Sleeping on the Best Knife-Edge Ridge Climb You’ve Never Heard About

Me following on the knife edge

It all started one day when I happened upon this description, “longer, more sustained, more exposed Matthes Crest”. Wow, Matthes Crest is THE favorite climb for many people and I just stumbled upon a similar route that could be its superior! The lacking description, amazing photos, wilderness setting and few ascents for Saber Ridge only added to the allure of the adventure. What I would find was the most sustained exposure since Mt Sir Donald on a wild backcountry route so committing and long that it took an unexpected overnight ledge bivy to finish.

Note: I provide a detailed, technical description of the climb in another post, while providing a general description below to keep the story moving.

Would You Like a Beer with that View?

Driving to Lodgepole Visitor Center to obtain our wilderness permit you immediately start to get the scale that Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks (SEKI) operate in when 2000 year old 100 ft wide Giant Sequoua Redwoods start passing by. More than just big trees, SEKI is home to Mt. Whitney, the highest peak in the lower 48, and countless rocky, moonscape alpine peaks.

Some pre-trip tree watching

This area of SEKI too held many amazing, little climbed backcountry objectives. So we decided to take six days of food so we could tack on a second memorable wilderness climb after Saber Ridge: 1.5 day approach, two climbs, one rest day and one day to hike out.

From Cresent Meadow trailhead it is an “easy” 15 miles to Tamarack Lake once I bypassed the parking lot bear eating a spruce cone in the middle of the trail. The well-maintained dirt trail is sloped gradually enough that I wouldn’t have noticed the 6000 ft of elevation gain except for the 50 lbs pack I’m carrying of climbing gear. Aside from the normal backpacking gear our three-person team is also carrying two 70m ropes and a full double trad rack.

11 miles and seven hours later we arrive at High Sierra Camp, often the first stop for people taking the 60 mile High Sierra Trail to Mt. Whitney. Next to the Bearpaw Ranger station, this High Sierra Camp also has food, tent cabins and even refreshing, cold micro brew (don’t forget your money!).

While filtering the water available from the ranger station’s non-potable spigot we sit on the lodge’s front bench to gaze into a granite kingdom: dozens of domes, a huge buttress as inspiring as Royal Arches, steep shear features comparable to shrunken El Capitans and spiky bouldering ridgelines feeding deeper into the High Sierra. A candy store of granite features laid before me and yet my destination of Tamarack Lake remained unseen. Amid a Yosemite’s worth of routes we’ve found ourselves the sole rock climbers around.

View from the lodge porch

Ticking off another mile and few hundred feet of elevation, we backtrack to our trail and turn up the ridge. Closing this route to avoid the lower river trail that loses a lot of elevation and contains a potentially difficult river crossing. A slow moving hour, sides raw from tight hip belts, we find a marginal place to sleep in a marshy meadow. A late wildflower bloom enveloping us in yellow, white, red, purple and pink.

Day 2: Tamarack Lake

An hour after first light we awake to finish the four miles to Tamarack Lake under bulging backpacks. As the trail climbs to its highest, an open rocky ridgeline reveals a more desirable camp than our marsh. Level granite with fantastic panoramic views.

View from the rocky outcrop.

In a couple hours we pass by the river crossing that we were warned about and it definitely looks like it could be a problem earlier in the season but not now.

This is the Tamarack Lake Valley we are heading for (river crossing center). Those beautiful domes aren’t even what we are here to climb.
Looking back towards the valley for Hamilton Lake at some awesome features.

Arriving at Tamarack Lake, we find ample supply of trees for bear bags despite being warned there would be no trees here.

River crossing on our way up Tamarack Lake Valley
Tamarack Lake

At 1pm we get lucky with our 20% rain forecast and it pours. The rain stops four hours later at 5pm, leaving us a nice respite to plan our ascent of Saber Ridge and eat dinner at sunset.

