Trip Report: Sunspot Dihedral on the Incredible Hulk
The Sunspot Dihedral (5.11b) is a multi- pitch alpine route on The Incredible Hulk, a mountain located near the town of Bridgeport, CA in the Sawtooth range of the Sierras.
The route follows a corner system to the left of the more popular route, Positive Vibrations. Jan Tarculas and I began planning on an attempt on the Sunspot Dihedral back in July, shortly after my trip to The Hulk with my sister Polly.
On August 26 I drove down to Riverside, CA to meet up with Jan at his house and commenced the 7 hour drive to the town of Bridgeport. We arrived around midnight, threw down a couple tarps and camped under the stars in a “covert” camping spot just outside of Twin Lakes, a large (and beautiful) camping resort at an elevation of 8,000 feet. Since neither of us live at much of an elevation (Jan lives at 500 feet and I live at 3,000 feet), we were very thankful to have a night of altitude acclimation before our strenuous journey began the following day.
We awoke somewhat anxious to get on the approach trail, a 6 mile trek gaining 2,000 feet of elevation over various types of terrain. After a bagel and egg breakfast, we crammed our packs full of tent, bear canister, sleeping bags, sleeping mats, food, climbing rope, climbing gear, cooking stove, water filter and extra clothes. Basically our packs included all the typical back packing essentials plus all required climbing gear. Our rack consisted of a double set of master cams from blue through red, a single purple master cam, a set of C3’s from purple to yellow, a full set of aliens, off set brass nuts, a set of wild country super light rocks, the larger Metolius ultralight nuts (anything bigger than the wild country super light rocks), (3) 0.75 C4’s, (2) #1 C4’s, (2) #2 C4’s, (1) #3 C4, 18 alpine draws, a 70m rope and a 7mm tag line. We probably could have gotten away with not taking the C3’s, but they were useful in a few spots. We took a final bathroom break, filled up our water reservoirs, took a few deep breathes, and started up the trail.
The hike in is strenuous but beautiful. You simply can’t beat the scenery hiking through the Sierras. Beautiful ancient pine trees in a well developed forrest, clean mountain air, and the scent of pine needles make the hiking experience itself worthwhile. We passed quite a few returning back packers on the trail in, and Jan noted “I wish I could trade packs with them”. We were both feeling the effects of the elevation, but Jan was especially feeling the lethargy that can only be associated with “not enough air”. He warned me on the drive up that he was typically a slow hiker even without a heavy back pack, so we took our time on the hike.
One of my favorite aspects of hiking into an alpine environment is watching the vegetation and geology change as elevation is gained. We were rewarded higher up (around 9,000 feet) with a wafting scent of spearmint, and decided the smell was coming from a small mountain shrub that was in flower. On my previous trip up to The Hulk in June, there was still quite a bit of snow on the ground. In contrast, on this trip, there was very very little snow on the ground or mountain peaks. The drought conditions in California had produced very little snow to begin with, and after a summer of melting, nearly all of the snow was gone.
This was Jan’s first trip to The Incredible Hulk, and soon we were rewarded with our first glimpse of our objective.
After five long hours, our trip was finally over, and we were at the base of The Incredible Hulk. To my dismay, the usual water supply stream was entirely dry, and I had to make what seemed like a very long trek downhill to a stream to refill our water reservoirs. Jan and I were both tired from the hike in, and everything seemed more difficult partly due to exhaustion, and partly due to the elevation at 10,000 feet. After what seemed like forever, we had our tent set up, gear stashed, dinner cooked, and we crawled into our sleeping bags at 6:30 PM. There were two other tents set up nearby, and climbers still descending from the wall when we went to sleep. We awoke the next day around 7 AM to the typical sounds of a camp site waking up. Voices talking about the day’s objective, camp stoves firing up for breakfast, and the sounds of gear clinking as everyone got ready for the day. We watched the first group of climbers begin on the wall as we ate our instant oatmeal with dried blue berries. One of the climbers in particular seemed to be nearly floating up the first pitches. It was a group of three, and they were climbing into an area that had not been developed before.
