Monday, May 12, 2014

Mt. Whitney's East Buttress: The Epic

Andrew on the approach. 

Mt. Whitney is the highest peak in the lower 48 states, at 14,505ft (updated elevation since the printing of the book in the below picture). It has been on my radar for a long time and with the move to Seattle getting closer I had to make it happen. I mentioned it to a fellow mountain charger, Jeremy Koons, who cautiously agreed to join. We also got two more  guys, Nate Tang and Andrew Yue, who I had done a few other adventures with and lived in the Bay Area.

With over 75 emails sent back and forth over a few month period of time, a 15 page itinerary including emergency contact information and a weekend practice climb at a nearby crag we were able to put together a plan that got the four of us on the mountain with a permit. Jeremy bit the bullet and traveled down a day early to sit in line and ensure that we could get one of the limited walk-in permits. We were going during the first week in which the quota was activated on the mountain, May 2nd-4th, which worked in our favor for obtaining a permit.

Our initial plan was to climb one of the nations 50 classic technical routes, the East Face. However, after getting there and talking to a few guides and locals we were informed that this route still had a fair amount of ice on it and would likely be very difficult.We changed to plan B, the East Buttress. The East Buttress is a 5.7, 11 pitch route and considered by many to be even better than the East Face for its consistent quality climbing.

Following normal adventure fashion, myself, Nate Tang and Andrew, left the Bay Area Thursday night at about 7:45pm. All three of us had to work that day. We pulled in next to Jermey, who was sleeping in his car at the Whitney Portal Trailhead at about 2:30am and slept on the ground in the parking lot.

Tang on the approach. 

Jeremy and I on the approach. 

Andrew and Jeremy at the 4th class Ebersbacher Ledges on the approach. 
We awoke to being surrounded by giantic granite peaks and blue sky's and hit the trail at about 8:30am, just ahead of a group of 17 who were being guided up the mountain professionally by a guide service. The 6 mile hike up was beautiful and grueling. The trail started at approx 8,400ft and it wasn't until 4pm that we reached Iceberg Lake which was at 12,600ft, an elevation gain of 4,200ft. That is an average of a 20% grade over the whole hike in, and it felt like it. The hike included climbing some 3rd class slabs, crossing creeks and slowly ascending snow fields that were being heated and softened by the sun. Each step through the snow fields were taken cautiously for fear of your foot plunging down into the snow up to your thigh, also known as "post holing". Combine these factors with heavy packs and four guys who live at see level and it was slow moving. We were completely exhausted by the time we reached Iceberg Lake at the base of Whitney where we set up camp and filtered water from the ice covered lake. The East Buttress towered over us, quite intimidating. We had a serious discussion about backing out and taking the Mountaineers route which is basically a steep snow hike up series of long chutes and is the more common route taken because it is less technical. In the end we decided to tackle the beast and attempt the East Buttress.

Me just below Iceberg Lake. 
Jeremy pointing out the objective.  
Due to our complete exhaustion and the fact that we were so close to the base of the climb we decided to sleep in until around 7am. Normally alpine starts are in the 4-5am period. I slept like a rock, feeling the affects of the elevation. We awoke to other climbers hiking past our camp and heading up the mountain. We were moving pretty slow and seeing a few groups ahead of us not wanting to be right on their tail waiting for them allowed us to take our time.  With ice axe in hand, I headed up the steep snowy face first and we were climbing by about 10:30am.

Tang, late morning start. 
High above Iceberg Lake on the East Butrress route. 
I lead every pitch. We worked out a system where I would drag up two ropes, belay up two climbers at a time (one of which drug up a third rope) and then I would start the next pitch while the last guy climbed the previous pitch. It was a bit slow but we were moving things along ok. The first pitch was a left facing corner that followed up along a large blocky pillar. Awesome. The second pitch went up and into a notch, the third up a a thin ramp and onto a steep red face, the fourth up and onto a large all kind of blurs together. The climbing was great, consistently going at 5.6/5.7. The group was doing pretty good, moving along. This was Andrew and Tang's first multi-pitch alpine climb and it was Jeremy's second.   On pitch five I headed up a crack that widened out in a corner with a thinner crack running just above the corner for placing pro. I ended getting pulled right when I probably should have headed left and made a few hard moves around a corner to an area where I hoped would get us into some 4th and low 5th class terrain to speed things up a bit as it was getting later in the day. This pitch took a long time due to the difficult move and the large drag on the rope. By the time I got everyone to me it was probably 7pm, getting dark around 8pm. We had to start moving. I climbed up a 6th pitch which was only low fifth class moves but the rope drag made it difficult to move and slowed things down. At this point the sun was almost down, temperatures were really dropping and I was starting to feel the seriousness of our situation. I built an anchor and got the group moving. I was able to get up one more pitch before it was totally dark. The climbing was fairly easy so the group was able to manage ok in the dark but the wind was howling and we were getting cold with about 500 feet of elevation to gain through the cliffs in the dark.

