This trip would be my first alpine excursion with Riley. We’d been climbing a lot together at home, both in the form of simulclimbing linkups around Smith and Cougar along with some harder cragging. Together we’d been eyeing the North Ridge of Stuart for this trip, but decided against the snow and glacier travel that route would require right now. We hoped something a little more tame would be a good intro to alpine rock for Riley. As we would soon find out, a little more tame is pretty relative!
Our buddy Max joined us to run and scramble around our intended basecamp at Iceberg Lake right at the base of Mt Whitney. So we embarked on the first crux of the trip, the 11hr drive from Bend to Lone Pine. After a drive full of banter and laughs we arrived at Alabama Hills eager to move. We jumped out of the truck and started running around like kids. I puked up a little burrito while scrambling around; the body was rebelling! We seshed some boulders in the dark and then went to bed, stoked on what the next day had in store.
As we packed the next morning, with the Whitney group looming above, the excitement was high. Riley and I decided to commit to bringing up the aid gear for Hairline and a second rope to fix; we were hoping to climb the Harding Route on Keeler Needle the next day if energy and stoke and skin cooperated.
So we embarked on the hike around 8:30am, our packs weighing in at 55-60lbs each. It was a slog, and the altitude hurt as we trudged uphill in slow motion. On the way up we caught up to another party intending to do Hairline as well- such a wild coincidence! This somewhat deflated the stoke, as did Max’s getting lost and the ranger quizzing us about our (inadequate) food storage techniques.
But we finally made it to the talus below Iceberg and below Whitney’s full east face with time to look at the route. We decided that instead of pushing on and working to fix lines until the evening hours, we’d rather relax, hydrate, and acclimatize, so we proceeded to lounge away the afternoon as the banter picked back up in synch with our recovery.
Our Hairline companions had been up until 10pm fixing the first three pitches; we were glad we didn’t as we scrambled to the base around 6am with just a single rope and what we needed for the day. We beat them to the base and Riley started off on the first pitch, the free climbing crux of the day, a blank 10d slab. He dispatched it in style. I cannot say the same, and in the interest of time, pulled through the cruxes, disappointed in my free climbing, and wishing I’d spent more time on granite before this.
I led the next pitch, slabby 5.9 cracks to a big bulge crack. Again, I was a little headed out in my quick return to granite and frenched through this part. This marked the start of the aid climbing, which turned out to be a bit more full value than I’d anticipated.
Lots of cam hooking, a tension traverse onto hooks, a little whipper, and then some brought us to the last aid pitch, where I found what I thought was the crux of the route- a stemmy free move off a Talon hook on a tiny edge, protected by a less than inspiring bolt. I committed and made it through.
Finally through the aid, we started feeling more positive about the day. But our forearms were already cramping, we were already dehydrated, and we were only 5 (albeit long) pitches up the route. Additionally, our friends had passed us while jugging their lines and tremendously slowed down our progress. Not to mention the fact that the aid pitches were fixed by someone apparently trying to free the route, which made our belays, along with the other party’s two ropes, quite the shit shows.
From here my memory gets a bit blurry. I kept leading in the interest of time, and remember only pitch after pitch of sandbagged feeling crack climbing. Maybe it was the altitude, maybe I suck at climbing, but the alleged 5.8 pitches didn’t feel trivial.
My favorite pitches were definitely pitch 10’s splitter hand cracks, and the next pitch’s fun C1 climbing that turns an arete to a splitter #5 corner crack that narrows to thin hands by the time the belay is reached.
By the time Riley joined me at this belay, I needed to get my headlamp on, as it was close to 9pm and getting dark fast. Riley had left his headlamp at camp (sigh), so he decided to jug the pitch, blindly removing cams as his ascenders hit each piece.
When I got to the top of the pitch, the supposed end of the 5th class, I got pretty stressed, as I encountered nothing that looked remotely 4th class, just steep blank walls everywhere. I ventured horizontally to the right on a sidewalk in the sky, but found nothing promising, so returned to the belay, and ended up going up through a big chasm and finding some pretty sandbagged Sierra 4th class, which eventually brought us to a spot we felt comfortable unroping at. Riley followed this pitch with the other party’s leader right behind him, illuminating the holds so he could free climb the wandering pitch.
Excited to unrope, we quickly scrambled upwards via the past of least resistance, and to our dismay, kept finding more and more mountain to climb. I’d push too hard, and have to sit and gasp for air, feeling nauseous and on the verge of puking more than once. Thankfully I’d have had nothing in my stomach to puke out.
I finally peered around a corner and saw what looked like it could be the top… and it actually was! Oh, the glory! I made an effort to lay down and close my eyes, savoring the moment atop the highest point in the lower 48, at midnight, with nobody around… The Milky Way felt within touching distance and for a moment, I found peace with the universe.
I peeped inside the summit hut in the delusional hopes of finding some water, but found nothing but trash and… a bag of apples!? We eventually made our way, as a group of 4, to the Mountaineer’s Route, carefully scree skiing and hopping our way down. It was tedious going, but we made it back to within a few minutes of camp in just over an hour where Max graciously met us with some water.
I stumbled back into camp in slight disbelief. Max and Riley joined me by the lake to eat some cheesy ramen, drink as much water as we could without throwing up, and then hitting the tent for the night around 3am.
We were all quite worked the next morning, and enjoyed a lazy, quiet matinée of hydrating and taking in the sun and teasing marmots around camp before slowly packing up and hiking out.
Back at Whitney Portal, the tourists gawked at us as if we came from another world. We hightailed it to Erik Schatt’s in Bishop, and the rest of the trip consisted of eating, lounging, and driving home in that warm, fuzzy, tired-but-satisfied daze.
The line went clean. Hooks of all kinds were crucial, especially the talon and cam hooks.
We did bring some peckers and thin pitons but these went unused. We also brought a single Petzl Gully hammer and crampons but were able to descend Mountaineer’s without touching snow.
Brassies didn’t feel useful. I placed one, it popped and I whipped. Small DMM offsets seem to be sufficient. Offset cams weren’t necessary. Neither was a #6. Our rack of ~doubles of tiny to #3 with single 4 and 5 was perfect.
We didn’t fix, so brought only one rope. We used a fix and follow system on the first two pitches, hauling up our follower bag tied to the end of the rope, and leading with a light pack. Riley wore the follower bag the rest of the climb, and I led the rest of it with a light lead pack with clothes and food (alas, no water).
A better system would be to bring a tagline or skinny second rope to haul while the follower climbs or jugs, allowing the leader to access water more quickly and freeing the lost time spent hauling when both climbers are at a belay. Also allows the team to carry more shit (food and especially water).
I guess (sometimes) going lighter doesn’t always mean faster.