Day 1: The hike up to Iceberg Lake
In my quest to do US State High Points, I planned a trip up Mt Whitney over Labor Day 2011. I decided rather than take the usual 97-switchback route, I would find a more fun way up that gorgeous peak. Being a climber, naturally I opted to climb the last 1500 feet or so. We would take the East Face route up Whitney, a moderate 5.7 climb that takes a circuitous route up the east face to the summit.
Our journey began on a Saturday morning at a cafe in Mammoth Lakes where we met our guide Ian. We had a quick breakfast and brought some goodies along for the road trip south to Whitney Portal. I was feeling quite nervous about our trek: would I be up for it? How would I do with the slog up to Iceberg Lake with a heavy pack? Would my companions leave me behind in the dust? We started our trek up from the parking lot, packs loaded with tents, clothing and food to last us for two days. We hiked along the standard "touristy" hiking trail for about a mile, until we encountered the junction with the North Fork of Lone Pine Creek aka Mountaineer's Route.
At this point, the trail became quite steep. We hopped over a few creek crossings, stopped for a few photo breaks and at one point, took our packs off to negotiate a precarious ledge. Continuing along the creek, we hiked over some slabby rocks and admired the scenery. The jagged, light-grey mountains reminded me of the Dolomites. Eventually, we crossed the stream yet again and came up to our resting spot by Lower Boyscout Lake. There was a fairly large guided group there who were staying at Upper Boyscout Lake and heading up the Mountaineer's Route to the summit. They were experimenting with filtration systems. I had to sample some of their fine filtered mountain water.
We didn't spend too long resting as we still had a long way to go. Scrambling over a boulder field and yet more slabby rocks, we passed Upper Boyscout Lake and continued upwards towards Iceberg Lake. Finally after a few more hours, we came up to Iceberg Lake, our destination for the night. As it was approaching sun down, that didn't leave us much time for photo ops, but I managed a few good ones. I had some new camping gear that I was itching to try out. We boiled hot water in my new Jet Boil and poured it into our freeze dried rice dish, which wasn't too bad considering. Tired from the day's activities, we plunged into a deep sleep. The next day would be exciting!
Day 2: 12 Pitches to the Summit
Hoping not to be woken up to the irritating buzz of my alarm, I woke up just a few minutes before to shut it off (phew!). We had a disgusting breakfast of freeze-dried scrambled eggs and managed to choke it down somehow and quickly set off for a few hundred feet of scrambling before we reached the start of our climb.
Looking up at our climb, I have to say I was intimidated: I had never climbed anything more than 7 pitches previously. The first pitch consisted of a long friction climb of maybe 150 feet. By the second pitch we were already headed in a diagonal direction along the east face. The fourth pitch consisted of a downclimb to position us better for the fifth (and classic) pitch! The fifth pitch is the Fresh Air Traverse, a horizontal climb with a 2000 foot drop, should the rope come loose! Just when we thought we had passed the "Fear Factor test", we came to the belay ledge.
The belay ledge was a tight little cubbyhole with space enough for one person (there was three of us) and two large, rather loose boulders right above our heads. Ian suggested we don't step on the two boulders as we climb out of the cubbyhole. I was the last to go up, so I passed my time trying to get in touch with the nomadic staff at the Mammoth Lakes airport Enterprise rental place (I had lost my camera a few days prior on our Boundary hike, possibly in our rental car). To my great delight we had excellent cell service the entire way up.
After finally climbing out of the cubbyhole belay ledge, loose boulders untouched, our next obstacle was a tight little chimney that we had to stem climb. A few pitches up, we climbed the Grand Staircase, which really was like a stair case! Ian placed only one piece of protection.
The climbing got easier from here, which could be due to the fact we got used to high altitude climbing. As we finished off the tenth pitch, Ian set up a series of mini-belays as we scrambled/climbed over house-sized boulders. It didn't take long before we poked our brightly-colored helmeted heads out between the boulders, much to the other hikers' amusement. As we stood on the summit, triumphant, a number of hikers came up to us and asked us how we got up there as clearly we had not hiked up in our little pointy shoes!
Day 2: Descent & back out
The summit was a large area covered with house-sized boulders and a little hut. I wondered why someone had not put a restaurant up there? Would have been nice to celebrate Whitney summit with a cappuccino and a chocolate brownie. We lingered at the summit for a while, snapped pictures, chatted with the other hikers and donned our hiking boots to prepare for the descent. We would not be rapelling down the East Face, as Ian cheerfully reminded us. Instead we would be hiking down the Mountaineer's route.
I was wearing a pair of FiveTen ultra-sticky hiking shoes, which really helped on the descent. We took our time descending: our goal was to make it back to camp at Iceberg Lake (if not back to the parking lot). The scenery on that side of Whitney was breathtaking. Mt Russel, another 14er was right across from us. Ian pointed out a really neat climb called the Fishhook Arete which winds its way up Russel - ideas for next year perhaps?
There was a little bit of snow on the ground and we had to be careful going around - none of us had crampons. The descent took a few hours of negotiating somewhat loose scree, albeit, nothing like our descent from Boundary. After Boundary, Whitney seemed like a breeze.
We came back to our tents, too late to start our trek down to the parking lot and crashed for the night. The next morning, a conundrum presented itself: should we cook another package of disgusting freeze dried scrambled eggs or starve. We chose the "starve" option - we would be replenishing our fuel tanks at lunch. Our descent was uneventful. but enjoyable. It was another triumphant moment for me as we trekked back into the parking lot, bellies empty but full of smiles!