I had planned to climb Mount Whitney in late June after I won the Whitney Lottery. However, I noticed that there was also a lone permit available for a weekend in late May for the North Fork Trail aka the Mountaineer’s Route trailhead. From that trailhead, there is another mountain called Mount Russell, that is also 14,094 ft tall. Its east ridge is considered the finest ridge climb in all of the Sierras with 1-4,000 ft drops on either side of the Class 3 ridge. My goal was to climb this ridge.
May 21, 2016: The Switch to Whitney
With Russell in mind, I set out on Saturday morning from my campsite in Red Rocks State Park at 3,000 ft above sea level in the Mojave Desert. It was quite windy. After checking into the ranger station in Lone Pine, I picked up my permit and asked about the trail conditions. “Snow above 9,000 ft but people have been summiting Whitney. We don’t have any reports about Russell. Maybe you should ask the local mountaineering shop.” I drove into town and asked the mountaineering shop if they had any trip reports from Mount Russell. “Nothing. There’s lots of snow up there. If you summit, please let us know!”.
I then drove up to to the Whitney Portal (8,000 ft) the trailhead to climb Mount Whitney and Mount Russell. At 11:30 AM, I went into the general store and restaurant to get some lunch before heading up to start the hike to Mount Russell. I asked the manager about the trail conditions on Mount Russell. “Lots of snow. If you were to summit, you would be the first of the year.” That hit a nerve. I knew that if the ridge was clear, I could easily summit the mountain. That said, with snow, the climb becomes exponentially more difficult and dangerous. I also did not want to be up there on the mountain alone. Unless someone else was going for a winter ascent, I would certainly be alone up there, a recipe for disaster. I decided at that moment to climb Whitney instead. I didn’t have a trail guide or map, but I remember climbing this very route before my senior year in high school (actually wrote my college essay on the climb). There were also going to be a lot of people climbing, so I would never be too far from company whether I liked it or not.
I set off on the trail around noon. After about a half-mile on the Whitney Trail, the Mountaineer’s Route branches off up a steep series of stairs and switchbacks through a forest. Eventually the trail crosses raging streams and under waterfalls as it ascends a narrow canyon. About an hour into the hike, I reached the Ebersbacher Ledges, where the trail ascends a seemingly impossibly steep cliff face on a Class 3 scramble. The scariest part is 24-inches wide above a 100-foot cliff.
From the top of the ledges, it’s another grueling 400 vertical feet out of the canyon to Lower Boy Scout Lake. 2 hours and 2,000 vertical feet in, I took a quick water break and surveyed my surroundings.
From here, I could see snow on the south (north-facing) side of the lake. (Un)fortunately, that was the way to Upper Boy Scout Lake. After just a few minutes, I was walking on snow. The trail disappeared and I was relying on the footprints and postholes of previous climbers to show me the way. While not 100% accurate, this method worked pretty well and soon I was working my way up the slopes. 1 hour later, I reached Upper Boy Scout Lake (11,300 ft).
Upper Boy Scout Lake is the staging ground for Whitney (hidden from view) and Russell. While I still had the opportunity to climb Russell, I was solidly in the Whitney camp at this point. Upon reaching the lake, I noticed that there were at least 8 other tents set up. This would mean around 25 climbers, a crowd by mountain standards. I found a narrow spot protected from the wind behind a large boulder. After setting up my tent, I lined the inside of the tent with large rocks so it wouldn’t blow away since my stakes weren’t going into the ground.
At this point is was about 3:30pm and I was not feeling good because of the altitude. I popped a Motrin pill and started to drink water, which I could easily refill from the frozen lake by cracking through the surface with my ice axe. I then went to bed around 5.
May 22, 2016: Summit and the Scary Descent
After sleeping off and on, I woke up at 2:45 am. I walked outside the tent. It wasn’t too cold- maybe 10 or 15 degrees and no wind. The moon was bright and I could see all the mountains surrounding the lake. In short, the weather was perfect for an ascent of Whitney. The purpose of the early start is twofold. First, it gives me more time to climb the peak during daylight hours- with an estimated 12 hours of climbing I will have some cushion in case things go wrong. Second, the snow later in the day get soft from the sun, which makes it considerably more difficult if not impossible to climb. The hard packed snow works better with mountaineering gear.
After finalizing my preparations, I set off around 3:15 am armed with trekking poles, crampons, an ice axe in the pack and a headlamp. Food and water were stashed in my nearly-empty 80-liter pack. The next goal was Iceberg Lake (12,600 ft). To get there, I had to ascend a snow slope, through a talus field and up the steep final slope to the lake. Easier said than done.
While the end goal was clear, the trail was completely buried under the snow. While the moon was nearly full, I still relied heavily on my headlamp. I followed old tracks, but eventually realized that the tracks had led me beneath a steep cliff that posed a serious rockfall danger. I decided to create my own path to the lake by sidestepping down a rockfall and working my way further up the canyon to a steep snow slope that eventually led me to the frozen. The entire endeavor to Iceberg Lake took about 1 1/2 hours and I probably climbed 400 vertical feet more than I should have.
After 4,000 feet of climbing, Whitney finally came into view. The massive mountain rises sharply 2,000 feet above Iceberg Lake. It was truly a sight to behold. The Mountaineer’s Route follows the obvious chute on the right (north) side of the mountain.
