Friday, September 20, 2013

California 14ers and Going to College

On the summit of Mt. Whitney

The last time Danny visited Yosemite National Park he was 5 months go. Now it is 18 years later and Sheri and I are driving through Yosemite with Danny once again. This time we are headed for Stanford University where Danny will start as a freshman later today.

The day before we hiked up Mt. Whitney (14,495 feet), the highest point in the lower 48 states. Along the way we tagged Mt. Muir (14,076? feet), which involved some exposed 4th class climbing. We camped the night before and Danny and I climbed up some rather large boulders in the campground, one of which we used a rope, since the boulder was thirty feet high.

We started the hike at 6 a.m. the next morning. The roundtrip for this hike involves 7000 feet of elevation gain and 22 miles. We neglected to bring any water filtration or treatment on the trip, so we’d have to carry all our water. I took 80 ounces, Danny took 84 and Sheri only 60. We had tiny ultrarunning packs and very limited capacity. This would prove sufficient, but just barely.

The Mt. Whitny Trail compares very nicely with the Barr Trail on Pikes Peak, though a bit shorter with a bit less vertical gain. Generally very smooth and not very steep, this is an ideal trail for running. Dressed as we were in shorts, short-sleeves, and running shoes, more than a few hikers asked if we were runners. We hiked along easily, flowing up to the many switchbacks on the steep east side of the Sierra Crest.

I was surprised by the steep west side. I expected it to be very gentle and mostly that is true along the Crest and much more so two miles north at Mt. Whitney, but not here, where we crossed to the west side for the long traverse to the summit. A short ways along the traverse, we climbed steeply up loose talus to the steep final walls guarding the summit of Mt. Muir. Muir is rated 3rd class, but, as is typical of California 14er routes, it is more like 4th class to Colorado climbers. In fact, there are a couple of short sections that are 5th class in difficulty. Danny balked at the hardest section, fearing that it might get worse above and he didn’t want to climb the section if he was only going to be thwarted above. The summit was only fifty feet higher, so I scrambled to the summit to ensure the route would go, before descending and spotting both Danny and Sheri to the summit. This summit is in stark contrast to Whitney, as it is a very exposed point that is only six feet by six feet.

We carefully climbed back down to the trail and continued to Whitney’s summit, where we found twenty or thirty other people. The weather for the entire day was perfect. We had clear skies and relatively little wind. While climbing Mt. Whitney is, rightfully, very popular, it seemed that no one else was interested in Mt. Muir or even knew of its existence. People walking below us on the trail while we climbed Muir would stop and stay up at us as if they were wondering, “What the heck are they doing?!”

We spent thirty minutes on top, eating our lunch. It had taken us just under six hours to get there, arriving just before noon. Danny was starting to develop an altitude headache and this would plague him for hours to come. Climbing Whitney via the Whitney Trail involves being above 13,000 feet for a very long time. You do six miles above this altitude and we were above it for hours.

The gradual nature of the trail, which allowed us to easily gain elevation, seemed to make the descent endlessly long on the descent. Our light running shoes felt insufficient to protect our quickly tiring feet from the rocks. My knees started to hurt and our legs ached. We took a lot of short breaks on the way down. I’d get out ahead of Sheri and Danny lower down and would stop regularly to regroup. Finally, I just wanted the hike over and marched the last two miles out to the trailhead.

We hit McDonalds for some much needed sustenance (careful not to say “nutrition” so that I don’t enrage the Boulder crowd) and then drop to Big Pine where we splurged on a motel room to shower, power our electronics, and sleep in a bed.

The next morning we drove to Stanford, arriving just as the welcoming upperclassmen were packing up. Danny went up to them and then next thing I heard was an RA (Resident Advisor) throw up her hands and yell, “Danny Wright from Superior, Colorado! Woohoo!” I walked up and introduced myself and soon four of five of them were at our car asking to carry loads to Danny’s room. Our welcome could not have been more friendly or more enthusiastic.

