SIERRA SNAFUS: Alex Honnold Gives Peak Bagging a Shot—With Mixed Results
It was completely dark, the monstrous lakeside thicket I was stuck in obscured the weak light of a quarter moon. I’d been hiking for more than 20 hours straight, the last five of them in total darkness (I’d left my headlamp back in the van, confident that I wouldn’t need it). I’d run out of food sometime before sunset. I thought wading along the lake’s shoreline might be easier than hacking and thrashing through the dense thicket. It wasn’t. Back on land, I’d taken off my wet shorts in an effort to stay warm, only to discover that bushwhacking in boxer briefs is really, really unpleasant.
As the branches tore at my underwear I started to wonder how I’d managed to botch this so badly. I was above Lake Tahoe in the Sierra Nevada, trying to tag the 12 peaks that circle Desolation Basin. The traverse was maybe 30 miles long (almost entirely cross-country on loose talus) with nearly 10,000 feet of elevation gain along the way, but it lacked any technical climbing. I’m a rock climber—normally I try to hike only if it ends at some sort of impressive rock climb like Half Dome or the Incredible Hulk. Why had I just spent a whole day (and night, as it turned out) peak bagging in the Sierra without the prospect of any actual rock climbing at all? Two reasons: injuries and a girl.
After three years of full-time rock climbing all over the U.S. I was starting to have some nagging aches and pains: certain fingers would swell up whenever I crack climbed and my bicep throbbed all the time. Concerned for the long-term health of my joints, I decided to take the summer off, stay at home in Sacramento and heal up, which left me with a lot of extra time and a ton of unused energy.
My friend Kolin, who is the Director of Quality at Black Diamond, offered me the opportunity to burn some of that energy on a one-week trip to the eastern Sierra to do some scrambling on beautiful alpine granite; nothing I’d need climbing shoes on, so I could still consider it rest. But still… did Ireally want to just go hiking in the mountains? I hadn’t hiked for the sake of hiking in years, but Kolin promised that peak bagging would be a new outlet to challenge myself—and certainly more engaging than going for another run or bike ride around the suburbs of Sacramento. The “challenge” is one of my favorite things about climbing, and the mental challenge—trying to hold myself together on runout trad or exciting free solos—is what I find the most rewarding.
Hiking in an alpine environment offered something vaguely similar, so I decided to give it a try. Kolin and I climbed, hiked and scrambled 12 peaks over eight days, never sleeping past sunrise. He called it a vacation. I thought it felt like boot camp. Thankfully, Kolin returned to work and I got to go home. While I was back recovering in Sacramento, however, an old high school friend, Katie, told me about a long hike near Lake Tahoe she’d attempted called “Pentapeak,” an enchainment of the five highest points around Desolation Basin in a day. Naturally, I had to do it just to be cool (cute girls have a way of making heinous death marches seem a little more enticing). But why do only five peaks when I could do all 12? I saw an opportunity for greatness.
Twenty-two hours after it began, my hike/scramble/stumble around the Desolation Basin ended at 3 a.m. I was completely worked. My clothes were all soaked, my feet swollen. The only things holding me upright were my trekking poles. But it was worth it—I’d made it to all the summits and hadn’t bailed, even after realizing by noon that I was in for a very long and dark night. Yes, I ended up cold, tired and hungry in wet underwear at three in the morning, but at least I now knew I could really hike that far, do that much gain, go all night long. Katie was surely going to be impressed.
Alex Honnold returned to Sacramento, only to find out that Katie had left for a two-month trip to Asia. Later that summer, Honnold would shake off his Desolation Basin errors and go on to complete the Teton’s Grand Traverse and the Sierra’s Evolution Traverse. He is now back rock climbing full-time, as well as ever.