A solo, single day ascent of the Mountaineer’s Route of Mt Whitney.
Some trips simply don’t turn out the way you thought. Plans change, weather hits, and that section of the route that was supposed to be so straightforward turns into an absolute nightmare. But isn’t that why we do what we do. Because the wilderness is not tame. It is our escape from the predictable.
The plan was a four day solo trip in the Mt Whitney region of the Sierras. I would leave from the Whitney Portal trailhead, summit Whitney by the mountaineer’s route then head down the west side to the Hitchcock Lakes. From there, head straight south over the Mt Hitchcock’s east ridge. Then east from Crabtree lakes to Crabtree Pass. A loop around Mt. McAdie’s southern spur and up to Arc Pass. From there, summit Mt Irvine and Mallory before heading out the Meysan Lakes trail back to the car. At least that was the plan.
I had been planning this little expedition for about a month. I had a few days off from classes and was going to make sure not a minute was wasted. My parents had known of my plans for some time but it was not until five days before the trip that my father fully realized that yes, I was going backpacking by myself and yes, I was avoiding trails as much as possible. To make a long story short, he was concerned. Enough so that he tried to buy me a PLB (or Personal Locator Beacon) in case my situation were to become dire. But alas, stores in Southern California simply do not stock PLBs and due to some dangerous material in the battery, REI was unable to overnight ship a unit. And so, to save my father from four days of worry and to allow myself much needed time to catch up on school work, my trip plan was changed to a one day, solo ascent of Mt. Whitney’s Mountaineer’s route.
Tuesday night was busy with preparations and assuring roommates that I would not die. Then, Wednesday morning, I was off. Ten miles up the highway my Subaru Outback hit the 100,000 mi mark and kept running (contrary to my predictions). Three hours later, I arrived in Lone Pine CA, picked up a permit, and headed up to the Whitney Portal.
The rest of the evening was spent wandering around the portal anxiously waiting for dark so that I could sleep and stop worrying about the coming day. I talked to groups of hikers and climbers, making their way back to the trailhead, exhausted yet excited about that day’s accomplishment. The first group, I met in the Portal store, was digging into some well-deserved burgers and beer. The four of them told me they had been up to Iceberg lake that day looking to summit, but were informed by a group of Irish climbers, who had climbed the East Buttress, that the summit chute on the north face contained an impassible sheet of ice, only manageable with ice gear and rope. Lacking equipment, these four turned back at Iceberg Lake.
Anxious about this new information I wandered out to the picnic area, fired up the stove and fixed some freeze-dried beef stroganoff and made some tea that a friend had given me. I hate tea. But determined once again to give the vile stuff the benefit of the doubt (after all, millions of people across the globe love the stuff) I muscled down a cup. From there I continued my pacing through the parking lots. With luck, I happened to pass the trailhead at the exact moment that the Irish climbers were returning. I asked about the summit conditions. They told me that after summiting the East Buttress on Tuesday, they had intended to descend the mountaineer’s route to retrieve their bivy gear. But, on seeing the ice sheet they had made the decision to descend down the main Mt. Whitney Trail, forcing them to hike to Iceberg Lake the next day to retrieve their gear.
Their leader told me that the main east couloir would go with crampons and an axe, but the upper ice sheet should only be attempted with rope and pro. The fact that these three experienced climbers had opted to hike an extra fifteen miles rather than attempt a descent of the chute, even with ropes, filled me with doubt as to my chances.
And so, I resumed my wait for darkness and came to the decision that regardless of the obstacles at the summit, I would go as far as I could. This is the time at which the two rules of climbing started to repeat themselves in my mind. These two simple rules are probably the best pieces of advice I have ever received when it comes to mountains and rocks.
Rule #1: It’s no fun to climb and die.
Rule #2: Learn to downclimb. It will save your life.
If I was going to attempt Whitney solo. These two rules would have to govern my actions at every step. With no one else to give advice at that crucial moment of decision, continue to the summit with the possibility of disaster or turn back, I would have to make the right decision on my own.
