Whitney – a beautiful behemoth

Yep. I love the mountains.

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Thursday, April 17th.

Around 4 PM, Emily and I left our car in the temporary parking lot 3.5 miles and 1 BIG switchback from the Whitney Portal.  The Whitney Portal provides very intimate access to the Eastern Sierras for hikers, climbers, campers, tourists, and more. The access road cuts into the side of the Sierras directly west of the town of Lone Pine, above the Alabama Hills.

A construction team has been repairing damage to the last 3.5 miles of road caused by this past winter’s storms.  Luckily, we were well aware of this road closure, so we had already mentally prepared for the extra 3.5 mile road walk before even getting to the trailhead.

3.5 miles of walking may not seem like much, but add 2000 feet of elevation gain, stiff mountaineering boots, and all of the following in a pack on your back, and 3.5 miles of sun-baked asphalt turns into a hot mess.

Luckily (again, my mom says luck is for the prepared), about a mile into our road walk, a nice gentleman swung by in his truck and told us to hop in the back.  I didn’t feel great about the situation, as the road was gated off where we had parked, and the man didn’t explain how he had the key. But, I figured that a kidnapper was unlikely to pick up two victims on his way up to the Whitney Portal, which has no outlet other than the way we were entering.  Particularly with both of us carrying ice axes..

When we exited the truck, he politely explained that he runs the shop at the Portal, and he needed to get up there to prepare to open up the following week.  He pointed us towards the trailhead where we found a few people who had just returned from a day hike a little ways up the Mount Whitney trail.

As the trailhead was already mostly covered in snow (at 8500 feet), we were able to immediately begin mentally preparing for a few days and nights spent entirely on snow.  We had heard that below about 12,000 feet none of the snow would be frozen at any time of day. This is a pertinent fact because soft snow makes the climb (in this case a very slow trudge) much more difficult.  More like walking in sand than on a dirt trail. They were not wrong.

We spent that night slowly making our way to Lower Boy Scout Lake at about 10,400 feet.  Dusk’s darkness was settling in when we arrived at a suitable campsite up in the trees just south of the lake.  Luckily, someone had already flattened a patch of snow the prior night; less work for us.

We played a few games of the Catan dice game and rewarded ourselves with an easy, bougie, prepackaged backpacking meal.  Boil some water. Pour it directly into the food package. Wait 20 minutes. Yum.

That was officially my first night sleeping on snow.  And it brought no fanfare. We woke up to our packs being a bit frozen to the ground.  We broke down camp by 8 AM, grabbed some water from what looked like the last non-frozen source we would see, and were off. Into the bright, white bowl that soars above Lower Boy Scout.

I’ve heard of the dangers of snow blindness, so Emily and I were both wearing wrap-around sunglasses through the entire day.  Dealing with the sun gets a little more complicated when its rays reflect from every surface around you. You have to be a little more aware of how you are covering yourself.  A wide-brimmed sun hat no longer cuts it.

Sure, it was wet, and bright, and slow, but my goodness was that environment what I was made for.  The views. The gorgeous white landscape, dotted with sparse green trees. The blue sky. The perfectly wonderful granite slabs and blocks and overhangs.  Rock climbing, ice climbing, skiing, and snowboarding! I wanted to never have to leave.

Onwards and upwards.  Past still completely frozen Upper Boy Scout Lake at approximately 11,400 feet.  Around the base of one ridge. Through some steep, soft snow over another ridge. Along lonely ski tracks traversing yet another.  

All told, we only covered about 3 miles that day.  Yet, it took more than 3 hours. We could have done it faster, but, why bother?  This place was magical. More-so than I had dreamed it would be.

We arrived at Iceberg Lake, our (12,600 foot) destination for the day, in the very early afternoon.  We planned to get up much earlier the next morning, so we did want to hit our inflatable, double-wide sleeping pad early, but that still left us with hours to kill.  So, we did what we do best: play some more Catan. Though, that came after setting up camp, which included digging out a patch of snow to create a flat surface for our tent.

But, we also needed to make sure that we had water for the next day.  As there was no more running water at this elevation, we had to melt some snow.  This was the first time I’ve had to deal with this task. I had heard it could be pretty tedious.  Though, with time to kill, it was no biggie. Fill up a pot with snow and put it over the burner and wait.  Simple enough. I could totally understand, though, that it would be quite the miserable task when thirsty after a long day and you still have to eat and all you want to do is go to bed.

The mountains, as an environment, really showcase the duality of humans; the capability of the human body alongside the fragility of life.  The perfect testing ground.

As the afternoon went on, my body slipped into a strange state of exhaustion.  As I lay down to sleep, I got one of the worst full-head, dull headaches I’ve ever experienced.  I started to question if it would be worth it to try to summit the next morning. I chalked it up to dehydration, and chugged as much water as I could put into myself.  By the time darkness had arrived, I was in and out of sleep, and did eventually get some apparently much-needed rest.

At 5:30 AM the next morning (April 19th), Emily’s alarm ended the perfect silence that had previously been broken only by the occasional gust of wind.  A few moments later, another group passed us by as they began their summit attempt. It was time. We left our tent set up with sleeping pad and bags inside, and, by just after 6, we were on our way up the 1,500 foot East Couloir (gully) that led to the notch on the Northeast ridge of Whitney.  Two groups of two were ahead of us. The pair immediately ahead of us was, to me, obviously a guide and a single client. The guide was short-roping his client the entire way up the approximately 40-degree couloir.

