Lateral Thinking in the Sierra

How an epic traverse of a long, exposed ridge in the Sierra was the natural evolution of a life of climbing, exploration and changing perspective.

The Evolution Traverse rises majestically within the Sierra Nevada Mountains of California—an endless granite ridgeline enchaining numerous 13,000-foot peaks named after a group of genetic evolutionists from the 19th century. But the first traverse was not completed until 1997 by Peter Croft, right around the time I was winding down from a prolific decade-and-a-half of global adventure. I became intrigued with the accomplishment and the concept of “lateral thinking.” As Croft says, “Normally you do a route, get to the summit—the prettiest place of them all—and then you just go back down. But when you do a ridge traverse, it is like being on the summit all day long.” Yet this mindset and this brilliant traverse were mainly ignored.

In 2002, Matt Samet did complete an early repeat. Climbing solo he endured a minimal bivi and lost his car key, presumably at his basecamp. The irony is that when Matt was strung out, dehydrated and benighted, focusing on that key at kept him going. Finally he stumbled into the parking lot and was denied the key and the haven of his warm car, and he ended up begging for transport into town for a locksmith.

Last fall, my longtime buddy Josh Smith and I finally decided to go have a look-see. Matt’s key became a mantra for our success. “Find the key, unlock the route,” Josh joked. In seriousness, the Evo Traverse takes low fifth class climbing and propels it into space: It’s a single, knife-edge pathway surrounded by a dozen fatal choices. Repeat for 8.5 miles, or 44,880 steps, every easy move, riveting. It is mentally massive.

Charles Darwin  theorized that species change and adapt over time in order to survive. It took a cadre of similar thinkers— scientists, poets, philosophers— to support his theory. Although specifically referring to genetics, evolution also provides a lovely metaphor for climbing. Keep trying and great things will happen. For example, Croft made several excursions along the traverse before linking the whole thing in one long day. “It’s a lost, or ignored idea,” he says, “the idea of magnificent failure rather than a mediocre success.”

Josh Smith negotiating the ridgeline below Mount Darwin along the Evolution Traverse, John Muir Wilderness, Kings Canyon National Park, Bishop, California.
Josh Smith negotiating the ridgeline below Mount Darwin along the Evolution Traverse, John Muir Wilderness, Kings Canyon National Park, Bishop, California.

On the year of the first Earth Day, in 1970, my parents moved my family into the mountains of western North Carolina, a pristine, wooded valley below Mount Mitchell. We joined Celo Community, a Quaker-based social experiment started in the 1930s. Here I met Josh. We became best friends, spending our days catching crawdads, swinging on grapevines and mixing gunpowder from the formula gleaned from the encyclopedia. By ages 11 and 12, we were competent explorers, often gone for several days at a time hiking the mountain ridgelines in bare feet with only a tarp, pocket knife, billy-can pot and several boxes of 19-cent, plain-label macaroni and cheese dinners. Very early we learned to navigate and persevere. Most important, like the evolutionists, we learned to observe.

We both moved west for college, where I caught the climbing bug and just managed to graduate. My highpoints were fast-and-light, alpine first free ascents. With only self-taught weather forecasting abilities and 7.5-minute paper maps, observational skills determined success. Objective hazards require continual assessment, scanning and deciding how to climb the next 10 feet efficiently and quickly.

Josh, who is more meticulous than I, spent his 20s creating a more mainstream career before inevitably accepting that his Celo upbringing catered well to extreme adventuring. Very quickly, 5.13 became his standard and we became a team again, now 46 years strong. My mentors, however, were 5.11 trad climbers, which was a high standard at the time. Eager to impress, 5.12 was our generation’s obsession. If our teachers climbed 5.11 why couldn’t we do better? This was not a conscious articulation but I now clearly understand it is a primary contributor to the evolution of any human endeavor. Those who come before us contribute to our individual success, mentally at least.

The Evo Traverse comprises 10,000 feet of elevation gain and 26 miles of hiking and climbing. Our approach was all comfort and scenery— tent, sleeping bags, stove and food— or “slow and heavy” if you will. Aside from heavier packs, this plan removed the stress of route-finding in the dark and allowed for a cocktail hour quitting time of 5 p.m. each day to watch the sunset, rehydrate and sleep in comfort. Our arrival also coincided with the first thunderstorm in many weeks and it deposited an inch of hail into unmelted pockets on the north side of the otherwise dry ridgeline. Viola, water problem solved!

A beautiful aspect of adventure is simplicity. A Buddha manages this through isolation, but I have achieved this state many times climbing. It is often called, “the zone.” One benefit of our extended friendship is that Josh and I are able to make the necessary decisions while in the zone. After hiking in for many hours, we quickly adapted to the exposed terrain along the actual ridgeline, instinctively knowing when to get out the rope for safety or when it was time to stop and rest. Although our goal the first day was Mount Darwin, when we reached Mount Mendel, we found a great bivi and happily changed the plan.

During the previous week, a huge forest fire to the west had blanketed the area with dense smoke. Lucky for us that on our first day, the fire abated enough to clear the air where we were camping and yet still intensify the gold colors of western sunset bouncing off the rocks and the Range of Light. I was extremely exhausted but fulfilled and uplifted. Even without Samet’s key I felt like a door had been opened and I was at peace. I could have gone home the next day. This must be the magnificent failure Peter was talking about.

The following morning further established our rhythm of shuffling, scooting, route finding, balancing, grunting and tip toeing. We stopped at each summit register to read about prior ascents. Most discussed the speed of reaching each particular summit, but, occasionally, we found a more practiced assessment of, “moving slow,” like in the entries of longtime alpinists Paul Teare and Jay Smith, Although I enjoy reading about summit history, I have never felt comfortable with the arrogance of attaching name and paper to a mountain top so I photographed Josh reading the registers instead. Certainly, my opinion also displays a type arrogance.

Our second morning found us closer to the smoky valleys outlining the distant eastern skyline of the Palisade Traverse, another five-star objective traversing past several 14,000 foot peaks. Feeling satisfied as we approached Mount Huxley, the final obstacle to this endless serpentine ridgeline, I began to fantasize about future objectives we might attempt together, such as the Palisades. Stop, I said to myself, this is how accidents happen. So I refocused my vision onto each and every foot placement.

Suddenly, there it was, just lying on a rock. I whooped at Josh, who was just ahead. He immediately recognized the tiny black oval shaped object—Samet’s lost VW key.

“No way,” he said, “not possible, no way.”

Coincidence or destiny, premonition or intuition? Certainly it was a needle in a haystack but that is exactly the kind of attention that is required for lateral thinking.

Kennan Harvey is a photographer based in Durango. You can see his work and read more of his adventures at

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