Evolution Traverse attempt

11 July 2009, Warren Caldwell and Dave Johnson


The impetus

I had no intention of attempting the Evolution Traverse, other than as a vague, "someday, when I'm better"-type goal, until four days before we left to go do it. The impetus came after Dave J., Polly A. and I went car-to-summit on Temple Crag in a respectable (but not record-breaking) 13 hours, and if we hadn't hauled our camping gear to Third Lake with the intention of doing Swiss Arete on Mt. Sill the next day, we definitely could have gotten back to our car in daylight. Having moved reasonably fast, especially for a party of three, I was fired up to take advantage of the long mid-summer days and go after something even longer in the Sierra the following weekend.

One of the Sierra traverses seemed just the ticket, of which Peter Croft cites four in Good, Great and Awesome. These are big, long days, and I could think of no better partner for such a suffer-fest than the Sultan of Suffering himself, Dave "Mucho Suffering" Johnson. The traverses of the Minaret and Evolution peaks both appealed to me, but Dave, when I e-mailed him on Monday, had an immediate preference for the latter, and thus it was decided.

For anyone who doesn't know, the Evolution Traverse is an eight-mile long enchainment of the nine 13,000' peaks surrounding the Evolution Basin, protected from the road by a 10-mile hike over a 12,900' pass. Though most of the traverse is on moderate terrain, almost all of it is fourth- and fifth-class rock, with the technical crux reportedly being a 5.9 knife-edge ridge. The real crux, though, is the need to move fast over technical terrain in order to cover so much ground. Living legend Croft took three attempts over three years before he completed it, and when he did it took 15 hours. It would be an ambitious undertaking for us to say the least, but not unreasonably so, and we felt comfortable with the fact that only some serious good fortune would allow us to finish it in the two days we were giving ourselves.


Worth noting is that we found scant information on the climb. Other than Croft's own guidebook and his chapter in Fifty Favorites, we found a solitary trip report online (from a party that bailed after Mt. Darwin, less than halfway through), and some notes that they received from the editor of Climbing magazine. Those notes conclude with: "Evolution has had at least 4 ascents that I know of [as of 2007], and sections have been done for years. The whole link-up is 8.5 miles on the ridge continuously--you can do it in one long push, or bring light bivy gear and do it in a couple of days, going when it's warm, as my friends did. No matter how you do the thing, you'll love it. This thing is about as cool as it gets!"

Over the next four days, we planned gear, food and a time frame--way more organization than I'm used to. Planning the time frame was particularly important for a trip of this length, but also humorous in that I was pulling numbers out of thin air. Here is an excerpt of an actual e-mail I sent to Dave on the subject:

"...if Croft took 15 hours, what will we take? Can we say max of 30? That'd be two 15-hour days, plus ~4 hours of hiking on either side = 2x19-hour days."

Where did I get the idea that I could make any speed comparisons at all between Croft and ourselves, let alone arrive at such an arbitrary ratio as 2:1? The answer is that I made it up. But I didn't like the result it gave us (more hours of climbing than hours of daylight), so I tried a different tack (don't tell my advisor) - Dave had done two miles of the similarly-difficult Palisades Traverse between Thunderbolt Peak and Mt. Sill in a comfortable 5.5 hours, with breaks, so extrapolating to the eight-mile Evolution Traverse, we'd be looking at 20 hours:

"If we are only 1.5x as slow as Croft, that's 22 hours, which is what you projected based on Thunderbolt-Sill, which would be 2x15-hour days, or 4am to 7pm on both days. Or 4am to 8pm and 6am to 8pm, since we can't climb in the dark Sunday morning."

Sounds very scientific. It wasn't.

