Sweetest Disaster-Winter Ascent of Mt. Whitney ’s MR 3/13/2010
Back in December 2009 I found out about SP, and started going out to different mountains to gain experience. That is about when I realized I REALLY want to climb Mt. Whitney ’s “Mountaineer’s Route” at some point in my life, I did not think it was going to happen so soon, and in addition to everything during winter.
I started thinking about different options for a trip to Whitney in January 2010, and after a successful summit of mt. Tallac on our way home I decided to find out if any of my peak-bagging friends (Max and Bryan) would want to try it (even though I had huge doubts we will actually attempt). They were a bit skeptical about it since mt. Whitney (highest peak in lower 48!) by MR is not mt. Tallac, Shasta or any other peak we did before. After couple of days of talking about it we decided to plan it, and even if we fail to summit we were determined to go out there and do our best. In early stages of planning we thought about attempting it in early April, but Bryan had a brilliant idea-- since we are planning to go in winter conditions why not just make our attempt during winter. It only counts as a winter summit if you do it before March 21st, so we planned our trip for March 12-14th since “WINTER ASCENT of Mt. Whitney ” sounds waaaaayyy cooler that “ascent of Mt. Whitney under winter conditions.” There were others who wanted to go with us, making a total of 8 people in our group (about 2-3 weeks before the trip).
I fit this all in my pack..
During our planning stages we invited several other people to come with us which changed the carpool situation several times, since we live all over the Bay Area/Sacramento area. Also, I stepped up my training and what really worked great for me was loading my pack with 5 gallons of water and hiking up and down a steep/long city block for two-three hours/2ce a week. I rode a bike in the gym for an hour on level 8-10/2ce a week, ran 5-6 miles/1nc a week, and also climbed/did some weight training in our local climbing gym. Some of these were substituted by weekend peak-bagging/hiking/camping. I wanted to make sure that if anything stops me from going further it is not my lack of conditioning or poor planning. About two weeks before our trip I got into a bit obsessive stage-checking Whitney portal store forum and SP several times a day for any updates on road conditions, new trip reports (that did not exist), weather etc. Great news came when about 7 days before our trip, the forecast showed images of sun on every single day before and during our trip. It all changed couple of days before with predictions of 40+MPH northern winds with gusts up to 56MPH during Friday/Saturday and 1 inch of new snow/high winds for Saturday. Weather bothered me a bit, but did not bother me as much as the news about 4 out of 8 people who planed to go dropping out in the last few days before the trip (3 dropped out on the day of our departure!!!). I respect their reasons, but still think they did not have to wait for last minute to cancel. I was really worried it was going to lead to our trip to get cancelled but in the end Bryan, Max, Yason (comming all the way up from SD), and I (Vitaliy) decided to ignore the last minute weather changes and go for it. We decided to leave the Bay Area at about 10PM (Thursday) so we could get to Lone Pine, CA by about 6AM (Friday) and get up to Upper Boy-Scout Lake that day (long day w/o sleep, but you have to sacrifice). If weather was fine our summit push was scheduled for 3AM (Saturday, if it was storming hard we decided to wait the day out and attempt the summit on Sunday.
Right after Bryan and I left San Francisco we got into a 40 minute stand-still traffic jam by Whipple ave on 101S. There was a 3-car crash with police blocking all but one lane. With my grandmother's supersticion getting stuck in my head all kinds of thoughts of this being a "bad sign" crawled in my head. But, after we finally cleared the jam, got to Max's place, and gathered all our crap in his car, we left Palo Alto at about 11PM!! We were on a long sleep-less (for me at least) drive. By the time we were approaching Lone Pine I was driving, with Max and Bryan in a semi-sleeping state. As I saw first mountains I started looking for "The One." I did not see it for a while. When I finally did see Mt. Whitney I had a lot of excitement and other positive feelings going through my body. It was amazing to finally see a mountain you spend days researching, and checking out online. It felt like I was in heaven, which got real cold when I got out of the car to pick up the permit from the ranger station. After we filled it out we got back on our way to the mountain, and met Yason in the parking lot (where he was sleeping). Since I'm a evil human I decided to roll real close to his car and hold the horn down! His expression was priceless, it really reminded me of the time when we were sleeping in a snow cave and he thought that there was bear crawling in (I woke up to someone yelling "BEAR! THERE'S A BEAR!" but realised it was Max after he was able to get through our tight "doorway"). After trying to take both cars past the "Road Closed" sign and failing we decided to load our crap into Yason's 4x4 and attempt getting as high as we could get. We did not get high and got stuck in the first snow section. Spent next hour or so getting the car out (more supersticious thouhts messing with me), trying to drive over the snow in a different spot, failing again, parking below snow, gathering our crap and FINALLY beggining our hike 4 miles and 2,000ft of elevation bellow the actual trail. Before we started to hike we met two groups (2 man group, and a 3 man group from Utah). Both groups looked pretty experienced (2 man group even had matching hats!).