With no one to talk with and not really having anything better to do, I turned in early. I knew it would be a long night when, waking up ready to hit the trail, I looked at my watch and only an hour and a half had passed. I doubt if I ever slept more that two hours at a time, which meant that I was awake when the wind began, the start of the Santa Anas that hit southern California every year in the fall. Those winds that always seem to hit during fire season, making an absolute mess for the firefighters.
When my alarm went off in the dark I was lying awake waiting for it. I pulled my gear together quickly; cramming down breakfast I left the trailhead at 5:30, my pack weighing in at twenty-five pounds. More than I would have liked but I wanted to be prepared for anything.
It is really amazing how fast time flies hiking in the dark. With only a small circle of light from your headlamp to guide your way, it seams that your brain is unable to process distance. How far you’ve come, how far you have to go. All you can do is hike. I love it.
After turning off from the Whitney trail, the mountaineer’s route begins to climb steeply, straight up a gully thickly filled with willows. The trail is quite manageable until a certain point where the gully narrows and the trail is forced against the side of a cliff. Here, I had the choice of remaining in the gully and bushwhacking my way through the thicket while water flowed freely down the “trail,” or I could take the Ebersbacher ledges. This is a series of ledges that traverse their way back and forth along the side of a cliff allowing you to stay clear of the trees until the top of the gully. This is the way I chose, but navigating through with only a headlamp was a challenge. Nevertheless, the sun began to rise and I found my way.
From there, its only a short hike to reach Lower Boy Scout Lake which is where I had my first break. This is such a beautiful lake, ringed by awesome granite cliffs with their reflections in the water. Here was my first glimpse of Whitney’s peak. This is also the last holdout of any type of serious plant life. From now on, rock prevails. I spent a few moments here watching the rays of the sunlight up the cliffs on the far side of the valley. I could only hope I found the sun soon, as the temperature continued to drop the higher I hiked.
View of the summit from Lower Boyscout Lake
My trail from Lower Boy Scout to Iceberg Lake is mainly a blur. I am fairly certain that I lost the “trail” a few times, having to negotiate my way through boulder fields and along the base of cliffs covered in ice. I do remember being awed by the moraine field along the imposing wall of pinnacle ridge. The last obstacle before reaching Iceberg Lake was a step of rock leading up to the plateau that surrounds the lake. I was unsure of the usual route up this small cliff band but it appeared that my trail headed up a notch that was currently filled with ice. I was able to skirt around this area and found a suitable series of ledges that I could pull myself up and over.
My first good view of Whitney proper
At Iceberg Lake, the landscape resembles something akin to the moon. Ridges, blocking out any view of the valley below, give the area a feeling of isolation. The plateau itself is quite flat but is surrounded on the sides by pillars of old granite, the largest being Whitney herself. The floor of the valley is absolutely filled with rocks and boulders, brilliantly white, offsetting the clear blue of the lake itself. I stopped here for another break and topped off my water supply.
Looking north across Iceberg Lake
From here it’s only half a mile and 1,800 vertical feet to the summit. With a fresh head and renewed energy I headed towered the gully. This was the first time that day that I had met anyone on the route. I spoke a short time with a fellow who was camping at the lake and day hiking some smaller peaks in the area. He was currently heading up to the gully to shoot some photos. At the base of the gully I met up with two fellow climbers as they strapped on crampons and prepared for the snow that filled the bottom of the couloir. We spent a few minutes in conjecture as to the quality of the snow and headed up. They headed straight up the center. I opted to avoid the snow as long as possible, skirting along the edge on moderate class 3 rock. It appeared after just a moment that my route would be the better for the day as I watched the two men posthole through the loose snow, struggling to make headway.
Mt. Whitney's main prominence. To get an idea of the scale, notice the man in the bottom right of the shot as well as the two men entering the base of the couloir.
It was not long at all before the wind that I had noticed the night before began to make its presence known. It was coming straight from the west, blasting through the gap at the top of the couloir. The gusts were strong enough that I was forced to lean forward onto the rock, keeping my face down and away from the snow crystals blown by the wind. I could hear some of the gusts coming, giving me just a moment to brace myself and grip the rock. So for the next 1000 vertical feet, I was forced into crawl. I was not helped by the fact that the rock band I had been scrambling on ended and forced me into the center of the couloir. The deep loose snow found near the bottom had been replaced by patches of wind blown snow interspersed by loose shale. Any force on a rock not firmly set into the slope would set of a chain reaction quickly building to multiple rocks hurtling down the gully. I was worried about the two climbers that I new were a distance below, especially since one was not wearing a helmet and all that protected his head was the hood on his cotton hoodie. I’m sure I looked comical as I tried to jump from solid rock to rock, distributing my weight as much as possible and attempting to catch any sliding rocks before they built momentum, all the while blasted by that wind.
