After my last suffer-fest, something more relaxed and vertical sounded good, and a 2-night climb of the ultra-classic south face of Charlotte Dome fit the bill. Located right in the middle of the Sierra between Road’s End and Onion Valley, it can be approached from either direction. Though it is slightly longer and harder, we chose the eastern approach, camping at Charlotte Lake to make use of the food locker. The route lived up to its reputation, with sustained, varied, and super-fun climbing.
Jen and I got a comfortably late start from Onion Valley and, after dropping our packs at Charlotte Lake, scrambled up the nearby talus heap known as Bago. We hung out there for awhile, enjoying views of the Great Western Divide to the southwest, Stanford and the Center Basin area peaks to the south, and Charlotte Dome to the west. We returned to camp when it started to get cold, meeting the Charlotte Lake ranger couple (I’m not sure which one is stationed there) and their young son. Since Jen was in charge of dinner, I ate well for a change, better fare than my usual dinner when camping (fish and powdered mashed potatoes) or even at “home” (tuna and mixed vegetables on tortillas).
After a long but less-cold-than-expected night, we got a late start with the late sunrise, taking a well-established use trail to the side of the dome, then going down and across low-angle slabs to the start of the route. We saw a party of three ahead of us on the route, where they remained for most of the day. They climbed efficiently for such a party, and we distracted ourselves by trying unsuccessfully to pass them a couple of times, so we did not have do too much waiting. I also managed to slow us down by wasting time failing to clean nuts — it was not my day. We soloed up to the first belay, then geared up on a small ledge next to a tree with many rap slings.
Jen led P1, following obvious cracks up some easy terrain above the tree. I led P2, continuing up, then following a seam of pink, stair-step rock up to the right onto a face crossed by shallow, flaring cracks, where I hit the end of the rope. While it was easy to climb, it was surprisingly hard to build an anchor here, and I spent some time wandering around before finding a decent stance where I could build something dubious. P3 brought us up to a nice belay below and to the right of the other party. I tried to pass them to the right on P4, but retreated from an unprotected slab traverse, and finished a short pitch up to the other party’s belay. I had a chance to chat with one member of the other party for a few minutes while belaying Jen up.
P5 followed a crack/dihedral to a small overhanging block, which Jen dealt with via a painful-looking knee jam. Easier climbing above the roof led to the belay. I once again tried to pass the other party on P6, this time by heading straight up toward some old gear rather than to the right. Thanks perhaps to my failed nut-cleaning activities, I was not mentally up it, and carefully backed off, cleaning a few pieces. Defeated, I followed the other party to the right, climbing a narrow, painfully spiny chimney and the adjacent face to a semi-hanging belay below the other party. Jen, following, enjoyed the “nicely featured off-width,” but had to leave it to clean a piece I placed on the face.
P7 followed a crack to the other party’s belay, then continued up a fun but hard-to-protect face, finishing with what I thought were some thin moves (I was glad not to lead them). P8 headed right into some huge, steep fins with 3-foot channels and huecos between them, leading to a comfortable belay ledge with some bushes. Protection was weird — I slung a couple of horns, and made a detour to the right to place a cam on a double-length sling — but this was a super-fun and, to me, secure pitch. Several of the channels apparently go, as we were able to climb parallel to the other party.
Jen led P9 in parallel as well, on a roomy, featured face on the left-hand side of the brushy ledge. The pitch ended on a wider ledge with a large tree. I led the last real pitch, which started with a slightly tricky traverse, then finished up an awesome orange face covered with positive holds. From here, it was an easy scramble to the summit. We somehow managed to briefly lose track of each other, and then the use trail, on the way back, reaching camp in the dark after 7:00.
Since the hike out is short, we decided to tag Gardiner before packing up. The 4th class finish was as fun as I remembered, but we were both a bit more tired than we realized; the extra miles made the endless horizontal switchbacks down Kearsarge Pass a bit of a death march. Still, it was a good weekend and a great climb.