Prelude Punctuated with Tragedy
The actual beginning of this narrative dates back at least two years when my hankering to climb all of the U.S. western states’ highpoints began to grow like snow pack in the Alps. Naturally, Mt. Whitney comes into play since it is the highest of the highpoints in the contiguous forty-eight states. Logistically it is a kind of wild card, too, because one must apply for a permit and enter a lottery system along with a zillion other hopefuls, thus allowing for the fickle finger of fate to play a small role in one’s effort.
As I relaxed on the sun-splashed summit of Mt. Whitney, still trying to soak in the realization that my partner and I had the summit entirely to ourselves, I reflected back to obtaining the permit and the curious and somewhat tragic circumstances surrounding the chain of events which had led me to these rough, iron-gray slabs of granite.
A long-time friend, Greg Clark, who lives in Southern California, suggested two years ago that we climb Mt. Whitney because he was friends with someone who knew the mountain backwards and forwards. Greg had already approached his friend about the idea of him leading us on the Mountaineers Route, and his friend had agreed to do it. Back then no permits were required for the MR. But because of unplanned events Greg’s friend had to cancel. One year down the tubes; but the mountain was not going anywhere.
Late in 2008 Greg and I again made plans to climb Whitney; Greg’s friend was going to be available. One thing had changed: a permit would now be required to use any route which enters the so-called Whitney Zone, so we had to send in our request along with thousands of other peak baggers and outdoor lovers. Lady Luck was on our side; we received a permit for 4 persons for the 22nd of June, arguably the longest day of the year. So our plans were set and I began exchanging emails with Kent, Greg’s friend, introducing myself, asking questions and offering any help which I might be able to muster.
It was shortly thereafter that tragedy struck. Kent experienced a fall down a steep snow chute while climbing Thor Peak with a son and two friends. Despite all attempts by his son and the others, Kent could not be revived. Severe head trauma had taken his life. Kent Ashcraft’s sudden passing echoed eerily throughout the Whitney climbing community; dozens of online tributes quickly filled page after page on the Whitney Portal Message Board. Over 2,000 mourners attended his funeral service, all there to pay respects to a man who had befriended hundreds and imparted years of climbing wisdom in the process.
Greg and I, along with most others, were stunned. Kent’s wife quickly re-assured us that she would find someone to lead us on the scheduled climb. This person turned out to be Andrew Ashcraft, Kent’s 18-year old son, a mild-mannered young man soon to graduate from high school. Andrew was a witness to his father’s death, and I couldn’t imagine what kind of emotional repercussions might be in his heart and mind as he gave his assent to be our guide on Mt. Whitney. I consider him to be a young man with the bravery of a man twice his age. Andrew had learned well from his father during many trips to the southern Sierra Nevada, and he was not about to allow fate to keep him from sharing his knowledge. He had confidently and boldly taken the baton passed on to him by his father.
To make a long story short, Greg had to bow out because of unexpected work obligations, so he bequeathed his permit to anyone of my choosing. My frequent climbing/hiking partner was available. Brent had already climbed to the Whitney summit in the early 90s, but back then he had trod the “normal” trail. With us planning on the MR Brent was more excited than a grade-schooler five minutes before recess on Spring’s first warm day.
As the month of June began and our plans took shape, a series of unusual late spring storms roared across the Sierra keeping temperatures unseasonably cool and leaving in their wake heavy snowfall. The Wasatch Mountains of Utah were not spared the unusual onslaught, and here in Salt Lake we dealt with winter-like conditions on our April/May hikes in northern Utah. We wondered if the storms would ever stop. Whitney permits are good for the specified day and ONLY for that day. There would be no re-scheduling if Mother Nature turned contrary.
The Internet can be a terrible task master. In the days leading up to the permit day I eagerly read forecast after forecast, hoping to see the sought-for break in the storms. It began to unfold, and after much hand wringing I saw the Lone Pine weather forecast become a source of unbridled elation: sunny with zero chance of precipitation. Bingo!
