Mt. Whitney – East Face

Mt. Whitney stands tall at 14,508 feet above sea level, making it the highest mountain in the continental United States. The East Face rises over 1,800 feet from the base and provides over 1000 feet of technical rock climbing up to YDS 5.7 Grade III. The East Face is one of the 50 Classic Climbs of North America listed in the 1979 Roper/ Steck Guide Book.
I met Brian at 4 AM in downtown LA, we loaded my gear into his Subaru and headed east for Lone Pine. I had posted in the forums on Mountain Project and Cascade Climbers looking for a competent and confident partner and when Brian responded, he seemed to fit the bill perfectly. The East Face is as large as it is committing, because of the multiple traversing pitches, retreat can be tricky. My interpretation of the topo and route beta made it pretty clear that this is one of those routes where “Up is Down”
Before we met, the original plan was to get our permits on Sunday Morning, hike the 5 miles up to Iceberg Lake and Bivy at 12,600ft for the night before the climb and then get on the route Monday morning. Ideally this would give us plenty of time to rest and put us only 1,900 feet below the summit, making for a relatively short approach in the morning. With a storm system looming over Whitney and snow in the forecast, we talked about our options on the drive over from LA. Brian expressed that if there was going to be a decent amount of precip on Sunday night, he would rather try to do the climb “Car-to-Car”. Although this was certainly the option that would mean a longer day, it had its pros as well as cons. Climbing the whole route in one push meant that we could leave behind 5lbs of Bivy gear. A “Car-to-Car” would also mean that we could stay at the Whitney Portal campground at 8,300ft, an altitude much more friendly for rest.
A light dusting on the Sierra on Sunday morning
We rolled into Lone Pine around 7:30 AM and had breakfast at the Alabama Hills diner in an attempt to shovel down as many calories as possible before our attempt on the East Face. We decided to try for a Day permit for Monday at 11am from the Ranger Station, but agreed we would take an overnight permit if it was all that was available. The red tape is thick on Mt. Whitney and so we were well aware that it was a  “Beggers can’t be choosers” kind of situation.  As we rechecked the forecast and saw the large, dark, ominous clouds rolling into the mountains our decision was pretty much made for us. Hiking a few hours through the rain, just to be snowed on all night seemed like a hassle. Neither of us were psyched on the idea of being wet on the climb if we could reasonably avoid it.

We had already made the drive out, taken the time off, packed our bags and studied the route beta. Although we knew that there would be snow on the route, there was no way to know if it would be enough of an accumulation to keep us from the summit. We maintained our delusional optimism saying things like “It will probably just be a really light dusting” and “Maybe the high winds will blow most of it off, and the sun will melt the rest!” The forecast for Monday and the rest of the week was clear, no high winds, and no precip. Given this information we decided that it would be ridiculous to bail without at least “poking our head in”.

Within 5 minutes of developing our tentative plan and agreeing on it, Brian turned to me with a smile and said “Well, do you want to go do some rock climbing?”. We snagged a campsite at the Whitney Portal Campground and got our gear together for a little cragging. We cruised down to Alabama Hills, which is only about 10 miles from the Portal. We noticed the shimmer of rap anchors on a interesting looking feature in the distance and went to it like bugs to a lamp. Although we had never climbed together, it was obvious that both of us had the same level of enthusiasm about climbing. He offered to take the first lead and took off up this awesome looking 60 foot “Sharks Fin”. We didn’t really care which route it was, it just looked like a fun climb. Almost as soon as his feet touched the ground he said “Its actually… really good!”. I climbed it also and was impressed with the quality of the route.

Brian at the base of  Pirates on Horseback 5.10+ – The Shark Fin

We scored the permit we wanted and were now committed to climb Whitney on Monday. We picked up a guidebook from the local climbing shop and headed back to Alabama Hills to get a few more pitches in before it was time to wind down for the day. We sought out 2 more sport climbs, both 5 star routes for the area. The climbing was absolutely fantastic! Anyone that is going to be climbing Mt. Whitney should just take an extra day and check out the classics in Alabama Hills.

