Mount Whitney – Mountaineers Route and Whitney Trail

Preamble

I pulled into Whitney Portal at about noon. The morning was spent driving in from Bakersfield, getting my permit and buying a few last things I still needed. Looking at the mountain from Lone Pine, I felt apprehensive and those familiar self-doubts were nagging at me. At the ranger station I almost chickened out and asked for a Whitney Trail permit instead of the North Fork one …. but didn’t. I knew that climbing the Whitney Trail wouldn’t be a real test; the Mountaineers Route and a loop down the Whitney Trail, done solo, was something I could be proud of, and if I didn’t make it, at least I would have tried.

I had wanted to spend the night at Whitney Portal to sleep at 8,000 feet to get my body ready for what was to come but was too tired to finish the drive from Santa Clara. I spent the night in Bakersfield which meant that my body would go from elevation 0 to ~11,500 feet on this first day, something I knew would come at a cost.

The plan was to make it to Iceberg Lake, camp, head up the Mountaineers Route the next morning, then loop back down the Whitney Trail. I had enough food and fuel for another night at Tail Camp if need be.

All smiles

In the parking lot, while putting on my boots and heaving my pack onto my back, my doubts immediately disappear. Starting up the trail with my 40 pound pack, I feel light and my pace is good. It’s been a while since I’ve been in the backcountry for something big and it feels great to be “out there”.

I hit the North Fork trail sign about 30 minutes after starting. For the last few minutes, my subconscious mind is nagging me about the Ebersbacher ledges, an exposed section one has to climb to get to Lower Boyscout Lake. I hit them about 30 minutes after the North Fork tail fork. They turn out to be very easy; a few short steps on a 5 or 6 foot wide ledge followed by easy and safe scrambling brings you to the top.

Roughly an hour later, I’m at Lower Boyscout Lake admiring the views. I’ve slowed down a whole a lot though and can’t hold the pace I could 2000 feet lower. I still feel strong, if not very winded all the time.

All done for the day

The next section is much harder for my physically. I’m really starting to feel the elevation and rests are more frequent and longer.I still need to climb 1000 feet before hitting Upper Boyscout Lake but at least the grade is easy and forgiving.

Then I screw up big. At the lake I lose the trail so I pull out my guidebook to understand what comes next. Its description leads me to believe that I need to go around the lake and up towards the headwall. I think that perhaps no one has been up here since the last snow fall and I’ll just need to break trail. I spend the next hour and a half in the massive talus field, scrambling in waist deep snow, praying that I don’t disappear in a hidden hole between the massive boulders. Finally, I make it back down to the lake and pull out my map (which I should have done instead of relying only on a description). My mistake is obvious and should have been avoided. I blame 10% of it on the AMS which I’m now feeling and 90% on the fact that I’m an idiot.

With the time and energy I just lost, I decide to stop for the night at Upper Boyscout Lake which sits at ~11,300′. Darkness is about an hour away so getting to Iceberg Lake (which sits at ~13,100′) tonight isn’t possible. Given how I feel, that’s probably a good thing.

I setup camp, prepare supper, watch a movie and hit the sack. Before going to bed I take a couple of Aspirin and measure my heart beat. It’s usually at ~50 but right now it’s ticking away at 90. Tomorrow will be a long day indeed.

It’s a full moon without a single cloud, so I sleep with my head out of the bivy waking up every few hours to admire and remind myself how lucky I am to be where I am.

The Mountaineers Route

I wake up at about 6 am after a restless night of waking up short of breath. I have a slight headache but don’t make much of it. An hour later, after a difficult breakfast I head out, but in the right direction this time. Iceberg Lake is the next objective and I figure that one hour should be enough to get me there. Ha! The folly and innocence of middle-age! I need two hours to get there, gaining over 2000′ in the process.

The trail is far from obvious and I lose it more than once. Even though I can’t see it, I know exactly where Iceberg Lake sits so I make sure to follow the line of least resistance towards it. This leads me inevitably to the ledgy cliffs towards the North. Even though not difficult, when climbing this type of terrain there is always a nagging fear that you’ll end up in a dead-end. Luckily I end up having to downclimb only once and find my way to the stunning clearing where Iceberg Lake sits which offers me the first clear view of the Mountaineers Route.

