A Night on Mt. Whitney

by Stefani Dawn, edited by Wendy Marshall

So many people climb Mt. Whitney, the continental U.S.’s highest peak, that permits can be hard to obtain. Most climb it via the hiking trail, while others take the steep scree-fest of Mountaineers’ Route. Still others go by the technical East Face or East Buttress. A number of people climb it, including the technical pitches, in a day. A typical strategy is to assemble the least amount of gear needed, park at the Portal, and ascend 4000 ft. to Base Camp. Then you climb either the East Face or East Buttress 1000 ft. more feet to the full 14,505 ft. elevation, then descend by the 2000 ft. Mountaineers’ Route. Finally, you hike back down over four knee-busting miles to the Portal. The idea not only sounded like a rough prospect to me, it blew my mind. Still, I like a challenge, and knowing people regularly do it got me thinking: “Maybe it’s easier than it seems.” So, after an attempted climb of Mt. Ogden with my husband Rick, followed by some training, I took Whitney on.

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!


Families Mountaineering 101

Lillie on a Tyrolean Traverse at Horsethief Butte. Photos: Mari Williams.

This was why we were here—to test and challenge ourselves, and to experience that exhilaration and joy together as a family.

by Grace Taylor

That sunnyday in September was the first time I’d seen blue sky in weeks. The Eagle Creek fire had darkened the skies and caused us to cancel the first of our scheduled field sessions with FM101. But this time, a cool, crisp wind had cleared the air for our first outdoor climb.

After learning about the ancient paintings hidden among the rocks at Horse Thief Butte, we split into groups to practice our climbing and rappelling skills in the open air. Lillie, my 13-year old, headed off with a couple young assistants. My 9-year-old son James and I teamed up with John, a more experienced climber, and his two girls.

I’ll admit to holding my breath watching James rappel down 100 foot cliffs. But nervousness turned to joy when he came down beaming—as proud of himself as I’d ever seen him. This was why we were here—to test and challenge ourselves, and to experience that exhilaration and joy together as a family.

When I next saw Lillie she proudly announced she’d climbed all the routes and passed all the tests for her skills cards. At some point Craig, one of the assistants, had us follow him to a route he’d set up near the trailhead. “Why don’t you give this one a try?” he suggested to Lillie. She studied the route and listened as Craig coached her through how to do a lay back. There was nothing easy about this route. She tried a couple of different approaches and struggled in places, but just kept at it until she got to the top anchor. When she was out of earshot, Craig told me that the entrance crack was classified as a 5.10b “I just wanted to know if she could do it,” he said.

These were exactly the moments I’d hoped for when I signed up for FM101. It’s not always easy finding activities all three of us enjoy together. The two kids are different enough in age that their interests and abilities don’t overlap much. We love camping and being active with friends outdoors, but when it’s just the three of us, it’s a lot to manage. And, we all need the company of others to make it fun and motivating.

Lillie blew me away, not only by mastering skills quickly and taking my breath away with her climbing, but by being a leader and a helper for our family. She kept track of our assignments, studied the course material and helped manage our gear.

James did great too. He didn’t always love listening to lectures, going through safety checks or practicing knots. He got frustrated when he forgot a knot or a technical term. All he really wanted to do was climb rocks. And climb more rocks.

Lillie Taylor Steward belaying at Horsethief Butte.
I did my best to keep up with them. Sometimes I scrambled to get gear and lunches packed after a long work week, or skimmed my way through a reading assignment. I showed up as prepared as I could be, and learned a ton. Our coordinators Brian and Kirsten did an amazing job presenting the material in a way that was engaging and empowering to kids.

All the assistants were great, including the kids who helped lead and teach the sessions. All were patient, kind and encouraging. All were competent and clear in giving instructions. When James was frustrated, they helped him keep going. When he stuck with something they gave him praise. When I was losing patience with him, they gently brought him back to focus with playful humor and respectful reminders so we could all succeed together.

I’ve had a great time climbing, and feel ready for more adventures. Lillie has joined a climbing club at the Rock gym. James is ready to climb more rocks and do more camping, and knows that he can learn difficult things. We met lots of great people and kindled friendships I hope will grow over time. All of us want to go climb mountains.

Lillie's Perspective

by Lillie Taylor

I have been entranced by climbing since I was eight. Watching people scale the reaches of the world’s greatest peaks and hidden wonders has kept me entertained for five years and I have finally convinced my family to jump onboard with me. FM101 has been the perfect way to engage mom and James in something I’m passionate about and hope to continue in the future. After completing this class, I feel ready to complete all sorts new challenges. I have learned how to make myself feel secure on a wall, and put trust in myself and in others. I hope that I can come back to help with future sessions, and intend to become a stronger climber over time. This class was what I needed to feel confident in my own abilities.

James' Perspective

by James Taylor
I really loved the climbing and the snow session. I liked how at the snow session there was a surprise, and there were a whole bunch of games in Mazama lodge. For the rock climbing part I really liked climbing and belaying.



