Mountaineers on the Route
(an ascent of Mt. Whitney)

18 Jul 1998 - by Tony Cruz

A bird crapped into Pat Ibbetson's face as he drove my minivan over the Sierra. This made Eddie Sudol, Greg Johnson and myself furiously happy. We laughed merrily and without pity as poor Pat wiped his mouth clean. Late Thursday night we arrived at our campsite in the Alabama Hills. After some beers that we had bought in Bishop (two jugs of Mississippi Mud and some Millers) and the customary sharing of crude jokes, we went to sleep under a clear sky. It was uncomfortably warm most of the night.

Friday morning we drove to Whitney Portal and had a HUGE breakfast at the little store-and-restaurant. My omelet was so big that I split it with Eddie. I picked up an excellent free newsletter called "Mt. Whitney Trail Report" that described recent trail conditions and gave advice. It gives the website for the store, which also has current information on Mt. Whitney.

About 9 a.m. we started our hike up the Whitney Trail. Just before the second stream crossing we got off the main trail, turning right onto a use trail along the North Fork of Lone Pine Creek. This year there were more snow plants in the shaded area just beyond the junction; I counted eleven in a single bunch. I fell behind the others and lost the use trail just before a stream crossing. I made a painful bushwhack that left me with a scratch on my arm that I'll never forget. It was to blister and itch for several weeks and leave a scar. Perhaps it was Karma for laughing at Pat the day before. It took some bouldering before I got back on route. I was able to avoid these difficulties on my previous two forays in this drainage.

I caught up with the others below the Ebersbacher Ledges. Three stream crossings were required vs. two last year, due to the exceptionally heavy runoff. We ascended the ledges without incident As was the case on my two other trips up the North Fork, I was exhausted by the time I got to Lower Boy Scout Lake.

We took a long break at the lake, admiring the beautiful surroundings, snacking, filtering water and checking out the golden trout. We continued on the faint trail as it went around the south side of the lake. I stayed low this time as the others hiked on a higher use trail. I was pleased to get my wind back and to find that my use trail continued all the way to the boulders next to the cascade that flows into Lower Boy Scout Lake.

Once we got to the slabs just below Upper Boy Scout Lake, we found an excellent campsite next to running water. The plan had been to hike another mile or so to Iceberg Lake, but nobody wanted to go any further.

Early Saturday morning we set out on the rocky slope south of Upper Boy Scout. There was a fair amount of snow in good condition. We took our time hiking up to Iceberg Lake, which was still almost entirely frozen. The Mountaineer's Route is a long couloir just north of the east face running up from Iceberg Lake. We met a party that had started early that morning from the Portal, intending to climb the Mountaineer's Route, in time to return crampons they had rented for the day. It was already late morning and they decided they weren't going to make it on time. Since another party had reserved the crampons the next day, they decided to retreat.

Our party continued, with Eddie and Greg forming the "A" team and Pat and I lagging behind. The lower four fifths of the chute was covered in well-consolidated snow. It was not very steep, only 30 degrees. Excellent steps had been kicked by earlier parties and improved by Eddie and Greg. The going was much easier than I had anticipated. I took several breathers waiting for Pat to catch up. His worsening altitude sickness was severe enough by the time he got to the top of the chute that he decided to call it a day. By then we were at 14,000 feet and had done all the hard work. It was a shame that Pat didn't feel well. I would have pressured him to continue, had it not been for the dangerous next stretch. It was about 4 p.m. and by this time Eddie and Greg were descending. I was a few hundred yards from a spot on the plateau less than a quarter mile from the peak. We were in the middle of a heat wave and the skies were clear and the views were great, especially that of the south face of Mt. Russell.

I left my pack next to Pat and proceeded into an icy rut made by climbers before me. The rut was relatively safe and easy, but the ice made me nervous enough to retreat after several meters. I put on my crampons and returned feeling more secure, especially after crossing the icy section onto good, firm snow. This 60 degree snow slope was not a good place to practice my arresting skills. A picture of the mountain I bought at the Portal reveals this steep snow slope gets much steeper down below.

I crossed the first stretch and went over a rib onto another snowy stretch. I could have gone straight up class 3 snow and rock from here, but I could see the easy rut in front of me, leading to the plateau. From there I spotted Eddie and Greg on the plateau. They walked down a little too far and had to trace their steps back to the rut. We met on the third and last snowy stretch. Eddie and Greg were in great spirits; this was Greg's first ascent of Whitney and Eddie had wanted to do this route for years. I was appalled that Eddie had left his crampons at the chute and I let him know that I didn't approve. Eddie is a fine climber but he sometimes takes unnecessary risks. A few weeks before, while descending Shasta without crampons, he took a spill and fell 600 feet. He was lucky not to have been injured on Shasta, but here such a fall might have been fatal. In fact a climber fell and died on this stretch on descent, just a few weeks after our trip. I told Eddie and Greg that I was climbing alone to the top and they agreed it was OK. I also asked them to stay with Pat until our campsite was in view.

I hurried ahead and left my crampons where the snow ended. After a few meters of bouldering, I was on the class 1 plateau. A few minutes later I was on a use trail and few minutes after that I was on top. It was about 5:30 and I guess I was the last climber to make it that day. I had the huge summit all to myself. A few hundred meters to the south I saw the last day hiker winding his way down the trail. There was nobody camped on the plateau. I signed the register, went into the hut, took in the splendid view and hurried back.

After knocking over some cairns I had left to mark the spot where I had left my crampons. I snapped on the spikes and hiked back to the top of the chute. I waved and yelled down to the others, who were already most of the way down to Iceberg Lake. They were relieved to see me and continued their quick return to camp. I took off my crampons, climbed down to where the snow began and sat down to glissade, not getting off my butt for at least 1,200 feet.

Thanks to the wonderful glissade, I got well below Iceberg Lake before darkness fell, but made it only about half the way to camp before I turned on the huge flashlight I had borrowed from Pat at the top of the chute. I got off route in my attempt to find the quickest way back and lost about an hour as a result. Fortunately the lay of the land and my familiarity with the area made it easy for me to get back on track.

When I saw Eddie and Greg's flashlights, I made a slight course correction. I heard Eddie yell "if you don't get here in 10 minutes, we're going to drink your beer!" I quickened my pace and when I arrived at camp, Eddie said "just kidding" and handed me an MGD. Surprisingly, I didn't even get a buzz from it. We laughed when Eddie told us what he was going to do to the marmot that had stolen his food. That morning Eddie was about to hang his food bag from a large boulder away from camp. But when he saw that Greg and I had hung our food on a shorter boulder next to camp, he decided to hang his next to ours. Since the varmint had taken only Eddie's bag, I shared some of my food with Eddie We had a good night sleep and early Sunday morning we hiked out to Whitney Portal.

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