Danny’s room is in the Florence Moore dorms. Flo Mo, as it is known, consists of four houses and Danny is in Alondra, on the first floor, which is quite a bit shorter than the second and third floors. On his floor are seven guys, divided into four rooms and five girls, divided into three rooms. The single-room girl is an RA. The dorm is a typical college dorm, meaning it is not very fancy, but one entire wall of his room is windows. Danny’s roommate wasn’t there and we wouldn’t meet him until much later. The bathrooms and eating area were recently re-done this summer and they were very nice. The lounge area in the dorm is also nice with whiteboards that you can print out and project computer screens onto. I can see Danny talking over wave equations on that board already. The dining areas are broken up into their houses and have big, round, wooden tables. There is also a patio with tables and chairs for eating outside. There is a very large kitchen serving area where they will select their food for each meal. Some things of note here were the always available ice cream dispenser and the waffle irons. Just down the hall from Danny’s room is the “free” laundry, with four new washers and four new dryers.
Ryan and Danny in their dorm room
We toured a few buildings on the way over to the quad for the convocation, stopping by the Dave Packard Electrical Engineering building, the Bil Hewlett Teaching Center, and the William Gates Computer Science building. The convocation was an hour-long welcome to the university with great talks by the Dean of Admissions (38,000+ applied to Stanford and 1,600 were accepted!), the Vice Provost of Undergraduates (really good speaker), a student representative and an address by the Stanford President. We then all learned and sang the Stanford school song, which Sheri loved and has been singing nonstop since. Not! Sheri thought Stanford was the best at everything and while their singers might be the best, she was disappointed with their songwriting. I’ve kept the lyrics and will be quizzing Danny when he returns for Christmas break. I suspect most of this first week is spent practicing this song.

We stopped by the bookstore to pick up some things we forgot before heading back to the dorm, where there was a welcome planned. It started and ended with performances from two different acapella groups and each urged the students to audition. I’d love to see Danny do that, but there is no way.

We went back to his room to say goodbye and there we finally met his roommate - Ryan Lee, from Irvine, California, near Los Angeles. He seems to be a great guy and I feel very good about him as a roommate for Danny. I suspect they will get along well. Ryan is a tennis player as well and they both will try out for the club team. Ryan’s parents seem great as well. We said goodbye and with Ryan there, we held it together. Danny looked maybe a touch apphrensive. I certainly was when I went to college and I was only 45 minutes from home. Danny is a thousand miles away. I’m really glad he got to meet his roomate before we left, as he now has a friend to go to dinner with and that reduces his stress, if only for a few minutes. I know he will make lots of friends this week and get very comfortable in his new home at Stanford.
Relaxing on the summit of Mt. Russell, looking at Mt. Whitney
Sheri and I ate some dinner at the Treehouse, a campus restaurant only a couple minutes walk from Danny’s dorm. I’m sure he will be frequenting this place when he needs some supplemental pizza. Or visiting the Starbucks next door for a venti latte. We drove past the tennis courts and track on the way out of town. It was dark now but both were lit up and people will playing tennis and running on the track. The main tennis court has stadium seating for probably a thousand people. I think all these courts are open to Danny, he just needs to reserve them. Ryan has already reserved a court and I suspect they will be playing often. I’m anxious to find out how Ryan plays and if he is a good match for Danny.

The last thing we passed on the way out of Stanford was the 50,000-seat stadium. This was redone in 2006 to the tune of $100 million and is supposedly one of the best in the country. Danny plans to be at each home football game as admittance is free for students. It doesn’t hurt that Stanford is currently ranked #5 in that nation. Not bad for a school of eggheads...

The next day Sheri and I retraced out steps back through Yosemite and then down to Lone Pine, for Thursday we had a permit to go climb Mt. Russell our penultimate California 14er. The easiest route up this mountain is the “3rd class” East Ridge, which I’ve heard is more like 5.2 from none other than Alex Honnold. One of the descriptions I read said the climbers "should get ready to embrace the exposure." While I read this to Sheri, what she heard was "get ready to be scared." This turned out to be accurate, but Sheri handled things well.

