August – September 2008
This was to be my second time at the summit of Mount Whitney, the tallest mountain in the contiguous United States standing at 14,505 feet.
Was I nervous? Not really. I was a little apprehensive about the part where I’d be carrying not only my climbing gear but my backpacking gear and an SLR camera as well. The first time I’d summited Mt. Whitney I had done the popular Portal hike which is done on one long day of hiking and I had only brought the smallest of cameras then.
This time I was part of a party of five. We were divided into two climbing groups: K, Cliff, and I; and Matt and Peter. Matt had been the one to get permits for us months before the trip.
The plan was to have one day of travel, camp up at Horseshoe Meadows (elevation just slightly over 10,000 feet) and then backpack into Whitney beginning from the Portal and ending up at Iceberg Lake (elevation 12,640 feet). We’d then take technical rockclimbing routes to the summit (everyone would get pitches to lead) then come down the Mountaineer’s Route back to camp, spend one night there, do a nearby route the next day and then hike out.
It all went perfectly as planned. The end.
Day one goes well, we get up to Horseshoe, quite a bit of extra driving but worth it for the price (free at that time of night) and for a day of acclimation. All of us live basically at sea level and in fact Peter lives quite literally at sea level on his boat.
In the morning Peter and Matt were to get the permits and meet K and I at the trail head (we got to eat the delicious breakfast at the portal. You can’t miss this, seriously).
K and I waited, and waited, and waited, and waited. Finally Matt shows up and it turns out all these months he had the wrong permit. However he was able to stand in line for a lottery for permits and was able to get the correct permit… but we couldn’t leave until the next day.
This put a damper on our plans of course but we figured we’d just cut out the extra day of summiting the non-Whitney peak. Also we had not heard from Cliff who was supposed to have arrived so waiting another day would give him a chance to show.
We all went on a day hike up part of the John Muir trail instead then spent the night at Horseshoe again.
The next day K realizes he’s forgotten to pack our rack. We really hope that Cliff is showing up now as we need his gear. Matt and Peter set out ahead of us, knowing that K and I will bail if Cliff doesn’t show.
We wait at the portal long enough to for it to be hamburger time & fortunately Cliff shows up sometime after and we are overjoyed!
We all get on the road and set a fast pace as we hope to make Iceberg Lake before the sun sets.
You follow the portal trail just a few miles before taking a fork that heads steeply up a hill. There’s a big boulder to the right of the trail and a sign that points that way. Then it’s quite a ways up a picturesque trail.
The going isn’t too hard and then you get to the famous Ebersbacher ledges. This is 4th class, and you need to watch your balance if you’ve got a backpack on that’s a little top heavy (like I did unfortunately).
After the ledges it’s more trail. Vegetation eventually gets sparser and boulders get bigger though the trail does take you through the easiest path to Lower Boyscout Lake.
After Lower Boyscout Lake the trail becomes scrambling through small boulders. Towards the top of this portion of the trail route finding becomes more difficult because you get to a granite slope with wide streams. You need to cross over but of course this makes the granite rock quite slippery. There are many cairns but I think some were made with different water levels in mind. The trick was just to stay very vigilant and just keep going uphill though you definitely want to end up to the right of all the water.
After the stream crossings and more hiking you get to a ravine where you can see some of the peaks next to Whitney, you can travel along the bottom, cut across mid way, or take the high path which leads up to a small run off water fall. At this time there was a lot of moss on those rocks. This was the way K had gone before so we went that way again.
I had my own crisis here. It came to the point where there wasn’t any dry rock to step on. You had to do a smear move on wet rock. I was wearing my old Adidas hiking shoes. They are ok shoes, I bought them on sale a long time ago from Sport Chalet. The bottoms however leave a lot to be desired in the grip department. Five Tennies these are not. Vibram they are not. Add to this that I was using an old North Face pack with a broken strap which was top heavy. I felt that if I had even the smallest wrong angle on me the pack would pull me backwards and I’d slip and slide my way down the steep slope we’d come up. I stuck my hands into the mossy, muddy muck trying to find a handhold around some crevices. It didn’t help. The guys were holding their hands & even feet out to me but I needed to step up just to get a good grasp on even K’s foot. So, I finally did step up.