From my vantage point I see a half-dozen people in the gully. They are the size of baby ants which gives me a full perspective of how long the climb will be. I now know that it won’t be a technical challenge but will be physical and mental one; right now I’m feeling like shit, can hardly take 20 steps without stopping to rest and my headaches are worsening. Those 40 pounds on my back which felt fine yesterday are now feeling like 80.

I start up.

I need almost two hours to scale the ~1400′ that will bring me to the top of the gully. I chose the left hand side of the gully which offers me rock climbing instead of snow and ice. This also gives me the opportunity to use my upper body to make my way up, using my arms and back to pull myself up on the multiple ledges. The climb is varied: pure rock, slab, mentally draining crumbly sections and waist deep snow. Every step costs me and I stop every few seconds for a breather to bring my heart rate back down.

At ~14,000′ I finally hit the top of the gully, or “the notch”.

Summit

There are two routes once you hit the notch: A 3rd class that goes further right then left, and a 4th class that goes up the first gully. This section is the one I was fearing, but looking up at the 4th class section, I decide that it will be my route to the summit; after all it looks easy.

Even though I climbed it without incident, I can safely say I’ve made better decisions. The fact that I was so tired and carrying a 40 pound pack should have given me pause; I blame this 80% on the AMS and 20% on my being an idiot. I won’t even try to describe the route I took. I ended up in 5.easy territory, chimneying through a 15 foot section and crossing exposed ledges, at a certain point ending up on top of tower which had the benefit of giving me a view of where I needed to go. In the end, I popped out on the summit plateau with the cabin just a few hundred feet away from me.

At the cabin, I take my pack off, take a selfie, sign the register, sit in the shade and try to eat and drink a bit. The hard part is over with.

The Whitney Trail back down

Getting back to Whitney Portal is a ~17km hike and loses ~6000′ of elevation. I’ve already made the decision that I won’t stop to camp for another night, so I don’t spend much time on the summit.

WHAT A HIKE! By far the most beautiful trail I’ve been on which makes hauling my pack over the mountain like I did seem like the good decision. The 99 switchbacks which I wasn’t looking forward to because it sounds so awfully boring are a pleasure with stunning views on all sides. Down to Trail Camp, I stop every few hundred feet to take in the views. As I lose elevation, I start to feel better and my pace finally quickens.

I finish the day in the dark, needing about 6 hours to get down to Whitney Portal from the summit of Whitney.

The track logs

Note: The km/miles are off because my watch was set to take a reading every second which means that when I was stopped to rest it was measuring me as moving (GPS inaccuracy). I would have to apply some track smoothing to get a better representation of the hike … but don’t really want to bother.

Equipment

For the gear junkies (which I am part of) out there, here’s what I had with me:

  • OR Alpine Bivy: I HATE that there is only a zipper at the top instead of a full length one.
  • Mountain Hardwear Lamina – Long (-30): Heavy, but warm and inexpensive.
  • Big Agnes insulated Air Core mattress: I like my beauty sleep so prefer this to a foam mattress.
  • Petzl Charlet ice axe: I didn’t end up needing it.
  • Black Diamond Serac crampons: I didn’t need these either
  • Camp helmet
  • La Sportiva Trango Ext. Evo Light GTX: I love these boots. They are light, and great to climb with. Unfortunately, they aren’t that warm, but on this trip they were fine.
  • Marmot softshell pants
  • Goretex hardshell jacket
  • Goretext pants
  • Mountain Hardware Kelvinator down jacket
  • Extra pair of socks, mid-layer fleece, gloves, mits, hat
  • Fenix 2 watch
  • Nexus 2 tablet : To watch a movie during the long evening alone
  • Levin Solstar solar charger panel : To recharge my phone and watch during the night
  • Food for two days : fruit bars, cliff shots, two dehydrated meals, instant oatmeal packs, etc
  • MSR Superfly burner and medium-sized gas canister
  • Titanium pot to boil water
  • Two one liter nalgenes and water purifying tablets
  • Aspirin, benadryl and cold medicine (you never know)
  • Matches, map, compass, multi-tool
  • Osprey Aether 85l pack

What I’d do differently:

  • Bring gaiters; while scrambling in the deep snow, my feet got very wet because of snow penetrating from the top of the boot. This set the stage for a soggy next day. Thankfully I had a second pair of socks and foot warmers.
  • An extra shirt; god dammit I stank on the second day.
  • I’ll be getting a different type of water purifying system; the water tastes nasty with the tablets and I feel I wasn’t drinking as much as I should have because of it.

