Climb a mountain with my husband? Check!
It’s official. I’ve crossed the first item off my Life List. And hoo-boy was it a good one. The full trip report is below. There are lots of photos — go! Read! Enjoy! We had a blast at Mt. Whitney and our muscles are still recovering, but the pictures make me smile every time.
Mt. Whitney: July 2010 – Trip Report
Thursday, 1 July 2010
Jeff and I flew into Ontario International Airport after a slight delay at DFW and rented a car that would take us 3 hours north to the little town of Lone Pine, California – at the foot of Mount Whitney. Lone Pine is at 3700 feet of elevation — which we know because out in the Sierras, towns list their elevation alongside their population on their Welcome sign. (For perspective, Fayetteville is at 1400 feet of elevation.)
After checking in at the Lone Pine Best Western, we decided to get out and see the town. We had burgers for dinner at the Mt. Whitney Restaurant downtown and we walked around a bit. Turns out, Lone Pine was once a pretty happening place for movie stars. Many, many old westerns were filmed there and the landscape is still used in movies today.
We drove on up to Whitney Portal to get a feel for things and see the trailhead. We were staying in Lone Pine that night to help our bodies acclimate to the altitude and improve our chances of avoiding altitude sickness during the climb. We eventually headed back to the motel and crashed, anxious about the climb.
Friday, 2 July 2010
The day had finally come. We woke up early, packed our gear and checked out of the motel. We were headed to the Alabama Hills Cafe in “downtown” Lone Pine to meet up with the rest of our climbing group. Our entire group gathered for breakfast and getting-to-know-you chat, and consisted of Sierra Mountaineering International (SMI) guides Chris Werner (lead guide) and Mark Tucker, and climbers Laura Collins, John Ohlson, Karyn Ohlson, Demetria Gianopoulos, Jeff and me. Eight climbers total in our group.
Beforehand, we had rented a few things we knew we’d need and didn’t want to purchase and/or transport all the way to California. So our group huddled up in the Mt. Whitney Portal Hostel parking lot to distribute rental gear and divvy up group gear like tents, stove, fuel and dinner food. We piled into vehicles and drove the 11 miles from Lone Pine up to Whitney Portal (8360 ft elevation).
At Whitney Portal, there are signs everywhere warning of ‘active’ bears. Hikers and campers are advised to store anything with a scent in bear lockers to avoid cars being destroyed by hungry and curious bears. This was strongly
stressed to us and we put our entire suitcase (everything we weren’t taking with us on the trail) into a bear locker where it stayed during the climb. We weren’t about to risk a bear peeling the doors off our car looking for “unscented” deodorant.
We laced up our boots and were on the trail about 10:30 am. Since we’d driven up to the Portal the night before to look around, Jeff and I had a pretty good lay of the land — so when Chris (our guide) headed in the opposite direction of the trail, we asked about our route. And as Chris turned around and said, “oh, we’re not taking the Whitney Trail,” Jeff and I realized we may be getting more than we had bargained for.
Our packs weighed around 40 pounds — containing our clothing and gear for the climb, sleeping bag, ice axe, crampons, helmet, and food and water. We both wore short sleeves and shorts that first day, along with our climbing boots, hats, and sunglasses.
That first day of climbing was a steady, sturdy hike along the North Fork with a few tricky water crossings (that required just slightly more balance than I can usually offer) and some rocky trail. The “trail” we took is called the Mountaineer’s Route. We later learned that while thousands of hikers each year take the Mount Whitney Trail up the hill, only a few hundred attempt the Mountaineer’s Route. It wouldn’t take us long to find out why. Since the route is less traveled, the trail is less defined, making things a little trickier and making it easier to get lost without a guide. The trail is maintained by the park rangers and loosely marked by stacks of rocks called cairns. But for newbies like us, a guide is a must. Our guides, Chris and Mark, were invaluable. They both had extensive experience both in the Sierras and beyond, and many international climbs. They taught us breathing techniques (pressure breathing) to deal with the altitude and walking techniques (rest stepping) to cope with the weight of our packs and the incline of the trail.
As the day progressed, there were more and more portions of the trail that required more “climbing” than “hiking” and the trail remained fairly steep. (The Mount Whitney Trail is 22 miles roundtrip and the Mountaineer’s Route is only a little over 9 miles — so that should give you an idea of the incline!) About halfway through our day, we came upon our first significant obstacle — the Ebersbacher Ledges. Our guides liked to refer to things at varying levels of “consequence”. And the Ledges were considered “high consequence”. Translation: Don’t fall. The Ledges varied between a few feet in width down to about 10 inches. Which doesn’t sound too bad until you factor in the amount of “exposure” (another climbing term for “absolutely terrifying”) and scree (loose rocks and gravel). And, unfortunately, the narrowest part of the ledges is also some of the most “exposed”. So our guides offered to shuttle our packs across so we could fully focus on balance and foot placement — and decrease our risk of a fall to the cliff below. I was more than happy to pass my pack right on across, so I could focus on looking at my feet without “looking down”. Not easy.
