Every once in a while the stars align: the team comes together, schedules open up, the weather cooperates, and the spirit of adventure beckons. Mojo. This was such a trip. The plan was simple - six days in the backcountry to climb the uber classics including the East Buttress of Whitney, as well as Mithral Dihedral and Fish Hook Arete on Russel. Lots of pitches on golden granite at fourteen thousand feet - it makes my hands sweat thinking about it!
The four of us had eagerly anticipated the date ever since the permit was secured months before. We rolled down from Reno on August 5 and camped in the Alabama hills before heading in to Lone Pine to pick up our permit. Arriving late that night, we slept under a sky filled with stars and awoke to the familiar sight of Sierra granite.
Here's the Whitney formation with Keeler Needle and Mt. Day basking in the glory of the early morning light. I've seen it a few times before, but it amazes me how this group of peaks explodes with beautiful light prior to the sun cresting the horizon on the valley floor - it's very dramatic. And like everywhere else in the Sierra, the farther in you go, the more amazing it becomes. The folks cruising by down on 395 have no idea what's back behind those hills.
These peaks can be climbed individually in one long day, which is likely the approach to use if you're fit and doing a single route. The best bang for the buck though, is to go in heavy, set up a high base camp at Iceburg Lake and knock out multiple routes that sit at your doorstep. This is what we did.
Our approach up the North Fork of Lone Pine Creek has a quota of only 12 people per day, making permit acquisition difficult but leaving the trail and climbing routes relatively crowd free. By 8:30 the permit is in hand and we're making turns up the road to the Portal, excited to soon be strapping on the packs for six days of adventure. Our packs weigh in at around 50 pounds, mainly due to the climbing gear and the bear canisters with 6 days worth of food. I actually only had five days worth, but got by with a little help from my friends.
Tim, John Carlo, Tyson, and myself begin the athletic climb up the climbers trail which pretty much follows a consistent 20% grade for over four miles to reach our base camp at Iceburg Lake. The heavy packs ensure a high level of suffering which is a prerequisite for any proper wilderness adventure. For me, high effort equals high satisfaction.
Amazing base camp at 12,500 ft
Iceburg Lake sits at an elevation of around 12,500 ft and is a paradise for those who love the moonscape environment of high sierra granite. It is a barren, treeless place, but there is a stark beauty there that you must experience to understand. Each morning, I witness the intense pink alpenglow light up the peaks which builds surprisingly quickly to incredibly vivid colors before the full sunlight mutes the color back to grey.
The morning glow
First up is Mount Whitney. We debated over which of the two classic climbs we would attempt: the East Face or the East Buttress. In the end the buttress was chosen since most of the trip reports indicated it offers a direct route with more sustained climbing. Our two teams of two progressed up the route enjoying the great rock and position on the highest peak in the lower 48.
We were blessed with perfect clear skies and virtually no wind. This route eats up protection and you can pretty much find a placement for any size piece on all of the pitches. There are no sustained sections and a very small rack of nuts is all that is required. The routes on Whitney are soloed fairly frequently, and I can see why. Pictured here is Tim approaching the peewee formation.
After ten pitches or so of climbing with some simu-climbing mixed in, we pull onto the summit which we share with the many hikers talking on their cell phones. It is anti-climatic. The route was enjoyable and the rock quality and position are awesome, but I'm not sure I would give it the ultra five star classic rating it usually receives. Route finding was straightforward, the climbing was easier than the grade, and none of the pitches really stood out as truly memorable. Based on the overall experience, the routes on Russell are really full value and have a much more adventurous feel.
We descend the Mountaineers Route route back toward camp while eyeing the destination for tomorrow's climb.
Back at camp, we sort gear and prepare for the Mithral Dihedral. John is sitting this one out, so it will be a team of three. I'm a bit intimidated of doing hanging belays in the corner with three of us and we practice using the guide ATC to ensure we have the two-rope technique down. The wind is picking up a bit and we know tomorrow will be cold. Trip reports we had read indicated the corner doesn't go into the sun until around 1pm and there was no way we were waiting that long to get on the route. We hit the bag around 9 and I notice within ten minutes that my thermarest has gone flat. Not a good sign.
