Whitney via the Mountaineer's Route - Trip Report 4/2/6
It is hard to write about something that has so profoundly affected me. Something that I had spent the better part of six months planning, visualizing, even obsessing over. It is has become one of my hallowed memories. A truly life defining moment. The most recent of a few, and in the middle of a grand procession I've mapped out for myself.
Nevertheless, I'll do my best. After all, the 'blog' is a medium of immediacy. It takes merely seconds or minutes to transfer thoughts, memories, intent, to the great ether of the internet. And how recent these memories are. Reminders are everywhere and fresh: my face is sunburnt, my nose crusty, the remains of melted snow water linger in Nalgene bottles on our kitchen counter. Strange odors permeate from the used fabrics of my sleeping bag, tent, clothing, all airing out throughout our house. Some aches linger and that funny 'post-awesomeness' blues- part lethargy, part bewilderment, part melancholy pride, and part disorientation- is still seeping out of my pores.
Ok, enough with the dramatic prelude. I'll cut to the chase: Niki and I finally successfully completed a recent dream of ours. We climbed Mt. Whitney, unguided, in winter conditions. For those rare few that have fortunately missed out on my barrage of stats, Mt. Whitney is the highest mountain in the contiguous United States (read 48... and Hawaii). During the summer, its 11-mile main trail, built in the 30's, is one of the most heavily traveled trails in the country. So frequented that Sequoia National Park imparts a strict quota season from May to October whereby aspiring ascenders must enter a lottery to obtain a permit.
During the winter, it becomes a different ball game. The throngs of would be hikers are kept at bay by endless winter storms bringing dozens of feet of snow, hurricane force winds, sub-zero temperatures, avalanches, and most importantly: unpredictability.
While many still do brave the main trail, there is another less oft-traveled trail: The North Fork. It splinters from the main trail after the first half mile and shoots straight up a steep cliff-framed drainage, passing Lower Boy Scout Lake, Upper Boy Scout Lake, Clyde Meadows, turning through the formerly glaciated Whitney-Russell Col, and terminating at Iceberg Lake, 12,600 above sea level.
The North Fork offers the most direct access to the Mountaineer's Route, a very steep couloir that marches right up the northeast side Whitney, almost to the top. It stops just 400 below the summit. That last 400 feet are typically scaled via 'The Notch', a near vertical wall of rock and ice.
Why is this route so alluring? More specifically, why is climbing it during the winter without guides so alluring? It is a serious challenge. Serious in that one must have an appropriate level of knowledge, skill, equipment, moxy, and luck to overcome. People die here every year. It is a test of my young love of this activity. A goal to truly 'cut my teeth on'. A key to my future pursuits.
So it begins. The weather forecasts and avalanche assessments were looking good all week, but Niki was dreading having to work on Saturday as the movie she is on is picking up (as they always do in the last month or so of post-production). My hopes at an attempt were diminished for most of the week. Then on Friday afternoon, Niki called me at work and said she'd take the weekend off. Yes! Suddenly, my mind was jolted into the reality of an attempt. I started tightening up my loose ends at work, thinking about all that would be transpiring over the next few hours, days. We'd have to leave as soon as we can.
I stopped at Adventure 16 on the way home to pick up an extra pair of expedition weight socks for Niki and I. When I got home, Niki was already packing and I joined the fervor. We threw everything in the car, along with some blankets and extra water and hit the road. I realized that I had to pick up a new pair of sock liners, so we hit up Adventure 16 again. While leaving, it occurred to us that we'd probably get a better start if we went home, slept a few hours, and left really early, rather than heading out now and trying to sleep in a very a cold and uncomfortable car for a few hours.
Ok, slight change of plans, but it made sense. We headed home and immediately went straight to bed. It was 9pm. It took a bit of time for me to settle my mind enough to attempt sleep. I kept going through scenarios in my mind of what could be happening over the next two days. Would we be turned back again by the weather? What would those final few steps to the summit be like? Was it possible? Would we fail? Would it be too tough? Would one of us get hurt? Could one of us die? I replayed the route in my head over and over...