Southeast Buttress of Cathedral Peak

Summit Panorama

This guys star rating: 5/5

The approach

The approach starts at the Cathedral Lake trailhead. The trailhead is obvious, has bear boxes (which you should use) and parking is on the shoulder of the road. At the first fork follow the direction for “Cathedral Lake”. After roughly 10 to 15 minutes of hiking, you’ll see a fairly obvious climbers trail fork to the left hand side. There was no cairn when we passed, but there’s really no mistaking it.

The first 20 minutes of the approach are steeper than the other 90% of it. Generally the grade is easy-going with a short steep section just below where the climbing starts. You’ll start getting great views of the peak at about the half way mark when the tree density subsides.

We took close to three hours to cover the ~1500 feet of elevation and ~4.5km, but most parties will likely be quicker. The sun was setting late and the forecast was for a beautiful day, so we could afford to take our time and be slow.

I’ve saved a waypoint where the climbers trail forks towards the left from the main trail. Here it is.

The Prep

Just a quick note to say that most parties we saw left their bigger packs at the bottom of the climb because the official descent trails brings you back down to the toe of the climb. I had grand illusions and lofty dreams of also doing Eichorn’s Pinnacle and descending on the Muir trail, so we headed up with everything.

Note: If you leave your packs at the bottom, make sure to hang them somewhere. A marmot passed within 10 feet of me while I was racking up (i.e.: They aren’t shy or very scared).

The Climb

I won’t give the play-by-play. This climb is documented well enough that adding anything else wouldn’t be useful. That being said:

  • We started at the very lowest point of the tongue which is the normal/classic route. A little overlap on good rock followed by a bomber 5.3 hand crack brought us up to a tree.
  • I started out for the second pitch with a traverse right, then followed the path of least resistance up to the second tree.
  • I avoided the chimney on the fourth pitch preferring the 5.7 variation found towards the left hand side. It’s a cool-cool section of knobs offering smaller protection but easy (if not runout) climbing. It’s apparently called the “Glory Arete”.
  • Don’t forget to look back. The views are something else.
  • The last couple of pitches are fairly obvious and follow big crack systems.
  • The peak is tiny; pretty much only room for a single party. Clear it out as fast as you can. I had to wait for close to 40 minutes mid-last-pitch because of this …
  • The 4th class down-climb isn’t so bad, but falling would suck dearly … We did it the suggested way: I lowered my follower who placed gear (and clipped the rope through it) on the way down. Your follower should be going through the blocky section on the South side, then turn the corner to go to the big ledge lower down on the West side. Once he’s down, he should pull the slack then give you a top-rope belay.
  • The rock and protection are great.

Gear beta: I used everything I had at one point or another (small TCU/C3 up to #4 C4). The protection is G and always where you need it.

The descent

From the big ledge (which you just 4th classed too), head South West on the ledges. You’ll have to make your way as best you can because there is no path to follow; just a set of ledges. Once you’re close to the base of Eichorn’s Pinnacle and on safe ground, head back North (back towards the summit ridge) and up. You’ll eventually cross back over the ridge and on the official trail. There are signs peppered here and there reminding you to stay on trail. It took us about 40 minutes to get back to the top of the ridge, another 30 minutes to get back to the bottom of the cliff, and finally 1h15 to get back to our car.

 

 

The Tracklog

I kept my watch running the whole day, even while climbing which explains why it’s a mess.


Mono Pass with detour on the summit of Mount Gibbs (Tuolumne Meadows)

2014-09-05 15.41.06

With a false start in the morning on an attempt to climb the Northwest Buttress of Tenaya (we missed the climbers path), I was itching to get on the top of something big. With my recent interest in trail running and light-packing, the drive by Mount Dana and Gibbs and a quick look at the map showing Mono Pass sealed the deal.

The plan: Make it to the top of Mount Gibbs from the Mono Pass trailhead by using the very obvious East ridge. Go back down the trail that follows the South ridge towards Lower Sardine Lake and finish off at the Walker Lake trailhead. My estimates: 3 hours to the top of Gibbs, 1 hour down the lake and 2 hours to Walker Lake. It’s now almost 2PM and I optimistically/unrealistically ask Cristina to pick me up at 7PM, 5 hours later.

