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The 4×4: Croft's Big Four Sierra Routes Back to Back

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Hiking in to Keeler Needle (center) at dawn on Day One of the 4x4. Photo by Aaron Richards.
Hiking in to Keeler Needle (center) at dawn on Day 1 of the 4×4. Photo by Aaron Richards.

7/23/14 – When California-based guides Ian McEleney and Aaron Richards read about the “Big Four” Sierra Nevada alpine routes in Peter Croft’s The Good, the Great, and the Awesome guidebook, a seed was planted. This summer that seed sprouted into an impressive endurance challenge: Climb all four of these Sierra classics back to back in four days.

The Big Four are the Harding Route on the east face of Keeler Needle, Dark Star on Temple Crag, the Harding Route on the southwest face of Mt. Conness, and the Red Dihedral on the Incredible Hulk. The challenge of linking the four routes is not so much technical difficulty—they max out at around 5.10c—but the fact that each has a long approach and descent, and the trailheads span the length of the Sierra’s east side.

The two men began June 27 on Keeler Needle, the highest of the summits and the longest hike and descent, and completed the 14-pitch Harding Route in 15.5 hours car to car. After Chinese food in Lone Pine, they drove north to a bivy below the trailhead to Temple Crag. During the approach the next morning, they bumped into Doug Robinson, one of the first ascensionists of Dark Star, and with this auspicious start to the day they cruised the 2,400-foot route and made it back to the car 14.5 hours after leaving.

That night they bivouacked comfortably at McEleney’s home in Mammoth, where they refueled with a big dinner and a luxurious seven hours of sleep. Next up was Conness, where the approach to the southwest face requires hiking nearly to the top of the 12,648-foot peak and then descending 1,000 feet to the start of the Harding Route (5.10c). Both men were dragging now, and wet rock on several sections of the eight-pitch route forced them to dig deep. But after a 13.5-hour round trip they had topped out and made it back to the car.

Ian McEleney (left) and Aaron Richards on top of Temple Crag (Day 2). Photo by Ian McEleney.

After another drive and late dinner, they settled in for six hours of sleep and then headed up the trail to the Incredible Hulk. Neither of the men had done the Red Dihedral (12 pitches, 5.10), but the end of the journey was in sight. The route “was exactly what we needed right then,” McEleney wrote at his blog. “Well what we really needed was a nap, but 1,200 feet of top-notch granite crack climbing was an okay substitute.” After another 12-hour-plus day, they headed back to McEleney’s house for pizza and a single celebratory beer before passing out.

In all, the 4×4 required more than 42 miles of hiking and 34 roped pitches, plus extensive scrambling. Perhaps most telling, of the 87 total elapsed hours over four days they spent about 56 hours either hiking or climbing.

You can read Aaron Richards’ account of the 4×4 at the Sierra Mountain Center blog and Ian McEleney’s story at his blog.

Dates of ascents: June 27–30, 2014

Sources: Aaron Richards,,