The rucksacks were packed, boots laced, car locked, and the keys strategically hidden beneath an Ephedra bush nearby. At the crack of noon, we were all set to go.
“Do we really have to do this?” I asked.
“We absolutely don’t,” said Misha.
I knew right then that we were going to get along just fine on this trip.
Misha strapped on his snowshoes. I snapped my boots into my new alpine touring skis. We shouldered our obscenely heavy packs and began shuffling up the slush on Whitney Portal Road. The long north ridge of Lone Pine Peak towered above us. The summit was three miles and 6,500 vertical feet away. I felt the odd mixture of anticipation and dread that so often accompanies these ventures; making plans in the comfort of home never quite prepares me for the shock of realizing what I’ve actually gotten myself into.
I took one last glance back at the car, which was parked at a crazy angle where it slid to a stop at the junction of the portal road and Hogback Road. I hoped no one would take offense at my lousy parking job and call for a tow truck.
Under clear skies and a brilliant sun we wore only a light base layer, and still we were sweating. There was not even a breath of wind to bring us relief. We took it slow.
At least, that was the rationale I fed myself for our low rate of progress. Never mind the fact that neither of us had slept much the night before. Misha had arrived at the Dow Villa Hotel in Lone Pine shortly before one in the morning, while I lay in bed regretting that last glass of wine at dinner. Like the dedicated alpinists we were, bent on being in the best possible shape for the climb, we continued to talk into the wee hours of the morning. Finally, Misha said we might want to consider sleeping, and asked what time I thought we should wake up. Only half joking, I said nine. We settled on seven.
Prior to departing, we had discussed making an attempt on the complete north ridge. As far as either of us knew, it would be a first winter ascent. But the deep slush and rugged terrain easily deterred us from such madness. We would follow the road into Whitney Portal, then take the Meysan Lakes Trail to the chute that lead to the north ridge. From there our plan was to climb the upper part of the ridge to the summit and then reverse the route back to high camp and descend to the car on the last day. We thought we were being generous allowing ourselves four days to complete the route.
Despite our lethargy, we made reasonably good time up the road. In about two hours we had eaten lunch and reached the top of the second switchback, in good position to scout the next leg of our journey. It looked kind of tricky: the first half mile or so traversed a steep, wooded slope. It seemed to hold many opportunities for epics.
I thought this would be a good time to pull out the map, which I had carefully extracted from the mountain of gear on the hotel floor the previous night. I fished a folded piece of paper from my pack and opened it up with anticipation—armed with a GPS and a high-resolution map, we would surely make quick work of this!
Ah, yes. Here’s the road, here’s…Convict Lake!?!? It was the map for Mt. Morrison, some 60 miles distant.
I rummaged frantically through the pack looking in vain for another piece of paper, but all I came up with was two Xeroxed pages from Secor. No map.
Misha didn’t seem too perturbed. “We won’t get lost,” he said. His logic was impeccable. Spirits unbowed, we drank some water, shouldered the pigs, and chuffed on.
Whitney Portal was blanketed in several feet of snow, but the road leading up to the summer cabins and the start of the Meysan Lakes Trail was in great shape. I imagined that we would shortly find ourselves in the Meysan basin lazily picking the best camp site and wondering what we would do with all the daylight we had left.
We had not gone ten feet from the road when Misha plunged through the snow up to his hips. I felt a slight twinge of satisfaction at having chosen skis over snow shoes for this adventure, since they did a much better job at bridging the chasms created by snow-covered shrubs. I would get my comeuppance later.
We spent the next two hours doing what Jacques Brousseau, a backcountry partner from my youth, called “guerilla skiing”. Guerilla skiing means basically slapping the boards down over trees, rocks, bushes, and occasionally snow, while swatting the clawing arms of underbrush from your face. The mountains of Southern California are prime guerilla skiing territory. And so, we discovered, are the lower reaches of Meysan Creek. It was tough going for both of us, though I think Misha got the worst of it. Snowshoes aren’t the best tools for traversing steep, deep slush.
