Classic Routes: Evolution Traverse (VI 5.9), Sierra Nevada, California

8 miles, 9 summits—High Sierra air
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Andy Wyatt negotiates the “Golden Triangle,” a section of perfect granite roughly halfway through the Evolution Traverse.

Andy Wyatt negotiates the “Golden Triangle,” a section of perfect granite roughly halfway through the Evolution Traverse.

When a Sierra Nevada connoisseur like Peter Croft calls a ridge traverse the most classic he’s done (see his chapter in Fifty Favorite Climbs), you know it’s no exaggeration. Deep in the Evolution Basin, 10 miles north of the more famous Palisade Traverse, lurks this granite monster: an eight-mile rollercoaster across nine 13,000-foot summits in an arcing J that presents its technical crux in the first half but then hammers you with an endurance crux in the second, as you stagger along the fourth- and low-fifth class, stair-stepping talus of the final peaks.

Climbing over summits named for evolutionists—Mount Darwin, Mount Mendel, Mount Haeckel, etc.—Evolution Traverse has its two 5.9 technical cruxes, a pair of squeeze-chimney downclimbs (or rappels), getting over to, then off, the plateau of Mount Darwin. However, bracketing these is loads of sustained, exposed knife-edge, with vast slabs and unwelcoming gullies tilting down to silent snows thousands of feet below, pinning you to the airy ridgetop.

Croft made Evolution’s first integral ascent in July 1999. He’d attempted the climb earlier with two different partners: In 1997, Croft and the late Galen Rowell climbed the final two-thirds, as the first third didn’t really speak to Rowell, tackling a nameless peak (Peak 13,385) to begin. In 1998, Croft and Dale Mazzarella began at the proper start, climbing roughly two-thirds of the traverse out to Mount Haeckel where Mazzarella succumbed to fatigue. In July 1999, Croft returned solo (of course!) and dispatched the ridge from toe to final summit—Mount Huxley—in 13 hours, an effort he called harder than climbing El Cap in a day. While the climbing is never too difficult, the altitude (oscillating between 12,000 and 13,000 feet), exposure, relentless sun, paucity of water, and sheer length of the endeavor make it a logistical and stamina challenge.

These days, most parties break the trip up into two days, bivying atop Darwin to regroup and replenish. (Or you can, as Sean O’Rourke did in September 2016 with the fastest known time, go car-to-car in 17:42.) Regardless, the original challenge as thrown down by Croft remains—the entire traverse, in a day, full bore, no stopping. While for climbing’s Energizer Bunny this was perhaps just another day in the hills, for the rest of us it remains a bucket-list tick to aspire to in any style.

Location

Evolution Basin, Sierra Nevada, California

Grade

VI 5.9

Length

8 miles

Elevation change

10,000-plus feet

First Ascent

Peter Croft, July 1999

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