Sweetest Disaster-Winter Ascent of Mt. Whitney ’s MR 3/13/2010
Back in December 2009 I found out about SP, and started going out to different mountains to gain experience. That is about when I realized I REALLY want to climb Mt. Whitney ’s “Mountaineer’s Route” at some point in my life, I did not think it was going to happen so soon, and in addition to everything during winter.
I started thinking about different options for a trip to Whitney in January 2010, and after a successful summit of mt. Tallac on our way home I decided to find out if any of my peak-bagging friends (Max and Bryan) would want to try it (even though I had huge doubts we will actually attempt). They were a bit skeptical about it since mt. Whitney (highest peak in lower 48!) by MR is not mt. Tallac, Shasta or any other peak we did before. After couple of days of talking about it we decided to plan it, and even if we fail to summit we were determined to go out there and do our best. In early stages of planning we thought about attempting it in early April, but Bryan had a brilliant idea-- since we are planning to go in winter conditions why not just make our attempt during winter. It only counts as a winter summit if you do it before March 21st, so we planned our trip for March 12-14th since “WINTER ASCENT of Mt. Whitney ” sounds waaaaayyy cooler that “ascent of Mt. Whitney under winter conditions.” There were others who wanted to go with us, making a total of 8 people in our group (about 2-3 weeks before the trip).
During our planning stages we invited several other people to come with us which changed the carpool situation several times, since we live all over the Bay Area/Sacramento area. Also, I stepped up my training and what really worked great for me was loading my pack with 5 gallons of water and hiking up and down a steep/long city block for two-three hours/2ce a week. I rode a bike in the gym for an hour on level 8-10/2ce a week, ran 5-6 miles/1nc a week, and also climbed/did some weight training in our local climbing gym. Some of these were substituted by weekend peak-bagging/hiking/camping. I wanted to make sure that if anything stops me from going further it is not my lack of conditioning or poor planning. About two weeks before our trip I got into a bit obsessive stage-checking Whitney portal store forum and SP several times a day for any updates on road conditions, new trip reports (that did not exist), weather etc. Great news came when about 7 days before our trip, the forecast showed images of sun on every single day before and during our trip. It all changed couple of days before with predictions of 40+MPH northern winds with gusts up to 56MPH during Friday/Saturday and 1 inch of new snow/high winds for Saturday. Weather bothered me a bit, but did not bother me as much as the news about 4 out of 8 people who planed to go dropping out in the last few days before the trip (3 dropped out on the day of our departure!!!). I respect their reasons, but still think they did not have to wait for last minute to cancel. I was really worried it was going to lead to our trip to get cancelled but in the end Bryan, Max, Yason (comming all the way up from SD), and I (Vitaliy) decided to ignore the last minute weather changes and go for it. We decided to leave the Bay Area at about 10PM (Thursday) so we could get to Lone Pine, CA by about 6AM (Friday) and get up to Upper Boy-Scout Lake that day (long day w/o sleep, but you have to sacrifice). If weather was fine our summit push was scheduled for 3AM (Saturday, if it was storming hard we decided to wait the day out and attempt the summit on Sunday.
For some reason Max did not act like he usually does during this night. He was extremely hiper. Laughed a lot more than usual, sang Russian songs, and would not shut up for a minute even though I told him I want to sleep. Later he stated it was probably due to elevation, because he did not feel "normal." According to him he felt as if he was drunk. Even though he was hiper we were able to fall asleep. Our plan was to wait the storm out, wake up at about 2 and leave for summit at 3. When I woke up around 2AM it was dumping hard, and by my estimates there was about 6-7inches of new snow at that point. Since weather was putrid it was obvious we are not going anywhere at 3am, so after more songs and lady gaga like behavior from Max we fell asleep again.
Woke up at about 8am, came out to release some of that broth I had last night, discovered a foot or so of new snow (wasn't happy about that). Also, was not happy because it was really windy, but at least the sun was finally out. Called Bryan to come out (he was sleeping in the tent with Yason), we talked a bit..I proposed to just go for the summit ASAP. He calmly said "Yea, let's go." I was pleasantly surprised by this answer, woke up Maxim, we got some oatmeal ready, prepared our packs, and left at around 8:40AM. Yason informed us he will not be going for the summit the night before since his pace was way slower than ours. But he did put on his skis and followed us for as long as he could.
This time we did not have to wait for anyone. We put on our snow shoes and started going up to UBSL without any trail. We flew up this hill really fast. I got much warmer than I thought I would get and decided to take my fleece pants (wore tham under my shell) off after we topped the long hill on the way to UBSL from LBSL. I told Bryan and Max not to wait for me so to catch them after I was done I had to do a hiking sprint at around 11,000ft, which took some wind out of me since I had only one 5 second stop on my way. We saw a tent at UBSL and decided to see if anyone is in it. Two guys were standing outside, so we talked to them for a short while. They told us they are not going any further because of the wind and new snow (I wonder why would you drive for hours and give up without even attempting to do your best. It is a mountain, season is winter..