We once again camped at Whitney Portal and once again set our alarm for 5 a.m. with a plan to be hiking at 6 a.m. I was snoozing away enjoying one of the most comfortable nights I've ever had in the tent when I noticed it was really light out! I bolted upright, worried that we might have slept too late to even attempt the climb. It is still mostly dark at 6 a.m. and certainly not this bright by 7 a.m. It could be 8 a.m. or later. How could I have possibly slept so long!? I thought. I cried to Sheri to wake up, as I reached for my watch in the gear hammock above. I looked at the watch and called out the time to Sheri, "3:45." I was very confused at this point. 3:45? PM? That was impossible, I almost immediately realized, but it seemed more possible than 3:45 a.m. because it was so bright. Alas, it was the moon shining directly onto our tent. I got up to pee and the moon shadows were so prominent, the ground so brightly lit. I could have probably read a book at table.
Weaving our way up slabs and cliffs en route to Mt. Russell
When the alarm did go off at 5 a.m. I was still so comfortable that I didn't want to get up, despite being in this tent since about 8 p.m. the night before. I've probably gone at least a decade since I've last been in a bed for nine hours straight, yet I rolled over and procrastinated for 15 more minutes. Not surprisingly, this had us hiking up the trail around 6:15 a.m. It was exactly a mile to the junction with the North Fork of Lone Pine Creek, where we left the Whitney Trail for the climber's trail up towards the Boy Scout Lakes. This is not only the route to Mt. Russell, but the approach taken for all the east facing climbing routes on Mt. Muir, Keeler Needle, and Mt. Whitney. The only other time I'd been up this trail was 25 years ago when I did a one-day ascent of the East Face of Mt. Whitney, a "Fifty Classic Climb." Back then it was a challenge to find the route and a serious bushwhack. Today, it is a maintained, constructed trail, though with no sign at the junction. A hundred yards up the trail there is a sign saying, "This is NOT the Whitney Trail and that the Mountaineer's Route is only for experienced climbers."

We followed the trail up to the point where a cairned route led us up ledges on a steep wall of rock. We headed east and then switchbacked to the west before we were deposited back into the gully. This route was the same as 25 years ago and avoids nearly impassable alders that choke the narrow cwm. The trail continued nicely to Lower Boy Scout Lake, where we saw our first persons of the morning. One was a solo camper and the other was hiking up the talus above the lake. We followed the route up the talus, but made a mistake here. Even though a trail with occasional cairns go up the talus to the left (east) of a massive boulder, the best route heads right and passes just under this massive rock (really too big to be called a boulder, as it bigger than an apartment building). I know this because it is the way we came down. Going the other way gets you too high and the descent from there and through the willows is a bushwhack. It it was just that, it wouldn't have been so bad, but it was also along a same creek that had all the nearby rocks coated in ice. It was too treacherous and we had to descend a 5th class friction slab instead. Thankfully we both wore our Exum Ridge scrambling shoes, but it still involved some butt scooting down glassy rock.

We soon arrived at Upper Boy Scout Lake. At this point almost all of the foot traffic heads left and continues up to Iceberg Lake at the base of the east face of Mt. Whitney. We saw two other hikers heading that way. At the lake we saw just one tent. We'd see the residents later in the day, high on Russell, making for a total of six people spotted (only four within talking range) in the 5.5 miles and 6000 vertical feet to gain the summit. There is a good reason for this.

The next 2000 vertical feet, from Upper Boy Scout Lake to the Russell-Carillion col, ranks among the least enjoyable stretches I've ever covered in the mountains and most likely the all-time worst. This slope most closely resembles a road-cut, with dirt and boulders interspersed, except that it is much uglier. A couple of backhoes on the slope would improve the view, for at least then it would be a useful ugliness. The "dirt" is more like sand, but is finely crushed granite gravel. And it continues for 2000 vertical feet. I know of nothing like this in the Colorado Rockies. While the East Ridge that I'm about to describe was indeed fun scrambling, it wasn't that great and not nearly good enough to justify this approach. There are just too many other routes, ridges, mountains. to experience than to suffer your way up this crap for an average scramble. For us the overriding reason was the 14,000-foot summit.