I woke up a few seconds before the alarm did (as always). It was 2am. I didn't really know how much sleep I had gotten or how long I had been tossing and turning with paranoid visions, but now it was time to go. We were already dressed, I just brushed my teeth and we set out on the road.
Niki and I split up the three hour drive so that we could each squeeze in some precious sleep. I started napping around 3 or 4am and woke up as the sun was rising, lighting up the Sierra foothills. Twenty minutes later we were in Lone Pine. We filled out a permit and left it in the drop box at the ranger station, then drove to McDonalds and while waiting for the drive-thru to open, changed into our hiking gear. We grabbed some crappy pancakes and hot chocolate, and then made the ominous left turn from Main Street to Whitney Portal Road.
The Portal Road heads 12 miles through the Alabama Hills, gradually working its way from 3500 feet to 8000 feet. The last few miles are not maintained during the winter, leaving portions of the road littered in rocks, from kitty litter size to Volkswagen sized-boulders. While the road was pretty clear, we still had to park about a mile or so before the Whitney Portals (the trailhead). I finished my pancakes, cached our food-scented garbage far away from the car so as not to draw the attention of any prematurely wakened bears, did a final check on my pack, extended my trek poles to 135cm, and we were off. It was 7am.
Within 20 minutes, we arrived at the Portals, the starting point for the main trail and the North Fork trail by proxy. No one was there, but plenty of footprints in the crusty snow were, so was a very nicely made igloo. Strangely, while the last mile of the road had quite a bit of snow on it, almost the entire first half mile of the main trail leading up to the North Fork junction was bare and dry.
Before long, we were heading past the "poop pipes" (pipes placed by the park service that store poop kits during the summer to keep the masses from crapping up the environment) toward the Ebersbacher Ledges. Whereas the last time we were there, we meandered up through the steep exposed walls, this time the ice on the ledges and the thick powdery base covering the dense bushes that lead straight up the North Fork drainage were enough reason to just plunge right up.
For a while, just boots were enough. We post-holed a bit, but the snow was consolidated enough to make the hike comfortable... and very fast. At about the 9500 foot level, just before reaching Lower Boy Scout Lake, it became too powdery and we had to strap on the snow shoes. Soon, we were passing the lake and staring up a large set of cliffs and a snow covered mountain of rock fall. We also spied a group of people way in the distance, just above the cliffs. They appeared to be stopped and staring right back at us. We pushed on.
Climbing up past the rock fall area went by quickly. Instead of normally scrambling up nearly 1000 feet of refrigerator-sized blocks, we simply made large sweeping zigzag switch backs up through the snow, following the tracks laid out freshly before us. We then headed toward what I refer to as 'the last bastion of green'- a small cluster of trees on a small plateau that sits just in front of Upper Boys Scout Lake. As we approached, the misty clouds in the distance began to part, revealing a hole of brilliant blue sky... and our destination. Whitney was getting its first peak at us, spying through a veil of cloud.
We stopped at the trees, sat on some exposed boulders and had a mini-lunch: some mixed nuts and Luna bars. Two of the guys we had caught a glimpse of earlier surprised us by skiing right past us. They had hiked up that morning and were now making a seemingly very enjoyable glide back down. I said hello to one of them as he passed and I think I startled him because he almost wiped out, but he regained control and kept going. What a way to travel! They'll be covering more ground in their descent in 10 minutes than we'll cover in several hours!
We pushed on, heading up a few steeper switch backs and eventually entered the moraine area- the site of a former glacier. We also passed the group we had seen earlier. There were eight of them. If you've read my trip report from my solo trip on Baldy two weeks ago, you'll remember that I encountered a guy who said he too was training for Whitney and that he'd be up on the mountain in two weeks. I said that maybe we'd meet again on the mountain. Well, sure enough, when I asked the group if any of them had been the guy I saw on Baldy, one of them said they had. I told him that I had gotten sick just after Baldy and that I delayed my Whitney bid one week to recover. He told me how he caught pneumonia and had a very rough night camped out with the group at Lower Boy Scout Lake the night before. We said a few more hellos and then passed the group, who were taking a short break and preparing to set up camp for the night in the moraine area, right near where Niki and I camped in November.
