Sat, Aug 24, 2002
Whitney Portal is probably the busiest trailhead in all of the Sierra. Even without Mt. Whitney, it would still be popular due to its access to so many other fine peaks and the backcountry of Sequoia NP. But Mt. Whitney is the jewel that draws the crowds, and they were out in great numbers on this fine Saturday morning. It was a little past 5:30a as we drove up the road and passed the first and largest parking area, unrealistically hoping I might find a parking space further up. Not only were the upper lots full, so was the large lower one, and we ended up parking alongside the road about 1/2 mile down the road from the trailhead. There were a lot of people here! David, Michael and myself went up to the trailhead with our gear where we met Thad (who'd missed us on the climb of Cathedral the previous weekend) and John (from SummitPost). Joe, who was the only other person besides myself to hike every day so far, had taken a rest day today, leaving five of us to climb Mt. Russell. While we waited for John to get his things together (he'd driven from the Bay Area the night before, arriving at 2:30a), a stranger asked me if I was Bob Burd. "Why, yes..." I replied, wondering who this guy was - we'd found everyone we were supposed to meet that I knew of. He introduced himself as Branch Whitney. He'd read about the Challenge on the Internet, and had half expected to meet up with us. He was leading a party of seven to Upper Boy Scout Lake, most of whom planned to climb Whitney via the Mountaineers Route, he and his wife heading to Mt. Russell. Strange coincidence, and suddenly there were 12 people heading up our "little used" route up the North Fork of Lone Pine Creek. While we waited at the trailhead, car after car would stop and unload hikers and backpackers every minute or so. Photos were taken in front of the trailhead sign, the driver would return shortly, and off they'd go. Branch and his party left about 15 minutes before us, and at 6:10a we were all set to go as well, headlamps ablaze.
Thad was out in front setting a pretty mean pace, John behind him, myself third, Michael and David behind me. The first mile follows the Whitney Trail. A sign at the first creek crossing states simply "This is NOT the North Fork of Lone Pine Creek." More than a few parties have mistaken this creek for it, and ended up wasting hours thrashing about in the bush above (and making a use trail that added to the confusion). A quarter mile later we came across the second creek with a sign indicating we had the correct North Fork, and all five of us left the trail to the right. From here on up was new territory for me, so I was feeling like the hike was just beginning. The use trail is pretty good here, but steep and twisty under the heavy jungle cover creekside. Thad was sweating up a storm in setting a pace he couldn't maintain, and paused to catch his breath as John and I went by. That was the last I ever saw of Thad. John forged ahead at a more reasonable pace, but still pretty swift. Before we'd crossed the creek back and forth a few times, it was light enough to go without our headlamps. The sun soon rose in the east and began to light the high peaks, only the tips of which we could see now and then. We passed by a small waterfall cascading over a rock by the trail. After crossing back over to the north side of the creek, we came upon the famous Ebersbacher Ledges, purported to be exposed class 3 ledges that take one up a steep hillside to Lower Boy Scout Lake. We found the ledges easily enough, well marked with more ducks than needed, and many footprints on the sandy ledges marking the way. Fifteen minutes and a few zigzags, and we were done with them - they hardly seemed much bother, and not much more than class 2.
Above the ledges we angled back toward the creek to climb a 300-foot headwall below Lower Boy Scout Lake. We could see the other party of seven in front of us, spread out on the sandy ledges leading up the headwall. When I reached the top of the climb I found the party resting in a group on the northeast side of the lake. I crossed over the outlet of the lake to the south side, and found a large rock to rest on and wait for the others to join me. I enjoyed the lake and the wildflowers that grew along the shores while I waited. Branch's party passed by before we'd partially reassembled. Thad had fallen back with a slower group of two other climbers as reported by David, so after a 15-minute rest the four of us headed out again. The use trail continues to be good all the way to Upper Boy Scout Lake. Halfway there, around Clyde Meadow, I caught up to other party again, and began to pass them one by one on the steeper slopes above the meadow. Large ducks marked the now less-than-obvious route up some large granite slabs, the creek trickling down via several braids along the slabs - none difficult to cross. Michael had been the only one to remain in sight for most of the way from Lower Boy Scout Lake, but as I approached Upper Boy Scout Lake, even he was behind. I chatted a bit with Branch and his wife when I caught up to them. He'd sent the rest of his party to the left towards Iceberg Lake. I left them after a few minutes and hiked across the outlet of Upper Boy Scout Lake to the north side, and wandered along the lakeshore to the western end.
