East Face of Mt Whitney

8 May 1999 - by David Harris

Craig Clarence, Bruce Bousfield, Chris Sproul, and your humble scribe David Harris took a trip to the East Face of Mt. Whitney on May 7-8.

The snow level was about 9000 feet on north-facing slopes and about 10000+ feet on south-facing slopes, but some areas were completely free of snow, including the top third of the Mountaineer's Chute at 14,000'.

On the drive from Lone Pine we could see that all of the low-angle rock on the East Face was covered with snow (indeed, the snow served well to indicate the climbing route!) The steeper East Buttress was almost entirely free of snow, so we contemplated changing our objective. However, Craig had already climbed the East Buttress and preferred to stick with our original objective if possible. A sturdy-looking climber parked next to us was headed up to Russell or possibly the unnamed peak west of Russell. He ventured an opinion that the East Face would be possible. Later I found out that the climber was Galen Rowell.

We made a leisurely approach to Iceberg Lake, arriving early afternoon. From there we could survey the route with binoculars. The Washboard and Grand Staircase were full of snow, but the steeper parts, including the Tower Traverse and Fresh-Air Traverse, were clear. We decided to attempt the face at first light Saturday morning.

When the moon rose in the early hours of the morning, I was treated to a fabulous view of the pale gray and white of snow and granite on Whitney and the needles. I can never remember for more than a week at a time quite how awesome the Sierra Nevada actually can be; each time I return I marvel at the sights as if I were there for the first time.

We had a chilly start with temperatures around 20 degrees and frozen boots, but warmed up as the sun rose and we headed up the slope to the notch behind the First Tower. By the afternoon, we felt like we were climbing on a pleasant August day! The snow is melting quickly and has diminished significantly in the last week.

We climbed as two rope teams of two. The first pitch, the Tower Traverse, was exciting in mountaineering boots. It featured rounded holds and great exposure. Ascending the chimney at the end to the snow-covered Washboard would have been trivial in climbing shoes on a nice day in Joshua Tree, but required a good deal of thought when full of ice. We donned crampons for the easy march up the Washboard, then removed them at the top to cut left across a small wall and over the Fresh Air Traverse. The most pleasant part of the climb was done; the route ahead was full of loose blocks and scree, chimneys with icicles, snowy slabs, and ice-filled cracks. Altitude and dehydration began to take their toll on me; I was glad to follow as Craig led most of the remaining pitches.

We topped out about 2pm. Sierra Classics notes only 3 5th class pitches, but we encountered stimulating climbing on ten of our twelve pitches and took longer on the climb than we'd initially expected. Even with so much snow, the mountain was already crowded; about 20 people signed the summit register on Saturday.

The couloir descending from the summit to the notch at the Mountaineer's Chute contained a mixture of rock, ice, and consolidated snow but didn't require a belay. The upper third of the chute was free of snow; the remaining part was in excellent condition for rapid descent. Indeed, a snowboarder had already cut turns and many skiers were headed up. Another team of burly dudes climbed the East Buttress and reported it was almost completely clear of ice. They had climbed the Mithral Dihedral on Russell two days earlier and found no snow problems there either. Summer is arriving early this year.

Having a stack of exams to grade by Monday morning, I left Iceberg Lake about 4:30 and descended. Despite sinking knee-deep in the snow once every 20 steps or so, I made it down in under two hours and was grateful to be on snow rather than talus most of the way. The remainder of the team descended on Sunday in two hours with much less postholing. Rowell also returned about the same time on Sunday after an ascent of the Fishhook Arete on Russell.

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