Top of the Lower 48, Top of my Bucket List

Mount Whitney trip report by Terri Barry

“There is no better kind of friend than one who sees you in your better light and more or less expects that of you.”
– Pat Ament



I started my climbing life at Pipeworks Gym, Sacramento, in 2007. I was a 50-year-old grandmother. I was instantly hooked. Hopelessly hooked after my first outdoor climb. Climbing the East Buttress Route on Mount Whitney rose to the top of my climbing bucket list almost immediately after I started multi-pitch trad climbing in October 2009. The clean line, highest peak in the lower 48, what’s not to like. I, however, did not expect to have the opportunity to climb it so early in the climbing career. I had the great fortune to meet a climbing partner in March 2010 who would turn out to be essentially my trad climbing mentor. Jason fits the quote above. From the first multi-pitch climb we did together, Scheister 5.7 on Sugarloaf, his quiet demeanor allowed me to climb at my best. I had taken enough trad classes to spot a partner I could trust. That is why in October 2010 when he mentioned he wanted to do Mt. Whitney I didn’t hesitate to say I would do it with him. Even when the date had to be moved from mid-September 2011 to June 2011, in a season of 150% of normal snowfall. The second week of June 2011 heavy snow pack began at Lower Boy Scout Lake (10,300 ft) in the North Fork of Lone Pine Creek drainage. So, ok, crampons and ice ax, check.

We set the dates of the trip for June 10–15. The plan: acclimate June 10–12, climb first the Mountaineers Route on June 13 followed by the East Buttress 5.7 (11 Pitches) on June 14, hike out June 15. We were a party of 3, me, Jason, and his friend, Ramsay. One of the happiest aspects of this trip is that I met Ramsay, a remarkable woman who brought to the trip her own positive inputs. One of which was to suggest changing the game plan to skip climbing the Mountaineers Route and jump directly on the East Buttress so we wouldn’t burn out the first day. Yea Ramsay! I’m certain that if we had climbed the Mountaineers Route first we would not have done the East Buttress.

 

 

We slept at Whitney Portal June 10 and hiked in June 11. The hike to Upper Boy Scout Lake is on the climbers trail that branches off the main Mt. Whitney Trail.

As any climber knows, climber trails have no switchbacks – it’s straight up, as the crow flies, shortest tangent to where you want to be. North Fork of Lone Pine Creek is steep and rocky. Although I have backpacked extensively, the hike was the hardest I have even encountered. I am a beta junky and was pretty obsessed about negotiating the Escherbacher Ledges with a heavy backpack on. Jason was kind enough to take my backpack over the ledges for me. For sure they were simple without the load but one weight shift I couldn’t control with the backpack on and I’d be tumbling off the edge. Thank you Jason!

 

 

The snow pack started just above Lower Boy Scout Lake. Basically it was all snow all the way to the base of the climb. We did find dry ground to camp on at Upper Boy Scout Lake but the lake was still frozen so we got our water by walking across more snow to the stream that flows into Upper Boy Scout Lake.

 

 

June 13 we set out at 7:30 am in crampons with ice axes in hand to the base of Mt Whitney. The hike was hard. Although I had no trouble sleeping and didn’t have an elevation headache, I had to take the hike slowly. I’ve run 12 marathons, including qualifying for Boston in 2005, and then running Boston in 2007. I know how to pace. I knew I could hammer the hike if I wanted to, but then I’d be no good on the climb. Both my lack of snow experience and the elevation slowed me down, and by default, I slowed the group down. We got to the base of the climb about 10:30 am. We ended up skipping the first pitch and starting the climb at the first belay.

 

 

Ramsay led off the climbing what was the second pitch. We climbed with on 9.2mm rope. I was in the middle because I was not going to do any leading. I’m too slow and inexperienced at this point. The 3rd was tied in at the end about 25ft from me. That made for very conversational climbing, a fun change from the lonely second role I usually play! It was beautiful and moderate climbing, we were in the sun, the temperature was perfect and the wind was light. A nice surprise after forecasts on ClimbingWeather.com that ranged from a High/Low of 34/17 degrees to 45/24 degrees as the climbing day got close. I was ready to bail on the trip due to the cold forecast. Jason assured me it would be great – he was right. That experience thing again! Ramsay and Jason swapped leads, Ramsay on Pitch 2, Jason Pitch 3, Ramsay Pitch 4. At that point we decided that Jason was a faster lead, he was even climbing in his approach shoes! So starting at Pitch 5 he led the rest of the climb.