Short-roping is a technique where a leader holds onto a short rope (approx. 4-6 feet) that is tied to the follower’s harness.  This technique provides a huge boost in confidence for a follower who is new to the terrain. However, for the short-roping leader, it means significant extra risk in the case of a follower fall.  The goal is to provide a quick, sharp tug to get a suddenly off-balance follower back to a steady position. But, in the case of a bad slip or uncontrollable fall, it could mean a slide or fall for both parties.

Just one of the inherent risks a guide must often take for an uncomfortable client.

As we closed in on their tail, the guide called down for us to maintain a safe distance.  This, a call primarily for our own safety in the case of either or both of them taking a slide down the snow chute directly towards us.  We respected his risk management knowledge and kept a healthy distance until they took a break on a small rock outcrop, allowing us to catch up.  Here, we chatted with them about the route and about our various experience levels in this type of terrain. Before we headed off ahead of them, the guide thanked us for our cooperation in managing the overall risk of the situation.

A thousand feet later, we gained the notch, as well as an incredibly majestic view of the high sierra north of Whitney’s East Buttress.

We knew that there were two options from that point to the summit:

  1. A couloir directly up the East Buttress, even steeper than the one we had just reached the top of.
  2. A traverse around to the gently sloping North Face of the the mountain.

Unfortunately, the traverse was composed of soft snow with little in the way of a snow ledge to balance on.  Only a scant few buried footsteps could be seen, and they inspired very little confidence.

The couloir seemed climbable to me.  I figured we might have to take it a bit slow on the descent to avoid a slide, but it was short enough that I was ready to commit.  

As I turned around to see what Emily was thinking, I saw her wearing an expression of distress and self-doubt.  She was thoroughly uninspired by either option. I immediately reminded her of the third option: to turn around and head right back down.  While she didn’t want to give up on the summit bid, she decided that she was unwilling, in that moment, to attempt either route to the top.

Theoretically, I could have suggested that we take a few moments to gather ourselves, and then revisit both options with less emotion involved.  Practically, though, it was fairly cold up there, and sitting around is generally the last thing you want to do at the top of a mountain in really any conditions.

We shared our decision with the guide and his client, and started our descent.  This was around 9:30 AM, which means it had taken us about 3 hours to ascend the 1,500 foot couloir.  We had been discussing the descent options throughout the prior days, and knew that we could either try to get back to the car that afternoon, or we could spend another night on the mountain.  As we had brought enough food for 4 days, we totally could have spent another night up there, but decided we would try to push back to the car before sundown.

That meant we had about 10 hours to descend 8,000 feet over the course of 8 miles back the car, with a stop to break down camp along the way.

Luckily, descending is a lot less energy intensive than ascending.  The fact that you are heading back down in elevation to a higher atmospheric pressure, and thus a more oxygen-rich environment, definitely doesn’t hurt either.

We were back at our camp in 45 minutes, and had everything broken down and packed up 15 minutes after that.

The descent of that highest couloir on the East Buttress was a bit slower than I expected because the snow was still a bit too hard to begin glissading.  As soon as we left camp, that changed.

Glissading is a very fancy word for sliding (in a controlled manner) down a steep snow slope.  It can be done on your feet, which is also called boot skiing because it looks like you are skiing, but you are only wearing boots on your feet.  Or, it can be done on your butt. Emily was uncomfortable with both methods for a bit. However, when one of our fellow climbers showed her his technique, she plopped right in behind him.  I spent the rest of the time on my feet trying to keep up. When I could no longer boot ski as fast as she was moving, I took one for the team and got my butt a little wet too.

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The descent flew by, and we were back at the trailhead in no time.  During that time, we passed several groups that were on their way up to spend the next couple of days in the magical white landscape that we had just explored.  We fielded various questions about conditions, route-finding, and snow-slogging technique. We passed groups of varying preparedness levels. Most seemed sufficiently (or over) prepared.

One group, however, was starting seemingly way too late in the day to get even to Lower Boy Scout Lake before nightfall, and none of them were wearing mountaineering boots, let alone gaiters.  By the time we passed them, the mountains behind us had been engulfed in a blowing snowstorm and crowded by dark, gray clouds: great timing for us, but maybe not so for those heading up past us.  We shared some kindly worded warnings, and wished them luck.

At the trailhead, we began the mental preparation for 3.5 miles of roadwalking.  And, the roadwalking did not disappoint. It felt way longer than it was, there was a hot wind the whole time, and stiff mountaineering boots were definitely not the best choice of footwear for that bit of the journey.

And, yet, not even all of those trying factors could bring us down from the high.  We had just spent 3 days and 2 nights wandering through a pristine landscape full of granite cliffs and endless swathes of snow, with nothing but blue sky above.

All of that alongside my perfectly, incredibly amazing girlfriend.  It was the most wonderful.

By 3 o’clock we had arrived back at the car.. just a tad bit testy.  Our game plan was to get dinner in Lone Pine and then stay the night at the hostel in town.  After a little over a week since our arrival, we had yet to shower. We had decided that that would be our treat to ourselves for making it out of the mountains in one (well, two) piece(s).

At some point during the descent, Emily’s lower half of her face started to blister.  Remember when we talked about the importance of covering up in the mountains? Well, it turns out that the lip balm that she was using did not have any built-in sun protection.  Aaand, she may not have applied sunscreen liberally enough to her face.

It did not get any better before day’s end, so we stopped by the hostel store (stocked with hikers and mountaineers in mind) to pick up some aloe.  It helped a bit, but, needless to say, the hotel room and comfy bed were definitely welcome that night.  Particularly after having not just the best burger in Lone Pine, but food that was made by someone else.

With the Whitney chapter now over, we set our sights back on Vegas and the Red Rock National Conservation Area for some world class, super duper fun rock climbing.

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