Page Type Page Type: Trip Report
Location Lat/Lon: 36.57860°N / 118.293°W
Date Date Climbed/Hiked: Aug 7, 1987
Hairline 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 dinner. 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." "Another beer?" "You BET!" 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 much alone. "beepbeepbeepbeep... beepbeepbeepbeep..." 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. Evening... 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." Notes: 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 Old Climbers' Home Oakland, California


Post a Comment
Viewing: 1-1 of 1

Fury - Jan 2, 2006 11:04 pm - Hasn't voted

Trip Report Comment

All I can say is "incredible!". It must be quite a mental challenge to tackle something of this nature (and of course the obvious physical challenge). I will never have the ability to complete your route, but it sounds terrific. Cheers - Colin

Viewing: 1-1 of 1