Mt Whitney 9/8/14 – 9/10/14
At the suggestion of my wife Shayda, my brother-in-law Shane and I decided to climb the Mountaineers Route. I had climbed the Mountaineers Route with my wife’s brother Chet in the summer of 2009. Tragically, we lost Chet to horrible circumstance in March of 2013. This hike was to be a sort of memorial hike for our late brother and to walk in our bygone footsteps. Apparently, it had been long enough for me to forget how hard it is for me to climb that beast of a peak and agreed to the suffer-fest. Weighing in at around 260 I knew I had my work cut out for me. Shane, although not an experienced backpacker, is an avid cyclist. So I was not too worried about his ability to deal with the hardships.
Time was on my side to get ready for the trip. I am not sure when we decided to go, but it was at least a couple months before I scored the permit. At any rate, I did not use my time wisely and focused on work, pretty much forgetting about Whitney until the week prior tour trip. Physically, I was poorly prepared for the climb. I have been mountain biking a bit so I convinced myself that was going to be enough to get my sorry, fat ass up the hill. Shane also passed on the task specific training and swore off concern until the week of.
Since I was smart enough to know that I needed at least 3000 calories a day to keep from bonking on the mountain, I packed about 25000cal of everything from snickers bars to sardines for our 54 hours on the trail (8lbs of which I hiked back down the hill). Shane packed a more realistic 6-7000cal but vacuum packed it in enough plastic to wrap the whole mountain. I also suggested that we each take our own 2 man tent for comfort. In all, I packed about 25lbs of crap that I didn’t use or need. Reminiscent of my first trip to Whitney to climb the East Face route in 2008 when I carried a 60lb behemoth, trying to be Norman Clyde or something.
Driving from Oceanside, Shane picked me up in Huntington Beach at 11am on Sunday and we headed north. Stopping only for gas, our permit…and a bear can each. We shot up to the Portal, secured our camp site and headed to the store for dinner and some people watching. Always an eclectic bunch of climbers, hikers and other mountain folk at the Portal. After dinner we headed back to our site to set up camp for the night. It was at this point that I admitted to Shane that I had felt a bit of a tickle in my throat that had started on the drive up and had since developed into a genuinely sore throat by the time we finished dinner.
With camp made and several hours left in the evening I suggested we take a walk to kill some time. We stopped by the store again for some HALLS throat drops and to chat with the proprietor, Doug. We set off from the store in flip flops and made our way to a trail leading up the mountain at the west end of the Portal road. It was such a nice night I don’t think either of us realized how far we were going. Ultimately we ended up intersecting with the main Whitney trail near the North Fork cut off. We stopped here to enjoy the moonlit landscape and discuss the meaning of life for a few minutes before heading back down the main trail back to camp.
I slept very little on Sunday night. Unable to come to terms with my eternal battle with sleep at higher altitudes. By morning, my sore throat had grown into a sinus infection. Although I was a little bummed at the circumstance, I put my deteriorating condition in the back of my mind and committed myself to the task: unless I felt I was in danger, I was going to take Shane to the top.
Throughout the night, thunderstorms pounded the upper portions of the mountain and gave our camp site a good rinsing. We left camp to let things dry out and went up to the store for breakfast. We both ordered the pancakes, eggs and bacon plate. The orders came out on two plates with 3 or 4 eggs apiece, ½lb of bacon and a single pancake the size of an extra-large pizza and about 1” thick. Holy carb loading Batman! We stuffed ourselves to within an ounce of passing out and waddled back to our soggy camp site. We packed up our goods and said goodbye to relative comfort for a short time as we shouldered our monster packs and headed up…waaaaaaaaaay up!
Day 1: Hike to Base Camp.
Weather: Mostly cloudy with scattered thunderstorms
Initially hiking up the Main Whitney Trail to meet up with the North Fork Trail, we passed many hikers attempting the main trail hike that were turned around high up on the trail by freezing rain, hail and lightening. A truly sad sight as months of planning were made obsolete for these folks by a few moments of unpredictable bad weather. We were hiking up in the same weather but hoping the forecast for the weather to move out by the end of the day would hold true and leave us with a sunny summit tomorrow.
