Mount Whitney via the Mountaineers Route: My Desolation Peak

Mount Whitney via the Mountaineers Route: My Desolation Peak

Page Type: Trip Report
Lat/Lon: 36.57860°N / 118.29300°E
Date Climbed/Hiked: Mar 15, 2016
Activities: Mountaineering
Season: Winter

Mount Whitney via the Mountaineers Route: My Desolation Peak

Mount Whitney via theMountaineers Route: My Desolation Peak

Monday morning.  The plane is still ascending as my emotions remain mixed, torn in two different directions.  This is the first time I’ve left my wife and kids to go mountain climbing to embark on an adventure with risk considerable enough to potentially jeopardize what we’ve built together.  While the risk of soloing Mount Whitney via the Mountaineers Route in late winter is minimal compared to countless other climbs, the prospect of potential harm and the unknown is still ever prevalent.  Priority #1 is to be safe and to come home.  Priority #2 is to summit.  Priority #3 … have fun.  This is my mantra and what I keep repeating back to myself like the Tibetan hymn, Om mani padme hum, to stay focused and calm. The need to keep these priorities in order is paramount especially if I’m out of sorts on the mountain, searching for answers.  It’s my metaphorical North Star.

I was incredibly impressed with how strong my wife, Roxana was this morning.  I know how difficult it is for her to see me go.  I love her with all my heart and I made her a promise that I would come home safely.  Leaving her and the kids left my stomach in knots.  I literally felt sick over it.  It was the worst airport drop off I’ve experienced to date.  I questioned what I was doing and why.  Regardless, I was committed to the climb and I knew from previous experience that mixed emotions is natural baggage in mountaineering.

Whether it was chance or not, I had just started reading Jack Kerouac’s novel, Desolation Angels, from which many themes reverberated my current reality.  The welcomed seclusion from society while atop the North Cascades welcomed us both. We pined for no sounds other than nature and our own thoughts and breathing.  No partners needed; this was truly meant to be an introspective experience.

“We live to long, so long I will, and jounce down that mountain highest perfect knowing or no highest perfect knowing full of glorious ignorant looking to sparkle elsewhere-"

From the time I landed in Las Vegas, my excitement began mounting.  I made quick stops to the rental car facility and the local pharmacy for provisions, and then I was off.  The drive was enjoyable and a perfect overture for what lay ahead.  I took my time heading West through Death Valley while soaking in awe-inspiring desert geography, engulfed in a trance-like state listening to Tinariwen and driving towards a small California mountain town called, Lone Pine.  I arrived in Lone Pine in late afternoon and stopped at a local restaurant for what I thought would be my last good meal for a few days plus for a few heady IPAs. Jack would have approved.

After supper and before dark, the plan was to stop at the Mount Whitney Ranger Station on the outskirts of town to obtain a self-issued wilderness permit, which is required for winter climbs and access to the protected wilderness area.  Since Whitney is such a popular mountain, overnight hiking and climbing access from Spring to Fall (1 May to 1 November) can only be obtained through reservation and a lottery system.  Whitney’s popularity stems from it being the tallest mountain in the continental United States, standing at 14,505 feet tall, and since the summit can be achieved via a long but layman hiking trail, i.e., The Mount Whitney Trail.  However, in winter the mountain is far less popular and to some degree desolate due to difficult and dangerous conditions, e.g., extensive snow fall and accumulation, extreme cold weather and high winds, limited search and rescue options, etc.  For a number of reasons, a winter climb was much more appealing to me if for nothing else than seclusion and to test my mental and physical fortitude.

Previous mountaineering experiences have taught me that nothing goes off without a hitch and that the best approach to managing bumps in the road is to be prepared and to adjust as needed to everything else.  This experience was no different.  I got to the ranger station after dark and well after it had closed for the night.  While I was able locate a kiosk outside the main building, which had some wilderness beta posted, I could not for the life of me find the self-issued wilderness permits or the lock box to drop the permit into.  I searched for quite some time, but to no avail.  After deciding to give up on the permit for the night, I opted instead to drive back into town and up the mountain access road leading up to Whitney Portal where I planned to camp for the night.  Camping at a higher altitude in Whitney Portal was my original plan, so not having a permit yet was of little to seemingly no consequence.  I would simply just need to wake up before dawn and head back to the ranger station so that when it first opened, I could register my itinerary and get a permit to climb Whitney.