I realized that we had just passed the furtherest point we been last time on this route, it was all new territory from here. This was just before the Ice Berg Lake plateau. The 'trail' (I use quotes to denote how this was just some dusted over old tracks in freshly fallen powder) seemed to split into a high trail and low trail. Not wanting to make a premature descent and have to head up, as we were starting to get a bit tired, we headed high, hugging the base of the steepest slopes heading up to the plateau. Whitney was straight ahead, looking impossibly close to us, as though you could reach out and pinch the summit like a little kid's nose.
Eventually, the slope became pretty steep and it became apparent that the safest way up the plateau was to head low, reconnecting with the low trail and heading up again. The alternative was to head for a very steep ice patch in a section that seemed ripe for avalanche* (see note about avalanche later on). But just heading downward also seemed dangerous, especially in snow shoes. It would have been very easy to fall into an out of control slide. Our solution? We got on our butts, used our poles as a brake and slid down the slope. There were no rocks and no sections that were too steep for a controlled slide, we simply gently slowed as the slope shallowed and eventually hit the lower trail.
After brushing off the snow, we continued. Once we hit the set of switchbacks that headed up to Ice Berg Lake, hell set in. We had already spent the better part of the day hiking at a very steady pace in powdery snow, we were now above 12,000 feet, and the sun was intense. We slowed to a snail pace. We were pressure breathing constantly- a funny looking breathing technique where you take a deep breath, puff out your cheeks like Louie Armstrong and blow forcefully through tightly pursed lips. Each step required a rest, sometimes lasting a few minutes. Our muscles burned, our packs seemingly grew heavier, and that damn slope never seemed to give way to the next horizon. I just wanted to get to Iceberg Lake, collapse, and eat, but I knew it was still a long way off.
It took almost an hour, maybe more, but we finally crested. It was a mini-victory. At this point, we still thought that summiting was a rare possibility, something that would be happenstance to our just tooling around on the mountain for the weekend. Our solid goal was just to get to Iceberg. I was nearly in tears of exhaustion and joy. We were over the hill and creeping toward the frozen lake- during this time of year, it is just a large bowl-like depression in the plateau, ringed by mountains on three sides, one of which is Whitney.
The snow was deep! The deepest it had been on the whole hike, but the plateau was like flat wind-blown desert- a winter wasteland of desolation (that is a thing of beauty in my book). With the altitude and exhaustion of the hellish climb, just walking in a perfectly horizontal direction seemed like climbing stairs with a giant gorilla on your back. I continued to pressure breath. So where exactly where we headed? I wasn't sure, we hadn't been here before. We knew we wanted to be away from any slopes (avalanche), and we wanted to get as much shelter from potential winds (Iceberg Lake can be very windy and cold, so we've heard). In the distance, I spotted the tip of a boulder peeking over the surface of the snow. This would mark our home for the night! The elevation was around 12,700 feet above sea level.
We arrived, spread a tarp and plopped our bags down. Good god was I freaking tired, but I was insane with 'let's set up camp'-fury. I just wanted to get established as soon as possible and then relax. After all, the sun was going down and it was going to get real cold, real soon. I busted out my life link shovel and went to work digging a pit in the snow for our tent.
The pit was about 7 feet long by about 5 feet wide and about 3 to 4 feet deep. While digging, I also helped Niki set up the tent in the wind. Once it was up, she got inside to hold it down and rest while I kept going on the pit. Shoveling snow is kind of maddening. It always seems tiring, awkward, and never ending. Surprisingly though, the snow was incredibly light. I could break off large blocks that had the weight and consistency of Styrofoam.
Niki soon convinced me to give my back and insanity a rest and she took over. I went inside the tent, still on the surface of the snow next to the tent and closed my eyes for a bit. Eventually, things were finished and we placed the tent down in the pit, staking it down and tightening the rainfly. I widened the pit a bit to allow room for our bags and a space to cook. We threw our gear inside, inflated sleeping pads, rolled out the bags, changed into drier and warmer clothes, I finished off a block of Gouda cheese, and then we crashed. An hour later, we woke up, just as the last bit of light was vanishing, and fired up the stove.
