Mt Whitney - East Face Route in a Day

12 Aug 2006 - by Rick Booth

This is a project in the category of "do you think you can....." The blank to be filled in is "climb the East Face of Mt Whitney in a day". The answer is, of course, yes, since soloists routinely climb this route car-to-car in a fraction of a day. I was more interested in the question as to whether a climbing team of two ordinary mortals using a rope could climb the route from the car in a day. The answer to that is also yes but it about kicked our butts.

I had attempted to do this project last year with Dee Booth. We made a tactical error and used the trail to try to get back to the car instead of using the Mountaineers Route to get to the North Fork Trail. This trail is gawdawfull long and my back arthritis caught up with me after a while and I ground to a halt a couple of miles from the parking lot. The bivy blew the 24 hour time limit.

This year I decided to try again as long as I could convince another person to give it a shot. The popular concept is that persistence is a virtue but I am beginning to think it is really a synonym for dumb. In any case, Linda Sun volunteered to give it a try, based, no doubt, on not knowing what she was in for. Armed with a more than capable partner and a new pack that would hopefully be less stress on my back the project was on.

On Friday, August 11, Linda and I headed out for Lone Pine. We pulled into the lower campground below the North Ridge of Lone Pine Peak about 9:45 PM and were hopefully getting some sleep by 10 PM. The alarm clock was set for 3 AM. We dragged our sorry selves out of the sleeping bags at the appointed hour and headed up to Whitney Portal to join an inordinately large number of nuts who were also heading up the various forks of Lone Pine Creek at that hour. Amazing. After a lousy coffee-free breakfast Linda and I headed up the trail at 4:30 AM using our headlamps.

We hit the North Fork cut-off quickly and headed up, only to be followed by a squad of the aforementioned nuts, who apparently were suffering from the delusion that we knew what we were doing, and thought perhaps we knew the way up the regular Whitney Trail. Linda politely informed them of the location of the trail that they were looking for and off they went. We hit the Ebersbacher Ledges just as the sun was making its presence known and by about 6:30 AM we pulled into Lower Boy Scout Lake. We took a short break here and were passed by three lightly equipped young men who informed us they were headed for the East Ridge of Russell.

Linda and I continued hiking up above Lower Boy Scout Lake across the slabs and up to the outlet from Upper Boy Scout Lake. At this point we could see the three young men heading up the trail to Iceberg Lake. Fortunately we did not kill ourselves laughing but it became a source of entertainment thinking about what these guys were going to eventually do once they figured out where exactly they were. We continued up to Iceberg Lake and took another short break before heading up to the gap between First Tower and Mt Whitney. At about 10:30 AM I headed out on the Tower Traverse.

The remainder of the climb of the East Face was uneventful and went smoothly. We even managed to find the correct Fresh Air Traverse. At about 4:30 PM Linda and I popped up over the final blocks onto the summit, much to the surprise of several grossly uninformed young mountaineers camped down at Trail Camp. I was asked if I had one of those "gun things" for blowing "spikes" into the rocks, a la "Cliffhanger". A short lesson in cams amused them and they went away happy but I was astonished to learn that people actually take some of those lousy climbing movies seriously.

At about 5 PM Linda and I decided to head for home. We headed along the North Rim of Mt Whitney past the old outhouse, which has been reduced to two trash cans with holes in them and a weirdo looking funnel. The structure is gone. We took a lookee-peekee-see over the edge and below us was the not unexpected killer snow field. The gap for the top of the Mountaineers Route was clearly visible in the rock rib to the right of the snow field. On the left was another rock rib which we down climbed . This goes at about class 3 to class 4 maybe in some spots. This brought us down nearly level with the gap and we decided to use our ice axes to cross the narrow remaining section of snow. It was possible to cross about 100 or so feet lower on a loose looking rocky band. Once at the gap marking the Mountaineers Route down we went. This is the worst pile of scree in the known world. The bottom of the Mountaineers Couloir has snow in it which we bypassed by exiting on a shelf on the right. In short order we were at Iceberg Lake where we refilled our water bottles.

Vowing to make it to Upper Boy Scout Lake before it got pitch dark off we went. We did manage to make it to Upper Boy Scout Lake before dark but just barely. Now all that remained was figuring out the way down the slabs. Trail-less. In the way dark. Headlamps only. I had timed the trip to coincide as closely as possible with the full moon but goofed by scheduling it during the waning cycle. The moon was nowhere in sight and it would be hours before it even showed up at all. Worthless.

The trail down the slabs is now marked by several Eifel Tower sized cairns. When in doubt, we were able to locate them by looking around with our headlamps and only had to guess in one or two spots. For the most part these monster cairns coincided with the trail we followed going up in the morning with one significant exception. The last of the cairns brought us to what appeared to be a dead end at the end of a slab that ended in the mandatory willows. Flashing my headlamp around it appeared that there were some huge boulders on the other side of the willows and it was possible these were the same huge boulders that are on the trail the goes up from Lower Boy Scout Lake to Upper Boy Scout Lake. There also was a slight seam through the willows that we could get through without thrashing. Sure enough, we made it through the willows and were exactly at the large boulders and back on the trail. There isn't a corresponding monster cairn on the trail side of the willows so I have no idea what is on the minds of the trail builders in this area. Once back on the trail we relaxed and slowly hiked our way back down to the parking lot, stopping occasionally for a break. The biggest concern during these breaks was not getting stiff muscles but passing out and falling asleep!

We arrived at my 4Runner at 11:30 PM. It had been 19 hours since we started. We retrieved our various items from the bear box and headed down to the Lone Pine Campground again. All the sites were taken except for the ones where nobody had shown up so we just helped ourselves to one of those! After a big beer we conked out in our sleeping bags at 12:30 AM. What a day.

Final notes: This was an interesting project. It was satisfying to travel over all that distance and climb this route and then make it back to the car. The shortest segment of this project was the actually climbing itself. The longest segment was getting down, no doubt made more complicated by having to come down that gawdawfull Mountaineers Couloir. This is not a project for everyone but it might have some appeal for those who can hike quickly and climb moderate alpine rock routes. It is strongly suggested that a more leisurely drive be made to the east side in order to get a decent nights sleep. Linda and I started fairly early Friday but in the end we had only about five hours of time in our sleeping bags Friday night which really doesn't translate into total sleep time. At 4:30 AM we were already tired, and believe me, it didn't get any better as the day went on. We were gassed.

My best thanks to Linda Sun for joining me on this project.


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