Mount Whitney Massif - Courtesy of WhitneyZone.com

Mount Whitney Massif - Courtesy of WhitneyZone.com

I spent the night camped out in my rental car with sleep coming fitfully.  I must have woken up every 15 minutes or so from either being cold or at a loss of breath.  Despite the lack of sleep, camping at altitude was ideal and intended since I had spent most of the day and more or less all winter at sea level.  Acclimatizing for a night was crucial in hopes to avoid altitude related sickness and over exhaustion at higher altitude in the climb to come.  The Whitney Portal trail head sits at an elevation of about 8,365 feet, which was high enough to help get my percentage oxygen saturation of hemoglobin, or the content of oxygen in my blood, at levels more suitable for climbing at higher altitudes.

The next morning, or at some point late in the night, I got up and drove back into town.  I had some time to grab breakfast, so I did and then I headed back over to the ranger station to rectify my failed attempt to obtain a permit the night before.  Other than the lone ranger there to open up the station, the only two people there were me and another guy who looked like a climber as well.  His name was Glenn and he was from an eastern province in Canada on holiday without his wife and kids.  Glenn and I were similar in the sense that we were both there to climb Mount Whitney as solo mountaineers via the Mountaineers Route albeit against the wishes of our wives (and our mothers!).  After talking for a few minutes and feeling each other out, we opted to climb together instead of by ourselves.  To some degree, this eased the anxiety we both felt since climbing with a partner is typically much safer than climbing by yourself.  However, in deciding to team up I had to bail on my original itinerary and I had to compromise my newly adopted ideology, to climb as light and as fast as possible.

The idea behind light and fast mountaineering or alpine climbing is a different approach to traditional mountaineering that seeks to leave behind everything but the absolute minimum gear required to reach the objective under the assumed conditions.  This approach to climbing (and hiking for that matter) is meant to strip away everything that was not used on previous climbs or items that are not absolutely essential to the climb, leaving little to no room for error especially if confronted with adverse weather conditions.  For anyone who’s hiked in, camped out or climbed in the backcountry knows how unpleasant hauling an excessively heavy load on your back can be, especially after realizing after the climb that you didn’t actually need a lot of the stuff you opted to bring.

I first familiarized myself with light and fast climbing, at least in theory, by reading Kiss or Kill: Confessions of a Serial Climber by Mark Twight.  I later became a true believer when I read a textbook cover to cover called, Training for the New Alpinism: A Manual for the Climber as Athlete by Steve House and Scott Johnston.  Prior to deciding to climb Whitney, I used this manual as the benchmark for months of regimented training, which got me into the best mountaineering shape of my life and comfortable with the idea of climbing only with the bare essentials on my back even in harsh conditions.  The overarching purpose of my training was to attain a functional fitness level high enough to climb Mount Whitney in one long push versus relying on traditional climbing methods, weighted down with heavier loads and via an approach abbreviated with establishing camp(s) at higher altitudes in order to rest and acclimatize before the summit.  Traditionally, winter ascents via the Mountaineers Route and other East Face climbs on Whitney take two-plus days to get up and off the mountain.  My plan was to do it in one day over a period of sixteen or so hours of continuous climbing.

Unnamed Image

Given the fact that Glenn had not trained to climb Whitney in a day nor was he in the kind of shape he needed to be in order to give it an honest go, as a two man team, we decided to go with the more traditional approach, which would be to hike up to Lower Boy Scout Lake (elevation 10,300 feet) or Upper Boy Scott Lake (elevation 11,350 feet), if possible, from the Whitney Portal trail head (elevation 8,365 feet) to set up camp, sleep for a few hours and then start our ascent for summit the following morning at around 2:00 AM.  The goal would be to summit Whitney around 10:00 AM and no later than noon, and to be safely off the mountain and back down to the Whitney Portal trail head by 5:00 or 6:00 PM and before dark.  While the new itinerary conflicted with my original plans, if everything went well, I would still be able to get up and off Whitney and drive back to Vegas that night to meet up with friends to watch the opening weekend of March Madness the following morning.