Unfortunately, our climb was cut so short that we never got to test my reckoning, nor did we get to test our selection of climbing gear and bivy gear. For the record, though, we brought: 47m of 9.4mm rope, 6 sewn single runners, 4 tied double runners (to double as rappel tat), 5 rap rings, 12 wiregates and 5 lockers, 2 cordelletes (also good for rappel tat), 9 cams (C4s from 0.5 to 2 with double green, and 2x orange and yellow TCUs), 6 stoppers, harnesses, helmets, rock shoes and approach shoes, 2 puffy coats (1 each), 2 AMK space-blanket style bivy sacks, 1 thermarest to share, 1 twenty-degree down sleeping bag to share, food for three days.

Also for the record, it was our (foolhardy) intention to leave from the car, do the 10-mile, 3500' approach and start the route the same day, bivy on the route, finish the route (or get as far as we could) on the second day, probably do another bivy somewhere, and hike out on the third day. Most (all?) other parties hike the approach and camp at the base of the ridge so they can roll out of their tents and onto the route. Maybe there's something to that.


After pulling some longer hours at the office to justify an early departure, we left Palo Alto at 1pm on Friday (who gets any real work done on Friday afternoon anyway?). We stopped at REI to replace our bulky 21'x7mm cordelettes with nice 16'x6mm versions, and for Dave to stock up on fancy energy food. I try to eat real food as much as possible in the mountains (cashew butter and creamed honey sandwiches--try it), but this would clearly be a time for Gu if ever there was one. After that, a stop for late-lunch burgers at Hula's in Escalon and food for the weekend in Oakdale (I have to give Dave props for his on-the-spot trailmix creation of golden raisins, walnuts and crystallized ginger). We reached Bishop at 9pm, and by 10pm we were asleep at the trail head, bags packed.

Day 1:

We had pushed our planned 3:30am wake-up back to 4am so that we would reach the off-trail section of the approach in daylight, but we both slept through our feeble watch alarms and I woke to Dave shaking me at 4:52. Ah, well. We were leaving the car at 5:30am on the nose, me munching the second half of the previous night's Nik-N-Willie's pastrami sub.

We moved quickly with our light packs and reached Lamarck Col in 2hrs40min, just after 8am. We'd brought three 2-liter Platy bottles and one Nalgene (easier to fill), which meant room for 7 liters, but I'd only brought one liter of water from the car (to speed the hike up to Lamarck), and I chugged it there as we scoped the route and snacked. I'd never been to the Evolutions, and was blown away by the beauty of the ridge and excited for our climb.

The route starts at the base of the ridge just left of the far lake and ascends R-to-L over Peak 13,360' and Mt. Mendel - these being the first two of the nine peaks of the Evolution Traverse.

Mt. Mendel (R) and Mt. Darwin (L), the tallest peak of the Traverse. If we were lucky, we'd get as far as Darwin on the first day. Apparently it's "big enough to land an airplane on top."

We could only see the first half of the ridge before it hooked out of view to the west, but we could see as far as we hoped to get that day (Mt. Darwin, or if we were really lucky, Mt. Haeckel). We then boulder-hopped down to the chain of lakes that form the floor of the Darwin Canyon (it's best to drop straight down to the lakes rather than traverse high as Dave did).

Peak 13,360' from the Darwin Lakes. The Traverse starts on the left skyline and ascends the ridge.

A small mishap

Skirting along the shore of one of the lakes, I had Accident #1 when my right foot broke through a small snow bridge and I landed hard on my right shin on a horizontal fin of rock right below the surface. It hurt worse than I would have imagined and I started yelling to Dave as I rolled incapacitated on the snow. I stayed off it for a few minutes and watched the skin around the impact start to discolor. I remember thinking "Well, at least it's not broken--WAIT, IT'S NOT BROKEN, IS IT?!?" But it bore weight and seemed intact, and I still don't understand how it hurt so badly. I was frustrated at the thought of something stupid like that ruining our trip (not a smart reaction), and I suggested we continue the approach as I kept an eye on it. My ankle started to feel a little painful as I walked, but I couldn't tell if I'd twisted it when I broke through, or if it was just related to the knock on the shin.

