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A Lesson Learned The Hard Way: Lowered Off The Wrong Side of The Mountain

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A Lesson Learned the Hard Way: When two average New Englanders, Kyle McCabe and Dave Wetmore, climbed the classic Red Dihedral (5.10b) last summer on the Hulk: a 1,200-foot wall that reaches 11,200-feet atop a Sierra ridge, they figured the hard part was over. However, due to a botched descent, what began as a casual outing turned into a 24-hour ordeal. 

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R.J. Secor writes in The High Sierra: Peaks, Passes, and Trails: To descend from the summit of the Hulk, follow class 3 terrain east and then south into a chute. Descend the chute to a ledge with a bolted anchor. A single-rope rappel leads to another narrow chute separating the Northwest and Southwest couloirs. The Northwest Couloir is usually filled with snow and ice and can be extremely difficult to descend. Walk and scramble south down the Southwest Couloir.

Sounds simple enough, right? Despite what read like a straightforward descent, we respected an old mountaineering adage–the summit is only halfway–and planned for the worst. On the day of the climb, we carried a single rack with a few doubles, headlamps, food, water, light-weight puffies, and rain jackets even though the forecast was ideal. 

This story is not about an immortal team of professional climbers that made a daring first ascent in the Alaska Range or a crazy linkup in Patagonia or a 23-day push up a previously undiscovered 4,000-foot Baffin Island pillar, coupled with a harrowing 50-rappel descent. Not us. Not even close. The following narrative is a cautionary tale about two “budding alpinists” (read: big-wall phoneys) that decided to crawl out from underneath their boulder projects for the weekend and try something new. 

I hope that the following will remind other amateurs like ourselves to consider the lurking logistical challenges of onsighting a multi-pitch route in the mountains. Or at the very least, it’ll give you a candid look into a few embarrassingly frightful moments as we rappelled off the wrong side of the mountain into the black abyss of night, wondering if we’d ever reach the ground. 

The Climb

The Incredible Hulk: When Bob Locke, Mike Farrel, and Dale Bard first freed the Red Dihedral in the spring of 1975, Locke–who was a well-read literature major–suggested they they name the route for Ygdrasil, the ash tree of ancient Nordic mythology that symbolizes the blossoming forces of life surrounded by the water of death. In spite of the first ascensients wishes, over time the route became known as Red Dihedral (Photo: Dave Wetmore)

Kyle and I had never climbed any full-day, multi-pitch together before this objective, nevermind in the “real” mountains with some altitude, so we pulled out every trick in the book, literally. 

Chris McNamara and McKenzie Long’s High Sierra Climbing guidebook recommends the following strategy for climbing the Hulk: “Get a predawn start and move fast. Descending from the summit (specifically finding the rappel) is difficult and dangerous in the dark. The route can be exposed to very high winds making communication difficult. High Sierra thunderstorms are common in the summer, so if you are not confident in your hiking and climbing speed, then camp below the climb.”  

Needless to say, we heeded the advice and camped overnight below the Hulk. After a restless six hours in the tent, our alarm went off at 4:00am. The Red Dihedral loomed overhead like a giant shark’s tooth jutting out of the ridge as we began our slog through the dimly moonlit talus below. Early hours in the mountains, drenched in that eerie pale light, always seem to be the most tranquil and non-threatening. With the exception of our breath, the crunch of small rocks under our boots, and the occasional clanging of cams, silence pervaded every inch of the atmosphere. For a few moments, we felt like explorers on our own private planet venturing into the unknown before the rest of the world woke up. 

Though something wasn’t right. I was nervous. 

Trad climbing up tall rocky things is intimidating to me. Why do I seek out these objectives? Do I genuinely want to do this or is it purely based on a need to satisfy an egotistical image I have of myself as a “real climber”? 

Bouldering a few feet above a crash pad can be pretty fun. Clipping bolts on a sport climb is usually comfortable and exciting. But venturing up this feature, albeit one that has been climbed and soloed many times by people far better than ourselves, started to feel far less relevant and purposeful as we got closer. Funny how perspectives can change when no one is watching. 

Hanging out at the beginning of the Red Dihedral.

Nonetheless, we tied in at the base without speaking a word to each other. The rising Sierra sun gradually replaced the languid light of dawn and my lingering trepidations began to melt away as we climbed. First pitch done. Second, third, and fourth came and went smoothly. We were having a blast. 