After acquiring permits to climb Whitney, we got delayed in getting up to Whitney Portal.  Glenn needed to buy a few missing bits of essential gear, such as snow shoes, from the lone outdoor store in Lone Pine, CA. This wasn’t a big deal until the store opened an hour after it was supposed to, so the process ended up taking much longer than we had anticipated.  We also ran into some interference a few miles up the Whitney Portal mountain access road, which had been open the night before (I drove down it to get back into town the same morning), but the road was now closed due to rock fall and construction.  A friendly U.S. National Park Service employee informed us that the road was closed to vehicles and would remain closed for the next few days.  We could park where we stood, which was halfway up the road, but that posed a serious problem since we were still several miles and thousands of vertical feet from even reaching the trail head.  Doing so would definitely compromise any chance of our success.  As an alternative, I chatted with the park ranger in context of me being a fellow federal employee (for an agency with a mission that also focuses on the environment), and in doing so, I convinced her to let one of our two cars through.  She agreed and even escorted us up the access road while letting her counterparts know we are okay to let through on her 2-way radio.

Mountaineers Route - Topo - Courtesy of National Geographic

Mountaineers Route - Topo - Courtesy of National Geographic

Once we reached the trail head, we unloaded our car and loaded up our backpacks.  I was legitimately saddened by how heavy my pack had become.  My original plan would have had my pack weighing no more than 24 or so pounds, fully loaded, consisting of a bare minimum of food and water, plus essential gear such as a bivy sack (for an emergency if I needed to sleep out overnight), a cooking device and fuel to melt snow for water consumption plus a one liter water bottle, a few extra layers of clothing, a head lamp, crampons, my climbing helmet, an ice axe, snow shoes and that’s pretty much it.  Now my pack was loaded with winter camping gear, such as a snow shovel to dig out and set up camp, shared parts of a 4-season tent, some of Glenn’s equipment that wouldn’t fit in or on his backpack, and other stuff like additional food I wouldn’t have needed to carry if I had been climbing light and fast. The added weight felt heavier on my psyche than on my back.  If I had to guess, my pack probably weighed almost twice as much as I had originally intended and around 45 lbs.  A hanging scale actually sits at the Whitney Portal trail head, which was tempting to use to see how much my pack now actually weighed, but I opted to remain ignorant to the bear on my back and not to weigh it, if for nothing else than to keep a vibe of positive energy and excitement brewing for the climb ahead.

The hike up and along the trail was relaxed.  The sun was beating down, but cover from the surrounding amphitheater of brush protected us.  It wasn’t until maybe an hour and a half in where the trail ended and route finding decisions needed to be made. Our plan was to navigate to an easy access point to the Ebersbacher Ledges, which would require finding a way to cross a small stream and through some dense willows to get to a point where we could start climbing up rock ledges and onto an upper plateau.  Since it hadn’t snowed in at least a few days, tracks from previous climbers were everywhere and leading this way and that. We made the mistake of following a few different tracks to areas of the stream that were too dangerous to cross until ultimately we gave up on following others’ foot steps and instead kept ascending up the mountain area to the south of the stream.  At some point after hiking up through relatively deep snow and varying degrees of slope, we realized the Ebersbacher Ledges, which we had intended on using to shorten our hike up to Lower Boy Scout Lake were no longer an option.  The ledges had been in view and in our northern peripheral for most of the day, but as more time passed they began to dwindle as we trudged higher up. Thankfully, even after a longer approach than we had wanted, Glenn and I still ended up at a point where the slope started to level off and our surroundings became more recognizable. While Glenn took a short rest, I decided to explore the surrounding area in search of an ideal route to continue our ascent.  Instead, I found what appeared to be a small, snow covered lake, frozen ten times over and based on our altitude and general location, it ended up being Lower Boy Scout Lake.

The sky wasn’t dark yet, but since we had taken the less efficient route up by not utilizing the Ebersbacher Ledges, dusk would soon be upon us, so we opted to set up camp 50 feet or so adjacent to the frozen lake.  Digging out a camp spot was easy given the relatively shallow depth of snow where we stood.  I didn’t even need to use the snow shovel I had been lugging up and on my back all day (damn unessential gear!).  As the day wore on, Glenn and I were able to rest, reorganize our summit packs for the following day, melt snow for water, make dinner and really get to know each other. After talking to Glenn for just a few minutes, I came to realize that he’s an amazing person.  One story he told really stuck out for me and is something I aspire to do one day too.  Glenn is a river guide in his local community, which gave him the experience to lead people places and into situations they normally wouldn’t venture. He branched off of this experience by also leading unprivileged and troubled youth into local mountain ranges to give them a true nature experience and to help show them how rewarding that experience can be.  He told his tales with warm and humble delivery, which amplified my respect for him and also made me want to follow in his footsteps.

