The Evolution Traverse – 8/16

It’s a lost, or it’s kind of an ignored idea, the idea of magnificent failure rather than a mediocre success

Peter Croft

Like many great climbing goals, I’m not sure exactly when the Evolution Traverse first came onto my radar, but with a few amazing traverses under my belt (namely the Cirque Traverse in 2018 and the Cathedral Traverse earlier this summer) and more and more of my focus shifting towards trad climbing and mountain running, I decided this was the summer to go for it.

I reached out to Dalan in July to propose the idea. Having joined me for the WURL, I knew Dalan enjoyed a good day of suffering as much as anyone I’ve met and I was excited about trying a more technical objective with him. As luck would have it, Dalan had already been considering his own attempt of the Evo this summer so we agreed to join forces and give it a try. He reached out to me a day later saying he had “spilt the beans” to another frequent partner of his, Cass, and was wondering if Cass could join too. I readily agreed, feeling that, for a big objective in some big mountains, the more the merrier.

I had originally envisioned bivying on the route and doing it over two days, but Dalan was endlessly optimistic of our abilities and reminded me that you only get one onsight attempt on a route, so we decided to try to do it in a day, with a acclimatization day beforehand at Darwin Benches .

I had that Friday off of work, so Cass and I left Salt Lake City Thursday afternoon, swung through Vegas to pick up Dalan and drove west into the night. We arrived at the North Lake Trailhead at around 1 am and settled in for a quick night of sleep.

In the morning we pulled our stuff together for the hike in. The approach to Darwin Benches is about 10 miles and gains about 3500 feet of elevation. I went back and forth about whether or not to bring climbing shoes and chalk, unsure of how intimidating I would find the climbing on the ridge. In the end, I opted to bring them along. After having done the ridge, I agree with mountain project commenters on both side of the debate. I certainly never felt they were necessary, but they made a few crux sections feel quite mellow and perhaps saved me from some mental fatigue.

We were also uncertain about ropes to bring as some people claimed a 30 meter rope was the way to go, while others reported making a number of 30m rappels. In the end, we decided to just bring a single 7.9mm 30 meter rope. This worked perfectly! The rope was extremely light and quick to coil and uncoil, and, while we found ourselves doing some downclimbing off the ends of the rope, allowed us to bypass all of the most difficult or exposed downclimbing.

The hike in went smoothly. Despite coming from sea level the day before, Dalan crushed the altitude and we arrived in camp about 6 hours after leaving the car. One could not ask for a better place to set up a basecamp for a couple of days. It had been 6 years since I was last in the Sierras, and I had forgotten just how majestic it is. Darwin Benches sits perched over Evolution Basin, and the lake we camped by disappeared towards the horizon like a giant infinity pool. The Hermit dominated the view from camp, and we were all a little intimidated to learn that, at 12,211 feet, it sat a full thousand feet lower than the ridge we were planning to traverse.

Arriving at Darwin Benches

Despite being a great place to camp, Darwin Benches actually offers very little in the way off views of the actual Evolution ridge line so we took an after-dinner walk to the nearby shoulder to see what we could see. We got our first real view of Mt. Warlow and Mt. Huxley, the last two peaks on the traverse, but the rest of the ridge remained mysterious and out of view. We soaked up the first of the amazing sunsets of the trip while sharing climbing stories and scheming about the adventure that lay ahead.

The idea of a pre-push rest day was a new one to all of us, and our satisfaction with our new-found maturity soon gave way to boredom and impatience. We resorted to the usual pastimes (bouldering around camp) and the unusual (building a replica of the traverse in the sand) as we watched the clock tick by. We endlessly discussed the beta we had found found for the trip and I finished my book (A Doubter’s Almanac, mixed feelings but pretty good!) and watched as the afternoon clouds grew darker and darker.

An extremely social hiker passed through our camp and assured us that, despite the stormy appearance of the clouds, it likely wouldn’t rain. Unfortunately, his weather predictions proved less reliable than his endless stoke, and soon we began to feel the first drops of rain. We ran to a nearby boulder and ducked under an overhang. The rain came down harder, and the thunder and lightning moved in, and we tried not to imagine what it would be like to be stuck on a knife-edge ridge in the middle of what we were experiencing.

The storm continued for almost two hours, much longer than any of us expected for an afternoon squall, and we were forced to burrow deep under the rock to escape paths of water that began to run down the overhang. We began to discuss the possibility that we might not get to climb this trip. The weather had said 20% chance of rain Saturday, and 30% chance Sunday. If it was this bad Saturday, how bad would it be Sunday? The one silver-lining is that we all stopped worrying about the climb itself. The apprehension about lightening left no room for worry about some measly 5.6 climbing. Eventually the rain let up and we were treated to another beautiful evening overlooking Evolution Basin.