We got back to camp around 4pm and devoured as many calories as possible for our big day. It had just started to rain lightly, and we expected it to blow through soon. Around 10:30 PM I woke up to pee and it was dumping rain still. I was heartbreaking to think that we might not climb because of weather. The last thing I wanted was to hike for several hours in the rain and then be at a higher altitude with wet clothing.
When my alarm went off at 1:30 it was otherwise silent, the rain had stopped and we were on the move. It was on, if nothing else we were hiking to the base, once we were there we could decide if it was do-able. We ate and packed the last of our stuff into our bags before leaving the Portal at 2:30am. The route finding to the East side can be a bit difficult in the dark, and even harder with a few inches of snow blanketing everything. Conditions aside, we were acing the route finding on the approach and made great time.
Brian consulting the approach beta
Just as the massif came into view the sun began to rise, we nailed it as far as the time budget was concerned. We took a short snack break to appreciate the spectrum of colors that illuminated the massive peaks.
A little more than a light dusting
Awesome glow!
 We changed layers and put on our sunglasses. I found it pretty funny that when we got to the Ranger Station on Sunday, Brian and I both had dawned our RayBan Wayfarer sunglasses. When he put them on at the base of the route I said “Really!? you’re rockin’ the RayBan’s today?” to which he just looked at me puzzled and said “Uh yeah… I mean, what else is there?” I let out laugh and mocked his californaculture.
The 5 Mile approach to Iceberg Lake
While we took a break we scoped the recognizable pitches and talked about how they looked with snow on them. It still didn’t seem impossible, so we kept approaching until we reached our first obstacle. The 3rd class ledges that would bring us over the cliff band and to Iceberg Lake were completely snow covered or iced over. We kind of just marveled at this short, but puzzling obsicle. In mountaineering boots and crampons it would have been a breeze, but we were wearing approach shoes. We climbed up over the icy terrain which took some delicate movement. It was obvious at this point that things were going to be a bit more difficult overall with the snow and ice.
Brian making his way up the icy ledges
Although the plan was to get to the base and then make a decision about the climb, I’m not sure we really talked about if we were still going for it or not. By the time we had reached Iceberg Lake we were too stoked to consider going back down. The weather was clear and the winds were calm, it was going to be a beautiful day to climb 10 pitches, snow and ice be damned. We racked up and then discussed the descent. Originally we had planned on descending the Mountaineers Route, which is a steep 3rd class gully, but because of the snow and ice, we figured it to be safest to descend the Whitney Trail, which would be about twice as long, but much less strenuous and far safer.
Iceberg Lake
Checking out the route from Iceberg Lake
The final approach
We made our way to the notch between the 1st and 2nd tower and found the start of “The Tower Traverse” I had the first pitch (thanks to my rad rock, paper, scissors skills). I had a few clean placements during the first 50 feet or so and then I ran into snow and ice in the cracks and on the ledges. Sweeping these ledges off with my hands and cleaning the ice out of cracks with my nut tool was frustrating, I just wanted to cruise. I reached an area where the protection ran out and the ledges were small and snowcovered with quite poor hand holds. I brought Brian up to me, mid-pitch to make sure we were on route, and if so, if we really wanted to proceed. We were 20 minutes in and already at the point of no return, (Actually, the point of sketchy return) sure we could down-lead it, but it would have been a scary hassle. Brian offered to finish the pitch, taking his hat off and using it to scrub the snow off of the ledges so that he might have a chance at a solid foot placement. I’ve climbed on rock with snow on it, but never a poorly protected traverse. We both we almost silent as he made his way across, if he were to fall, it was going to be a big one. Brian excitedly clipped 2 fixed pins and made his way up the chimney to the first belay.
Brian in the notch before the traverse
The “Tower Traverse”
Next up was “The Washboard” a 400 and something foot section of 3rd and 4th class that is usually simul-climbed to save time, which was our plan. The snow made it quite difficult to climb and very hard to protect, we decided to pitch it out. We strayed a bit far right and into a chossy section, on the bright side, at least it was warm and dry choss. Brian got stuck in a relatively blank and crumbly section and we were already behind on time. Rather than climb up to him to get the rack and have to downclimb, I placed a bomber piece when I was horizontal from him and then I charged up the washboard like a man possessed. I kicked steps with my TC pro’s dug my hands into the snow, wiped off ledges, smeared wet granite and just pushed on, looking for some kind of protectable feature. Finally I found a crack that was filled with ice and dirt, scraped it out with my nut tool and fired in a piece before continuing to the top of the washboard. I was desperately trying to anchor myself while standing in calf deep snow in climbing shoes, we were on route again.
We made our way over the notch and downclimbed our way to the belay for “The Fresh Air Traverse”. After looking at the overlay Brian took off, I coached him on the route from the belay and he aced the pitch with style. It was nice to climb on clean dry rock for the first time all day.
Brian in good spirits thanks to some dry rock
Exposure much?
Following “The Fresh Air Traverse”
After the traverse, the climbing got really good I grinned my way up a chimney that had a lot of fun movement until I reached “The Grand Staircase”. The next two pitches were ledges followed by a burly but fun off-width section. I remember saying to Brian “Man, I suck at Off-Widths when its dry! This one is at 14,000 feet and has icicles in it!…..” There was snow on every ledge all the way to pitch 9 where we were finally on mostly dry rock again.

We were beat up, tired and I was feeling the altitude, Brian volunteered to take us to the top and we finished in two more pitches. At about 8:30pm it was dark and cold, but we made it to the summit, no retreat, no aiding or pulling on gear. We started with a rope, a rack, our packs, and the shirts on our backs. Ground up climbing is by far what I’m most passionate about. The idea that two guys can each bring a 20lb backpack to the base of an 1800 foot face and climb to the top safely is really amazing to me. We left no gear or tat, and I even unstuck some fixed gear on the traverse.

The summit was a big sheet of ice, we slipped our way over to the shelter hut to warm up for a few minutes and redistribute gear for the descent. We started our descent at 9pm and made our way down the 99 switchbacks over 10.6 miles loosing 6,100 feet of elevation. The switchbacks were icy and devoid of running water until we reached Trail Camp Pond. By the time we reached the car it was 3:45am, we were hollowed out and exhausted, I’ve never been so tired after a climb. We slept at Alabama Hills for a few hours before packing it up for the ride back. The whole climb was amazing; it still seems a bit dream like.

Being committed to the climb from the first pitch was a really good experience. It was the “Upis  Down” mentality that kept us pushing on and making decisions throughout the entire route. Although typically I like to know where and when I have the option to bail, on this climb, not really having that as a practical option kept our eyes on the summit. I’ve learned that keeping my eyes on the prize can provide a type of clarity because you aren’t wasting precious mental energy on contingencies that might never be utilized. The High Sierra is a beautiful place; I honestly cannot wait to get on the next route up there.

We didn’t take a proper summit photo, but the marker with ice in the photo makes for a good consolation.

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