I made it and took two steps to a semi flat area (this was still all on a steep slope) and I let out a sob. An actual sob. You may not know me very well nor my climbing/adventure history but trust me when I say that I am not only not a person who sobs much but even tearing up is rare. Tease me if you will but that little portion was scarier to me than many lead climbs I’ve done. The sob was one of relief. We weren’t done yet, there was a bit of boulder problem to get up to a much flatter area. I watched Cliff do it and when he said don’t go that way I knew not to (he’s a heck of a strong climber). I found another way and was up. We crested the ridge and saw a boulder strewn valley, and further on got our closest look at the east face of the Day and Keeler needles and Mt. Whitney yet.
We marched on. I saw some figures ahead, one stood up hesitantly. As we closed in on them their body language changed, “Wow you guys made it! You did good time!” It was Peter and Matt. And indeed we had made good time, we still had about 30 minutes of sunlight left.
The wind, which we would get all too familiar with, had started to kick up. It was strong enough to blow small rocks around and you had to lean into it a bit. There were pre-made rock walls mostly set up against larger boulders scattered in the valley. There was another party with tents set up on the opposite side of the big boulder where Peter and Matt had staked his tent. K and I and Cliff set up near them as well. After a quick look around and water pumping at Iceberg Lake we went back to the tents.
The wind had picked up enough that I was having trouble walking. If I only had one foot on the ground and another in the air I was sometimes spun around.
By night time the wind had gotten worse.
Sleeping at altitude is sometimes hard to do. When your tent is constantly being buffered by winds and small rocks, it’s even harder. Our tent, a Mountain Hardwear freestanding tent, was sturdy but its walls were being pushed in far enough to hit us in the face.
K tried to arrange things a little better but it didn’t help. Finally we realized one of the tent poles had broken.
It was pretty much a sleepless night.
In the morning the wind was still going. When it didn’t ease off by 8AM we started to worry. Peter decided he’d make an exploratory trek up some of the Mountaineer’s Route to see if the wind was better there. It looked warmer there at least (more sun). He came back to report it was just as bad.
Meanwhile Cliff wasn’t feeling very well. He hadn’t had the benefit of being able to acclimate at Horseshoe before hiking in like the rest of us had. Our party of three decided we’d wait a day to summit. The wind was so crazy you didn’t really want to walk around, you’d get sand blasted, or worse, pebble blasted, since the wind was strong enough to carry small rocks and not just sand. Cliff tried to make a makeshift splint for our tent pole. We studied the guidepages and the rock face. We got water when we had to.
We all spent another cold and windy night near Iceberg Lake. The other party of folks left. Another couple camped a little further from us but they left during the day too, we never even got to talk to them.
This second night the wind must have died down a little bit. At least I know that I got a few hours of sleep anyway.
The next morning the wind was gone. The sun was out and it was gorgeous! Of course there were still breezes though, which were quite chilly from going over the snow at the bottom of cliffs or along the glacier up the Mountaineer’s Route.
We all set out up the Mountaineer’s Route. I was wearing my down jacket but about half way up the scree and boulders to the base of the climbs I took it off and stashed it, feeling it was too bulky to carry with me anyway. Cue music now.
K had decided he wanted to do the East Face. I liked the idea though it was supposed to be around 13 pitches. From descriptions in the guidebook and discussions we had read online it seemed like we’d be able to string pitches together or simul-climb them so I was hoping it wouldn’t be too tough. Peter and Matt set out for the East Buttress, a much more straight forward route. We all planned to go down the Mountaineer’s Route back to camp. Because of the permit mix up Peter & Matt had to leave tonight as they had to work the next day, K however had built in an extra vacation day to recover from our trip at home so we were instead planning on using it to spend one more night in the Whitney area (maybe we’d go down to Lower Boyscout Lake) and then hike out the next day depending on when we got down from the summit.
All five of us set out. K was the primary leader and found the base of the climb. However Cliff decided to bow out, he hadn’t had a restful night sleep since he’d arrived and I think he thought he’d let us go faster as a party of two, he’s a very considerate climber and would do things like that.
