Clouds loom to the south; not where weather is really supposed to come from, but there’s no denying the approaching storm. An early tropical cyclone off of Baja has spun off some threatening conditions now blowing across the Sierra and towards our peak. The hourglass seems to be draining its last grains. I have dealt ok with the endless scramble along exposed granite formations high above the Evolution Basin. But my stomach for lightning and rain on the last naked summit is proving pretty weak. My brother and I are nearly through with a multi-year objective, the climb of our dreams, and I’m close to throwing in the towel. The cloying smell of ozone clings to the strengthening breeze. Throat parched, a rasping gulp as I looked up at the final bit of climbing to the top. Our partners are nowhere to be seen.
The Evolution Traverse. My brother Christian and I have been scheming on this climb for ages. Peter Croft was the first to envision the line, positing that ridge traverses enchaining multiple peaks allow you to be on the best part of a climb, the summit, all day. He and Eastern Sierra legend Galen Rowell forged the path to what became the Evolution Traverse back in 1997. Croft eventually completed the dream solo in 1999.
What’s the climbing culture, or any culture, without its idols and heroes? Croft is my climbing hero.
Heroes inspire us through their accomplishments and through their style. Our impression of Croft’s style is heavy on work ethic, toughness, and humility. A sort of old-school, understated hard-assedness. A blue collar minimalist approach to daring ascents. A pocketful of trail mix for a day’s work.
We decided that the Croft approach, or at least the way we imagined it to be, was to be our approach. Carry less, climb more. Solo all terrain within a reasonable safety margin (pretty much the whole route). Stay on the knife’s edge of the ridge crest. And don’t stop until you’re on the other side.
We decided to make it official. I wrote a grant application to the American Alpine Club. Through the Live Your Dream grant, the AAC generously provided funds, a great logoed hat, and a sense of credibility. We were sponsored climbers! Serious dollar signs…in the three figures!
It wasn’t totally intentional but when I wrote the grant application I kind of oversold my bouldering credentials and undersold my alpine skills (hapless boulderer to attempt real mountain climb!) to make a more compelling story. It worked, but I still felt a little guilty. All the way to the bank!
Christian is younger than me and maybe for that reason less cynical. He believed we could pull off the climb in a single push, under 24 hours. I thought that was audacious; it hasn’t been done in that way too many times. I agreed to try though. While he projected ever faster times, I framed success as not dying or having to spend the night on the ridge in an open bivy.
A couple friends joined us to make things less lonesome and to spread out the probability of being struck by lightning. Our buddies Ari and Andrew dubbed themselves Team Stoke. Ari, the youngest and least experienced in our party, took the Croft ideal the farthest, bringing only butt-hugging floral-print lycra. No real pants, no decent rain shell, and little more to eat than espresso beans and caffeinated gel shots. Little wonder his stomach was a wreck for most of the climb. He made many pit stops.
Christian and I carried around one and a half liters of water each. Two-thirds of the way through I smashed dirty snow from the flanks of Mt Haeckel into my Nalgene and was able to eke out an extra quarter liter of water and maybe 50 calories of bug protein. Was I cheating? Would Croft do that…?
We ended up finishing in 15 hours and 45 minutes. Team Stoke took it a little too easy so we ditched them halfway through the day. They finished an hour or two behind us but probably had a lot more fun.
I could only find references to a few other ascents under that time, so I guess that means we were more prepared and capable than I had thought. So much for the hapless boulderer ruse. We were all pretty stoked.
The crux of the route? Holding the belief that we could do something that seemed impossible long enough to take the first step. And the second. And to keep holding that belief, and taking those steps, until we ran out of rock to climb.
Success in the mountains is a product of many factors. Technical ability, physical readiness, and less tangible quantities like mental preparedness and luck. We apparently had just enough of each, with maybe some extra luck to go around. Like Rumpelstiltskin and the miller’s daughter spinning straw into gold fleece, the mundane ingredients we pour into preparation (miles on the treadmill, laps on the wall, endless email threads on logistics) transmute into something beautiful when the spindle starts to whirl.
The experience concluded with miles of trail slogging through the night, and an arduous bushwhack up the terrain contours to the Darwin Bench. Delirious from exhaustion and hunger, none of us recognizes camp through our sweat-stung eyes. Everything is a reflection in a funhouse mirror. The adjacent stream bubbles more vividly, like all the lines and ripples under headlamp and starlight have been traced an extra pass or two. There is a strange luminescence to the rocks, bushes, grasses, trees. We lay our leaden bodies on pine needle beds, minds wandering backward along the paths of the day’s fantastic journey. Hard to tell if any of it really happened; probably just the way living your dream is supposed to feel.
The Evolution Traverse (VI, 5.9)
Kings Canyon National Park, Sierra Nevada Range, California
Nine peaks and eight miles of climbing and scrambling; over 9,000’ gross elevation gain.
Peak 13,385’; Mendel (13,691’); Darwin (13,830’); Peak 13,332’; Haeckel (13,435’); Wallace
(13,377’); Fiske (13,524’); Warlow (13,300’); Huxley (13,117’)
Trip Report by Jordan Shackelford. Jordon is a Team Touchstone coach at Great Western Power Company, is a civil engineer, and bakes a mean sourdough.