Recently I ascended Mount Whitney, a relatively high chunk of granite in the Eastern Sierra Nevada. This I did with a friend of the truest kind.
Mount Whitney lies on the Sierra Crest, a long row of high peaks running north-south less than 100 miles from the Badwater Basin of Death Valley; the lowest point in North America. At 14,505 feet, she is the highest point in the Lower 48. That’s a pretty killer contrast if you ask me. Whereas not as striking a peak as the Jungfrau or Matterhorn, her eastern face is sheer and dreamlike, a steep fault scarp rising to the sky with a gradual descent to the west.
It should be noted that I have a thing for high and low places, which if you don’t already know, is part and parcel to my crazy.
Friends for over 15 years, Nicole and I have seen much of this world together. From the streets of London to above the tree line in the Alps to the savannah of Uganda, we have definitely clocked some miles. Both of us are of the Type A goal-driven sort and, although now wives and mothers, our thirst for the world has not and will not be diminished.
Rather than the challenging, well-trodden 22-mile day hike on the Mount Whitney Trail, we chose instead to take the Mountaineering Route. A straight shot up the east side gaining and losing 6,100 feet in only 11 miles round trip and first ascended by John Muir in 1873.
Piece of cake, right? Wrong.
We trained long and hard. We packed as ultralight as we knew how. And, we hired an experienced guide, Tristan Sieleman from Sierra Mountaineering International, to help us be more successful up and back down on this challenging terrain. During the drive from Reno, we talked at length about what we thought our weak points might be. We discussed the need to push ourselves and each other beyond our comfort zones. Finally, and albeit a bit silly, we established a code word for the point at which the risk outweighed reward. The point at which we needed to let the other know – I will go no further.
There are friends with which you can uncover your weaknesses, take them out of the closet and look at them straight on and then from every angle. There are friends with which you can prepare for, endure and even thrive in Type 2 fun. And, there friends with which you cannot.
I prefer the former.
We arrive late to Lone Pine near the base of Mount Whitney, quickly consume large quantities of carbohydrates (happy dance) and then fall asleep early in order to rest up for the long day that lay ahead.
At morning light we had our first chance to see the significant prominence of Whitney. Her sheer eastern face and the uppermost point we sought to reach towered almost 11,000 feet above us.
We drive up to Whitney Portal, begin to sort gear, parcel the shared loads and repack our packs. When I first lift my pack onto my back, I recognize immediately that I should have thrown in another dumbbell during those sea level training hikes.
For the first 500 vertical feet, we travel the shared trail. At our first stop we fill up on fresh water from the creek (thank you wag bag), learn a few high altitude trekking tips from Tristan and turn up the hill to the steeper North Fork Lone Pine Creek Trail, which will connect us to the East Buttress and the Mountaineering Routes.
After ascending 1,000 or so vertical feet on a somewhat steep trail, we cross a beautiful creek bed which is just brightening with autumn color. On the other side, we look up to the sheer granite wall. At this moment we are smiling on the outside, but that is about to quickly change.
After a short and rather easy Class 3 scramble, we arrive at the base of the Ebersbacher Ledges, a challenging scramble up a steep wall to a narrow traverse with serious exposure and a sheer 300 foot drop. Turns out people have died on this, which I am glad I didn’t know at the time. Our experience up to this point has been more of the hiking than climbing kind, so this part really gets the ‘ole blood pumping.
At the narrowest point on the ledges the trail is less than 12 inches wide. Luckily we lean into the wall to feel more secure across this short but ‘I may have just peed my pants’ section.
Now above the willows we trek on to Lower Boy Scout Lake where the trail gives way to an expansive talus field. This is the kind of stuff I love – up and down over secure talus makes for a fun puzzle to solve. Tristan reminds us to always follow the path of least resistance. In other words, be smart, use your head and plant your foot carefully each and every time.
Next is about 500 vertical feet worth of talus scrambling at which point it begins to sleet. We take cover for a bit before starting out over the large, bare and very slippery granite slabs taking baby steps close together not so slip and diligently keeping our nose over our toes.
We end the day at Upper Boy Scout Lake at an elevation of 11,300 feet, setup camp, eat dinner and head straight to bed to recharge. Our summit bid will begin at 5am.
The night is long, the weather is calm, the tent is confined and our anxiety levels are high. We were unsure of what lies ahead of us the next day and remarkably self doubt arrives just on cue. Can we do this?
Around 4am we hear the stove fire up and it is time to get started. Donning headlamps we head up the loose slope above Upper Boy Scout Lake. About an hour into our climb, the sun begins to rise and we are able to appreciate the full, otherworldly landscape of The Moraines.
