East Face of Mt. Whitney
Early August, 1987
Iceberg Lake was a magnificent, glacial blue in the evening light; while
my eyes drank in the scene, the hammer missed the drill handle, gouging
a chunk of flesh out of my left hand. Eyes blinking back tears returned
to the task at hand, measuring the progress of the state-of-the-art
chisel-style drillbit into the cold stone, as blood trickled down my
arm, tiny ruby spheres dripping from my elbow into space with each
swing of the hammer.
An eternity later the rope (finally fixed "securely" to the quarter-inch
bolt I had just placed) allowed a safe and swift descent through the
last twilight to Frisbee Ledge where Alex Schmauss sat amid
helter-skelter piles of gear like a recently-moved-in housewife, cooking
It was going to be a classic line; two pitches of climbing to this
point had confirmed that. Pat Brennan, long-time friend and climbing
partner, had called the first pitch (a wonderful 5.10c slab)
"outrageous" the previous day when, after helping sherpa loads up to the
face, he roped up to sample this wall. It was hard to believe that Alex
and I had reached Frisbee Ledge last summer on our "reconnaissance".
In addition to carrying a substantial load of the climbing gear, Pat had
somehow managed to lug a 12-pack of Moosehead beer into the base of the
face. We silently thanked Pat, who was headed back out to the trailhead,
as we nursed the golden brews. A pot of shrimp and noodle soup was
passed back and forth, as Paul Harvey on the transistor radio told us
"the rest of the story."
With the day's climbing behind, the fixed rope rising into the air as if
tethered to a balloon, I finally could relax and enjoy the view from our
spacious, sandy balcony.
Below, in the darkening canyon, several ant-like figures inched up the
last talus slope toward Iceberg Lake. "Looks like Shelly and her
friends are headed in to do the East Face Route."
"Man, in another five years you'll have to stand in LINE to do Whitney
that way. The mountains are just getting too crowded."
Morning. A late start. Just beginning to realize that our entire water
supply was overdosed with chlorine, I retched, then lost my breakfast
into a nearby crevice. "Boy am I ready to climb!"
After jugging up the fixed rope to the bolt at my previous high point, I
was confronted with devious and wandering aid through an orange bulge,
traversing up and right to a crack. When the crack ended, I spent the
remainder of the morning placing a short bolt ladder, finishing the
pitch by drilling a solid belay at the base of a long crack in the
gently overhanging rock.
Afternoon: Alex gingerly sets hooks up the edge of a fragile-looking
flake, as snowflakes swirl down out of dour-looking skies.
Evening: We fix from the top of Alex's pitch, and commute down to
Frisbee Ledge. Dinner is Macaream of Chickeneese (Macaroni and cheese
mixed with Campbell's cream of chicken soup concentrate) Again, relaxing
with beer like purring kittens, our sporadic conversation revolves
around the astounding quality of the route. As Alex later said, "you
keep turning around, on this blank overhanging wall split by a single
crack, hanging by a thread, halfway expecting to see El Cap Meadows
below, and instead there is this desolate landscape that looks like the
surface of the Moon!"
"Outrageous lead today, man."
(10 minutes later) "Thanks. This line is unbe-fukin-lievable. Wonder
if anyone will ever repeat it?"
(5 minutes later, yawning) "Absolutely. They're gonna be standing in
line to do this. A life of luxury lies ahead, my man, as one of the
authors of the hardest route on the highest peak in California. Fame and
fortune will be ours, we'll work in a penthouse office, publishing
climbing guidebooks. The National Geographic helicopter is due tomorrow
morning for the aerial photos."
(drifting off to sleep) "yup. This climb is something special. This
must be what it felt like to walk into Yosemite 40 years ago, with
unclimbed lines as far as the eye can see... uhhhh... Bruce?"
The purring had modulated into a gentle snore.
By afternoon of the next day our third and last of our ropes was fixed
above Frisbee Ledge, in preparation for departure from this fantastic
home. Below, our friends at Iceberg Lake shouted faint but warm
farewells and moved down the rugged mountain canyon toward Whitney
Portal, hot showers, fresh milk, and baked fruit pies. How long had we
been up here? That evening, as the long cold mountain shadows crept
across the sage-strewn floor of Owens Valley, we felt small and very
In the icy predawn darkness, I fumble for the headlamp, snap it on with
chilled, painfully stiff fingers, locate the digital alarm clock, and
turn it off. No response from Alex except the rustle of nylon as he
burrows deeper into his sleeping bag. Hmph. Morning is a pale glow
silhouetting the Inyo range a deep purple, the wash of dawn almost
imperceptibly fading the stars from the sky. A cool river of air flows
across the granite wall that is our home, chilling me through my
half-bag and pile jacket, as I struggle into sitting position, rubbing
the crust of sleep from my eyes. Breakfast is a handful of granola bars
and a few swallows of punch-flavored, but still strongly-chlorinated
water (and another visit to "breakfast crevice")
As we pack the haul bag, the face of the mountain directly above fades
from menacing black to bluish gray, then brightens to silver. By the
time I step into my Jumars for the last trip up the fixed ropes, the
fiery orange incandescence of Mt. Whitney at sunrise is but a memory in
the quickly-aging morning.