At the last (we thought) of the Darwin Lakes, we stopped to either get ready to get on the ridge, or turn back. We filled our water bottles and I iced my foot in a stream. The water was so cold that it hurt more than the existing pain, which caused me some confusion as to whether my condition was improving or not. After some discussion, we decided to start climbing, and I took two Aleve and taped my ankle. It felt fine to stand on and climb with, and my only reservation about starting the climb was that it might swell up and become painful over the course of the next day or two, causing us major grief, but I felt reasonably sure that it wouldn't (and I was right).

It almost looks like I know what I'm doing.

That incident occupied about half an hour, and it was 11am when we started up a gully that led to the ridge. We could see the toe of the ridge (we thought) a few hundred yards to our right, but we opted for the quicker gully, since we were pretty sure we wouldn't complete the route, making a 'direct start' unimportant. On our hike out, we saw that what we thought was the toe of the ridge in fact wasn't, and that one more gully lay even further to the right, around a corner from where we started. The gully we chose was quite fun, and we bore left onto a blocky 5.5 arete full of positive, finger-swallowing cracks and edges. Dave retroactively dubbed this route "Bar Fight Prologue" in light of what happened next (and what I would end up looking like). The arete went much longer than we thought, and we gained the ridge proper at 13,000'. It was noon.

Dave starts up the gully leading to the Bar Fight Prologue arete.

On top of the ridge proper at noon, surveying the route ahead.

Warren on the arete

On the route

We started along the ridge, and the route-finding became slightly less obvious and the climbing slightly more thoughtful. Fun, airy moves up, over and around huge blocks had us in high spirits. On the final hump prior to reaching the first peak, we looked down at a seemingly-vertical 80-foot drop-off, until Dave found a down-climbing route that consisted of a few bold reverse mantles. Not particularly fun, and maybe not the best way.

Dave at our high point. On the right is Peak 13,360'.

Some un-fun down-climbing

The accident

At the base of this hump, we started started traversing, heading towards a bit of horizontal ridge which would lead to the base of the first peak proper, whose summit was now a few hundred feet above us. Dave was a 30-40 feet ahead of me, and as I made a trivial 4th class move, stepping with solid feet as I held a blocky bit of rock in front of me, I came off. Dave was actually watching me, getting ready to take a picture, but neither he nor I know how I fell. I just know it was quick. In Dave's words, I "just greased off." Either because of how the fall started, or because my pack pulled me off-balance, I fell backwards, landing pack-first onto a ledge slightly below where my feet had been.

[Aside: While recounting this to Alexis and Joe the next day, Joe interjected at this point with "It wasn't your pack that pulled you backwards, it was your mullet! Too much weight in the back! Mullets are dangerous." To which Alexis added, "Yeah, last week my mullet got caught in my belay device. Twice! Our mullets are trying to tell us to climb less and party more."]

At some point during the fall, I remember being on my back as a large rock landed on my already-abused shins, so I'm guessing that occurred at this point in the fall, and the rock that landed on my shins was the block I'd had my hands on when I fell, meaning it had come loose and that was what caused me to fall. From there I bounced on my pack and continued rolling, uncontrolled, onto the next ledge below, and when my arms came around to face the rock I grabbed for whatever I could and dammit if what I grabbed didn't come loose, too. Failing to come to a stop, I started another roll onto my pack, this time with the rock I'd just dislodged coming with me, though I didn't realize it yet.

This was the scariest bit. I remember thinking, "This is what it feels like in a skiing fall--the first roll is not that bad, but once you roll a second time, you have a lot of momentum and that's when you know you aren't stopping anytime soon, and that there is a high likelihood of serious consequences. Except I've only had falls like that on snow, and only once, but this is rock, and that SUCKS. Having a fall on rock that feels like a skiing fall SUCKS. I might die at the end of this fall." I swear that all this went through my head. Now comes the best part: I landed on my pack again, and the rock I'd just dislodged rolled over my face. I felt it hit the left side of my face, and I immediately saw a perfect grid of yellow stars, which were soon joined by blue ones (the blue ones stayed in my vision for the next 5-10 minutes, well after the accident). I felt it hit my mouth and I figured I'd broken some teeth.

