Finding New Lines


Photo: Rhett Gause

Shasta mountain guide Dave Lewis navigates the summit block.

October 17, 2018: We rolled through golden terraces shadowed by rock. The glimmering waters of the Walker River reflected the autumnal glow casted upon them. As the truck climbed higher through the canyon and onto the plateau, host to Bridgeport, California, the little town was quiet. Hot springs flowed and streams nestled through the flat rural landscape. These eventually gave way to the moraines that twirled and spiraled into the grand steeples that consume the Sawtooth range.

I absentmindedly fiddled with the stereo as I drove. I was bored with the music. My cell signal didn’t work. The album I wanted to play wasn’t downloaded. Highway 395 zoomed by and the road dared me to push the speed limit faster, compensating for my boredom. “Dave…dude you’ve gotta see this,” I said quietly, turning down the John Cragie album that was playing. Dave woke from his passenger slumber, one induced by a long night out with Bob Weir.

“It is one of the blessings of old friends that you can afford to be stupid with them.”

I wondered about my decision to partner with Dave after his 30-hour stint of self-imposed insomnia. Was I making a bad decision? We scheduled to do this climb a few weeks before, planned, and made all the necessary arrangements. When the day finally came, I began to question if he was actually prepared. I also questioned his current state of inebriation. On the other hand, I had always trusted Dave. He’d always been one of two people that I would go into technical and high-risk terrain with—someone I’d go with anywhere. Consequently, I remembered thinking back to Sierra Nevada College outdoor adventure leadership professor Daryl Teittenen’s words in my AIARE course, “Trust can bring complacency.” He had mentioned how easy it was to get caught up in trusting friends and mentors who have more experience, but it can lead to disaster. Was I doing this? Maybe. Maybe not. I was there. I was moving forward.

Dave continued to delve into the events of the previous night, but my mind was elsewhere.

We continued over the rising plateau and had our first glimpse of what was to come. We dropped into the Mono Lake basin. The lake’s waters were vibrant: glowing neon cerulean blue and shadowed by the Dana plateau. I wondered how the ethereal light could conceivably look the way it did. Above the water, the High Sierra unfolded in front of us—covered in a blanket of vermillion alpenglow. Somewhere high above, hovered at 13,210 feet, stood our goal.

“I have named a grand wide-winged mountain on the head of the Joaquin, Mount Emerson. Its head is high above its fellows and wings are white with ice and snow,” John Muir wrote in a letter to Mrs. Ezra Carr in October of 1873. One-hundred forty-five years have passed and this mountain, named after the great poet, also friend and colleague of Muir, stands as one of the more overlooked mountains in the Sierra. One can find it if they take Highway 168 west out of Bishop approximately 18 miles. After turning onto North Lake Road, finding the campground and the official day-visitor parking is not too difficult. At the end of the campground lies the Piute Pass trailhead—the start of the approach.

“Every wall is a door”

Photo: Rhett Gause
Ascending the talus field below the climb.

It was early on the following morning. 7:30 a.m. We were pulling gear from our packs, after the pleasant 2-mile approach (at least for Sierra standards), at the base of the climb. Dave asked, “What are your goals for today?” I was catching my breath after ascending the talus field. Not waiting for my response, he continued, “Mine involve really honing-in on our ability to move through this environment as efficiently as possible.” I agreed, putting my legs through my harness, and said, “I’d like to work on these systems too, but I also want an emphasis on safety and moving quickly. I think we are both capable enough that we should look into more technical variations of the line, if possible, since we have all day.” Dave agreed. We tied ourselves into the thin 7-millimeter rope we had hucked up the debris field and started upwards.

We managed to skirt the potential rock fall by getting onto the route mid-morning. David explained the freeze-thaw cycle, “There are two times of day that it is important to not be in high rock fall areas: in the early morning as the sun hits the wall and later as it leaves.”

This was especially important as the wall we were climbing was via the southeast face, which perhaps goes through the most significant changes in temperature throughout the day. It was also an absolute choss pile made up of loose rocks—some the size of baseballs, some the size of refrigerators. To keep rock fall to a minimum, we strategically placed gear high and soloed whenever possible.

We wove our way up through the rock. With as much loose rock as there was, there was just as much quality. The High Sierra hosts some of the most incredible and quality alpine granite in the world. The dirty ledges, full of scree, put us below fantastic dihedrals made of the glassiest pink granite. I edged my mountaineering boots up the crystals on the wall. The Southeast face was rated only 5.4 but we chose to work our way up more technical rock features that ran adjacent to the standard route. We worked through steep corners, chimneys, dihedrals, and gullies. My mind was lost in what lay in front of me.

The notch we were aiming for finally appeared.  “Think that’s it?” I yell!  We had been simul-climbing (a technique where two climbers ascend a route simultaneously with a rope) for 2,000 vertical feet. It was 2:30 p.m. Because of our detours, we were running behind schedule and I knew we still had another 800 feet to go once we would hit the summit ridge. One move after another, I suddenly noticed the blanket of pink and white rock we had been climbing disappeared. It was replaced by an enormous and extremely steep gully. Dave yelled, “Rock!” It was the first of the entire climb. I watched as it zoomed past. It was the first time in a while that I had glanced over my shoulder. The valley behind us opened up to all things east. We could see Bishop far below us, the Whites in the distance, and the cirques that surrounded us. It was so easy to get entangled with the minute details, of the mottled-orange rock that was in front of us, that the world faded away. When it came back though, it came with all of its glory.

“The health of the eye seems to demand a horizon. We are never tired, so long as we can see far enough.”

3 p.m. We gained the summit ridge. Mount Emerson has been known for its extremely sharp knife’s edge. As we approached the last 800 feet, the ridge snaked upwards. We climbed, smearing our feet down the slabs of rock until we could find a ledge. Sometimes it didn’t exist. We would smear our boots and pull on the sharp edge that held us. On one side, the south face dropped 2,000 feet down into a scree field that would be our descent. Below our feet, the 3000-foot north face revealed itself for the first time. It was a steep icy abyss. There was no reason that I would fall, but the thought of the thin rope being pulled over the edge was daunting. We reached the summit block! The views were miraculous—and big. The craggy mountains beneath us were dwarfed in Emerson’s late afternoon shadow. The granite made structural waves that pushed downwards. On every side of us there was air. We were halfway done. We signed the summit registry and left what felt like a dream behind. It was 4 p.m.

“Reality is a sliding door.”

It’s a few days later. Dave and I are hanging from a small nut placement, high above Emerald Bay, practicing rope rescue techniques. I lie, suspended in the air, as Dave moves me onto a different system. I begin to think about the importance of the sacred relationship this rope plays. It is a symbol of partnership. A few days ago, we were making life and death decisions as though we were choosing what to eat on the dollar menu. I’ve always thought that my sense of reality is something that changes. These changes are made through my experience of nature, of being in nature, and even more importantly: being with close friends and partners in nature.  Sometimes, intensity and risk play a critical part in the level of insight an experience has the potential to bring. That insight can lead to a shift, or slide, in reality. Alpine climbing is a consequential activity, as it is a culmination of these things. Ultimately, I think it is important to push this, but coming home at the end of the day is the most pressing goal. Dave and I assess risk the same. We qualify and quantify our goals. We communicate. These are the qualities that make the best partner one could ask for and I am unabashedly proud to share these experiences with someone of his quality.

Maybe, in a different season, we

will see Mount Emerson again.