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Mt. Whitney's East Face Route is quicker!


A Pedestrian Climb of Mount Whitney
Daniel Smith Merrick

In January 1997, to celebrate my entry into middle age (40 is the definition provided by my Mother-in-law), Rob and I made a winter attempt to climb Mount Whitney (14,491 ft.) by the standard trail route and were foiled by poor scheduling, long slow hiking through deep snow, cumbersome snowshoes that turned out to be easier to carry than to wear, a general lack of commitment, a case of "Grand Slam Breakfast" belly, and the fact that we had to park the car many miles from the mountain at a lowly 6000 feet.

After that first attempt, I spent a couple of months kicking myself for not having made a more determined effort. Then, in early March, I noted that my work calendar was clear for the week of my spring break and that the kids wouldn’t have their spring break until the week after mine. So, I decided to return and try a more direct route. I put out calls to several likely companions for an attempt on the Mountaineer's Route (3rd class) and finally found B.L. who immediately agreed to go and suggested that we climb the East Buttress (5.8?) instead of the Mountaineer's Route. I pointed out that we would be carrying a lot of gear even without the hardware required for the harder 5th class route, but agreed to leave the final decision open. Although it has been more than 15 years since I first wrapped myself up in a webbing swami and managed my first climb, I get to the cliffs so seldom that I frankly felt a little uncertain about my ability to climb a technical route, in winter conditions, within the bounds of an appropriate level of risk for a married person with two small kids, a business and a mortgage.

Fear of injury or death does not really inhibit me because I know that if things look bad, I will simply bail out and go home. I don’t consider a decision to quit in the face of real danger a cowardly thing to do. However, I seem to do things, like going climbing, to see if I will chicken out in the face of irrational fear or perceived dangers that actually can be managed safely by staying calm and using your head. But then, of course, we all make mistakes in judgment. Some people claim that an adventure is a good trip gone wrong, but I believe that adventure is the art of getting yourself, by planning or accident, into a jamb and then extracting yourself and your companions safely. If anything goes wrong, an adventure becomes, in the current jargon, an epic. If things go spectacularly wrong, an adventure can become a disaster.

For the trip I packed a tent, a generous supply of food and fuel, a modest rack, a rope, a light sleeping bag and one spare pair of socks. I knew that B.L. was not in top shape so I loaded the stove, fuel, pots, rope, rack, and tent into my pack and had him carry the food. Whatever I take on a trip is of course always wrong and later I wished that I had brought my down jacket, more socks and had left some of the food behind. As it turned out, I had just enough clothes to stay warm at night. However, by the fourth day the socks were approaching an unpleasant stage and their memory still lurks in the foot of my sleeping bag.

At 7:30 A.M. on Sunday, March 23, 1997 I picked up B.L., sorted some gear and headed for Lone Pine via Bakersfield. At Lost Hills, B.L. said he was feeling a little nausea, and I actually had to pull over, but he wouldn't spew even though I urged him to do so with a graphic description of swallowing raw eggs whole, so I figured he wasn't actually sick. He appeared a little overexcited; it sometimes seems that a trip to the mountains with me tends to make him a little anxious. He always tells me that he did all this hard challenge stuff long ago as a Ranger in the Army and he no longer needs to satisfy any desires to prove himself.

We arrived at Whitney Portal about 2:30 P.M. (8370 ft., the road was officially still closed), saddled up and started up the trail. It began to snow a bit as we left the Whitney Trail and headed up the North Fork of Lone Pine Creek, so we stopped to put on our shell pants, parkas and gaiters. We were a few minutes into this process when B. L. asked me if gaiters came in sizes. I said yes and he told me that the pair he had bought the day before seemed very small. But, by taking out the foam insulation he could just get them cinched around his calves. Unfortunately they would not fasten around his boots.

I arrived at Lower Boy Scout Lake (10,300') after dark and dug out a tent platform, set up the tent, got the stove started and greeted a sweating staggering B.L. upon his arrival. The next morning we packed and headed up the slog to Iceberg Lake base camp (12,600'). As we lurched and gasped our way up the snow slopes, we were roasted on the open snow fields by a blazing sun. By forethought and careful attention to detail I had neglected to apply sunscreen and spent the rest of the trip feeling a little scorched, particularly that place on the underside of my nose right between the nostrils. While trudging along I marveled at the immense size of the pack teetering on B. L.'s back. At the time I had no clue what could be in the thing since I believed that I was carrying everything. Later I found out that it was full of what he calls "snivel gear," mostly a huge cloud of fleece clothes, endless pairs of socks and poly underwear. Somehow, he seemed to be able to wear all of it inside his sleeping bag. In his former life as a Ranger, B.L. had suffered all of the unpleasantness of the apparently sleepless Ranger Training School. He has told me that after he finished training in mountains and swamps he vowed "never to be tired, cold, wet and hungry again." I think he managed to stay dry for the whole trip.