Bryan and I
2-man group passed us when we were getting our car out and 3-man group passed us after about 15 minutes of hiking. We started to hike much later than we planned. Proposed speed was supposed to be at about 2MPH, Yason was going at about 1.3MPH so three of us had to wait for way too long at times, sun wasn't easy on us neither.
Small dot to the right is Bryan. This picture makes you realize how small we are..
Somehow I was in a great state of mind since I was finally doing something I worked hard to get to. On our way up the road we noticed that rocks that were layed out in our path due to rock fall looked pretty impressive. We thought about bouldering on one of them while waiting for Yason, but decided to have a sit instead.We hiked for another couple of miles or so, and had a nice rest stop after we reached actual Whitney trail. While resting we met a couple of guys (on their way down) who said they failed to summit because they had a terrible night, also met a guided group, which included a son and his father who came over to Mt. Whitney all the way from Philadelphia (aren't we lucky to have so many amazing mountains close to where we are?!). We resumed our hike up, which was on a snow filled trail. It was only one way up and it was easy to figure out where to go. On our way we passed a stream, hiked for a while after, and reached another stream. Got some water there, ate some candy, took pictures, waited for Yason. Also, it was the point where we had to stop following Whitney trail. We turned right and began Mountaineer's Route. After a while the snow was not too stable any longer and we began to stick deeper and deeper in. It was not pleasant, but all three of us were loaded with energy. Especially Bryan and I. After we reached the valley we waited for our "slower" friend for a while, till we saw him hiking far away. After that we stopped waiting and hauled ass all the way up to Lower Boy-Scout Lake (LBSL), with a few short rest stops. We ascented so fast that we actually caught up to the 3 person group and saw the 2 person group going up to Upper Boy Scout Lake (UBSL). We got up there so fast that this time we had to wait for about 45 minutes instead of usual 5-15 for Yason to show up. While we were waiting the wind picked up, and clouds rolled in from over Whitney's summit. Sun was gone, winds got A LOT stronger (I actually lost balance couple of times because the gust of wind pushed me back, and I'm not a ballet dancer), and snow bagan to fall. It went from great, to bad, to worse in about 15 minutes (my personal advice to whoever is trying to do Whitney during winter would be to bring everything necessary for snow camping in stormy conditions+10 essentials. During winter especially weather is not stable, mountain has it's own climate at times. What looks like a perfect day could turn ugly in minutes, we don't know what is on the other side of the mountain/over a ridge. Also, bring snow shoes even if it was sunny for 2 weeks and there is an existing trail. If it does snow over night you will not feel like an idiot that drove for god knows how long, carried a 50lb pack, and saved 2 lbs by leaving something essential at home. Also, try out all your gear elsewhere, especially make sure ou know how to put on your crampons. Just my opinion). After about 10 minutes of trying to sit through and wait for Yason in this hell Bryan went down the trail to look for him. While he was gone, guided group showed up and started picking out a site to set a camp. Part of me still wanted to go up to UBSL, but by the time Bryan showed up with Yason's pack it was obvious that we were staying at LBSL. Conditions were only getting worse. We followed the guided group into the trees and picked couple of nice spots to set our tents close to each other. While setting up our tents wind made it pretty challenging and some of our things were blown away, but recovered. The tent was lifted up several times and only after I set up anchors (maybe too many, but I'd rather be secure) it was finally in place. My fingers were numb for about 20-30 minutes by than. Thank god it was time to get our pads, sleeping bags etc. inside, make food, warm up, and rest. Thank to Maxim the food was prepared very well. I think we had pasta/soup, plus ham, and white cheese. I made sure to drink plenty of broth to hydrate, and had enough tea for all night. Dried sweetened Hibiscus flowers also were consumed-- our favorite dried product...I like them even more than dried cranberries.