The morning dawns clear but cold as we begin the approach to the base of Mount Russel.
There is some tricky class 3 leading to the start of the climb, and there is no mistaking where you begin. Splitter cracks right from the get go and two fun pitches lead to the true dihedral. The 400 ft corner is the crux of the climb, which is usually broken into 3 pitches.
The previous night, the three of us had drawn sticks to see who would lead each of these pitches. We take this game seriously, and since I always seem to lose on the rock-paper-scissors deal, I was happy to try something else. Tyson ended up with the first pitch which leads up to the base of the off-width section.
Tim climbed the long and beautiful fourth pitch which was the crux of the route. This section is where some amazing photos are taken of climbers on the route. In order to get the shots, however, you need two teams to get into a position to take the photos. Maybe next time. The photo below shows Tim climbing the off width section.
The fifth pitch is mine. Cruiser splitter cracks leading to an overhanging lieback finish. Amazing - but I don't feel that great. The first 40 feet or so go fine, then things start to go sideways. I don't know if it was the altitude, the third strenuous day in a row, or just lots of jamming on the previous pitches, but intense finger cramps set in. I cannot open my fingers without prying them open with my teeth! My partners below shout encouragement, but I'm just in trouble. It's high drama. I fight it as long as I can and try to continue to move up, but it's no use. I fall onto the piece below me and it pops. I'm not really sure what happens next, except that I fell about 30 feet. Looking up, I notice that my highest piece is still up in the crack and there's a chunk taken out of the sheath of the rope. Heart pounding hard here. Discussing it later, we surmise the rope must have ripped out of the biner similar to what can happen when you back clip a short quickdraw. In any event, I was grateful to have two strong partners to ensure we got to the top of this mountain safely. Here is a photo of Tyson leading that fifth pitch.
From the top of the corner, there is still lots of climbing remaining to reach the summit. Storm clouds are beginning to form as we try to hurry. This is not a route that you can bail from without considerable effort and there is enough low 5th class sections to prevent soloing to the top, at least for us. There is a sense of urgency now as we take in the amazing views to the south.
Sussing it Out
A few pitches later, we are on the top. Storm clouds are still threatening close by to the west, so we have a quick bite to eat, shoot a couple of summit photos and begin the decent. It was an adventure fulled day that I will undoubtedly remember for a long time. That's Tyson in the back, Tim on the left, and me in the front.
As we continue the descent back to base camp, we glance up at the arête route that we will attempt next.
After three strenuous days at high altitude, we take a rest day and hang out at camp. There are a few other parties also camping at the lake and it's always interesting to share experiences of the climbing. Surprisingly, most of the climbing teams coming through we're bound for the mountaineers route, which this late in the summer is a loose boulder slog. Our last remaining climb would be the Fishook Arête, again up Mount Russel. I had been looking forward to this one for a long time, ever since my first trip into the area a decade previous. While technically less difficult than the Minthral route, it is a wild and exciting route that is very exposed the entire way, and has sections that cannot be protected.
Again the morning is cold. We look forward to the warmth of the sun. We climb the first two pitches which have some tricky route finding which you would not expect when viewing the route from a distance. Things get spicy at the third pitch.
This is the funky third pitch, which is the technical crux. It's also my favorite photo of the trip. The climbing above is spectacular. Airy and exposed the whole way with some serious runouts thrown in.
We follow the arete progressively higher and encounter a couple of routefinding issues to figure out. In the end, the arete terminates right on the summit.
From the top, we take in the same view we had two days previous. For me, this last route was my favorite of the trip. It is long and athletic, exposed with great position, and is never really easy or casual. Mithral is classic for sure, but the stellar climbing ends after five pitches half way up the mountain.
This was a very memorable trip, and I thank my partners Tim, Tyson, and John Carlo for sharing in the fun. We could not have accomplished what we did without teamwork and trust. Above all though, I think we share in a love of the mountains and a thirst for adventure in the wild place. Cheers.