As the sun creeps higher above the horizon, we are immediately confronted by Whitney’s East Face and the adjacent needles. Here in this ancient debris field amongst the remnants of long-departed glaciers, I get a stark reminder of the degree of my own insignificance and within this awareness, I can garner tremendous strength. This is the very reason I love to climb.
Soon enough we arrive at Iceberg Lake, a poignant milestone on this climb and in the context of all my previous climbs. At 12,700 feet this is where the real adventure begins, on go the helmets and harnesses for this is the point at which we move from hiking to mountaineering.
We load up on pretzels and refill on water from the lake knowing the last 2,000 feet to the summit will be challenging, to say the least. The East Couloir looms above us with a steep and nasty mixture of loose talus, scree, sand and a dusting of ice. When covered deep in snow, this section can be navigated with crampons and ice axe, but the mere dusting made the loose scree even more of an ass kicking.
When we reach the top of the Couloir we are at 14,000 feet and look down upon Iceberg Lake and the creek trail below. We take a moment to rest and refuel at a spot known as The Notch and discuss which route to take to make our final ascent to the summit.
The customary route is straight up the North Chute, 400 utter panic-inducing vertical feet of rock, a tough Class 3 with some Class 4/5 moves sprinkled in for added fun. Again, when covered in snow, there is a fixed line which helps with a stable ascent. And again, we weren’t so lucky. The other option is to traverse the north face on Class 3 terrain and come up the backside to the summit plateau, which is longer and can be tricky with the loose scree and sand giving way under your feet.
Nicole and I look at each other and, not being ones to take the easy route, opt for the straight up option. Tristan prepares the ropes to belay us as we creep up this slippery face and we quickly get started.
We are instructed to make all moves together. With belay on, Nicole hoists herself up about 8-10 feet and then pushes off to the side so that I might do the same move. As I start up, Nicole begins to slip on the icy surface of the rocks. As I make it up to her, she says to me quietly, “Chartreuse.” I look to her and reply, “Chartreuse. Chartreuse. Chartreuse.” We were absolutely in agreement.
We both could easily see that we were sliding slowly along the curve where individual risks outweigh the individual return. For many this route is acceptable, but in our assessment it just wasn’t worth it.
So we climb off that steep course, not elegantly I might add, and opt for the traverse route to the summit. No easy task either, but a level of risk we could justify in our minds and hearts.
As we stood upon the summit of Mount Whitney it mattered not how we got there, but the view was absolutely worth every well planted step.
As I stand there swimming in my dull headache, choking down a Kind bar and enjoying a moment of pride, I suddenly remember that we are only halfway there. The summit is never the finish line, it is merely the halfway point. My stomach begins to churn. I think to myself – if going up was tough, how am I going to get down that same terrible terrain . Every move had been so carefully considered, like a giant granite chess game.
I ask Tristan if there is an easier route down. He looks at me charmingly and says, “of course not my dear, just make sure you have 50% left in your gas tank and take the same path of least resistance in the opposite direction.”
It turns out that up is indeed the easier direction. On the up you can plot your steps more carefully. Down may be faster, but it is far less intentional. Plus, on the down your body is tired which makes an unintentional sloppy step more likely.
The descent is brutal, my feet are shredded, the scree unforgiving and my gas tank draining faster than expected. But as in life, it is always more mental than physical. So, I told myself to take it one step at a time. 30% left in the tank, 20%, 5%, I can see the tents way down there, 2%…one step at a time.
As I emerge from my tent once more, the wind is howling and the sun rises gracefully across the Owen Valley below.
I tend to my tired, blistered feet and then it is down, down, down the remaining 3000 feet until we hit the trailhead once more. This was the real summit – reaching the top, making good decisions, planting each step carefully and then arriving safely back down again.
Upon that granite peak we achieved our shared goal; and, we did so with lots of laughter and by respecting our own limitations – both real and perceived. I guess this is the good stuff of getting older – you know yourself better, trust yourself more and have the confidence to shout “Chartreuse!” when the level of risk surpasses your perceived reward.
What else is good stuff?
Loving your body not for what it looks like, but for where it can take you in this life. Doing so with those who lift you up and fill your gas tank when it’s running low. Finally, celebrating the sublime beauty of accomplishing something you set your mind to, no matter what it might be.
Thank you Nicole.
Thank you Tristan.
Thank you Kurt.
And, thank you to Tristan’s German alter ego who guided me where to step.