Day 3: Saber Ridge

Prism (left) and Saber Ridge (right)

Exiting the tent at 6am we tried to get an early start to avoid the afternoon rains. The forecast was 10-20% chance of rain all week, but it poured for four hours the prior day. Saber Ridge stood proud with its headwall looking like a steep puffed out chest. Much more intimidating than the 5.7 cruise I was expecting.

Overview of our climb

We reached the lower slab of the wall after a river crossing and an hour of cross-country up the drainage. The lower slabs were very low angle, mostly 5.3-4 with a couple 5.5 moves. We solo’d up a few hundred feet choosing a broken crack system halfway between the large right facing dihedral on the left and the open slabs on the right. To our surprise, we found two improvised rap anchors on the way as we roped up a little past the top of the large dihedral.

Soloing up low-angle crack

From here it took six pitches to gain the headwall and two more along the dark gray slot to reach ridge proper. The rock sported a variety of features from deep, dirty, or flared cracks, hollow flakes of all varieties, chicken heads, large blocks, etc. Those six pitches each took at least an hour with every person belayed one at a time. Reaching ridge proper at 5pm we knew we were running out of daylight.

Looking at Prism from the headwall
Looking back from the headwall. Prism in foreground.

Now on the ridge, we switched to two followers tied into one rope for a simul-climb follow and a belayed leader. The view and exposure from on top of the headwall was amazing. Watching Josh climb up the first rise in the ridge was some of the most asthetic climbing I’ve ever seen.

After this pitch, I lead one long simul climb along the ridge equal to three pitches.

Simulclimbing ridge

I reached a rise in the ridge with large blocks resembling a hand pointing upwards 20 degrees towards the summit. Proceeding along, I shuffled my feet through a rising 3 inch diagonal crack with hands barely useful on the top sloping arete. Hundreds of exposed air behind and below me. Reaching the point of the finger I found no more ridge, just an overhanging drop. I yelled, “Fuck!” to myself. Now I have to backtrack down an exposed feature where I mainly held myself secure using shuffling feet. All the more stressful doing so in a no-fall belay system (simul-climbing). Halfway back, I bent over to clean my only piece of gear, placed at my feet. This put my center of mass uncomfortably further over the void.

Luckily, fate took pity on me and chose this as the time for my cam to walk into the crack and make it near impossible to clean. I spent 5-10 minutes of our waning sunset hopelessly trying to reach my fingers deep enough into the crack deep to clinch the handle mechanism that would retract the cam lopes for extraction. A careful maneuver that could push the $60 device deeper and unreachable if I use too much force. All this while balancing insecurely on the side of this pointy block sticking out over the ridge. “We do NOT have time for this”, repeated in my head the whole time as I wasted daylight, our most valuable resource. Eventually, with a nut tool I was able to free one lope enough to extract the cam and finish the backtrack.

With the sun setting on the route before us I gathered everyone together. We had a lot of ridge left to climb and had underestimated the technicality of the ridge after the headwall. We had several imperfect options:

  • Someone leads in the dark by headlamp these exposed, grainy, runout ridge sections
  • We sleep a little and then someone leads by the strong moonlight
  • Rappel off the side of the ridge into the gulley
  • Sleep on the ledge and climb in the morning
  • Call for rescue with the emergency beacon

Walking through the options, no one felt confident about leading the pitches given the poor, sparse pro under headlamp or moonlight. Strange light could cause us to misjudge the surface of rock: grainy, good or lichen. Rapping off the side was a scary thought to simply sling a bunch of flakes (most of them hollow on this route) and HOPE that we would find something off the side to continue the rappels. My imagination depicted a rappel flake blowing and all of us tumbling down to our deaths. It would take 3 minimum full lendgth rappels to reach the ground (looking at it later it actually would have been five). Lastly, we didn’t need rescue. We were not injured, just scared and stuck.

