Mountaineering in The Sierra Nevadas
May 23, 2017
I have spent many years of my life rock climbing.
I have done a fair bit of mountaineering as well.
Mountaineering and rock climbing are quite different activities.
There is lots of overlap of course, and rock climbing skills are a
huge asset on the peaks. What I would say characterizes mountaineering is
the scale of things. Mountaineering is more of a big picture thing, whereas
rock climbing is a microcosm where you can loose yourself amidst cracks and
holds and pitches.
Peak bagging is another game, one sort of mountaineering.
It tends to degenerate into ticking off items on a list,
a mindset I try to avoid getting into.
The mountaineering I get enthused about is climbing class 3 and 4 peaks.
I am interested in things that I can climb within reason without a rope and
by myself if I am alone. Each person must know their own limitations (and
they change with time and age). Here is a short list of some really great
peaks that I have climbed in the Sierra:
I actually did not climb Mt. Goddard, but climbed peak 13040+ just to the east,
after climbing Starr's route (an interesting route on an otherwise dull mountain).
I need to return, explore the area to the south and climb Goddard.
- Mt. Winchell 13775 East Arete (class 3) - a great route
- Mt. Russell 14086 East Ridge (class 3) - best class 3 in the world
- North Palisade 14242 LeConte Route (class 4) - excellent
- Mt. Ruskin 12920 from Cartridge Pass (class 4) - memorable.
There is no class 3 route despite what they say.
- Venacher Needle 12996 from southeast (class 2) - steep talus, worthwhile
- Mt. Goddard via Starr's route (class 2) - more like class 3, but superb.
- Mt. Tyndall via north rib (class 3) - one of the best climbs in the Sierra.
- Mt. Williamson via west face (class 3) - nasty slog to fine summit
- Mt. Sill via southwest slope (class 3) - great summit
- Mt. Humphreys via the standard route (class 4) - outstanding
- Observation Peak 12362 (class 2) - unique and comprehensive view
I have also done some rock climbing in the Tuolumne region, including ascents of
some of the domes, and Cathedral Peak, but this is rock climbing more than
Note that class 2 climbing in most cases involves drudgery over endless talus.
I have lost interest in talus slogs to simply "bag a peak".
Class 3 (and definitely class 4) involves much more interesting and enjoyable
actual climbing. Some class 2 peaks are worth the visit, either for the view
or for the peak itself.
The mystery of class 4
There is a useless technical definition, but here is the actual truth.
A class 4 peak is one that experienced people will climb unroped, but
which has situations where you will die if you fall off.
People beat around the bush about this, but now you have it as it really is.
You can do with this as you please, and I encourage noone to endanger their lives.
You either climb these peaks with ropes and class 5 techniques,
or you avoid them, or you climb them solo.
Some people curse guidebooks. I understand the arguments, nonetheless I am quite
grateful for them. There are several guides:
Secor divides the sierra into sections, from south to north as follows:
- The High Sierra: Peaks, passes, and trails by R. J. Secor, 1999.
The date given is for the second edition. A third edition is now out (2009), and is
- The Climbers Guide to the High Sierra by Steve Roper, 1976.
A Sierra Club Totebook, apparently last reprinted in 1995 and now out of print.
My copy is a small green book, over 20 years old. Worth having and used copies
seem readily available.
- Climbing California's Fourteeners by Stephen Porcella, 1998.
A very good book, and most of the peaks are in the Sierra.
- Climbing California's High Sierra by John Moynier and Claude Fiddler, 2001.
This is really a revised second edition of their 1993 guide of a different title.
- Sierra Classics: 100 Best Climbs in the High Sierra by John Moynier and Claude Fiddler, 2001.
100 selected climbs, mostly class 5, but also class 3 routes. Lots of history.
Also, you may want to look at the Sierra Peaks Section lists.
- The Whitney Region.
- The Kaweahs and the Great Western Divide.
- The Kings-Kern Divide.
- The High Passes.
- Monarch Divide and Cirque Crest.
- Kettle Ridge and the LeConte Divide. (west side).
- The Palisades.
- The Evolution Region.
- The Whitney Region.
- The Mono Recesses.
- Mammoth Lakes and the Silver Divide.
- The Minarets and June Lake.
- The Clark and Cathedral Ranges.
- Northern Yosemite.
This fellow is the hero of every Sierra Mountaineer. He made many first ascents,
many of them alone. I thought it would be interesting to make a
list of his ascents. There are many interesting stories
about Norman Clyde. One statement I found interesting is that he was by no means
reluctant to repeat a route. If he enjoyed a climb he would repeat it many times.
This rings true to me.
The Sierra Challenge
I mention this, and provide some links, just because this fascinates me so.
I would never even know about this, except that about 7AM one morning, I was waking
up a few miles below Taboose Pass. It was August 11, 2009. I expected to be
entirely alone, but was suddenly surprised to see a fellow coming up the trail.
And a fellow with a fairly light backpack. He told me he was on his way to climb
Marion Peak. (Apparently he had started out at 4AM and in 3 hours had made his way
to where we had managed in the entire previous day -- well we got a bit of a late
start and had heavy packs). We met him again later in the day in the bushwhack
section along the Kings River south of Mount Ruskin. He indicated he had indeed
summited Marion Peak and I noticed he was wearing a Sierra Challenge T-shirt, which
I remembered and looked up when I got back home. There is every chance this fellow
was Bob Burd, but I don't know for sure and he never did tell me his name,
but he was clearly the single lone participant in the effort the reach Marion Peak
that day, that is certainly clear. This is a 30 mile day hike with 11600 feet of elevation
gain (and loss). Just getting up and over Taboose Pass is an accomplishment for
most (it has thus far eluded me). His achievement inspires me, whoever he may be.
Apparently the Sierra challenge concept is to climb a list of 10 peaks in 10 consecutive
days as day hikes. In 2009, this was done beginning with Mt. McGee on August 7,
and ending with the Miter on August 16. So if you are feeling in shape and can
spare 10 days in 2010, you should keep tabs and find out what is in store for next
year. This thing began in 2001 and has continued every year since.
See these links:
Have any comments? Questions?
Drop me a line!
Tom's hiking pages / firstname.lastname@example.org