|After 18 summits of Mt Whitney I figured I'd pretty much seen all Whitney has to offer. So it came as something of a surprise when the 19th turned out to be one of the most memorable. |
After my 18th summit back in March I left feeling a bit sad and depressed. After completing my goal of dayhiking every month (though not consecutive) I had grown accustomed to the monthly ritual of driving to the Portal and making my way to the summit. With my goal complete there was now no longer any need to keep this up and so I felt it would be a long time before I would see this grand mountain again. Silly me. I should have known we couldn't be seperated.
Hearing that BeachAV8r (Chris Frishmuth) was going to be making another attempt at the mountaineers route and that he would be joined by so many others I felt compelled to return. When Tina Tretina mentioned she was considering the North Face this sweatened the deal.
As a route the North Face (or North Slope) is severely neglected. It remains somewhat elusive and seldom climbed. That said it usually has little to offer. In years when the snow melts out the North Face consists of a substantial amount of scree though there is some good class 3 (or greater) rock to be had along the way. Much of the face consists of smooth sloping granite slabs polished by eons of snow and ice. With good snow coverage the loose scree and slabs below are covered and the face becomes a snow climb up a moderately steep slope. With appropriate conditions the occaisional skier or snowboarder will venture down the face for a quick descent.
Having already done the North Face both with and without snow coverage I didn't think much of it. Both times it was a bit strenuous but not particularly memorable. It was simply one last obstacle on my way from Russell to Whitney.
When Tina expressed an interest in the North Face I was reminded of how I too was once intrigued by this seldom climbed route. I climbed it in 2004 and again in 2005. I skipped it in 2006 however due to poor conditions. During most of last year the North Face was simply out of shape with substantial ice sheets. I knew that these never completely melted out in 2006 and were still there. This could be a problem. I did know however that Whitney had received a significant amount of snow during the last storm. With enough new snow on the face perhaps the difficulty of the ice fields would be negated. If nothing else it might be worth a look. Thus, I joined Tina and hoped we would be able to join the others on the summit.
Early Saturday morning we set off on our adventure. Tina got a head start and left the Portal at about 3:30am. I followed behind just after 4am. Part way up the trail I realized I had forgotten an outer layer and ran back down to get it. I caught up with Tina on the E-Ledges at 5am. We made a funny pair. Both of us were suffering from some sort of respiratory infections. I had been sick for nearly a month. Tina had been sick since Mount Baker. Neither of us had the common sense to give our bodies the rest we needed. We're simply addicted to mountaineering. So up the North Fork we went coughing our way along at a somewhat subdued pace. As if we didn't already have enough trouble breathing neither of us had any kind of acclimation either. None-the-less we did make fair progress and the hike up to Iceberg Lake was uneventful. Just below Iceberg Lake we met a group coming down. Here Rick Graham succeeded in sneaking up on us and beat us to the lake.
At Iceberg Lake we talked to Rick and learned that the others including Chris would be up shortly. Sure enough, after 10 or 15 minutes they showed up. What a fantastic bunch. With the exception of Chris I had met and hiked with the entire group. Present were Rick Graham, Richard Piotrowski, Mike Mellin, Tom Brown, and Chris Frishmuth along with Tina Tretina and I. It was a pleasure to finally meet Chris after reading his prior trip reports. Everyone spent quite a bit of time socializing.
I didn't want to leave the group but I figured Tina and I would be joining them again shortly on the summit. With the day warming up quickly I knew we needed to get going. At 9:15am Tina and I began our traverse over to the Whitney/Russell Pass. Unfortunately, just as I feared, the snow had already softened from the intense sun and we began postholing. The others would have their choice of boot tracks up the couloir but Tina and I had to forge our own route. I lead the way. Progress to the pass was slow but steady. After 45 minutes we made that pass and began studying the North Face. It looked just as I had expected.
The eastern half of the North Face consists of class 5 terrain with some substantial cliffs below the "Notch". If you slip on the mountaineer's route above the notch and are unable to arrest then you will unfortunately plunge over these cliffs to certain death. From above the cliffs are not apparent but you're well aware you don't want to slip. From below things look a bit more apalling. As we traversed the face from the pass we got a good look at the terrain above. This was the closest I had been to these cliffs. I didn't want to linger here. This spot is where bodies of fallen climbers are retrieved. Fortunately such accidents are rare but it happened twice here in 2005.