Unable to commit to bailing completely on the route (but also unable to commit to spending the day on the ridge) we decided to wake up at the planned 4:15am and start up Peak 13,360 with the goal of just getting a good view of the ridge. As we were filtering water and preparing for an early bedtime another storm moved in. We crawled into our tents and I lay there, resigned that we wouldn’t get a chance to climb tomorrow; not quite equal parts disappointed and relieved. Suddenly Dalan yelled, “look outside!” I sat up and looked out the tent window at a sunset unlike any I had seen before. The sky was vivid beyond imagination, as if someone had turned the saturation all the way up on a photo (which I did not do for these following photos). As I raced to pull out my camera, Dalan let out another yell. I turned and looked out his side of the tent to see a rainbow perfectly framing the start of the route. At this point Cass ran up to our tent in excitement, and we all ran out into the rain, babbling from excitement. The sky grew more and more vibrant until it felt like being dipped in a paint can, and we whooped and hollered as we watched lightning strike the ridges around us. We tried to form coherent thoughts, but the closest we managed was some half baked sentence about getting carried away by giant eagles. It really was sensory overload.

Eventually the sun set and the colors faded and we returned to our tents, soaked but freshly invigorated. A perfect rainbow over the start of a route has to be a blessing from the mountain gods right? And if nothing else, we knew we could leave happy to have seen the most amazing sunset of our lives.

The 4:15am alarm came quickly and we poked our heads out of the tents to clear skies. We ate a quick breakfast and left camp around 4:45am. We’d spend the prior day stressing about the gully at the start of the route as it looked quite steep and loose and we’d read some confusing reports about people climbing up the sides of it. We went right up the middle of it, and it turned out to be quite trivial. Our timing worked out perfectly, and we reached the top of the gully and started making our way onto the ridge just as the sun was coming up. Looking northwest, we could see a distant storm (perhaps the one that had gifted us the amazing sunset the night before) still hanging over the mountains, an occasional lightning strike lighting up the surrounding clouds. Witnessing a lightning storm at 5:30 am while approaching an eight mile ridge-climb was certainly an inauspicious start, but the weather above us looked good, so we continued onwards.

The approach towards Peak 13,360 was fairly straightforward, although we were surprised to encounter two rappels, both of which we took as the downclimbing looked complex and time consuming. The Steph Abegg beta we had read prior to the trip had mentioned only one rappel, but perhaps we hung too close to the actual ridge. Either way, we found ourselves nervously giggling as we descended the second rappel, a bypass of a difficult looking handcrack, realizing that taking the rappel indicated our implicit intention to commit to the ridge rather than retreat back down the way we came. We arrived at the summit of Peak 13,360 about 2:15 after leaving camp, and, with weather still looking stable, let our momentum carry us forwards.

The climbing towards Mt. Mendel was super enjoyable. We began to find our groove as a team, scurrying over the ridge like ants, one member always finding a path forwards, preventing us all from having to backtrack and ensuring steady progress forward.

The first of the two crack headwalls soon came into sight and I felt a wave of relief. Prior parties had reported that headwalls were 5.7 or easier, but I couldn’t help be intimidated by the pictures I had seen. I’m not a soloist, and the idea of climbing vertical rock without a rope, over exposure, regardless of the difficulty, scares me. But standing in front of the headwall, the crack looked far less scary than my mind had made it out to be, and we quickly scrambled up, enjoying the great rock and bomber jams. Buoyed by this confidence, I felt lighter as we made our way to the second headwall. Cass lead the charge and made easy work of it, followed quickly by Dalan. I paused to put on my climbing shoes, figuring I might as well use them since I had committed to carrying them for the day, and scrambled up behind them. While I’m sure I would have been fine in my approach shoes, the extra security of climbing shoes allowed me to savor the great climbing and amazing position.

We continued to flow forward, downclimbing another steep section that had looked far scarier in reports online, and arrived at the summit of Mt. Mendel about an 1:30 after leaving Peak 13,360, grinning like kids on Christmas. The weather was still holding and, according to the percentage splits we were following, Mt. Mendel was supposed to be a quarter of the ridge, putting us well on pace to finish before dark. The remainder of the route was now clearly within view, and, while daunting, was looking more and more like something we could pull off.

