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East Face of Mount Whitney

Mount Whitney in morning sunThis was a 3-day backpacking and technical climbing expedition to Mount Whitney, 14495 ft./4418m, the highest mountain in the United States outside Alaska. On August 27-29, 2004, Dirk and I successfully climbed it via the East Face route, a technical rock climbing route with a 5.7 difficulty rating. I had attempted to climb it two years ago via the popular Mountaineer's route (class 3), but failed due to weather-caused delays; that trip became an epic when we lost our way in the middle of the night in the Ebersbacher Ledges area. Boy do I know the way around now! I was ready to redeem my route-finding reputation in the North Fork of Lone Pine Creek drainage, the one that caused us so much grief before.

This was the most important trip planned for this year, and I took the Friday off work so that we have three days to do it. Dirk brought all the technical climbing gear, as well as a rope which I would carry up the mountain. After heading to the Eastern Sierra on Thursday night (8/26), we camped near the Mammoth Lakes ranger station so that we can get up in time to wait in line for the coveted wilderness permit. To our surprise, we obtained the permit without problems the next morning. After a satisfying breakfast in Bishop, and shopping for some gear (I bought a down jacket, as from my experience last time I knew Iceberg Lake is a very cold place) we headed to the trailhead at Whitney Portal.

Hiking started around 11 am, when it was already hot and dusty on the trail. We made fast progress in the North Fork Lone Pine Creek drainage, partly because of my familiarity with the route. The drainage is very steep and the overall horizontal distance to the summit is only around 4 miles. Dirk's constant encouragement and funny conversation kept me at a faster pace than usual, distracting me from the hard work of carrying a heavy load up 4000 vertical feet to Iceberg Lake (12600 feet). I was proud that I was able to follow the easiest way throughout the route even though there is no official trail in the drainage. Ebersbacher Ledges were easily overcome. In late afternoon, I began to run out of steam and lagged behind Dirk further and further in the basin northwest of Iceberg Lake. This basin was filled with loose moraine, and had some large blocks of pure quartz used as cairns. There was no vegetation whatsoever, giving an impression of extreme bleakness, like Iceberg Lake above. The last obstacle before Iceberg Lake was a short section with small waterfalls, which took a little effort to overcome.

Around Iceberg Lake were many camps of climbers, with whom Dirk and I made conversation. There are three primary routes to the summit from here, the Mountaineer's Route (class 3), the East Face (5.7), and the East Buttress (5.8). Our plan was to go up the East Face route and descend via the Mountaineer's route. Since I had no experience with either routes (last time Vladimir made it up the route, but I waited at Iceberg Lake), I was apprehensive about the Mountaineer's Route because I had heard of many fatal accidents on that route, especially during descent.

Overnight I took advantage of the light of the full moon to take long exposure shots of Mount Whitney, a dramatically soaring spire when viewed from this angle. I had never camped at this altitude before, but my new down jacket made the night very warm and comfortable.

On Saturday morning we started hiking up before sunrise. There is 1000 vertical feet of scrambling before the start of the technical climbing. The scrambling was fairly easy, although somewhat exposed. Although we took much time to figure out the start of the East Face route using maps and descriptions printed from Summitpost.org, we were able to start climbing without waiting for other parties. On the other hand, there was already a few parties waiting to climb the East Buttress route. It seems our choice of the East Face route was the right one.

The East Face route is rated among the 100 classic climbs in North America, it is a very roundabout route taking the line of least resistance on the sheer East Face of Mount Whitney. There are several hard pitches but there are also a lot of class 4 or easy class 5 in-between. The "tower traverse" section in the beginning was the most challenging and frightening, because one must walk along a narrow, down-sloping ledge while the vertical wall above it is smooth and has no features to hold on with your hands. Below the ledges are smooth vertical walls extending hundreds of feet. I needed some encouragement, even though I was tied to a rope (I was aware that if I fell, I would swing down and hang there by the vertical walls below). Eventually I made the 15 feet of traverse by walking sideways while facing the wall, hugging it with my hands. It took me about half a minute for each step, as I gingerly shifted my weight sideways. After this pitch, I was able to unrope and scramble several pitches of easy class 5, which impressed Dirk. Since I was leary of the Mountaineer's Route descent, I was intent on making through the climbing as fast as possible to make sure we had daylight during descent. On the low-angle "washboard" section I used hand and foot jam techniques, which made me feel secure. Along the way we saw a party working on an aid-climbing route (called "hairline"), who had bivied on a big ledge last night. They were clinging to ropes hanging from an incredibly smooth pillar of granite. They asked us for water but we didn't have much to spare. The next roped pitch on our climb was the "fresh-air traverse", which was just a short step-over, no big deal after the "tower traverse". The following chimney pitch was also easy. In between we unroped for the "grand staircase", which was very safe, but one must be careful no to knock down huge amount of loose rock on the big ledges. After the chimney pitch, we unroped for the final scramble to the summit, but I soon became mired in steep, difficult terrain, although never in serious danger. After Dirk pointed the correct way, I was able to finally make it to the summit shortly after. I was extremely exhausted physically and emotionally, but we made it there well before sunset.

The emotions overcame me briefly as I finally made it to the highest point of the continental United States, after a long, exhausting climb. After a long rest we took some hero photos, then proceeded toward the Mountaineer's Route, which were new to both of us. We found the correct chute on the north face, which was indeed steep and dangerous even without snow. The chute was steeper than the class 3 chute I climbed on Middle Palisade. Imagining what it was like when Vladimir climbed and descended this two years ago, after a snow shower the previous day, gave me a lot of respect and understanding of the difficulties he went through. Very carefully, we made it down this, to a notch on the ridge on the right where we would take the East Gully down. The gully was not as steep, and was filled with loose rubble, making every step a slide. As the sunset approached, we headed down the gully in good time, but suddenly we were rained on by hundreds of rocks flying down at very high speeds. Neither of us wore a helmet at the time, which was in hindsight a mistake. We quickly ducked and used our hands to protect our heads. The raining rocks lasted two minutes, and a few small piece hit my body and face, fortunately nothing big. We put on our helmets, and concluded that the rocks must have been knocked down from the East Buttress route. Because it was getting dark already, we feared these East Buttress climbers would have a rough time descending in the dark.

We made it to the camp around 8 pm with our headlamps. I was happy that there was no major difficulties during descent, and relaxed in our tent. I noticed that numerous spots of light appeared in the Mountaineer's Route gully, obviously from headlamps of descending climbers. I took a picture of this using long exposure. Even around 2 am when I woke up briefly, I still saw these spots of light high up there. It must have been a long day for these climbers.

The descent on Sunday morning was uneventful, as I remembered the way to go down the Ebersbacher Ledges. This trip gave me a lot of confidence on technical rock, and Mount Whitney is the highest peak I have reached to date.

Previous trip to Mount Whitney: Attempting Mount Whitney in 2002

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