The Evolution Group, a subrange of the Sierra Nevada, was the site of an important milestone in local climbing last month.
Twenty-six-year-old Austin Siadak left his car at North Lake on June 23, hiked over Lamarck Col to Darwin Bench in Sequoia-Kings National Park, climbed roughly eight miles of technical alpine rock, then retraced his steps back to his car, in less than 24 hours. On June 24, after 23 hours and 58 minutes on the go, Siadak became the first recorded person to complete this mission within one day. Previously, the fastest car-to-car time was 27 hours.
This endeavor, dubbed the Evolution Traverse and first completed by local legend Peter Croft in 1999, usually takes parties anywhere between two and five days before they make it back to a parking lot. Few have done the entire ridge proper from camp to camp, let alone car to car.
The Evolution Traverse lies about 10 miles away from the North Lake trailhead and is guarded by rugged Lamarck Col (12,900 feet). The traverse itself involves climbing nine distinct mountains, every summit standing taller than 13,000 feet. Eight continuous miles of ridge connects each peak like an immense granite spine, and the route follows the skyline the entire time. The enchainment begins at Darwin Bench (11,200 feet) and rises to the route‚Äôs high point, Mt. Darwin (13,831 feet) within its first third. It continues south to Mt. Wallace before hooking west, then north to its final summit, Mt. Huxley. After descending Huxley and connecting to the John Muir Trail, one must hike approximately five miles to simply get back to the start of the traverse. To move safely and efficiently over this much terrain takes an immense amount of mental and physical energy. To do so in less than 24 hours takes something more: an unprecedented amount of drive.
Seattle-born Siadak began flirting with climbing as a sophomore at Tufts University in Massachusetts, going to the climbing gym after school once a week. As a junior, Siadak studied abroad in Chile and backpacked in the Patagonia region of South America.
‚ÄúThat was my first exposure to vast, wild places. I was amazed,‚ÄĚ he says. Every so often while hiking, he would encounter war-torn, but smiling alpinistas coming out from the distant monoliths of places like Torres Del Paine. They would sometimes even stop and share quick glimpses of their adventures through chapped lips. Siadak ‚Äď who had still never climbed outside ‚Äď was inspired by the Chilean towers and the characters who scaled them, and deciding to take climbing a bit more seriously upon his return to the States.
In the summer of 2009, with the help of a mentor, Siadak elevated his technical climbing prowess by a large margin. As his strength and technique grew, so did his skill set. He began climbing progressively more challenging routes, Siadak recalls. ‚ÄúThe coolest thing about climbing is where it can take you. So much more was open to me now.‚ÄĚ
In 2010, Siadak visited Yosemite Valley to test his newfound skills, and like all climbers new to ‚ÄúThe Granite Crucible,‚ÄĚ was humbled. ‚ÄúI got crushed,‚ÄĚ he says of the visit. ‚ÄúYosemite is ‚Ä¶ hard!‚ÄĚ Instead of being discouraged, Siadak became more fired up than ever. He went directly to the east side of the Sierra and summited his first mountain: North Palisade Peak. Naively, he climbed the U-Notch route in double plastic mountaineering boots and steel crampons (heavy gear more suitable for the Himalaya than the Sierra). From his camp in Sam Mack Meadow to the summit, and back, took him a long 12 hours. Again, instead of being discouraged by his laborious pace, he was ecstatic. ‚ÄúGaining summits via technical routes was the way forward for me,‚ÄĚ he says. ‚ÄúIt was the perfect combination of my passions for rock climbing and being in the alpine environment.‚ÄĚ
In 2011, Siadak says he ‚Äútruly became a climber,‚ÄĚ declining a job offer with the State Department and instead ‚Äúopted for an outdoor lifestyle.‚ÄĚ Siadak‚Äôs love for the aesthetics of the mountain environment also inspired him to capture as much of it as he could from behind a lens. ‚ÄúI lived in my minivan, just climbing and taking photos,‚ÄĚ he recalls. A self-taught photographer and filmmaker, Siadak eventually became the head editor of Duct Tape Then Beer, a company dedicated to developing and distributing outdoor related media content.
This position, ‚Äúwhile very rewarding,‚ÄĚ says Siadak, began to again take away from the passions that led him there in the first place. In the winter of 2013, Siadak found himself once again in South America, this time joining the alpinistas in climbing those very towers and peaks that had inspired him years ago. By 2014, Siadak had accumulated a very impressive alpine ticklist, including multiple ascents of the Fitzroy Massif in Patagonia (via various routes and link-ups), speedy ascents of Half Dome and El Capitan in Yosemite, and first ascents in the Cascades, Sierra and Southern Andes.
The Evolution Traverse in a day was just another step in the evolution of Siadak‚Äôs climbing career. He was well prepared for the challenges inherent in a mission of its magnitude. That is not to say that it was easy by any means. In order to move over that much technical terrain that quickly, Siadak took minimal gear. Besides water, clothes and about 2,000 calories worth of food, all he brought was 100 feet of 8mm diameter rope for the possibility of a rappel, a decent control device and sling harness, and a pair of lightweight aluminum crampons. He also brought two pairs of shoes and two Modelo Especials as a reward for his return to Darwin Bench after the traverse. His light pack, combined with Siadak‚Äôs accumulated skill and fitness, allowed him to race into the backcountry, move efficiently and safely over uncountable gendarmes and chasms, and make history by returning back to his car within a day.
The adventure was a success, but barely. After more than 20 hours on the go, Siadak lost the trail while going back over Lamarck Col. Siadak writes about this experience on supertopo.com: ‚ÄúI was having trouble making decisions on which direction to head, and my balance felt off ‚Ä¶ Without any moonlight I couldn‚Äôt tell exactly where the tiny notch of the col was, but I figured I‚Äôd just follow the cairns up and over. No problem, right? ‚Ä¶ About 20 minutes later I realized it had been quite some time since I‚Äôd seen a cairn ‚Ä¶ For the first time in many hours, doubt began to creep back in. I truly did not know if I should head further left or further right ‚Ä¶ Nothing looked familiar, it was way too steep. But I knew I was eating away at my time, and the thought of retracing my steps back down the slope was unthinkable ‚Ä¶ The lizard brain was starting to take over. I looked straight down at the slope below me. I could see steep snow ‚Ä¶ I pulled out my crampons and started down the steep, icy crust ‚Ä¶‚ÄĚ
After spending about two hours navigating what should have taken less than one, Siadak found himself finally heading down the far side of the Col, although still not on the actual trail. It was the sting in the scorpion‚Äôs tail, this seemingly minor mistake, and after all the exertions and danger of the last 22 hours, only this hardship remained.
Siadak writes, ‚ÄúI ripped my crampons off my shoes and looked at the clock ‚Ä¶ I had 6-7 miles and 3,200 feet to descend, and less than an hour and a half to do it. I did some quick mental math ‚Ä¶ If I wanted to beat 24 hours, there was only one way it was going to happen. And boy did I want it. Bad. They say cocaine is a hell of a drug. Well, desire is a hell of an emotion. And so I cinched down my pack straps, tied my shoelaces tight, and started to run.‚ÄĚ
With two minutes to spare, Siadak collapsed at the trailhead, just another war-torn alpinista, smiling through chapped lips.