The next part of the ridge, from Mt. Mendel to Mt. Darwin, is known as the “picket fence” and offered fun, varied, climbing and scrambling. Various reports claim there is 5.8 climbing along this section, but we didn’t find any. The one sustained downclimb that people often rap (pictured from two angles below, at a distance and with Dalan downclimbing) went at secure 5.6 and was easily as casual as the headwalls leading to Mt. Mendel. In general, none of us felt this section was deserving of the “first crux” reputation it seems to get. The route finding was relatively straightforward and the climbing easy.

Dalan and I bonked a bit coming up the final slope leading to the summit block of Mt. Darwin, both of us feeling the altitude a bit. Cass bounded ahead, and we pulled onto the summit block as he was filling out the summit register (I believe he wrote down the date as 8/20 so perhaps he was feeling the altitude as well). It took us about 1:20 to get from Mt. Mendel to Mt. Darwin, placing us just a touch over five hours from camp to the summit of Mt. Darwin.

At this point the clouds had begun to darken and the wind started to pick up, accompanied by the occasional raindrop, so we quickly made our way off the summit block and towards Peak 13,332. As others had reported, this section looked infinitely complex and overwhelmingly slow, with jagged gendarmes making up the bulk of the ridge, and, with only two slings and a 30 meter rope, we didn’t relish our chances if we had to bail early from this section of ridge.

The routefinding off the shoulder of Mt. Darwin was easy, but the rock quality was absolutely horrific. While the downclimbing looked easy enough, we didn’t like the idea of trusting our lives on the teetering blocks that made up this Jenga Game of a ridgeline, so we made two rappels and did some mellow downclimbing to get down the gully pictured below. It was not immediately obvious where to go next, and I would say this was the route-finding crux of the day. The choss-gully continued below us and some tat almost suckered us downwards, but we hesitated as it was not clear how we would regain the ridge. Instead, we headed up some easy 5.5/5.6 climbing back towards the ridge. Forty or so feet of climbing brought us to a notch in the ridge where we found a slung rock with some newer looking slings. We made a short rappel to the southeast and continued on easier terrain down the ridge.

The iconic Croft Golden Triangle soon came into view (Cass looking down at it in the picture below). This glorious section of rock is generally considered about halfway along the route and marks the end of the cruxy descent off Mt. Darwin and the return to better rock and more straightforward ridge scrambling. I hung back to get a few photos of Cass and Dalan out on the triangle and then scurried along to catch up. The climbing along the Golden Triangle is indeed glorious with large holds, solid rock and breathtaking exposure. The descent off the triangle is guarded by a pucker-inducing down-mantle and I found myself thanking my lanky frame for allowing my feet to reach a solid ledge while my hands stayed on good holds.

The climbing from here to Peak 13,332 is a bit of a blur as we descended further and further into the glorious flow state that accompanies this style of climbing. I do know we made one more rappel somewhere along the ridge, Dalan onsighted a V1 butt-scooch (which I hand traversed around), we got numerous opportunities to practice our parkour as we leapt from gendarmes onto narrow ledges, and I put on my climbing shoes for a second time to climb up an exposed 5.7ish arete. The climbing was everything we had hoped for, the ridge feeling continuously engaging, demanding of perfect focus and intention, but never scary or unmanageable. We chatted when there was space to chat, and otherwise moved quietly and smoothly along the ridge.

We arrived at Peak 13,332 three hours after having left Mt. Darwin and a bit over eight hours after having left camp. Looking back at the ridge (pictured below), we were thrilled; not only had we successfully navigated the hardest and slowest part of the ridge but we were now past halfway and it was only 1pm. The remainder of the Evolution Traverse is also significantly easier to bail from, meaning we had greatly reduced the chances of our nightmare of getting pinned down on a knife-edge ridge becoming a reality.

The view ahead brought us back to reality. The ridge snaked ahead of us, looking long, slow, and still not without consequence. More significantly, dark storm clouds had begun to form in the valley south of us, and, with the wonderful distraction of micro-route-finding and massive exposure removed, we became acutely aware of the fact that the cloud appeared to be moving towards us.

With the clouds still quite distant we made the decision to continue on to Mt. Haeckel. We sheltered for a couple of minutes under a rock on the Northwest ridge of Mt. Haeckel as a stray cloud briefly dropped some rain and hail on us. Continuing to the summit, we paused just long enough to gulp at the now-darker clouds before dropping down the ridge to Mt. Wallace.

We paused again at the col before the final ridge up Mt. Wallace. On one hand, the sky had continued to grow darker and the pointy summit of Mt. Wallace looked suspiciously like a lightening rod. On the other, the storm seemed very slow moving and we had yet to hear any thunder. The hand that likes pointy summit blocks won out and we trudged up the flank of Mt. Wallace, nerves quickly fraying. The storm clouds seemed to somehow multiply gravity, and every step towards the summit seemed twice as hard. The inverse was also true, and, after hardly a moments pause on the summit, we practically flew to the col off the south side of Mt. Wallace.