At about 3:00 P.M. we noticed some tiny specks on the mountain, which were a team of climbers starting the East Face Route (5.6). It seemed a little late to us and they were moving really slowly. Later we found out that it was a guy and his girlfriend. Apparently, he was leading all of the pitches which might have slowed them down. That night at 11:00 we could see headlamps and it seemed that they had stopped at the top of the Grand Staircase several pitches below the summit. Later we were told that they reached the summit and spent the rest of the night in the icy summit hut. We saw them exit the bottom of the Mountaineer's Route the next morning while we were climbing.

That night as we were getting ready for bed we were treated to a lunar eclipse in addition to the Hale Bopp comet.

Tuesday morning we ate our oatmeal, melted snow for our water bottles and some to leave in the pot for our return, geared up and left camp a little after 8:00. We had decided to do the classic East Face Route which was first climbed in August 1931 by four guys in sneakers. We cramponed up the snowy approach and managed to get roped up at about 9:30. We crossed the Tower Traverse with its three old fixed pins, scrabbled up the Washboard and ground to a halt just past the Alcove as I tried to spot the route ahead. B.L. said he knew that the Fresh Air Traverse was just to my left, but I wasn't about to trust him. In my impatience I went through my usual chain of illogic (Where am I? Off route. Which way do I go? Up.) and took what appeared to be the most direct route. I may have climbed the Shaky Leg Crack, but I will probably never know. I am severely topo challenged.

It was about this time that B.L. informed me that he had dropped one of our two water bottles, which mostly free fell 1500 feet to the base, and thought that he might have messed his pants. I concluded that he was still suffering from a little bit of nervous tummy, possibly enhanced by his leader being off route as usual.

By this time I was feeling a bit cold since we were in the shade and my rock shoes were wet from kicking up the occasional snow patch. I put on my fingerless gloves and my parka shell, but still shivered a lot at the belays. Your partner always seems slow when you belay, but B.L. seemed to be the slowest climber in the world. The rope would hang motionless in my hands for hours as I stood in a snow patch and then slip back a few inches. The occasional odd bit of hardware would come sliding down the rope to keep me awake and checking my anchors. My toes went numb and then ached as I danced life back into them. B.L. led the exit from the Grand Staircase and I imagined how wonderful it would be to get onto the summit and into the warm afternoon sun. This was when B.L. decided to show off by going into dry heaves, but he couldn't keep it up for long and didn't produce anything and again I decided that he couldn't really be sick. The guide book shows two roped pitches remaining and then "3rd, several hundred feet to summit." The way was not clear, but we set off up ramps, along ledges and over blocks until we came to a twelve-foot off-width crack that certainly didn't look like a 3rd class scramble. B.L. was the lucky leader but he seemed to hesitate. He wanted to wander off to the left or to the right and find an easy way up. I told him to get on up to that crack and "put some moves on it." Being the belayer, I was of course on the fearless end of the rope. He obeyed, set a cam, flailed and fell. I jumped back off my belay stance to take up slack and watched B.L. stop, just shy of the deck, in a clatter of crampons, ice axe, plastic boots and rack. I asked if he had broken anything and he responded with a less than reassuring "yes." I asked what was broken, knowing that I would feel really bad leaving him there if it was a leg or an ankle. After a while and some rattling around he announced that he thought he had wrenched his arm. As I tried to picture how his injury might hinder my descent, I climbed the obstacle in somewhat less than perfect alpine style (rope chuck and prussic), heave-hoed B.L. up and we were on the summit.

