Storm King North Face Direct

“Dig deep!” I yelled to Todd as the first snow flurries began to fall. We were a hundred feet from the summit of Storm King (13,752′) … the peak was starting to live up to its name, and it was a long way down.

Storm King, North Face in the shade.

The day started at 02:20, ten minutes before our alarm. “You awake?” Todd whispered. I grunted a regretful affirmative. I don’t think I’ve ever slept until my alarm on the morning of a big route.

The day before, we had hiked in thirteen miles from the Vallecito trailhead. It was as casual an approach as you can get for that length. I had the misfortune of carrying a … wait for it … ninety-meter rope since I had just downsized my nylon quiver to move into a van. (It weighed less than my other cords!).

Laden down with the Beal Joker 9.1 90m, ultimate alpine pitchslayer

Along the way, we ran into the remains of the last person who attempted the North Face.

We were just discussing what would constitute a factor three fall. Apparently, this.

On a cheerier note, we ate our fill of wild raspberries and forded a refreshing, knee-deep creek. Smaller creeks and mud were abundant, so my shoes stayed wet for all thirteen miles (in warm temps, I prefer this. On the CT, I went out of my way to stomp in every puddle).

No thanks, I only eat USDA organic.

$#@!, etc.

We set up camp near a waterfall about a mile and half from the start of the route. There’s closer camping to be had, but our throbbing feet vetoed any attempts to push on farther. It’s a great spot, but be advised that the air stays wet even a hundred yards from the falls, so wet shoes don’t dry overnight.

About to set up camp.

While Todd set up camp, I finished the approach and stashed our cord and gear (cams with doubles of orange and red Metolius, nuts and a couple hexes). Spirits were high as we devoured some vague approximation of mesquite chicken-broccoli-rice, set our alarms for “the ass-crack of dawn” and hit the sack well before sunset.

Objects in lens may be further than they appear.

The next morning we mechanically shoveled oatmeal and dried fruit into our gas tanks, strapped on two liters of Tailwind-infused water and stumbled out of camp at 03:00.

Thanks to the reflective markings on the new BD Ultralights, we found our gear cache without too many routefinding woes. We embarked on the first three hundred feet up an “escalator” scree slope — one step forward, two steps back. The start of the climbing was guarded by some bullet-hard snow, into which we chopped steps with a rock.

After a hundred feet of fourth-class, we roped up and began the first pitch just as dawn broke. We enjoyed heartwarming morning sun for most of the route.

2 out of 2 alpinists described this as “not ugly.”

A couple 5.7 moves on wet rock made me glad indeed to have the rope along (maybe not all ninety freaking meters of it). By and large, we enjoyed bomber stone.

Questing upward, only 1400 feet to go.

At the start of the second pitch, I briefly eyed a splitter 5.9ish handcrack, but instead cut hard left and ran out about 150′ of 5.2 traversing or so. The route may have gone up a right-facing dihedral at this point, but it looked harder than 5.7, so whatever. We’re alpinists, not bloody rock climbers.

Todd follows P2.

The third pitch had some real-deal sustained 5.7 (if there is such a thing) that included stemming around a roof. It ended at a commodious ledge (which may or may not have become commode-odious thanks to the generous contribution of an anonymous alpinist).

I’ll give you two guesses, and the first doesn’t count.

P4 had a fun, unprotected move right off the ledge that made me consider requesting an alpine shoulder stand, but Ethics Prevailed. After that, it wandered up 170’ish to a huge ledge littered with talus. (There may have been an extra pitch somewhere in there … it’s all good, clean fun). At that point, the official route might involve moving the belay two hundred feet to the right to a gully of sorts. That sounded like too much work, so we went straight up the headwall, which looked like steep 5.8.

A hundred feet and all of my cams later, I revised my initial assessment. In approach shoes, the moves felt like 5.10c, so let’s be fair and give it a 5.9+. I tiptoed onto a Honnold ledge and belayed off a #8 nut and upward-pull-only #0.75. As soon as Todd cleaned my blue Metolius, I sent him a loop and bolstered the anchor, much to everyone’s relief.

The next pitch had some legit 5.10 moves right off the belay, and I plugged cams above my head like it was going out of style. A hundred feet later, I crawled into a gearless chimney and belayed Todd up on a fat-free meat anchor.

Somewhere earlier on “the” route.

On pitch 9 (?) the Beal Joker spread its wings and facilitated 280 feet of fast 5.6. Meanwhile, the clouds darkened, as did my disposition, and this allegedly “flower-strewn route” turned into a looming graveyard. A hundred feet from the ridge, I slammed in three little nuts and started hauling in rope.

The last pitch would’ve been much more fun had it not been framed by ugly cumulusses. Cumuli? Cumulatively, it was bad and we were hauling more ass than a midwestern homeschool family at a 4H festival.

We busted it to the summit as snowflakes began to fall. This was not the time to get the soundtrack to Frozen stuck in my head, but there ya go.
After a few quizzical moments of routefinding, found the correct ridge and descended with all deliberate speed.

These photos belie the severity of the impending weather. Fortunately, it was just snow.

As soon as we dropped a hundred feet from the summit, the snow blew past and the sun re-bestowed its benevolent gaze upon us. We greeted it with great fanfare and a rousing rendition of the Monarchy’s classic hit, “Sun.”

The descent was arduous but well-cairned, following the established Class 3 southwest ridge route to an everlasting boulderfield that dropped us to Lake Silex. From there, we glissaded a couple hundred feet, and then pounded more talus back to the meadows.

Express lane, vastly preferable to fluid talus.

Camp to camp: fourteen hours. The day before, we had entertained notions of knocking out a couple hours of hiking after completing the route to get a jump start on the trip home. This we dismissed as puerile foolishness, and collapsed victorious at our waterfall campsite. Despite the sudden onset of gravity, we managed to refill water and cook dinner (the same mesquite-jazz-odyssey, but this time infinitely tastier) before falling asleep at 7:30pm.

The next day, we headed home with light packs and even lighter hearts. While hiking, we talked about everything from theology to music theory to nonprofit startups — Todd is without a doubt the most well-rounded person I’ve ever tied in with — but true to form, whenever we passed another group of hikers we deftly changes the topic to hellacious runouts and bicep-curdling rope drag and cheek-clenching exposure. However, nobody took the bait or even asked about the industrial-length spool of pink rope that was playing accordion with our vertebrae.

Aww yuss.

In conclusion, this trip was a series of answered prayers … 1) we got up and down the mountain in a timely fashion, 2) there was no rain and 3) Todd saw his very first bull moose on the hike out, whose surprisingly amicable behavior sealed the deal that this was a Very Good Trip.

Fun Factor Summary:

Type 1 Fun (immediate gratification, enjoyable in the moment): the views on the approach, pitches 1-4, breakfast burritos

Type 2 Fun (not entirely enjoyable but easily whitewashed in retrospect by selective memory to be loads-o-fun): fording Vallecito, climbing the headwall

Type 3 Fun (not fun at all): the escalator scree, blundering about in the snow, the talus walkoff from Lake Silex down, putting on still-wet socks in the morning. 

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