We melted snow and made what we thought was vegetarian fettuccini, but Niki (the vegetarian among us) soon realized there was turkey in it. Still, she forced down a few hearty bites. You don't want to screw around with food in these conditions. Not only are calories of utmost importance for fueling such feats of endurance, but they are also important to keep warm in severe temperatures and to stave off altitude sickness, which suppresses the appetite. Not wanting to risk making herself sick in these conditions by eating more meat (she's been a vegetarian since high school), she resorted to eating other things we had: bars, nuts, cookies, and banana chips. I forced down the rest of the food even though my appetite was pretty suppressed, then stepped outside to pee and take in the spectacular view of Whitney underneath a clear and starlit sky.
A crescent moon had risen just above the summit. I tried to snap some long-exposure pictures, but I just couldn't get the camera steady enough or angled properly. And so I committed the view to memory. I remarked that this moment was being entered into my top list of inspiring and memorable moments (one of which is being 60 feet underwater on the Great Barrier Reef at night, diving with sharks and seeing red phosphorescent algae dance about while looking straight up and seeing a bright full moon through the surface of the water). It was incredible. Being in the cold, white desert, seeing the moon above the shadow of a massive Whitney and having no one else in sight. I can't explain it. I won't even try further.
Sleep did not come easy that night. Though it was the quietest camp I've ever been in being down in an ice pit and with hardly any wind that night, neither my breathing nor my heart rate never fully returned to normal in the altitude and my head was being slammed by massive headaches that came in great waves of pain. At least we slept pretty warm. We had packed well and between our bags, pads, clothing, and the benefit of having two warm bodies inside, kept our sleeping temps comfortable- even sweaty at times. The temperature was still 17 degrees inside the tent (outside of our sleeping bags), and our breath still froze into a fine crystalline mist on the ceiling. I caved in at one point and took a Tylenol. Some weird dreams ensued in a sleep I didn't realize I was in.
I turned over. It was nearly 5am. We are going to do this. I sat up, and just stayed there for 5 minutes, looking around, coalescing my thoughts. Then Niki woke up. We immediately began changing and cooking. We had enough melted snow to fill two and a half nalgenes for the summit bid and make oatmeal and hot chocolate for breakfast. The sun rose and illuminated the range in that famous deep orange glow... the reason for the Sierras being nicknamed 'the Range of Light'.
We opted to leave our non-essential gear in the tent so as to lighten our packs (carrying only our rope, snow shoes, crampons, ice axes, and extra layers for the summit). As we were packing up, we saw our mountain friends; the group was just cresting the Iceberg Lake plateau and heading for the Mountaineer's Route. We soon followed.
The journey started out flat, our campsite become more and more distant in the flat and barren snowscape. Then it gradually steepened, becoming The Mountaineer's Route- the steep snow filled couloir that leads up to the final 400-foot notch climb to the summit. We hit a bottleneck. The other climbers were moving slowly, but not slow enough for us to safely or justifiably pass them on the steep slope. Their pace was understandable: they had come from the moraine area that morning, were spending four days on the mountain and could afford the slower pace while we intended to summit and return to LA in the remains of the day, and they were also breaking trail. The snow was very deep and difficult at time to negotiate. Snow balls of various sizes rocketed pass us at times, rolling almost all the way down to Iceberg, now 100's of feet below us. Niki and I were roped together, with about 20 feet of line between us. This was in case one of us slipped- a fatal consequence without any protection.
We learned that the group ahead of us was a guided expedition and the two guides were doing a fantastic job of breaking trail. Had we had a bit more energy or gotten off to an earlier start, we would have passed and help to break trail ourselves, but at this point we were relegated to trailing behind and at times waiting for the group to move onward.
About 500 feet up the route, it became too steep for snowshoes. Our campsite became a tiny dot in the distance. We took a break on some rocks, mixing up some Gatorade and eating chocolate and granola bars. We pushed on and broke out the ice axes.