Acclimatize with a Convenient State Highpoint
[Note: for those interested only in the Mt. Whitney portion of this narrative, please jump to the next section. Section 2 is a brief account of our climb of Boundary Peak from the Queen Canyon Mine TH.] The 22nd of June was a Monday. We talked about the long drive from Salt Lake City and decided to do a warm-up climb en route. The Queen Canyon Mine trailhead for Nevada’s highpoint, Boundary Peak, was only a smidgen over six miles from the highway we would ply to Lone Pine, California, so we decided to leave one day earlier than planned and use Boundary as a sort of preliminary acclimatization hike. Both of us had already bagged Boundary, but Brent had not taken the Queen Canyon Mine route. I had, and I agreed to “show him the ropes” on that one. I have to sheepishly admit that there really aren’t that many ropes connected with the aforementioned route, but at least I had done it and knew from experience a couple of turns NOT to take!
We left Salt Lake shortly after nine o’clock on Friday and drove straight to the trailhead, stopping only for gasoline in Wendover, a quick lunch in Ely and for additional gas in Tonopah. For those who care, this distance in round numbers is 500 miles. (Sounds like the title to an old Peter, Paul and Mary song.) Arriving at 4:30 p.m. PDT gave us ample opportunity to take it easy and set up the tent at our leisure. We had the flat piece of ground next to the barricaded mine entrance to ourselves, a fact we could take as either an evil omen or a stroke of luck. We chose the latter.
Our comfy campsite near the Queen Canyon Mine entrance. You're right, the little outhouse you see has no door!
Dinner was a Subway sandwich we had purchased in Ely, Nevada, County Seat of White Pine County. We don’t have anything against cooking, but convenience carries great weight in these kinds of matters. About seven o’clock a dusty SUV with two occupants passed by and attempted to drive further to the so-called real trailhead, but for whatever reason the couple returned a few minutes later and didn’t even stop to say goodbye. I supposed they’d seen enough.
The next morning, Saturday, we got up, ate breakfast in the shadow of the hill to our east, folded up our tent, stuffed it and other loose items like lawn chairs (this was luxury camping on the Princess Plan) into the Honda Pilot and began hiking up the road to the trailhead, about a twenty-minute hike from our 9,050’ camping site elevation. The day was picture perfect: light breezes and mostly clear skies of deep blue. A few cirrus clouds drifted from south to north.
As we climbed the clouds began to organize as though they were contemplating a mob action. For the most part they dispersed as quickly as they had gathered. In a desperate attempt to do SOMETHING, they swooped in from the northeast and engulfed us in fog just as we were about to catch our first view of the Boundary Peak summit. Until reaching Trail Canyon saddle we had restricted visibility around and over us like an impenetrable shroud. But during a brief break at the saddle the clouds lifted, leaving us for good, and we enjoyed clear vistas the remainder of the day.
Another Sierra sunset to remember. Brent at the real TH Taking a breather at the Trail Canyon Saddle.
The push to the top from the saddle takes up the better part of two hours, plus or minus. We began encountering patches of snow here and there, but once on the boulder-strewn extended summit ridge we opted for the trail on the southeastern side and found ourselves only occasionally having to cross snow swatches. We heard voices and spotted a group of climbers slip-sliding their way up the scree in the drainage from the Trail Canyon side. At the summit we were pleasantly surprised by the favorable conditions.
I used my ice axe to dig the ammo box out of the snow-filled summit shelter and dutifully penned information regarding EGs, IVDs, IDs and DVDs. I knew from a prior visit here that I could expect to find the summit register inside the Army-green ammo box. And the log was a nifty little bound book, much nicer than most of the Robinson Crusoe-style spiral pages one typically discovers for the recording of such vital information.
We spent minimal time there, opting to not cross the saddle over to Montgomery Peak. Our goal was to climb Boundary as a prelude to Mt. Whitney; having accomplished this goal we now turned our thoughts toward getting down safely and quickly so we could drive to Lone Pine and set up camp there in our MOTEL. Did I mention that we don’t like to camp if we don’t have to?
