First climb of 2012
After a restless winter, I was eagerly anticipating the first climb of 2012. I wanted to go for a king sized objective that would set the trend for the rest of the year and what better than Mt Whitney, the roof of the contiguous United States. I had been training by running the trail up in San Bruno mountain state park as well some smaller hills around Phoenix, AZ. This trip would be a great adventure and would symbolize a payoff for my efforts.
Having climbed Shasta solo last year I was indeed wary about attempting such a long journey on my own - those who have done it know how the lonely mind can start playing tricks and that only adds difficulty to the trip. Luckily a colleague from work who had attempted the main Whitney trail unsuccessfully in the past was up for a dose of adventure and it was decided that we would try this together. The climb dates were finalized for the weekend of April 6-8. I had a work conference in LA that week and we would meet each other at the LA airport on 5th to drive down to Lone Pine together.
We planned to stay at the Whitney portal hostel the night of the 5th and head up the Mountaineers route after breakfast on 6th. We were planning to camp at Upper Boyscout Lake (UBSL) and then make an alpine start for the summit the morning of 7th and make it back to Lone Pine the same evening before heading out to our homes on 8th. No lottery needed, predictions of decent weather and reading recent trip reports on the Internet got me even more excited. And the trip timing was perfect for new gear purchase - REI dividends were issued on March 15th and I wasted no time in using it to purchase an ultra-light tent and MSR water filter. I spent quite some time debating whether to carry my plastic mountaineering boots or my leather "waterproof" hiking boots. After some questioning on various Internet boards and reading trip reports I decided to lug in the heavier plastic boots. They weigh a ton more but the last thing I wanted was cold feet and frozen wet boots.
The excitement and anticipation of adventure grew larger as the day of April 5th finally arrived, I made quick work of my job that day and was at the LAX Hertz rental car center by 3:30pm that day. I had read numerous trip reports that stated the road to Whitney portal trailhead was closed and covered in loose rock but maneuverable. On my previous trips to trail heads in Colorado the roads have usually been dirt roads necessitating a 4WD for ease. I was hoping to get a small SUV for today as well but lo and behold I got a brand new Mercedes C230 with 25 miles on it, GPS and a satellite radio system. I temporarily considered exchanging the car for a jeep or something bigger but decided not to - I wasn't going to give up my luxurious car after all I might need every bit of comfort after the exhausting climb ahead.
My friend arrived at 4pm and we began our trip to Lone Pine. Needless to say getting out of LA at 5pm is no easy task. It was a good two hours before we left the rush of LA and surrounding traffic for the relative solitude of California state roads. We stopped at a Walmart to pick up camping supplies, food and some water. We were each planning to carry in 2.5L of water and replenish at UBSL for the second day. We ate dinner at a gas station en route to Lone Pine and checked in to our room in the hostel around 9:30pm. The front desk lady had been kind enough to call us ahead of time and give us the pass code to our room. We got the entire room for $35 and there were 2 bunk beds in total. The room was very clean and a really good value for the money. We unstowed our luggage and put it in our room before heading over to the ranger station to see if we could obtain a self issued permit. The winds were howling that night and every minute spent outside the warmth of our car made us wonder if these conditions would exist during our climb. Unfortunately we couldn't find a self issue permit at the ranger station and we decided to check in at the ranger station the next morning after breakfast. This made a small dent in my plans as we had to now push the start to 10am instead of 8am as planned (the ranger station doesn't open until 9). But we slept well, except that I kept bonking my head into the bunk bed every time I tried to get out.
A sumptuous breakfast the next morning and we dashed off to the ranger station. We gave some information which the ranger punched away into a computer and then we got to read previous trip reports from folks who had recently climbed up MR. There were no maps for MR at the ranger station but I had previously purchased a step by step map with pictures and GPS coordinates from a las Vegas hiking website. I had my trusty Garmin GPS with me and my friend and I were ready to go. As we drove up to the trailhead the often captured views of Mt Whitney appeared and I had to pause to capture them for my own. The views of Whitney and Russell were magnificient and got me all pumped up. We were greeted by the road closed sign and a huge boulder chained to it. The Mercedes made for easy maneuvering around it and we drove up the rock and debris filled road upto Whitney Portal trailhead. After making some last minute adjustments and stowing away excess food and water in the bear resistant storage we began our hike up. Both our packs weighed in at greater than 42lbs (this inspite all my efforts to go ultralight).
Crazy Gregg Part 1
It was pretty much uneventful hiking for the first few hours until we broke for lunch around 1:30pm. We seemed to be just at the start of the E Ledges and we unpacked our stoves and cup-o-noodles for a quick snack with expansive views of Alabama hills in the distance.