Two fellow climbers in the couloir
After what was definitely the most physically demanding stretch of the trip, I reached the gap at the top of the couloir and sought refuge behind a large boulder, grabbed some water and evaluated what I feared would be the end of my climb. Dreading a descent of the couloir, I was anxious to see the sheet of ice that the Irish climbers had warned me of. I couldn’t see it. Not wanting to waste time I just started climbing. From here the summit plateau is 400 vertical feet of exposed class 3, with the North slope dropping of 1500 ft directly below. I was unsure of the route so I simply followed the path of least resistance upward.
The climbing was not entirely difficult. The rock is composed of large blocks that involve mantling again and again. The real difficulty was that a few inches of snow covered most everything and a thin sheen of ice covered patches of the rock, making it absolutely crucial to be constantly aware of footing.
About halfway to the plateau I reached the ice sheet. True, it was ice, and it was steep. There was absolutely no way I was going to attempt it without a rope and protection, so I just went to the side of it. The ice did not completely fill the shallow couloir in which I was climbing. In going around the sheet I was on much more exposed rock but there was no way I was going to attempt a descent unless all options for continuing upward were exhausted. And so, at 11:00AM, after five and a half hours, I pulled myself onto the summit plateau and walked the last 150 yds directly to the summit hut.
I realize now that I was not entirely excited about reaching the top. I was excited that I didn’t have to downclimb the route. I was excited that I hadn’t fallen. I was really excited to take a break. But I wasn’t nearly as excited about the greater accomplishment. I never even stopped to look around. I headed straight for the hut.
Looking west past the summit hut
I wasn’t alone at the top. A group had just arrived from the main trail and was waiting on a few of their members to reach the top. We packed into the small hut, out of the wind, and geared up for the descent. I rested for a good twenty minutes in the hut before we went outside and posed for the obligatory summit shots. Then we headed down.
East back towards Iceberg Lake.
Nothing about the descent really sticks out in my mind. I was exhausted from the climb and more than anything I remember being frustrated at the amount of switchbacks. Walking for a minute brought you five feet lower that where you had just been. All I wanted was to get down. I know the scenery was beautiful, but I didn’t really notice. My head throbbed from the altitude and dehydration.
My last view of Whitney
It took me two hours to reach trail camp where I stopped to rest. Between the lower attitude and a general desire to be done, I caught my second wind and began the last leg of my trek. I met many overnight hikers on their way up. Quite a few asked me about the wind. I told them not to expect a calm summit, or anything remotely close to that. I reached the trailhead at just after four in the afternoon. I pounded some Advil and headed up to the Portal store for a burger and a coke.
I ate alone. I wanted so badly for someone to talk to at that point. I had just done Whitney in a day. A solo trip by the mountaineer’s route no less. I wanted to talk. But that’s the thing about solo trips. It’s an experience that you share with no one. Sure there are thousands of people who have done what I did, but no one was there with me. No one experienced it as I did. I still love solo hikes. You have to get out every once and awhile, but I will never attempt anything like that again. I missed the camaraderie that comes with a climbing partner, the security, someone to talk to and plan with instead of going to sleep at 7:30 when it gets dark.
I packed my gear in my car and left. I wanted nothing at that point more than a bed and a shower. My plan was to find a cheap room in Lone Pine but alas, the Lone Pine film festival was underway and there was not a room to be found for less than ridiculous. So I had to make the choice between sleeping in my car and driving back to my dorm. I was tired but it was no contest. I drove home. And so I arrived, less than thirty-six hours after I had left, back to normal life. Friends would ask in passing how my trip was. I told them it was great, it was hard. They don’t want to know more than that. They can’t understand, and I can’t expect them to. They weren’t there.
Victory at last