 

 

Pitch 3 was one of my favorites. The section Jason is on in the left photo above was really fun. Followed by the corner in the right hand photo. Then, the belay where Jason is sitting was very comfortable, the best the entire climb. Sitting room for both of us, in the sun, beautiful view, and cell service! I actually posted to Facebook the picture below of him while he belayed Ramsay as she led the 4th pitch. Iceberg Lake, still frozen and snow covered, is visible in the photo on the right below.

 

 

The 5th pitch is where we lost the sunshine. It wasn’t too cold at that point but we knew that it could be unpleasant if the wind picked up. Luckily the winds stayed light the entire approach, climb, and descent. Jason lead all the remaining pitches 5-11. As we climbed, Ramsay and I remarked at how steep and snowy the East Couloir of the Mountaineers Route looked. We both wondered about the descent. She had much more experience than me so I doubt she was worried. However, I had a quiet fret about the descent going on the entire climb. In fact, the descent had always been my main concern, from early planning. I had all that beta stashed in my brain…

 

 

We passed to the right side of the Pewee on Pitch 6. It is enormous! I tried to get a picture but we were too close to get it all. Then, with the shade getting longer, it was time to move. We were all thinking about the time at that point.

 

 

Pitches 7-11 all had at least one interesting/difficult move. All the beta I read indicated that after Pitch 8 the climbing should be “easy.” This was not the case. I think the interesting traverse shown in the left hand picture below was on Pitch 7. This was a very fun and exposed traverse. I have no fear of exposure if I’m seconding so I took a moment to look about 800ft straight down. It was totally awesome. What I climb for!

 


 

The ledge after the traverse pictured above was huge so we took a second for a group shot before climbing on.

 

 

Pitches 10 and 11 were actually some of the most difficult. There was a move on each that seemed in the 5.8 difficulty. I don’t think it was because I was tired. We were climbing on very large blocks and big moves were sometimes required to move upward. We were all pretty cold at that point. Ramsay and I were joking about going “towards the Light” because we could see Jason standing in what little sunlight was left just above us on the last pitch.

 

 

Finally, after the last few 3rd/4th class moves we were on top with Jason. Yeah! And. Uh Oh – It’s 7 p.m. and we are all out of food and water. Not a lot of glory time, no time to call my husband, no tourists on top to say “Hey, where did you come from?” Or take a group shot of us. A couple of quick photos, sign the log, coil the rope. Time to boogey. Find the Mountaineers Route for the descent.

 


 

Finding the Mountaineer Route was easy. However, after looking down the very steep North Face, the snow covered crux of the Mountaineers Route, Ramsay suggested we rappel. I was definitely thinking the same thing. I seriously doubted I had the skills to negotiate facing the wall, crampon toes into the snow and descending for 600 ft. Jason agreed, especially because it was clear that other parties had done the same thing. He looked at me and said, “You know I’ll get you down safe, right?” I replied, “Of course!” There was a pre-existing snow bollard constructed. Jason dug the trench a little deeper, and assessed the integrity of the bollard, He then used his ice axe as a back-up anchor. I know I’ve made progress in the “Put the Big Girl Pants On” department because I looked at the set-up, watched what he was doing and then said, “Looks good, let’s go!” instead of needing to ask 1000 what-if questions. Of course, it also helps that it was Jason with his quiet demeanor. Ramsay rapped first, single rope, for the full rope length. She called from the bottom that there was a new looking sling and carabiner where she stopped – Sweet!!! I rapped next. While Ramsay and I were sitting at the first rap belay we watched the sun sinking behind the mountains. She remarked, “I want to be out of this gully before the sun sets.” I said, “Me too.” But I knew we had a second gully – the East Couloir, to negotiate before we could walk back to camp. I just didn’t realize how long it was. There would be no more picture taking…

 

 

