East Face of Mount Whitney - September 24, 2006
At 14,505 feet, Mount Whitney is the highest mountain in the lower 48 states. Notwithstanding the many mountains Alaska has that are well above this height, this fact alone makes it a major goal of many people, even those who wouldn't otherwise be interested in alpine pursuits.
Robin and I thought that bagging Whitney would be a great way to finish out the year, since we would be leaving for our wedding and honeymoon in Europe shortly after. Unfortunately, getting a permit for the main trail to the summit is quite difficult, especially on a weekend. After discussing it for a while, I convinced Robin that the East Face route (III 5.7) would be a fine way to summit, and since we'd only need an exit permit, which is quite easy to obtain, we'd have no problems.
Our plan called for us to stay the night prior to our ascent in the Alabama Hills, near Whitney Portal, start the hike at three in the morning, reach the base of the route by eight or so, reach the summit by noon, and be off the mountain around four. Ambitious, to be sure, but we're fast hikers and I'd been climbing quite a bit and knew I wouldn't have a problem leading the more difficult pitches on our chosen route. Robin, who had less free time for climbing, could take the easier and less exposed pitches.
Unfortunately, as sometimes happens, things didn't quite go as planned. Route finding difficulties, complicated by the exposure on the route, conspired to slow us down, making us unable to summit until after dark.
The first pitch, the Tower Traverse, is technically easy (5.5), but the very first move takes you from the relative safety of solid ground midway up the mountain to a narrow rounded ledge, 800 feet off the ground, with no real hand holds. The exposure even made me balk for a few seconds. Near the end of the traverse, there is a short chimney to a ledge, with the belay a little ways after. I misread the topo and assumed I was supposed to climb the face and then traverse to the top of the chimney instead of climbing it directly. Many false starts up the face with little to no protection wasted valuable time and unnerved me. I finally abandoned my efforts and climbed the chimney, which proved to be more difficult than I had expected. Robin followed the pitch, but made it plain on the way over that she wasn't comfortable with the intense exposure.
That is a grand understatement, and I must butt in to say that it took much coaxing from Jon and many false starts to sob my way through that pitch. I couldn't believe how scared I was! Jon's kind murmurs and the mantra, "It's only 5.5," got me through it.
The next couple of pitches head up a feature called the Washboard. It's essentially a low angle slab with third and fourth class climbing. Robin, regaining her confidence after the first pitch, lead two pitches up this, and I finished to the top of it.
I had so much fun on those pitches. I had forgotten about the upcoming Fresh Air Traverse (dun, dun, duuunnnnn) and was thinking, or maybe hoping, that this low angle rock would ripple on forever.
Our fifth pitch lead up from the top of the Washboard to a notch where the next several hundred feet of the route may be viewed. At the top of this, we had lunch.
It was a great spot to sit with the sun beating on us and a marvelous view, but I was shaking with nervousness and (quite embarrassingly) crying with frustration. I wanted so badly to be a good partner for Jon, but the Fear had transformed me into cold molasses.
It was becoming apparent by this time that neither of us was having a particularly good time and that climbing this route had been a bad idea for us at that time. It was also much later in the day than we had hoped. Unfortunately, retreating from this point would have been quite complicated, and neither one of us wanted to have to come back and climb the route again, as we would if we did retreat. So onward we climbed.
Robin lead the next pitch which was a downclimb to a large ledge. I followed and prepared myself for the next pitch: the Fresh Air Traverse.
It was then that we said goodbye to the sun and hello to the icy wind and the cold rock. I remember calculating how much larger my day pack needed to be, so that I would have brought my down jacket.
The Fresh Air Traverse is so named because it traverses a small ledge perched precariously above a thousand foot dead vertical drop. As such, it's generally considered the psychological crux of the route. What I didn't know at the time is that it's also the routefinding crux, and many parties miss the correct traverse, instead traversing lower and getting lost. This unfortunately is exactly what I did.
I reached the sandy ledge at the end of the false traverse and belayed Robin over. The climbing on this traverse was difficult, and over the aforementioned drop. As with the Tower Traverse, Robin didn't exactly have fun. Not realizing my mistake, I tried various ways of climbing off the ledge, none of which were particularly promising. One way climbed a loose and crumbling pinnacle and ended in a mantel onto a sloping ledge with no handhold, no clear way of climbing higher, and very bad fall potential. Another way ascended an overhanging, crumbling handcrack that had an ancient rusted piton just waiting to fall out. The other possible ways that presented themselves were even less promising.
I was supportive to Jon with words, but inwardly I screamed at myself for not leading my share and giving him a break. He is being very modest and hardly took any time to search out the best route. Not having climbed much in the few months before this little adventure, I was quite tired. Jon could sense this and started clipping slings to gear for me so I could yard myself up in wide cracks and other areas that were difficult for me.
After taking an inordinate amount of time trying different variations, I finally gave up and reversed the traverse. I climbed up a short way to where it looked like it would go and set up a belay. I brought Robin back across and set off, looking for the best way up. After several false starts, burning more precious daylight, I finally groveled my way up an ugly chimney filled with large loose-looking blocks (they turned out not to be loose). I brought Robin up at this point, then continued up some hand cracks above onto easier ground.
We were finally at the top of the major difficulties. Several pitches still remained, but most were easy. With daylight running out, we ran up these as fast as we could.
The next two pitches ascended the Grand Staircase, a series of six to eight foot headwalls with spacious ledges in between. All but the last were easy. The last is called 5.7 (originally 5.6), but I found to be a bit harder.
I had lost all sense of dignity by this point and would grab any gear I could reach and pull myself onto the ledges belly-flop style and crawl around on flat places on my hands and knees.
From this point, according to the topo, we were done with the technical climbing, but still had a few hundred feet of fourth class climbing to go. We started up this section just as night fell. I would climb a rope length by headlamp, then bring Robin up, then repeat. Finally, after a long time of this, worried that we'd be stopped by an insurmountable barrier, we reached the summit around half past eight. Wearily, we coiled the rope, changed into real shoes, and headed for the stone hut on the summit.
After warming ourselves up in the hut and eating the last of our meager rations, we packed up and signed the summit log (we had certainly earned it). With eleven miles and nearly 6,000 feet of elevation loss to go, we began the long trudge down the trail at nine o'clock.
I had lost my appetite, which rarely happens. I was only eating because I knew I needed the calories.
Being late September, the temperatures at night at our elevation were below freezing. We only had enough clothes to keep warm while moving, so stopping anywhere for long wasn't an option. We would plod along the trail, following the dim light of our bobbing headlamps, until we couldn't walk anymore, and we'd then collapse on the nearest boulder. Then we'd sit, trying to keep our eyes open, gradually getting colder and colder until we were shivering uncontrollably, and we'd somehow get back up and continue down the trail.
I started hallucinating. I'd see birds on the trail that would fly off into the shadows, and unknown dog-like animals running across the trail.
After several hours of this, we started seeing parties on their way up to summit Whitney the day after we did. We finally reached the car around 3:30 the following morning. Though both of us were tired beyond measure, we had just enough energy to drive the hour and a half home. I was less tired, so I drove, but with the understanding that if I became too sleepy, I'd pull over and doze for a while.
We stopped in Lone Pine at a gas station for a sugar fix. I had a giant Snickers bar and chocolate milk, and Robin had a Sprite. After wolfing this down, we drove home.
We arrived home a little after five, After horking (my body's revenge on me), I left a message for my boss that I'd be in a little late to work that day, stumbled through the door, and collapsed into bed, sinking quickly into the deadest possible sleep, thus ending the most epic adventure of either of our climbing careers.