Our Careful Plans
I had made plans this summer to bag a few peaks in the Eastern Sierras with my hometown buddy, Andy. The details of the trip would involve me travelling from my current home/work/school in Charlottesville, VA to my old stomping grounds in Ridgecrest, CA where Andy I would begin our all-too-detailed voyage. We had outlined a circuit in the Whitney Region, featuring the summits of Mts. Carillon, Russell, Whitney, and Muir, and a second circuit in the Evolution Region which would include Mts. Darwin, Spencer, Haeckel, and Wallace. The point of both trips, and perhaps the reason for the somewhat extended length of time in which we had provided ourselves to complete these routes, was so that I could learn from Andy, master fly fisherman, how to fly fish, and in return teach Andy how to rappel.
After a flight from Dulles to McCarran and a short drive through Death Valley to Ridgecrest I met Andy. We left town at 7:00AM on Sunday morning June 30, 2007 and headed up to the Lone Pine area. Our plan was to begin with a warm up day-hike from Horseshoe Meadows to Cottonwood Lakes. A relatively late start of 10:00AM from the trailhead still gave us plenty of time to hike our well-stuffed packs up to the Lakes and back.
Pan view of Owens Valley from Horseshoe Meadows approach road.
Everything went well during the day; Andy learned to how to tie a few basic knots, make a diaper harness from webbing, and safely rappel. Interestingly, we figured out a way to incorporate an autoblock setup into the webbing diaper
by adding a small alpine butterfly knot to the section of webbing which wraps the leg. The 10-foot webbing piece which I used for my own harness was clearly too tight, so I made a mental note to purchase a 12-foot section in Lone Pine that evening on our way to Whitney Portal.
Our afternoon in the Cottonwood Lakes was going well when we were finishing up our rappelling clinic. Almost suddenly, at this point, I began to feel not well. My throat had become quite scratchy and full of mucus. Nonetheless, Andy (who was feeling quite well and experiencing no altitude issues) proceeded to show me how to make a few new friends with hand-tied flies and a fishing pole. I had a great time fishing. It was clear by then, however, that I had contracted my grandfather’s bronchitis from his visit the week before. The sun dipped behind the Sierra crest and our hike back down to the Horseshoe Meadows parking lot seemed to take forever. When we finally arrived I was almost convinced that we would have to retreat to Ridgecrest so that I could recover. By this time I was running an uncomfortable fever and my voice was completely hoarse. Mission aborted? Already?
Well, I opted to stay at Tuttle Creek
that night and sleep in as late as possible. God woke me up with his magnifying glass at 6:00AM, sharp. I began to realize that during the night a rogue band of Physicians of the Desert Night had obviously performed some sort of cruel tracheotomy on me as I had slept. Evidence for this was the fact that somehow my old hoarse voice became replaced with a worse-sounding, rattling, robotic voice that nobody could understand. It was time to go home and get better.
On our way out of town we decided to go ahead and pick up some 12-foot sections of webbing for improved diaper harnesses and snap a few pictures in the Alabama Hills
. The July-afternoon ride back to Ridgecrest was hot and painful.
Four days and a $200 handful of antibiotics later (the good stuff) Andy and I would make another attempt. Because seven full days of adventure was no longer possible for our schedules, we decided to hike only the Whitney region in two days (three days of the previously planned trip) … and there would be no time for fly fishing. Our plans became further changed when we arrived early on Thursday morning at the Mt. Whitney Ranger Station to learn that we would not be able to get a backcountry permit for that day. We needed to be done hiking by Saturday, so our hike would basically have to be accomplished entirely on Friday. The rangers suggested, however, that we get an early start by hiking up to Lower Boy Scout Lake, hanging out until midnight (in order to avoid a fine for not obtaining a permit for Thursday). So this was the plan.
We sorted gear and left the Whitney portals sometime around 3:00PM later that day. Including water we weighed out at 35 lbs. or so each. Our relatively heavy packs were due to the 60 meter rope, biners, and webbing brought solely for a rappel. Our planned circuit would involve following the North Fork of Lone Pine Creek until just before Upper Boy Scout Lake, turn toward Mt. Carillon, follow the East Ridge of Mt. Russell to the summit, rap down and then scree-ski the South Face (right side) of Russell, proceed up the North Face of Mt. Whitney, and finally take the Whitney Main Trail back to the Portal. If things were going really well, we agreed that adding Mt. Muir to the list on the way out might be also fun. This would be Andy’s first rappel “for reals” as well as his first time above 14,000 feet. This would also be my first technical climb in the Sierras. To make things interesting, neither one of us had hiked any part of our intended circuit (with exception of the Whitney Main Trail). We were both healthy and zealous, and probably stupid.
Our afternoon jaunt up the North Fork placed us at Lower Boy Scout Lake in about an hour.
Just past the ledges.
We had some time to kill as we waited for the 'green light at midnight'. All we had to do was enact the simple Ready-Set-Sleep strategy that we concocted back in Lone Pine, then the real journey would begin at midnight. But we were mere slaves to the anticipation. Sleep was certainly appropriate, though somehow taking pictures
seemed better … then night exposures
seemed like a good idea … then sleeping seemed impossible. The journey had already begun. At 11:30PM we decided on an early start.
