| Mt Whitney Mountaineers' Route by OMG
Original Mountain Gangstas Top Mt Whitney
Jason (jblyth) was in San Diego on business and assembled a solid crew to hike Whitney with him: Ryan (kushrocks, who is the original mountain gangsta), Emily (eponymous-her screen name matches her real name), Shawn (rainier_wolfcastle) and me, Marmot72 (Steve). We then got a most welcome addition of Brendan, who is not a 14ers.com member, but who provided our much needed comic relief and vocal accompaniment. The Mountaineers' Route is just under 12 miles RT, with 6,200 feet of vertical gain. The couloir is best climbed with snow: as it climbs just under 1500', I imagine it's more fun on snow than gravel (parts were melted out and I preferred the snow to the gravel).
This section of the Sierra Nevadas is remarkable: from the desert floor at scarcely 3,000 feet of elevation, the mountains jut skyward to reach the highest point in the lower 48 states. From Lone Pine, we drove the road passed the "Alabama Hills," a low-lying range comprised of basalt columns and blocks, and we could see the narrow valley with Whitney's spires gracing the skyline, drawing us seemingly heavenward from this barren expanse. Up to this point, the road was mostly flat; soon, it rises steeply to gain nearly a full mile of altitude in only a few miles: my ears were popping while my eyes popped out of my head at the views of the ridges and spires leading to Whitney"s summit, and the couloir that constitutes the "Mountaineer's Route" just to the right of the summit monolith.
We drove in and then hiked up the trail, hiking forested switchbacks, then clambering up the ledges (easy scrambling made more difficult with a weighted pack), and finally hiking beyond the willow-choked ravine up a rock glacier to the opening basin, around Lower Boy Scout Lake and to the left of Upper Boy Scout Lake, and finally to a high camp at 12,500 or higher, and only a quarter-mile or so from Iceberg Lake.
These next shots show some detail of the scramble up the ledges (class 2+ and some really easy 3) - just some places where a fall would be bad.
This next photo shows the terrain as you emerge from the ledges.
The sun was blazing in a cloudless sky and the hike in was hot. Soon after the ledges, you reach Lower Child Molester (I mean Boy Scout) Lake; you cross a stream just below the lake and find some welcome shade in pretty woods. (No offense meant to Scouters - I was one way back in the day.) The pines don't last long; they soon give way to willows and then you find yourself on a long rock glacier.
After the rock glacier, the trail makes a few turns, most notably a hard left at Upper Boy Scout lake (angling SW), where it climbed another several hundred feet up snow and then wound its way back to the right (NW), with clusters of boulders on the left that hid from view a skinny basin angling toward Whitney from the SSE. It was just past this area that we found our campsite: an area of gravel-sand and boulders from which we could view Whitney's majesty before us and look backward at impressive ridges, the sprawling empty desert from where we'd come, and a low purplish mountain range beyond. The warm late afternoon hours moved quickly; once the sun dipped behind Whitney's profile, the temperature plummeted, so that we all progressively donned additional layers, before retiring to our tents around 7:30, just as the sky was still darkening from twilight.
The sunsets both nights were beautiful, with pinks and blues over the desert behind us and Whitney cast in a red glare before us:
The night was bitterly cold and we didn't stir from our tents Friday morning until the morning sun sent its warming rays. Our campsite had little water - only the trickle from snowmelt on the rocks - so after a leisurely awakening and breakfast, we hiked to Iceberg lake to gather water and then began the climb up the couloir. This next shot shows the boot trail - it's still another 200 feet or so of vertical to Iceberg lake, which is tucked around a bend to the right.
Around that bend, we found some minor boulder hopping and then we were on a flat, with Iceberg lake on the right (NNW) and Whitney directly before us (W). Someone had camped right by the lake to hike Mt Russell, and we were grateful to find a hole already in the ice from which to get water. So clean and clear; nobody bothered filtering or treating it.
Now the couloir to the left of the summit-the part of the route that gives the Mountaineer's route its name-was directly before us. In the picture below, you can see the boot-pack leading beneath the rocky section to the snowfield right of it.
The couloir was longer than it looked: from the bottom, a couple steep sections obscure the lower-angled sections above them. The snow was in good shape, firm for a secure grip from our crampons and axes, but the conditions in the upper portion were much drier, exposing loose gravel, scree, and talus.
The next few shots show the route before us from the lake and the climb up the couloir.
We rested at the shoulder and the bitter wind prompted us to put on the layers we had stowed during our snow-climb. Then the final push. From the shoulder, the route can be kept at class 2 by traversing W-SW, which is the way we descended. Whitney's north ridge is steep and pinnacled; we curled around it, launching on a class 3 scramble but keeping to the right of a false summit on the ridge. The picture below, taken from on our descent, shows the boot-pack that traverses around to Whitney's gentle west face, as well as the blocky bomber granite that we began scrambling en route to the summit.
This shot captures the initial part of the scrambling.
Feeling the nearness of the summit, I pushed onward with little concern for the difficulty, making a couple class 4 moves en route. The rock was so solid, such a delight, but certainly more deliberate route-finding could keep the difficulty to class 3.