For some reason Max did not act like he usually does during this night. He was extremely hiper. Laughed a lot more than usual, sang Russian songs, and would not shut up for a minute even though I told him I want to sleep. Later he stated it was probably due to elevation, because he did not feel "normal." According to him he felt as if he was drunk. Even though he was hiper we were able to fall asleep. Our plan was to wait the storm out, wake up at about 2 and leave for summit at 3. When I woke up around 2AM it was dumping hard, and by my estimates there was about 6-7inches of new snow at that point. Since weather was putrid it was obvious we are not going anywhere at 3am, so after more songs and lady gaga like behavior from Max we fell asleep again.
Woke up at about 8am, came out to release some of that broth I had last night, discovered a foot or so of new snow (wasn't happy about that). Also, was not happy because it was really windy, but at least the sun was finally out. Called Bryan to come out (he was sleeping in the tent with Yason), we talked a bit..I proposed to just go for the summit ASAP. He calmly said "Yea, let's go." I was pleasantly surprised by this answer, woke up Maxim, we got some oatmeal ready, prepared our packs, and left at around 8:40AM. Yason informed us he will not be going for the summit the night before since his pace was way slower than ours. But he did put on his skis and followed us for as long as he could.
This time we did not have to wait for anyone. We put on our snow shoes and started going up to UBSL without any trail. We flew up this hill really fast. I got much warmer than I thought I would get and decided to take my fleece pants (wore tham under my shell) off after we topped the long hill on the way to UBSL from LBSL. I told Bryan and Max not to wait for me so to catch them after I was done I had to do a hiking sprint at around 11,000ft, which took some wind out of me since I had only one 5 second stop on my way. We saw a tent at UBSL and decided to see if anyone is in it. Two guys were standing outside, so we talked to them for a short while. They told us they are not going any further because of the wind and new snow (I wonder why would you drive for hours and give up without even attempting to do your best. It is a mountain, season is winter..
this photo was taken of Whitney on our summit day by Richard P.
What you really wait for a sunny calm day with a nice trail to the top?). Also, they saw three man group trying to build a snow cave last night, but did not know if they succeeded or not. We didn’t see any signs of anyone else being up there, or any footprints heading up to the mountain/down the mountain, so either they turned around and headed for their cars last night during storm, or they were still in their cave. Bryan reminded us that we don’t have all day, and we continued with our ascent. Steep snow slope from UBSL looked pretty sketchy (due to new snow fall and avy danger) so to avoid it we climbed up the rocks to the right, took a nice breather on top, ate power bars, drank water. As we crossed semi flat part on the way to Iceberg we decided we are not going up the steep, avalanche prone hill (a guide that we met at LBSL told us he saw an avalanche on it before) that just got a foot of new snow, so we again climbed through some steep snow. Instead we went through a steep shallow chute and rock climbed over to Iceberg lake! The closer we got to the Notch the better the view got. We got to see some beautiful looking snow “tornadoes (too bad I wasn’t able to take a picture before it died down).”
Snow blowing from the summit..
We stopped by the entrance to the notch ate some trail mix, energy bars, drank some, and took pictures. We were happy with our progress since we got to the Notch in about 2.5 hours after leaving LBSL. Doesn’t sound too fast, but we were happy with this time since we were breaking trail through foot of new powder. In my opinion Bryan was doing a bit more work breaking trail so thank him for that. I noticed that I was already running very low on water, because I took only 1L with me(more than half of it was gone already). I put some snow inside and put my nalgene under my shirt hoping my body heat would help the snow melt. According to Bryan (none of us been on this route and didn’t know what to expect) we might not be back till about 11PM with these conditions. We were all ok with a long day, we were not willing to quit just yet. We resumed our ascent at about 11:30am and worked our way zig zagging up in our snow shoes, breaking more trail (taking turns doing it). We were prepared to do it all the way, but after completing about 40% of the way up the notch, snow became a lot harder, so we sat on some rocks and put on our crampons. Snow in my bottle did not melt, so I drank some, and left about 200ml. We resumed climbing. It was so windy that all of us had problems staying warm. I had my base layer, smartwool sweater, and a shell jacket and still felt pretty cold. My feet and hands were cold as well, even though I had plastic boots (Scarpa Inverno) and some good gloves. Maybe it was because I wasn’t hydrated well, but both Max and Bryan also were cold.