The very dark route up the North Fork was only slightly confusing, but a roughly sketched GPS track, a written description as well as pictures of the route (many thanks to Steve Larson)
came in handy in minimizing errors. Despite our lack of prior experience and an endless, winding scree-slog around to the wrong (northeast) side of Carillon, we eventually made our way to the Russell-Carillon saddle. We had just started but were already tired. As we rushed to summit Carillon right before the sun rose we were elated
. We had a small success at 5:30 Friday morning and felt were off to a good start.
We then made the mistake of attempting to take a catnap in a bivy spot in the Russell-Carillon saddle. The wind howled, as did we. This bad idea lasted only long enough to make both of us realize that we still had a long trip ahead. In packing up our gear I accidentally snapped my glasses at the rim of the left lens. I clearly should have taken more time than I did to repair my glasses with the superglue I had. The result of my hurried job was a pair of structurally sound glasses with left lens translucent. No shapes or details anymore, just colors. Such was my pleasure for the remainder of our trip.
We started up the East Ridge Route of Mt. Russell and slowly made our way to the summit. This knife-edge route was fantastic. It was at this same time, however, that I think Andy began to hate me. The class 3 moves were certainly no problem for him, but a developing headache and the fomenting exposure were enough reason for him to begin a slow and powerful hate which could, in all fairness, be directed at only me.
The East Summit of Mt. Russell was ours sometime after 11:30AM. I convinced Andy that it was worth our time to make the traverse (and back) to the West (higher) Summit. It did seem a little higher than the East Summit, so I suppose that we agreed it was worth our time. We traversed back and made our rappel down a nice chute from the East Summit (South Face, right side - thanks ScottyS)
. The approximately 80 foot rappel really just became an excuse to use the gear that we had lugged up for no other reason. Seriously, this could have been carefully downclimbed without the pain/time of setup and take-down. Worst of all, I discovered that the 12 foot sections of webbing which we purchased for a “more comfortable diaper” were really 9.5 feet long.
Mt. Whitney from the summit of Mt. Carillon.
All of a sudden I realized that the woman whom we bought the stuff from had
been using her forearm to measure 12 feet. God, I must have been sick. The not-so-vertical rappel was safe (and snug), but set us back at least a half an hour. We looked forward to an easy descent from Russell. Instead, we found a tired, bouncy, technically involved walk for a steep 2,000 feet.
Upon reaching the bottom of Russell Andy and I began to drag ass, hard. I discovered that my ‘victory chocolate’ reserved for the coming summit of Whitney had turned into ‘victory diarrhea’ inside my pack. My best solution, unfortunately, involved licking everything in the top of my pack. I had also had about a third of a liter of water remaining, so I also had to spend a little bit of time here collecting ice and wishing it into liquid form. All the time while I was licking and wishing, Andy was busy being quiet and upset. He had stopped eating and drinking over 2 hours prior and refused to “just cram in some food and feel better”. I think he was long tired of my non-advice and meanwhile had mentally transported himself to another, better, far away place where I wasn’t.
When it was time to get moving again, we did not argue about whether or not we would continue up the North Face Route of Whitney. We had long discussed the route and understood the basic features which we needed to navigate in order to correctly deposit ourselves on the summit plateau. It was only now a matter of executing the final summit push. As the terrain steepened, the scree worsened. Our best line became a rock band (North Face, west side) which extends to the summit plateau. Along the rock band the moves were occasionally class 3, and the rock was crap.
During one of our many breaks we turned around to notice what appeared to be a huge explosion in the area of Independence. We were both confused, and very tired.
Continuing farther up our rock band required, for me, paying attention to every hold so as not to send too many rocks or me flailing down toward Andy. For him, unfortunately, this section required unleashing “the Fury of Hills” on your truly. Andy sang me a classic five minute-long rant into the dangers and unpleasantries of mountaineering. I think that the altitude at 14,000+ feet, a little sleep deprivation, and many hours of barely eating or drinking made him temporarily lose his marbles. I felt like a jerk. Ironically, had The Fury been able to wait another 20 vertical feet we may have altogether avoided such drama. The next 3 minutes of climbing firmly planted us on the Whitney summit plateau.
The walk towards the summit was mostly quiet. Our trip became a “success”
at about 5:30PM, more than 26 hours after we had left camp. We took a few pictures and then slowly trudged back down to the Portal via the main trail. Climbing Mt. Muir was no longer a popular idea. After all, it wasn’t until midnight that we actually reached Andy’s 4Runner. On the way home we could see more clearly that there was indeed a massive fire on the west side of Owens Valley surrounding Independence (the next day we learned that a series of lightning strikes caused our "explosion"
). We drove home a filthy, tired, successful pair.
Mt. Whitney summit view toward the Inyo Mts.
33 hours (07/05/2007-07/06/2007)
9000 feet gain (net)