Derek has been working as an intern at SpaceX out in California, at Vandenberg Air Force Base, for the entire summer. He’s training to be one of the first astronauts that will be sent to Mars. They wanted fit, young, engineers to survive the rigors of the journey, have no wife or kids to leave behind, and possess the skills to fix things during the mission. So, that’s cool and all, but, dang, I’ve missed him. He’s my main climbing partner. I had to slum it with Homie and Danny. It was rough, but it’s finally over Derek is mission-ready now and can return to Colorado for his junior year at CU. I flew out to Santa Barbara to drive back with him. But I wasn’t going to go so far and drive so much without doing a peak… This meshed nicely with Derek’s desires because, despite loving his time at SpaceX, he is not a fan of flat, costal, boring Lompoc. He was itching to get back to the mountains. Badly.
So, why not start with the tallest mountain in California for his first peak back? I mean he was already the only member of the family who hadn’t climbed Mt. Whitney. I’d done the 50CC East Face Route thirty years ago, so we decided on the equally classic East Buttress. We drove the four hours to Lone Pine, picked up our permits (thanks, Sheri!) and checked into a motel to shield ourselves from the 100 degree temperatures. I’d gotten a bad cold five days ago and it had me a bit weak and very congested. I needed a good night’s sleep. We watched TV and ate pizza for dinner.
The next morning we were up at 4 a.m. and out the door by 4:15. We ate breakfast on the drive up the 5000-foot climb to Whitney Portal at 8500 feet. We were hiking by 4:50. I carried our 7.8mm 60-meter rope and Derek carried our climbing rack. We had super light harnesses, climbing shoes, belay devices, and one helmet. Why one? Because we believe in going ultra light and you only need to be wearing the helmet when rocks are going to hit your head, so we switched off accordingly. Either that or Derek forgot his. The forecast was for a 40% chance of rain after 11 a.m. and we both decided to ditch our shells and just take ultra-light wind shells. We both went in shorts, with no long pants packed. We did take a hat and gloves, though.
Just after we pulled into the parking lot we met four hikers heading out to do the Mountaineer’s Route — our descent route. They knew they were in for a long day, saying, “We’re going to be Zombies when we get back down.” Their roundtrip was the same as ours, minus the 11 pitches of rock climbing we’d do: 12.5 miles and 6000 vertical feet. We had our last drinks, locked up, pulled on our packs, and headed up the trail behind them. Less than a mile up the trail, the climber’s trail, into the cirque below the east escarpment of the Mt. Whitney massif, peels off and heads steeply up the drainage, directly at the peak. If you stuck to the Mt. Whitney Trail, you’d cover 12 miles before arriving at the summit - almost exactly our roundtrip distance! When we turned off the trail, we noticed the four mountaineers’ headlamps were still on the main trail. I shined my light towards them to show them the way, but it appeared they figured it out and reversed back to follow us. Initially, they were closing on us, but then, maybe realizing they were going too fast, they fell behind and out of sight. They never made it up to the base of Whitney and I don’t know what happened to them.
The hike into the base of Mt. Whitney is just incredible. The trail is really good and very interesting. It starts with the 0.8 miles of the regular trail and then steeply switchbacks up into the gully in the woods. A couple of challenging and fun stream crossings and more steep ground lead to the Ebersbacher Ledges, which are the key to getting up this drainage as the granite walls pinch so tight that the stream and super dense foliage block passage directly up it. These third class ledges are so perfect that you’d think God designed them as the approach trail. Above this, we entered the last of the woods around Lower Boy Scout Lake. There are many great camping sites and we passed one tent. We traversed some talus and climbed a couple hundred feet to a huge boulder before traversing with dense brush on a tight path to beautiful slick rock slabs, which we followed upwards for hundreds of feet. More bivy spots were located up here as we crossed to the south a bit to head for Whitney while another trail stays north to head for Mt. Russell. Steep climbing, mostly on a decent dirt (really crushed rock) trail ensued. The final barrier to Iceberg Lake at the base of Mt. Whitney was a small cliff band. We headed directly at a waterfall and just before hitting it we turned to our left and scrambled up ledges and one crux section that was six feet tall.
