In mid May my dad called to see if I was interested in Mount Whitney on Memorial Day. After several unsuccessful and discouraging trips in prior weeks I was ready for a break from deplorable snow conditions in Colorado. So I started looking at routes.
Dad had been training even harder in the month since we climbed Mount Adams here in Colorado, and I'd been doing my thing, so I thought it might be feasible to daytrip the Mountaineer's Route with an alpine start from Whitney Portal. Dad was confident he could handle it, but I wasn't so sure for either of us. The route is more sustained than anything I'd done before, and I had never gained more than 6000' in one day to reach a single peak; Dad had only climbed Mount Adams--his one mountaineering route and summit higher than 9000'.
We got our airline tickets to Las Vegas. Dad started piecing together an array of mountaineering gear with outrageous economy. Plans were firming up, but I was dragging my feet; I had missed that applications for wilderness permits were due in March, so we searched for a backup plan. The Northeast Couloir on Mount Langley looked like an excellent snow climb. That would be our Plan B.
Saturday, May 28
We met at McCarran Saturday evening, picked up our rental car, and managed to drive all the way to Lone Pine that night. All the motels were booked so we slept at the car somewhere on the Whitney Portal road. We awoke to stunning views of the mountains. The Sierras rise strikingly abrupt from the valley floor, their massive faces and jagged ridges dominating the skyline from Owens Valley.
Sunday, May 29
The nice lady at the ranger station in Lone Pine was not inspired by us: the Mountaineer's Route has a lot of gain, most people camp, there's a tree down on the Ebersbacher Ledges, you have know how to use an ice axe and crampons ... She meant well and I resisted the urge to ask "What are 'crampons'?" I must have left my game face somewhere out in the desert the sleepless night before. Surprisingly we had no trouble securing a wilderness permit and were soon driving back up the Whitney Portal road. Higher up, the snow we could see had an obvious and promising crusty sheen. Conditions must be truer to season than in Colorado.
We set up our tent at the trailhead campgrounds and then went in search of some dunes. Two hours east of the Sierras as the rental car flies, in the heart of Death Valley and mere feet above sea level, there's a lookout called Zabriskie Point. Near that is the photogenic and very pointy Manly Beacon, and though it rises an underwhelming 750' above sea level, I had decided we--being manly--should summit. I did wonder if this would amount to de-acclimation, but exercise is exercise.
After that and some tasty pizza at the only restaurant in Panamint Springs, we headed back to our campsite at 7800' to prepare for the 2 am start. Menacing clouds had engulfed the mountains, but we were confident in the next day's inspiring forecast. "Setting the alarm for two AM," I said as we settled into our sleeping bags. Dad looked decidedly unenthusiastic. "Ok three."
We awoke at 3 and broke camp, drove to the upper parking lot, geared up and were on the trail at 4:15. Hiking in the Sierras has a great aesthetic: smooth trail, scent of pine riding on the crisp morning air, sliver of a moon suspended in clear skies, suggestion of a babbling stream always playing in our ears. Soon we left the main Whitney Trail to follow a well-defined use trail which serves the Mountaineer's Route and began to tunnel through the so-called "willows." These unrelenting monsters make the willows we midwesterners all know and love seem like tall grass. Bushwhacking here would be a dire prospect.
Hellish foliage notwithstanding, it was three icy crossings of the North Fork of Lone Pine Creek that would be the most frustrating impediment to our upward progress. We encountered the first where the trail crosses to the south side of the drainage, forcing us to leap from an ice-coated rock to make the traversal. Crossing back over to the north side we fought through a willow and then spread debris on an icy slab to gain traction for another precarious leap. Soon after that we found an auxiliary stream blocking the access chute for the Ebersbacher Ledges, which I traversed in poor form on willow branches and then threw down a sizable rock for Dad to cross in style.
We scrambled up the chute and began navigating the system of ledges. Though obvious and more benign than researching had led me to expect, this part of the route is truly classic and should not be overlooked. Soon we reached the notorious downed tree, a gargantuan limbless trunk lodged in a gap, apparently blocking easy passage to the ledge above. We shrugged and climbed over it, a feat which may have involved a big class-2 move. The ledges ended too quickly, depositing us on excellent snow below Lower Boyscout Lake. We hiked up the snow to the lake and stopped briefly to chat with a camper enjoying the scenic morning, then we continued around the lake and up-slope to a giant boulder. Here we stopped for a snack and donned crampons and axes as the remainder of the route would be on snow.