We stopped by the entrance to the notch ate some trail mix, energy bars, drank some, and took pictures. We were happy with our progress since we got to the Notch in about 2.5 hours after leaving LBSL. Doesn’t sound too fast, but we were happy with this time since we were breaking trail through foot of new powder. In my opinion Bryan was doing a bit more work breaking trail so thank him for that. I noticed that I was already running very low on water, because I took only 1L with me(more than half of it was gone already). I put some snow inside and put my nalgene under my shirt hoping my body heat would help the snow melt. According to Bryan (none of us been on this route and didn’t know what to expect) we might not be back till about 11PM with these conditions. We were all ok with a long day, we were not willing to quit just yet. We resumed our ascent at about 11:30am and worked our way zig zagging up in our snow shoes, breaking more trail (taking turns doing it). We were prepared to do it all the way, but after completing about 40% of the way up the notch, snow became a lot harder, so we sat on some rocks and put on our crampons. Snow in my bottle did not melt, so I drank some, and left about 200ml. We resumed climbing. It was so windy that all of us had problems staying warm. I had my base layer, smartwool sweater, and a shell jacket and still felt pretty cold. My feet and hands were cold as well, even though I had plastic boots (Scarpa Inverno) and some good gloves. Maybe it was because I wasn’t hydrated well, but both Max and Bryan also were cold.
Regarding altitude I did not have any headache, but I was short of breath more than before. Even when I stopped for rest I couldn’t get enough of it (oxygen). With wind blowing in my face, it getting late, and not feeling great I thought about not making it/ turning around etc (some people would probably laugh at that since they could day hike it in one day during a storm, but I am still not a superman and it is not easy to do a trip like this while having a full time job). One thing that kept me going is the thought about how much work I put in conditioning, planning, and organizing in order for this trip to happen. I started mountaineering for challenge of it, not so I could go up the trail for couple of miles during perfect weather, now I was getting challenged. After thinking about it not as a torture, but as something I waited for such a long time to happen, the suffering turned more into some kind of twisted joy. With this twisted joy we topped the Notch and got our first look at the last 400 foot chute.
The views all around were gorgeous, shocking, and amazing all in the same time. Snow covered mountains that an architect could not put together and Picasso couldn’t draw any better. Wind was blowing harder than it was blowing all day, since these were northern winds and we were now more exposed on the north side. We took a break hiding by some rocks. I ate some chocolate, consumed an energy bar, drank remaining water (which was not much by this point), and had some of Bryan or Max’s. After our break we prepared to get up the chute, got closer to it, and were exposed to it’s full beauty.
We climbed some of the rocks that were in our way and I was able to see the summit house!!!! This was a great moment, I forgot about us having to go down the chute, and from now on I was filled with true joy. Quickly we moved across loose rocks on to the summit plateau, semi ran to the house, and went on to stand on the true summit.
Summit experience and why risk?
After rolling around on sunny, wind-free summit we decided it was time to get down, and headed towards the "last 400" again.
Climbing down those rocks would be really unsafe so we took the snow patch down. Bryan flew down, Max was in the middle, and I was being very cautious (after hearing all the stories about people falling to their death here you have to be) and lagged a bit behind. I think getting down with the wind blowing as hard as it did all day took a lot of energy (mental and physical) out of me. Compared to conditions on this 40-45degree slope, going up 55degree part of CMC on Round Top next week was a joke. After we got down to the notch there was a lot of relief. Wind however was still strong on our way down. Since adrenaline rush was gone by the time we got down from the notch, fatigue and dehydration kicked in. I went into autopilot mode and concentrated on every step. Our snow shoes were off and no one wanted to stop in order to put them on for some reason, so getting knee deep in the snow at times was annoying (on the way back). When we were at Iceberg lk. we enjoyed some of the last rays of sun hitting mt. Russell. Another beautiful moment that will stay in my memory forever. Than a few minutes later we met two guys that turned out to be members of SP as well (small world). One of them was preparing his camp at Iceberg lake, and other “Misha” we saw about five minutes after talking to the first. He was making his way up to Iceberg. On our way down we chatted to both, and since Misha also spoke Russian we chatted to him for a bit longer, even though at that point I wouldn’t even want to chat with god if he appeared for longer than a few minutes. These guys were going to attempt East Buttress (as I remember) next day--a technical rock climb (hope one day to try this route as well). After wishing luck to each other and talking about how much we love Stalin & Vodka (jk) we continued down. It started getting dim, and by the time we passed UBSL it was already as dark as it gets at night. We contacted our friend Yason via walkie talky to make us some tea, since all, especially me would love to have a cup. We reached our camp without any problems by about 7:30PM or so, and had all the tea we dreamed of. I had no energy to stay out. I threw all the crap I carried on the ground, got lots of tea and crawled into my sleeping bag. Still didn't have much energy to talk to anyone. Later on I forced myself to eat some mashed potatoes with meat/cheese, finished Max’s tea he left by his sleeping bag : ) and got my Nalgene filled with more for the night. After Max came in we looked over the pictures and went to sleep. I did not sleep that night. Events of the day kept replaying in my head, and I had a great feeling of satisfaction. I am really grateful to have partners that did not back down and battled for our success. In my opinion one of the best ways to test your friends/yourself or to test someone’s character is to take them up to mountains with you and see how they perform under stress (physical and mental).
Here it does not matter if you are wearing an affliction shirt or have ripped bicepts. You have to be tough physically and mentally in order to accomplish something. In my opinion mental toughness might be the hardest part to be a successful mountaineer. There are many reasons to stop your ascent every time you go out there. Even on a perfect day it would be one of the hardest things any regular person could do. There are people that could day hike all Sierra peaks in one day, and I believe with proper training anything may be possible for any one, but for me at this given moment this trip was a big step forward. I hope I can continue climbing for a long time, improve my skills, improve my physical conditioning, mental toughness, set and complete new goals. After visiting this particular mountain (Whitney) I want to come back and do several other routes on it as well. Also, several peaks in this area seem like something I will be interested in doing sometime soon.
This was a true adventure and I am glad my friends and I made it happen.
Wish everyone else to go out there and have your own adventure! You only live once, don't waste your time!