On my first climb of Boundary Peak, Nebben and I had seen a herd of wild horses, and I had told Brent to look for them. Sure enough, about 20 minutes after leaving the Trail Canyon saddle we came across about a dozen animals, two of them directly on the trail, all of them grazing. They allowed us to approach to within about fifty feet before moving away, and it was especially fascinating to see two mares with their respective foals, standing on the nearby ridge tops, daring us to take their picture. Would they be interested in royalties?
Wild horses allow us a picture as we return to the Queen Canyon Mine TH.
On to Mount Whitney
Back at the car we navigated the rough road back to Highway 6 and drove west to Benton, Bishop and then quaint Lone Pine. Our motel had the bland moniker “Mt. Whitney Motel.” Located at the north end of the short main drag through town, it was conveniently next to a Carl’s Jr. franchise. Later we strolled along Main Street to its southern extremity and then back in about 20 minutes’ time. The sign on the outskirts said that a few bodies more than 2,000 lived at 3,700’ elevation. The business district consisted of several motels, four or five restaurants, a Joseph’s grocery store, and about a dozen other enterprises including two stores offering climbing equipment and sporting goods paraphernalia. In addition, a hostel offering beds for twenty bucks a night was in the heart of things, and had we known this we might have been tempted to forgo the $89/night charge at our place and opt for the youth-oriented style of lodging. Too late for that, though.
The next day was Sunday, and we literally used it as a day of rest. Andrew and his friend, Nathan, were scheduled to drive up from Los Angeles and arrive in Lone Pine around six o’clock. We lounged and ate, packing in the calories for the next day’s activity. Curious, we drove up to the Whitney Portal so we could see it in the daylight and better know what we were going to be doing early the next morning in the dark. Two miles west of Lone Pine we took a short detour through a small portion of the Alabama Hills where, according to a bronze plaque, dozens of Western movies and television shows had been filmed in the 40s and 50s. This bit of entertainment history is one of Lone Pine’s claims to fame. I attended services at one of the local churches; there were five or six in close proximity to our motel.
Sure enough, Andrew and Nathan arrived at 6 o’clock and we introduced ourselves, chatted about trivial stuff and got down to brass tacks. We unanimously decided to begin our hike at 1 a.m. so that we could have firm snow for the summit push. Andrew and Nathan would drive up to the Whitney Portal and bivouac, while we would drive up the winding thirteen miles of paved road to be there a few minutes before 1 a.m. We bid them adios, looked at the clock and decided we would draw our blinds at 8 o’clock whether we were tired or not.
I don’t know how much sleep Brent got but I hope it was more than I did. Whatever. Isn’t it this way with all of these crazy alpine starts? Shortly after midnight I downed a bowl of cereal and ate an apple as we drove to the 8,360’ Whitney Portal TH. The temperature was a balmy 56º. We snapped a couple of “this was us in the beginning” photos and at 1:22 a.m. we were on our way, totally at the mercy of Andrew’s knowledge and expertise in finding and then staying on the trail. Myriad stars overhead (“night’s holy tent”) provided breathtaking beauty but very little actual light. This was the night of the “new moon,” so we were doomed to the meager LED illumination of our headlamps for lighting the way.
Andrew, Brent & Nathan ready for action.
The Mountaineers Route - Up Close and Personal
It was indeed dark but Andrew took off as though shot from a cannon. My thought was, “He’d better know where he is going or we’re going to be really lost in a big, fat hurry.” He knew where he was going. We crossed the North Fork of Lone Pine Creek, looked at the sign indicating a parting of two trails, followed Andrew in the direction of the North Fork trail and marveled at the loud roaring of the stream. We would cross that stream at least four more times, and staying dry was a trick which required balance, skill and a generous dash of good luck. One crossing brought a waterfall into play, and that added a new dimension to our staying dry.
Every now and then I would pause briefly – pause too long and Andrew was gone – and look eastward. Each time I could see the distant lights of Lone Pine, stretched out like a short strand of rhinestones on black velvet. We were scampering and climbing over varied terrain. And always up. Occasionally Andrew would pause, look around, mutter something about the right trail and then affirm that we were okay. All of us looked for cairns to verify the correctness of our route.