I asked Dave afterwards about the size of the rock, guessing that it was basketball-sized. Dave's response: "Microwave-sized. Old-school microwave. I'm guessing that thing was 150lbs." Holy shit, I took a 150lb. rock to the face and was fine. I AM AWESOME.

After the face-rock collision, I slid a bit further on my back, fortunately not rolling again, and came to a stop, ending the fall. Shot full of adrenaline, I immediately jumped up and, feeling an inexplicable need to do something, started scrambling carefully back up the ledges I'd just come down (which, in retrospect seems like a pretty good indication that I was in one piece, and which must have reassured Dave greatly). I realized this was stupid at the same time as Dave yelled to me to "sit down, dude!" so I stopped for a few seconds and then started climbing again until I'd reached roughly the point where I'd started falling and found a comfortable stance.

Dave yelled if I was okay, and I held back my instinct to say "I'm fine," because I couldn't guarantee that I was, and said "I don't know." Realizing that this was unhelpful for Dave, I followed it up with "I think so" - and I really did think I was fine. I could tell the rock had split my lip, but I had no sense of any other injuries. However, I knew that dazed and amped-up on adrenaline as I was, I might not be able to tell if I had any other injuries. I vividly remember wishing that I could time-travel two minutes into the future so I'd know if I was hurt or not. But I had to wait those two minutes and figure it out for myself. And the conclusion was - I wasn't hurt. I had blood on my lip from where it split, but I couldn't taste much in my mouth, so I knew I hadn't damaged any teeth. My vision was fine despite the mesh of bright blue in my left eye (I'd been wearing sunglasses, which now sport some divots in the left lens - Smith Sunglasses feedback: A+++++++ WOULD BUY FROM AGAIN). A few small nicks and scrapes on my legs, hands, back and, of course, face were all that seemed wrong. After a few minutes, maybe less, I headed over to Dave and sat down, feeling much safer being away from the location of the fall and with my climbing partner. I started feeling some pressure in my left sinus, but that mostly went away over the next hour or two.

Icing my face

A little scraped up - not bad, considering.

We sat for a few minutes, and I started to feel a great relief that I'd had a potentially serious, potentially very serious accident and come away unscathed. But dark clouds were brewing on my mental horizon, the largest of which was the 'What if' cloud - what if I hadn't come to a stop and had gone over the edge that I was heading towards? As Dave put it, I was three feet away from a helicopter ride. Other thoughts such as 'How did this happen?', 'Why did this happen to me?', 'Will this have negative consequences for me as a climber?', 'Will this have a negative effect on my life?' all started swirling in my periphery. But on the whole I felt so amazed at being in one piece that the climb at hand was still forefront in my thoughts. I started having visions of soldiering on with the route in impressive hard-man style, and felt disappointment at the thought of bailing. I said that we should continue on at least to the first peak, and see how I felt (hoping that I'd feel well enough to go on, of course).

If our decision to continue climbing sounds crazy in light of my accident, chalk it up to my dramatic retelling and remember that the whole thing only lasted a few seconds to us, and that the immediate result was that I was fine. Because I was fine, the whole thing hadn't really sunk in. Had I been a bloody mess, decisions would have been clearer, but we were in climbers' mind-set, evaluating things quickly and critically based on the information at hand, and the information at hand was that despite a spectacular fall I was totally uninjured, and being uninjured meant I could climb.