Looking back I saw no sign of Michael or the others. It was almost 8:30a, and though still early I felt like I was running behind schedule. I didn't know if I'd have the energy to attempt Whitney as well, but I wanted to leave myself plenty of daylight if I found I had the energy once I was on Russell's summit. I decided to keep going and stop waiting for the others - they would do fine without me I rationalized. I continued up the canyon, next seeking out the small lake shown on my map about halfway up. This would likely be the last reliable place to get water until the afternoon. When I reached the lake, I was disappointed to find it a dry lakebed, the lake bottom hard and cracked - there'd been no water here for many weeks it seemed. Of my two water bottles, about a quart and a half total, I still had about 3/4 of the water remaining. Should I just continue on? Worried about running out later, I hiked back down the canyon a few hundred yards to where the water could be found spilling out from under the moraine. At least I didn't have to go all the way back to Upper Boy Scout Lake! I drank all the water I could stand, refilled the bottles, and headed back up. I followed the canyon bottom as much as I could to avoid the loose, sandy hillside on the north side of the canyon. Having worked the canyon bottom as far as I could, it was eventually time to begin the grind up the south slopes.
The route quickly became tedious. Loose, very loose sand and talus, each step lost about a third of its gain in backward slides. I tried to find the most solid looking rocks to stand on, hopping from one hopeful line of ascent to the next, each one disappointing in turn. Up to now I had been hiking steadily, but now I stopped more and more frequently to rest. 1000 feet of such horrible hillside without letup. I had chosen this route because it was said to avoid the tedium of climbing 1500ft of similiar ground on the southeast slopes out of Clyde Meadow. Try as I might, I couldn't imagine the other slope being worse than what I was now climbing, unless perhaps it was a pile of sand. As I climbed higher I kept imagining (hoping in vain) that the ground above was more solid. It wasn't. Aside from a few scattered wildflowers, almost nothing grew on these slopes. Behind me at least were some fine views of Whitney to enjoy while I rested, and as I climbed higher I could see further south to McAdie and beyond. Two thirds of the way up I could finally see the length of the exit chute that would take me to the Russell-Carillon Saddle, and I imagined it would be a fun class 3 rock climb. It wasn't. Just more of the tedious sand-talus mixture. Finally, halfway up the chute, the sand did relent, and the climbing became more enjoyable. Perhaps the hundreds of climbers before me had simply knocked all the loose sand down from the upper half of the chute.
As I exited the chute I felt a rush of relief, and my tiredness that had dogged me abaited. It was just past 9a, I was at 13,200ft walking on level ground and now feeling great. I wandered over to the saddle and looked over the north side for my first ever view of Lake Tulainyo far below. Roughly oval-shaped, its large size is surprising considering its elevaton is over 12,800ft. I've read several places that this is the highest lake in the continental US. Alas, it is not even the highest lake in California. A higher one can be found just northeast of Caltech Peak. Still, it is a beautiful view from the saddle, with many fine peaks, including Mt. Williamson, in the background.
I'd heard that the climb to Mt. Carillon was a "freebie" and had a fine view of Russell's East Ridge besides. I timed myself to see just how easy it was. Mostly sandy ledges and then some fun boulders along the summit ridge, there were a few false summits before the actual one holding the register was reached. All this in just eleven minutes - it had been fairly described. I took some photos of some great views to Russell, Whitney, McAdie, and Lone Pine Peak, then headed back down to the saddle and started east towards the start of the East Ridge. By the time I got back to where I'd first topped out on the plateau, 40 minutes had elapsed - not bad for a fun little diversion to Carillon.
