Climb: Mt. Whitney – East Buttress

Mt. Whitney from the Portal Road

Mt. Whitney from the Portal Road

Best laid plans and all that… The trip was slated for Mt. Russell’s Mithril Dihedral. Day one was the LONG drive from SF to Lone Pine’s multiagency center to secure (we hoped) a much coveted Whitney zone permit. Fortunately my luck with walk-up permits continued and we were set.

After picking up the new(ish) Bishop area guidebook, we walked in killed the rest of the day with  our first climbing at the Portal. Short story: not much easy rock in these parts. The majority of the routes come in at 5.10 or better, so buck up. Afterwards, we headed back to the car to sort gear, thankful for late light, eventually bedding down in the Backpacker’s campground at the portal (elevation: 8,300′). For the first time, I heard no sign of bears during my stay here – they’re notorious in this area: blame it on a steady supply of ma and pa kettle backpackers coming to “do the big one”, lax with their food storage practices.

Without any interruptions I felt almost rested when the alarm went off, and a 5 AM start had us on the trail at 6.

We shouldered packs, mine coming in at 45 lbs. This weight would be terrible if I was just backpacking, but was actually pretty reasonable considering it included half of our rock climbing gear: twin ropes, full rack of protection (including triples of .75-3.0 camalots for the neverending handcrack of Mithril Dihedral, and harnesses, helmets, etc.), 1.5L of water, and I even had the tent – hey, I AM getting more efficient.

White Montains Sunrise

White Montains Sunrise from Whitney Trail

The trip starts along the main Mt. Whitney trail – the superhighway to and from the summit, but pretty quickly branches off to follow the North Fork of Lone Pine Creek (note: this junction is now signed). This year’s snowpack was huge and the river/stream crossings of the North Fork were BANGING. Mandatory shoes off stuff, if you were interested in dry feet, and the infamous waterfall was going to get you no matter what you did to avoid it. Up higher, the Ebersbacher ledges were well clear of snow and and routefinding continues to get easier above the ledges these days as the Forest Service consolidates various use trails. Snow was intermittent from Lower Boyscout Lake to Upper Boyscout Lake. From upper Boyscout we were on continuous snow. Fortunately, the snow was solid and we avoided postholing. No crampons needed, but the ice axes were useful in two places: the ramp up (SW) from Upper Boyscout and the final steep incline to Iceberg Lake. I wear trail runners for 90% of my approaches (which is a big step – I used to wear Chacos on everything up to a few miles), and got VERY tired of having cold wet feet on this trip…

Ryan on the North Fork Trail

Ryan on the North Fork Trail

Day one was to be a bonus climbing day, but the effect of the 6 hour walk in dampened spirits somewhat, and I resigned myself to a day of reading under the incredibly clear and sunny skies. Iceberg lake, our solitary camp, sits at 12,700′, which isn’t exactly the top of the world, but plenty high if you live most days at sea level. I had the benefit of having spent a fair number of nights at elevation this season and felt great.

Ryan Running Barefoot

Running barefoot through the snow (time to quarry some snow to melt).

The sun sets behind Whitney at about 6:30 during June, which makes for a long, cold, dark spell if ambient temperatures dip down. We had no reason to be out and about, and shut ourselves in for the night at 7:30 after running our stoves in a head-to-head race for dinner and snow melting. Iain’s MSR Windpro was the clear winner over my Jetboil (for those that care about such things), which I attribute to the Windpro’s ability to run in liquid fuel mode (inverted). In any case, this was the LONGEST NIGHT OF MY LIFE, laying in my bag, letting the minutes tick by during hours of the evening that most geriatrics would be embarrassed to find themselves in bed. Low temperatures were probably in the low to mid 20’s overnight.

We both awoke to voices at 5 am – basically one phrase repeated over and over: “is your carabiner locked? Yes. Is your carabiner locked? Yes.”… after hearing this five or six times I came to two realizations: 1) this was a guided group and 2) they had left someplace at some ungodly hour to arrive at the base of the mountaineer’s route at 5am. Sadly 5 am feels like time to get up when you’ve been in your sleeping bag 10+ hours, and I once again dug in to my book, desperate to kill time until we had sun on our tent and all of the warmth that would come with it.

7:30 ended up being the hour of salvation, and we made a slow morning of it – boiling water, sorting the rack, etc., as Mithril Dihedral is well known to be a cold route – we wanted every bit of sunlight we could get while climbing.

After weighting the tent, we set off for the Whitney/Russell pass with both crampons and axes. This section is mellow snow climbing, ending in a large windscoured col where one immediately gets a full frontal view of Mt. Russell.

Mt. Russell from the Whitney/Russell Pass

Mt. Russell from the Whitney/Russell Pass

Awesome. Mithril dihedral looked… well, very vertical, to say the least.

Mithril Dihedral

Mithril Dihedral

Our first thought, though, was the incredible wind. Back at camp there was little to no wind. Up here on the pass it was whipping – probably gusting to 40-50 mph. The rest of the approach is easy, crossing talus and a well-tracked scree field. Closer to the base of the route, we agreed to stop and take shelter behind a huge boulder, waiting for the route to come in to full sun. 20 minutes later, we stood back up from behind our improptu shelter and were nearly blown over. The wind, if anything, was picking up.

Still, this is why we had come here, and we decided to make the last bit of the approach before making a go/no go decision. In the end though, our fate was sealed. This would be a tour de suffer – we were both wearing plenty of insulation, hats, and gloves while moving. Sitting at belays would have been miserable at best and dangerous at wost. It was decided: we’d go for the fallback route – the East Buttress of Mt. Whitney.