We traversed upward across the face through scree and soft snow. In the process we crossed over several rocky ribs until we reached the mostly continuous snow fields on the western half of the face. At this point we geared up: crampons, ice axe, and helmet. We would now have nearly a thousand feet mostly on snow to reach the summit plateau. I started out with a fairly vertical path that would keep us on the snow. As I had hoped the new snow helped and I was able to kick nice steps. Tina followed a few steps behind. The slope angle quickly increased to about 40 degrees. Soon it grew even steeper. Hmmmmm. This seems a lot steeper than I remembered.
The snowfield we were ascending soon terminated with ice and rock and so we crossed another rib into the next larger snowfield. I was relatively sure this was the one I had ascended once before and I could see it continued all the way up to the summit plateau. Toward the bottom it dropped off onto steep slabs -- not quite a cliff but definitely not something you wanted to slide over. This was quite apparent in my mind as we continued our upward path. Above us some of the underlying granite was exposed and it was necessary to traverse from left to right to stay on snow. Here the snow was thin and we took our steps carefully.
Beyond this we were back into deeper snow. Max depth of the surface snow was perhaps 16 inches though it was often much thinner. Below this was something very hard -- either granite slabs or ice. The surface snow was soft (obviously from the last storm). It wasn't consolodated enough to hold weight so kicking steps was essential. As we ascended the surface cover grew thinner. Self belaying with our axes became less secure as our shafts hit the granite or ice below. As a result I began constantly shifting our route in search of the best snow. By now I was beginning to feel the energy drain from kicking steps. I continually looked up trying to read the snow and gauge the surface depth. Further up I could see some glazed ice and knew I wanted to navigate around it.
Though progress was slow Tina and I were having a great time enjoying the view and chatting away. Apparently this chatter reached all the way to the summit. Only a few minutes earlier we had seen some figures high above ascending to the summit from the notch. Our arrival time was obviously going to be a bit later.
About half way to the summit plateau the surface snow began to get thinner. Now down to about 8 or 10 inches of surface cover I spent more time kicking steps to make them as deep and solid as possible. Slope angle was now about 45 degrees. Tina suggested shooting for a rocky rib above us. I had been thinking the same thing so I altered course toward the rock. We past some rocks poking out of the snow (climbing over a few) and eventually reached a more substantial outcropping. From below it looked like a potential class 3 rib. This could offer us a quicker way to the summit. As we neared the outcropping we began to look for some place to change out of our crampons. Unfortunately there wasn't much to work with. In our positions it was awkward getting the crampons off without slipping but we managed. We now turned our attention to the rock above. Tina took the lead. Almost immediately I felt vulnerable without my crampons and ice axe. As we studied the rock we realized this wasn't the class 3 we had hoped for. Indeed it was at least class 4 and many of the rocks were loose. Worse still soft snow made footings precarious. A slip would drop us onto the steep snow and with our ice axes now fixed on our packs we would have little hope of arrest. Tina climbed up about 8 or 10 feet but had trouble with footing. That was enough. I needed no more convincing. We would have to find another way.
We now had to downclimb about 10 or 20 feet in snow covered rock to reach our little perches where we could put our crampons back on. This proved more difficult than it was when we took them off but again we managed. It would have been very easy to have lost an ice axe and the thought of downclimbing without an axe was unthinkable. At this point I began to consider whether we should abort. First however we needed to find a safe spot where we could rest and calmly consider our options. The nearest safe spot was some 50 or 60 feet below where a large rock offerred us a small shelf of snow. Given the steepness and poor footing of the surface cover we had to downclimb carefully. At first we used the steps I kicked on the way up but to reach the safe rock I had to kick a new path below me. Tina was above and followed me down.
At the rock we took a much needed break. I think Tina was jealous of my meatball sandwich. I knew my body needed it badly. It sure hit the spot. We consumed much of our remaining water. We weren't expecting it to take this long and the exposure left our mouths dry.
Before considering a further ascent I looked at our escape options. Things had definitely become more challenging. Was this the same North Face I climbed before? It sure seemed a lot steeper (much like the chute above the notch). Retreat hardly seemed an option. While we could downclimb using our steps it would be awkward and take forever. I looked at the ribs that went down the face. Could we downclimb one of those? I couldn't be sure we wouldn't encounter some class 5 obstacles and just getting to one of the better ribs would be difficult. No, our best option was up.