The famous Ebersbacher Ledges proved not to be scary, primarily because we couldn’t see how far we might drop were we to lose our footing. There is something to be said about the old saying, “What you don’t know won’t hurt you.” Such was the case with these ledges, and in the dark it seemed no time at all until I asked Andrew if that was all there was to them. Hmmm, much ado about nothing? Were I to see them in daylight, I am sure I would reevaluate my assessment. But for now the ledges were history and it was on and upward.
Soon we were eyeballing patches of snow covered with dust and pine needles. Then came the careful scaling of gigantic granite boulders, some the size of mobile homes and hot air balloons. Making life interesting were the ones over which melting snow was running, meandering, irregular miniature waterfalls ruining the otherwise sure footing we should have had. Well, after all, it WAS the Mountaineers Route, wasn’t it?
Another thing about the darkness was its ability to rob us of potentially gorgeous views. “Lower Boy Scout Lake is down there,” Andrew commented in between hard breaths. Out of habit I looked in the direction he pointed, since that’s how I’ve been brought up. Someone points and, to be polite, you look. Total inky blackness: no relief, no trees, no silhouettes, no vague outlines. An earthly black hole. “So that’s LBSL,” I mused as I allowed a wry smile to cross my lips. I hoped that the upper lake would be just as beautiful. It was. I had no idea that black holes could charm this way…
In pre-dawn light Whitney is daunting.
Dawn crept over us from the east, a soft apricot velvet hue gradually coloring the rugged Sierra Nevada landscape. Once ominous shapes and demons began to soften, transformed by the promise of a new and spectacular day. It was the first full day of summer. The imposing hulk of the Mt. Whitney summit block soared before us in shades of pink, rose, umber and ginger. At long last the stunning vistas of this route were visible, granite waves of striation above irregular basins of settling snow. Rough and tumble moraines following haphazard routes of pre-historic glacial foment. If nothing else the impenetrable darkness of the preceding hours had sharpened our appreciation of the awakening scenes in which we were now basking.
With Andrew skillfully leading the way we scampered up tricky granite layers, noting that the elevation was beginning to take its sure toll on our breathing. “Hmmm, must be getting some altitude under our belts,” I thought. “Let’s see, oh, yes, Iceberg Lake is about 12,600’, so we are making our way through leaner air.”
Andrew & Nathan at Iceberg Lake; time to put on the crampons and get out the ice axe.
Our unceremonious arrival at the boulder-strewn south shore of Iceberg Lake brought an exclamation from Andrew: “Wow, I’ve never been at the lake this early!” I didn’t stop to analyze whether that was due to our early start, strong pace or a combination of both. I only knew that getting here before the sun had a chance to soften the snow was a good thing. The lake was frozen solid; we peered at the obvious snow chute leading up the northeast face of the summit block and exclaimed, “My, my, that looks like a long ways up.” Andrew chuckled knowingly, Nate nodded and Brent and I continued to crane our necks in awe.
Lashing on crampons was a given, taking nourishment a necessity, and drinking fluids a prerequisite before tackling the “chute.” Of concern to me was the labored breathing I heard from both Andrew and Nate. Neither of them concealed their fatigue, and after a brief discussion of the remaining route, safety, and desire a decision was reached: Brent and I would begin the ascent while Andrew and Nate took a longer break and caught their breath.
Brent begins the long climb from Iceberg Lake. Get ready for steep, too.
We began tramping up the apron of the chute at 6:30 a.m. and found the footing basically good. The chute was peppered with boot prints, some ascending and some descending according to the shape and depth of the track. The higher we went the more often we would encounter the tracks of a glissade. The curvature of the channels left by the glissaders was icy and hard, a tough go after enjoying the luxury of ready-made boot tracks. And the higher we went the more often we postholed, the previously dug prints warmed and softened by the resplendent rising sun in the eastern sky directly at our backs.
After maintaining a moderate but deliberate pace up the ever-steepening tongue of snow we attained a narrow notch or saddle. There we had a view to the west and a glimpse of the remainder of our climb. To the south of the notch and on the west side of a rib of granite, completely in frigid shade, was another steep expanse of snow leading up to a ridge that was perhaps 400’ above us.
Looking down the chute after about 1.5 hours of climbing.
