The Evolution Traverse
As professional photographers, our launch pad was shooting climbing photos. Rock & Ice and Climbing Magazine were our bread and butter. We got to go climbing, take some snaps, and get them to the magazines. At that time I was a climber first, photographer second and the idea of getting paid to make climbing photos was too good to be true. Later, a decent number of assignments began coming from them as well. One that was especially fun was in 2002, Matt Samet’s Best Ridge Traverses of America article for Climbing Magazine.
Matt came out to Bishop, stayed with us, and together with Jim Karn we all went and traversed the Palisade Crest in the Sierra Nevada in a day. A long day. After, Jim wisely went home leaving Matt behind for his next ridge, the Evolution Traverse. For whatever reason I opted out in the hopes of doing it later in the season.
I remember watching Matt pack up, or rather unpack to go up. He basically took nothing. His idea was simply to hike in, climb the enormity that is the Evolution Traverse, and walk back out. With his few PowerGels, Matt drove up to the trail head to begin his long march in over Lamarck Col. Late the next day, at home, we received a phone call from someone sounding like the mentally ill. It was Matt, and it was apparent he needed assistance. Mutterings about car keys and his whereabouts was all I got.
I sped up to the Lake Sabrina trail head, which is not where he should have been, and found the mess that was Matt Samet. His formerly brand new approach shoes were tattered scraps of nylon and rubber. His hands looked liked he had tried to floss the teeth of a living Great White shark while his lips were so swollen it appeared as if he mouthed off to Mike Tyson. He had successfully climbed the entire Evolution Traverse.
Part of the tale was this: Once finished he succumbed to a nap. Upon waking he watched as a Pika ran off with something shiny, his car key. He picked up his camera bag with freshly gnawed hole in the mesh side pocket and started for North Lake, a stinking, filthy, tattered mess. Figuring him for a fellow redneck, he convinced some Bishop locals to drive him down so he might make a phone call, to me.
Some years before, Peter Croft, in a period of massive energy, discovered this ridge line high above Evolution Valley. His trained eye caught the fact that it seemed to continue uninterrupted for several miles south of Mt. Mendel. He decided to investigate and in doing so had it confirmed that it went for much longer than he thought before hooking around and ending at Mt. Huxley. At Grade VI, 5.9, about 8 miles long, often above 13,000 feet/4000 meters, and with nearly 10,000 feet/3000 meters of gain, the Evolution Traverse was created.
Word of it spread, Peter had some media attention and one quote stuck with me, “Normally, you do a route, get to the summit – the prettiest place of all – and then you just go back down. But when you do a ridge traverse, it’s like being on a summit all day long.” That was the hook, and as I was in my own squirt of Sierra energy, I knew I would have to do it.
Once Matt could speak again I got the full beta. The route was confirmed as brilliant, I started making plans by first finding someone to do it with. David Melkonian was the guy.
After this I went up to Canada and climbed the famous Lotus Flower Tower, one of North America’s 50 Classics. And it was truly that, classic. An unforgettable trip.
But the Evolution Traverse was in my head, once home David and I began planning. We decided to take a rope in case we chose to rappel some of the harder, loose down climbing from Darwin’s summit, but also in case we really needed it for the climbing. We also decided to start late in the day and bivvy on Mt. Mendel’s summit so as to give us the entire next day to wrap things up. This was also because David was a paramedic and got off work in the late morning. As a longtime Sierra Nevada climber, and more experienced than I doing long Sierra days, I had a great partner.
We began climbing from the Darwin Bench in the late afternoon. Getting to the top of Mendel actually required quite a lot of real climbing, but always on solid rock. We moved quickly and efficiently, soloing all but one short, steep step.
Once on the summit, we prepped for the night before being wowed by a special Sierra Nevada sunset. After the grand finale we settled in to spend a very cold night at 13,710 feet/4179 meters.
The next day is a blur of climbing sideways. We did rap from the summit of Darwin, then spent hours moving along the ridge line, negotiating towers and gendarmes. It was the best climbing I have ever done, soloing on good rock with easy, aesthetic movement. We were often silent, just in our own heads dealing with the task we had committed to.
I vividly remember that last bit of real climbing as we arrived to the summit of the final peak. We had done it. Exhaustion like that is a wonderful luxury. We began the descent in the early darkness and arrived to the lakes of Evolution Basin in the pitch black. There, like animals, we just laid down beneath the stars on a warm Sierra night.
I fought sleep so as to savor that moment. A month before I had climbed one of the finest long free routes in the world, The Lotus Tower. But to me, personally, nothing could compare to the experience I had on the Evolution Traverse, and still nothing does.