Mt Whitney East Face Springtime Ascent
I'm not sure how I met Tom but I met Cary as a mail carrier and he lived on my route. Tom was already an accomplished rock climber and I had been taking Cary rock climbing a few times (he was an avid backpacker). Somehow I think it was the influence of Steve Roper's book "50 Classic Climbs" that got us talking about doing the East Face. We didn't want to do it in the winter so we waited for the spring to harden up the snow so we could hike in rather than snowshoe or skis. I called the ranger station in Lone Pine the day before and they said there was a little fresh snow on top of 2-8 feet already up there and they advised bringing snowshoes. Not owning them (I was a skier) I went to the Carson REI and bought a set of Sherpa snowshoes.
Tom had volunteered to bring the food, so Cary and I paid for the gas. We were somewhere on highway 14 when Tom got a blow out. He was cussing up a storm about having to buy a new tire as he was changing this “shredded” flat tire and I noticed it was a Firestone 500. “Didn’t you hear about the recall?” I asked. "Well you got yourself a free set of four new tires when you get home.” Man did that change his demeanor. After a huge meal in Lone Pine, we drove into the Tuttle Creek Campground at 2AM(we figured the Portal would already be full and we wanted a good night sleep instead of sleeping higher up at the Portal.
We didn’t have any snow on the trail out of the Portal and didn’t hit much till Lower Boy Scout Lake. We found that what little fresh snow was of no significance and didn’t need the snowshoes on the packed snow we found ourselves progressing up quite quickly. At Clyde Meadow (10,800’) we decided to cache them in some bushes. We soon found some crampon tracks of an earlier party and followed them up to a frozen Iceberg Lake. Because of the high winds, we made camp behind a large boulder to the SE of the lake.
Tom’s choice of food was granola. The kind with lots of oats and little else...big ten-pound bag of it. To save weight, I brought a big parka and a half sack (elephant’s foot, child mummy bag, etc for those not familiar with one). This was because Cary had just bought a super light-backpacking tent that he said only held two. Are you sure I asked? When he set it up I could then positively say it was a one person, squeeze two survival shelter. During the night the winds subsided to a fabulous night sky blazing with stars.
The next morning, we had a meager breakfast, you guessed it, granola and hot chocolate, and left Cary behind in his tent. Seems Cary had had plenty of time to convince himself looking up at the face to decide it was more than he wanted to attempt. We step-kicked into the snow on up the Mountaineers Route to the First Tower where we split off to begin the East Face route. At this point we took off our crampons, put on our harness and tucked our ice axes away, mine between the yoke of my pack’s shoulder straps (the person following would carry the daypack with food and water)and Tom's short one in his harness. We now roped up. For a gear selection, we carried “a long 150’ rope”, 4 pitons, 10 chocks and a hammer in case we needed to use the pins.
Tom was leading up the washboard and had used one piton to almost two-thirds the way up when the rope ended. He was unable to find chock placement so used another piton (he had never used them before). Just below him when I got to the first pin, I wondered how I was going to remove it without the hammer. It pulled right out with the greatest of ease. Hmmm. I got to his location and he told me to continue the next lead. Our total protection amounted to the second piton he placed for the belay anchor as I passed him by. Ten feet above him I slipped on the ice a foot or two before stopping. In my mind I had an image flash by my mind of me knocking him off and the two of us upon reaching the ends of the rope pulling out that second piton and falling 500’ below. Funny what goes through your mind in just a split second like that.
I got into the alcove where three variations of the route separate. As I belayed Tom up, he too slipped at that spot. Our plans to do the Fresh-Air Traverse changed when it appeared iced up. We did some variation that involved climbing wherever we could find rock that wasn’t covered with a thin veneer of ice.
Higher up in the Giant Staircase, we found a place where we had to ascend a fifteen foot tall icicle and just weave around trying to stay off the ice as much as possible. The winds were now beginning to blow making it “unpleasant” on the fingers and when possible, putting them into the arm pits. Tom was nearly at the end of a pitch when I heard the familiar sound of loud cussing and then the unmistakable sound of an ice axe bouncing on rocks. We were wearing balaclavas so I looked up to avoid getting hit in the head but more importantly, looking to grab it if it came by close enough for me to grab and still keep Tom on belay. Fortunately, it wedged in a crack about forty feet below him and I retrieved it coming up.
Clouds were moving in and the wind was absolutely frigid on the summit. We had our last handful of dry granola (our water was by then long consumed) and proceeded down the north face. Somewhere we missed the notch of the top of the Mountaineers Route and ended up going all the way down to the saddle between Whitney and Russell. We were tired and thirsty and couldn’t wait to get to camp to “eat”. As we struggled in the cold wind across the flat area of the frozen Ice Berg Lake in twilight, we hoped Cary had melted snow and maybe even had hot chocolate ready for us.
We got to camp only to find Cary in the tent. Earlier in the morning, he had melted snow and filled all the water bottles but had retreated to the warmth of the tent when the winds came up. All the water bottles were frozen solid and to make matters worse, in getting my water bottle, he had moved my gear so that the winds had later blown my parka off into oblivion. We now had to decide what to do. I would be cold and we had no water. We decided to retreat down to Lower Boy Scout Lake or somewhere off the Iceberg Lake Bench. As Cary was taking his foam pad out of the tent the wind grabbed it and we watched it disappear as it flew up into the dark sky. We took refuge near some big rocks just above LBS Lake and hiked out the next morning.
In the Sierra Club Totebook “the Climber’s Guide to the High Sierra” 1976 by Steve Roper, it lists the East Face route as a grade III 5.4 but I think it is rated higher in new books. I find this strange since we did it in old heavy mountain boots where as today climbers do it in sticky rubber shoes. I would have thought it would be rated lower because of this. Go figure.