It was almost comical watching Shane adjust to the physical shock of carrying a monster pack up such steep terrain as he handled the ever increasing difficulties with the eloquence of Yosemite Sam. “Why would anyone want to do this?”, “People do this for fun?!?” and “Say your prayers, varmint!” were common phrases of the day. In his defense, the trail is not really a trail in the normal sense of the word. Once on the North Fork trail it seems almost every step is a high step from 12” to 30” onto loose and convoluted terrain or hopping from one large teetering boulder to another (maybe a slight exaggeration, but only slight). While I tried to convey this to Shane long before we left, it is hard to understand unless you have been there. Soon though, he was well educated and we both settled into our strides and made slow but steady progress up the mountain.
We made our way up and past the exposed Ebersbacher Ledges and up to Lower Boy Scout Lake where we stopped for a snack and some shelter from the rain. I was not too concerned about the weather, but rather enthralled by the added texture and beauty it lended to the hike. After most of the rain had subsided, we continued up the path through boulder fields and over steep wet slabs of glacier polished granite to Upper Boy Scout Lake, our home for the next 2 days. In all it was about 3200’ of climbing over approximately 4 miles to get to our high camp at an elevation of approximately 11,300’.
We found some prime tent sites and made camp. Shane, a newbie to both backpacking and mountaineering appeared to be adjusting well. As I slowed and settled into camp, my condition steadily deteriorated until my sinuses were completely closed and I started to develop a wet, wheezy cough. I tried to mitigate the symptoms with HALLS and hot tea but to little avail. As the evening dragged on, I relegated myself to a lower state of existence and tried to focus on getting some rest. Before throwing in the towel, I found a highpoint and sent a text to my wife Shayda to let her know that we had made it safe to camp but did not let her know that I had been sick. After that, I confined myself tomy tent and spent a torturous night tossing, turning and gasping, but very little sleeping. Later Shane mentioned that he heard snoring at some point, but I couldn’t have slept more than a couple of minutes throughout the night.
Day 2: Summit Day
Weather: Absolutely beautiful!
After watching a fuzzy image of the moon slowly move across my tent throughout the night, the light finally started to define the morning and I began preparing myself and my things for the monumental task of the day. After making sure Shane was on task, I laboriously stuffed as many calories as I could into my breakfast. Shane woke with a splitting headache and stuffed sinus. Not sure if this was related to my condition or not, but it did not seem to affect him much as the morning rolled on. We finished packing our summit bags and headed up the steep rocky trail towards the moraines below the east facing precipice of Whitney and its needles. 3200’ to go. After an hour or so we found ourselves just below Iceberg Lake and made our way up onto the plateau below the East Face of Whitney proper.
We stopped at the lake to replenish our water supply. It was at this point we met a few old timers who asked to use our filter. Jeff, Kevin and Bobby all at least 50+ were from Colorado and Santa Barbara and planned on hiking down the main trail after ascending the Mountaineers Route. Since I had communicated my experience on the hill, the group of three asked to follow us into the gully to be sure they did not get off route. Happy to have the additional company, we set off from the lake up the talus field to the start of the left gully and the Mountaineers Route itself. 2500’ to go. Climbing was initially very fun on good, solid and steep granite. Once we exited the lower gully we came to a good steep hiking section called the catwalk followed by a very tedious section of loose scree and sand where movement became a bit more difficult. The constant jibber jabber and yodeling by the old timer’s apparent leader Jeff, was a welcome distraction at first, but became increasingly annoying as we made our way higher up the main gully and I became more and more exhausted. Every few minutes he would let out another “yodel odle aye hee whooo!” OK, we got it! Shut the hell up already!