Mount Gibbs Summit

I pack light: 3 liters of water, a mid-layer sweater, spare pants, my puffy jacket, a few snacks, Cliff blocks, two headlamps, a few spar batteries and a map. Looking at the map, I estimate that I’ll need to get off the main trail after about half a kilometer. I start the hike at a low running pace. A few short minutes later I’m at the river crossing and decide that the bushwhack starts here heading directly East. Because the grade steepens, I stop running and settle on a brisk walking pace.

For about 1.5km I’m in a lightly wooded area which hides my view of the Mount Gibbs East ridge. I can often get glimpses of Dana on my left and need to avoid getting suckered in towards it. Using only visual navigation throughout this hike, I rely on the fact that if I’m going up, I’m ascending the ridge and on-route. After 1km or so, I finally get a view of Gibbs. Hot damn I’m quick! That thing is ridiculously close … my altimeter must be broken because it’s clearly a couple thousand feet off … weird.

On the way up, I often pick up (and lose) faint trails; the ridge must be a popular way of summiting despite it being an unmarked trail.

After only one hour of hiking, I am just a few feet from hitting the summit. SHIT! False summit … The real summit still looks pretty far and pretty steep. Another 2km of hiking and another thousand feet of elevation gain later, I am yet again just a few feet from summiting. The steep sections that looked daunting from afar turn out to be easy-peasy. SHIT! Another false summit! I feel a bit dumb for having been caught once again. As they say “Fool me once, you’ve fooled me once. Fool me twice, you’ve fooled me twice”.

This time, looking at the map, I know that the next bump is the real summit and it thankfully looks only a few short minutes away. By now, I’ve considerably slowed down; the altitude is giving me a light headache and my breath is short-short-short. About 20 minutes later, I’m on the summit signing the registry and resting in the shielded round rock wall, taking in the views around me. I’m at 12,773 and it took me 2h15 minutes to do so from the trailhead.

Descent From Gibbs

I’m pretty happy with myself and begin the descent full of confidence and unwarranted bravado. Looking at my map, it looks like it will be much quicker to make a bee-line towards Lower Sardine Lake using a more direct route through the cirque formed between the South ridge and the South-East ridge.

After about .7km, I decide it’s time to leave the trail and descend in the cirque due South-East. The descent is iffy at best; I work my way around steep sections and small drops following the path of least resistance. The descent is long, arduous and painful and looking at my map, uncertain. There seems to be a pretty steep section just before hitting the lake and I hope that these aren’t cliffs which will force me to retreat back up to the ridge.

At the quasi-bottom of the cirque, I find the stream that I see on my map. I figure that my best bet is to follow it hoping that there will be a bit more vegetation around it allowing me to descent more safely. It turns out that the section is not that steep and following the stream wasn’t necessary. I nonetheless follow it and end up in a heinous bushwhack through some nasty bush/trees. After I exit from this hell hole, I’m finally at the lake where I take a few minutes to wash and rest.

The descent has taken me 1h15m. It’s likely that following the ridge would have taken the same amount of time. Would it have been as fun though? (that’s a rhetorical question: Of course it wouldn’t have been)

Lower Sardine Lake to Walker Lake trailhead

I still need to get to the Walker Trailhead for 7PM which means that I’ll need to be at the trailhead in just under 2 hours. That might be a tall order given that I’m still 7km away. I start jogging.

I’m feeling strong and manage to keep a good pace while stopping here and there to take in the views and snap a few pictures. For the next 4km, I keep roughly a 10m/km pace. Unfortunately, the Lake Walker trailhead isn’t next to the lake; It’s over a bump, a relatively big bump; a very unwelcome bump. To be precise, it’s a 375 foot bump. At the top of bump is the trailhead; I’m there 4h30m after starting in Tuolumne Meadows and 30 minutes ahead of schedule.

With my ride not quite up the road, I start running down the road. Another 2.3km will put me back in the car with grin on face and some more lifelong memories.


Sloth Wall (5.7) – Yosemite Valley/Knob Hill

This guys star rating: 3/5

Getting there

Going towards the valley from the 120, you’ll go though a long tunnel followed by 3 small bridges. At the end of the third bridge, park at the pullout on the right (South) and take the very well trodden path that starts on the other side of the street (North).