While the route was clear, it was not easy. Substituting my trekking poles for the ice axe, I took a short water break and set off as the sky began to brighten. The route only got steeper as the climb progressed. Standard mountaineering technique is to carry the ice axe like a cane on the uphill side and diagonally and methodically work my way up the mountain. However, towards the top of the gully, the pitch neared 40 degrees and I altered my technique by climbing straight up the snow slope using the pick of the axe like a hammer. The front spikes of the crampons would stabilize my feet. Occasionally, the crampons would malfunction and would require me to find a level piece of rock to fix them (luckily, crampons are very low-tech and easy to fix).
After about 2 hours of laboring up the slope, I finally reached the Notch. From here, it was a mere 500 feet to the summit of Whitney. However, the final 500 feet is the most difficult and technically challenging part of the climb. There are two options. The first option is the more-vertical-than-horizontal gully directly above the notch. The second option is to traverse a harrowing snow-slope to a less-steep gully adding about a half-mile to the climb.
Without ropes, the standard procedure is to ascend the gully and descend by the traverse. The gully starts with a short Class IV rock climb then the snow slope up to the top. The rock climb took me about 5 minutes. Then I breathed deeply and hammered up the 60-degree pitch. This was certainly the steepest snow slope I have ever climbed and would definitely not want to climb anything steeper than this. Eventually, I made it to the top.
From the top of the gully, it was a flat 2-minute walk to the summit. There I took in the amazing view and could proudly say I was standing at the top of California at 14,508 ft above sea level. I was at the summit for about 30 minutes enjoying the view and chatting with hikers who ascended via the Whitney Trail. I also had cell service and called my mom alerting her of the good news.
Before heading down, I was approached by two climbers named Matt and Nick, who had also climbed via the Mountaineer’s Route. They had more ice climbing and rock climbing tools than any people I have ever seen- turns out they are mountain rescue guides near Albuquerque, New Mexico. They asked my how I was planning on getting down the mountain. I told them the traverse and they offered to weave me a harness and let me rappel down the gully with them. “You will make it down safely” Matt assured me. Seeing that I had not seen the conditions of the traverse and trusting them based on their apparent credentials, I said okay. We then walked over to the gully.
At this point, the gully was crowded with climbers. A guided trip with seven people was climbing up with ropes and harnesses. Another guided trip was waiting to descend. We chatted with the guides. They suggested that we do a three-pitch rappel. Matt was worried about the landing on the first pitch and said he felt more comfortable climbing in his crampons than rappelling without them. He suggested that we simply climb down (aka downclimb) the snow slope and then rappel down the rock face at the bottom. The guided group of seven would have well worn footholds in the snow slope that would aid our descent. Nick agreed and I, not really knowing what was going to happen, went along with it. At this point, there was no room to climb back up to the summit.
Matt and Nick went ahead. A couple minutes later, I too set off down the snow slope. Because the snow slope was so steep, I took extreme caution on every step as one mistake and I would most likely fall down the snow slope and die. At this point, I was holding onto my life by my ice axe and crampons. I was terrified and legitimately thought I was going to die.
I worked my way down the snow slope ever so carefully. Occasionally, my foot would slip and I would jam it as hard as I could into the mountain with everything I had. “Come on Bryce”, I said to myself, “you can’t give up now”. Every few steps, the rope harness would slip down to my ankles and I would have to adjust it with one hand, as the other hand clutched the ice axe. Matt and Nick were cheering for me. “You got it Bryce! Don’t die on us.” Towards the bottom, the guided trip started their descent and sheets of ice and snowballs started falling down the slope onto me. “Knock it off!” I yelled and they backed off. After 30 minutes of sheer terror, I finally made it down the 300-foot ice wall.
Then, Matt and Nick set up their 70-meter rope and I rappelled down the final rock slope into the Notch. I had escaped Death.
From the Notch, it only took 20 minutes to descend to Iceberg Lake. Instead of walking down, I glissaded which is a fancy term for sliding on your butt. Using the pick of the ice axe to steer, I sped down the slope at 20 miles per hour. Glissading is without a doubt one of the coolest and most fun things to do in the world.
The rest of the hike was relatively uneventful- it was really a long walk down. I crossed a few streams. At 4pm, I finally made it back down to the car.
I have been thinking a lot about what went wrong and how I put myself in a place where my life was in danger. Three things:
- I trusted people who seemed to know what they were doing. I did not ask their motives and did not know their thought process. Even though they were mountain rescue guides, I did not realize that they liked downclimbing more than rappelling. This was something I should have asked.
- Not doing my research and trusting my instinct. Since my plan was to climb Russell not Whitney, I had not done a lot of research on the Whitney climb. I was mainly going off memories from doing the climb as guided trip in high school and general routefinding. Had I done more research, I would have insisted on taking the long way down.
- Not standing up for myself when it counted. After the decision was made to downclimb, we were a ways down the gully in a narrow spot that made it difficult to turn back. Because of that and the confidence of Matt and Nick, I decided to downclimb with them. Immediately, I thought it was a bad idea and was not in the original gameplan. Still, I didn’t have the guts to tell them and nearly paid the price.
Interestingly, when I returned to the bottom, I told the general store manager about the descent. He seemed to shrug and said he’s done it many many times.
Would I go back to Whitney? Absolutely, it was a stunning climb, but hopefully I will be able to summit Russell instead.