I must once again put in a rant against “Climbing California’s Fourteeners” by Porcella and Burns. This book is a complete waste of money and is astoundingly awful. I know the effort it takes to write a book and why someone would go to such effort to produce such unbelievable crap is beyond me. Comparing this book to Gerry Roach’s Colorado 14ers guidebook is like comparing a child’s fingerpainting with the Mona Lisa. Perhaps if this book was titled “Some History on California 14ers” it wouldn’t be so awful, maybe it would even be good, but to be labeled a climbing guide is almost fraud.

We took a short break at the col and I was surprised to notice that we were not at the lowpoint of the Russell-Carillion saddle, but bit up Russell’s East Ridge already. I cached two bottles of Gatorade, our long pants, and my rain shell here. The weather was once again stellar and would remain so all day long.
The East Ridge started off gentle and we weaved among boulders on a steepening slope. Then we scrambled up boulders as the ridge narrowed. Soon it was just a fin of rock directly on the ridge, but easier passage was found on the north side. The face to the south dropped away almost vertically. To the north, it was a very steep slab and then rolled over to steeper terrain. The exposure grew as we ascended.

With us we had 100 feet of 7.8mm rope, two harnesses, climbing shoes and a helmet for Sheri, and a handful of gear. I had heard from more than just Alex that the difficulties were 5th class and we expected to gear up at some point, but my careful route finding we were able to get up and down without using any of our climbing gear. A couple of short sections were probably at least 4th class, but they were short and I spent a lot of time just below Sheri, offering her a spot, giving her confidence, and shielding her from the exposure. I’d frequently just grab her wrist or her leg, more for my benefit than for hers. Despite not being a rock climber, she does quite well with the exposure and difficulties. This wasn’t her first rodeo and she’s climbed a lot tougher peaks.

We moved along nicely to the first summit of Russell. My watch read our elevation as 14,080 feet, just eight feet short of the real summit, so I was pretty sure this was the actual summit and that a lower gendarme we had passed was the eastern summit. I was disavowed of that notion immediately upon stepping onto the lower summit. Yet the traverse to the real summit wasn’t that long and didn’t look any more difficult than what we’d already done. Fifteen minutes later, we climbed onto the very summit, our 14th California 14er.
Sheri solos up a steep section on the East Ridge of Mt. Russell
We relaxed on top for just 15-20 minutes, as it was a long way back to the car and Sheri couldn’t completely relax until she had reversed all the technical difficulties back to the col. It had taken us a little more than an hour to climb the ridge from the col and the way back down was probably a little under an hour. We took another short break at the col and then headed down the horrible slope.

Descending this slope was even easier than I thought it would be. It was mostly just dirt/gravel surfing all the way down to the bouldery dry creekbed that then led to Upper Boy Scout Lake. From there we found and followed the cairns that led us directly and easily down to Lower Boy Scout Lake. We took our last break here and then hiked the rest of the way down to the car. We finished in just under 12 hours for the roundtrip. The total ascent was 6300 vertical feet, nearly our Muir/Whitney day, but our total mileage was just 11.4 miles - about half of the Muir/Whitney day. That difference in mileage made all the difference for me and I felt completely fine at the trailhead. Sheri was quite a bit more tired and was probably because all the boulder hopping and scrambling requires a lot more effort for her than it does for me, as I do that stuff all the time.

We decided that an even longer day on Polemonium wasn’t in the cards for Friday. We could have done it over two days, but we’d need a permit to camp. We decided to put the final 14er off for another year and headed back home the next day. We got home at noon on Saturday. We learned that Derek had won the high school tennis tournament he played the day before, winning three matches while only dropping a single game. As the only child at home now I hope he can handle all the attention...  

Update: Danny made the Stanford Club Tennis Team and traveled to Berkeley for his first match today. Cool that he has something to balance out the academics, give him some exercise and make some new friends.

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