We made it successfully past the ledges and took a nice break at Lower Boy Scout Lake (10,300 ft elevation). I was surprised at the water quality during our entire climb. We never purified a drop — tasted delicious right out of the lake! Throughout the first day, we took breaks every 90 minutes or so to eat something and drink water. After our break at Lower Boy Scout, we continued on the rocky trail, headed UP. Portions of the trail were large granite slabs that were tough to maneuver because of both the incline and any scree or gravel that covered them — making it hard to get traction with our boots. We made it up and toward our eventual campsite for the night at Upper Boy Scout Lake (11,300 ft elevation).
We made camp around 5:00 pm, pitched our tents and started supper. As the water boiled for our three-cheese tortellini, our guides talked about what we could expect the next day — Summit Day. The tone at camp was a tense one. Everyone was anxious about the next day and I wondered if we would all make it to the top. We turned in early — wakeup call would be 4:30 am for our Summit bid.
View of the Summit from our camp at Upper Boy Scout Lake. If you look carefully at the center of the ridgeline, you can see a peak set back from the rest, peeking through, slightly lighter in color. That’s Mt. Whitney. We joked that it looks like where The Grinch lives.
Saturday, 3 July 2010
As promised, wakeup call came at 4:30 am and, after enjoying a beautiful Sierra sunrise, we were on the trail before 6:00 am. Since we would be coming back to camp that night, we were able to leave our tents, sleeping bags, and extra food at camp — making our packs much lighter for Summit day. We carried food for the day, an extra layer of clothing, crampons, ice axe, helmet, climbing harness, and all water we would need the entire day. Unlike the first day, when we were able to freely gather water from the lakes and streams we came across, any water source above Upper Boy Scout Lake would likely be frozen. We were to ration our water until we arrived back at camp that night.
Summit Day hiking was on a much less defined trail than the first day, steeper still, much more snow and bigger rocks. We wore crampons for the majority of the day. After an early morning of steep trail and some “simple” rock maneuvers we hit our first major milestone for the day — Iceberg Lake (12,700 ft elevation). At Iceberg Lake, our guides let us know that it was really the last point at which one of us could ‘tap out’ while the rest of the group carried on to the Summit. They got no takers. We were 100% headed for the top.
After a short break, we all roped up. Chris, me, Jeff and Demetria on one rope team and Mark, Laura, John and Karyn on the other. And we headed up The Chute. This was by far my least favorite part of the climb — and the part that almost did me in. The Chute was covered in 3-4 feet of snow, which was mostly solid so we didn’t sink in too far – we were able to walk along the top of it. But since time was a factor in getting to the Summit, we couldn’t waste time with too many switchbacks — so it was (what certainly FELT like) nearly straight up the mountain. With crampons, ice axe, and the rope team as support — it was doable, but the most strenuous part of the climb up to that point. We were roped about 5 feet from each other and there was no flat spot along The Chute for a break. So up the mountain we went. I tried my best to step directly into the footprints Chris was making ahead of me, but his strides were slightly longer than mine. He would kick-step into the snow to make a clear print with his boot so that the team could follow accurately and efficiently behind him. The sun was bright, and close because of the altitude, and the reflection of the heat and light off the snow started to get to me. After awhile, it was sheer will that allowed me to keep putting one foot in front of the other up that hill. It was like stair-climbing, on steroids. I started to get lightheaded. Halfway up The Chute I thought I had my mind made up that I would have to stop at the next feasible spot. I wouldn’t make the Summit.
We were headed for The Notch. From the bottom of The Chute at Iceberg Lake and on up the mountain, Chris kept telling us that The Notch is “where you see the rocks meet blue”. In other words, ALL the way up. And before I knew it, The Notch kept getting closer and closer. I would periodically look over my shoulder at Iceberg Lake getting smaller and smaller — and I realized just how far we were climbing. At one point, while I grunted up the hill, Chris turned around to say, “Sarah, I see Summit written on your forehead. Keep moving.” And I did. And before I knew it, we were at The Notch (14,000 ft elevation). And Chris informed us that the Summit was just 500 more feet. There was no way I was stopping with a mere 500 feet standing between me and the Summit. As he put it, you just gotta get yourself psyched for that last push.
And then he showed us that those 500 feet — were straight up. The last 500 feet to the Summit, was what Chris kept calling a “scramble”. Up a wall of rocks. Another “high consequence” section. We remained roped together, helmets on. And we started up the steep gulley to the summit. As much as The Chute had tested me physically, the “scramble” up the gulley was testing me mentally. I was absolutely terrified.
