"Oh, sorry, I thought you were my wife."
"No man, it's Andrew. Are you still gonna be there at 2?"
"No, I am here already, were sleeping in Ben’s truck...you can drive almost to the portal store. I got off work early and came out - were gonna head out at 4 this morning."
"Alright man, I am on my way."
I kissed my girl goodbye and jumped in the car. Leaving from Lancaster in the middle of the night again. Lone Pine here I come. Every time I head out of town for the Sierras I get so excited that by the time I hit Mojave I am doing about 100 miles per hour. Tonight the wind is blowing through the high desert at its normal howling pace. My little Mitsubishi is trying to stay in one lane and then it happens, this HUGE gust blows me into the shoulder. And hey what timing here comes a CHP car. Lights, Camera, Action...do I pull over or make a run for it?
Well since I am well over loaded with gear I decide to give him a break and pull over. "You going to Mammoth?" his authoritative pitch inquires as he shoots a suspicious eye toward my pack that is seatbelted like a child into the back seat. "NO WAY" I resentfully retort. "I'm headed for Whitney for a day or two." He humphs and promises to have me back on the road in no time.
Finally released by the firm clutches of THE MAN, I am back on my way, foot through the floor, haulin' ass to get to where I got to get...Whitney Portals. The trip, in one manifestation or another, has been in the planning stages for almost two months. We were beat back by a week of snow before our original planned date (March 24th) and only got to Lower Boyscout. So this was it. Good snow set up, nice weather and hey - everyone ditched work - perfect.
A quick hour and a half, just enough time to get in a Johnny Cash album and a few Ramones songs ( and a stop at the LP gas station to beg a bottle of hot water) and I am switchbacking up past the road closed signs and dodging debris and viola! - lay back the seat, crawl in the bag and nap until 4am “far from Folsom Prison”.
I awake to a bright light shining into my window. "Shit" I begin thinking, "did that damned Chippy follow me up here?" Coming to - I realize it must be 4am and that is a headlamp. COOL, here we go. I do a quick change Superman style and am out in the brisk morning air shaking hands with the other 5 members of the group, Kevin, Scott, Ben, Bill and David. Most of the guys are sporting GINORMOUS packs – getting ready for Dinali. Then there is Bill. I ask him how he is doing and introduce myself. He says “fine” and I ask him if he is ready and he informs me that he is going up for the day only. He plans to turn back before dark. “Why?” I ask. “I did not bring my sleeping bag.” “Is that all?” I ask. “I have an extra 5 degree Mountain Hardwear that is yours for the night if you want it man.” We agree that dinner upon our return will be a fair trade and I threw in a sleeping pad to seal the deal for some beer.
There is no moon to be seen so the stars are incredible. With headlamps we take off and are walking up a PAVED road to about a quarter mile before the Portal Store. This is a shock to me because when I was up here in March (23rd), there was snow all the way down to the first switchback and we were snowshoeing in. At the store, 3 on skis, 3 on foot, we head out and up the drainage to catch the NF of the LPC (sounds like a rap song, old Warren G. “just hit the NF of the LPC on mission tryin’ find da da da dee dee…).
The NF of the LPC is an ever-changing maze with the recent conditions. Fully snow covered a month ago, now it is a maze of thinning snow bridges and hollowed out booby traps. We work our way up and to Lower Boyscout where there are a few tents pitched. Scott and I made it up a few minutes ahead of everyone and relaxed as we watched the guys come up one by one and join us for the first brief snack break and sunrise.
As we all finished watering ourselves, the Lower Boyscout squatters woke up and started to file out. There was a guided group of about 12, and a young man and woman, Chad and Jessica, who were preparing for a Dinali trip for their 5th wedding anniversary. We all started stepping it up toward Upper Boyscout. On the way up, some of us stopped for water. During the conversation Chad bit into a frozen protein bar and spit out a tooth. “Holy shit man” was the common cry. “Was that my tooth?” Chad inquired, digging through the snow. He swore his youthful eyes were going to find the discarded molar in the snow somehow and…well put it back. “Does anyone have any super glue?” Negative – just duct tape. The wind hits it and Chad clinches his fist. “Damn man what are you gonna do?” Chad tells us he will keep going up till it hurts too much. He just wishes he had some superglue. He decided to go up to the guided group that was resting about 100ft up and hit them up for the sacred adhesive. Alas they had none. He did however return with some cheese wax. This he crafted into a cap and bit it in and off we all went impressed by the example of macho manliness that we had witnessed.