The lower part of Russell's East Ridge is not too interesting from a climbing perspective - boulders and talus - but the views are grand the whole route. I soon caught up with a solo climber who asked if I was Bob Burd. That was the second time today I'd been asked that by a stranger! It turned out to be Frank Dikken, who'd I'd exchanged emails with several times in the past year. He'd thought about signing up for the Challenge, but in the end decided to do his annual trip to Mt. Russell - this was his sixth climb up the East Ridge! After a bit of chatting I left him and continued up the ridge. The route becomes better the higher one goes, though most of the route is no harder than class 2. To make it more challenging (this was the Challenge, afterall), I tried to stay on the very edge of the ridge rather than take the easier alternatives on the north side. This brought the difficulties up as high as class 4, with one spot encountered that I could not climb over. I diverted down the north side for about 10 yards to get around the sharp point before continuing back on the ridge proper. There were a few stretches of knife-edged exposure, where the top of the ridge is only a foot wide, and a few short hops over some gaps as well. Part way up the East Ridge I came across Branch and his wife. They were going slower now, she not as comfortable on the ridge, he waiting patiently for her to follow his lead. Looking back, I was now well above Carillon, and quickly approaching the east summit of Russell. After an enjoyable climb of the East Ridge, I topped out on the east summit and started for the west summit, about 150 yards distance.
The ridge connecting the two summits is similar to the upper portion of the East Ridge, a narrow knife of rock connecting the two. I carefully scanned the South Face of Russell as I traversed, looking for descent routes into the large chute on the face below. This has been described as anywhere between class 3 and 5, depending on which guidebook or trip report one reads. There are in fact a variety of ways one can climb the final headwall, which seems to be the only technical problem on the South Face. Half way across to the west summit, I encountered the crux move, a very short class 3+ section that involves a five-foot climb on the narrowest part of the ridge. The footholds are good, but not so the handholds, and it takes a bit of a mantle to pull oneself up. After that, it was an easy walk the rest of the way, and I arrived at the summit at 11:40a, 5 1/2 hrs after setting out. After nine days of climbing, I was highly acclimatized and feeling no ill effects from the 14,000ft+ altitude I found myself at. The register box had been placed by the California Alpine Club, a rarity - most seem to be place by the Sierra Club. Inside I found several interesting entries - Josh Shwartz's free-solo of the Fishhook Arete, and Jack McBroom's entry from 11 days earlier, on his way to setting the CA 14er record. The views from the summit were outstanding, and I marvelled at the sheer number of high peaks surrounding me in almost all directions (E - ESE - SE - S - SW - W - NW - N) . Mt. Whitney stood out most of all, dominating the view to the south, only a mile away. I studied its massive North Face. It looked very, very long. I was now considering very seriously what the effort would be to climb Mt. Whitney by this route. Certainly it would be easier to descend to the Whitney_Russell Pass and then to Iceberg Lake than to climb an additional 1,500ft to Whitney's summit. Would I have the energy? Hmmm. I remembered the tedious descent the day before from University Pass, how we spent several hours in a boulder quagmire we thought would never end. Would the descent from the pass down to Upper Boy Scout Lake be similar? I hadn't gone that route before and hadn't studied up to well on it - so that was unknown. Then it occurred to me that if it was a tedious cross-country route, it might actually be faster to climb Whitney where I could pick up the Whitney Trail all the way back down. In hindsight this seems an absurd supposition, but at the time it helped convince me to tackle Whitney's North Face.
I retraced my route towards the east summit, passing Branch and his wife at the crux in the middle. They both watched me descend, then I hung around long enough to watch Branch climb up first, then coax his wife up as well. A bit of amusement was provided when she cut him off short at one point after she'd decided he was offering a bit too much advice. Branch had a sling with him that he offered her as protection, holding one end firmly in his grasp. She put the sling around her wrist, but did not weight it as she very much wanted to claim a free ascent. Once she was successfully up, I waved goodbye and headed on my way. I found an exposed class 3 descent route into the broad chute on the South Face which offered about three or four minutes of exciting downclimbing before I was safely down to the class 2 chute. After than, it was 1,000ft of climbing down the steep and loose chute. Not unstable to the point of feeling dangerous, but enough to be annoying. Nearing the bottom I heard voices, or thought I did, off in the distance. The wind? Others about? I heard the voices again more distinctly, a climber calling to his partner. To the west I found a small dot attached to a rope heading up the Fishhook Arete. I doubt they ever saw me, concetrating as they were on the task at hand. I t was 12:30p when I finally got to the bottom, and began a wide, curving traverse to the east to avoid losing more elevation than necessary. It didn't take me long to reconsider that plan, and I ended up cutting the traverse short by losing more elevation to make a more direct line towards Whitney's North Face.
