As a student at Iowa State University I don't many opportunities to get on anything that could be considered a mountain without a lot of effort. This tends to create difficulties due to the fact that being outside climbing a mountain is absolutely my favorite thing in the world to do. Even climbing in the midwest is hard for me to do. The closest thing I have is a small limestone crag 2 hours away. So almost every weekend I am on the road with my climbing partners, heading for Minnesota, Arkansas or South Dakota. Long drives through the night, lots of money for gas and the constant threat of not getting my school work done. All this I do just for a day or two on the rock. Its how I am living my life right now, and I'm content at least. But as the end of the school year in 2007 came around I wanted to get out and see mountains that I haven't yet seen. Thus the Tour de SW was conceived. It would be an epic tour starting in Phoenix, traveling south to north up the Sierra Nevada and ending in Salt Lake. I was joined by two close friends who are more hikers than climbers but our team was strong, our moral was high, and we were heading west to live free for three weeks in our new home of the mountains.
After a long drive down to Phoenix for my sisters graduation I drove north to Sedona to meet up with my good friend Christian. This was my second time in Sedona, the first being a few years back when we were going to stay the night in Oak Creek only to find that it had just snowed almost 2 feet... Needless to say it was a completely different experience in the 110 degree heat. I was with my family so we just did an easy hike in Oak Creek Canyon. Nice, simple and beautiful, but I was itching to get on the rock. We didn't a definite time schedule laid out; we knew we had a little over 2 weeks and had to pick up are third team member Brent in 8 days in Sacramento, from their it was all up to what we wanted. Since we were staying in Phoenix we decided we had to do an ascent of Camelback.
I had also been up Camelback previously via the standard hike. However this time I wanted a more dramatic route to the summit so we chose to take the 3 pitch 5.5 route Suicide. Due to the extreme heat we wanted to start as late as possible so they we could finish the route and get off just after sunset. I was also going to meet up with the rest of my family on the summit, a good plan except that the climb doesn't meet up with the real summit. We started at 5:30 and flew up pitch 1 of the climb, the rock was loose and dirty but the climbing was easy.
Oh... did I mention that I am from Iowa, and we do not have multipitch out there. So I had very little experience on long route up till this point. However I felt very confident leading trad on a low grade and was also confident in my systems.
Christian didn't have trad experience so I was leading everything which was ok with me, good practice. Come pitch two I set out confidently and steadily until I suddenly found myself caught under a overhanging bulge. Every time I grabbed the rock to pull it the rock broke. At this point I was run out on a not so pleasant tricam and I realized that it would be a very bad time to decide to fall. Thus enters one of the most unpleasant moment of my climbing career. I could either climb down on loose rock or just man up and pull the move. At this point I was thinking something like, "shit... this is not like any 5.5 in Iowa..." I had a feeling we were off route (which we were) but didn't see an easier line so after a few moments to regain my cool I reached high, pull hard on rock just aching to give away and it was over. I was over the bulge and on easy stuff to the belay at #2. Poor Christian had to second that terrible off route pitch and once I looked back down I was a super easy ramp that is what we should have taken. So there is my story of the first time I got off route climbing. However the fun wasnt over. At this point we were out of water and almost out of light. We ran up pitch 3 in no time, pulled out rope and clean up the gear for what we thought would be a quick scramble to the summit.
Instead of a quick scramble it was a long scramble to a through cactus to find that the summit was almost a mile away and we would have to descend to a saddle 200 feet below to reach it. Headlight were dancing on their way down from the trail and I picked out a pair of 3 that was likely my family descending. Phoenix sprawled out around us to form a sea of dazzling lights and flashes from people running red lights. We were severely dehydrated and knew we didn't want to retrace out steps to rappel the line we climbed. It was at that moment when all hope seemed lost when we caught the glimmer of a bolt from our periphery. It was a good bolt and where there is on, there are more. We saw a rappel down a long, narrow, steep gully and took it. After one rappel we found ourselves on a ledge with absolutely nothing that would accept pro except for a mangy bush. So of course we rapped off the bush!
All in all it was quite a learning experience in many ways, but also provided us with a great adventure to start off the trip. After getting down we drove to my sisters house to slowly get fluids back in our tired and sliced up bodies, what a day.
