My friend The Ass and I had planned on climbing the original East Face route of Mt Whitney since a random climbing trip to the Lone Pine area last May. We had convinced ourselves that we were going to find some easy FA’s along Horseshoe Meadows Road. Thwarted by a chossy paradise and hungering for action we headed over towards the Portal for some bouldering and exploring. On the way the surreal views of Whitney's shear east face caught our gaze and our conversation (While I grew up in SoCal and was aware of Mt Whitney's existence, until that trip it had not had any real impact on me) We bouldered and hiked up the Main Whitney Trail for a few miles before returning to our car for the long drive back to Huntington Beach. It was during that drive that we hatched our plan, originally 2 years from the upcoming 2007 summer season to climb the East Face route (we had decided early in October while snacking on Pine Tree Ledge at Tahquitz that 2 years preparation was not necessary and moved up our target date to August 2008).
At the time we decided to climb Whitney we had very little trad climbing experience (and still pretty much do), and had recently started climbing again after a 5 year hiatus. Although most of our experience was top roping, The Ass had a rack worthy of the meatiest gear routes, so there were no worries there. We had tried a couple of trad routes in the past (More Moss Than Gloss 5.9 – Keller Peak, unnamed 5.6 – J Tree), for some reason it never really stuck. But that spring we were really getting into climbing and were hell-bent on learning the art of traditional rock climbing, especially after the trip up to WP. So we decided on a moderate training schedule (my wife did not agree with my “moderate” label of this schedule). My plan was to climb or hike after work once a week, and spend 1 weekend a month either climbing or hiking. Of course it never really works out like that. The things I can remember doing for training are as follows:
- Many afternoons with my 2 boys (Gavin and Kobe) in tow and the rest of the CDM crew climbing at Pirates Cove in Corona Del Mar.
- 4 afternoon trips to the Riverside Rock Quarry where we honed our belay anchors and pushed our sport climbing into the 5.10 range.
- 2 or 3 bouldering days at Stoney Point (including one failed top rope of the ultra pumpy Machine Gun (AKA Pinscars) 5.9 on my birthday.
- 2 trips to Keller Peak including: More Moss than Gloss 5.9/More Punk than Funk 5.10/Easy Crack 5.8/Where Have all the Cowboys Gone? – 5.10c (all top ropes except we aided easy crack, our first aid practice).
- 3 trips to Tahquitz Rock: The Trough 5.4 two times (4 pitches) and the Tahquitz Rock to Tahquitz Peak traverse 5.0 descending via Devils Slide trail.
- 5 overnight trips to J Tree (I think): The Trough 5.0, B-3 5.3, The Eye 5.3, Darrens Scrape Scramble and Ramble 5.6, Trench Connection 5.6, Marcheta 5.2, Unknown 5.7 in Johnson Canyon (Indian Cove), Cellbound 5.5 (I dislocated my shoulder trying to climb the layback at the top as an off-width...still on-sighted it!), Solar Technology 5.6, Men with Cows Heads 5.5, Robo Ranger 5.5, Scrumdillyicious 5.7, Frosty Cone 5.7, Mr. Misty Kiss 5.7, Classic Corner 5.7, The Chief 5.5, The Swift 5.7 (3 pitches), 20 miles of Class2/3/4 scrambling in J Tree,
- Climbed Mt San Jacinto via Marion Trail 11 miles,
- 1 failed attempt at Santiago Peak via the Joplin trail 14 miles (started @ 4pm with no lunch),
- 1 successful summit of Santiago Peak via Holy Jim trail 16 miles,
- Tenaja Falls via Morgan trail 16 miles,
- Tenaja Falls+ via Tenaja Falls trail 4 miles,
- 1 times up to Black Star Canyon 10 miles total,
- 4 hikes in the Laguna Beach Wilderness totaling 50 miles.
- Mt Langley overnighter via East-Southeast Ridge (3rd Class) 20 miles.
- Several small hikes with the kids and walking on my lunch break.
Totaling 30 pitches of climbing, averaging 5.6 in difficulty (I know, not a lot, but considering what I had done up until that point it is a substantial amount of climbing), over 200 miles of hiking and over 26,000’ of vertical gain (and loss).