We tucked our tails and headed back over the Whitney/Russell pass, dropped back down to the tent, dropped off 2/3 of our rack (bringing singles of BD 0.3-3.0 and a single set of nuts), and began the climb up the snow finger leading to the roped first pitch of the East Buttress.

East Buttress, Mt. Whitney

East Buttress, Mt. Whitney

For some maschocistic reason I volunteered to take both ropes (2 x 70M 8.8) for this approach – probably thinking I was tough and wanted the conditioning. Oops. The approach to the base of the route proper honestly felt like the hardest part of the whole trip for me, and Iain agreed. Just a sloggy bit of vertical gain, I suppose, but it had us both sucking wind.

After a short discussion about how best to approach ropework – we decided to pitch it out with simuling when it looked favorable – Iain was off. I love alpine climbing because you’re lucky to see ANY of the features noted in the topo, and this climb was another great example of why an adventurous spirit is required to go beyond cragging to alpine rock climbing. Iain said a number of times, “this isn’t in the topo”… and each time after noting that, simply kept going. In the end, this is one of those routes where, once the grade is established (5.7), the guidebook might simply say “don’t climb anything that’s harder than 5.7”, because the possibilities are endless. I imagine there are places you could get yourself in to trouble from a routefinding perspective, but we quickly abandoned the topo in favor of discretion and judgement.

The one section that felt, to me, sketchy, is the section marked “tightly packed cracks” in supertopo. There is a LOT of very loose rock in this section, all sizes – a veritable sampler pack of lethal gravity’s rainbows waiting to rain granite on you, your rope, and your belayer. Avoid this in favor of the alternate path noted in supertopo (to climber’s right, I believe). Otherwise the route is casual, with as little or much difficulty as you choose. The final two ropelengths (200+ feet) were the only place we asked aloud: “where do we go”?, as we were getting a bit of summit fever. Why? Not because of any particular yen to stand atop the highpoint of the lower 48, but because we were FREEZING OUR ASSES OFF.

By the time we had finished our Russell out and back, touched base, and made it to the base of the East Buttress, it was noon. My one piece of advice, and you’ll find it in all the guidebooks, is to start the East Buttress early. The upper half goes out of the sun at around 4pm in June, and it is a cold, cold, little slice of the world once in the shade. It’s been a long time since I’ve shivered uncontrollably. I was glad to have most of my insulation and wind layers with me, and would have brought a full-on belay parka if I’d known what the overall feel was going to be, with wind and ambient temperatures combining to be, well… low.

Being cold adds a dimension of “epic” to a climb in the high and wild. Big wind (it was catching up with us) always ups the perceived drama of a climb. We had both in spades.

We summitted a little before 6pm (not terrible for 1400 feet of roped climbing), realized we were really the only idiots up there in those conditions, coiled ropes in the now gale-force wind, and started walking around the perimeter of the summit looking for the entrance to the Mountaineer’s route: our descent. After one false alarm, we found it.

Ryan on Summit

Ryan on Summit of Mt. Whitney

Whitney Summit Plaque

Whitney Summit Plaque

Entrance to Mountaineer's Route

Entrance to Mountaineer's Route

Iain, being British, is always describing routes in terms I don’t understand. His accent lends an incredible amount of credibility to whatever he says, though, and this first section was apparently Scottish grade II… whatever that means. What it meant to me is that I wouldn’t have minded a second ice tool, given angle and conditions (quite firm at this relatively late hour).

The upper third of the mountaineer’s route was snow, the middle third (including the notch crossover) was dry, and the bottom third evil, evil, evil, suncups and old postholes. It sucked.

On the descent, as much as I was not enjoying myself, more than anything I was just glad that I wasn’t going to be in bed as early as the night before (seriously, it was grim being holed up for so long. I do NOT know how mountaineers can deal with being tentbound for days on end). And after another stove race (again, the MSR killed the jetboil), we were off to bed with a good long day behind us.

The wind continued to pick up overnight, with big gusts (the NOAA had a ridgeline gust advisory that night, apparently)… the kind that tries to flatten even a burly mountain tent to your face, but I think we were both sufficiently tired enough to basically sleep through the straightline hurricane. Bummer, though, the next morning I awoke to many small holes in my beloved Awahnee tent. Off to Black Diamond – hoping their customer service lives up to their reputation and my expectations.

The descent from Iceberg lake to Whitney Portal was the only reminder I’ll ever need to NEVER again forget trekking poles, but otherwise uneventful. We did meet a number of parties headed up for Iceberg lake, but gave each of them our personal opinion: with the kind of winds we were feeling at the lake that morning, there is NO way that we would attempt for the summit. Something felt deeply unsettled in the weather, and our suspicions were proven when we saw that Mammoth Mountain, north of Whitney, got 3-6″ of new snow that day (June 30th!).

Climbers: Bring an incredibly light rack. We were glad to have brought the #3 BD, though, as there were numerous obvious and helpful placements for it. Overall, we averaged 3-4 pieces of protection placed per 200-250 feet of climbing – less a testament to our climbing (we are both low 5.10 trad leaders) than the nature of the route. There’s tons of 5.5-ish climbing with occasional 5.7-5.8 cruxes throughout.

Final analysis – yes, it’s a long walk for a rock route, but it really is a great package: high-quality rock, lots of it (1,4,00 feet of vertical gain on 5th class rock), and you get to touch the highpoint of the lower 48. I’d go back and do it again without reservation.

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