Since one desert had already pretty much rocked us we decided that its was off to the paradise of Jtree for the next few days. So we sprinted across the desert making fun of ridiculous billboards as we went (there are a lot of them for some reason...) Arriving at Jtree we realized that there was a lot of rock and we had no beta on any of it. Coming from a place where you spend days thinking about a specific rock you will climb (since its one of the only good ones) this was slightly overwhelming. We arrived just in time for golden hour which entailed photography (mostly for Christian) and easy bouldering and free soloing for me.
Jtree is a world of its own, and its big. There were so many rocks in so many places we had absolutely no idea which ones to climb. Add in the excessive heat of mid-day (remember we are from Iowa here) and you can see some themes beginning to arise. Instead of doing the logical thing and searching out information from local climbers we instead decided to pick a random rock and climb it via whatever route we saw. This is a completely different style of doing things than I ever have before and quite liberating, just look at a line and do it. Simple. Echo Dome was our chosen heap to ascend and we found a nice long, easy offwidth crack system to climb. I took the lead and climbed probably the most rewarding offwidth I ever have. Easy but fun climbing with every move just where it needs to be. My ankles however didn't like it so much as I discovered when I ran out of rope. I made a quick anchor and then looked down to see that granite is indeed hard and skin isn't. I took off a shoe and was able to pout blood out of it, quite an achievement. Christian followed with no problem but with similar ankle results. Then it was just a scramble down and we had successfully climbed in Jtree.
Once again we found ourselves completely out of water and the afternoon sun was beating down on us full force. Energy was low, so we did what every normal person would do, we hide under rocks. That was the end of our climbing in Jtree, a little bouldering and a nice offwidth but it was time to move on. Before we left we drove up Keys View to watch the sunset through the blanket of LA smog. Then the next day it was off to Lake Tahoe.
Lake Tahoe is definitely top 5 in my book of most amazing places on Earth. I mean it has it all, a beautiful lake, big trees, mountains, snow, and a good climate. Unfortunately we only had one day here before we had to drive to Sacramento to get Brent. So for that one day we decided it was time to tackle a mountain. Once again, we knew very little information, and due to us arriving before the season it was hard to find anything out. So with a bad map and vague directions we set off the next morning to climb Mount Tallac. At this point I'm not even sure of what route, or if we were on one, we took up Tallac. All I know is that it was a very nice line, starting with an easy hike through the trees until we hit a lake and turned up into a snow bowl that most people were traversing and climbing up the talus on the right. Since we had brought crampons and axes we opted to try to bowl itself for a little practice before we had to do the Mountaineers Gully on Whitney. This proved to be a breath taking experience. Once we gained the ridge it was just one long scramble on loose talus to the summit. Unfortunately our camera didn't have fresh film so I have few pictures of the ascent.
lost? I guess you cant be if you dont have a route
In our own good fashion we decided that since the summit was so easy we would drop down via a different route that went down a series of switchbacks to a lake. After a quick glissade down the snow found what was supposedly the trail down. Instead of a nice trail like the one we had on the way up this was a nightmare. Most of the trail wasn't very trail like and once we got on it we experienced the most dramatic switchbacks I have ever seen. I mean these things were like 10 feet long, and in that 10 feet dropped like 4-5 feet. Also this brutal brush of some sort was creeping over the trail and raking our shins like knives. Poor Christian had gotten sunburn calves and was almost in tears from these killer plants. Finally we saw the lake and what we presumed to be relief and a road. However we were mistaken again and the trail stayed 50 feet above the lake instead of dropping down. Ever so slowly more killer plants crept over the trail, knowing that a meal was soon at hand. Eventually there was no trail left at all and we stood awaiting our doom by the branches of the killer shrubbery. Then, I saw it, a small patch of pavement showing through the most certain slow painful death that we thought was coming our way. The only problem was that it was 100 feet away, and the shrubs stood a strict guard.
Before I go on I would like to make a public disclaimer that a lot was learned on the Tour, somehow we had very thematic difficulties, such as descents, and running out of water; there are surely more coming in the next days.