I am climbing up the notch..
view after we topped the notch
Regarding altitude I did not have any headache, but I was short of breath more than before. Even when I stopped for rest I couldn’t get enough of it (oxygen). With wind blowing in my face, it getting late, and not feeling great I thought about not making it/ turning around etc (some people would probably laugh at that since they could day hike it in one day during a storm, but I am still not a superman and it is not easy to do a trip like this while having a full time job). One thing that kept me going is the thought about how much work I put in conditioning, planning, and organizing in order for this trip to happen. I started mountaineering for challenge of it, not so I could go up the trail for couple of miles during perfect weather, now I was getting challenged. After thinking about it not as a torture, but as something I waited for such a long time to happen, the suffering turned more into some kind of twisted joy. With this twisted joy we topped the Notch and got our first look at the last 400 foot chute.
The views all around were gorgeous, shocking, and amazing all in the same time. Snow covered mountains that an architect could not put together and Picasso couldn’t draw any better. Wind was blowing harder than it was blowing all day, since these were northern winds and we were now more exposed on the north side. We took a break hiding by some rocks. I ate some chocolate, consumed an energy bar, drank remaining water (which was not much by this point), and had some of Bryan or Max’s. After our break we prepared to get up the chute, got closer to it, and were exposed to it’s full beauty.
1st part of our way up the last 400 feet
if you fall and don't stop on "last 400" you fly over this cliff : )
This chute is basically a steep slope with very hard almost icy snow (that particular day, I am sure it changes day to day. During summer the snow is probably melted which would make it into much easier scramble), and a bunch of shallow covered rocks that hide under this snow, or stick out above it. To our right we spotted a cliff. Basically if you are going up the chute, fall, unable to self arrest, you fly over this cliff to your death (unless you are made of steel). Conditions for going up with this hard snow and wind blowing crap in my face weren’t the best but I continued to ENJOY. (For those who never been here and want some direction on the route: after you get up to the end of 2000ft notch you reach a very short plateu and this 400ft chute is to the left..you can't miss it) We kept left, closer to the rocks. Even though it might have been easier to get up keeping more to the right on more of a snowy field (on the way back we descended half way down using this snow). After getting up about half way this chute we decided to actually climb the rock wall (to our left). Not sure if it is the “safest” way but it was definitely fun. This route was somewhere between a 4 and a 5. To be honest it was much harder than climbing a 5.7 in the gym. For the first time in history Max admitted that something was “sketchy.” I remember at one point I could not find any holds to get up, and descending down to traverse across to the snow in these conditions just didn’t look any better. Max tipped me to check if there is anything behind one of the rocks behind me..I climbed over to it and through the hole was able to see straight across onto other mountains. It gave me an idea of how high and exposed we are. I had to come back to where Max climbed up and he tipped me that I could create a hold by reaching over across a rock which was over my shoulder with my ice axe and “grab” onto it’s end.
Way we took on second half of "last 400 feet" chute
At that moment my whole weight was holding on the tip of the axe, but in a few seconds I was able to pull myself up. I jammed my crampons into the rock wall to the left creating some balance and got over to the top of this rock. At that moment we heard excited Bryan yelling that he sees the summit.
Me climbing over to the summit
We climbed some of the rocks that were in our way and I was able to see the summit house!!!! This was a great moment, I forgot about us having to go down the chute, and from now on I was filled with true joy. Quickly we moved across loose rocks on to the summit plateau, semi ran to the house, and went on to stand on the true summit.
Finally on top..
Summit experience and why risk?
View from the summit..
In my opinion view from Whitney’s summit is one of the biggest answers to “Why do you need to climb mountains?” question. Even though none of the people who ask it will ever be able to experience this answer. It is true you could push your limits running, playing soccer, watching baseball/porn for 12 straight hours, but you can’t experience this view even on a 60in. HD TV. True you could do a summer hike of this mountain, but the view of snow on sharp ridges is one you could only experience during winter. On the summit itself it was warm, without any significant wind. We summited at 3:19pm, and decided to spend about 25 minutes on top. We took a lot of pictures, rested, and ate.