While appearing almost Teton-like from the east, the summit is broad from the west and forms a shallow arc from west to north -- aiming for the midpoint of this arc yields a mellow class 2/3 climb. This next picture shows the choices: most of us picked our way up the blocks to the upper left, while Shawn picked a route directly ahead.
For those of us who climbed more tightly from the saddle, the flat, expansive summit came as a sharp surprise after the steep scramble. It was a minute or two after 11, so about three and a half hours to climb, but that included down-time at the lake for water and at the saddle. The views from Whitney were beautiful in all directions. The high walls, meandering ridges, and snow-speckled summits westward and northward in contrast to dusty desert eastward captivated our attention.
We also sought out the standard class 1 route that would lead to Mt Muir. The distinctive switchbacks of that trail were easy to see, but we weren't entirely sure which of the peaks it was, but if it was the one we thought, it sure looked far away. Not bad for summer, but not enough time to loop and avoid a dark and cold descent. I had thought Muir was only a mile from Whitney, but it turns out it's two. After whiling away an hour in the sunshine, we turned our attention to the descent, following the standard trail on the southwestern side of the summit, until it split, where we turned W-NW to traverse snow slopes around to the saddle.
We got back to camp at a quarter of two and enjoyed lunch, naps, and jokes. The sun was so intense that it felt like being at the beach. Sometime around five, when the sun dipped toward Whitney, I felt the ensuing cold and decided to warm up by scrambling up the blocky ridge to the north of our camp.
Another early night to bed, and then my deep sleep was broken by Shawn's voice. "No, Iceberg Lake is another 300 feet or so upward; Boy Scout Lake is about 700' back down the trail." I lay there, listening to the shouts of unknown hikers and Shawn's calm directives. Apparently, these people needed to hear everything at least three times. Then this doozy - 'Is this the standard route?" Of course all of us (and the group camped further down the valley) are wide awake now - and it's around midnight. But, even after poor Shawn manages to take a leak and get back to the warmth of his tent, our new clueless neighbors continue to shuffle around, questioning each other as to which way to go, their headlamps occasionally hitting our tent walls. "Go straight!" Brendan bellows, kindly leaving out the "to Hell" that some of us, perhaps, were thinking.
The new group doesn't leave or quiet down, though, and Jason is not as nice as Brendan. "Shut up!" His voice rings against the cliffs. "You f--ing morons!" Ryan laughs so hard that I can barely hear my own laugh over his laugh from the next tent over. Happily, the talking and shouting turns to whispering and low muttering, and finally I manage a couple more hours of sleep.
We get another leisurely morning start, mostly because we have to tear down camp, and then we hike down the trail toward Upper Boy Scout Lake. We stop here to replenish our water supply, and talk to a man who has done Russell before. He's super-informative and I try to remember all that he rattles off about the ascent route. We could have combined Russell from the shoulder of Whitney at the top of the Mountaineers couloir; our reason for coming this way is to climb Russell's airy class 3 ridge. The scenery around Upper Boy Scout Lake is nice.
The approach to Russell is a hike up a desert turned into a mountain slope: not just scree, but sand a few to several inches deep made the going slow. Thankfully we got to some snow that was a little easier.
The trick on this ascent is not to succumb to ridge frenzy and look for the east ridge too early. One should stay toward the middle of the basin to climb northwards. But what would a trip be without a wrong turn? We angled too far to the left and found ourselves on some great scrambling:
However, when we got to the top, instead of finding ourselves on the ridge, we saw before us a great sandy open space that finally led to the real ridge.
Once at the ridge, the initial scrambling consisted primarily of hopping or winding around bolders - more class 2+ than true class 3 - but then the ridge ramped up in a hurry.
Emily, Ryan and Jason abandoned the ridge crest, walking on rock but mostly snow to the right of the crest as it steepened. Brendan and I stuck to the steepening and increasingly exposed ridge crest. I quickly knew it was beyond class 3 -- even by vaunted California standards ("give me a break," a climber from Yosemite once told me, "class 3 is class 3, no matter where you are"). Brendan estimated 5.5.
We got almost to Russell's lower, eastern summit, but we found ourselves at an airy perch with an ill-advised downclimb for those who are unroped. So, nothing to do but downclimb, which Brendan did like a mountain goat and I like a marmot missing a foot (don't get me wrong; it was fun, not painful, I just envied Brendan's speed and grace). This next shot shows the steepness of the downclimb.
The others had found the correct route, which is to bypass this lower part of the ridge crest on its right, hugging close to it to avoid falling off the sloping slabs to the right. However, they were deterred by an icy spot of rock which could not be bypassed, nor safely climbed. While I don't have a shot of that spot, the following pictures show their route.
Here's a close up of walking next to the wall formed by the rising ridge crest:
Here's a photo of the route that shows just how narrow the passage is between the class 5 crest and the smooth swiftly dropping slabs to the right. On the upper section, the snow marks the route - the stone to the right of it is angled steeply enough and smooth enough to make a tumble to a long drop likely.
So nothing to do but head back. We enjoyed a couple short glissades under the summer-like sun.
Once back to the lake, where Shawn had waited for us, we trekked out, then enjoyed dinner before heading our separate ways: some to San Diego, and others back to Colorado via Las Vegas. (That sounds dangerous!)
Thumbnails for uploaded photos (click to open slideshow):