To the mountain
International Special Events Society (ISES) business had brought me down to California again. With each ISES trip this year, I have been visiting a nearby mountain hoping to summit. Although I’ve had some great adventures, the peaks have been eluding me in 2003.
After speaking at the LA Chapter meeting on Tuesday, I was at the San Diego Chapter meeting on Thursday April 17th. The meeting was wonderful, and finished before 8:30. After some very minor sorting, I was on the road to Mount Whitney in my rental car by 8:30 p.m.
The directions from mapquest.com were very clear, and I was making fantastic progress. Despite mapquest’s 6 hour and 52 minute predicted trip duration, I made it to the Whitney Portal trailhead by 1:30 a.m.. Wooooooo Hoooooo!!!! I was meeting two other SummitPost members there, who were coming from Northern California. Daniel & Kris had not arrived yet. The plan was to sleep in our cars at the trailhead at 8,365 feet.
As I was getting ready to crash, another car pulled up a little farther and started to set up a tent. I went over to say “hi” and met Janusz, Roman, and Dave, who had just driven in from LA. They too were planning to do the Mountaineer’s route starting the next day. Janusz was from Poland. Kris from our team was also from Poland, Daniel is from Russia, and Roman has a Ukrainian last name. Although I have never been to any of those countries, with a last name like Bistrisky, my roots on one side of the family are somewhere around there. We were looking forward to getting everyone to meet each other the next day.
I went back to go to sleep in my rental car. I didn’t think I was sleeping much, but when I got up to go to the bathroom, I heard Daniel yell “Eileen”. He and Kris had just arrived. Apparently, I had slept through their arrival. Daniel had set up a bivy on the ground and Kris was going to sleep in his car. It was 4:00 a.m.
The next morning we got up, sorted our gear and started to head up the trail. It was 10:30 by the time we got going. There was no snow on the lower parts of the trail. We had each brought route descriptions from various sources, but it seemed silly for us to carry all of them up with us. Plus, Daniel had been up there earlier this year. When we hit the sign that says “North Fork Lone Pine Creek”, there was a trail on the right on the North side of the creek. The guide book that Daniel had said to cross to the South side of the creek and follow the creek up. On the other side of the creek were tracks heading way off to the South and nothing but snow & trees heading up the creek. Kris went up through the snow and trees. Daniel said, “If you see a sign that says ‘Mountaineers Route’ then this is it”. Sure enough, the sign was there, so we all bushwhacked up this snowy tree filled slope.
I was very grateful for the adventure race training that I had been doing. I’ve been doing some fairly intense bushwhacking in the local mountains so had gotten used to trees, branches, roots, rocks, logs, and having to plough through them. There was some rock scrambling through branch-infested areas, but the whole way, there was a very faint trace of a trail, sprinkled with the occasional trail marker so we felt we were on the right track.
Although we were alone at the time we made our route decision, several other teams had driven in that morning, and as we would stop for a break they would pass us and vice versa. It seemed we were all in this together. There was a team of two from Mexico, one of who was into adventure racing and had done this trail before. He assured us we were on the right route, which was crossing back and forth over the creek as it went up.
…With Packs On
Bushwhacking and rock scrambling is one thing, but doing it with a 50 – 60 pound pack on your back that is bigger than you are is quite another. With each step (or rather crawl, hoist, or what ever forward and upward propelling motion I could muster), I, and my pack, would invariably get eaten by an assortment of branches who refused to let go. They found my ice axe particularly delectable as it protruded an additional few inches above my pack, which already added considerable height, whether my body was vertical or horizontal or any angle in between.
After what seemed like forever going through this, we were able to cross the creek again and made it on to some snow. We carried on up through the snow with a few more bushwhacking sections before hitting what are known as the ledges. The teams that had passed us were all going to the right (away from Whitney) up the ledges. There were other tracks to the left that seemed to be a more direct route. We chose the direct route to the left, which, unlike our previous choice, did turn out to be the easier route.
To the Lakes
Happy with our second choice of the day, we endured a little bit more bushwhacking and creek crossings until we hit clear snow which went all the way up hill to Lower Boy Scout Lake at 10,300 feet, already 2,000 feet up from where we started. From here on in, it was just uphill snow slogging. Upper Boy Scout Lake at 11,350 was next, but at this time of year, there was no lake to be seen, just snow. I stopped to chat with a couple of parties who were setting up camp here.
We continued up to a spot between Upper Boy Scout and Iceberg Lake at 11,800 feet. At this point, you could finally see the mountain and surrounding peaks. It was the perfect spot to set up camp. By now, I think it was about 6:00 p.m. Aside from the rock scrambling, bushwhacking slog, we had had a predominantly comfortable leisurely hike up the mountain thus far. From this angle, Whitney looked like nothing but jagged rocks. How the heck were we going to get up that from here?!?! That was for tomorrow to decide. For now, the view was beautiful, the tent was cozy, and we had a fun night telling stories and getting some very decent sleep.
When I first went outside just after 5:00 a.m. on Saturday morning, the nearly full moon was about to disappear behind the surrounding peaks and the sun was beginning to rise. Thank goodness the skies had cleared from the dusting of snow and limited visibility that we had noticed each time we went out of the tent during the night.
The tent was still very cozy and we were in no rush. By about 7:00 or 7:15 a.m. we were on our way up the mountain, having decided to leave our snowshoes, rope, harnesses, pickets, screws & slings at camp. From the car, it was impossible to tell what conditions were going to be like, so we carried everything up “just in case”. At this point, snow conditions were looking very cooperative and we didn’t need the extra weight.
From camp we headed toward Iceberg Lake at 12,600 feet. Here, several groups including Janusz, Roman & Dave had set up camp, and were also getting ready to go up the mountain. A few climbers could be seen already on route. Like with Upper Boy Scout, there was no Lake to be seen, just snow.
