There is general consensus that this is the best moderate "alpine"--where that means snow, rock, and sometimes ice and mixed--climb in the Sierra Nevada. Seen from the curious and wonderful Stone House, Winter Route is a series of two snow gullies connected by a rock pitch and capped with a rock headwall. In the summer these gullies are full of fragrant wildflowers.
Hike up the obvious trail at the end of the road, go right over the creek, and reach the Ashram. From the Stone House identify the bottom of the first gully and the field of giant boulders. To get there diagonal directly towards the bottom of the fully but go through the maze of giant boulders on the far left. If you go through the middle you will waste a lot of time fighting bushes.
After navigating the labyrinth of boulders to the base of the first gully, go up it until the terrain steepens. Either traverse left on a ledge into large right-facing dihedral, which can be climbed in a couple of pitches into the second gully (rappel may be necessary depending on snow cover), or climb straight up through a short chimney directly into the second gully. Sometimes an ice pitch will form on the right side of the first gully which can be used to get into the second one; to get to it take a right-hand branch of the first gully from around its midpoint. I've never seen this fabled ice pitch, though.
Proceed up the second gully until it narrows into a chimney. There may or may not be ice there depending on how lucky you are. Take this in one short pitch to the Winter Route Notch then rappel down the other side to a giant ledge (no station--sling a flake on the headwall side). One can bivy comfortably on the ledge but in ideal conditions it would be easy for an efficient party to finish the route in a day, even in winter.
There are four headwall pitches. There is supposedly a fourth class way up the far left side of the headwall if you're running short on time, but I haven't done it. The traditional headwall finish goes straight up from the large tree then traverses about twenty feet right on a ledge to the base of a groove which diagonals to the right. Climb this for about ten feet then traverse left onto the face. As of winter 2011 there is a fixed knifeblade on this pitch. If it has snowed recently and this pitch can't be climbed in boots or rock shoes, it is delicate M5 dry-tooling over thin gear (knifeblades and microcams). It is 5.7 in summer but the slabby nature of the pitch makes it challenging in crampons. Reach another large ledge,then either continue straight up 5.5 or go left past a large chockstone in a short gully to giant ledge number two.
Identify a steep, narrow, loose-looking gully above. It is difficult to access directly; traditionally, a 5.7 pitch is taken on its left, a belay is set about a hundred feet up, then the leader either 5.9 slab climbs or tension traverses into the gully, which is 5.4. After the gully one pitch of 5.0 gains the sandy summit plateau.
The descent is not trivial. When you reach the summit plateau (or after you summit), find the east ridge and follow it keeping it to your left until you reach a very broad gully. Take it directly down towards Tuttle Creek. About 500 vertical feet before you reach the creek go up and left to a saddle in the left-hand ridge; it helps to identify this saddle from the dirt road on the approach. If you go straight down the gully and miss the saddle in the dark, you will enter the Mirkwood of the Sierra Nevada, replete with spiders and stinging nettle. Once through the saddle run down sand or snow to a dirt road on the north side of the creek. When you are across from your car cross the creek (sometimes this is a very wet crossing).
The route is located on the huge south face of Lone Pine Peak in the north Tuttle Creek drainage. To get there, go to Lone Pine, CA, take a left on Whitney Portal Rd, another left on Horseshoe Meadows Rd, and a right on Granite View Dr. Continue up this until just before a ranch house, then take a good dirt road on the right into the Tuttle Creek drainage. There are two parking areas: one always accessible by a low-clearance car, and a higher one sporadically accessible by a low-clearance car. I have seen a truck nearly fall off the upper road into the abyss (it had to be winched out), but I've driven it several times in a Toyota Corolla. The road really isn't that bad, but the late Brutus of Wyde described it poetically, in wilder times, in his wonderful Windhorse trip report on SummitPost:
"High Side!" I roar as the road tilts sickeningly toward the 700-foot-deep canyon bottom. Em scoots across the back bumper of the truck, adding her slight weight to the mass of gear stacked against the uphill side of the camper. The truck crawls across this most dangerous stretch of road, sand trickling down-slope from beneath the outside wheels, rivulets of erosion dribbling through the hourglass of geologic change, the road migrating out from under the truck, one grain of sand at a time, to the bottom of the gorge, thence out into the long alluvial wasteland of Owens Valley and the Alabama Hills. Moments later we pull into the sandy parking at road's end, breathing a sigh of relief at having cheated the forces of entropy once again.
In summer, light alpine rack including a couple of thin pieces for the first headwall pitch and webbing for the rappel from the notch. In winter, also take a couple of ice screws and a couple of knifeblades (only in bad weather--they're not necessary if the first headwall pitch can be climbed without crampons). The descent is a walk-off.
By Peter Lewis
From: Bridgton, Maine
Jan 28, 2014
That anecdote in the "Location" section is priceless. No thanks, I'll walk from the lower lot.
By Richard Shore
Apr 21, 2016
A more appropriate winter conditions grade - 5.7A0/5.9 AI2 M2-3. According to Secor, the route joins the last 6 pitches of the Direct South Face route, and the beta presented here for the headwall is a variation to that. From the rappel at the notch, head way left and up 4th class through the "Eye of the Needle", then back right on a huge ledge system. Take the 5.8 Smrz variation handcrack on the headwall above for the single best pitch on the whole climb.
By Hamik Mukelyan
From: Pasadena, CA
2 days ago
The 5.7 knifeblade pitch is indeed a variation on the canonical winter route, but it's a cool short pitch. I wonder if it would still feel like M5 to me now! I will stand by it being harder than M2-3 though. Correct me if I'm wrong Shore, but I think you're characterizing the mixed chimney with that grade.