We again paused in this Col, debating what to do next. The storm continued to grow, but thunder remained mysteriously absent. Continuing along the ridge meant leaving ourselves exposed, our now completely unraveled nerves flapping in the growing wind. But descending meant likely giving up the opportunity to complete the traverse as there was only four and a half hours of daylight left. The sudden roll of thunder made the decision easy. We took off down the flank of Mt. Wallace, starting with a hurried walk which soon turned to full-on scree surfing (and sliding) as the wind picked up and it began to rain in earnest. We dropped 600 feet in under 10 minutes and crawled into the talus as the skies opened up.

The sound of thunder, at first rolling and then crackling, became more regular until it felt near constant. We burrowed deeper into the talus, trying to escape the tendrils of rain that made their way deeper and deeper into our caves. My legs grew cramped as I sat balled up in a little patch of dryness. Dalan multi-tasked, catching a stream of water in his water bottle and another in his mouth. Cass, the skinniest of our skinny crew, shivered away. The collective stress of the afternoon melted away as we watched the lightning scour the ridge above us, each strike an affirmation that we had made the right decision to bail, and each passing flurry of hail confirmation that we wouldn’t have to go back up and face the ridge later that evening.

Suddenly Dalan gave a shout. A VW-sized boulder had ripped free from the slope we had descended was tumbling towards the talus. Cass and I, facing the opposite direction and unable to see the slope, waited for directions to stay or run. Luckily the boulder stopped well-short of our hideout, but it further reinforced our relief that we were down where we were and not up on the ridge.

After about two hours the rain and thunder began to subside. At this point we were all quite cold so we were willing to face the remaining rain and related chance of getting struck in order to begin descending. The evening sun lit up the final peaks of the traverse with some beautiful alpine glow, but wet rocks and fading energy kept us confident in our decision not to head back up and face the remaining ridge by headlamp. We scurried over the talus, savoring the ease of movement that comes with walking on flat ground, and arrived on the JMT just as the last rays of sun were sliding down the west side of the Evolution ridge. For the first time we were able to really see the full extent of the route and appreciate the ground we had covered during the day.

While walking along the JMT, we talked about if any of us would have a desire to come back to try to complete the full traverse. The clear consensus was no, unless trying the ridge in a different style (such as car-to-car). The collective flow state we had found while onsighting the ridge was something none of us had experienced before. Our experience on the ridge had been wonderfully zen, with each corner and spire offering a new problem to solve, and each movement encouraging presence in the moment. I’m not sure it would be possible to get in such a headspace again if I was trying to match a pace or remember which way I had gone.

We arrived at camp almost exactly 17 hours after leaving, exhausted but completely content. I’ve never had a failure feel like such a success. We had moved more efficiently than I dreamed possible, and read the mountains perfectly, pushing along the route until the last possible second.

I excitedly crawled into my sleeping bag, eager to sleep, only to find that every time I closed my eyes I was scrambling along a ridge, stumbling or breaking a hold and falling off. Dalan and Cass reported similar experiences, and I’m not sure any of us slept very much that night. I’m not sure if it was repressed stress from the day or just the body trying to grove some newfound muscle memory (in much the same way a long day of skiing will lead to feelings of turning and catching edges later in the evening), but either way, it was clear the day had pushed us physically and mentally.

We took our time packing in the morning, with Cass taking the time to finally find a placement for the tricam he had lugged in. We said a final goodbye to Darwin Benches and the magical Evolution Basin and started the long trek out to the car. As we passed over Lamarck Col the sky began to darken and, by the time we reached Upper Lamarck Lake, it was once again storming on us. We hiked through the rain and listened to the thunder echo off the surrounding mountains, seemingly both a final warning from the mountain gods not to get too cocky about our narrow timing the day before and a gentle applause at all we had managed to squeeze in.

Some numbers:
* 12 miles and 6,000 ft of vert before my watch died
* 17 hours camp to camp
* Rack: 7.9mm x 30m rope, two slings, 4 nuts, and a #6 tricam (only the rope was used)
* Splits:
** Camp to Peak 13,360: ~2:15
** Peak 13,360 to Mt. Mendel: ~1:30
** Mt. Mendel to Mt. Darwin: ~1:30
** Mt. Darwin to Peak 13,332: ~3:00
** Peak 13,332 to Mt. Haeckel: ~1:45
** Mt. Haeckel to Mt. Wallace: ~0:50
** Mt. Wallace to col: ~0:15
** Col to talus: really f’ing fast
** Talus to camp: ~3:30