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Mount Whitney, Sierra Nevada, CA

May 16-17, 1999

Participants: Mike Sullivan and Catherine Cunningham

Mt. Whitney (elevation 14,496’) is the highest point in the continental US. But Whitney is much more than a trophy on a peak bagger's ticklist; it’s an incredible monolith of clean granite, with a very steep eastern escarpment that rises 11,000 feet above the Owens Valley. Climbing it also provides a chance to scope out other peaks and approach routes in the surrounding area; the whole region is an alpine rock climber’s paradise and is unquestionably of one of the most beautiful wilderness environments in the USA.

My partner Catherine had a limited amount of experience on technical climbs, so we chose to do a classic 3rd class route over mixed rock, snow, and ice. Our plan was to ascend the Mountaineers’ Route, then explore the North Face to see if a loop descent looked feasible there. We met up in Lone Pine, CA, on the 15th, and happily discovered that the road up to the Whitney Portal trailhead had just been opened a week earlier. We drove up to the road’s end and spent some time soaking up information and route conditions from Doug at the Whitney Portal General Store. He’s a great guy to talk to, and his beta is enhanced by a fat stack of 8x10 color prints of various features of the mountain. He told us that the heavy-beta approach was prompted by a number of deaths that occurred on an ice traverse section of the Mountaineers’ Route. Thus warned, we checked in at the trailhead walk-in campground. This campground is filled up completely in the summer hiking season, but at this time of the year we had the whole place to ourselves.

The next day, we packed up our gear and started up the climber’s trail that ascends the North Fork of Lone Pine Creek. The path is not obvious in places, and it really pays to carefully review the route description. There are two major creek crossings, a few slabs, and lots of brush to tunnel through. Snowline was around 10,000’. We set up camp on a dry gravel bench at 11,000’ next to Upper Boy Scout Lake, and loafed around in the hot sun. That evening, we hiked up farther to scout out the approach to the start of the route. (This is my most favorite way to save time on the day of the climb.)

We started the next morning in predawn twilight… up a snow-covered slab, along a lateral moraine of the Whitney Glacier, and up a short section of ice to the basin of Iceberg Lake. From there, the route ascends an easy couloir for about a thousand feet to a prominent notch at 14,000’. At the top of the notch we got splendid views of the south face of Mt. Russell, and the classic 5.9 grade IV route, Fishhook Arete.

We crossed the notch and examined the ice traverse that Doug had described. It was about 80’ of brittle water ice at an angle of maybe 40 degrees. A fall would be very ugly from this place, and no one in their right mind would call this 3rd class under these conditions. We had crampons and a single mountaineering axe each. Catherine and I discussed the situation, and decided to give it a shot. The ice shattered into large plates with almost every placement, but we slowly picked our way across, and breathed sighs of relief as we gingerly pulled onto a slab of rock at the end. Only then did I look down to realize that we could have bypassed the brittle section by downclimbing 40’ to a stretch of aerated alpine ice that looked much more secure. Duhh! I’d gotten tunnel vision on the ice traverse that we’d heard about and never even saw the alternative.

After a 45 minute delay so I could climb down to fetch a fallen ski pole (you should have seen that sucker accelerate…), we stowed our crampons and started up a broad rock gully to the summit plateau. I thought this was fun and enjoyable scrambling, but the exposure was making Cath a bit nervous. We summited at noon in perfect weather, and -yeeha!- had the whole peak to ourselves. It was beautiful, with awesome views of the surrounding peaks and cirques. The topography was thoroughly stunning.

We ate, clowned around, took a bunch of photos, and discussed the descent. Our original plan was to go down the North Face, which was listed as class 2 in one route description, but 3+ in another. Catherine was not eager to retrace our steps on the Mountaineers’ Route, and skeptical about descending an unknown route that could present more difficult challenges.  Our other option was the hikers’ trail – 10 long miles of switchbacks and cowpath to the trailhead, with no easy way to return to our bivy site. Blah! We finally decided to take a good look at the north face and work out a decision from there. We headed down past the cairns that mark the Mountaineer’s Route gully, and scoped out two long snow ramps that dropped into a basin. I thought the second one looked pretty good and went down to explore conditions… It was a perfect styrofoam surface at an angle of 45 - 50 degrees. After a quick talk on safety and techniques, we agreed to try it and we started the descent. This was the most fun patch of snow I’ve ever poked a point into! We sailed down over the consistently good conditions, quickly burning about 1200’ of vertical. While descending, we had more gorgeous views of Mt. Hale and King’s Canyon Nat’l Park. We negotiated a short icy section, and wound up on a shallow ramp of rock, where our descent was blocked by steep slabs below.

W crossed a rib of rock to the east, and found an easy snow/talus scramble down to the basin. We both agreed that the descent was the most enjoyable part of the whole route. We contoured across the side of the basin and headed for the col between Mts. Whitney and Russell. We crossed the col, glissaded down to Iceberg Lake, and hiked back down to camp, arriving around 3 PM. We scarfed down the last of our food, packed up, and wallowed through the weak afternoon snowpack back down to dry ground. Ahhh…. From there it was a pretty straightforward hike back to the trailhead. We stopped in to update Doug on conditions (as requested), and rolled down the road to Lone Pine for a dinner feast of pizza. It was a great way to finish off a wonderful climb


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