Ebersbacher Ledges - Courtesy of Cannundrum Blogspot

Ebersbacher Ledges - Courtesy of Cannundrum Blogspot

Before long, save the reflected light off the moon, total darkness devoured our surroundings.  The temperature had dropped to well below freezing, so we slithered into our sleeping bags bundled up in winter clothing for a few hours of sleep.  Glenn was snoring within minutes.  I was less fortunate.  I hadn’t brought ear plugs since I thought they would be unnecessary given my original plan to climb alone.  Ironically, Glenn was wearing his, which would have been of good use to me since he snored incessantly the entire night with great bass and tenor, whereas I lay silent, restless and awake, fighting bouts of frustration, delirium and anticipation for the climb to come.  I slept, at best for a total of 30 minutes in increments of 3-5 minutes.  So much for a good night’s sleep for the long day out ahead.

At 2:15 AM my alarm clock sounded; we got up, and headed out.  Lower Boy Scout Lake sits at 10,300 feet and Whitney tops out at 14,505 feet, which meant the day’s itinerary was to cover a little over 4,200 feet of total elevation gain to reach the summit and then to descend around 6,100 feet to our exit point at Whitney Portal trail head before dark.  We started out slow; painfully slow.  Glenn took lead first, which was a calculated decision we had discussed and agreed upon the evening before since Glenn admitted he would move slower than me and since we wanted to stay together.

The slope directly ahead of Lower Boy Scout Lake drastically steepened and led into an abyss of rigid snow-covered rock and darkness.  Three climbers, who were the only other people we would see while on Whitney, had descended through this stretch the day before and had given warning of avalanche conditions and advised us to flank the slope to the south to stay out of harms’ way.  We heeded their advice and avoided the higher risk area.

The ice and snow below our snowshoes creaked like an old wood floor as we hiked in unison up the mountainous terrain.  Step, step, stop.  Step, step, stop. Step, step, stop.  The pattern of our movements was deliberate and arduous.  I immediately became worried about our efficiency and surmised we would not make summit and get back down within a reasonable (and safe) amount of time.  At some point in our climb and prior to reaching Upper Boy Scott Lake, I voiced my thoughts and concerns to Glenn not so much with the intent to change behavior or to pick up pace, but more so to put it on record.  Noted.  We slugged on.  Step, step, stop.  Step, step, stop.

Time passed without notice like the ocean’s tide ebbs and flows, and before long sunshine showered its warmth upon us.  After daybreak, we covered several sections of mixed terrain which proved difficult and more technical to climb.  My research on climbing Whitney via the Mountaineers Route in snowy winter and early spring conditions left me uncertain as to whether or not I would actually need pro, e.g., rope, a harness, ice screws and other hardware to safely cross icy sections with considerable exposure.  Reviews were mixed on trip reports and other related literature and most came to the unhelpful conclusion – it depends.  I decided to not bring what may have been requisite technical gear and opted instead to go as far and as high as I could without it, which hopefully meant all the way to the summit, but if I came across a section posing too much risk, I would turn back and be okay with that decision, or at least that’s what I told myself.

Frozen Lake - Courtesy of ExploreTheUSA.com

Frozen Lake - Courtesy of ExploreTheUSA.com

A memorable moment of doubt occurred a few hundred feet below Iceberg Lake at an area where the grade of slope significantly steepened leaving the terrain covered only in rock and ice since it was too steep for snow to stick to.  Glenn and I stopped to rest at the base of the slope and to assess the situation.  We were unsure as to whether we could free climb the section safely.  A fall would have resulted in sliding down the relatively short section of snow and ice, but with momentum, the fall could have carried either one of us onto another steep slope that evened out a few hundred feet below us.  After deliberating for a few minutes, we decided that it was an acceptable amount of risk and worth a shot.  I truly believed we could make it up and over this section unscathed and thankfully, we did. I took lead and worked my way up the slope front-pointing the sharp spikes of my crampons into the ice while jabbing my ice axe into its face to help provide me additional support.  I ended up surprising myself and making it up and off the slope with relative ease although my heart rate increased considerably during the experience.  Glenn successfully made it up too, but he took a bit longer since he appeared to be noticeably unsure about his footing and his next move on several sections of the slope. He even slipped a few times, which gave us pause.  Nevertheless, we made it up and we shared a collective sigh of relief.