We spent a fair amount of time route finding amidst the ledges till we rediscovered the trail. All along I had been worried about post holing but the snow for the most part was consolidated with only a few pockets of post holing. Also there was a group of 30 people from Caltech who had marched in ahead of us and following their boot tracks made it all the more easier. We soon arrived to the great views at LBSL and discovered a crowded camping site. It was mostly occupied by members of the CalTech group and they had a multi-day itinerary at a much more relaxed pace. We spoke with a few of them but then realizing that I had a long slog ahead until UBSL headed on our way.
The route ahead to UBSL looked long and arduous with a hike up the tall granite slabs. We could also see ice climbers from the CalTech group in the adjacent icy blue frozen falls. The "clink" of their ice axes and crampons piercing was audible for much of the hike upto UBSL. At this point my colleague began to slow down and show signs of altitude related fatigue. I slowed down as well giving enough pauses to allow him to catch up but he was about 10mins behind me for the rest of the way. As 5pm approached we decided that I should speed ahead and setup camp before we lose sunlight and as I did so I came across a remarkable individual, the purpose of meeting whom I would not fully comprehend until much later. I noticed a young man walking around bare chested in pretty cold temps, wearing only tennis shoes and carrying nothing more than an ice axe. He seemed to be racing in the same direction as me but was moving at a blistering pace. I yelled a greeting to him and he hastily returned the same under heavy puffs. His name was Gregg, I decided to call him "Crazy" Gregg noticing the lack of protection from elements. Apparently he was on an acclimatization hike and was going to return back to the trailhead after reaching UBSL. This was even more crazy to me. But nevertheless I found a campsite and soon the duties of breaking camp and setting up for the night overtook my mind.
My colleague reached the campsite soon enough but was visibly exhausted and in pain. He had a splitting headache from the altitude and his feet were cold. Apparently while post holing some water had seeped into his shoes and his legs were cold, frozen and he was showing all signs of altitude sickness. We made quick work of dinner though I popped over to UBSL to collect some water. The lake was pretty much frozen solid except for a small portion near the grassy banks. I kicked the surface with my sturdy plastics and lo behold, water was available to pump into my filter. I must say it was a very odd feeling to be sitting on a frozen lake collecting water while there was a loud "thumping" noise coming from somewhere inside the lake. I cant for the life of me figure out what that thumping noise was. My colleague had skipped the tent and had brought a bivy sac but we made an agreement that if things got too cold he was welcome to come into my tent. It was a beautiful moonlit night and I took a few night pictures before turning in by 8:30pm.
I woke up a few times but slept well for the most part until the wind began howling and buffeting my tent around 3am. Every time the wind howled I leaned against the left side of my tent hoping not to get blown away. This continued on and off every 20 minutes and I imagined it to be bitterly cold outside. My mind was playing all sorts of tricks on me and I kept postponing my summit start. I was also concerned about my friend who was in nothing but a sleeping bag and bivy sac out there in this seemingly loud and cold windy environment.
The journey to the summit
Finally at 6am I decided to head out of the tent so I wore my shoes, ate breakfast and prepared all my gear and stepped out. I was shocked that all that howling and buffeting was only inside the tent - outside the weather was perfectly fine. Sure it was a little breezy but nothing like what I was imagining while inside the tent. I made quick work of putting things aside and getting ready for the long haul upto the top. I checked on my friend and he was fine and he wished me well. I requested him to pack up my sleeping bag and tent while he waited so that we could head back right away when I return. I also told him to expect me by 3pm and off I was.
I immediately saw two men making their way from LBSL to Iceberg Lake (IBL) and while they were much ahead of me I followed their boot tracks. The trip to IBL was uneventful barring some stunning views in the early morning daylight. I found two ways to IBL - one was a long route around the base and up a chute to IBL while the other was a short scramble to the top of the wall behind which was IBL. I chose the latter was rewarded with a relatively short but tiring journey. I couldnt really see IBL - it was frozen solid and covered entirely in snow. If I didnt know any better I would have just assumed that this was a big pit at the base of the mountain.
I immediately noticed the gully and made my way to the base for a break and refueling. I noticed a few tents around the lake and some men chatting rather loudly. I didnt waste any more time and started making my way up the chute - now this was a bowling alley. I kept hearing falling loose rock for much of the time and on more than a few occassions had to time my dodge of falling rock. This didnt deter me much and I continued my way up. Somewhere along, I noticed two men climbing up the east face direct and we exchanged some greetings. What surprised me the most was that given such ideal conditions I didnt see any climbers above or below me on MR. I muttered to myself that people were wasting such a beautiful day and continued on.