So there we stand, facing our only means out, the road, which means easy walking only 1 mile to our car. And there stand 100 feet of killer shrub between us. I take a first step, you cant stand on the ground or they will swallow you up whole, so we stood low on the truck so as to float across them. And float we did until momentum had its way, for each step we took meant more speed and more scrapes until finally with explosive force we were hurled onto the pavement panting and bleeding but victorious.
Thus ended our day at Lake Tahoe.
As a climber I have always wanted to travel to the Valley, a place so full of history and big rocks. After we picked up Brent in Sacramento we drove to the valley in search of a place to stay for the night. Turns out you really do need reservations to stay there in advance. Not only was the camping full in the park but also everywhere close to the park. So it was a night in the car for us (the car being a small Nissan). The following morning we set off to hike Half Dome, there was a little talk about doing a climbing route but we were intimidated with the quantity and size so I decided it was a better idea to pass on anything technical. The hike up Half Dome via the standard route was mostly straight forward, other than having to wade through all the tourist only doing the first mile. The cables had just gone up and it was a busy place. However the hike was fun and we did it really fast. The cables were the definition of a bottleneck, but we just stepped on the outside and used on cable, people didn't mind us passing them on the outside and we could keep moving so it worked well. Of course we ran out of water by the summit and were dying to get more at the first available water station. Other than that it was a beautiful day and a great introduction to the valley.
Though the valley was amazing, we wanted to keep moving to see as much as we could so it was over the mountains to Touloumne Meadows for our biggest climb of the trip, Cathedral Peak. Once again all the camping was full so we went to a questionable campsite near Mono Lake for the night previous the climb. Luckily for us a enormous wind storm decided to come up that night and shatter all of our tent poles. We were afraid it was going to rain and wanted to sleep well before our climb to after a hour of rigging the tent with webbing, picnic tables and guy-lines we managed to lower the tent low enough to sleep in without everything breaking and flying away. Good Fun!
The following morning saw us on the road to the trailhead. Now this was one route that I really have wanted to do for a long time and so for once I knew not only exactly what I needed for the climb but also how to get there (hold the applause). We got to the base on the SE buttress and I charged ahead for the first pitch. Once again I would be doing all the leading since Brent and Christian didn't have the experience. The plan was that I would lead and they would simul climb off two ropes while I had them on an autolock. Good plan, and it worked really well besides the fact that it WORKED me. Another group of four climbed the first two pitches next to me until one of their members dislocated a shoulder. I just have to say, that after climbing on limestone, quartzite, and sandstone almost my whole life granite rocks my world. I was feeling so confident that I would run it out 20-30 feet at some points just so I wouldn't have to ruin my rhythm.
Everything was going well until on the beginning of pitch 3 we noticed some storm clouds building to the west. I really wanted the summit so I took of at breakneck speed up pitch 3 and pitch 4 which was the crux. Now pitch 4 put me at the highest I have ever been off the ground and it was completely unbelievable. Especially because I was sitting at 10,000 feet. Moments like that are really what I'm looking for, where you can just sit for a moment and think, 'shit, this is completely amazing.'
However a number of factors were starting to work against us. The fact that I was leading every pitch and didn't even get a chance to relax at belays, along with the altitude, along with the now darkening clouds above us, forced us to reconsider our summit bid. After weighing our options we decided it was time to bail. After all we were sitting on a 1000 ft lightning rod. Looking back on it we could have made it to the summit and back down before anything bad happened, but with my limited experience on multipitch along with not being familiar with the area I felt my decision was made for me to go down.
As sad as it was to not reach the top I didn't really feel that disappointed. Anytime I can get on a route so aesthetic and pure as this one just reaffirms the fact that it isn't about the top. However Cathedral still sits on my tick list for another trip, guess that mean Ill have to climb it again... shucks... After a quick descent and fighting off the numerous marmots that we deciding on how to get our packs out of the tree we left them in, it was back down the trail to hit the road for Boundary Peak.
Of course not until after we stopped to enjoy some of the views.
One of my many goals is to summit all 50 state highpoints. This was the reasoning for driving the extra time to climb Boundary, we also thought it would be one more good way to acclimate better before Whitney. However this attempt was a failure before it even started. Once again I found myself with lots of information on the route itself but very little on how to get there. After driving through nowhere for a few hours we found what was theoretically the turn off to the trailhead. According to the directions I got there were numerous bad roads and turnoffs but if you just keeping going on the best one you will get there. Now maybe this road just wasn't meant for a small Nissan but I have never worked so hard to be able to drive a road. Rocks dotted the road so Brent and me walked in front to move them and jumped back in for the semi-clear sections. Boundary Peak and Montgomery were starting us in the face. Many time we considered just abandoning the car on the road and just walking farther on foot. We decided this was a wise decision when we started finding scorpions under the rocks we were moving.