After five or ten minutes of continuing along the ridge, I could tell that I would be damn slow if we tried to continue the climb, given how cautious and tentative I was being (understandably). The few hundred feet of blocky technical terrain up to Peak 13,360' loomed like a wall, and I knew then I wanted to go down and felt comfortable with that decision. I told Dave that I thought we should descend, and he readily agreed (later telling me that he wished he'd insisted on doing so sooner). We picked our way down a loose 2,000' gully on the west side of the ridge, aiming for the friendly green meadows and John Muir Trail in the valley floor. The gully was not a fun descent, but far from the worst I've been on. The accident happened between 12:30 and 1:00, we started descending between 1:30 and 2:00, and we were airing out our feet and snacking on dried pineapple rings on the shores of Evolution Lake at 3:00.

Descending from the ridge

Lounging by the lake

Hike out

Once the mosquitoes became too much to handle, we shouldered our packs and started hiking out. I felt great. The Evolution Basin was a gorgeous place, the JMT was flat and sandy and bordered by idyllic meadows on either side. The Evolution peaks towered above us, imposing and gorgeous, and I felt a sense of accomplishment that we'd come up and over that ridge, even if we failed to reach a single one of the peaks of the traverse. I even looked forward to the 11-mile hike back to the car, knowing that at the end of it I would feel we'd had a good, hard, worthwhile day. I felt strong and fit and healthy, even my ankle felt good, and only my already-swollen lip and the slight pressure in my left sinus indicated anything was amiss. In fact, I felt downright euphoric - maybe some sort of post-near-death reaction. When I told Dave, he likened it to the scene in Fight Club where Tyler Durden drags a convenience store clerk into an alley and promises to kill him if the clerk doesn't follow his dream of becoming a veterinarian. "Tomorrow will be the best day of Raymond K. Essel's life." Dave actually quoted the line verbatim, "Tomorrow will be the best day of Raymond K. Essel's life."

The actual line is "Tomorrow will be the most beautiful day in Raymond K. Hessel's life. His breakfast will taste better than any meal you and I have ever tasted." It's a nice thought, Chuck, but I call shenanigans. For me, the next day was no better than the day before, but it was no worse, and I'm thankful enough for that.

We stopped to make some sandwiches at 6:00pm by the Darwin Lakes, and then blasted the rest of the way back to the car. The 1,000' boulder-hop up Lamarck Col was a slog, and by the time we reached the car (at 9:30pm) our toes were hamburger, but other than that it was a cruise. A long, hard cruise with an ugly little incident halfway through, but all's well that ends well. We were driving towards Bishop by 9:45pm, barely 24 hours after first pulling into the trail head parking lot.

Summary of the day:

Picasa web album:
Evolution Traverse attempt


On Monday I went to see a doctor at the student health center to make sure that I hadn't fractured my cheekbone or that the teeth of my upper jaw wouldn't die and fall out a month from now. The doctor's first real concern was that I'd bitten my lip. As she put it, "We worry about human bites." She prescribed me a course of powerful antibiotics with a booster for drug-resistant bacteria. I wasn't aware that the most dire consequence of taking a boulder to the face was that I might contract a drug-resistant infection from the bacteria in my own mouth.

Next she asked me to open my jaw and with a look of panic diagnosed me with TMJ, which is caused by grinding your teeth while you sleep. Apparently it can lead to - wait for it - gingivitis and headaches. Before I could bring up the fact that it seemed strange that no dentist or doctor had ever diagnosed me with anything other than a perfectly healthy jaw, including when I had jaw surgery, she had signed me up for a referral to see a doctor who could fit me with a mouth guard to wear while I sleep. I came in because a 150lb. boulder had landed on my face, and I left with a referral to get fitted with a device to keep me from grinding my teeth at night. Thanks, Doc.

Her final words of advice? Soak the scabs off my legs because of "anoxic bacteria that like to live under scabs." I guess I wasn't aware of that particular global health crisis. I wonder how much the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation is investing in scab research. I got out of there as quickly as I could. I've never had such a profound impression that I was dealing with someone from a different planet.