Now within sight was mixed terrain consisting of large boulders and open fields of snow.  An unobstructed view of Mount Whitney’s impressive East Face stood before us.  Our pace picked up a bit since the fun was truly about to begin.  We hustled over relatively flat sections of snow as we passed Iceberg Lake (elevation 12,621 feet) and ascended to an ideal resting spot a few hundred feet in front of a steep, snow-filled chute leading up to a deep notch in Whitney's north ridge which ultimately would lead us to the summit plateau.

Before heading into the infamous snow chute, we opted for a brief rest to fuel up on high calorie snack food, melt snow for water and unload unessential gear, like our cooking device and fuel, for the final summit push.  We could pick everything back up on the descent.

Climber in Snow Chute - Source Unknown

Climber in Snow Chute - Source Unknown

We guessed the chute would take us at most a couple of hours to climb, which meant we should summit by noon.  While the projected summit time wasn’t entirely ideal, it wasn’t terribly concerning either since it should have left us enough time to descend the mountain safely and reach the Portal before it got too dark.  As we headed into the chute, the first real separation between Glenn and me occurred in both the physical and metaphorical sense.  We had been together and more or less side by side since meeting in Lone Pine the day before, but now the distance between us lengthened.  I volunteered to take lead on our climb up the chute since I had more juice in the tank to kick steps into the steep and deep snow so Glenn could follow in my footsteps which would make it easier on him to climb up.  I moved at a natural pace, kicking countless steps in the snow and stopping to catch my breath and look below me to see where Glenn was at.  With each look back, Glenn was farther and farther away.  I consciously made the decision to slow down, considerably, so Glenn could catch-up.  At one point, I even stopped and half sat, half stood on a steep snow pitch for about 15 minutes so the distance between us would shorten.  It did, but not by much.  The summit rocks of Mount Whitney loomed above and completely blocked the sun from where I was, enveloping me and all my surroundings in its shadow. My body temperature had dropped and I began to shiver uncontrollably, so I opted to get up and get moving again.  I called back on several occasions asking if everything was okay.  Glenn would yell back in the affirmative, but his diminishing pace, now almost to a crawl, spoke volumes otherwise.  We were too close to summit to stop and in no real imminent danger, so we persevered on.

At some point, I reached the top of the snow chute, which led to a traverse off the east face and into a deep notch in Whitney’s north ridge, which led up to the summit plateau. While I couldn’t see Glenn anymore, since he was still well below me and my view was obstructed by a rock ledge, I did not want to summit without him nor was I interested in going any further until I had a chance to really see and hear how he was doing.  So I waited and I waited, and I waited for what seemed like an eternity.  Remaining static in the shadow of Whitney’s summit rocks began to bother me again as my body began to shiver.  I was getting impatient and increasingly annoyed with how long it was taking Glenn to get to the point where I stood.  I fought off the cold by pacing in small circles and trying to remain positive. The passage of time is a form of torture.

In Whitney Shadows @ Top of Snow Chute

In Whitney Shadows @ Top of Snow Chute

After battling with myself, time and the cold, Glenn finally popped into view.  He ascended up to where I stood and we stopped to talk about the situation.  He admitted that he was pretty worn out, but still able and willing to make the final push to summit.  Based off my observations, Glenn seemed to be okay at this point, just exhausted.

Standing at the top of the snow chute, climbers typically do a quick traverse around Whitney’s uppermost rock ledge for a less technical path up to summit.  After the traverse, two clear paths to summit emerge; the first is steeper and more technically challenging, whereas the second route, located a few dozen feet beyond the first route, is longer but a noticeably easier shot to summit.  Although time was now becoming a factor, the decision for us was a no brainer.  Glenn did not feel confident he could climb up the more challenging route, so we both decided to charge at the second.