So off we went on the road, not knowing if the trailhead was just around the bend of mile away. We walked to road for over an hour which Boundary seeming just as far away as ever. It was time to reconsider again. We had plans for Whitney the next day and wanted to keep our energy high for that. So around we turned spitefully with the mountain laughing at our retreating backs. Misinformation or lack there of had finally cost me a summit. After taking longer being lost trying to get out it was back on the road towards Whitney Portal and hopefully some success which we seemed to be lacking at the time.
Everything I have ever heard about Whitney has been amazing. Originally I wanted to attack the East Buttress, however bring the only person with "suitable" climbing experience I decided that route was out. However we still wanted something more than a long hike, so it was the Mountaineers Route for our way to the top. We also decided that to see both canyons we would descent the standard trail for a 15 mile day, Whitney car to car. So we would drive to the portal for 1 night then climb and be off to Sequoia the next day. That was the plan.
This is what really happened.
Our ever faithful Nissan had been treating us really well, it had survived hitting rocks and driving over ones far to big. It had been slept in and carried us and our gear faithfully over hundreds of mile. And at Whitney Portal it decided it need a break.
We had gone up to the trailhead to scout it out the night before and once we turned back to drive to our sit I noticed a high volume of smoke billowing from the hood. All I could do was laugh, and that I did, the others didn't see the irony in it. So here we sit, with not cell phone coverage in the middle of nowhere with a radiator-less car.
Option a) Stay the night and see if we can find someone to take us into town the next morning.
Option b) cry
Option c) do a dynamic neutral run down the road with the car in hopes of making it to Lone Pine with enough momentum.
I was all for option c and it was being strongly considered when we noticed a light on in the Whitney Portal Store. Now I would like to proclaim this to the world, Doug Thompson is the man. I don't believe I have ever met someone so nice in my whole life. We walked up to him and told him what had happened. After looking at us inquisitively for a few moments he proclaimed his solution to us, "well, looks like you are fucked." Afterwards he proceeded to fire up the store generators and not only called around and hunted down a new radiator for us, but also picked it up on a trip into Lancaster the next day. So with a plan for a new radiator to arrive the following afternoon we grabbed our needed camping supplies and walked to the nearby campground.
As Christian and I were setting up the tent Brent was putting our food into the bear boxes. I turn around to look at him and notice a rather large black shape behind the tree from him. So I calmly told him, "hey Brent, there is a bear right behind you." Now Brent has never seen a bear before and seeing your first one sneaking up and only 4 feet behind you most have been quite a surprise because I he sure had a great yell at that bear. The bear, being surprised itself climbed up a tree and looked down at us and the still open box. I run to Brents aid and shut the box and then we move away so the bear can come down and hopefully leave. Once its paws touch the ground we are after it, yelling and waving our arms. Off goes the bear, thank goodness. But wait, only moments later it arrives again, so for the next hour we chase the bear off time and time again, until finally we bed down after a crazy day.
The following day we spend wasting time while our radiator gets here. So its back to the store for some of their famous "10 inch" pancakes, and by 10 they mean 16. I have never seen a pancake so big that tasted so good, if you ever go to Whitney, stop in the store, eat a pancake and tell everyone there that they are completely awesome. We did a little hike and some easy bouldering but mostly just laid around until the radiator came. Then we installed it and were set for more adventures! The first being a climb up Whitney the next day.
3:30 am, it begins. Our friend the bear had gotten into the trash bins somehow even after our once again repeated attempts to scare him away. It took us quite some time to break camp do to bear paranoia. We would have been a sight to been seen, all back to back, looking up ever few moments to survey the tree for the oh so familiar black shape and gleaming eyes. However he must have had enough trash to eat because that was the last we saw of him.