It was here that we encountered a couple of tricky spots, iced-over exposed boulders, occasional verglas and a pitch that was intimidating. In addition, we saw another set of tracks leading west, a contour that disappeared around a shoulder after 200 yards. Did that contour lead here or was it an alternate route meant to cut out the precipitous route mocking us from above? We weren’t sure, so we mentally tossed a coin and opted for the more direct but more challenging way up. After all, Andrew had said nothing about any contouring.
Steep and cold, this climbing in the shadow of a granite rib. Take care!
Without an ice axe and without prior experience we would not have made the way directly up. Looking down we could see that a slip would mean trouble with a capital T and maybe even worse. We exercised extreme caution, evaluating each step and move and we skirted around the icy boulder outcropping. After kicking in solid steps I converged with another set of tracks already there to finish our grind to the top of the looming ridge above.
The Whitney Summit & Hike Out
Reaching this ridge first, I glanced in all directions and was literally shocked to see the recognizable summit shelter 200 yards to my east: for crying out loud I was on the edge of the summit plateau! I whistled under my breath, smiled and looked down at Brent. I wouldn’t say anything until he was almost up to the top where I was. Inside I was giddy with joy and happiness: we had done it, the weather was perfect and it appeared that we were going to be alone on the summit!
At the summit only one thing is missing: our hiking companions!
When Brent reached me he was dumbfounded to see the summit hut. He, too, could hardly believe it. Although he had been here once before, he had approached from the normal route. Today was totally different, and he was as excited as I was. We made our way in snow and on rocks to the shelter, curved around to the east side and quickly found several reference markers anchored in several of the granite summit stones. And, yes, we were alone. It was 8:38, so the ascent from Iceberg Lake had taken two hours and eight minutes. In all it had taken us seven hours sixteen minutes from the TH to the summit, not a record but not bad for guys in our age group. The only real question then was, “Where are Andrew and Nathan?”
Light winds and brilliant sunshine made being at the summit downright pleasurable. The unexpected comfort of the summit rejuvenated us quickly; we felt no fatigue. We took the obligatory pictures, peaked over the scary east edge to look down on Iceberg Lake, wondered how on earth we could be the only ones here and again questioned the whereabouts of our two young friends. Yes, it seemed ironic to be at the summit without our guide, but that was the way it had worked out.
After nearly an hour on the summit, alone, we signed the summit log – one of the largest summit log books I have ever opened – and we left a note for Andrew and Nate, telling them that we were going to descend on the normal trail. I made a personal note in the summit log that I had dedicated the climb to the fond memory of Kent Ashcraft. It wasn’t until we began our descent from the summit that we encountered someone, and he turned out to be a fellow we had met the day before down in Lone Pine!
The 5 ½ hour descent down the normal trail was unpleasant in the sense that a descent from cool temperatures into warmer and warmer ones is a necessary evil. Many groups of hikers, some large and some small, met us, all asking how it was at the top.
The "cables" section of the normal trail, buried in snow.
I was surprised by the number and the size of the lingering batches of snow which covered the trail for several hundreds of feet at varying spots. Many of the hikers looked unprepared for the long climb to the summit. But the views along the way were magnificent. The panoramas kept changing, lakes kept appearing, and gradually the more verdant growth of the forests and brush began adding shades of green to the vistas. Small streams and waterfalls became jewels which sparkled in nature’s early summer showcase.
Changing vistas during the descent were visually stunning.
Back at the TH Nate’s car still occupied the space next to ours. We left them another note, I unpacked the clothing items Andrew had given me to carry many hours ago, and we drove to Lone Pine, seeking first a shower and second a bed upon which to rest our weary bodies. We later heard from our friends that they had begun to climb the chute but had stopped after admitting to feeling terrible, all things considered. They returned down the MR and reached their car less than 30 minutes after we had been there.
We spent our final night in Lone Pine and bid it adieu the following morning. The drive to Salt Lake City was routine, the last leg of a journey which had brought us rich rewards: satisfaction, safety, friendship, two state highpoints and a climb dedicated to the memory of Kent Ashcraft, a mountaineer's mountaineer. What more could anyone wish for?