After breakfast, we racked up all of our gear and started our 1/4 mile approach up to the base of The Hulk. As we were racking up, two other climbers trudged past us. We later learned that they were also going to climb the Sunspot Dihedral, and they beat us to the base of the climb by 10 minutes. This later turned into quite the ordeal. We were delayed nearly 3 hours as we waited for them to proceed ahead of us on the wall. As we were waiting, I spoke with one of them, and he informed me that the group of 3 above us included climbing legend Peter Croft and Dave Nettles! While at the first pitch belay, we watched them working as a team. “Peter, on belay” drifted down to us. This was truly a treat! Peter Croft and Dave Nettles were putting up a new route up the face of The Hulk, and it looked very hard. We could see Peter’s signature unkempt hair. It was captivating watching him climb on his project. I heard him say “after this gets cleaned up, this will definitely be a classic”. As Peter climbed up on lead, loose rocks rained down around me and Jan. Things got really interesting when a baseball sized rock whistled by Jan’s head.
We decided to climb up to a more comfortable ledge and wait for the party ahead of us to proceed up the next pitch. After what seemed like an eternity, the group proceeded up high enough for us to continue our climb, and Jan led up to the next belay.
The next pitch was Jan’s last lead, and proved to be quite strenuous. Underclinging through a sheer face, smearing across a blank traverse, climbing up a hand crack and exiting through a dihedral proved to be quite exciting for Jan. As he climbed up, Dave Nettles rappelled down near us. He asked me “are you guys going to be climbing up Positive Vibrations, or Sunspot Dihedral?”. I said, “Isn’t this Red Dihedral?”. The Red Dihedral is a 5.10b route, and one of the easiest ways up the mountain. Dave seemed quite concerned for a minute, and then I said “Just kidding…”. I looked up and saw Peter Croft with a big smile on his face. Dave Nettle seemed somewhat amused, and said “You’d be surprised at how often I have heard similar more serious comments”. Dave Nettle then told us that the bolts on the pitch Jan was leading were actually part of Airstream, a much harder line. He said we shouldn’t worry about climbing up to the bolts and should traverse left out of the dihedral before we got that high. Dave Nettle had done the first ascent of Sunspot Dihedral, and Dave Nettle was giving us beta on his line! You can’t get much better information than that.
As Jan climbed up, he reached a “spooky” section of the pitch and paused to decide how to approach the climb. There wasn’t much in the way of gear, and he yelled down to me that we needed bigger offset cams. I had brought a yellow/green and blue/green offset aliens for this section, and they were far too small. Jan eventually placed a 0.75 C4 cam, and told me that only two lobes were engaged. I asked him how the gear below was, and he said solid and that he was going for it. After a few minutes, he yelled “falling!… FALLING!” and took about a 20 foot fall onto a cam. The 0.75 C4 pulled, and he ended up falling down to his good piece. He was surprised at how un-scary the fall actually was, and said “Ok, that was nothing. I’m good now. I can do this. I needed to take that fall.”. He sent the rest of the pitch without mishap.
As I followed Jan’s lead, I was impressed at how strenuous the pitch was. I began thinking “This is only 5.10c. I have to lead a 5.11a pitch next. Man…”. I arrived at the belay and looked up at the money pitch. A 5.11a dihedral that went for 170 feet. After catching my breath and getting a sip of water, I said “Ok, this pitch is why I wanted to climb this route. Let’s do this.”. I stemmed up the first 15 feet, placing 4 offset brass nuts as I went. My calves started to get very very pumped from the sustained stemming. Eventually, after I finally got a good cam in, I needed a break. I told Jan “Take, please”, and rested on my cam. I was a little disappointed that I had taken on this pitch, especially after I continued and found a good rest two moves above. I continued up the pitch. Every move was strenuous, but the gear was good. Having never climbed this pitch before, and not knowing if good gear was above me, I placed quite a bit of protection. I somehow managed to find rests in awkward stances, and proceeded up the pitch.