Questing on a different type of fun on a first ascent of a hard new mixed route in Colorado. Photo: Karsten Delap

by Chris Wright

Billy Joel says honesty is a lonely word, yet both he and my mother always told me it was important. I know you know this, but I’m telling you now too: it is. It’s hard sometimes, but as Shakespeare reminds us, “To thine own self be true.” If you’re not, you will know it, and when you’re up on that crimp high above that wiggly little cam or strung out on a ridge in goodness-know-where wishing to anything you weren’t there, you may wonder why you put yourself in this position. When it comes to climbing, as it does in so many of life’s avenues, if we could only be honest with ourselves, we could be so much happier for it.

Here’s what I mean. If you’re anything like me, you do things for a lot of different reasons. Some you have to, some you want to, some you enjoy, some you don’t, and some you like sometimes and not so much others. So it is for me with skiing. I love to ski. I’ve done it since I was a little kid, I do a lot of it for work, I do a fair bit for fun, and mostly I like it. My favorite is touring; I love the feel of being out in the mountains, moving elegantly though them, setting a skin track, and getting up high. But what I love the most is the movement. I love laying my skis over on edge, skiing fast, and the feeling of flying that I get when it all lines up just right. But I hate skiing moguls. I hate crud and choppy snow, I don’t like it if it’s icy, I’ve no interest in dropping cliffs (okay, maybe little ones), and I certainly don’t see death-fall faces as my idea of a good time. So if I’m honest with myself, I know I don’t really love to push it in skiing. Sure, I love big days. I like long tours, ski mountaineering, and skiing the steeps. But I’ll never be motivated by the extreme line, the gnarliest huck, or the sickest spine. I know I could probably get better if I logged endless crud laps and drilled myself on the bumps, but it’s just not who I am. I ski because I love the feeling of it, and it doesn’t have to be hard to be good. When it comes to climbing however, my motivations are different.

Give me a painful jam, an epic adventure, a miserable bivy, a god-awful slog and I love it. Give me a nice crimp, a nice crack, a long route, a hard route, a short route, or an easy route and I’d probably take it. I love to climb for so many reasons. I love the feeling of being up in the air, I love the struggle of a hard move, and I even like the feeling of groping desperately, pumped stupid, not knowing if I’m going to fall any moment. I like the uncertainty of seeing how far I can go, how high I can climb, and how far I can take it, knowing the beauty is in the un-assured outcome. But I also like a nice classic 5.easy, I love the feel of a good move whether it’s hard or it’s not, I like big mountains and small, and I’d be lying if I said that I wanted to push it everyday or that I could always wake up and go questing. Sometimes I just want to go climbing, and I don’t want to be scared, or to bleed, or to fall off at all. I just want to go powder skiing, if you know what I mean.

So here’s where the honesty comes in. Freud used to say that we can change what we do, but not what we want to do. That may or may not really be true, but when it comes to climbing – or skiing, or hiking, or running or whatever – you can’t fool yourself into wanting to do what you don’t want to do. You might very well be able to actually do it, but if we do these things for fun and you’re not having any, then what’s the point? Because even if you get up the climb or down the run, if you hate it, why do it?

One of my good friends and climbing partners gives sage advice sometimes. He’s not trying to be profound, but two things he’s said to me over the years have really stuck. We were once standing underneath Heinous Cling, one of my favorite climbs in Smith’s famed Dihedrals, and I was fretting that I hadn’t been on it in a while and didn’t remember the moves. He told me that I should just climb or fall off, and to not make it any more complicated than that. So simple. He also once told me I should grab the white ones and step on the black ones, which if you’ve ever done that route is surprisingly useful beta, but the point is that it worked for me that day. Over the years I’ve found that the days I climb the best are the days that I can just get out of my head and climb. Those are the days when I’m not thinking about falling, I’m not thinking about the buts and the ifs and the doubts, I’m just climbing. But I know that’s not going to happen if I try to go hard every day I go out. I’ll probably have a lousy time, I might fall off a bunch, I might let my partner down, and worst-case scenario I might actually get hurt. So I try to be honest with myself when I ask the simplest of questions in choosing an objective: What is it that I want? Do I want to go on a vision quest, or do I just want to go climbing? Do I want to go big or do I just want to get out? Do I want to dig deep, or do I just want to have fun?

As a mountain guide I’ve seen this experiment play out again and again. I’ve seen people have the most moving experiences and the lousiest vacations, and the bad ones are almost always the result of people throwing themselves at things they actually didn’t want to do. Whether it’s because they never asked the question or didn’t give themselves permission to respect the answer I’ll never know, but for your sake and your partner’s, just try it. Ask yourself what it is you really want to do today, and listen. Sometimes it’s going to be the case that you really do want to venture out in to the void, to pull harder than you ever have and to embrace the uncertainty of success. Sometimes the noble struggle will leave you so satisfied you’ll be glad you fought through it. Other times you might just wanna ski powder, or climb something that’s fun, even if it means that it’s easy. We do need to train our weaknesses, but not every day. It doesn’t always have to be a voyage of self-discovery. Sometimes we can just let ourselves be, give ourselves what we want, and enjoy it.