This left sleeping on this little L-shaped ledge we found extending maybe five feet in each direction. One side of the ledge about two feet wide and another about three feet. After making some super bomber anchors we laid ropes and backpacks beneath us for insulation from the cold rock. Sadie slept on top of me on one side of the L where I had to twist my foot into a contorted position to fit. My back against a slanted slab, I leaned naturally to the right against Josh who took the other L in an emergency bivy.

Setting up our new home for the night.

Day 4: Saber Ridge (continued)

The night passed by as if we were watching a clock. Hours later the moon rose casting an eerie glow over the valley and then the ridge. At 3am the wind picked up, causing more intense shivering from our ledge party as the sun moved closer towards the horizon. We cheered as the sun rose and became excited to reach the daylight spotted on the ridge. In the early light, we pooled together our 1.5L of water and handful of trail mix to finish the climb.

Sunrise from the ledge
Getting ready for the climb

Getting ready, I was still sketched out. I don’t know why. The climbing wasn’t hard technically, but imagining the normally comfortable runouts had my hands sweat. I was having a hard time trusting that the only marginal piece I could place in 50 ft would save me after I took a ground fall off a supposedly bomber piece that pulled a week earlier.

Thankfully, Josh took the first lead and introduced us to what real exposure was. He took a runout lead across a knife-edge ridgeline with no bomber feet or hands. Trying to do this in approach shoes just scraped all the granite grains off without traction. I cursed the only details found on mountain project that described this whole ridge as easy and doable in approach shoes.

Shoe change mid-pitch

We climbed through this edge by pulling on the ridge while smearing on grainy granite. It was very heady given any fall would load the anchor and send yourself off the knife-edge into the thousands of feet of air behind you. This was the first and most tenuous of the three other knife edge sections to follow.

Me following on the knife edge

Even with our prior day’s progress, it still took us 4 hours to finish the ridge climb. The exposure increasing greatly on this second half to slow us down. The sides of the ridge thinning and forcing us onto the ridgeline arete for the remainder of the route.

Two pitches away from the boulder field

For the exposure alone I didn’t feel good with no-fall climbing (pure simul-climbing) and we again belayed the leader with two simul-climbing seconds. Meanwhile, Sadie was crashing due to 10 minutes of sleep and no food.

Sadie crashing from little food, water and sleep at belay

Pushing through, we eventually we made it to the boulder pile underneath the summit with a sigh of relief.

View a few pitches from the end of the route
Whole ridge view from the boulder pile

It took an hour and half of technical downclimbing and traverseing on simul-climb belay until we reached the descent gulley. Halfway down it started raining with mixed in snow and sleet. The rain became heavy  as we reached the valley floor and started hiking back uphill to camp. By the time we reached camp, half of us were soaked as we fell into beds and engulfed any accessible food.

View on the other side (looking left) after the ridge summit
Descending the second gulley a few hundred feet down where it gets wider

Day 5-6: Rest, Relaxation and Return

After the tiring two day ordeal on Saber Ridge we took the next day to relax at Tamarack Lake instead of trying to climb something massive like Prism. The day passed easily and we were treated again to a couple hours of rain in the afternoon.

…and we finished the rest of the Sun Butter. Yum.

Finally, we hiked out the 15 miles mostly downhill with maybe 1000 ft elevation gain in a long seven hours. The last six miles were horrible with not only a heavy pack from trad gear but also an unrelenting swarm of 50-100 bugs attempting to enter my nose, eyes, ears and mouth. I wished for a head net as I waved my hands in constant rhythm before my face for an hour and a half to provide respite.

My closing thoughts about the trip was it was a great adventure to go out here and attempt a rarely done climb with little information. The backcountry setting was amazing and there is so much rock here for first ascents and wilderness rock climbing in seclusion. I cannot wait to come back and plan a trip to the Hamilton Lakes valley. At the same time, I had a really hard time enjoying myself on the ridge. Its clear I was still psychologically recovering from my ground fall just ten days prior. This is something I’m going to have to work on.