A Thor-n in my side

17-18 Dec 2003 - by Will Mollandsimms

On Wednesday December 17th I drove up to Lone Pine in hopes of climbing Thor Peak. My original idea was to start hiking by mid morning on the Whitney trail, camp near Mirror Lake and ascend Thor Peak the next day. Unfortunately it did not work out this way.

After a three hour drive from my home in Tarzana, I got to Lone Pine with marvelous blue skies and calm winds. I had high hopes about this day. As I drove up the Whitney Portal road I could see several cars going up the switchbacks, so I assumed it would be no problem getting up. Unfortunately as I went around the last corner before the switchbacks I noticed a Lone Pine police cruiser parked in the middle of the road. I stopped and asked the officer what the situation was. He told me that there was a Lexus commercial being filmed on the road and the only was I was going to get up there was to come back when it was dark. Seeing as it was ten o'clock in the morning this seemed a bit harsh, but I wasn't about to try anything funny. Feeling rather heart-broken I drove turned around and went Independence. I decided to try and get to Onion Valley in hopes of getting something out of this day. The road was clear until about 7500 feet, but there were only a few inches of snow on the road even at this point. Thanks to four wheel drive I was able to make it all the way to Onion Valley. Here I practiced my snowshoeing technique and took several pictures. After several hour of meandering through the eighteen inches of pure powder, I drove back down in hopes of making it out before the road iced over. I camped at Independence campground and went to sleep in hopes going back to the Whitney area the next day.

On the 18th I got up and drove right back to Whitney Portal road. I had waited until the sun had been shining on the road for close to an hour before I drove up, hoping it would be less icy. This time there were no Lexus commercials being filmed and I was able to drive to the trailhead. I got my ice ax, food and water and set off up the trail before nine. The only goal I had was to see how far I could make it, as I was uncertain how favorable the snow would be. There had been two other people to go up the trail since the last snowfall and their footsteps, as well as the trail, were not very difficult to follow. The snow was quite firm and relatively easy to walk on, even without snow shoes. I was able to make it to a very frozen Mirror Lake before noon. I decided that I had enough time to make an attempt at Thor Peak.

I skirted across to the north side of the lake and began to ascend to north slopes. It was here that I realized how hot it was. Until I began ascending this slope I was in the shade. Once I got into the sun it became clear I was well overdressed. Wearing three layers of all black the fifty degree temperatures and blazing sun were going to take away all my energy fast. Nevertheless I continued up. Not surprisingly most of the snow that got sun exposure was totally melted and all that was left was the sand and scree underneath it. This made the ascent just that much slower as every couple steps up resulted in a slide down a step or two. At first I traversed slightly left to avoid one small rock wall. Then I traversed right to the lowest point of another rock wall. Here a couple of easy 3rd class moves were encountered. After I went up the easy class three there was a series of chutes. The first one looked truly awful so I skipped it. The second one did not look that bad at a distance so I decided to give it a shot. What a mistake that was. The bottom of the chute contained a few tricky class three moves. From here however the only way up was a very dicey forth class face which involved balancing on an increasingly narrowing ledge. I wanted no part of this and carefully went back down. I remembered an earlier trip report which said the fourth chute was a good one. So I traversed through the sand and scree looking for the fourth chute. I came across the third chute and discovered a vertical rock wall that blocked the third chute from the forth chute. It seemed the only way to get to the fourth chute from here was to go back down to where the rock wall ended which was far below where I was. I decided to go up the third chute instead. This proved to be challenging, but not impossible. There is one section at the beginning where a couple easy third class moves are encountered. This section is not much harder than the third class at the first rock wall. From here there was a nice section of surprisingly stable scree, and finally a section of exposed third class. This section is a bit challenging, but nothing truly impossible.

I was now at the top of the ridge looking down at the Owens Valley. The peak itself was to my left. The only way to get to it however was via the backside of the ridge I was on. I began my traverse and quickly discovered how hard this would be. In the summer I'm sure this is an easy second class traverse, but right now there was waist deep power everywhere. I very slowly made my way over until I came to a notch. Lo and behold I was standing at the top of the fourth chute. From where I was standing I was no more than 100 yards away from the summit and no more than 100 vertical feet from it.

It was here I made the wisest decision of the day. I turned back. Seeing as the sun had been eating away at me for the last two hours at least, not to mention it would have taken me probably half an hour to go the last few feet, as well as the fact that I was almost out of water and it was getting late I knew I had to get back to the car. So, I set off down the fourth chute. Soon I discovered that about two-thirds of the way down there is a small gap in the rock wall separating the third and forth chutes. I missed it going up, but it is actually quite possible to get to the fourth chute and this way is no more than second class. I continued going down and traversing left until I got to the first rock wall. Going down this section seemed much easier than going up it for some reason. About halfway down I began to feel quite ill. I concluded that I was not only exhausted, but also getting dehydrated as I had run out of water at the beginning of my descent. I slowly made it all the way back down to Mirror Lake where thankfully I could get some water. I gulped down much cold creek water and slowly made my way back down the trail. I was able to hike all the way out before it got dark and was back to my car at 4:45 after a truly exhausting day. If only Lexus had decided film another day I would have been able to complete my ascent, but alas, such is life.

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