If you've ever descended the MR on Mt. Whitney, you might have been tempted to take the very obvious use trail that takes off downhill just before the traverse over to the Ebersbacher ledges. Thinking I might have found a reasonable shortcut, I was tempted and found soon enough that I had made a mistake in judgement.
The use track downhill had very recent footprints and all were heading downhill, none were heading back uphill so my assumption was that this must be one of those secrets no one mentions (hence the reason I am writing this) . I had just broken something on my right hand up near Iceberg Lake which forced me to abort my summit attempt so I was looking for a faster way down. In retrospect, this was a dumb mistake but I'm not sure I was thinking all that clearly at the time. I had just carefully, very carefully descended from the 12,000 foot level and was anxious to get down to Lone Pine to find out what kind of damage my hand had suffered. I couldn't grasp my trekking pole without discomfort and so I had a vision of trying to downclimb a couple spots on the ledge system that made me a little concerned.
So I went downward on the use trail. All went well at first including the first tricky stream crossing I had to make. Soon I was making my way through myriads of branches and more water crossings, assuming the whole time that things would get better since I still had a path for my feet to trod. I had managed to this point to not have to depend on my right hand but that was begining to change so I had to change my tactics as the branches became more entangling and the path less distinct. Soon the path totally disappeared and I began to use my lower body as either a battering ram in several spots or to try and detect solid ground below the mass of foliage and my left hand as the branch deflector or branch grabber. You might wonder why I didn't try to reverse my direction and just go back uphill but going uphill against the brush / branches was very difficult plus there was one water crossing I knew I couldn't reverse so I was committed. It was downward only for me.
I could judge my progress by looking up at where the Ebersbacher ledges would be and my progress was excruciatingly slow. I had a couple spots where I felt very trapped and by butt scooting on a down sloping log I managed to get across the stream once again and gain the south side of the canyon. Suddenly I was back on the path, such as it was and it led to the granite wall where I could begin to make reasonable progress downwards. From there I just kept myself as tight against the granite on the south side as I could and eventually worked my way to the normal use trail that everyone uses to cross the stream to the north side and gain acess to the Ebersbacher ledges. From that point on it felt like I was on a super highway and although it cost me an hour of time and put my hand at further risk, I learned another of those valuable lessons that I already know, beware of shortcuts, they often lead you astray and cost you more time in the long run. The fact I did no more injury to my hand through all this was a minor miracle but I can tell you I sweat bullets before I was able to extract myself from my foolishness.
I saw water bottles that had been ripped off packs as well as pieces of clothing, even in areas where it seemed improbable that anyone else had ever been before. Obviously this green hell had enticed others, many of them, before me. Don't make the same mistake, take the ledges, they are like I-5 in comparison.
Fortunately, I had broken just the right little finger and it was x-rayed and splinted in Lone Pine ($670). I was relieved that nothing else was broken and today, a year later, I still can't bend that finger without it hurting. I did finally get up Mt. Whitney but via the 11 mile trail on 8-3-05.
I'll be back to Mt. Whitney to complete my climb and will of course not use this shortcut as you can easily surmise.