On 8/18/11 Mike and I headed down to the Tioga Pass area and climbed the West Ridge of Mt. Conness (12,590'). This route is known as one the finest of its kind in the Sierra: grade III, 5.6 at most but primarily 4th class and low 5th, on very clean and nicely featured alpine granite, on a nice distinct ridge for about 1500'.
It's a long approach (all the way over the Sierra crest) but the climb is so incredibly classic and the rock is so perfect that it's totally worth it.
(A) Turn off highway 120 near Tioga Lake, onto the Saddlebag Lake road. Head up that road about two miles, not all the way to Saddlebag Lake, but to Sawmill Walk-In Campground (B). If you're coming from far away, the best plan is to sleep there the night before so you can start early. The base of the route is at (C).
Start at first light. If you're going to carry gear and use ropes and protection on many pitches, you'd want to start in the dark with headlamps. We returned to the car around 5 going ropeless and you'd take at least 2-3 hours longer if you pitched it all out.
^ The mountain above is not Conness, it's White Mountain which you see instead from Sawmill campground. Included here to give you an idea of the amount of snow left near the crest!
^ There's a lot of water on the way. You should bring enough capacity for 3 liters per person, but don't start with it full, just a liter per. When you reach these upper meadows, drink up but still don't fill your containers. You can fill up on the west side before you start the climb.
There are two good routes over the crest. One is what we used as our descent route, but it crosses too high and wastes some time and energy although it's 2nd class and easy. It takes a good half hour longer. See upper loop of the map below. The preferred way to cross the crest is to stay with the low trail through the canyon as long as you can find it, and don't take any branches up to the right. Just as the solid cliff appearance of the crest ahead of you is starting to get worrisome you spy a snowy notch somewhat to the left, with a ramp that leads from lower right to upper left to access it. If you get your approach right it's 2nd class, and if you shoot a little too low you have a 3rd class scramble. Works all right either way. The snow at the top may look difficult but by the time you get there there's usually a little passage around it.
So you top out like this:
And you can see way out west, the Cathedral and Clark ranges and Mt. Hoffman. Check the map, from here you do a slightly rising traverse around a gently sloped sand bowl to reach a high point to your west where a rib of rock and talus meets the crest. You then use this rib to descend the west side. It's the primary rib south of Conness. Peter Croft advises crossing higher and sliding down the main scree chute between here and Conness, which is fine if you like scree.
The only difficulty on the descending rib is some slabby stuff at the bottom. In a dry year you can just downclimb and hop from ledge to ledge. This year we had help or challenge from snow depending on how you see it.
Now you're in the bowl southwest of Mt. Conness, looking up at the great Southwest Face, home to some super-badass backcountry 5.10 and beyond.
You find the toe of the west ridge rather indistinct at the bottom, so there are many possible mistakes to be made in picking a starting point. Don't start at the far right, it's lower quality. But also don't go too far left because you end up too far over when the ridge gets more distinct. Just march up the easiest cracks and slabs. The ridge soon gets more definite.
There are plenty of great rest spots on the way up.
You get better and better views to the south and west as you continue up. We started to see the Merced Range and Half Dome, and higher up you get Lyell, Ritter/Banner, Dana, and views northward to the Sawtooth area.
Close up from the previous pic, nice long-distance view of Half Dome and the Cathedral Range, etc.
By the time you're about 300 feet up the ridge draws together nicely and you're really on a dragon's back.
This route spends much of its time being absolutely perfect... perfect hand or finger jams, perfect hand traversing right up the crest of the arete... with good feet on the left, and on the right if you happen to reach over and take a look you're looking 800 feet or more down the southwest face.
There are some fabulous hand-traverse and double-crack spots and places where it's like crossing the ridgeline of a house.
There are spots where the ridge turns to a picket fence and you go over pinnacles and knife edges. But if you follow the most obvious route you never end up stuck. Good cracks and blocks always bring you through.
After a third to halfway up (or from the very start, depending on skill level) you can stash your rock shoes and change over to sticky-soled approach/guide shoes for more comfort. Unless you really like wearing climbing shoes for 1500 feet. There are a couple of places like this where it's 3rd class and you almost stand up and walk, but not quite. Mostly it's 4th and low 5th.
Almost 100% of the time once you're on this ridge you'll find that the best terrain is always closest to the very spine of it. When in doubt move farther right or step onto anything higher than you are.
There's one place where you climb up the edge of a huge detached (but totally solid) flake and then stem across from it to a perfect finger-lock that lets you step across onto the main rock again and keep going. Little spots like that are 5.6ish, thus the overall rating. But it's mostly a 4th and low-5th climb.
This next shot shows the talus and bedrock ridge (middle of the pic, with some shrubby pines) that you use on the approach. In the distance there's Parker, Kuna, Koip, Banner, Ritter, Lyell, Maclure, the Merced and Clark and Cathedral ranges.
The West Ridge remains amazingly good climbing until just a short distance below the summit, then you hike up boulders for just the last couple of minutes. I stopped getting good photos around there as my pocket camera got stuck on the wrong setting for a while.
Looking down the East Ridge toward Tioga Peak. There's the Conness Glacier and its permanent snowfield, great spot for spring and even summer skiing. And a corner of Saddlebag Lake. The easy 2nd class descent from Conness (or a great way to hike up it with non-climbing partners) can be seen in the upper right of this shot... after coming down the eastern summit ridge you end up on sand trails that reach a high point with obvious rock cairns near that far tongue of snow; you then follow a clear and visible, though steep and sandy, trail on down the lower part of the East Ridge (see map with route loop above).
Looking north toward White Mountain on the way back down the canyon to Sawmill. From here on down there's just one beautiful meadow after another.
All in all, a great route, highly recommended. I've done this one several times now and would gladly go right back and do it again. If you go, be ready for the combination of the long approach and return plus a 1500' rock climb at altitude. Get a good weather report, start early and you can't go too wrong. It's a huge day but you'll agree that it's one of the most classic dragon-spine ridges you ever went up.