Five thirty found us heaving our packs to the ground in a stunning glade of pine. I checked the GPS for elevation. 8,200 feet. Not quite the 9,000 feet we had set as a target for the day, but we’d take it. By seven-thirty we’d made camp, eaten, melted snow for the next day, and turned out the lights.
Overnight temperatures barely dipped into the twenties. A pan of water left outside had just a thin layer of ice, which we knocked out before heating water for tea and cocoa.
A brief stint of bushwhacking through willows got us to Meysan Creek, which was completely buried, though we could hear the water rushing beneath our feet. The creek bed provided a clear path for upward progress. We followed it for about 1,200 feet until the route up to the ridge via chutes and ledges came into view.
We broke for lunch just before noon. The cold breeze we had endured all morning disappeared, and the sun came out from behind Lone Pine Peak. We soaked in the warm rays while studying the route above. It looked steeper than we had hoped. We would have to leave our skis and snowshoes at the base, as they would not be of any use to us in the rough terrain above.
We soon reached the start of the chutes at about 10,000 feet. It looked to be maybe another five or six hundred feet further up to the ridge, where we planned to make our high camp. We took another hydration break and soaked in some more of sun’s warmth. At 1:30 we once again heaved our loads onto our backs and began grinding out the last few hundred feet of gain for the day.
We made relatively good progress over mixed ground. The heavy winds of the previous storms had blown the snow away in many places, leaving scree, loose rock, and slabs intermingled with deep patches of snow. The rock seemed to offer a more efficient path, so we stopped often, scouting out the driest and most straightforward way.
We eventually found ourselves following what appeared to be a use trail winding steeply up scree and big rocks. The trail took a turn to the north around a minor buttress. By now we could see the notch at the top of the gully system. It was about a hundred feet up and two hundred yards to the northeast. Ahhhh, almost there.
I took a half dozen more steps along the ledge and my heart sank. There, between us and the promised land, lay a monster snow slope. It was easily 45 degrees, which in itself wasn’t a problem. But it lay mostly on smooth slabs. I knew from having been in the Sierra during the first week of the storm that the prevailing winds had been from the south and southwest. That meant this slope could well be an enormous wind slab. I felt sick to my stomach at the thought of taking a few steps across the snow, and then having the whole thing take off like a runaway freight, leaping and bounding 2,000 feet down to the site of our previous camp. When Misha caught up we discussed the situation. It seemed that our best choice would be to ascend the steep buttress above, then try to traverse above the slope.
The climbing started out third class, then rapidly progressed to fourth, and then easy fifth class. The exposure wasn’t too bad, but it was strenuous and awkward with 50 pound packs on our backs. We climbed another two hundred feet until we came to a section that would require breaking out the rope. Misha found a way up a gully to the right. It initially looked third class, but we soon realized it was also low class five. Again, the exposure wasn’t too severe, and we soon reached a small notch in the buttress. From there we dropped down onto the other side and clambered up boulders, slabs, and scree to another notch that turned out to be right at the top of the fearful snow slope.
I reached the notch before Misha, and took the opportunity to drink some water and munch a couple energy bars. The last time I saw him he was about fifty feet behind me. I finished my food and drink and snapped a few pictures. Still no Misha. I could hear him moving around below. What was taking so long? Finally, Misha appeared at the base of the scree below.
“What took you so long?”
“I dropped my water bottle.”
Misha had brought only one water bottle, so it was important to retrieve it. Luckily, it fell only a hundred feet and came to rest improbably in the steep snow. But he still had to downclimb over rough terrain, and reascend with the precious cargo now more firmly attached to his pack.
Our detour had added a considerable amount of time to the ascent. It was now four o’clock, and we were ready to make camp. There was a marginal bivy site at the notch, but we both wanted to make the ridge. We also wanted a camp with a view of the Owens Valley, and a chance of getting sunshine in the morning.