The final section proved to be easy, which was aided by the enthusiasm and adrenaline associated with reaching Mount Whitney’s summit.  The sky was clear and the day was beautiful.  Our view in every direction was unobstructed with a sea of snow capped mountains.  Glenn teared up in a moment of accomplishment and relief.  We hugged each other and celebrated our achievement as we stood atop the highest mountain in the contiguous United States.  After soaking everything in, we explored the summit plateau, popped into the vacant summit cabin and we were even able to call loved ones from Glenn’s cell phone.  My wife was relieved to hear I was okay and that we had reached summit safely; she relayed the good news to my parents.

After about 15 minutes or so, we decided it was time to descend.  We down-climbed the same route we took up the north ridge notch and then found ourselves at the top of the snow chute again.  As with our approach to ascending the snow chute, we started out together but soon found separation.  Instead of walking down several hundred feet of relatively deep snow and adding more stress to already tired legs, I decided to glissade, which was far more efficient. Glissading is a way of sliding down a steep slope of snow or ice, on either your feet or butt with the support of an ice axe to help control your speed and direction as you slide down the slope.  If you’re unfamiliar with the term or its definition, think of it like sledding down a steep hill without a sled to sit on.  To glissade safely I first needed to remove my crampons so that none of the spikes caught the ground surface, which could result in serious injury, such as a broken ankle or torn ligament.  At altitude in a remote location and especially in winter conditions, even minor injuries can become serious.

I gladly removed my crampons and enjoyed the glissade down.  I felt like a kid again and what took me a few hours to ascend only took me about 20 minutes to get down.  I made my way over to the resting spot where we had left our unessential gear before the final summit push and I enjoyed a well-deserved break warming my body in the sun, loading up on calories and starting up a brew of ice melt for water to drink.  As I sat and enjoyed myself, I looked up at Glenn still making his way down the snow chute. Originally when I told him that I was going to glissade, he opted not to for whatever reason; instead, he wanted to hike down.  I had no reason to argue, so I didn’t.  As I watched him hike down the chute, I could tell by his movements that fatigue had officially set in.  Thankfully though after he sat to rest, I could see that he was now attempting to glissade down the slope.  When I originally talked to Glenn about it, I vividly remember advising him to be sure to take off his crampons for the reasons described earlier in this trip report. However, now looking up at Glenn I could see the he was in fact glissading, but with his crampons still firmly attached to the bottom of his boots.  I got up and yelled out, waving my arms to try and get his attention.  He needed to take off his crampons or else something bad could happen.  He either didn’t hear me or choose not to hear me as he continued to slide down the slope, crampons still attached to his boots, legs and feet sticking up in the air.  Thankfully, he slid down without injury and got up and walked over to where I sat.

Whitney Summit Photo - Stefan

Whitney Summit Photo - Stefan

I chose not to address the incident that had just occurred anymore than just reminding him that what he just did was not safe.  I failed to mention that an injury or health issue for him (or me for that matter) was an issue we both would have to deal with.  I could tell Glenn was even more exhausted than before since he was less communicative than normal and kind of in his own world.  To help, I offered him the rest of the water I had just melted to drink.  He seemed to improve a bit after drinking the brew and eating some food.

Before descending any further down the mountain, we decided to melt one more pot of snow so we could fill up at least part of our water bottles for the long hike down ahead.  At the altitude where we sat, which was above 13,000 feet, melting one pot of snow takes exponentially longer than if at sea level.  The brew of snow took about 15 minutes to melt and when it was done, Glenn reached for it and clumsily knocked the entire pot of water over.  The sight of the spilled water escaping onto the rock was painful but an honest accident.  Glenn wasn’t talking much at this point, so I couldn’t be sure of what was going on with him. One symptom of altitude sickness is dizziness, which can lead to clumsiness, which may have been what I just witnessed, but I wasn’t sure.  Regardless of my uncertainty, I took note.

Time of day was now becoming a major issue since our plan was to get off the mountain before nightfall. We didn’t have enough fuel to melt snow for water nor did we have enough food to sleep out an extra night.  For these reasons, we decided that it was best to not sit around for another 15 minutes and wait for snow to melt; instead, we decided to get moving and to climb down without water.  We would fill-up later or when we reached camp at Lower Boy Scout Lake.

