by Stefani Dawn, edited by Wendy Marshall
In the planning stage, I recalled the primary lesson from our Mt. Ogden practice: allow more time. First, this means time to acclimate to the altitude, but also to decompress and rest, and allow for unplanned incidents. Estimating the climb at a safe minimum of six hours, ten at most, our team of three — Rick, a friend Simon and I — started before sunrise. But time leaked away with each photo, lead switch, and equipment catch. Most especially, repeated attempts at route-finding gobbled up minutes. One surprise time-sink for us was simply stepping aside for other climbers to pass, since we wanted to enjoy our route and not feel rushed. I have never climbed with so many people on a route before. Future hopefuls, take note: Mt. Whitney is a climbers’ super-highway!
We went for efficiency, each person leading multiple pitches in a row to minimize switching leads. Another person flaked ropes or transferred gear at the same time, and at least two of us or even all three climbed simultaneously as often as possible. Still, the pauses added up, and we topped out at 7 p.m. — 12 long hours after we started.
Immediately after summiting, we tried to descend by the Mountaineers’ Route, but sunset was upon us. We found rock cairns and crude Xs, but after peeking over the edge of each one, told each other: “This looks bad.” As light vanished and the temperature dropped, we decided the safest choice would be to bivy on the summit. Whitney is in the Sierra Nevadas, but the altitude coupled with clear skies can still mean bitter cold. Neither had we planned for a bivy; we had only our extra clothing layers, plus remnants of food and dwindling water. Fortunately, there’s a stone and wood hut at the summit, where some thoughtful soul had left an emergency blanket. We piled under the noisy, reflective fabric and huddled for protection from the freezing ground and rapidly stirring winds.
Soon we heard voices and saw headlamps. We greeted two more climbers with a hoorah, and two more 30 minutes later, all from the East Face route. Yet two more, off the East Buttress, opened the door to chat, then went off to attempt Mountaineers’ Route in the dark, leaving us to shiver and try to sleep. These other climbers relieved my mind somewhat. Before they arrived, I wondered how we had so radically miscalculated our time. I thought, “What could we have done differently?” Given what we knew, and that it was our first attempt at this mountain, not much. We’d chosen safety first, and enjoyment next, based on our gear arrangement. Doubts set in: Was I too slow a climber? Should I not have lead any of our 12 pitches? As we discovered, about half the climbers took even longer than we did. All were first-timers, and most were dumbfounded by the maze-like mess of the last five pitches. Whitney in a day, we learned, is not the norm.
Next morning, we still had no luck finding Mountaineers’ Route. Instead, Simon found a steep scree path on the northwest side. I found myself sliding, barely in control. Large rocks tumbled by me, then disappeared over the curve of the slope with echoing crashes. I froze and began sobbing from fear and exhaustion, thinking, I can’t do this. I could think only of an article I’d read about people dying on an alternate route, falling into the small alpine lakes below. From his vantage point ahead Simon reassured us, but I’d reached my wits’ end, and I didn’t want my physical or mental state to slow them down. I insisted Rick give me the spare gear, to lighten his and Simon’s load. Rick wasn’t happy about our splitting up, but agreed to let me take the gentler hikers’ trail, 11 miles to the parking area, with another four miles down the Lone Pine Creek Trail to Iceberg Lake. Emotionally relieved, I made do with a fruit bar and some water donated by a kind group of folks, and took micro-naps in the sun.
The Whitney trail stretched on, pounding my toes, but my legs held up surprisingly well. I thought of Rick and Simon, hoping they succeeded unhurt in their risky descent. The Whitney Portal Valley appeared, and as I passed the Lone Pine Creek trailhead, I saw Rick, running toward me with his 50lb. pack still on! He and Simon had found a viable descent even faster than the Mountaineers’ Route. Their choice isn’t a good route if there’s a risk of ice, and they met a few sections with “consequences”, they said, but nothing steeper than where I’d had my meltdown.
I felt grateful my teammates were willing to meet me, cutting our odyssey short by a day, and grateful to my husband for taking up the extra gear. Rick and Simon were completely understanding of my decision, and informed me that the prospect of beer and a burger was plenty motivation to get off the mountain.
I can now safely assert that Mt. Whitney is beyond the “common climber”, as I call it, even with an ultralight approach. It’s both easy and not easy, and should not be underestimated. I learned a lot, felt proud and grateful, had fun, and got down safely. But I also got whipped!
If you plan to give Mt. Whitney a shot, here are a few things to keep in mind:
- The approach to Base Camp is 4000 ft. in four miles — doable, but a strain at times.
- The Sierra Nevadas are mostly sunny in summer, and Whitney doesn’t get the typical daily summer mountain thunderstorms. Still, be prepared for season storms to sneak up on you, and it can get quite cold.
- The East Buttress climb is a 5.7 or less, if you can find the right path. Route-finding can be a challenge, especially at the top, where you can be met with an unprotectable 5.10 grade climb! Then it’s down-climbing, traversing, whatever you can, to get to something climbable.
- Once again, allow plenty of time, emergency and/or overnight supplies, food and water.
About the Author
Stefani Dawn’s favorite pasttime is rock climbing, especially easy trad, multi-pitch and technical sport climbs. Her second favorite pasttime is writing about rock climbing. Third favorite? Hosting outdoor meet-up events to connect with other climbers and mentor newbies. Check out her website, Common Climber (http://www.commonclimber.com/), for articles, tips, reviews, and photos. Submissions invited!