I would have liked to lose some weight before Whitney, but I didn’t really. When we started climbing again (before the fateful ’07 WP trip) I was 275lbs. By the time we first went up to the Sierras I was down to 255. Even with all of the additional physical activity, I have hovered within 5lbs of that weight to this day. I have a problem with food. I eat too much of it. My weight problem WAS part of the training goal for our Mt Whitney trip. But weight loss was not nearly as fun and easy to commit to as the other parts of our “training” regimen. Rock climbing, hiking, backpacking and summit bagging just happen to be some of my favorite things to do (summit bagging is a very recent addition). Eating less than I want happens to be one of my least favorite thing to do (read: I have little willpower and a taste for instant gratification…and cream) Just writing cream held me up there for a few minutes, anyhow…
In the months leading up to the climb, when I was not climbing or hiking, playing with the boys or out to dinner with the wife, I was lost somewhere between REI, steapandcheap.com, a bag of Oreos, a sea of pictures and trip reports on rockclimbing or summitpost.com, chatting with the regulars at the Portal Store message forum and reading my 14th book on the Sierras. Its hard to explain the hold that silly rock had, and still has on me. I still check the message board everyday, living vicariously (although momentarily) in the Sierras through the amazing trip reports of a few very lucky people. My wife must think I am crazy. She tells me that she would like to join me on some of my adventures, but I think she is scared away by the pictures and stories I bring home. One day I get her out and she’ll be hooked. The kids, well they don’t have a choice.
4 weeks before Whitney we climbed Mt Langley. Piece of cake! I wrote in the register. It was a pretty easy. I could definitely feel the altitude though. You realize just how thick air is at sea level. At altitude, it takes much less effort to fill and empty your lungs; the air just has so little substance. But its all about quality. At sea level the air has 100% more oxygen than at 14,000’. At times I had to pace myself at one step per breath (left foot=one breath, right foot=one breath and so on) on the steeper parts. No headaches or nausea though…which was good.
The weeks leading up to our trip were like an emotional roller coaster. At times I would feel fully confident, and sure that our climb would be a success. Other times I would be laying in bed thinking about the wife and kids, wondering if I was making the right decision. I was risking their well being and way of life. I was risking their fathers life…for what? I really couldn’t answer that question. Was I trying to prove myself to someone, Myself perhaps? All I knew is that I wanted to be a climber and I wanted to climb this mountain. I would rationalize the dangers, saying to myself “its no more dangerous than when I go climbing anywhere else”, but it was. Other times I would doubt my abilities. What if I couldn’t handle the exposure? What if I couldn’t handle the physical demand. We had climbed Langley, but the route we “climbed” was 3rd class, meaning we could stop whenever necessary to rest, route find, etc. On a technical route such as the East face of Mt Whitney, there are committing parts of the climb where you can’t sit down, stand up, let go, or otherwise stop to rest until your past that particular difficulty. Would I be able to get through those parts? My wife was no help. She would go on and on about how fucked she and the kids would be if something happened to me on this trip. Although I knew she was right, I would always use the same old “its more dangerous for me to drive to work in the morning than to climb that mountain” (which I still believe to be true, anyone living/working in OC or LA area would probably agree), or “the most dangerous part of this trip is the drive up” (could be true!) to pacify her concerns. Its not like its some 25 pitch VI, 5.12, it’s a 13 pitch (mostly 4th class) 5.7 summer alpine climb (not that she would know what the hell I am talking about). I wanted to get her on board: on the rock, tied to a rope so she could get a sense of how we mitigate and reduce the ever present dangers of rock climbing. That never did happen…still hasn’t. Either way, I was stubborn and she was forgiving.
2 weeks before Whitney we made one last trip to Tahquitz. We wanted to focus on our gear placements as we had not trad climbed since The Swift (5.7) in Joshua Tree 2 ½ months earlier. We did not want to push our luck so close to Whitney so we changed our original plan to climb Left Ski Track (5.6) and climbed the familiar Trough again, this time breaking it into 6 short pitches to exploit the many different belay opportunities. After this climb (which was surprisingly easy) I was again second guessing myself. Several books I had read stated that a person attempting alpine climbing for the first time should be proficient in climbing (at lower elevations) at least 2 grades above the climb they are attempting at altitude. The East Face of Whitney was listed 5.4, 5.6 and 5.7 by many different authors. It was the 5.7 I was worried about. Although, I had climbed 5.9 in the past, it had been awhile, say 8 or 9 years! Was it really gonna be this difficult? I would ask myself. Eventually, I convinced myself otherwise.