The terrain we covered now was far less taxing than before, which allowed us to hike or comfortably down-climb without concern.  However, now that it was later in the day and since the sun had been beating down on us since it rose earlier that morning, the condition of the snow had completely deteriorated.  What had been a nice hard crust on top of the snow at night, which allowed us to walk on top of it without breaking through, had turned into loose, wet and soft conditions. With every step, we would post-hole and a foot would sink deep into the snow, sometimes up to our waist, which is normal after a winter’s worth of snow accumulation.  This continued for hours as the sun beat down on us in a cloudless sky.  With no water to drink, dehydration set in and I could feel my skin frying on my face.  I forgot to bring sunscreen, which may sound unnecessary for a winter trip, but it’s essential when the sun is blazing and reflecting off the perfectly white snow, especially at higher altitudes.  My body was going through constant fits of shivering and profuse sweating like it wasn’t sure what to do to cope with the weather conditions.

To add to the stress, at some point before getting too far out after the resting spot below the snow chute, Glenn informed me that he had lost his sunglasses, which was his only pair of eye protection.  This was critical because with several hours of daylight still to go, at a high altitude, and with the sun still mercilessly beating down and reflecting off the white snow, Glenn was at risk of going snow blind.  Snow blindness is typically a temporary loss of vision and inflammation of the conjunctiva and cornea, caused by exposure of the eyes to bright sunlight and ultraviolet rays reflected from snow or ice.  In layman’s terms, it’s where the outer skin on your eyeball burns and causes partial or complete blindness.  To avoid this fate, Glenn and I discussed and rethought every possible place his sunglasses could be.  We decided that the most likely spot was at the top of the steep snow and ice slope we had ascended earlier in the day where we had contemplated the idea of needing protection.  We had stopped to rest there for longer than anywhere else and Glenn couldn’t remember having his glasses after that point in time.  From where we stood, the route back to that spot was more arduous to descend than another route in our view, so I told Glenn to take the easier route while I went to look for his sunglasses.  As I ventured off by myself with my own thoughts and frustrations, my concern for Glenn and our well-being mounted.  Too many avoidable things were happening and we still had a long way to go.  I was dehydrated, severely sun burnt and becoming exhausted.  Glenn was noticeably exhausted and looked wiped out; his movements were clumsy and deliberate and he wasn’t communicating with me much at all anymore; and he was making bad decisions like glissading down the snow chute with his crampons still on. And now he couldn’t find his sunglasses! Each occurrence if isolated may have seemed relatively minor, but strung together, it felt like our situation was spinning out of control.  We needed a victory, however small, which thankfully came when I reached the resting spot and found Glenn’s sunglasses half buried under the snow.

Whitney Summit - Cabin

Whitney Summit - Cabin

I descended a bit further and found a boulder with a shadow big enough to get out of the sun for a while. My skin was roasting and my mouth was like the Sahara.  Glenn had the fuel and cooking device, so melting snow for water was out of the question, so I just stood there and waited.  Glenn finally appeared in the distance and when he approached, in subdued rejoice, I handed him back his sunglasses and we quietly celebrated the small victory.  We discussed our current state and the situation in very few words, but more with looks of concern and annoyance.  I decided that the best thing for us was for me to head down first and well in front of Glenn so that I could get back and pack up camp so that when he arrived at Lower Boy Scout Lake, we could save time and both head down together to the Portal trail head from there.  I took the cooking device too so I could melt snow at camp so that when Glenn arrived, water would be waiting.

From there, I made my way down to camp with relative ease despite feeling very dehydrated and a little fatigued.  I was relieved and felt much better after getting back to camp, drinking some water and eating some food.  I hadn’t done either since our resting spot below the snow chute several hours earlier in the day.  Knowing that I still had time before Glenn got back, I slowly packed up camp, brewed some more water and waited.  At some point before dusk Glenn arrived.  He looked distraught and upset, but he didn’t say much of anything.  I gave him water and food and some time to rest.  After awhile, Glenn told me that he was thinking about staying at camp that night because he was too exhausted to go any further. While this was an option to consider, I had no intention of staying an extra night while low on provisions and I felt extremely uncomfortable leaving Glenn by himself on the mountain in his current condition.  I strongly advised against it and ended up convincing him to keep moving so that we could reach the trail head together and that night.

