Mountaineer's Route, Mt. Whitney, CA
Mr. Murphy once said, “If anything CAN go wrong, it WILL go wrong.” We may be just one of the many unfortunate people, having experienced it. The parking lot dude takes 20 minutes to take me to the airport, which otherwise takes around 10 minutes. And to top it off, the guy who checks in my baggage, tells me to run to C 38 for my flight. Now, tell me, how many times does one check the details of the stickers on the envelope that holds your boarding pass? So, I sprint like a madman, through Houston airport, without my shoe-laces tied to C 38, to realize that the flight at the gate was departing for Chicago, and my gate was E 9. This is how I miss my flight to Vegas. The news worsens when the lady at the customer service center smiles and confirms that my baggage is checked in under some “Tiffany Guske” and was on its way to Chicago, plus I am on a standby for the 9:10 flight, but confirmed for a 10:45 pm flight. A long harrowing debate with the manager at the Vegas airport concludes in his accommodating us in a hotel in Vegas, with an eight dollar meal coupon. The bags, due to arrive at 10:30 am flight the next day, arrive at 3:45 pm, and we (I and Rakesh) leave Vegas for Lone Pine, CA at approx. 4:30 pm. So, our trip starts with a bang, little did we know that many more bangs were in store for us.
Instead of taking the route 395 and then 15, we take the route through Death Valley National Park. After having learnt that our permit was not where it was supposed to have been, we reach Whitney portal at 11:00 pm, Friday, the 26th, when we were supposed to have camped at Upper Boy Scout Lake (UBSL). In short, we lose a day, and we have no buffer day for the summit attempt. Too much time and money (buying of equipment) was at stake for this expedition. Under the assumption that Yamini and Sunil must have left for Lower Boy Scout Lake (LBSL), we camp at the portal campground, and leave for either LBSL or UBSL, early at 7:15 am. Both of them had ALL the fuel for our stoves, required for cooking, as well as melting ice for water, in case the streams weren’t running, because we knew for sure that that all the lakes would be frozen. As if like a rule, we climb up the narrow portion of the Ebersbacher ledges, and try finding the route ahead of us, and get lost. After a couple of trials on the ledges, we give up, turn back, find the correct route, and get on it – result – we lose almost two hours in this ordeal. During the creek crossing, one has to literally lie down and cross it, without letting your heavy backpacks getting entangled in bushes. You feel as if you are doing push-ups with a 30 lbs backpack, and a stream running from under you. Imagine how effective the push-ups would be! Another waterfall crossing and we reach the bottom of the famed Ebersbacher ledges. Two patches on these ledges were a bit too exposed, but as everybody else, we realized that, compared to the last section of the mountaineer’s route, from iceberg lake, this was like a walk in the park. Huffing and puffing, we reach LBSL at around 2 pm, to find that there was no trace of our fuel-carrying buddies. I hoped that we would find them at UBSL. Rakesh had his doubts about their presence at any of the camps. But, for some reason, I was optimistic about them.
From here, it was snow, all the way up. But a group of mountaineers at the camp recommended us against using crampons, as the snow has softened. So, following the trail in snow, we reached UBSL at 5:00 pm, where, again, my hopes crashed when we learnt from the only two guys there that they had not seen “an Indian couple” pitch their tent anywhere nearby. We pitched our tent, unfortunately broke one of the poles within the tent pole sleeve, and tore the tent up a little bit on the sleeve.
I still had hopes of meeting Yamini and Sunil at the Iceberg Lake campsite, where I thought they must have headed, and we will meet them tomorrow, and summit Whitney together. Then, it dawned upon us that we didn’t have even a single can of fuel with us, as Sunil had bought all 15 cans for our climbing expedition. Having got sick of energy / protein bars and trail mix, we asked the other two guys for a BIG favor – if they could give us two cups of boiled water. They agreed, and we tasted our first warm meal, which was Santa Fe Chicken and Rice, one of the many “backpacker’s pantry” freeze-dried dinners, which, at that time, seemed utter useless weights, we were carrying in our backpacks. Readied up everything for the next day’s summit attempt and we dozed off after a hearty meal in our sleeping bags, in a hope that we will get up at 3:30 am, and start the attempt at 4:00 am.
The other two guys left at about 4, and we woke up due to their constant talk outside our tent. Finally, when we left for Iceberg Lake, the wrist watch showed 5 am. Rakesh, at first was a bit doubtful of the summit, but later we both got into the monotonous rhythm of ice-axe, first foot and second foot, which was spiced up by occasional slips as well as the whole ice axe going in, in the snow. The glacier travel from UBSL to Iceberg Lake ends at the foot of a steep 100 / 150 feet climb, which itself takes around 45 minutes to climb. Whitney’s majestic east wall faces you, in an imposing manner. This wall was a straight 2000 feet of sheer rock. After the steep climb, we spotted a bunch of people getting ready to climb the East Buttress of Whitney. This was the Iceberg Lake campsite, and we reached it at 7:20 am. I really had to go and “feed the fishes”, so off I went behind a huge boulder, and realized how DAMN HARD it is to do your everyday activity with crampons, ski pants, inner thermals and gaiters! After an awkwardly positioned but successful attempt, myself and Rakesh re-hydrated ourselves with Gatorade and Bars (what else do you expect), before the final assault.
It was 8:20 am; we started climbing the right side coulier, and soon realized how steep it was. It took a while before started seeing the notch, at the end of the coulier. And, then it took a while to reach the notch. I felt as if the notch was going further away, as we inched our way towards it. One slip of foot in this coulier, and if you don’t self-arrest, you are toast. At the notch, we, again took a ten minute break, when we reluctantly tossed some trail mix and chewed on it, washing it down with a couple of sips of icy-cold water.