We tried to move quickly as the side of a cliff is not where you want to spend unnecessary amounts of time. As we were about three quarters of the way up, we saw one of the worst things you can see in such a situation. Rock fall. Our guides had instructed us to call “rock!” to the climbers below should we knock anything loose, and to watch our heads should we hear it from above. But this was big. About 20 feet away from us, in what seemed like slow motion, we saw rocks falling and heard people yelling “ROCK! ROCK! ROCK!” as rocks half the size of my car knocked loose and tumbled down the mountain, narrowly missing a few climbers just beside us and slicing the rope of a few climbers below them. After a few minutes, everyone yelled that they were OK and we all exhaled. I have no idea how those rocks missed everyone, but any and all confidence I had in the rocks I was clinging to at the time – was gone. I was more ready than ever to get the heck off that cliff and up to the Summit.
Finally, we made it to the edge of the Summit Plateau about 1:20 pm and we could celebrate. The Summit Plateau is bigger than you would think, and we had a short hike over large rocks to get to the highest point. But we were there! And it was worth every ounce of energy and every moment of fear. What a strange feeling to look out at the beautiful Sierras and know that anywhere you look, as far as you can see – we were HIGHER than that. The top of the world!
We were on the Summit long enough to rest, eat, sign the register, and take some photos, then it was time to head back. After all, as our guides had reminded us all along, this was a round-trip gig. The Summit was only halfway.
I wasn’t looking forward to climbing back down the gulley, but over the edge we went. The plan was to go about 200 feet and we would belay the remaining 300 feet. And while this meant not as many rocks to maneuver, it was a whole different variety of terrifying. This video isn’t very good quality, but it kinda shows what we were doing, and you can see me for the first 20 feet or so – before I dropped below the cliff far enough that Jeff couldn’t get me with the camera anymore.
And here’s one from the bottom, looking up at Jeff coming down the mountain. I think this gives some size perspective to the side of this cliff.
I was getting the hang of it and doing ok until the last 30 feet or so, when I missed a footing and swung right into the side of the mountain. I banged up my hand pretty good, but it could have been worse – and I looked up to see that I was back at The Notch.
After everyone made it down the last portion of the gulley to The Notch, it was time to rope back up and head down The Chute. The midday sun had started to melt the top layer of snow all the way down The Chute and it made progress slow and frustrating. We were roped together again and headed downhill so the momentum of our packs combined with the incline made things tricky. The snow was soft enough – and deep enough – that every 3 or 4 steps I would be in snow up to my thighs and had to dig myself out. This meant the entire rope team had to stop – when one person stopped. VERY slow progress back down The Chute. But we finally made it back to Iceberg Lake for a breather. We unroped and made our way back to camp, backtracking our steps from that morning. Completely exhausted. We’d all been awake since 4:30 am and had endured one of the most physically and mentally exhausting days of our lives. We made it back to camp around 7:30 pm — a 15 hour day of climbing.
That night in camp was much different from the first night. The first night had been filled with worry and tension and anxiety of Summit Day — but that second night, it was stories and laughing and congratulations. Smiles all around. All 8 of us had been on top – and we couldn’t get enough of it. Mac and cheese for supper, then a well-deserved, good night’s sleep.
Sunday, 4 July 2010
After waking up around 6:00 am, we broke camp and packed our gear for the trip back to Whitney Portal. We were on the trail by 7:30 am and it went pretty quickly. We backtracked our first day, down from Upper Boy Scout Lake, across the slabs, taking a break at Lower Boy Scout Lake. Across the Ebersbacher Ledges and the rocky trail. I feel like I dragged myself down that mountain, I just didn’t have much left. My legs felt fine – but my feet were done. Every step down the steep trail seemed to crunch my toes inside my boots until I could barely feel them. But we kept moving.
Left photo: Jeff and I with our tent-mate for the trip, Laura. Right photo: Jeff and I with lead guide, Chris. Both taken at camp the morning of the third day of the climb.
Resting at Lower Boy Scout Lake on the descent. Please note my gnarly looking legs. Many, many bruises and cuts from the weekend. Most notably a scrape on my left knee earned by tripping and skidding down a granite slab. Nice.
We could feel how quickly we were dropping elevation and it felt good! We got back to the trailhead at Whitney Portal at 11:30 am. A short morning of hiking and rock maneuvers – and a few battle scars – and we were back at the car. We retrieved our stuff from the bear lockers, turned in our rental gear, and said our goodbyes. 8 virtual strangers had come together for the weekend to share this incredible experience, and now we were all headed our separate ways.
SMI provided us both a Summit certificate that reads:
…successfully completed a summit climb of Mt. Whitney via the Mountaineer’s Route. A variety of mountaineering skills were employed including team rope travel, and rock climbing over class 3 terrain. The ascent finished at the 14,497′ summit of Mt. Whitney, the highest point in the contiguous United States.
Monday, 5 July 2010
Monday morning, Jeff and I woke up in our hotel in Los Angeles in time to do some packing and catch our flight back home. We were a sorry sight, laying around our hotel room babying our bruised arms and legs, and STILL digging Sierra dirt out from under our fingernails – but really proud of ourselves for taking advantage of an unexpected adventure. We laughed pretty hard at our ignorance of both the mountain and what would be required of us on the Mountaineer’s Route. But knowing what I know now, I wouldn’t have it any other way.
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