Climbing the East Face Route
We each brought an insulating layer, K brought his Patagonia R1 and I brought my favorite jacket of all time, a Sierra Designs Windstopper jacket with zipper vents. We also had gloves and our “emergency gear” as we called it: a fleece beanie, a headlamp and a lightweight rain shell. Additionally we had water, bars, some granola, and I had brought my SLR camera with a wide angle lense and a protective case. I carried gear in my Black Diamond Bullet Pack. It’s small and fairly sleek and I’ve found it very handy for trad climbing.
We pretty much brought a full rack which means a full set of Black Diamond cams, plus nuts. We also had slings and cordelette.
Pitch 1. No problem. It’s the type of climb which you can approach in whatever way you want, use some cracks or just do edges or even face.
Pitch 2. More of the same.
Pitch 3. Nice looking crack, almost in a dihedral. After I watch K finish though I’m already thinking, this isn’t a 5.8. When I get on it I think, “Either I have regressed drastically in my crack climbing ability – which is a possibility – or this is NOT the climb we are supposed to be on”. When I get to the summit and realize it’s just a tiny point of a pinnacle and the side opposite of the one I was climbing on doesn’t lead up to anything – well that’s when I knew we had definitely gone off route. Not only that but I also knew that getting down without leaving gear was going to be a bear.
I’m pretty tired from this pitch and having to balance on the top of this pinnacle is getting into my head a little. From this vantage point we see that we were probably just supposed to go up about 4 feet from where we last were and traverse over to the next pitch. It would’ve been easy.
Oh well, now we have to get down. Time and energy are running on the low side, remember we’ve had very little sleep the past two days.
K gets down and thinks he can lower me, I can rap on the side we didn’t climb up. I’m fairly certain I’ll take a bad swing and we’d still have to come back up to clean stuff. So eventually I get lowered to a ledge which I then downclimb while roped and K leads back up and gets the gear. This takes up a good chunk of time. I think we should bail. K thinks we can make it. The next part is the Fresh Air traverse. I’m kind of eager to do it and for some reason think that we won’t have that many more pitches left after it.
Pitch 4. Fresh Air Traverse. It’s aptly named. You have to traverse and if you look below your feet you’ll see a very tall drop off. The air feels very thin as you go across. Not technically hard at all. K put in two pieces max I believe.
Pitch 5. I lead this. As I do I think we should’ve simulclimbed it. In fact K pretty much does that when he follows as I can’t keep up with pulling in the slack.
Pitch 6-10 More mixed climbing, cracks, edges, smearing, stemming, some chimney even (for me anyway). We go through these pretty quickly.
Pitches 11-? Around here the “face” is more of a stack of big boulders. A number of times I suggest we just unrope and climb but K is being extra careful with route finding ever since that first off-route so we stay roped and continue up. Sometimes I go under rocks sometime I stem or chimney along side of them.
Final pitch – I end up going up first somehow. As I summit, the sun is still up and a guy dressed in black and yellow with a hood is talking on a cell phone. I hear him say, “Someone just climbed up the cliff!” I smile and wave and belay K up, he is in shadow until the last 5 feet to the top. We summit and celebrate.
Turns out the guy on top has been backpacking and hiked up the portal route way, he was planning on spending the night at the top and was prepared. The sun was heading down already. I was not looking forward to the Mountaineer’s Route in the dark. As I understand it, it’s a treacherous enough hike that for many people that’s their whole Whitney adventure. K presented me with a choice, we could head down and be caught on the route in the dark or we could spend the night in the shelter. Now, the “shelter” is a rectangular stone walled building. It was originally made by scientists as a lightning shelter. The metal door was open to one of the rooms which contained a wood floor, a low, skinny stone bench built next to a wall, a dirty window and a lot of graffiti.
Though from the outside of the shelter it almost looks like there should be a woodburning stove or heater in one corner, there is in fact nothing there.
Still, I thought about going down in my extremely tired mental state and having to go down the Mountaineer’s Route in the dark. The Mountaineer’s Route is also known as the “Bowling Alley” by the way and also had a large ice patch on it that we saw on the way up. The estimated time of descent on it is 2 hours to Iceberg Lake, I figured with my mental and physical state it would take me more than that, and then we’d have to spend the night in our broken tent anyway. The shelter when we checked it actually felt warm inside due to the stones collecting the sun’s heat. I opted for the shelter.