I volunteered to traverse the last hundred yards to the ridge and scout possible camp sites while Misha took a well-deserved rest. We were unable to get above the big snow slope, but at least we were high enough where we weren’t in danger of having it come down on top of us. I carefully worked my way across, taking care with each step to make sure I wasn’t walking on thinly covered slabs. The slope was too steep and soft to make self-arrest a serious possibility, and there were plenty of rocks to hit on the way down. I was relieved to reach to North Ridge proper.
I gave Misha the high sign, and he started across. I continued on, looking for a relatively flat area where we could pitch the tent. It took some doing, but we finally found a good spot at approximately 10,700 feet with a magnificent view of the Owens Valley, the Eastern Sierra to the north, and the White and Inyo Mountains. The lights of cars on highway 395 snaked along the valley floor.
The sugary snow made a lousy platform for camping. We dug four feet down, and still couldn’t find anything solid. We gave up, and pitched the tent anyway. I ended up using my spare clothing to fill in the holes beneath my Thermarest. It was one of the less comfortable bivy sites I’ve experienced.
As we melted snow Misha pulled out a cell phone. Perfect reception! He tried calling his girlfriend, but she wasn’t home. He said she was out wine tasting tonight. Somehow I didn’t appreciate knowing that. After dinner I tried my phone, and it worked too. I called my wife and told her where we were, and talked to my kids. It seemed incongruous to be high on a mountain in winter, melting snow for water and talking on a cell phone.
We decided to wake up at four thirty the next morning. Misha had an alarm feature on his cell phone, so he set it and we turned in. Within an hour, I was feeling cold spots where lumps of snow beneath my pad were poking through. I tossed and turned, trying every possible position to avoid them. Some time in the middle of the night I realized my Thermarest had deflated! No wonder I was so uncomfortable. I thrashed around until I could get it out from under me and reinflated it, waking up poor Misha in the process. For a while it was fine, but it soon deflated and I was back to where I started. I gave up. It wasn’t that bad, and I needed to sleep.
As the night wore on I began to develop a headache. Damn. I didn’t need this on summit day. I hoped by morning it would be gone, but no such luck. I checked my watch after another bout of cold spot avoidance. It was ten minutes of five. Misha’s phone alarm had failed. I zipped open the tent and checked outside. The moon had just set, and it was pitch black. Not a breath of wind. Perfect conditions. Misha stirred, and I told him what time it was. We both began preparations.
After some tea and breakfast Misha snuggled down into his bag to savor a few last minutes of warmth before we set out. I finished melting snow for our last water bottle, then decided to do the same. I woke up forty five minutes later to a pale lavender sky. So much for an alpine start!
We roused ourselves and set about the first order of business—taking pictures of the Sierra at dawn. The visibility was phenomenal. We could see the White Mountains clearly, and well beyond. As the sun slowly crept above the horizon, the constantly shifting play of light across the peaks and valley floor provided our eyes with a feast of beauty unparalleled by anything civilization has to offer. It was eight o’clock by the time we finally put down the cameras and started walking up the ridge.
It was much later than we planned, but the altitude rendered me apathetic. My stomach felt queasy and my head still hurt. Misha felt a little better, but still not a hundred percent. We ascended another 300 feet to a perfect bivy spot; a flat, sandy area clear of snow and just big enough for a tent. If only we had known! We could have saved ourselves a lot of work shoveling snow, and had a much more amenable place to hang out.
We studied the route above. For the next few hundred feet it would be more of the same; class two and three scrambling over rock, with the occasional jaunt through deep snow. In the summer this section would have gone very quickly, but under present conditions we moved more slowly. I looked at my watch. It was eight twenty-five. My head ached. We had the discussion we both knew we needed to have.
“We have two options,” said Misha, “either continue on up and see how far we can get, or head back down to the car. I don’t think we have a very good chance of making it to the summit. I think it’s less than 50-50.”