Onto the trail, its 4:30 and everything is going well. We decided to go light and fast, carrying only what we really needed and do it in a day. We flew through the Ebersbacher Ledges as the sun poked above the horizon; the first route finding crux, a series of steep sandy ledge systems.
We were making good time, the landmarks flew by. Lower Boyscout Lake.
Upper Boyscout lake. The slabs.
Whitney was shining brightly in front of us, even though we still had a long way to go the day was perfect and I knew instantly that we would succeed! Then we hit the wall, more figuratively and literally. A large wall stood to our right, I knew we had to get over it to access the gully and I also knew that there was a small 3rd class ledge system that would lead us through, it was just a matter of where exactly. It was also at this point that we started to feel the altitude. There was some talk about trying to climb over the wall at various points, however I was confident with my knowledge on this mountain and convinced them to continue on. After a short time we looked up and saw exactly what we needed, a way over. And on the top the view of Iceberg Lake was a welcomed one indeed. The only issue that presented itself here was that we were each carrying 100 oz. and had plans to fill up at the lake, to not much surprise the lake was completely frozen over, and even attempts to break through with an ax proved useless. So it was just 100 oz. for the day, we had been dehydrated on almost every other climb, why not this one?
We were carrying ice axes and crampons but Christian and Brent wanted to go up the rock band, I choose to tackle the snow itself since I had the gear. So off we went, we started off next to each other but eventually I took the lead when they hit a section of exposed 5th class. Then had to backtrack and go up the rock band on the right instead. In the mean time I had reached the top of the snow and sat back to relax as they corrected their mistake.
Once we reconvened it was just a slow slog up the scree to finish the lower gully. I love scree, it is so terribly disheartening, especially at 14,000. I especially love it when you take a step and the whole 5 ft diameter area around you wants to go, including the large basketball sized rocks, and the heads of your partners and their targets. So quickly I would grab them and try to hold them in place, good fun! At the notch we took a short break and surveyed the final upper gully route to the summit. Just a short 300 ft series of really exposed 3rd class. Really exposed. This would not be a good place to slip. I took the lead and ever so carefully grabbed rocks and made sure they wanted to stay there before I let go of the previous one. Move after move, look at that exposer, actually don't, just focus on the moves. One of my favorite things about altitude is that I get super bad vertigo sometimes, if I'm not holding on to something or looking at the ground then I'm falling over. Luckily I was doing lots of both. And then, it was over, the summit was ours!
First things first, we had enjoyed the delicious burgers of the Portal Store the night before and they really wanted to come out now... Now there is supposedly a toilet on the summit of Whitney, and I swear I could smell it (though that my have been any one of us instead), we looked for 15 minutes and had no success. Which just meant those burgers had to stay in a few hours more.
The summit of Whitney was perfect, we were the only ones there, the weather was gorgeous, and it marked the 4th highpoint for me.
Now all we had to do is get down, which had historically not been our strong suit. However it was just a long 11 mile trail that was marked, how hard could it be? We started off with spring in our steps and warmth in our hearts as success was once again ours after a bad streak. Whitney was the pearl of the trip, and we had succeeded. We shouted encouragement to the hikers we passed making their way up the trail. Down we went, switchback after switchback. After descending almost 1000 feet I started to really look around and notice that landmarks weren't lining up. Were we lost? If so, how could we have got off trail, there was only one other trail which was the Muir Trail and we had passed the sign for that at the ridge. And then out of nowhere I was on the ground. Pain shooting up my right leg as I looked down and realized that I had rolled my ankle and awoken a long time problematic injury. The only statement that you make you mistakes on the way down proved true again.
I writhed around in agony for a few moment in bitter frustration and pain before I got a hold of myself. Christian went to get some snow and Brent pulled out the first aid kit as I considered our situation. I pulled out the map and confirmed my suspicions that we had gone over a mile and 1000 feet out of our way. As I sat there with a throbbing ankle I couldn't help but smile, rolled ankle and 12 miles to hike out, no problem.