The guy at the summit was named Gil. He had been talking to his wife on the phone. He gave us some of his water. We asked if he wanted to sleep in the room too but he had found a nook amongst the boulders strewn all over the top of Mt. Whitney to sleep in and had already set up before we summited.
I took a picture of the shelter with the setting sun in the background. I figured this would hopefully be my last chance to do this. We went inside immediately after that, it was cold and the wind had picked up just a little.
What followed was one of the longest nights I’d ever experienced and certainly the coldest.
There was no light inside the room and the moon was not up. Faint starlight that got through the dirty windows on the door or the side window wasn’t strong enough to do more than show us the location of said windows. The door was held shut by a weighted pully. We hung a waterbottle on this to make the door seal tighter. However we couldn’t do much about the large gap between the door and the ground, since the door didn’t meet the wood flooring. We stuffed some gear there anyway though. By the way, set in the floor there’s a plaque that says something like, “Do not burn floor boards. They are essential for lightning strike safety”.
We thought it’d been hours since the sun went down and K checked his watch. It was only 8pm. Someone knocked on the door. K opened it and I heard something about taking a picture. K said, “Sure,” and stepped out, closing the door after him. Then he opened the door again saying, “You’re the photographer do you want to take it?” “No!” I said, “and close the door!” All I could think of was the last of our warm air escaping. K came back and that was that. We at first thought we’d just pace the floor all night to keep warm. I tried jumping jacks but didn’t do more than 5 I think. We didn’t have any more bars so we ate a little of the near powder granola (Bear Naked brand by the way, healthy but nothing but granola – no sugar, no nuts, nothing). It tasted like sawdust. I don’t remember when I started shivering. It might have been after we’d coiled the rope on the floor and we tried to sit on it for the first time. It wasn’t enough rope to lie on, even if it was just me curled in a fetal position.
I was still shivering. I would only stop if K physically held me tight. But he was of course also cold and tired and eventually his arms would fall off. He tried tying them together with a sling but it didn’t work. I remember falling on my side from being so tired but the floor was cold and I’d get back up. My muscles hurt from all the shivering. K apologized more than once to me. That scared me a little but really I was so tired and could only think about things like, “I wonder if we burned all the papers from the summit registry would it be worth the ashes & smoke?” I thought often of my down jacket stashed way below us. Eventually it seemed to get slightly lighter outside. I think I fell on my side one last time then because I know I woke up and it was slightly brighter.
I stood up and tried to look out the grimy windows. The sun wasn’t up yet but it was definitely brighter. We stayed inside awhile knowing that though the outside was brighter, the sun’s rays weren’t going to hit our area of the summit for sometime yet because of the angle so the air outside the shelter was still colder than inside. Now that I think about it though I don’t think I was shivering then at least.
When we could see sun hitting a distant cliff, we couldn’t help it but went out. The sun was up though its warming rays still weren’t hitting us. It was still nice to see the world was bright. Eventually I looked longingly at the cliffs with sun on them though. We walked over to where we figured the sun would hit first.
A couple came up from the hiking trail side. They were surprised to see us. They apparently had tried to make it up to watch sunrise but had missed it. We told them we’d spent the night and they offered us food. I wasn’t that hungry but thought of the Mountaineer’s Route and the long day still ahead. I took an apple and some of their trail mix. The apple was the best breakfast ever, of course.
Gil didn’t want to go down the way he’d come up so he followed us to the Mountaineer’s Route. The descent was to the right of the large ice patch and was in the shade. I took care to go slow as I could tell my brain wasn’t thinking very well. The guys outpaced me but I didn’t mind. I kept repeating, “Better safe than sorry” in my head. And when I successfully crossed a very small ice patch I was happy I went slowly. It took a long time to get down, we knocked a minimum amount of rocks down, but us spreading out at least helped us not endanger each other in that way. It definitely took a long time for me to even get to where I had my down jacket stashed, and by then, since I’d made it to the sunny part of the descent, I didn’t need to put it on. When I finally got to the tent it had taken me over 2 hours. I felt ok though, good enough that I didn’t stop to rest but instead pitched in with breaking camp. K and I still had to hike all the way out to the portal and even then we’d have to hike down the road a little way to my car.