Somewhere above the halfway mark, around pitch seven, the tone shifted. Kyle came around a corner nearing the top of the pitch I had just led, dropped down to his knees and started dry heaving. A minute passed before he slowly got back up to his feet. 

“I’m not feeling so good,” he whispered, drawing in a deep breath. “Not exactly sure why.”

“Maybe the altitude?” I suggested as he sluggishly climbed the last few feet up to the belay anchor. His face was colorless. Kyle, who had styled all the crux leads earlier in the day, wasn’t looking like his perpetually upbeat, confident self.

“Try drinking some water,” I said, attempting to suppress any hint of worry in my voice. The sun was blasting us at this point and our water bottles were already closing in on empty. With plenty of time and psyche to spare, we kept going. 

The guidebook aptly describes the climbing after this point to be tricky: “There are many options for Pitches 7-10. The route finding becomes more challenging, so follow the topo closely, and when in doubt, climb straight up. Once you reach the summit ridge, it is crucial to walk over on a 3rd class ledge to the obvious double cracks.” 

As you approach the summit, it’s also important to keep an eye out for the “Notch,” a break in the ridge crest where most of the routes eventually converge between two standing pillars. These pillars, which are actually visible from the ground, look like a field goal post at the top of the Hulk. 

After getting mildly lost for the next few hours, we found the Notch. Except when we topped out onto the large sandy ledge between the two pillars, there was no celebration. We still needed to find our way to the true summit by squeezing through the well-known “keyhole” finish. 

“Is this the way?” Wetmore quests. (Photo: Kyle McCabe)

Despite scrambling up several blocky ledge systems, we had no luck in finding a clear way out.  Kyle was still feeling nauseous and my enthusiasm for exploration was diminishing as precious minutes ticked away. The late afternoon winds picked up while clouds began accumulating nearby. With the sun steadily dropping below the adjacent ridge, blurring the red-orange horizon with those mesmerizingly dark-purple hues, it was time to make a decision: Go back to where we topped-out an hour ago and risk getting lost in the dark at the summit. Or go down right now. 

I glanced at Kyle, making eye-contact for just a moment. His face said it all. It was time to go down however we could. After some more searching, we randomly found two fixed-nuts, backed them up with some cams, and started our descent. 

The only problem was that we had unknowingly just committed to rappelling the wrong side of the mountain. 

The Descent 

According to the American Alpine Club’s 2019 Accidents in North American Climbing, “many couloirs in the High Sierra have abundant loose rock and scarce opportunities for reliable protection and belay anchors.” We found this fun tidbit of information to be especially true over the course of a tedious night spent navigating the treacherous backside of the Hulk. 

Most seasoned trad-wizards would surely schauff at our idea of an “epic,” as if it were just another nonchalant day in the office. But for me–a verified gym rat more familiar with the dusty corners of Boston-area warehouse walls than life-lister Sierra granite–there were multiple moments during that tenuous descent that I will never forget.

For example, after several hundred feet of rappelling from questionable anchors, hours had gone by in what felt like the blink of an eye. Kyle and I had just finished lowering off a tombstone-sized block of granite precariously lodged in a crack. We stood shoulder-to-shoulder on a ledge barely big enough for the both of us to stand or sit. I heard the light pitter-patter of rain on my helmet and then felt it on my skin. 

“You realize what this means if the rope gets struck right now, right?” Kyle asked frankly, clicking on his headlamp as he slowly started to pull the rope down. With potential rain at this exposure, trapped in the middle of a high Sierra wall, neither one of us wanted to bivy for the night. 

I nodded and helped to pull the rope as delicately as possible. Fortunately, it came down smoothly. 

After pillaging our already dwindling rack to build another anchor, Kyle lowered me off of it as I searched for our next stop; a crack, a block, any crevice that would take gear. The expansiveness of the darkness around the small silhouette of my headlamp felt impossibly vast as I scanned the wall. 

Approaching the half-way mark of our rope, I was running out of options for our next anchor when suddenly my headlamp illuminated what looked like a literal diamond in the rough: an ancient-looking, finger-sized Metolius cam, glimmering inside of a rotten flake. 

“There we go! A few more feet Kyle!” I yelled up. “Ok, stop right there.”

I dug out the fixed cam from behind the flake and installed our last anchor. Once Kyle got down to me, we looked at the quality of the rock and the gear we would be rappelling from: one nut and a small cam behind a flexing flake. 