After our break we continued our ascent. We had two options. A larger snowfield on the left with some exposed ice showing or a slightly steeper field to the right with less visible ice (or so it appeared). That was a tough decision but in the end we felt it was best to avoid the ice. Very shortly up the right snowfield the surface snow became increasingly thin (and steeper!). Ahead I could see some ice and I knew that's what our axes and crampons were hitting underneath the surface coat. I attempted to navigate around but the surface coat finally became too thin. It was only a few inches deep and at this point I had to kick hard and continuously to carve a decent step into the ice below. Some steps took as many as a couple dozen kicks to dig a hole and they were not as deep as I would have liked (but they were sufficient). Worse still we could no longer self belay with our axe handles and had to switch to the pick which was a less reliable belay. I really wished I had my ice tool (designed for penetrating hard ice) but I still felt conditions were just safe enough to proceed. It was still safer than descending. We just needed to be careful. To get away from the ice we needed to do a short horizontal traverse until the surface coat was thicker. This was probably the steepest section on the face and seemed well in excess of 45 degrees. This was the most exciting part of the day. The traverse proved effective and we were soon back into a deeper surface coat and could breath a sigh of relief. We still had a long way to go though!
Slowly but surely I continued kicking steps all the way up. I was so fixated on my work that I didn't even realize I was showering Tina with snow. Looking further up the slope I spied two figures watching our progress from above. It was Mike and Rick G. I suspect they were wondering what was taking so long (and whether we were still alive). Did they really have any idea what we were going through? I felt a little bad that they were waiting on our behalf. They certainly didn't have to do that (they needed to get going afterall) but we appreciated them being there. From where I was though I knew it would still be perhaps another 45 minutes before we topped out. It was hard work. It simply was not possible to skip the step making process.
As we finally neared the top of the face Mount Whitney decided to throw us one last challenge. At the top of the face the summit plateau was protected by a barrier of smooth, glistening ice. The slope here had finally decreased so I figured I'd test how feasible it would be to simply continue up ascending on the ice. On a clear spot of ice I kicked hard with my right foot. My sharpened crampon points simply bounced right off. I tried a couple more times but realized this wasn't going to work. We then did another downclimb followed by a traverse further to the West. At last the end was in sight. After a short climb up mixed rock and snow I reached the summit plateau followed by Tina. I believe Tina and I hugged each other at this point. It had really been both a struggle and challenge. This is what mountaineering is all about though. We wandered over to Rick and Mike. I may have been somewhat delirious from exhaustion and utter gratification.
Seeing that we had safely reached the summit Rick and Mike headed for their next target: Mount Muir. Tina and I (now the only ones on the summit) made our way to the hut. I reached the Whitney plaque at 3:26pm. It had taken Tina and I 6 hours and 11 minutes to reach the summit via the North Face from Iceberg Lake. I've reached the summit from the Portal in far less time! The weather was still beautiful and we basked in the sun on top. Victory at last!
We spent a little over 40 minutes resting, taking photos, and finally signing the register. Now of course was the realization that we had a long way to go to get down. Like most others we decided to take the main trail. This would be longer and a little less pleasant but it would avoid having to do the class 3 downclimb to the Notch (we were a bit too tired for that).
The hike out was basically uneventful but took quite awhile. At Trail Crest I tried to figure out how everyone else descended. Did they use the switchbacks? Did they glissade? I went up and looked at the switchbacks. They were well filled with snow and it was obvious no one had used the upper switchbacks (there were no footprints). Thus everyone was ascending and descending via the slope. Looking down the snow slope I could see one or two glissade paths. Although the slope was now in shadow (and hardening up) we decided we should descend without crampons. The slope can sometimes be treacherous but on this occaision it was quite benign. We alternated between glissading and plunge stepping. Neither was ideal. The glissade paths had hardened up and were a bit hard on the behind. Tina said her butt had more padding! Ha!
Half way down we heard some yelling and saw one member of a group of Koreans (?) glissading at a pretty good pace. At first I thought maybe he was out of control when I noticed he was only holding trekking poles and no ice axe. Turned out he was in control and was soon followed by another. We noticed they were both glissading with crampons on (don't do this!) but fortunately the slope was forgiving.
Beyond Trail Camp we took what shortcuts we could including the one below Bighorn Park. This saved some time but we didn't arrive back to the Portal until after 10pm. A short time later we were debriefed by Tom Brown and Norma. Tom described us as well spent units. That sounded about right. Incidently, just like me, this was Tom's 19th ascent.
Our dayhike had taken over 18 hours. This was one of the longer days I've had on Whitney but really it was one of the best. I was really impressed by the North Face this time and Tina was obviously impressed as well.
Photos are here: The North Face 4/28/07