The route is more serious than some descriptions would lead one to believe. After the first two pitches or so, retreat is probably not feasible. A thunderstorm could become entirely too exciting. Although Roper's guide says passing towers on the left (east) makes the route largely class 4, it appeared to us that this strategy would increase rather than lessen the difficulty, except in one case to be mentioned.
Secor's guide says to cross Meysan Creek just below Little Meysan Lake. This is probably right, but the lake has apparently silted in and dried up. We left the trail at about the 9,600-foot level at a flat section with a campsite, just after a short downhill, and walked straight over to the creek. Willows and nettles made the crossing something of a struggle. The "100 Classics" book says you climb a gully to the ridge-probably a bad idea. We reached the ridge safely and easily by going up and left from the creek crossing, following a diagonal ledge system marked by bushes and trees. Then we scrambled on up to the top of a pinnacle visible from the Owens Valley. From the notch on the other side of the pinnacle we started the climb just to the right of the crest.
The first three or four pitches stayed on the right side of the crest. Then we took a brief diversion to the left side to pass a pinnacle. At about pitch 6 we reached the notch below a large, imposing tower, which I will call the Dormitory. This is the broad tower seen midway along the ridge from Owens Valley. All the climbing to get this far was fourth or easy fifth class.
At this point, Secor's guide gives puzzling instructions about "class 4 ledge systems" and "area of polished rock." The Dormitory, has a wide ledge all along its west side, and people have made bivouac pads along this in several places by flattening out little spots in the decomposed granite. We spent the night in reasonable comfort at the pad closest to the notch. Temperatures stayed well above freezing.
In the morning, we started climbing precisely at the notch, heading up and right, passing an old piton, to a belay ledge. The next pitch involved a lieback that, to be fair, should probably be rated 5.6. After the lieback, easier climbing led up and right to ledges and bivouac pads near the top of the Dormitory.
An easier way up the Dormitory might be found by starting 30 feet to the right (south) of the notch, on the west side. At least getting off the ledge looks pretty easy there, and it may be the way Secor intends to describe.
Proceeding south along the ridge crest, we continued about 150 feet to where it narrows to a fin. Some parties apparently hand traverse or straddle the fin, which is probably the more sporting way to go ("airy but easy" says one account). Secor describes a "300-foot class 3 traverse." I suppose we failed to recognize that a "traverse" could head directly toward the objective instead of sideways. Apparently, some parties drop down eastward here on easy ledges, heading for an obvious bivy pad at the base of the next pinnacle of the ridge. This is what we did. From the pad we climbed up and left for perhaps 400 feet on class 3 slabs until we found a little corner we could downclimb to enter the gully along the base of the final headwall. Then we scrambled up the gully to regain the crest at a notch.
At this point we completely failed to understand the Secor guidebook. The choices as we saw them were few. The bottom 10 feet of the headwall was vertical. Just over the notch on the west side was an offwidth crack that looked to be at least 5.9. Just below the notch on the east side some finger cracks seemed to offer the only reasonable hope of progress. Tired and low on water, we needed these chinks in the mountain's armor to give us a break. They did, but they provided the crux move of the climb-- probably 5.6.
Above that move, we climbed about 50 feet of easy crack, then headed diagonally right to cross over the rounded prow of the headwall. Then we went straight up for several pitches, staying just right of the prow, following the path of least resistance. Safe and enjoyable climbing continued all the way to the top, with seldom a need to use gear.
Analyzing the situation in retrospect, it appears that Secor's guide suggests finding a ledge and traversing to the right across a dangerously loose gully instead of doing our crux move. Secor's way may be easier, but one account describes the gully crossing as "suicidal." The way we went is not dangerous and stays more true to the ideal of climbing the ridge rather than a face on one side or the other.
In getting off the mountain we followed ducks that led into a chute ending just above Grass Lake. The ducks actually lead to a choice of chutes. We took the one with the better ducks, the more southerly chute. It was nasty, but reasonably safe, with no drop offs.
We started our adventure from Whitney Portal at about 6 am, and got back at about 9 pm the next day. Both days were calm and hot, and we got very thirsty, even though we each started out carrying nearly three quarts of water. Strong parties can do the whole route in a day, but they don't get the experience of bivouacking. Starting from a camp near the first creek crossing may be a smart idea, because walking up the trail to that point takes time and energy. Good physical conditioning and climbing skills above the 5.4 level are important regardless of game plan.
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