|David's Account||John's Account|
From below, the North Face of Whitney looked as steep as it had an hour earlier from Russell's summit. There was very little snow on it in late August of a dry year, which I'd heard can make this face dangerous. But it was still very steep, and 1500ft high. I'd already climbed over 5800ft getting to the summit of Mt. Russell, and this extra bit was going to beat me up I was afraid. Well maybe not afraid, because I didn't spend too much time trying to talk myself out of it, but it was a concern. There were probably a hundred people on Whitney's summit by now (it was 12:30p), but there was no one to be seen anywhere on the face. Just a lot of white granite boulders piled high and steep.
From the summit of Mt. Russell, the left side of Whitney's North Face appeared to be the more difficult side, home to cliffs and blank sections that didn't look class 3 or easier. The right side looked more uniformly boulder-strewn, but it would require a diagonal traverse across the face to reach it. I aimed for a small pinnacle of rock that was about a third of the way up the face and about a third of the distance across the face. The pinnacle sat on one of several, small vertical rock ribs that run down the North Face. Once I reached the pinnacle, I climbed over the rib and began the traverse to the next rib a few hundred yards distance. Half way across the face I no longer had difficult-looking cliffs above me, but the walls were steep and exceedingly tedious-looking with loose material waiting to be caught underfoot. I continued traversing until I reached a more pronounced rock rib that looked to provide a more solid footing to the summit. This it did, and more. I found the climbing highly enjoyable up this rib, class 3 most of the way, over large blocks and outcroppings that formed the rib. While my energies were being sapped on the traverse, I found the additional climbing no longer a drain as I had a fine time climbing the rest of the North Face. After little more than an hour of climbing from the saddle below, I reached the summit plateau. As a "plateau" it's a bit deceiving from this side - though it no longer has the steep pitch found on the face, it is still a bit of a hump to the summit. Another ten minutes and I found myself amidst the summit crowds at the top of the Sierra and the continental US.
The summit register was full to overflowing, visitors were writing their names in the margins of the loose sheets found in the register box. I didn't bother to sign in, and took my obligatory summit shot (why are they obligatory again?), one of the NPS plaque embedded in the rock, and started down. I don't think I stayed more than ten minutes on this visit. On to Mt. Muir!
Mt. Muir is little more than a bump on the Sierra Crest as it rises to the summit of Mt. Whitney. Though it is a short fifteen minutes off the Whitney Trail, it gets only a fraction of the visitors making the pilgrimage along the trail. Mostly it is of interest to rock climbers (on the steep eastern escarpment) and peak baggers (like myself) who can't let a named fourteener go unclimbed.
Descending from the summit of Mt. Whitney, I made my way at a jog down the Whitney Trail. It was just before 2p on a Saturday afternoon, and the trail was quite busy with hikers coming and going. Most still seemed to be on their way up. Having already climbed seven fourteeners in the last four days, I was well-acclimatize and feeling no effects of the high elevation. I smuggly enjoyed passing the majority of folks who were struggling with the thin air, who in return gave me looks of surprise or disdain, depending on their mood. The atmosphere of my hike had changed from a solo cross-country excursion to a party after traversing over Whitney's summit. There were people almost everywhere it seemed.