The fall and self arrest
As I topped out at the notch it was noon and I paused for a few minutes pondering my next action. I had promised to return by 3pm to my colleague but I was a short distance away from the summit. My GPS indicated 14138 feet and I could smell sweet success in the air. So I decided to continue on - and almost immediately I was faced with a challenge. The boot tracks I had been following seemed to be missing, I could see them in the distance but that meant crossing an icy patch that made me feel very uncomfortable. The icy patch was in a shade beneath some rock and neither my crampons nor my ice axe could bite into this. I held onto the adjacent rock and made my way cautiously across the ice to rejoin with the visible boot tracks. I double, triple no quadruple times checked my map and all visible indications were that I was to start climbing up to the summit but the boot tracks were missing and were in a different direction that seemed to traverse the entire backside of the mountain. I followed it for a bit and at 12:30pm decided to call it quits before I did something stupid and fell victim to summit fever.
Now that icy patch I had crossed earlier never really left my thoughts and it was worrying me. I somehow felt very uncomfortable about the whole thing and I knew I had to cross it on my way back as well. I decided to repeat the whole thing and held onto the adjacent rock and tread cautiously on the ice. What happened next is still fuzzy for me. Somewhere in that return traverse, the ice under my right foot gave way and next thing I know is that I am sliding down the mountain fast on the left side of my body.
All I remember thinking at that time was to self arrest and my grip on my ice axe tightened and I started twisting and kicking with my crampons while applying pressure on my ice axe. But no avail!! The ice was too hard for the ice axe to bite into and I was only picking up speed in my slide. I put my entire body weight on my ice axe and finally came to a halt amidst some rocks.
I lay there for a few seconds trying to make sense of what had happened. I wiggled my fingers and toes to check for broken limbs but all was good. I slowly turned my body around to see where I was and noticed that if I slipped another 150-200 feet I would have gone over the precipice into freefall!!
Crazy Gregg Part 2
I collected myself in a few minutes and made short work of the way back to the top of the notch. Adrenaline was still pumping hard to feel any pain or fear. I made quick descent of the gully and met a couple on their way up. I warned them about the icy patch and wished them well - though wondered to myself that it was pretty late in the day to be heading towards the summit. And as I made my way across IBL and towards UBSL I met many more people from the CalTech group. I helped them find the shortcut I had used earlier to hop over the wall and after making some small conversation I headed on towards UBSL.
I finally found my colleague and he had packed up everything well and was ready to head on out. He had spent his day exploring UBSL and the ice wall where ice climbers had been working on all day. I refueled, repacked and we headed out quickly towards LBSL. Our goal was to get past the E Ledges before sun down and at best get past all the snowy sections before sun down so that we wouldnt be navigating potentially treacherous terrain in the dark.
As fate would have it we got lost on the ledges. My GPS kept pointing to me that I was only 150 feet from the nearest way point but little did I realize that it meant 150 feet straight down and not straight ahead. My heart was sinking along with the sun in the distant horizon and I had half made up my mind to camp up on the ledges until sunrise until hope appeared in the way of Crazy Gregg. This time he was as usual hiking around in shorts and a small day pack and my colleague yelled out to him. He quickly pointed us back to the right way and in 15 minutes we were back on the main way out.
Crazy Gregg - if you are reading this, thanks a lot - you were a god send at that time. I was always told that we meet people and we do things for a reason, I realized why we met the earlier day. Stay Crazy!!!
We made quick work of the remaining path and were back at the car parking lot by 8:45pm. Never in my life was I more joyed to see cars! It felt great to get all that gear off my back and sit on a heated seat in the Mercedes. I knew I got a Mercedes for a reason and it was well worth it at just this moment.
We drove back to Lone Pine to grab dinner at McDonalds but I was so exhausted that I ate half my sandwich and turned in for the night at our motel. The next morning I checked my body for injuries from the fall and while there was nothing serious the entire left side of my body had scratches and bruises from the fall and sliding onto rocks. The brand new half-dome helmet is all scratched and the ice axe is going to be framed soon!
We cleaned up, ate breakfast and made our way back to the ranger station to pick up souvenirs and fill out a trip report for others to read.
As I sat in the flight home, I looked at some of the pictures and realized that I should walked around the icy patch by hiking down and then back up - but hindsight is 20-20 and now I know better. I also have since then had an opportunity to look at a few other maps and realized that the way upto the summit was staring at me the entire time and I just didnt find it. Well, there will always be next time!!!