Continuing past thinning willows below Upper Boyscout Lake, we took the south fork of the basin and got our first look at Mount Whitney up close. In person it seems like a different mountain, more rugged and imposing than photographs convey. If I've developed a sense for what makes a classic route, the Mountaineer's Route epitomizes that feeling. A snow-laden basin lined by towering rock curtains and jagged ridges; draining into alpine lakes and a stream cascading down among willows, between smooth, sloping cliff bands and vanishing into subalpine forest below; walled off abruptly on the high side by behemoth spires of a unique and commanding summit. It was all ours for the taking, and the taking was good.
A short steep climb up a headwall yielded the lofty bench where Iceberg Lake, still just a depression in the snow, spies on the high Sierras. Here we found we would have company, as a large party was starting up the gully. It was 9:30. We took a break and discussed whether to continue carrying our snowshoes. Even though we determined it had been unnecessary to bring them, we decided to keep them as our descent route was still in question.
I was glad to be climbing. By now, even its high organ-pipe walls failed to cast a shadow into the gully, and the snow was beginning to soften inconsistently. This made it difficult to do anything but follow half-frozen tracks set by earlier parties or the mushy-but-compact footsteps of the group ahead. Several hundred feet up the gully I realized my dad had not lagged all morning and that I'd been moving about as fast as I cared to go. There were moments I felt he was itching to climb on as I paused to catch my breath. I'll be the one training for our next climb together!
The snow petered out disappointingly some 200' below the notch, baring a runnel of loose ugly scree. We scrambled up to the notch, where we met the guided group enjoying snacks, views, and a stiff breeze which prodded us to bundle up in our warm layers.
Beyond the notch we searched for our options to gain the last 600'. Immediately to our left, the most direct and standard route would involve heavily-exposed class-3 scrambling on good rock, followed by a pitch of steep snow. I knew there was a traversing alternative but I couldn't make what I saw align with the photos in my head. Just to the right of the standard finish a two-man rope team climbed out of sight behind a protruding rib. That didn't look right. So we started up to the left.
Though not technical, navigating the brief stretch of exposed rock proved more difficult than it appeared; patchy snow and ice made the middle interesting, so we worked our way to the left side, which offered some big scrambling on granite slabs nestled against the spur. Past this section, the snow was in great condition. Moderate at first, it reared up abruptly to the summit ridge. After 6000' of vertical gain I was running out of energy and so I was elated to haul myself onto the ridge and find we had only a short walk to the top.
We hiked up the broad summit plateau to the markers. Persistent wind on top didn't encourage a long stay, though the views were rewarding. We took some photos and then huddled at the shelter for a snack.
All the time we were on the summit I worried about getting down that first steep pitch. We talked with two climbers who had come up roped behind us, and they were equally nervous--that didn't help. We hiked down to look.
"That looks crazy."
Dad sounded anxious, which is unusual. We discussed alternatives halfheartedly. I mentioned we could descend the Whitney Trail but already we had separately concluded and silently agreed that anything but a direct descent was a defeat. Finally he said "It's up to you," which really meant "Ready when you are."
It took me a solid minute to commit to it, and then I turned around and started to climb down. Dad followed. As our movements became methodical, we grew comfortable kicking steps down the slope; nonetheless I was glad to reach easier terrain below. Scrambling down the rocky section was easier than climbing it, and soon we were at the notch, feeling a huge sense of accomplishment, watching the other teams rappel down the upper pitch.
In the gully below the notch, several bumpy glissades deposited us at Iceberg Lake.
As we descended the snow grew better for sliding and worse for hiking. After linking together a series of fast glissades with postholing to reach Lower Boyscout Lake, we located the trail at the mouth of the drainage, descended the Ebersbacher Ledges and hiked out, reaching the car shortly after 5 pm.
This was an important mountain for me, but it's been a big year for my dad; watching him take the summit, I remembered what he said a month ago as we pounded out the last grueling mile descending Mount Adams: "This was a good experience, but I don't think I would ever do it again."
Round-trip mileage: ~10
Total elevation gain: ~6100'
Time including stops: 13 hrs
Highest clocked gust: 18.8 mph