It was business time; ice the ankle, create a brace out of the limited supply of tape we have, get out a ice axe for a crutch, stand up, and take a step, it will be one step less. Christian took my pack to lighten my load and off we went retracing our steps to the top of the ridge again. The first 2 miles hurt pretty bad, and by pretty bad I mean I wanted to just lay down and curl up into the fetal position. But dammit I walked up this mountain this morning and now I will walk back down. After mile 6 my ankle had mostly gone numb, and as long as I kept "walking" it stayed that way. And thats how I went down Whitney, crutching each step one at a time. They say there are 100 switchbacks on that trail, I would double that and say thats a low estimate. It was especially fun when snow covered the path and I had to lay down and shimmy across them. I had thoughts of doing a glissade to cover ground faster, but the angle was steep and I didn't like the idea of not having the use of an ankle to stop myself, so I took the switchbacks one at a time until I was down. A favorite moment was when we passed a group camping at Mirror Lake who we saw and had talked with the previous day. We wished them good luck on their summit day tomorrow, and told them stories of success as I hobbled through their camp. We thought we were close to the Portal but as we faded into the distance I heard one of them say, "are they really going all the way down tonight?" That gave me a chuckle. Darkness came, we kept going. Into the endless night, each step at a time, no water or food for over 7 hours now. And then suddenly we emerged into the headlights of a leaving car. It was over, success was ours! 19 miles in 19 hours, we summited at 10, 5 hours into the day.
To this day Whitney may be the best day in the mountains in my whole life.
"Quick, get the food and get in the car before the bear comes!"
Off to food, water, sleep, and the next day
After much needed sleep we were on the road again. A brief stop in Death Valley brought us to the lowest point in America. So we could say we went from the highest point to the lowest in 24 hours, along with camping in the grove where the oldest tree lives in Bristlecone Forest.
Over the next 2 days we did exactly what was needed, relaxation and reminiscing on the trip. We did do some hikes such as one of the narrows which forced us to walk in the river. Luckily the cold water reduced the swelling in my ankle greatly!
It was especially sad when we were passed by throngs of little children and people that were obviously quite unfit. We would look at each other and smile. I would look up at the glowing red walls of Zion, a few climbers dangled from their ropes. One woman questioned at one point while we rode the bus, "why would anyone ever do that?" Once again we just looked at each other and smiled. There was beauty in that.
There is something inherently beautiful in what we do. It cannot be spoken in words the feeling that course though our bodies when we reach the summit, watch that sunset, or immersed our bodies in a cold stream that washed away the dirt of the past weeks. To conclude I would like to share some of those moments with you, the small ones, but they are the ones that really make it matter.
I remember a moment on Camelback when we first glimpsed the bolt that would lead us safely down the mountain, I looked over at Christian and he looked back with an incredible expression, it was mischievous and powerful, it said "yea, this will lead us home."
I remember a moment in Joshua Tree when I poured blood out of my shoe and thought about how silly it was that I climbed, how I like the pain because it is filled with rewards. Or when golden hour descended and I soloed an easy crack system that gave me that pure flow and surge of energy that climbing can do.
I loved that all we could afford to eat was quesadillas, macaroni, and peanut butter. That we would pull over to some random rest area or pull out, take out the stove and cook our meal while people eyed us questionably. I loved that everything I needed was in a car, and that car was my home.
I remember a moment in Tahoe when we finished our climb on Tallac, bloody cuts shot over our legs but they were wounds that spoke a story of adventure.
By the time I finish I have 4 infected cuts, both sides of both ankles were badly cut, one was sprained, I had sunburn on various parts of my body, I hadn't shaved or showered in 21 days and when I dipped my whole body under the water in Zion it was a spiritual moment of cleansing. It was filled with happiness and longing at the same time. And when I emerged I knew the trip was over.
I remember a moment when the sun had warmed us so much in our bags in our tent after Whitney that we crawled out into the sand of the high desert and curled up in the morning sun, the cool air chilling our overheated and overworked bodies and I was one with everything, the land filled my nose and eyes, the air coursed through my lungs, the smells of the old Bristlecone trees filled my nose, and I could hear the breathing of two good friends next to me as they experienced the same thing.
And primarily I remember a moment when we neared Lake Tahoe, the band Explosions in the Sky played on the radio, the warmth of golden hour pulsed through the trees and against the rocks and I could just close my eyes and feel so incredibly content. Here I was, with my good friend, living a life of the road, with each day bringing new challenges and new successes, and it was such a pure feeling. It was what life should be, everyday bringing you something beautiful and new.
I will remember it for the rest of my life.