On your way up, you’ll see a short and enticing slab with an even more enticing crack. To get to Sloth Wall, keep going past this and up in the small gully on the right; you can either climb the 4th class section or go straight into the trees after a move or two.

The Climb

Great rock and great fun on a sea of large knobs.

I hadn’t properly read the information on this climb before setting out and did so thinking it was a simple one pitch climb with easy lower off/abseil. It’s not: The first pitch to the tree is about 200 feet of climbing, so you’ll either need to climb to the top, or drag up a second rope to rappel the pitch.

Sloth Wall starts at an obvious crack on the middle of the wall with the crux coming at 15 or 20 feet from the bottom. The crux is … cruxy. A two move underclinging traverse on unsure feet brings you to a huge jug. The rest of the climb is a cruiser with nothing harder than 5.4 or 5.5.

After the initial crux, move to the left and follow the obvious crack to its top where you’ll be able to plug in as much gear as you want on the way. From here run it out to the tree on the left (5.0/5.1). Again, the pitch is a ~200 footer, so don’t expect to abseil with a single rope.

We kept going to the top making it a two pitch climb. The second pitch is easy (5.really easy) and finishes at another big tree from which you’ll be able to carefully walk off towards the climbers left.

Gear

A lot of small gear on this one. I didn’t use anything beyond a 0.5 C4. I placed more nuts on this one than I ever have. Low down, micros proved to be useful.

Descent

A couple of options.

  1. Rappel from the first tree using two ropes; the tree has a few cords and quick links so feels safe. There are no slings or quick links at the top of the cliff, so don’t expect to abseil if you don’t want to leave stuff up there.
  2. Walk off from the top: The guide books mention a tree from which you can do a single abseil. We didn’t find it, but did find a no-abseil walk-off which I can’t describe (lay off; there’s a lot of different options up there). Either way, you’ll figure something out.

Pop Bottle (5.7) – Lovers Leap/East Wall

This guys rating: 3/5

Getting there

From the Lovers Leap campground parking lot, take the trail that starts at the North/East end. Follow the trail for 20 minutes or so. This will bring in front of the East Wall which is accessible through a short scramble over the scree field at its bottom. The trail essentially bring you directly to this section of the cliff, so don’t start looking for un-obvious climber trails; you’ll know when you’re there.

To get to Pop Bottle, don’t follow the very obvious tail up the scree field. Instead, break left before the tree line and look for another less obvious trail.

Pitch 1 – 5.7

The first pitch is fun, safe and not as cruxy as mentioned in various guide books. Here is the short and long description: Follow the corner up to the top.

You can either belay just below the 30 foot wide ledge which will put you in earshot/eyesight of your follower, or not …

Beta alert: The crux is passed quite easily. At the crux bulge, comfortably plug in a #4 a #3 or both, then grab for the hidden jug found in side the crack with your left hand, bring your feet up as high as you can on the slab, then move your left foot over the bulge. Done. Easy-peasy.

I found the gold scar section to be more difficult than the bulge (just because the fuggin gear I wanted was on the wrong side of my harness)

Pitch 2 – 5.6

On the right end of the huge ledge, start-up on a V -1 boulder problem. I plugged in gear at my feet, extended the placement with two slings to avoid rope drag up higher, then climbed the outer corner on ginormous positive jugs. No feet? No need.

My follower did the same, but on the front side. Either way, once you’re comfortably on your feet you’ll have a nie shinny bolt to clip (the crack doesn’t protect because it’s flared). From here, I didn’t find the advertised two bolt anchor. I just kept climbing until I a good crack system and setup a belay there.

On this pitch, there are walk-off opportunities on the left if you’re careful. We did a third pitch which clocks in at 4th/very low 5th, so you may not want to do it. The views from the top are great, so we didn’t regret it.

Gear

I used a bit of everything, including a #4 C4. Gear anchors, so you’ll want something to build one (or two).

Descent

Walk-off towards the very obvious path found on climbers left. It’s both easy and short, and will bring you back to the main trail. We left our packs at the bottom of the climb and retrieving them definitely wasn’t an ordeal. You’ll want to bring up your shoes.