where Ian’s wife, Jess, has made a delicious meal, kept warm for our late arrival of 9:30 p.m. She preps our breakfast for the morning and gets us to bed at the reasonable hour of 11.

Day 3: SW Face of Conness
Car to car: 13.5 hours


With two days down and what I think is going to be an easy climb ahead of us, I wake up feeling stoked. Ian and I take our time leaving the house and aren’t on the trail until 7:30 a.m., but the late start doesn’t worry us – we have this one in the bag.

How crushing overconfidence can be. Arriving at the gully off of the Conness Plateau and descending to the start of the route, I look up at the huge wall ahead of us and almost don’t want to put words to what I’m seeing: water running off the upper pitches.

ConnessIan and I ultimately agree to failing rather than throwing in the towel at the base, but we take our time racking up. I’m on lead for the first block again, but commit to climbing everything on this mountain if Ian will do the dirty work of squeezing up the off-width. I’m tired and try to avoid some water by climbing a variation. It feels hard, but I get the rope up. On the second pitch, exhaustion gets the better of me and while trying to pull the technical crux of the route I take and weight the rope on an orange TCU. After a few minutes of rest, I send the pitch and curse myself for being mentally weak. Ian, honoring our agreement, puts the rope up on the off-width, despite it being a little damp—strong work that I could only barely follow without weighting the rope again.

Halfway up Conness, both exhausted, we have a rare moment in which neither of us wants to be on the sharp end. We sit for a few minutes. Ian says nothing. I slowly and silently rack up for another dripping wet pitch. In what feels like an eternity—this is mentally the hardest stretch of climbing I’ve ever encountered—it relinquishes itself. The rest of the route covers easy terrain and we sail to the top.


Three down, one to go!

Well off our schedule and feeling a tad defeated, we walk back to the car and are in the parking lot cooking freeze-dried food at 9:30 p.m. 

Day 4: Yggdrasil aka Red Dihedral
Car to car: 12.5 hours

Another six hours of sleep has us starting through the navigational crux of the Twin Lakes campground. A crudely drawn map on the bathroom wall produces key beta. Both of us are feeling good. We’re headed to a climb that neither of us has done, and best of all we know that it’s mostly straightforward.

img_2835We solo up fourth class to a stance and the start of the first pitch. In about 200 feet, we’ll be at the best bit of rock climbing in our four-day tour. It’s my lead again and I’m stoked; usually you have to fight for the first block of this climb. Immediately I almost blow it on the opening moves of an easy 5.8 bulge. After this performance, I wonder how the sustained 5.9 will feel. I try not to think about it and just keep climbing. The Dihedral holds up to its reputation – it would have been pure ecstasy if it weren’t for incredibly sore hands and feet.



One last pitch of leading and Ian takes over. I feel like I’m done and finally with nothing coming tomorrow, I enjoy the pleasure of just following. Ian dispenses the upper pitches smoothly and efficiently. Together we figure out the descent, which isn’t that bad by Sierra standards. Hiking out, we pray that the hoards of people in the campground will ignore the rope and helmets on our packs. In our state, we’re not sure what will come out of our mouths when asked the standard climbing questions posed by non-climbers. Miraculously, we’re left to ourselves and slink back to Ian’s house for frozen pizza. We even manage a single beer each before falling asleep.


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How to Write a Guidebook

Charlie Barrett is writing a guidebook on bouldering in Yosemite National Park’s Tuolumne Meadows. How does one write a guidebook? Charlie explains how he ended up with this job, that it’s not as easy as it sounds, and why he thought Tuolumne Meadows would be the perfect place to write about.

I used to climb routes in Tuolumne Meadows when I was a 16-year-old kid. But, I quickly realized that the hardest moves I wanted to do weren’t going to be on a rope here. I started bouldering at all the classic, roadside areas and soon started looking for new boulders and areas to satisfy my newfound bouldering love.


After years of searching and wandering around the woods with my friends, we started to realize Tuolumne Meadows was on its way to becoming a major bouldering destination. I remember talking with my friend Chris Falkenstien, a rope-climbing guidebook author, and he asked me to help out with a small bouldering section in the back of his route-climbing book. We ended up writing about five or six pages on bouldering, a tiny amount for what the sport was to become.

Years later, I asked him if he thought a full bouldering guidebook could be a book in itself. He thought yes. But it took until a few years after that conversation, when I was sitting in Rifle, Colorado, fresh off an injury that occurred while sport climbing, and the Tuolumne bouldering guidebook idea popped back into my head. I called Chris to see what he thought about doing the book over the next few summers. His reply? “We were just waiting for you.”

Charlie's desktop during guidebook-writing season.

Charlie’s desktop during guidebook-writing season.

About two years ago I finished writing the Mammoth Bouldering Guidebook, which took a whole year to write – figuring out the programs, cameras and how to take proper notes. So now with a new area to map, look through and climb, I’m overwhelmed! So here I am today, working away on this new project. I go to bed at 4:00 a.m. and wake up at 9:00 a.m. to start working and researching again. But I’ve come to realize making a guidebook isn’t just work; it’s a pleasure, a chore and a lifestyle I wouldn’t change for anything.

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How To Cross Train For Your Sport

Brooks-Range ambassador Carlos Buhler is one of the leading high-altitude mountaineers in the U.S., specializing in using minimal equipment and no oxygen on his climbs. He talked to us about how he trains for his adventures using his passions.

Transitioning from winter into summer activities is not the easiest physical challenge to tackle. However, with the right attitude, the cross-training effect is phenomenal. (Take a look at this link for an introduction.) There are three training categories to cross training: strength, endurance, and flexibility. Combining all three develops a rounded fitness level, keeps motivation high and helps to avoid overuse injuries. At the same time, this training method allows injured muscles, ligaments, and tendons some time to recover without coming to an activity stand still.

Carlos Buhler on Siula Grande’s West Face (20,000 feet) during the first ascent of a new route called “Avoiding the Touch” (photo credit: Mark Price).

Fortunately, the seasonal variety of outdoor activities offers a pretty good path for physical development. In my case, I tend to concentrate on my body’s larger muscles during the fall and winter months – specifically my lower body and my back, as well as my aerobic endurance. I shift my focus during the spring and summer months to my upper body’s smaller muscles – particularly my shoulders and forearms. It’s not a complete change from season into another, but the balance or ratio changes.

My cross training makes sense due to the sports I enjoy. When spring arrives, I change from ice and mixed climbing to rock climbing. My aerobic activity changes, as well; I trade my cross-country skate skis for my road bike. Stretching is my weakest link and I know I always have to put energy into in order to maintain. However, all of this may be different depending on the sports you appreciate.

However, I cannot expect to equal the peaks of performance of the dedicated athlete in any one of these disciplines. Clearly, if you only spend a third of your training days on cross-country skiing, for example, the level you reach will be less than if you’re putting all of your training efforts towards skiing. But the cross training effect is excellent as a supplement. My overall fitness is great and I never get burned out psychologically on one activity. Plus, I rarely have to deal with overuse injuries.

While I am excited to engage in new seasonal activities, I know that when hopping on my road bike for my early season rides, I’m going to get passed by many cyclists. Likewise, when I rock climb, I will find the first month a very humbling experience.  The right approach is to not be too demanding of myself during the early season.  The first month of a new seasonal activity needs to be moderate in order to be motivating. A season offers plenty of length in order to intensify my workouts and performance level.

My long-term intent is to keep up a reasonable level of varied activity throughout the year rather than to train very hard as a transition approaches. The trick is to stay motivated over a lifetime. And I think, by accomplishing that, you have achieved success!

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