After passing by Keelers Needle and Crooks Peak, I began to keep an eye out for the easy-to-miss turnoff to Mt. Muir. Though I had been up it once previously, my recall wasn't good enough to make this an easy task. In fact I managed to overshoot it by some 50 yards or so and I ended up climbing to the crest a short distance south of the summit. I traversed left and got myself to the right location to climb up the west side of the summit. A few class 3+ moves were the only real difficulties before I found myself on the summit at 2:30p. I found the register and signed in, pausing to take a few pictures, north and south. The climbing was now over I felt inside, as the adventure turned to the business of getting back to the trailhead. I climbed back down the correct route, noted the rather large cairn at the trail junction that I had missed, and continued down the trail.
My biggest concern now was not running into a Forest Ranger. I had no permit to be using the Whitney Trail, most of which falls within the special Whitney Zone, which requires permits even for dayhikes. I didn't know what the fine might be, but I imagined it would be considerable, perhaps several hundred dollars. I peeked around the corner as I approached Trail Crest, where I was relieved to find only some other hikers resting, no rangers. The next likely place would be Trail Camp. As I jogged down the 99 switchbacks above Trail Camp, I could see all of the camp layed out below me, the people were just small moving ants and it was impossible for me to discern if any of them were ranger ants. I noticed that most all of the other folks on the trail had their brightly colored permits conspicuously attached to their daypacks, and I felt very self-conscious with my lack of the same. I hoped I might find a lost permit on the side of the trail like I had the year before, but no such luck this time. As I neared closer to Trail Camp I stopped jogging altogether and paid closer attention to the activity below. I looked to see if anybody was regularly stopping those moving along the trail - everyone seemed to make unimpeded progress. A few hundred yards away, I spotted a returning pair in front of me that weren't sporting their tags on the outside. A break! A ranger would likely pop out and stop them first I reasoned, so I hung back about 50 yards, or enough room to give me a chance to do something should I spot a ranger. Exactly what I would do I hadn't really thought out. Do I turn around and head back up, and then make an end-around once out of sight? Make a run for it? After eight and a half hours of hiking, my mental capacity wasn't exactly overflowing.
At Trail Camp, no ranger accosted the hikers in front of me, and I slipped through behind them still undetected. Below Trail Camp I hit upon the idea of asking those on their way up if they'd seen a ranger below. The first pair I asked this of looked at me a bit suspiciously, but then said there'd been a ranger down at Mirror Lake. I thanked them as I continued on, but had to wonder if I was getting accurate information. He seemed to have quickly discerned why I'd asked the question, and then may have pondered whether to tell me the truth or make me worry needlessly. It was feeling a lot like one of those psychology experiments. Down near Mirror Lake I tailed another party heading downhill, but no ranger materialized there. I asked another backpacker heading uptrail, and he indicated there was a ranger down at the meadow checking permits. I forgot to ask him which meadow he was referring to when I thanked him and continued on my way. Coming down from Mirror Lake, the trail opens to a huge meadow. The trail continues on the west and south sides of the meadow, passing through Outpost Camp on the way. If there was a ranger about, I figured he'd be over on the south side I guessed. I couldn't just leave the trail and walk through the meadow - the view would be wide open to anyone hanging out along the trail. I thought of the bright idea of hiking through the woods on the north side of the meadow to avoid detection. Unfortunately I only got about 50 yards before the brush was hopelessly entangling me. Worse, the trees were thinning out, and it would be pretty obvious to someone across the meadow that I was thrashing about the north side. Dang.
I went back to the trail and found another party to tail all through Outpost Camp and through the meadow. No ranger. The trail then heads downhill again before coming to the turnoff to Lone Pine Lake. I was finally safe here, out of the dreaded Whitney Zone. But where was the ranger? Had both of the parties lied to me? I suspect there probably was a ranger, but he was moving downhill - probably wanted to get back to the trailhead before his shift ended at 5p. I started jogging again, hoping I might catch up to a ranger, but never did see one. I got back to the trailhead right at 5p. I felt stupid for wasting two hours worrying about a ranger as I probably would have enjoyed the descent a good deal more otherwise. Oh well. It had still been a fine day, bagging four peaks including three 14ers. Eight days of the Challenge done, two to go!
For more information see these SummitPost pages: Mt. Carillon - Mt. Russell - Mt. Whitney - Mt. Muir
This page last updated: Wed May 16 16:56:59 2007
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