It was 7:15 and the sun had already set. We went over to the dreary summit hut and put on our remaining clothes and crampons. Although the snow in the area had blown away, there was a three-foot snow drift to welcome us just inside the hut and wet ice on the rest of the floor. Since some water dribbled down the stone walls it must have been about 32 degrees and warmer than outside. We did not sign the register since some happy soul had separated the book into its individual pages, scattered them around the hut and then hid the pencil. I went back up to the summit with a cell phone to call my wife and kids. My wife asked if I was having fun, I said that I wasn't. My daughter asked me what I could see, I told her that below me were Owens Valley and the lights of Lone Pine, to the right was a full moon rising and to the left was the frozen headlight of the Hale Bopp comet. When I told my son that I was on top of the highest mountain in California, he told me that Mount Everest was the highest mountain in the world, then he asked me if I could touch the moon.

We stayed in the hut, ate our Snickers bars and packed our climbing gear. We were out of water, but I couldn’t bring myself to try a glass carafe of what looked like either white wine or pee that someone had left for us. We conserved head lamp batteries, danced in the dark to stay warm and waited until we figured that the moon was high enough before heading out to find the Mountaineer's Route. Neither of us had ever seen the route before and we didn't have a route description with us, but B.L. seemed to recall where to go. So, of course, I went first and walked right past it, then we had to climb back up a bit. We shined our headlamps down the chute and although there was no cornice, it did drop straight off and looked a bit steeper than I had anticipated. We could just make out the pillar hundreds of feet below where we would cross over into the easy gully that would lead straight back to the tent. By facing the wall and kicking with my toes I could knock steps into the snow. My ice axe handle, plunged into the snow, felt reasonably firm and my free hand could hold onto a higher toe step. I moved slowly down trying to keep three points in contact with the snow and feeling a little rotten for all the snow and ice I was sending down to B.L. who I had somehow managed to get to go first. We went unroped.

At the crossover notch B.L. asked if I thought it would break the rules of wilderness etiquette if he stopped and relieved himself of what he claimed was going to be diarrhea. I believe that this was an expression of relief on his part, since it occurred at the precise point where the significant risk ended. I said no and plunge stepped off down the gully. I got to the tent and started the stove. B.L. arrived at 11:00 and we were in the sleeping bags a few minutes later.

The next morning we cleaned up the mess that the ravens had made of our garbage bag, packed the gear and headed home. I had B.L. put the rope onto his pack which caused him to grumble a bit. It seems that he thought a fellow shouldn't carry a rope up a mountain if he wasn't willing to carry it back down. A few steps from camp B.L. lost his footing, fell and slid on his butt a few hundred feet down to the snow-covered Whitney Moraine. He hopefully called out "see you at the bottom" as he shot down the steep snow slope, trailing a snow plume which made him look a little like the Hale Bopp comet. His ice axe and crampons were strapped to his pack and he had no hope of slowing or controlling his slide with the ski pole he was carrying. At a couple of points he looked like he might slow down when his butt would slam into an old boot step, but he would only catch some air and then speed on. At the moraine he swooped the opposing slope, turned left and headed for Upper Boy Scout Lake, but he didn't make it. Although I was truly tempted to follow him in his quick and easy way down, I decided that the pain wouldn't be worth the saved time and I slogged slowly down.

After a lot of sloppy snow and a few creek crossings (I was the one who fell through a snow bridge and into the creek), we reached the car and were in Lone Pine in time to have a greasy burger for lunch. I was home in time to put the kids to bed that night. The next day I was too sore to walk and B.L. was wondering how he had got a black eye. It was a successful trip, but it did take several weeks before the facts faded to the point that we could call it a fun trip. As usual the worst part is the anxious anticipation, the actual climb was really quite pleasant.

Several months later I talked to B.L. on the phone and we decided that this had been our best trip to date. I said: "Yeah, and nobody got hurt." B.L. said: "I got hurt, my butt hurt so bad that I couldn’t sit for weeks." I said: "Well at least it wasn’t scary." B.L. said: "I was scared, I was really scared when I fell." For a guy that had never wore crampons or been above 11,000 feet, B.L. was a willing and unstoppable companion. Also, I would like to point out that it was B.L. who insisted on the harder route.
Copyright © Daniel Smith Merrick, All rights reserved.


Hi Bob-
Sure, use whatever you want. It is nice if credit is given as is appropriate. If you become fantastically wealthy off my stuff, I will demand a fair share. If you want bigger, better images or anything, let me know.
Have fun-
Dan's story reminded me of Bill Bryson's "A Walk in the Woods". Dan's story follows the fine tradition of mountain story telling as in "The Games Climbers Play". . Pretty funny stuff. Knock yourself out! Don't try this yourself! --Robert Speik



Mountain climbing has inherent dangers that can in part, be mitigated





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