Descent had been on my mind all morning. I didn’t feel so bad that it was the only clear option, but as we discussed the matter further, it seemed obvious that going down was the prudent thing to do. We probably could have made it, but we undoubtedly would have been descending the last part of the route in the dark. With neither of us feeling completely whole, that wasn’t a prospect to be relished.
I suggested that maybe we could at least continue to the first notch and reconnoiter for a return trip, but Misha pointed out that if we did so, we wouldn’t be able to make it back down before dark. The possibility of having to traverse the nasty slope at the bottom of the canyon by headlamp didn’t appeal.
“If we leave now we can get down in time to check into a motel, take a shower, and get some Mexican food and beer.”
“Beer?” I thought. Done.
Packing up, Misha discovered that his avalanche probe had gone missing. Perhaps it had fallen off at the same time his water bottle did. Sure enough, when we reached the spot Misha found his probe. We descended on the snow as much as possible, as it was easier on the body, and faster than the rock. However, we reached a point where the snow lay only inches deep over smooth, steep slabs, and the rock option was something neither of us felt like down climbing with full packs. Slow as it was, rappelling seemed the only good option.
It wasn’t a great option. It was an awkward rappel over big blocks, slabs, and deep snow. Our packs constantly threatened to flip us over backward. Misha spent considerable effort pulling the rope from the clutches of trees. But at last we were past the major technical hurdle. Twenty minutes later we were back where we stashed the skis and snow shoes, enjoying the sun once again.
Misha thought that if we stayed high on the west side of the canyon on the way down we might have a chance at bypassing the worst of the obstacles in the lower canyon. Fortunately, he was right, and we reached Whitney Portal two hours before we thought we would.
By then I was feeling somewhat knackered. This I attributed to three days of effort, and the lingering effects of AMS. Only later the next day would I realize I was suffering from a nasty case of the flu.
Safely on the road, I was looking forward to stripping off my skins and sliding effortlessly the last three miles to the car. It was not to be. Ski conditions on the road were vile. Two hours of shade had formed a heavy crust of ice on top of deep slush. The ice was not thick enough to support my weight, but it was hard enough to make initiating a turn nearly impossible. I struggled gamely for the first mile, but eventually was forced to take off the skis and carry them down. I post holed every few steps, adding insult to injury.
We reached the car at four forty. I threw down my pack and scrambled up the berm to fetch the keys. Hmmm. All these bushes look alike.
“What’s the problem?”
“I can’t find the keys.”
Misha looked troubled. He joined in the search. After fifteen minutes we were becoming slightly panicked. Misha suggested calling AAA. It seemed like the only option. The light was fading fast. I was getting thoroughly chilled. Not wanting to give up, we kept searching. At first I was poking around under bushes that seemed like the right one, but now I was digging away under every bush in sight. Misha asked all sorts of sensible questions.
“What did the bush look like?”
“What do your keys look like?”
I described them in detail.
“Did you cover them up?”
“…makes it hard…” he replied.
“Did you put them under a rock?”
I couldn’t remember any more. “Maybe,” I said.
“Did you set the alarm on the car?”
“…makes it hard…” he observed once again.
What could AAA do? They could open the car, but unless they could disable the alarm, they wouldn’t be able to start it. There was a Ford dealership in Bishop, but this being Saturday night, it wasn’t likely I could get a replacement key until Monday. This sucked. I broke down and called AAA, since I would rather be stranded in town than up here.
My phone call stimulated Misha to redouble his efforts. Just as I was about to get through to AAA Misha waved his hand in triumph.
Never has a set of car keys looked so much like an angel descending from heaven to announce the salvation of mankind.
We made haste for town, and soon found ourselves sitting in the Bonanza swilling beer and downing chips and salsa. I thought back to something Misha had said that morning; it seems like when you’re in the mountains, you can’t wait to get out, and once you’re out, you can’t wait to go back. So true. Armed with first-hand beta on the approach, we were already plotting our return.