Finally the day had come.
Wednesday 8/13: Originally I had planned on driving, but I couldn’t find my registration sticker (I am a slacker). So, I called The Ass, who was already on his way to my house, to see if he would mind driving. Fortunately he did not. I kiss my beautiful wife's visibly worried face goodbye for the long weekend and began the long dive up to Lone Pine. We stopped by REI for a new water bladder (my last was damaged on our last training trip to Tahquitz) and then back by the house for some forgotten goods. Finally we were off. The trip up was virtually traffic free and went by faster than usual. Our minds raced with possibilities of success and concerns about the consequences of failure on such a route (i.e. a bagless bivy on a narrow ledge, a Rescue situation, or worse…) After a long wait in line at the Visitors Center we headed up to the Portal for burgers and fries then set up camp just a few yards from the TH. We spent the evening sorting gear and trying to squeeze every unnecessary ounce from our packs. The apprehension was now migrating from the climb itself, to getting these god awful packs up to “basecamp”. We retired to our tents at about 8:30. I have not yet cracked the code of high altitude sleep, so the night was not very restful.
Thursday 8/14: Got up at about 5am feeling like I could go right back to sleep. I had Granola with Blueberries for breakfast, shouldered my 59lb pack (yes, I know...I don't know) onto my 250lb arse and The Ass and I started up the North Fork. My god that is a steep trail! Route finding was much easier than I had imagined, as were the EB's. What a beautiful hike. Wildflowers are in full effect. Shortly before the Ebersbacher Ledges we were passed by a threesome of dayhikers who were headed up the MR and descending the MT. I was envious of their puny little daypacks. Our original plan was to camp at Iceberg Lake, but much rationalization and an ongoing argument between my legs and my backpack led to what I believe is a much better place to camp: Upper Boy scout ;) We set up camp by 11am and had the rest of the day to play around the lake and contemplate our next days activities. After much chillin and a hike around the lake we met a man and woman camped a few hundred yards from us. The woman had just completed a hike up Mt Carillon. She attempted Russell's East Ridge (which was on our agenda for Saturday) but was chased away by the extreme exposure guarding the twin summits. We congratulated her anyway, wished them both a great trip and went on our way. I had Ramen noodles with string cheese, tuna and Wheat Thins for dinner (pretty good actually, especially for 90 cents). Over dinner we agreed on a 4am start time. At 9pm we were off to bed for another night of schlep, but unfortunately very little sleep.
Friday 8/15: I woke up at 5:15. 1:15 after my alarm had gone off and apparently given up on me. I woke The Ass and we started up to Iceberg around 5:45. For the first hour or so I felt absolutely horrible. I am not used to eating breakfast first thing after I wake, so that was adding to the exhaustion of two days with very little sleep and immediately starting up a 40 degree slope at 12000' coupled with an already nervous belly. After a while though My belly and my brain stabilized, and I began to feel much better. With a slow pace we arrived at the lake at 8am and refilled our bladders and stashed my pack and the water filter (sorry guys, I have seen too many wag bags laying around and posts about poop bags at Iceberg to believe there is no contamination in these lakes). By about 9am we were roping up at the notch behind the first tower and coming to grips with what we had committed ourselves to.
The first pitch went to The Ass. The unassumingly named tower traverse starts out by stepping down off of a block onto a narrow downward slopping ledge. The move itself is fairly straight forward. Below the ledge however, only a few horizontal feet away lies the moraine at the base of the east face proper...800 vertical feet below. This is one of the defining features of the climb: immediately going from easy 3rd class with very little exposure, to rounded friction hand and foot holds tickling the void. Usually you have to gain the exposure as you climb up. Not so on this climb. The very first 5 class move is over what might as well be infinity.
