“Hhuuuuggggghh!!” I groaned as I hoisted my pack onto my shoulders. The pack was larger than my torso, and Joel estimated that it was somewhere around 70lbs. I could tell that the 3,400 ft gain to our campsite was going to be a little tough with such a heavy pack. Joel and I had come up to Lone Pine with ambitious plans – camp at Meyson Lakes and the following day climb Mt LeConte, traverse to Corcoran, and bag Mts Mallory & Irvine on our way back to camp.
Normally I don’t pack so heavily, but this trip involved a lot of unknowns, and we brought enough gear to deal with every one that concerned us. Most of our concerns were regarding the waterfall pitch. Every report on SP stated that its class 3 rating was underrated, and someone on the site had mentioned that it would probably be even worse with snow cover. I couldn’t tell from the photos how hard it was, how high it was, or how exposed it was. In response, I decided to bring a rope and a little bit of pro, in case we wanted to protect the pitch. Since we had no idea how much it would be covered with snow and ice, Joel and I also brought our ice tools in addition to our crampons, helmet, rope, pro etc. and whatever gear we thought we’d need for two days of snow camping.
We had a leisurely start, parking our car along the Whitney Portal road and descending down through the campground to reach the trailhead to Meyson Lakes around 9am. From there we followed the discontinuous trail as it traveled between some cabins, before ascending above them and contouring around the ridge. After some switchbacks we entered Meyson Canyon, following the bare trail as it traversed the north slopes. I was surprised at how nice the trail really was – wide, flat, and mostly clear of rocks and roots.
As we hiked higher, Lone Pine Peak towered above us to the south, and for entertainment I examined its slopes for possible lines of ascent. Occasionally we crossed a tongue of old avalanche debris that had persisted on the barren slopes, making for an interesting balancing act of kick-stepping in the snow while controlling such heavy packs – one you start tipping one way, its REALLY hard to stop!
At 11,099 ft we reached a marshy area with a small lake, and we caught our first peek of Mt LeConte barely rising above the cirque headwall in the distance. Here the snow-cover was total, so we left the trail, crossing the lake’s outlet, and hiked over to Meyson Lake’s snow-covered outlet.
The outlet was completely filled in with hard neve, forming a steep headwall some 150 ft high. At the top of this, Mt Irvine towered above like a jagged citadel. This was my favorite part of the approach. Walking up the slope was a little precarious with our heavy packs, but doing so, surrounded by granite cliffs, with such an impressive peak towering above made me feel like I was truly in an alpine wilderness.
Once we reached the lake we found an excellent setup for our camp along its shoreline at 11,400’ . The snow had melted off of some of the granite slabs, so we left our gear piled on the slabs to keep dry. The slabs also made a nice area to deal with equipment and have dinner. After shoveling out a tent platform in the snow next to the granite, I went about looking for easy access to water. The lake was frozen over, but at the outlet I could see a series of large boulders stretching out from an obvious hillside to the middle of some frozen ice. I hopped out as far as I could on the boulders and hacked through the ice with my ice axe – SCORE! Fresh water! Now we could conserve fuel and avoid the time drain of melting water! I brought back our water bottles and filled them up in Meyson Lake.
At one point I carelessly let my hand dip in the water with one of the bottles. The water wasn’t as cold as expected, but I decided that dunking my hand again probably wasn’t good idea. About 30 seconds later as I was walking back to the tent I finally felt the cold. Slivers of pain shot up my fingers into my wrist, merging into one ball of numbness and pain. I balled my hand into a fist and put it into my armpit, but the pain only got worse. In a pitiful display, I curled up in a fetal position on the granite slab, hand squeezed in my armpit, then between my legs. It took all my concentration to fight back the tears until the pain subsided and feeling returned to my hand. Yikes! Now I can imagine how painful it can be to freeze to death in cold water!
Alpine StartA little before 5am Joel and I were up and ready to go. I had packed my gear into a smaller daypack to keep the gear more compact and close to my back. It also held the pro nicely on the outside gear loops, while Joel carried up the rope.
Both of us were very tired as we trekked out from camp across the frozen neve. Apparently Joel and I both experienced some possible Cheyne-Stokes Syndrome the night before, waking up about every half hour throughout the night. Was it the fact that we were sleeping at 11,400 ft that night, when we had been sleeping at sea level the night before? Or perhaps we had worked ourselves too hard hauling up all the gear the day before? Either way, we both were sluggish, but still pumped in anticipation for the climb.
The headwall turned out to be much steeper than expected, reaching about 40o in steepness. This made for fun cramponing. Joel’s more experienced pacing for such snow climbs put my power starts up the hill to shame. Although I only rested a minute here and there, my frequent rests caused me to fall behind him as he chugged steadily up the hill. The hill seemed much more fatiguing than it should have, but then again, our daypacks probably weighed close to 40 lbs. The sun rose as we were climbing the couloir, and soon we topped out on the broad plateau linking Mt LeConte and Mt Mallory. It looked to be a cakewalk to traverse to Mallory after we were done with LeConte. Still, although the plateau was only slightly sloped, our pace didn’t pick up much.
Soon we were at the far end of the plateau and at the base of LeConte’s rocky north side – time to get out the photos and route description gathered from SP! We descended a chute to the west for about 200 ft before contouring south. The chutes were full of snow (although a brief encounter with a bare patch revealed how much of a PITA they could be under dry conditions), but the rocky ribs were melted out. We dropped into the next chute south and kick-stepped up the snow toward the infamous Waterfall Pitch.
Waterfall PitchThe pitch, as it turned out, was rather anticlimactic. It only consisted of about 10 ft of climbing, and a fall would only give you a 15 ft ride, unless you were unlucky enough to start sliding on snow. It was too short, awkward, and easy to bother protecting with a rope (there were +20lbs that we could have left behind!). Snow had covered the bottom portions, and there wasn’t enough ice for tools to be useful.
To be fair, the climbing was awkward and required some brute force. Joel climbed partway up it first while I cached out climbing gear, and he was stymied by the lack of holds. I could see that it was a series of wide cracks in a corner, so all that was needed was some jamming and scumming! I opted to give it a go and climbed into the cracks. They were just barely wide enough to swallow a leg, so I jammed a leg in, twisted, and stood up. I jammed my right fist in a crack to my right, pressing my fist against the cold ice that was still present. After some less than graceful heaving against the rock wall and jamming appendages into the cracks, I was soon on top. Not so bad, but the down climb could be more of a pain – luckily there was some webbing slung at the top that could be used just in case.
Joe followed up without incident and we continued on. I foolishly left my ice tools here as well, instead of my mountaineering axe. We climbed up the chute a short ways and then doubled back west along a ledge to begin our traverse to Corcoran.
As we crossed the ribs on broken ledges we could see an occasional duck, and in general, finding a path through the rock barriers was straightforward – the difficulty was in deciding when to climb back up!
The route description from SP said to cross two of the buttresses before reaching a large chute. This chute splits, and one was to take the right fork to reach a large chock stone. Well, we reached such an area, but one of the buttresses crossed was smaller and truncated, only partially dividing the chutes. The farther chute was wide and forked twice, but after climbing up it, we could see that there was no chock stone. We backtracked and tried the next chute over, and voila! Ahead of us was a steep tongue of snow, and up above was a large chock stone, wedged between two of the spires on the ridge. The snow was still rock hard and was very steep – perfect for some fun climbing with ice tools! Joel had brought his, so he led the way, and I followed using my one mountaineering axe. At its steepest the snow probably reached 50o as it narrowed.
From the chock stone it was clear sailing the rest of the way. Some easy class 3 along the ridge brought us to a final chute with some loose snow and gravel in it, taking us to the summit. After signing the register we admired the impressive view of Comb Ridge, which is the jagged ridgeline composed of Mt LeConte at its northern end, Mt Corcoran in the middle, and many other spires along its length such as Shark’s Tooth and Laughing Dolphin.
I headed down first, but down climbing with one axe seemed very precarious on the steep hard snow beneath the chock stone – I really felt unstable when I was moving the axe. After nervously descending some 20 ft, I traversed to some exposed rocks on the side to finish down climbing on some more secure terrain. I waited while Joel passed beside me on the snow, predicting a good photo-op. I snapped away and followed him down. Soon we were back at the Waterfall Pitch, and some straightforward class 3 scrambling up the chute brought us to our highest summit of the day.
Altitude Laziness FactorBy the time we descended the Waterfall Pitch and ascended to the LeConte-Mallory Plateau, Joel and I were beat. We had been moving slower and slower throughout the day, and we were beginning to feel sick. I felt a much more pronounced and total fatigue than I was used to for mild AMS, and my enthusiasm for climbing Mt Mallory and Mt Irvine before heading back to camp waned. Joel was also beginning to feel lazy, and the temptation of reaching Lone Pine early enough to have dinner in a restaurant was more than we could handle – Mallory and Irvine will have to wait for another weekend.
We had a fun 1,400 ft glissade back down into the cirque, packed up camp, and made good time huffing it out. As we hiked the last bit of uphill to reach our car, we both were feeling really beat – but what a climb! The weather had been perfect, the terrain wild, and the climbing solid. We congratulated ourselves for finishing such an ambitious climb, the experience of wilderness and adventure ended when two old tourists drove by. As we were stowing the rope, ice tools, crampons, etc. this couple, inquired:
“Excuse me, but could you tell us where we can find Mt Whitney?”
We happily pointed out to them that it was the tallest rocky mass rising up on the skyline above the road, and they continued on their way. We thought this first encounter with other human beings since we had left on our climb was a little strange, but I imagine the impressions of this encounter was mutual!