“It’s the best I could find. We were running out of rope. You think it’s good enough?” I asked.

“It’s going to have to be,” Kyle responded. 

“I’m sorry Kyle. I really am,” I said looking down at my feet, feeling completely defeated. 

“Dave, we have been through worse together and have gotten out of it. We will get out of this too,” he said, trying to sound optimistic.  

Really? I thought. When have we been through anything like this? I stared out across the ravine and wondered how we had gotten here. Was this how Greg Donaldson, Joe Kiskis, and Bob Grow felt after they took several days to nab the first aided ascent of the Red Dihedral back in 1970 with only hexes and stoppers? I doubt it. But they too had rappelled down the opposite side of the Hulk. Maybe the cam I had just dug out–now hanging on my harness with frayed tat and welded-shut lobes–was one of theirs. 

Before putting my weight onto the anchor, Kyle braced himself and redirected our rope so that as little leverage would be created as possible. It was at this moment, before stepping back out into the void, that I involuntarily visualized the anchor ripping out of the wall, plummeting the two of us to the ground. 

Screenshot of Dave Wetmore’s Garmin InReach GPS mapping their ascent and descent. Their waypoints grew spotty once they started aimlessly rappelling.

Being up here, despite its apparent allure, suddenly felt dumb and irresponsible. 

I stepped off the ledge and felt the rope tighten under my weight. The anchor held. Kyle lowered me gingerly back to Earth. 

As the ground came into view, a rush of relief, hunger, and thirst washed over my body, but was quickly erased as I saw what we were up against next. It was 2:15am and we had just landed on top of a frozen-solid gulley—the Northwest Couloir—otherwise known as a “2,000-foot snow-and-ice climb that ascends the chute north of the west face of the Incredible Hulk,” as detailed by Secor. It was precisely where we did not want to be. 

Walking down the glacier was not an option because of the steepness and the fact that the ice was as hard as glass. With most of our slings gone at this point and only a few pieces left on our rack, figuring out how to escape the glacier would not be easy. We ended up halfing our rope around stray blocks lodged in the ice to simul-rappel. Once back on the talus and safely out of the chute, we began walking back to camp around 4:00am–23 hours after we started our day. 

In the end, the mountain had devoured more than half of our gear supply. Feeling rattled and confused–despite having sent the Red Dihedral–we left with our tails tucked between our legs, telling ourselves that we’d be back someday.  

A View from the Other Side

A year later, I sat on top of the Hulk with Peter Croft, looking down into the chossy chasm that Kyle and I had meticulously scoured during our descent. The sun was shining on it. The ridge drop-off looked a lot less frightening from here. Less malignant. Inviting almost. Much like it had when we started down it last summer. 

But as I stared over at that deep, unrelenting ravine–like the broken mouth of a monster waiting to open its jagged-toothed jaws and gobble up the next unsuspecting party–I felt happy to be on the right side this time. 

“I still can’t believe we went down that way,” I said, slightly embarrassed to bring it up and spoil a perfectly fine moment, basking in both our glorified purpose and meaninglessness all at once. 

“I’ve heard of people getting lost and going down the backside. I’m always surprised that they survive,” said Peter, who had guided me up Positive Vibrations (5.11c) that day with a sense of complete joy and ease in just a few hours’ time. 

He was sitting a couple inches from the edge as if hanging out on a downtown sidewalk.  The satisfied grin on his face, like he had just gotten away with something, seemed to be permanently embedded from thousands of days spent humbly romping cliffs. 

Moments later, we rappelled the Venturi Effect and were back on the ground in 45 minutes. 

The Original Question

Wetmore high on Positive Vibrations, adjacent to Red Dihedral. (Photo: Carlo Traversi )

It’s a question that often boils up from the bowels of my trad-climbing insecurities. Part of the answer struck me while reading Matt Haig’s Midnight Library: “Fish get depressed when they have a lack of stimulation. A lack of everything. When they are just there floating in a tank that resembles nothing at all.” Why bother going if it scares you so much?

While living in this world as a human is hardly comparable to that of a fish trapped in a bowl, going through the motions of everyday life can sometimes amount to a feeling of blankness, like you are just drifting from one moment to the next, one day or year passing into another. We wait for moments to escape into the wilderness—a place we can still go to evade the develtries of the dull and the revelries of the respectable. 

Much like throwing cold water on your face in the morning, having the privilege to climb up the Hulk and get lost was our way out of the fish bowl, if only momentarily. 

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