At about 13,400 feet, the slope became much more steep and solid. We put on crampons and finally passed the guided group. They were very nice and wished us well. They would have probably enjoyed us passing sooner, letting the 'young kids' break trail for them (one of them even commented on this).
Congratulations, I said to Niki as I read 14,000 feet on my altimeter (still, probably a hundred feet off), we've hit 14k and only have 500 feet more to go. Within minutes, we had arrived at the top of the Mountaineer's Route.
Rounding the corner at the crest, we were welcomed by a truly awesome sight: a grand vista of the interior Sierras. There were hundreds of anonymous snow covered peaks spread out everywhere! Was anyone out there amidst the remote and inaccessible white interior? It took our breaths away (that and the altitude).
Turning left, we came to 'the notch', the final and most treacherous leg of the journey. It was a daunting site. Here we had come all this way, completed the steep climb up the couloir, were merely 400 feet of altitude from the summit, and we were staring at a wall of rock and ice.. It was the last barrier to reaching our goal and it had to be scaled. I was excited, albeit nervous, at the prospect. People die here every year, including just months ago- their stories are all over the internet.
Niki got into a stable position, jamming her ice axe in the ice and making sure her cramponed feet had a good and steady plant. Then I began climbing: reaching my ice axe up above my head, sucking in a breath of thin air, slamming the axe back down into the ice, kicking a step in with each foot- repeating until the rope between us was nearly taught. Then I'd anchor myself, run the rope around the shaft of my axe and yell 'ok, I'm secure' down to Niki. She would climb up to meet me while I belayed her, then anchor herself and the process would repeat.
All the while, one of the two guides from the expedition group was heading up setting fixed lines into the ice so that their clients could ascend tethered to the rope. This practice is pointless for two people, but for eight, it is the standard way to go to ensure a misstep doesn't lead to a fatal fall- there were thousands of feet of mountains to tumble into just below our feet.
Niki and I played our game of high-altitude hop-skotch on the rock and ice at least a dozen times, maybe more. Sometimes we'd hit tricky sections where there'd be little ice or purchase to get a solid plant. In those cases, we'd just rely on our rock climbing skills, delicately and cautiously climbing hand over hand over rocky outcroppings, hoping we would not have to test the belay of one another in the event of a fall.
On the last pitch, the slope began to shallow and curve into a plateau. The climb was coming to an end. The lead guide of the expedition group had also just reached the top and congratulated me. I yelled 'ok, go ahead' to Niki below. It hadn't hit me yet where I actually was.
When Niki reached the top of the notch, we both started walking southeast. A stone hut came into view. Tears started streaming out of my eyes...
The stone hut was built at the turn of the century to shelter atmospheric scientists doing high-altitude research. It sits just a few dozen feet from the summit edge. I had been trying to visualize this moment for months, not knowing exactly how I'd react or what would be going through my head.
I was becoming flooded with emotion. The final approach to a summit is the most enjoyable part of mountaineering for me. It is a similar feeling as finishing a marathon or completing any hard fought, long held goal. It is as though a giant mass inside your heart is nudged free and sent tumbling to the abyss of memory. One of the most amazing experiences of my life was being forged at this very moment- freeing the dream from my heart through cold, hard, tangible experience, and eventually committing it to memory.
The wind was howling and the air was cold. We finally arrived at the hut. One of the doors had long been blown off and a snow drift had covered the entire inside. I opened the long metal box that held the summit register. Inside was a notebook. There were only nine entries since the middle of December. The proof of the tough season was in that notebook: Niki and I became only the 10th and 11th entries for the winter.
Walking past the hut, approaching the very end, there was a plaque marking the termination of the highest trail in the United States (the main trail, which we did not take, but nevertheless terminates at the summit), and then a series of bench marks (little round metal discs cemented to the rock that indicate the official elevation as measured by the US Geological Survey). A few steps later, and I was standing on the edge of a cliff looking 1700 feet straight down to the snow filled plateau of Iceberg Lake. Our orange tent, just a tiny tiny spec, was visible just below my left foot.