The North Face to The Notch took three rappels. At each rappel there was a pre-existing new-looking anchor. Obviously, this was the common method of descent right now! At the bottom of the third rappel the footprints all disappeared. We were a little confused until we located The Notch dropping into the East Couloir . Oh, Thank God! Too many footprints to be the wrong way. Then the real work began as the sun set completely behind the mountains to the west. Time to turn the headlamps on. It would be a full moon night but the moon first had to rise enough to clear Mt. Whitney. Light from the moon was blocked until we were almost to the bottom of the East Couloir. The very top of the East Couloir was exposed rock, however, we were well aware that we would encounter snow again soon. So we scrambled across the rock and gravel with our crampons on until we hit the snow. It became clear that my lack of experience made me ridiculously slow at stepping into the existing footprints to descent so we decided to begin rappelling again. Yeah! Much faster for me. We continued the pattern of Ramsay rapping first. She began looking for a new anchor immediately. I attached to the rope as soon as she called “off rappel.” And off I went. The snow was very heterogeneous. Parts were rock hard ice and other parts were so soft that even while rapping I sunk almost to my thigh. I didn’t count how many raps we did but it had to be at least 5. Finally, we were on a slope that was easier to negotiate in our crampons, and there was the moon!

Now, began the hike back. Luckily, lots of footprints to follow. But it wasn’t much faster back than it was on the way in the morning because of being in crampons. It was one foot in front of the other for several hours. There was nothing to be done but walk back to camp. I naturally entered my “end of the marathon” mental state. It‘s a sort of suspended consciousness that allows me to physically keep moving but I shut my mind off – literally. Ramsay stayed with me while Jason went on ahead to pump water for all of us. At the last slope before camp we could see Jason’s headlamp. Suddenly, I became aware we had gone too far east. I was on rock rather than snow and the potential for walking off a cliff seemed a little too high so I stopped dead to reassess where I was. The next morning my stomach did a little flip when I realized where we were… indeed, near the cliff. But, not at the edge. Ramsay had gone even farther east. At that moment I saw Jason flash his headlamp to signal we should head west. I called Ramsay and off we went west toward the snow field. A short time later we were back in camp. Jason met us with water bottles, bless his heart. It was 2:30 a.m. First order of business for me was to get all my wet clothing off. I had been warm while walking but now I was getting cold fast. I had a wool hat, dry set of thermal underwear, and one set of chemical hand warmers left. So, I put on the hat and thermals and got in my sleeping bag. I opened the hand warmers and put them in my armpits. I warmed up immediately. I downed an energy bar and the 1 liter bottle of water and went to sleep. Ramsay and Jason were in their tent, also getting to sleep. Needless to say, we slept in!

It’s funny that the bulk of the text for this Trip Report is devoted to the descent. I’m guessing in Alpine Climbing that happens more than beginners realize. I remember watching the video about Sara Lingafelter’s climb of Mt. Rainer (RockClimberGirl.com). After they summit she looked directly into the camera and remarked that they are only half-way. They now needed to get down safe. I thought of that often, both before and during the trip. I definitely did not underestimate that part of the trip. I never feared for my life, we had things under control at all times. However, I realize that I should have brought more food and water, even if it was heavy. And there should have been pumped water ready back in camp so Jason didn’t have to go pump it when he arrived. I also realized that I almost left camp wearing every item of clothing I brought. That would have meant no dry clothes. So, I will always have dry clothes and at least one set of hand and/or body warmers back at camp.

This climb changed my life for sure. It was arguably the hardest thing I have ever done aside from 3 totally natural child births. I am so grateful that my husband is supportive of my climbing hobby, even though I know he worries more than he says. I am also grateful for the time that I got to climb with Jason before he was transferred out of Sacramento. This was our last trip for now. His mentorship has left a significant mark on my climbing. And lastly, I met Ramsay. Her companionship on the climb was invaluable. I hope we climb more together in the future. Climb On!

Terri has been a life long athlete but didn’t start climbing until age 50. That was 4 years ago and since then she has climbed anytime and anywhere she can. She is fortunate to have a wonderful group of partners developed through the Sacramento Rock Climbing Meetup group.

She also enjoys snowboarding, sculling, running, and backpacking. This is Terri’s first Trip Report. So far she has been too lazy to write a blog, but very much enjoys reading her tweeps blogs!

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