The Slog Begins
From Iceberg, it’s just up, up, and up. Fortunately, snow conditions were fabulous and the few ahead of us had kicked some great steps. Somewhere shortly into this, I started to feel light headed and queasy. Oh, yeah…that altitude thing. This was the highest I had ever been! I had been doing amazingly well thus far. Having twice encountered “altitude issues” on previous climbs, and knowing I was entering new territory, I had taken every precaution possible. I was super hydrated & drinking constantly. I was well rested. I was keeping the pace very slow and comfortable. I had had two nights of acclimatization (obviously not enough) and I was using Diamox this trip. As with the other two occasions, my breathing and heart rate were fine. I don’t seem to have trouble breathing at altitude; I just start to feel like crap. When I feel like crap, although from a fitness perspective my body could easily go much faster, from a not wanting to pass out or throw up perspective, I just seem to slow down to a crawl. Fortunately, I was not as bad as I was on my second Baker trip, but we think that something we ate on that Baker trip was affecting us in addition to the altitude. Nonetheless, it was psychologically very tough to keep plodding up that hill as I began to feel worse & worse.
The details are a little foggy. At some point, after going straight up for a while, we hit some bare patches of rock and the route shifted to the right and around some rocks. Here people were putting crampons on for the final push to the summit. The terrain ahead looked quite manageable, but some teams were using ropes to belay members up. Essentially the last section was a steep slope (I’m bad with angles. 45 degrees? 50 degrees?) covered in snow with some rocks to climb through. Helmets were key here as the odd loose rock, and plenty of snow chunks would fall from time to time. We felt very safe without belays, and later learned that the belays were being used by newer climbers who were feeling a little sketchy about this section, which was fair enough.
Once at the top of this section, you could see the shelter on the summit, yay! From here it was a short easy walk (or in my case, an altitude induced painful stagger) to the summit. Still feeling like crap, I rested, took summit photos & signed the summit register. There were a number of teams on the summit at this point. We waited for those with ropes to descend first, using a sling around a big rock as an anchor point. Once they were clear, we started down.
About half way down this section, we met Janusz, Roman, and Dave on their way up. They were belaying Dave up, and urged us to hold on to their rope for a tricky little section through some rocks. This was very helpful. We wished them well as they headed up and we headed down. Once off this last bit and around the rocks, we were able to glissade down toward Iceberg Lake.
Not feeling any better, but knowing that it was all easy terrain from here on in, I proceeded to shuffle, stagger, plod, or how ever it was that I got my uncooperative body back to camp. To keep my morale up, I took advantage of the opportunity to chat with other climbers as I passed their campsites or met them as they were just heading up to set up camp for their first night.
Back at Camp
Very relieved to be at camp, I set about to try to organize my things and get into my sleeping bag as soon as possible. I think it was about 4:30 or so at this point. I had brought many packets of electrolyte crystals, which were extremely beneficial indeed. My big concern was that here we were, still at 11,800 feet which itself is higher than I had ever been before this trip. I knew I would recover very quickly at sea level, but how quickly I would recover here, was a big unknown. I had a tough enough time getting back to camp going down hill with a minimal pack. What if I still felt like crap tomorrow & I had to do it with a full pack?!?! After expressing my concern to my teammates, they assured me that they had already thought about that possibility, and that they would each carry a bit of my gear to lighten my load. With that anxiety source alleviated, there was nothing to do but drink lots of fluids, lie down, and wait to get better. Blahhhhhhh!
I first awoke before 5:00 a.m. with a splitting headache, but at least my whole body didn’t feel like crap anymore. A headache is isolated pain, which is easier to deal with. This was progress! After getting some fresh air and gazing at the moon, I went back into the tent for a couple more hours of sleep. By the time we were getting up around 7:00, my headache had greatly subsided and I was feeling considerably better than the day before. I’m really glad we spent the night at 11,800 feet, as I now know that I can recover at that elevation.
At 8:15 a.m., feeling pretty good, but not 100%, the guys encouraged me to start out ahead while they finished packing up the tent and the rest of the gear. They would catch up. As I started out, I could tell I was much better than the day before. There were many glissading opportunities, which would have been really fun, except that everything had iced over during the night so it was a hard bumpy ride. (Squeeze those butt cheeks!) It still beat having to walk down.
I was making great progress: past Upper Boy Scout, past Lower Boy Scout, into the creek crossing trail section. From time to time I could see the guys up the hill coming down behind me. When I reached the section where the trail split to either go straight down or traverse the ledges, I stopped to wait for them. We decided to take the same way down that we had taken up (choice #2), and encountered some mild bushwhacking, creek crossings, back to the snow and back to the creek. So far, so good. Next thing you know, we run into Roman & Dave who had just crossed the creek at a slightly different point. From here, there was a clearly visible trail down on the left, which was not the way we came up. We all proceeded down this easy trail, and before you knew it, we were at the “North Fork Lone Pine Creek” sign. Hmmmmmmmm…. We had just come down on the North side, and eliminated a whole lot of bushwhacking & scrambling. Here we met up with Janusz and snapped some photos.
When I later checked the SummitPost routed description, which I had left sitting in my car, it would have told us to “make a right turn” on the way up which would have put us on the north side of the creek. From a training and experience perspective, I’m glad we went the way that we did on the way up, and I would recommend it to anyone looking for a bit of an extra challenge. However, if you are looking for the quickest easiest way, go on the North side.
From here, it was easy down hill trail all the way to the cars. I packed all my gear to get ready for my flight, the six of us went for burgers and beers in town, and I drove my rental car back to LAX in time for my 7:15 flight Sunday night.