Gil had waited for us and said he was planning on going to Lower Boyscout Lake so we all set out together again. We didn’t go down the waterfall way, but went around to the right of it (right meaning if you were facing it from a descent stand point), this way was slightly longer but much less dangerous. I was in my “tortoise” hiking mode, which means I never stopped to rest so would catch up the to the guys who were faster but needed to stop and then when I caught up to them they would go off again. After awhile though I could tell K wasn’t feeling good because I was catching up to him too often. After the Ebersbacher ledges, which seemed a little harder to get down than go up (always the case though isn’t it? Even if you aren’t tired?), he stopped and told me to go ahead.
His stomach was hurting. His knees were already hurting as well. He has a “bad knee” which he has since gotten worked on. I was down in the scrambling portion above Lower Boyscout Lake when I decided to backtrack to check on K. He was sleeping on a rock. I woke him up and he told me he had thrown up. This was not good. We continued on. Eventually we passed a narrowing on the trail which went by a boulder, Gil was there, happy to see us. But K felt like he couldn’t stop or he’d not make it out. We apologized and continued on, though I did get Gil’s email at least.
We made it to the portal I think around 6pm. We still had to hike down the road to the car, Once we got in I drove to Dow Villa in Lone Pine where we’d previously decided to stay the night, no way we’d make the drive home in our present condition. K passed out in the car. I barely got him into the motel room. I walked across the street to the Pizza Factory.
When I entered folks turned around and stared.
What? People have surely come in looking like I did after Whitney? I mean the first time I’d gone up Whitney, doing the day hike thing, we all ate pizza here afterwards.
Maybe I had an extra hungry air about me though.
I got my pizza and managed to cross the street. K was still passed out. It was the best pizza ever, of course.
Climber specific tips
- If you have one, bring a cell phone, they work at the summit and you can reassure other friends that you don’t need a rescue but will just be coming out the next day
- Bring a credit card, we thought of hiking out the long way and just crashing in a motel in town & then hiking back to Iceberg for our stuff but we didn’t have a card or ID.
- If you have a space blanket, don’t take it out of your pack the day before just because you’ve never used it ever before. You’ll need it that trip for sure.
- Study the route (entire party should do this). East Face is a little odd in that it meanders but keep in mind you shouldn’t feel like you’re on a 5.9+ trad climb at any point.
- Bring bail gear. Hexes or old nuts & “leaver biners” might give you ease of mind.
- Remember that you are at altitude. The highest in the lower 48. You will get tired more easily. You will not necessarily be thinking clearly. You may think you don’t need to ask for help. For example, Gil had a large backpack with him that he didn’t use that night, I could’ve fit my legs into it as a sleeping bag of sorts but I didn’t want to “bother” him to ask to use it.
- Make sure your permits are in order. Even when it was more lax, we got stopped for a permit check on the way up the Portal hike.
- Don’t forget your WAG bags (given when you get your permits)
- There aren’t any bears at this altitude but if you end up camping lower, be prepared.
- If you can, spend a night or two acclimitizing. When I first hiked Whitney my group only spent one night at Lone Pine, which isn’t technically high enough. Of a party of 8, I think I was only one of two of us who didn’t have some signs of altitude sickness (others got mild headaches, etc).
- When on the East Face route, remember that it’s a long one with many pitches. If everyone in your party is confident, try simul-climbing.
- When going up or down the Mountaineer’s Route it’s a good idea to wear a helmet and always keep an eye out for rocks from above or rocks you might knock down.
- When approaching Iceberg lake, if you don’t want to go up the waterfall area go to the left of it, it’s longer but much easier.
- Wear sunscreen & bring sunglasses. The ground at Iceberg Lake is very white, there is also snow around which also reflects the sun.
- Hydrate. But try to sip constantly rather than gulp a lot in one sitting, you don’t want to pee out all the excess. Water stops on the hike we did: 1. At the portal. 2. At Iceberg Lake. No problem with water availability. You can also get water at Boyscout Lake or even from some streams (assuming you filter your water)
- Lastly, reward yourself with a burger from the Portal shop, they are really good, but watch out for the birds who like to nab things.