We finally made the notch at the top of the main gully and stopped for a snack and to evaluate the icy route of the final four hundred feet to the summit plateau. I sat, legs out front, slouched over to one side sand completely exhausted. I tried to force some food into my belly. I had a payday candy bar, but could hardly muster the strength to chew it. The final climb is probably the best and most fun rock climbing on the route, but I could not convince myself that I had the energy to complete the task and make it back down to camp, which was a monumental task of its own. I looked at Shane and tried to silently convey my desperate condition. As the old timers prepared for the final push, they said “hope to see you guys up there!” I looked at Shane and said “I don’t know if I have it in me…”. “You’ve got it in you!” he said. “How else am I going to get up there?” I knew it was very important for Shane to make the summit, so I resolved to get him to the top and deal with the consequences.
With only half of my payday bar for lunch, I stood back up and headed over to the start of the last four hundred feet. The initial few moves are technically 5th class, but very close to the ground granting a 3rd class rating. Considering how well Shane had handled the difficulties below, I scrambled up and into the gully leaving him to make his own way. After a bit of struggle Shane was able to coordinate the moves and make it into the gully. The ice in the gully mainly avoided the actual route so we were able to make easy progress up the shattered granite blocks. I topped out a few minutes before Shane and snapped a couple pictures of him climbing onto the summit plateau. We had done it! Well, half of it anyway.
A bit of quiet celebration, some photos, a short rest, snack and a stop at the register and we were ready to scramble back down the mountain. In our exhausted state, descending was a mentally demanding and very tedious task of down climbing the steep upper gully and slipping and sliding our way down the main gully back to Iceberg Lake. Upon reaching the lake I was in a pretty bad way. Dehydrated and undernourished, I collapsed next to the lake to filter water, gasping and nauseated as if I had too much to drink. After several minutes of huffing and puffing, I managed to pump a few ounces of water into my camelback and attempted to eat some sugar wafers. While I would normally be able to mow through 10 or 12 servings of the airy light and sweet treats in mere seconds, It took me about 15 minutes just to eat 6 little wafers. As I began to feel slightly less worthless, I quickly packed up and started for camp. After a few minutes, the sugar started to metabolize and I had a few moments where I felt half way normal. Once back in the moraine, I started to break away from Shane in desperation to get back to camp before crashing again, stopping every so often to make sure he was still behind me somewhere.
I arrived back at camp about 15 minutes ahead of Shane and once again feeling like hammered dog ****. I crawled into my tent to find my sleeping pad fully deflated. I shoved all of my stuff into a big pile and dropped face down for a few minutes of rest before realizing I had to eat if I was to improve my condition. I decided to try and drink as many calories as I could to avoid the effort of actually eating so I had some hot chocolate, a protein shake and honey sweetened herbal tea. After a while I began to feel much better and was able to get back outside and enjoy the evening a little. I sent another text to my wife to let her know we had been successful and safe back to camp and after a short time admiring the moonscape in the moonlight, crept back into the tent for another torturous attempt at sleep.
Day 3: The hike down
Yet another night of close to zero sleep had me packing at the first inkling of light. My breakfast of oatmeal was next to impossible to eat. Nothing sounded or tasted good but I had to have calories to make it another 3000’ down the mountain and again with my 50lb burden (since you have to pack out ALL of your solid waste (and I mean ALL!) you gain no advantage by the end of your trip). I grabbed a Snickers bar and some chocolate and a large helping of resolve and we headed down the hill. While painful and tedious, the hike down was not as bad as I had expected. We stopped for a while at LBS where I spent about 25 minutes wrestling my snickers bar down that would normally take me about 25 seconds to eat at home. After that, we made decent time back down to the portal where we quickly changed and headed down the hill to stuff ourselves on high calorie cheeseburgers in the thick soupy, low altitude air of Lone Pine.
Since we have been back home, Shane has changed his tune about mountain climbing and has even suggested that we climb California’s second highest peak, Mt Williamson next summer. I am not sure how much research he has done on it, but I imagine he will want to do some training this time. I have heard Williamson is no joke!
One more in the books. 4th Whitney Summit.
RIP Chet Martin Ekwall. We all miss you very much.
Some pictures are here
Mt Whitney: Mountaineers Route 9/8-9/10/14Include text here.
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