Max on top (yes I take good photos)
Since Bryan was well hydrated he donated his remaining water to me (he brought 2L). When we tried to find the log book it appeared someone took it, since it was not in it’s designed spot. That is one thing that pissed me off on the trip. I wanted to see how many people summit during winter. And I am sure we were first to do it in a while since the weather was unstable for weeks before, and no one we met on our way was successful. So whoever took the book down, I hope Mike Tyson eats your children! : ) Also, I was sad Yason wasn't with us on top. There is always next time though. Turned out he also had fun. He got almost to Iceberg lake and skied down to our camp from there.
After rolling around on sunny, wind-free summit we decided it was time to get down, and headed towards the "last 400" again.
View from the "last 400" chute on our way down
Climbing down those rocks would be really unsafe so we took the snow patch down. Bryan flew down, Max was in the middle, and I was being very cautious (after hearing all the stories about people falling to their death here you have to be) and lagged a bit behind. I think getting down with the wind blowing as hard as it did all day took a lot of energy (mental and physical) out of me. Compared to conditions on this 40-45degree slope, going up 55degree part of CMC on Round Top next week was a joke. After we got down to the notch there was a lot of relief. Wind however was still strong on our way down. Since adrenaline rush was gone by the time we got down from the notch, fatigue and dehydration kicked in. I went into autopilot mode and concentrated on every step. Our snow shoes were off and no one wanted to stop in order to put them on for some reason, so getting knee deep in the snow at times was annoying (on the way back). When we were at Iceberg lk. we enjoyed some of the last rays of sun hitting mt. Russell. Another beautiful moment that will stay in my memory forever. Than a few minutes later we met two guys that turned out to be members of SP as well (small world). One of them was preparing his camp at Iceberg lake, and other “Misha” we saw about five minutes after talking to the first. He was making his way up to Iceberg. On our way down we chatted to both, and since Misha also spoke Russian we chatted to him for a bit longer, even though at that point I wouldn’t even want to chat with god if he appeared for longer than a few minutes. These guys were going to attempt East Buttress (as I remember) next day--a technical rock climb (hope one day to try this route as well). After wishing luck to each other and talking about how much we love Stalin & Vodka (jk) we continued down. It started getting dim, and by the time we passed UBSL it was already as dark as it gets at night. We contacted our friend Yason via walkie talky to make us some tea, since all, especially me would love to have a cup. We reached our camp without any problems by about 7:30PM or so, and had all the tea we dreamed of. I had no energy to stay out. I threw all the crap I carried on the ground, got lots of tea and crawled into my sleeping bag. Still didn't have much energy to talk to anyone. Later on I forced myself to eat some mashed potatoes with meat/cheese, finished Max’s tea he left by his sleeping bag : ) and got my Nalgene filled with more for the night. After Max came in we looked over the pictures and went to sleep. I did not sleep that night. Events of the day kept replaying in my head, and I had a great feeling of satisfaction. I am really grateful to have partners that did not back down and battled for our success. In my opinion one of the best ways to test your friends/yourself or to test someone’s character is to take them up to mountains with you and see how they perform under stress (physical and mental).
Here it does not matter if you are wearing an affliction shirt or have ripped bicepts. You have to be tough physically and mentally in order to accomplish something. In my opinion mental toughness might be the hardest part to be a successful mountaineer. There are many reasons to stop your ascent every time you go out there. Even on a perfect day it would be one of the hardest things any regular person could do. There are people that could day hike all Sierra peaks in one day, and I believe with proper training anything may be possible for any one, but for me at this given moment this trip was a big step forward. I hope I can continue climbing for a long time, improve my skills, improve my physical conditioning, mental toughness, set and complete new goals. After visiting this particular mountain (Whitney) I want to come back and do several other routes on it as well. Also, several peaks in this area seem like something I will be interested in doing sometime soon.
This was a true adventure and I am glad my friends and I made it happen.
Wish everyone else to go out there and have your own adventure! You only live once, don't waste your time!