I was standing on top of the contiguous U.S., more emotionally, I was standing at the geological location of one of my many life goals. No words can attempt to do justice to how I felt. It was 11am, cold and the wind was picking up. I probably should have put my down parka on, but my profound awe overrode any feelings of discomfort.
We snapped some pictures. I attempted to call my parents with my cell phone which miraculously displayed a weak signal due to having line of site to Lone Pine 18 miles away and 11,000 feet below. No luck. Then clouds started to swarm the summit. It was time to go.
We headed back toward the top of the notch and waited for the rest of the expedition group to ascend their fixed lines, retying our knots and checking our gear. It would have been too dangerous to attempt a descent while guys were heading up. I chatted with the two guides at the top as they ushered their clients to the summit. They told me that the group was training for a Denali expedition. One of the guides complimented us for making it up here on our own. That really touched me. This coming from a guy who said he had also just come off guiding an expedition to Ama Dablam- a 22,000 foot peak in the Everest region of the Himalaya. Hardcore!
Just before we were ready to start our long descent, one of the guides asked me if I would free one of their fixed lines on my way down, so that they could pull up the rope and use it to lower their clients. I humbly obliged. Actually, I was flattered that this serious mountaineering professional trusted me enough to tinker with his rigging.
Niki and I then commenced a reverse process of our ascent: one anchoring and belaying the other as they descended. The clouds that were moving in brought with them a furious upwind that blew spindrift (ice and snow from the surface) forcefully up the notch. My glasses became crusted over with ice crystals, requiring their removal. It became very uncomfortable. We could barely see as we were constantly being pelted by the wind and ice. My face became frosted over and it hurt to open my naked eyes to the cold- and this was the most technical and dangerous part of the whole weekend!
Fortunately, we made it down without any problems other than discomfort (which is requisite of adventure anyway). We then descended the couloir, just as we had come up, only three times as fast, and arrived back at our camp at around 2pm.
Our tent was actually hot from spending the day cooking under the brilliant high-altitude sun. We crawled inside, shed many layers, gobbled up some lunch, melted more snow to refill our water bottles, and enjoyed a brief rest. We then packed everything back up and commenced our descent down the rest of the mountain. It was 3pm when we started.
The descent was very quick. Though we were quite knackered from a weekend of near constant climbing with heavy packs, we were motivated to return to civilization (awesome feeling #2 I love about mountaineering: the return home after a successful trip) and we had plenty of fresh memories to dance in our minds to make the passing seem even faster, not to mention the awesome scenery.
Things were pretty uneventful until we reached the Ebersbacher Ledges below Lower Boy Scout Lake. Two days of unobstructed sun had softened the upper layers of snow at these lower elevations, causing many surprising postholes. What is more exciting than post-holing up to your waste or chest in snow? Post-holing OVER a raging stream which you can HEAR just BELOW you. At times, I was reminded of the scene at the end of Indiana Jones and The Last Crusade, where Indiana mistakenly steps on the wrong panel in the booby-trapped path to the Holy Grail. Like Indy, my leg would sometimes plunge through a snow bridge, into a hollow space above a stream. How unsettling at times.
Near the North Fork Junction with the Main Trail, we encountered a group of four guys who had set up camp and were eating dinner. They told us they intended to summit over the next two days and were planning on camping below Iceberg Lake. We told them of our journey- they seemed wowed by our speed- and warned them about the melting top layer of snow. The warmed top layer and the forecasts calling for significant precipitation over the next day provided for textbook avalanche conditions. We wished them a safe journey and continued on.
*We just learned via the Sierra Avalanche Center, that four men were apparently buried in their tent by a significant avalanche on the slopes below Iceberg Lake. They managed to free themselves and escape with their lives, albeit losing some of their equipment. It must've been the four guys we saw by the junction. The expedition group would have been at lower elevations by the time the avalanche struck and there was no one else on the mountain.