Andrew on the ascent. 
Tang on the ascent. 
We held up between some rocks for awhile discussing the best game plan. We could just hold up where we were, which would be a very very long and dangerously cold night or we could continue on slowly through the dark which would keep us moving but could potentially cause me, the leader, to wander off into some difficult terrain. On the summit we knew that there was a summit hut that would provide some shelter from the wind. We had read reports of people spending the night in there, those reports emphasizing how cold it was to try to sleep in there but it would at least keep us out of the wind. Luckily we all had headlamps and down coats. While we were discussing our options and resting I finally switched out of my climbing shoes into my boots. My feet and toes were pretty numb. I defecated in a "wag bag" (meaning I got to carry it out) which helped me feel a lot better as I had been holding it in for the second half of the day hoping to top out. We decided to continue on slowly and cautiously. For the next 8 hours I lead pitches wandering up routes, down climbing routes that didn't appear to be headed the correct way and belaying up my group. I was exhausted and freezing, constantly holding back chills. Pulling up the rope for the climbers below me was draining. My movements were slow and it took intense focus to keep my balance as I climbed up and down the boulders and faces. We did 5 pitches in the dark. Andrew was shaking worse than he ever had before and on one pitch he vomited twice while climbing, probably due to exertion combine with the effects of altitude. Jeremy had a great attitude and really brought up the morale of the group. We all were so tired that we just didn't want to move but knew that we had to. Both Andrew and Tang had altimeter watches (my battery died) but they were a few hundred feet different in how close they said we were to reaching the top. We never really knew how close were were.

Andrew ascending with Iceberg Lake in the background.
Whitney's summit hut that saved our bacon. 
In the hut after a cold night.
We ended up topping out at around 3:45am. Seeing the summit marker imprinted into the rock I didn't want to believe it but looking onward and seeing the hut, I knew that we had made it. A sense of relief came over the entire group knowing that we would be out of the wind and somewhere safe where we could rest.

Jeremy, morning summit pic. 

Morning summit group pic. 
The summit hut had an unbroken window, a door, a wood floor, and a single emergency blanket and pad. There was ice covering about 1/4 of the floor. We let Andrew have the blanket and pad as he was being affected by the altitude the most. The rest of us each took a rope to sit on and sat up against the wall and tried to sleep. It was a long 3 hours. I was shivering so bad that my teeth were chattering and preventing me from sleeping. I took off my boots and tried to massage my feet to get them to warm up a bit. It was a long cold night.

Tang with the morning summit silhouette.
When the sun came up we got our stuff together and headed out for the decent down the icy mountaineers route. I decided not to bring crampons and only went with an ice ax which made things a bit more dicey but I made it down back to camp in about 2 hours. Even walking down the steep snow was exhausting. As I passed a group that was on their way up they mentioned how windy it had been the night before and we went on our way. Within view of our camp we noticed that our tents weren't there. I had also been looking at a dark spot on the far end of the frozen Iceberg lake which looked like a tent but didn't have foot prints around it causing me to dismiss it as an exposed rock. We eventually realized that during the night the wind had blown our tents away with our sleeping bags and some of our other gear. Jeremy and Tang's tent still had the loops from the tent attached to the stakes in the ground. I had been dreaming about curling up in my sleeping bag, getting warm and sleeping for a few hours ever since I sat down along the wall of the hut and tried to sleep. When I got to what remained of our camp I laid down on the group, curled up in my down coat and slept in the bright sun for two hours. We searched the area and picked up what gear we could find. Luckily that was my tent on the frozen lake and it still had all of my stuff in it even though it was banged up a bit. The other tent was never found, but we did find Tang's backpack and Jeremy's sleeping pad about a half mile down toward Lower Boy Scout Lake on our way out.

The tent before it was swallowed up by the mountain and never to be seen again. 
The hike out was long, as it is with every decent. The last few miles felt like fifty. We made it to the car exhausted and happy to have accomplished what we set out to do. We had one of the "best burgers in Lone Pine" on our way out and alternated drivers to make it home by 1:30am, just in time to get some rest for work/clinic the next day.

Finishing the long hike out. So glad to be done. 
It took me about a week to recuperate. Kimber said I looked worse after doing this climb than I did after my 50 mile race. After a week my two big toes are still pretty numb and achy, kind of ironic that I am almost a foot doctor and I messed up my feet. I attribute it to my lack of insulated boots. I wore my heavy leather fire boots which weren't water proof. With all of the mountain sports I do I rarely use insulated non-ski boots, usually doing fast and light ascents in trail running shoes. Great trip none the less. Glad to have experienced it. Everyone had a great time!

Fire boots for mountaineering boots.