Our next rest stop, right below the pitch to Iceberg Lake, we were brewing up and wondering where David had gone. We got word that he had decided to turn back. A couple of the lover boys with the ball and chain discovered that their cell phones worked and were chatting it up with their ladies, promising not to have too much fun and reminding them all where the details of the life insurance policy was filed. About this time Kevin “Sugarbaby” reaches out to turn off a stove or something and we hear a blood curdling cry “NOOOOOoooooo!!!” We rush over to find that Kevin has sweated a few centimeters off of his ring finger on the way up and managed to let his platinum wedding band slip into the snow! I immediately smell an opportunity to secure another dinner and offer to help find it. “Poor bastard” I am thinking, planning on selling it back to him – understanding that no price is too small to have the privilege to be allowed to keep your huevos, which would surely not be an option if his wife found out that his ring was gone…THERE IT IS. Glistening in the snow I see it and grab it and try to hide it until I can find out how much it is worth…actually – this is not true – I did find it but returned it immediately as Kevin was about to hyperventilate due to the stress of possible divorce and the very real and unavoidable castration that would take place upon his return home. That settled we were off for the final section to Iceberg.
When we approached the steep pitch that would put us on Iceberg Lake, a few people did not like the look of it. Chad and Jessica went with their intuition and opted for a camp just below. Ben followed suit and the guided group had long decided to pitch camp below Iceberg. Scott and I took a look at the section and after a brief discussion with Kevin and Bill we all chose to do it. 15 minutes later we were scoping out a flat spot next to the frozen Iceberg Lake looking at the sun going down behind the tallest hunk of granite in the continental US. The sharp shadow swallowed our newly staked camp as we watched three little black figures descend the MR.
Scott went immediately to work flattening out a tent platform and then, like magic, had constructed a kitchen in the snow that would make Wolfgang Puck proud to cook in. I mean this guy is a damned architect with a shovel.
The events that occurred over the next hours will be something all of us on the mountain will remember always. The three figures that had been seen descending walked toward our camp. One of them (I don’t recall which) asked if anyone had a cell phone or radio. We asked why and were told that they needed to report a possible fatality. Everyone offered their phones but we informed the men that they would not get reception until just above Upper Boyscout Lake. We inquired as to what the situation was and were informed that the partner of one of the climbers had attempted a glissade from the coliour above the notch on the MR. He lost control, unable to self-arrest, hit some rocks, began to cartwheel and slid over the edge of the NW face of Whitney narrowly missing the other three climbers below him. We all knew his fate but were still trying to formulate a plan. Two of our group offered to walk down with the men and let them use their phone. I protested, as all of our gear was where we were and offered my phone. I told the men to take it and when they were done they could leave it under my car. I gave them a quick tutorial and asked if they understood how to operate it. They were all in shock and could not really get it. I decided to walk to a point at the top of the cliff of the Iceberg basin that overlooks the area above and SW of Upper Boyscout. I figured my phone would work here. I asked the men to follow me. They did but at a great distance. I got to an area right at the edge of the cliff there and got a bit of reception, enough to roam a call 911. They hooked me up with National Forrest who asked if they could call back when they could coordinate with SAR. CALL BACK?!!! “I am at 12,600ft in the Sierras on a dying piece of shit cell phone!!!” The reply I got was “okay then you call us back”…………
Over the next 20 minutes we played phone tag. Explaining the situation, giving names, locations, elevations etc. etc. until the decision was made to dispatch a chopper at sunrise. We all had an odd night. No one slept.
We awoke to a perfect Sierra sunrise. The guided group was heading up. We prepared breakfast and melted water. Bill wished to go but had no ice axe. “I would feel like a big fucker if I did not tell you not to go without an ice axe” I told him. We all agreed and poor Bill reluctantly stayed at Iceberg. This though, as you will remember from earlier in the story, is farther than he had planned to go. So it was not an altogether bad thing.
Kevin, Scott and I took off up the MR. Scott was to ski down while Kevin and I would old school it and skip down. The snow did not seem too appealing to Scott during the ascent and so he stashed the skis about half way to the notch. It was about 10am when the chopper was first heard doing a recon flyby on the west side of the ridge. At the notch we scoped out the traverse to the backside of the summit slope. It did not look too appealing so it was up the coliour. The guided group had fixed a rope here for their clients and they were all waiting in line to use ascenders and climb up. The three of us climbed to the left and summited at almost high noon. We snapped a few photos and could not keep the incident of the day before out of our heads as the chopper was visible on the floor just below and to the west of the Whitney Russell ridge and Patrick’s name was the last one signed before our own entries.
See pictures on my profile.
OUR THOUGHTS ARE WITH THE FRIENDS AND FAMILY OF Patrick Wang.