An hour or so later, we were arriving back at the car. It started right up, thus signifying success of the second goal of these adventures (getting back to a car that can get you home). We changed into 'street clothes' and meandered our way around giant boulders on the way back to Lone Pine where we enjoyed burgers at the Mt. Whitney Cafe before heading back to LA. Upon arrival, we promptly showered and went to sleep. It was 1am.
So that's it. That is the journey. I began writing this just a day after returning, and now it is a week after our night under a starlit Whitney on Iceberg Lake. I had to get it all down. The details will serve to invigorate my memories of this most significant experience for many years to come.
Now, it is on to the next goal. On to visualizing the next adventure. What will it be? I think I'll buy a bike tomorrow...
[and now for the good stuff, the pictures]
Niki nearing the top of the North Fork drainage.
Looking up the next section of the hike, toward Thor Peak and UBSL.
The guided expedition first discovers us, we'll catch up to them in a few hours.
Heading up to 'the last bastion of green'.
Beautiful ice formations on the way to Clyde Meadow.
This picture makes it look like a summer day. It wasn't too bad while moving.
Our destination revealing itself for the first time.
Niki on the trail, probably on top of 8 feet of snow. Near the location of an avalanche that nearly killed four guys two days after this picture was taken (we encountered the four guys on our way down).
Hell, heading up the final ascent to Iceberg Lake. Altitude was really starting to get to us.
Almost to Iceberg Lake...
Iceberg Lake... under 12 feet of snow at the bottom of that white bowl.
Whitney, from our campsite at Iceberg Lake.
Just after setting up the tent in our dug out snow pit.
Melting snow for our water supply.
Whitney at sunrise. It is easy to see why the Sierras are called 'The Range of Light'
I love this picture. There is something very 'painting-like' about this.
Our tent, sheltered from the wind in its little snow pit. Try digging one at 12,700 feet after an entire day of intense hiking with a heavy backpack!
Preparing to leave camp for the summit.
On my way. Whitney has my back.
Warming our frozen rope in the sun along with my gloves and some snow water.
A 'glamour shot' of our trusty stove.
Our campsite. Ah, sweet desolation.
Niki and Whitney.
Looking down on Iceberg Lake, a few hundred feet above during our ascent of the couloir.
Our campsite. Getting smaller.
On my way.
Niki taking a break during our ascent of the couloir.
Heading up the couloir. It looks fun, and it is, but a slip could be very bad here.
Like frozen waves in the shadow of Whitney.
Looking down the couloir, we're getting there.
Rounding the top of the couloir, approaching The Notch.
Looking up the first section of 'The Notch'. It is much steeper than it looks and the next section is even worse!
Our first glimpse into the interior of the Sierras. Amazing. I wonder if anyone is out there.
My first glimpse of the hut. Built at the turn of the century to shelter atmospheric scientists. It is just before the very top. I was literally crying tears of joy at this point.
The hut plaque and the summit register.
The summit of Mt. Whitney, looking West into the Sierras.
The plaque that marks the end of the Main Trail. Note: we did not take this trail.
Looking down from the summit cliff onto Iceberg Lake. Our tent is somewhere, 1,700 feet below.
More from the summit.
I could not believe it. Savor every memory.
Looking back on the hut from the summit.
Snow, waaay below. Can you see our tent?
Niki and I, on top of the contiguous U.S.
My altimeter is off a bit (barometic pressure affects accuracy), but there you go.
Niki and I, the 10th and 11th entries since 12/19/05. A very slow season on storm-plagued Whitney.
Approaching the top of the Notch as the winds pick up.
One last photo op before heading down.
Niki descending the Notch, roped to me. An unprotected fall here and death is almost certain.
Heading back down the couloir, it's getting cold and windy.
Heading back to our campsite to pack up.
Whitney as the sun is going down and the clouds moving in.
Niki heading out.
Looking down on Lower Boy Scout Lake on the way down.
Lower Boy Scout Lake.
Niki and the mountain, it's almost over.
Warnings from the Portals.
Getting out of the area can be tricky.
A cheeseburger in Lone Pine before heading back to Santa Monica. Greasy and sunburnt.