Sunday, June 22, 2014

Mt. Whitney via East Buttress in 15 hours (5.7 trad, Alpine, 11 pitches, 1000', Grade III)

My infatuation with mountain climbing began 4 summers ago.  I wanted to get to the top of as many peaks as I could.  I've made several lists and goals when it comes to peak bagging and climbing, most of which are still a work in progress, as are the skills required to reach several of these mountains.  Mt. Whitney has long been on my list due the appealing technical routes it offers and its' title as the highest mountain in California and the contiguous United States.  

This weekend Luke and I drove to Lone Pine, California from Salt Lake City to climb Mt. Whitney.  The drive was eventful in and of itself; we ran out of gas in the middle of the Nevada desert. After 4 hours, we had several new acquaintances in Ely, a new gas can, a good story, and we were back on the road.


We camped at the Whitney Portal (trailhead) on Thursday night with the intention of climbing a technical route called the East Buttress in a single day.  Most parties will take 2 or 3 days to climb this route. However, we decided we would rather carry less gear and move light and fast - there are advantages to each method.  More recently I have adopted the light and fast method in the mountains because a) I usually don't have much time and b) I'm not a fan of carrying stuff I don't need.  So, we started the 4-mile, 4,300 ft approach at 4 am, hoping to be back down before dark.

For the most part, the approach to the climb followed a well-marked, albeit steep, trail with short sections of class2/3 scrambling. By 8:30 we were at Iceberg Lake near the base of the route to the summit.  The weather was clear, warm, and windless - a perfect day for some alpine climbing. We filled our bottles with ice cold water from the lake and prepared for the 500 ft scramble to the route and the 1,000 ft rock climb.  We scrambled up big blocks and ledges to the beginning of the East Buttress route, which follows a steep ridge/arête to the summit.

Sunrise at 5 am!  Only an hour of hiking in the dark up the North Fork of Lone Pine Creek
Getting into the high country, Mt. Whitney is still hiding.
Looking up our route from Iceberg Lake.  The East Buttress route starts near the top of the left snowfield and follows a prominent ridge to the summit.

Pitch 1:
Luke led this pitch up a fun, sustained left-facing dihedral and steep blocks to a ledge.  ~60 m @5.7
Luke leading the first pitch on the East Buttress

Pitch 2:
I led this pitch up steep blocky terrain up and around the right side of the tower. ~50 m @5.5
Luke coming up the easy terrain near the top of Pitch 2 on the East Buttress
Pitch 3:
I led this pitch right up the wide ridge on a steep, poorly protected face and then up and over easy, blocky terrain to a big belay ledge to the right of the arête. ~60 m @5.7

Me leading Pitch 3 on a poorly protected and runout section of the East Buttress.  There is a piton but you can't clip a biner to it because it's hammered down to the wall.  An easier variation goes around the face to the right.

Pitch 4:
Luke led this pitch (perhaps the best) up a shallow right-facing corner, which transitions into a steep dihedral just right of the arête.  ~60 m @5.7
Luke leading the excellent, fun, and exposed 4th pitch on the East Buttress. 
Me finishing up the 4th pitch on the East Buttress

Pitch 5:
We simul-climbed up and to the right of the Peewee Block until the climbing got harder again, just above the block. ~100 m @easy 5th
Luke coming up easy terrain on Pitch 5, which we simul-climbed. Iceberg Lake can be seen below.
Pitch 6: 
Luke led a short pitch up a steep and thin right-facing dihedral. ~30 m @5.7

Pitch 7:
I led this final pitch up steep flakes and a small roof. I ran out the rope up 4th class terrain to a nice ledge with a view of the summit block. ~65 m @5.6
Luke coming up the final pitch towards the summit block.  IceBerg Lake is almost 1,500 ft. below.  We were a couple hundred feet of scrambling from the summit at this point.

We unroped and scrambled up the summit block to the top. We climbed the route in 5 hours (started at 9:30 and finished at 2:30).  We spent 20 minutes on the summit taking in the views of the numerous alpine lakes, jagged peaks of the Sierras, and the beautiful alpine valleys of Kings Canyon National Park below.  We then made our way towards the Mountaineers route for the descent, knowing we still had to hike down 6,000 vertical feet.
Luke and I on the summit of Mt. Whitney (14,495 ft.)
Looking north from the summit of Mt. Whitney
Looking down the East Buttress from the summit of Mt. Whitney
Looking down the Mountaineers Route on Mt. Whitney
The Mountaineers Route (in summer conditions) is the pits, plain and simple.  The route is a 30 m wide steep gully full of loose boulders and scree.  With each step, you risk dislodging a rock onto climbers below and slipping yourself.   However, we made it down without killing anyone or ourselves and we were back at Iceberg Lake in about an hour and a half.  We got some water and made the long hike down to Whitney Portal.  We reached our car at 7 pm - exactly 15 hours after we started.  This was one of the best climbing trips I have done to date.  No complaints. 

*We used a 70 m alpine rope and brought 6 cams, a set of nuts, and several slings. 

That night we got dinner in Lone Pine and camped outside of town.  The following day we made our way up Boundary Peak in Nevada.  We knocked off two state high points in 2 days.