I followed the leader and found myself looking up at what I had hoped to climb unroped: the Washboard. I have read several times that the Washboard is 3rd class. While the climbing is easy I think a fall here while unroped would be hard to arrest and likely result in catastrophe and IMHO should be considered 4th class. We traded leads for 3 pitches to reach the top of the ridge left of the Washboard. From here we scrambled down to the large gravely ledges that lay before what's known as the Fresh Air Traverse: blocky climbing leads across a short section of the wall with shear drops of approximately 1200 feet below. We sat here for a while to eat lunch and enjoy the views that were becoming increasingly grand. By this time apprehension that had been building for 15 months was now mostly gone. The climbing is fun, easy and very protectable. I took this lead (as agreed many months in advance). Definitely the most exposure I have ever faced on lead. But the climbing was so easy; the exposure did not bother me. You start by climbing a ladder of small blocks up to a ledge guarded by a large block that must be climbed over, or traversed in front of (pushing you closer to the void) I took the latter route. Then you step across a section about 6’ wide while looking between your legs at house sized boulders that look like grains of sand in the moraine below. After the big step across is a series of ledges that offer easy fun climbing, but not much in the way of protection. The piton either right before or right after the big step was my last piece of pro before I made it to the relative safety of the chimney below the Grand Staircase. A big WOOHOOOO and YEEAAAOOUUU signified the end of the pitch, The Ass followed shortly behind.
As I sat at this belay I began to get cold. After waiting for what seemed like hours for The Ass to finish the chimney pitch I began to shiver and curse the man for being so gal darn slow. Finally he set a belay and my mood changed quickly as I climbed up behind him, we had reached the Grand Staircase. This section we climbed unroped. At the top of the staircase is an offwidth crack of about 15 feet. The Ass took the first crack at it (no pun intended. He was able to set 1 micro cam in the thin crack to the left before sitting into the rope. I lowered him down and he complained about the loss of his onsight. We traded leads, and I was able to grunt my way up with a sharp lip to the Ass' tight belay (I apologize if there was anyone within earshot of that outburst). This last bit of the staircase is definitely the technical crux of the route, and is very strenuous. I pulled my fat ass over the lip, laid down on my side for 2 or 3 minutes breathing harder than I ever have before. After I recovered I set a belay and brought Ass up.
1 more unexpected roped pitch above the Staircase and we were scrambling to the summit at around 5pm. A lone hiker was summiting from the main trail as we came up over the summit blocks. Rain and lightning that appeared to be approaching from the south and west and the falling sun kept us from spending too much time on top. I signed in at the register, snapped a few pics, called mom and the wife and we headed over to the MR for our descent. Route finding was pretty easy but did take some attention. We reached Iceberg Lake @ 7:30 refilled our bladders again, and headed back down to UBSL, arriving by head lamp at about 9:30pm. I had neglected my appetite on the way down in the interest of time and again felt pretty horrible by the time we reached camp. For some unknown reason I suffered from some sort of lung ailment through the night (didn’t start until almost down to UBSL) and spent a lot of the night hacking away in my tent (pulmonary edema?) (My apologies to the other campers at UBSL) It was gone by morning
Although Russell's East Ridge was next on the agenda; fatigue and anticipated soreness prompted us to descend on Saturday (the 77th anniversary of the FA of the East Face route by Norman Clyde, Jules Eichorn, Glen Dawson and Robert Underhill). Leaving UBS @ 12:30pm we headed down the North Fork trail stopping often on the way down to drink, take pictures and marvel at the fact that we had hauled our uber packs up this ridiculously steep trail. Going up was hard, going down just hurts.
We arrived at the Portal at 3pm, dropped off our Wags and went to CJ's for Double Western Bacon Cheeseburgers and Oreo Shakes. We spent our last night bivy’d next to Lake Isabella, relishing our victory over the highest point in the lower 48.
Its funny, before Whitney I was just a dad, just a husband, just some dude. I love to surf and wakeboard, but never called myself a surfer or a wakeboarder. I had rock climbed before but certainly wouldn’t have called myself a rock climber. My family was what defined me. After Whitney (and everything that came with it) I am that same person, but I now call myself a climber. I am defined by my family and my climbing now. Even though I am not out there onsighting 5.14 and pushing the limits of climbing as a whole, I am a climber none the less.
You can see some pictures here: