The PlanningMy friend Jeff and I (Marlin) somehow came up with the crazy idea to climb Mount Whitney in winter. So began the planning stages of our trip. Buying plane tickets from Tennessee to California, arranging to have a car, getting all our winter gear packed into bags, and the numerous other details that go into trip planning. Finally the day arrived and we landed in LA, picked up our rental car, and headed straight to REI to buy food and other last minute items we deemed necessary. Next came the drive over the desert to Lone Pine. We had hopes of staying at the Whitney hostel, but upon our arrival we found it closed for the holidays. I guess that what we get when trying to climb mountains over the Christmas season instead of staying home with the family. Instead we settled for the Best Western hotel and commenced to organize our gear. The weather was predicted to be sunny and temperatures in the high 20s during the day. With the low amount of snow on the mountain we hoped to climb the East Buttress. After finishing our discussion on how many cams to take for the climb we headed to bed.
December 20, 2011
Packs loaded and feet down on the trail by 9:30am. We decided with the winter conditions and heavy packs to take a 2 day approach. The first night we would be camping at Lower Boyscout Lake. With the shorter day in mind we weren't jumping at sunrise to be on the trail. When we weighed our packs at the Whitney Portal we got a reality check. They came in at 72lbs and 64lbs! I guess it all adds up when you stuff them full of climbing gear, food and fuel for 4 days, winter gear, and enough warm clothes to hopefully not freeze.
The first mile of trail went quickly. The trail was clear of snow and mild in its elevation gain. At the North Fork turnoff we headed uphill into the gully. Very quickly we realized that the quick pace we set on the trail was over. There was just enough snow in valley to obscure any established trail but not enough to go over the willow branches. There were footprints in the snow but they forked in many locations and even ended on occasion. After zigzagging through the willows and getting our packs caught by branches we finally saw the landmark tree for the famed Ebersbacher Ledges. The scramble up to and across the ledges was covered in a thin layer of snow with a touch of ice in places to make it interesting. When we picked the dates for our trip we had forgotten that the shortest day of the year was December 22. But as we scrambled up the willow canyon and Ebersbacher ledges in the shade, we were reminded how low the sun was in the sky even though it was almost mid-day.
After a short lunch break we met a party of 3 coming down the mountain. They had not summited due to a lack of fuel. They informed us that we could get water from Lower Boyscout and Upper Boyscout Lakes, but Iceberg Lake was completely frozen over. We had planned on melting snow the entire trip so while the information was helpful it didn't affect our climb. The next section up to Lower Boyscout Lake had numerous icy sections where careful negotiating was required to avoid ending our climb early with an injury. Finally after almost 4 long hours we arrived at Lower Boyscout Lake and searched for a level spot to set up our tent. There was about 6 inches of dry powder snow on the ground, and soon we found a perfect spot sheltered from the elements. The weather soon turned cold (or so we thought) and by 3:30pm it was 15F. The sun was gone in a little over an hour and by 5:30pm it was completely dark. With nothing better we talked about the route and the climb while zipped up in our sleeping bags attempting to escape the cold.
December 21, 2011
The next morning we slept in until the sun was up. Although, due to its low angle in the sky, its warm rays would never reach our camp. After a good breakfast of hot oatmeal we collapsed our tent and packed up camp. Setting out from Lower Boyscout Lake we found that there were two trails in the snow. We opted to take the higher one and commenced to slowly climb our way up the rocky slope. Just before crossing from the left side of the gully to the right side above the rock slabs, the "trail" we had taken led us through a boulder field. Then just after climbing up and over the last boulder we hit deep powder snow. So as we crossed the gully with the small willows you didn't know whether your step would stop at your ankle or sink to your waist. Finally on the right side of the gully and just below Upper Boyscout Lake the going turned easier and we were able to met the sun's rays.
Stopping for a few minutes at Upper Boyscout Lake we enjoyed the sun's warmth while munching on crackers and cheese. The next section up into the valley with below Mount Whitney was smooth and easy. The boot track was well marked and only the altitude and heavy packs slowed us down. Continuing up the valley we encountered the last obstacle before our high camp could be made. It was a steep headwall just below Iceberg lake. As we had been hiking we noticed several beautiful ice flows that had formed along the cliff band. And as we approached this final headwall we came close and personal to one of those ice flows. The ice had formed down and across the trail in several places and we took our time working through the ice trying to stay on rocks as much as possible. Finally across the ice and up the last steep section we arrived at Iceberg Lake. The sun had just disappeared behind the ridge but the peaks surround the lake were still illuminated by its bright rays. The beauty of it all took a minute to comprehend as we stared up at the East Face and East Buttress of Whitney basked in late afternoon sun. The Fishhook Arete on Mount Russell also caught our attention as its lighted ridgeline stood out against the dark gullys of the mountain. We quickly found a tent platform and removed a little drifted snow to level the area. After setting up camp we checked the thermometer and found it was only 5F. That night in the tent we debated about whether to climb the East Buttress or just do the Mountaineer's Route. Finally we decided we would make the final decision in the morning.
December 22, 2011
As we rose the next morning we quickly realized that the East Buttress was not a very good option. The thermometer was reading -3F and the wind had arrived in the night. It wasn't too strong yet but as the day unfolded, we guessed the wind would pick up as well. With the final decision made we quickly ate a cold breakfast of frozen granola bars and other snacks and then packed our summit packs with more food, water, and select few climbing gear. We set off by 8:15am and made good time up towards the chute despite the sometimes deep powder snow. Arriving at the bottom of the Mountaineer's chute we decided the best option would be to stay on rock as much as possible. With a goal in mind we made quick work of the lower half of the chute stopping at the bottom of the East Buttress momentarily to look up the route.
Looking up at the final 400 feet above the notch we searched for the best line through the rock, snow, and ice. Eventually we decided on a plan and began scrambling up the rock ledges. After about 150 feet we ran out of clean rock to climb. Throughout the next section snow and ice covered the rock everywhere making it hard to see what you were stepping on. There wasn't enough snow or ice however to comfortably climb up with crampons. After searching for dryer rock we realized that we needed to cross from the left side to the right side of the gully. So Jeff roped up, set a small nut and headed out into the snow and ice covered rock. The cold seemed to seep in all around me as I belayed him across the gully. Finally he found the best route and with scant pro and a long runout he made it across. I quickly followed him across the snowy slope. Once on the ridge we decided to just simulclimb the rest of the ridge line since we already had the rope out and tied in. The thermometer on his jacket read -5F as we quickly ascended the class 3 rock above. The wind was a constant steady force now with gusts around 40mph. A quick reference check showed us that with the gusts the windchill was at -36F!! Finally topping out onto the summit plateau we reached the sun's rays and tried to absorb as much scant warmth as possible. The short final hike to the actual summit was quick and at last we stood on top of the mountain. Even with the short roped pitch it had only taken us 3hrs and 45min from Iceberg Lake to the summit. After taking a few quick pictures we raced into the summit hut to try and warm up.
It was a "balmy" 10F in the hut and we enjoyed the warmth and zero wind while eating more granola bars, crackers, and frozen cheese. With this renewed energy we bade our farewell to the highest point in California and headed down the mountain. The final 400 feet went much quicker down than up as we rappelled the section. The only annoyance was the wind which was so strong that it would tangle the ropes and try to get them stuck. Once at the notch the wind was still increasing and we quickly headed down the chute. On the way down we stuck to as much snow as possible letting our heals sink in with each step. With this approach we were back down to Iceberg Lake in what seemed like no time at all (2hrs from the summit down to camp). After melting snow for much needed drinking water we ate a congratulatory dinner of pasta primavera and Himalayan beans and rice. The long dark night was soon upon us and we retired to the depths of our sleeping bags to avoid the wind and cold. During the night the gusts seemed to have peaked at near 50mph with the wind trying to tear into the tent wall. It also sent spindrift powder snow into every crack and crevice it could find.
December 23, 2011
The next morning we rose with the sun and made quick work to pack up camp. Shouldering our packs we were headed down the headwall below Iceberg Lake by 8:20am. The way down seemed to go by in fast forward. The sense of accomplishment combined with the thought of a hot shower (and heat in general) seemed to drive our bodies into a faster pace. An hour later we were at Upper Boyscout Lake and in another hour we paused for a quick food break at Lower Boyscout Lake. We soon made it down to the Ebersbacher ledges and through the willow-choked gully. Then quickly down the main Whitney trail arriving at Whitney portal a mere 4 hours after leaving Iceberg Lake. Weighing our packs on the way out we realized that they had only lost about 5 pounds. We also thought about all the extra climbing gear we had taken in preparation of climbing the East Buttress. Oh well we made it, and we didn't lose any toes or fingers to frostbite.