At Iceberg Lake we drank and ate and filled our water bottles for the climb. We met Joe from SLO who had been in there for three nights. They’d climbed Fishhook Arete on Mt. Russell and climbed the East Face and East Buttress of Whitney in the same day. Impressive. He was really nice. We met another couple that was heading for the Mountaineer’s Route and they told us the couple above was heading for our route, the East Buttress. They had a twenty minute lead on us by the time we started up, but we caught them at the start of the route. They were Marion (another woman of Indian descent who was living in Yosemite Valley, though not right now due to the fires) and Eddie (who worked for Petzl in Salt Lake City). They were cool and we geared up and ate and drank some more while waiting for Eddie to lead the first pitch. I led up behind Marion, at a respectful distance, and set up a belay 15 feet below them. This first pitch was outstanding, as was most of the route. Very solid, featured rock with great protection. What more can you ask for? Derek followed and took the lead and ran out 250 feet of rope, with me simul-climbing until he set up a belay.
When I joined Derek at the belay, we noticed and Eddie and Marion were off route to the right. At that point we were just north of the East Buttress and the next pitch should have put them directly on the arete/buttress. That’s the way I went and set up a belay on tiny flat ledge directly on the arete. It was so nice. Derek followed and led the fourth pitch which was equally as good as the first pitch: steep climbing with fun moves and positive holds. I followed and led a long, easy pitch up to the base of the PeeWee - a hanging pillar with a prominent roof that we’d avoid by climbing up on the right side. Shortly after I set up my belay Eddie set up his belay below me — they were back on route.
Derek followed and then led up the PeeWee via a super fun, albeit too short, jam crack. He then rambled up easier terrain to a big ledge. I followed and shortly into my next lead Marion set up a belay just below Derek. They were moving fast, but we were just a bit faster. The weather was coming in. It wasn’t very dark, but it was gray and some precipitation seemed imminent. I strung two pitches together into a 230-foot pitch and Derek simul-climbed below me. I placed a MicroTraxion for additional safety. This was a bit of a weird pitch because the top fifty feet was a chimney and with our packs I knew that would be a slow struggle. I found a traverse to the right that led to some easier ground and went up that for forty feet before traversing back into the chimney to finish it up. Derek mimicked my strategy and Eddie wasn’t far behind him.
We seemed to be into scrambling territory, but we weren’t sure, so Derek led off just in case. I coiled a hundred feet of rope, put it over my head and we simul-climbed three or four hundred feet directly up the prow. One final steep section had me put Derek on a proper belay and he was soon at the summit. We unroped about fifty feet from the summit marker and ten feet below it. What an aesthetic finish! The sky was spitting on us at this point, so we quickly coiled the rope, stripped off our harnesses and packed up. After some photos and a quick call to the Momster, we headed off to try and find the Mountaineer’s Route, which I’d never been down or up.
We found the start of the descent quickly and carefully made our way down slick third and fourth class terrain to a notch, where we entered the gully proper. This is a really loose, nasty gully. We were able to stick to the left side and do more scrambling than dirt surfing. We descended carefully and efficiently without incident back to Iceberg Lake. We hiked over to a campsite of four new arrivals to chat them up. They were four climbers from the Czech Republic, over in the US for two weeks of climbing. We dumped the rocks out of our shoes, ate and drank. We hadn’t seen Marion and Eddie since we started the scrambling near the summit. Just before we started our hike out we saw both of them near the top of the gully. They could have been down within the hour, but they weren’t moving. Maybe they were taking a break.
The hike out went very smoothly. This is a pretty comfortable way to get in 6000 vertical feet of mountain adventure. We both had a great time and everything went super smooth. It never rained, just a bit of spitting. We were always pretty comfortable temperature-wise. We ate and drank well and felt strong the entire way. It took us about four hours from the trailhead to start the roped climbing. Then four hours for the route to the summit and we descended back to the car in around 3.5 hours for a total roundtrip time of 11h43m.
After a quick bite and some gas in Lone Pine, we headed for home. We stopped in Death Valley just to get a Strava track and tried to spell out “Death” (for Derek) and “Valley” (for me). We didn’t do that great of a job based on the track showing in Strava, but it was a nice break. Driving west to east across Death Valley is something. From 3500 feet on highway 395, you climb to 5000 feet and then descend to 1500 feet before climbing again to 5000 feet and then descending to -200 feet. Crazy stuff. That would be one tough bike ride to go from Death Valley to Whitney Portal. We had a rough night from there on. After driving until 11:30 p.m. we found the rest stop closed and, too tired to continue, slept in the car, in stifling heat. After two fitful hours, I couldn’t stand it any longer and drove another 90 minutes to the next rest stop where we slept for 3.5 hours before finishing the drive home.
Derek is back in the house!