We started moving again as we walked across the frozen lake and we came to a point where a route-finding decision needed to be made.  Unintentionally, we had avoided the use of the Ebersbacher Ledges on our ascent the day before and instead, we had climbed a longer, more snow-covered route adjacent to the steep rock ledges.  Since the snow conditions had gone to shit and since time and daylight were now very concerning factors in the decisions we were making, we decided to navigate down previously unchartered terrain and onto the Ebersbacher Ledges, which was standard for the ascent and descent on the Mountaineers Route.

The ledges proved to be taxing and were much more exposed than we had hoped given our current state and the fading light.  Not too far into down-climbing steeper sections of the ledges, I started to second guess our decision to try the new route.  Despite the doubt gnawing at my psyche, we made it safely down and off the ledges.  Daylight was all but gone and we now needed to find a place to slip through the thick tree cover that outlined the stream we had to cross.  Needing to carry all of our gear out, we once again had on big and heavy packs, which added an adverse element to the seemingly dire situation. Thankfully we found an opening in the thicket and a relatively narrow section of stream to cross and we made it without incident.  At this point, it was completely dark, so I fetched my headlamp out of my pack and waited for Glenn to do the same.  Apparently, Glenn had packed his whole pack without remembering where he put his torch.  He was convinced it sat at the bottom of his pack and that it was not worth searching for; I didn’t have the energy to argue, so I didn’t.

We trudged on with little direction and in despair, two men with one headlamp, trying to find our way back to recognizable surroundings.  I had to walk almost on the back of Glenn’s boots so he could see where he was walking whenever he was in front of me and I had to stop and turn my head around to light his way whenever I took lead and he was behind me.  We both longed for moonlight, which never came.  Through doubt and frustration, we eventually made it back to the original point where the trail had ended and the Mountaineers Route began.  We hiked along the trail together replicating the same motion we had for the past hour or so where I would shine my head lamp down so both of us could barely see the roots and rocks and fallen trees we were stepping over.  Glenn was mentally down and so was I.  To lift our spirits, I audibly repeated words of encouragement about us being close to the trail head and that once at our car, we could throw off our heavy packs and drink enough water to bathe in.  I also asked if Glenn was okay.  I don’t remember receiving much of a response.

We worked our way down together, but we felt desolate, until at last we reached the trail head.  We walked off the trail between 8:00 and 9:00 PM, which was several hours after our max intended exit time and I came to find out later, it was late enough to worry my wife and mom enough for them to call the Lone Pine Ranger Station in alarm.  The ranger on duty assured them that the Mountaineers Route in winter almost always takes climbers longer than they think it will and that if they hadn’t heard from me by morning, to call back.

Glenn and my first order of business was to make it back to the car, toss off our packs and chug water until our stomachs were painfully full.  Glenn took the first, well deserved swig and I followed suit.  It was refreshing but we both felt sick.  We drove down the Portal access road in silence until we reached my rental car, which was parked next to the road closure signs.  We decided to part ways and head into town separately for a hot meal.  At that point, I was still contemplating the 4+ hour drive across Death Valley so I could wake up in Vegas and go sit in a sports book all day and watch the NCAA tournament with friends the following morning.  Thankfully, I decided against it.  I was way too tired to drive and Death Valley doesn’t have too many rest stops.  I called my wife the first chance I got and filled her in on the bare essentials – we made up and off the mountain safely.  Details could wait.  After grabbing two cheese burgers and some fries from a local fast food joint, I stopped at three different motels before finding one in Lone Pine with a vacancy.  I slept, but fitfully.  My body was still cold but sweating, my face and lips were burnt and peeling and I didn’t have any feeling in my fingers (which lasted for more than a week and eventually morphed into Raynaud's Phenomenon/Syndrome).

The next morning, I woke up early and drove to Vegas to meet up with my friends.  I must have looked like a monster, but they met me with open arms.  It felt good to be done with it and safe.  I didn’t feel a sense of accomplishment.  Actually, for the first time in my life and since getting into mountaineering, I had absolutely no desire to climb again.  It would take me quite some time and the better half of a year to feel that drive again, but it’s there.  It’ll always be there.  It’s who I am or who I’ve grown to be.  Same difference.







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