I sit on a tilted slab, belaying in slings as my body tries to slide off
the edge and into the hungry chasm below. The pull of gravity, our
constant companion of these endless days, is more readily apparent than
ever as I readjust my position yet again, and peer up the wall. Alex is
working on the first steep pitch of the Red Dihedral, a 700 foot high
feature that we hope will land us at the ledges of the Regular East Face
route. My thoughts drift with the engulfing clouds as the afternoon
snowstorm moves in. "We're OK," I think as I shrug into a parka,. "We
should summit tomorrow." (we had better, because early this morning we
jettisoned all but two days' food and water, watching with apprehension
as the extra haul bag bounced down the wall, trailing its trash bag drag
chutes, to become a tiny blue dot on the salt-and-pepper of the talus
far below.) A call for slack returns me to the slab and the afternoon
snow flurry, rope inching slowly through my gloved hand.
I place anchors by Braille in the darkness as, a pitch below me, Alex's
headlamp illuminates our bivouac ledge like a candle in the window of a
distant cabin snug from storm. Slowly, step-by-step, I feel my way
through the rappel set-up, forcing aside exhaustion one last time until
I collapse on the sandy, traversing ledges of the regular East Face
Route, one pitch fixed above.
Alex, who had been too thrashed to fix that last pitch, now took care of
me as I sat against a sharp boulder, bits of equipment still hanging
from me like ornaments on a Christmas tree, too numb and stiff and
exhausted to even move into a more comfortable position. First came
ibuprofen, for "drill shoulder" and "harness-back" not to mention
general soreness from days of intense physical work. Next was macaroni
and cheese to restore depleted energy reserves. Then German potato
salad. White wine. As the story of a Sherlock Holmes mystery unfolded
from the radio, I began to once again take an interest in life.
Far below now, lights showed us where a party of eight was camped at
Iceberg Lake. In the vast moonlit distance, nestled under the Inyo
range, an island of luminescence located the town of Lone Pine, like a
search fire on a prairie. As the moon etched dark shadows on this
dreamscape, I drifted into a deep and untroubled slumber.
While I snored, Alex lay wide awake. My description of the route ahead,
given from the ragged edge of exhaustion, kept Alex tossing and
worrying most of the night, keyed up like a marathon runner the night
before the big race. Alex rolled and mumbled on our ledge in the sky,
smashing RURPs into rotted seams even in his dreams.
Morning. Time to leave the East Face ledges behind, and continue up
into unclimbed territory. I jumar after a brief flurry of gear sorting,
anchoring myself below a roof split by a single wide crack just to the
left of the thin east Arete of Mt. Whitney. Alex, laden with every
widget imaginable (except adequate wide crack gear) klanks and klangs
past me like the King of Aid.
Alex bypasses the roof by nailing a thin, expanding crack out on the
very edge of the east Arete. This brings him within arm's reach of the
wide crack, with the roof below. He leapfrogs the single #5 Friend up
the crack (how can you leapfrog with only one piece?) some 50 feet or so
until it narrows to the comfortable width of four inches. Drills a belay
bolt. Good lead, dude.
We classified aid by the leader's conversation. Talking to himself
indicated easy aid. Talking to the belayer ("This one looks pretty bad.
Watch me?") indicated the next level of difficulty. Imploring the
pieces themselves to "be good to papa... come ON you stacked and tiedoff
pin PLEASE don't pop be-nice-be-nicePLEASE-love-ya-love-ya-PLEASE!?" was
the hardest aid we encountered and occurred several times during this,
Alex's last pitch.
"Howdy" is his nickname. He sits with us on the highest summit in
California, dines with us on the last of the white wine, German potato
salad, minestrone soup, sardines, crackers, devilled chicken... (what
we don't eat, we have to carry out) ...soon Howdy is stuffed, while we
munch on. We say our good-byes through mouths full of fish steaks in
picante sauce, as Howdy waddles off into the deepening dusk in search of
his Lung Association group.
Descending the Mountaineer's Route: Far below, we see a pillar of fire
as successful summiteers immolate their trash and extra fuel. It is
night and the ashes are cold by the time Alex and I arrive at Iceberg
Lake. We stand late into the evening with the group of climbers,
sipping "snowshoes" (a concoction of Wild Turkey and peppermint
schnapps!?) and even less legitimate inebriants. Hours later, chemicals
and congratulations spinning in our heads, we stumble off into the
darkness to try to locate our haul bag, to find some sort of shelter
against the night.
This morning the sun brings a sense of newness, freshness, that I have
not known for a while. The day is ours to live. The sparkling ripples
on Iceberg Lake dazzle my eyes, as I pause from packing the haul bag,
knowing that a very important journey is ending, that the world down
there, to which I am returning, is not the same one which I left.
"We will never cease exploring, and the end of our exploring will be to
arrive at the place where we began, and see it for the first time."
Originally Grade V, 5.10 A3, Hairline has since been downgraded to V 5.10 C2F/ A2 The
route ascends in 12 very long pitches the steep face between the Direct
East Face and The Great Book, following a single weakness from near the
ground to the summit. 44 holes were drilled on the first ascent, which
took 5 days.
In August 2004, over a period of 7 days, an ASCA team comprised of Elmar Stefke,
Lisa Stefke, Em Holland and myself, replaced most of the free climbing bolts on the route
and upgraded most of the belay anchors with 3/8" bolts.
Hairline remains in my mind as one of the hardest, most
aesthetic climbs I have ever completed.
Brutus of Wyde
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