If at First

Page Type Page Type: Route
Location Lat/Lon: 36.57860°N / 118.293°W
Additional Information Route Type: Trad Climbing
Seasons Season: Summer
Additional Information Time Required: One to two days
Additional Information Rock Difficulty: 5.10d (YDS)
Additional Information Number of Pitches: 16
Additional Information Grade: V
Sign the Climber's Log

If At First on the East Face of Mt. Whitney

If at First  Mt. Whitney Photo TopoPhoto Topo of "If At First"


A new route on the East Face of Mt. Whitney - seven days in the backcountry with a total of 3 days on the 2800' wall. Superb granite, lots of jam cracks and lots of 5.10. The first ascent was topped off with a forced bivouac at 14,000 feet

First Ascent Details and Route Description

The route was begun in 1999 with 14 year old Scott Thelan and filmed as part of the Climb TV series that my company was producing for the Outdoor Life Network. Mark McNally and John Simeon helped out. We sat in a tent in the rain for 36 hours and got back on the face only to have the clouds come in. We accomplished the first pitch to the ledge and decide the cracks we were in were too dangerous - a hanging death flake in the way.

The second attempt was with my ex-wife, Jackie Carroll, in 2002. We opted for the furthest left crack system, where we could quickly gain the edge of the face. However, she was following the pitches in twice the time I could lead them. We ventured way left on the south face to easier ground to save time and cut back right to the edge of the face at the top of pitch 6. From here I followed a beautiful crack to a groove on the south face proper. Very steep. Very runout. We went down.

In the summer of 2003 I enlisted the help of a ropegun, Seth Dilles. At 27 years old, he was the star guide for Sky's The Limit guide service. But our partnership was cursed early on by the death of one of our party on another mountain. On that climb,Seth brought his old El Cap buddy who became altitude sick, went down alone, became disoriented and died of exposure.

Now it was even more imperative that we get a summit. I figured we could fix the first five pitches and my now separated soon to be ex-wife would hike in the following day and we'd all send it to the top. We accomplished the fixing of the ropes and waited for her arrival. And waited. And waited. Another lost climber? She went to the wrong campsite and was so beat from the hike slept through our shouts for her. I left since Seth was my only ride home and the ropes remained. She divorced me soon after that.

On our fourth attempt later that summer, we enlisted the help of extreme skier Johnny "Rotten" McGrath, a notorious figure in the Mammoth Lakes and Tahoe region. We arriverd at basecamp and looked around. No Johnny. Seth went back down the trail and found him altitude sick under a boulder. We awoke the next day to rain, but it dawned clear the following day. Seth and I jugged the ropes reached our highpoint and got to work. Seth ran it out on 5.10 ground and then placed a bolt. Then the sky opened up and we were in a full blizzard. We went down.

The fifth attempt had to happen before winter because our ropes were still up there. We got to our highpoint, Seth ran it out to discover...no belay, no cracks, no where to go. Blank Wall. He weasled in something to back off and using techniques only known to French Alpine guides, we got him back to the ledage. We went down and removed the ropes.

On the sixth attempt, we decided to give ourselves seven days, Hump in a couple loads and by golly, climb that thing. But things did not go as planned.....

After we humped a load up the trail, I was approached by a Whitney Trail Hiker who asked if we could take a load in for his daughter. She had a broken arm and couldn't carry the weight. I agreed to help out the poor child, and then he asked my partner Seth if he would take his wife's pack. When we arrived to pick up the packs, we found they weighed over 100 pounds each. He had agreed to pay us a hundred bucks each, but I was really doing it for the kid. When it took us six hours to get to his basecamp, he refused to pay us. Meanwhile, my back was in spasms. Seth dropped his load, then came back for mine and we marched off towards the North Fork. We camped beneath Pinnacle Ridge. Then Seth discovered that he still had some of the little girl's stuff. He did an entire circumnavigation of Wotan's Throne and arrived in camp at 2 in the morning beat to all hell

That was the sixth attempt

The seventh attempt is what you see here. Seth was determined to do it in a day, but I told him it would be a Grade V. So we hiked in, fixed almost to our high point and then took a rest day to give us an additional advantage. We awoke at 2 in the morning and was jugging away when the sun rose. We took the blue line on the photo, because it was easier than the original route, climbing another new pitch to belay #4. From our highpoint, Seth dashed around the corner into space. I sat there and waited...and waited...and waited. Not a sound did I hear from him.

At first, I hoped he was going to climb the outside of the dihedral we had spied from the ground. But as time wore on, I could just imagine Seth out there, no pro, sketching out. What would the rescue scenario be if he fell? With one rope and a 5mm tag line, not very pretty. He called off-belay and I followed the most spectacular pitch I have ever climbed in the mountains. Sustained 5.1o on the outside edge of a dihedral with 1500 feet of air beneath you.

From there a great pitch of handcracks through a roof, an easy pitch...then a hail storm. I climbed the next pitch into the dark, and collapsed onto our ledge. Seth jugged the pitch, which was fine with me because I was too tired to even belay. We then spent the rest of the night shivering. The only thing that saved us were the cone shaped plastic poop bags the Forest Service gives you. Placed over our head and shoulders we had an extra layer of warmth.

The next day went quickly as we climbed the easy ground to the summit. All in all, one of the finest routes in the Whitney Region and this becomes my seventh first ascent on the nine pinnacles between Mt. Muir and Whitney. I am the first person to have climbed all nine, earning me the title of President of the East face Club. Seven of those ascents were by first ascents. All I have to do is put a first ascent on Keeler and Third Needle and I will be Lord Overseer of the East Face Club.

Essential Gear

A big rack, double on medium sized cams. No hammers needed.

External Links





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