As I continued climbing, I started feeling very fatigued. The altitude combined with continuously strenuous climbing was really starting to weigh on me. I finally reached a good rest stance, and looked up at the anchor 40 feet above me. I wrestled with the thought of building a belay here and bringing Jan up to me before finishing the pitch.
The anchor looked like an eternity of rock away from me. Eventually I continued up the corner, doing lay back moves, jamming, stemming, and placing gear. After I completed a somewhat strenuous layback move, I placed a grey alien, made a couple more stemming moves and moved over to the right. A good hold was only a couple feet above me, and I moved up and grabbed it. I climbed about 10 feet above my gear and completed the pitch. Wow, that was tiring!
The exhilaration that can only come from completing an epic pitch washed over me, and I looked down at the beautiful and now conquered pitch. I told Jan “off belay!”, hauled up the tag line, and put Jan on belay. Jan began his journey up the pitch. I got several beautiful pictures of Jan as he progressed up the corner.
After Jan arrived at the belay, I looked up at my next lead, the 5.11b crux of the climb.
I had watched the party ahead of us take a pretty long fall on this pitch as they attempted to gain the second bolt. I racked up, took a sip of water, and headed up the pitch. The movement was strong but doable, with stemming mixed with layback moves and pinch holds. I made it up to the second bolt, clipped it, and made a few moves above it. I now realized that I hadn’t planned on anything past the second bolt. I threw my left hand into a fist jam and strenuously placed a #2 C4 into the slot above my fist. It was the wrong size. I sighed, took the #2 out and re-racked it, and struggled to get the #3 off of my harness with my left hand. The jam felt ok, but the position was very strenuous! I somehow managed to get the #3 into the slot above my fist, clipped it, and said “Take! Please!”. I rested on the gear. Sad… As I rested I realized that I was one move away from a solid hold and rest. I had been so focused on getting that gear into that slot that I had completely zoned out the next sequence! Lesson learned… I climbed up to a beautiful 5.10a corner. The previous moves had taken an immense amount of energy, and I struggled up the easy corner. I made it to the belay and shouted down to Jan to take me off belay. The belay consisted of 1 bolt, and I managed to back it up with a solid #1 C4 placed a little lower down from the bolt. As I brought Jan up, I felt the cumulative fatigue of all the pitches aching in my body. I looked over and saw a bolted belay of Solar Flare in close proximity. The plan had been to do half of the final pitch on Sunspot Dihedral and rappel from the anchors above us. The thought seemed impossible.
I told myself “I’ll just take a rest here and see how I feel once Jan gets up here”. Resting really does bring new perspective, and it is good to delay thoughts of giving up for as long as possible. After Jan arrived at the anchor, we discussed continuing. In the end, I decided that I really needed to finish this climb and that I could definitely lead the 5.10d pitch above us. On Jan’s recommendation, I ate a few shot blocks. I racked up and headed up the pitch. I struggled up the pitch, taking a few times on gear from shear exhaustion. About half way up the pitch, I could feel the shot blocks kicking in, and finished the pitch in good style.
Jan began following up pitch 6, and took a small breather break about half way up.
As he neared the top, he posed for an “exhaustion pic” near the top.
We had done it! We completed our objective. Of course we had to take the mandatory top of the climb selfie.
By this time, the day was getting late, and as we rappelled, the sun started to go down. The sunset was phenomenal.
We finished up the rappel as the light faded.
What a perfect day! We hiked by head lamp back to the camp site, ate some dinner and crawled exhausted but exhilarated into our sleeping bags. The next day we hiked back to the trail head. We stashed some beers in the stream near the log crossing that helped us complete our hike out with a little more “comfort”.
A few lessons I learned on this trip: tunnel vision during cruxes can be a very limiting factor; learning to rest more than you think you need to while on lead is critical to performing well; and we always have a little more energy in our bodies, we just have to learn how to access it; more often than not, a good rest is only a couple moves away from where we are and we must maintain route awareness even while fatigued; acclimation or training at altitude prior to a trip is key to alpine routes.
August 31, 2014. Posted by: nelsonday