Now, what lied in front of us, as all mountaineers’ (who are aware of this route) know were two options. One was a near-vertical five hundred feet of almost bottomless (very exposed) snow covered slope, with some rock sections in between, and a traverse towards west side, which was equally exposed. People are known to have preferred the steep slope, as compared to the traverse, as the exposure is just too much to handle, even if one gets roped up. So, like others, we start up the five hundred feet of snow. I led the way with front-pointing in the snow, as the snow was relatively compact. I remember doing three things – NEVER to look down, never to lift one foot unless I have my ice axe and second foot firmly dug into the snow, and going ONE STEP AT A TIME, without hurrying through it. Rakesh followed me, and encouraged me to keep on going, as he could recognize the summit, from down below. The last two moves on this route were mixed climbing – rock and snow / ice, with very less space to move, and, as usual, had absolutely NO margin for error, whatsoever. Believe me, it was scary as hell. I wasn’t even thinking about negotiating this patch on the way down, because while going down, one thing changes - you HAVE to look down, into the never-ending gully, because you have to place your foot accordingly. But, anyway, we made it to the summit at 1:50 pm. I couldn’t believe that we were climbing this last section of 500 feet for almost two hours! The usual photography sessions followed, and we were fortunate enough to meet an Everest summiteer on the summit. This was the second Everest summiteer we met after S.A, who partially trained us for Mt. Thelu, in the Garhwal Himalayas. The view from the top is, as usual – great!
We were ACTUALLY standing on the top of the United States of America, and it surely felt good. Pictures were taken with the tri-colored Indian flag, and slowly we started thinking on the lines of descending the 2000 feet of slopes we had just climbed. As noted mountaineer Reinhold Messner quotes, “Going up is winning half the battle; the real battle is coming down.” Being completely aware of the fact that the maximum number of accidents happen while descending, we slowly looked down the treacherous gully. Following a fellow polish climber on his way down seemed like a good idea, until the moment when I actually had to start descending. From the edge, when I faced the slope, and dug my ice-axe and looked down to place my feet, fear overtook me suddenly, and I retreated not once, but twice. Believe me, it was SCARY! One’s mind immediately starts racing with thoughts of how one can do a self-arrest, if one slips from here. Finally, as there was no other alternative, I started climbing down. The steps made in the snow by the polish climber were certainly helpful, but the boot-with-crampon combination slipped once in a while. Rakesh followed me on the same route down to the notch. With the typical trail mix break, we started descending down the coulier, towards Iceberg Lake. Rakesh had planned on glissading down from half way, and I was not too much for it, as I thought the slope to be pretty inclined. I guess Rakesh also formed a similar opinion later on, and we both walked down the coulier. Rakesh was very dehydrated at the point when he reached Iceberg Lake. The two people who had just arrived at the campsite offered us hot water, and asked us if we had enough fuel to warm up stuff, when we reach our camp. It was actually shocking for them to hear that we didn’t have fuel AT ALL. Now, this is what I call generosity – approx. at 12,500 feet, where fuel is one of the most precious commodity, they gave us one can of fuel, which was half-empty for our use at our campsite. It was 8 pm, when we reached UBSL. So, we had been out of our home for 15 hours straight. But, that’s the way usually, summit attempt days are. We changed into comfortable clothes, and Rakesh made tomato soup. Our sincere thank-you prayers went to two parties that day – first one to the guys who gave us a half-filled can of gas, and second to Maggi, the makers of tomato soup.
The next day, instead of the planned departure of 6 am, we got up at 6:15, and finally left UBSL at around 9:20 am. After LBSL, the descent was fairly simple, except for the fact that we were still concerned about the ledges. And, as we correctly assumed, we lost our way, even while going down. Gosh! Can you imagine doing the same stupid mistake, both while climbing up as well as going down? Lost about half an hour there, and then, once we crossed the ledges, we were pacing downhill desperately, in search for the parking lot from where “one can ACTUALLY go forward, WITHOUT lifting one’s foot”. All one has to do is simply press on the accelerator. Well, the lot doesn’t come that easily and quickly. It takes about an hour after the ledges to get to your car. We reached the car at around 1:30 pm.
As usual, with no time left to celebrate the summit at the famous “Pizza Factory” in Lone Pine, we hurried through the Whitney portal store and bought some souvenirs, learnt that our buddies had taken back the 4 cans they left for us at the store, and started driving to the Sin City for our flight out from there.
Once the cell phone sprung back to life in Lone Pine, with a “roaming”, we learnt that Yamini and Sunil had been advised by people against attempting the mountaineer’s route, should the other two guys (both of us) don’t arrive in time. And, to be honest to god, I think they took the right decision, considering that this was their first ever experience with ice-axe, crampons, gaiters, rope and a very heavy backpack. They attempted the Mt. Whitney trail, but couldn’t summit, as their campsite experienced howling winds at speeds as high as 60-70 mph, bringing a cold front along with it. Yamini admitted to holding on to the tent while sleeping, as she feared the tent would fly away with the wind.
I and Rakesh felt bad that after having invested so much, they couldn’t summit Whitney. They felt bad that we didn’t have even a single can of fuel, up there. I guess, all I can say is that, “whatever happens, happens for the good.”
I always say that experience is the best teacher around, and one always learns new things from it. As regards our “bars-and-trail-mix-only-blitzkrieg summit” of Mt. Whitney, I must say that it definitely taught both of us something. First, always plan for emergencies. Second, we had it in us, what it takes to be able to summit the highest mountain in the contiguous United States of America, under not-so-favorable circumstances.
This planning for emergencies and a boost in our confidence would help us a long way when we attempt to proudly unfurl the Tricolor on the “The Great One” in Alaska next year. Who knows, we might be the second Indians to summit it, as I know of only one Indian soul having summitted it. I hope you all pray for our success.