August 3, 2014

May 2014: Climbing Mt Whitney

The word epic is often said during adventures, used mostly as an adjective to describe something beyond the ordinary, or at least, above average. “Skiing was epic today,” you might hear, or even, “Epic backpack, dude!” Though not necessarily misused, its overuse is common and its meaning is diluted. When I think of epic, I think of something grand, something wild, perhaps something dangerous or even perilous. At the very least, it’s something to write home about. In that sense, to me, epic is more of a noun than an adjective.
Among the adventure community, I’ve only seen climbers use the word as a noun. Some might warn, “If you miss the turn, you’re bound for an epic.” They don’t mean you’ll have an awesome good time. Instead, you’ll probably run out of food and water, struggle to stay warm, finish in the dark, and feel grateful to survive.
With that in mind, the following is an account of my most recent Epic.

Before you get nervous, know that we all walked out on our own power and we enjoyed cheeseburgers and a pitcher in the welcoming town of Lone Pine.

Mount Whitney is the highest summit in the contiguous United States. Alaska has nearly a dozen taller peaks, but Whitney holds much prestige at over 14,500 feet above sea level. Located in California’s Sierra Nevada range, it is a popular summertime hiking destination. Hikers begin near 8,000’ and usually spend 2 days completing the 13 mile (one-way) hike, camping at 12,000’ along the way.

The hike is long and strenuous, but there are other ways to get to the top. The Moutaineer’s route, requiring crampons and ice axes, ascends a steep snow-filled gulley all the way to the top. It’s like climbing stairs in the snow, for 4 hours or more. A fall on this 40-degree slope could potentially send a climber on a 1000’ slide. There are also steeper routes, for those who prefer ropes and harnesses to spikes and axes. The East Face and East Buttress routes offer over 1000’ of vertical rock climbing. Both East routes rise directly to the summit and descend via the Mountaineer’s route.
Judging the routes, the snow and weather conditions, and (mis)judging our abilities, we set out to climb the East Buttress.

Our guide book suggests the Buttress can be climbed in 6-8 hours, so we forego the traditional alpine (5:00am) start, sleep ‘til 7 and wait for the mid-20-degree morning chill to ease. When we rise for breakfast, two groups have already passed us. We aren’t worried about being third in line, so we take our time to gear up. By 9am, the sun is warm, the lead groups are clear and we make our way to the start.

The first few pitches go smoothly enough, but we are well behind the pace we had imagined. We hoped for 12 pitches in 8 hours, but our early pace is closer to one pitch per hour. At this rate, we’ll be 4 hours late to the summit, which means we’ll finish around sunset and have to descend in the dark.

Recalling the description of the Moutaineer’s route, descending in the dark is not ideal.

As the sun dips into the afternoon, shade envelopes the face. Instantly, we are cold again. I’m wearing only shorts and rain pants under my harness, but I add a down coat between my base layers and my rain shell. With a fleece hat and gloves, the cold is tolerable.

By the 4th pitch, I realize we are way behind schedule. There’s no way we will finish before dark. I explain my worry to the team; we need to make a back-up plan and find a way to descend. Ignoring the cold and wind, the group is optimistic; we’ll make it past the toughest section and find the easier moves ahead.

Despite the positive attitude, our pace worsens. Instead of getting into a rhythm as we hoped, we seem to be slowing. Standing in the shade between pitches, I’m starting to shiver. The wind picks up and pummels the exposed face.

Communication becomes difficult in the wind. We started the climb with two hand-held radios, but it’s about now, on the 5th pitch, as the wind howls, that my radio slips from my hand.  I hear it clink at my feet and ricochet into space. I turn to watch it fall. For 50 or 100 feet, the blue Motorola accelerates to its demise. Smashing into pieces and skittering over the ledges below, its last transmission is one of warning.

The GoPro camera can’t capture the true conditions, but to provide some idea of how strong the wind was, consider what we found when we returned to base camp.

I don’t have a wind gust estimate, but it’s interesting to note that the tent stakes and nylon cords are still in the ground at the site. Instead of pulling the stakes and rolling away, the tent ripped itself from the stakes and took to the sky. Though we found one tent 1/3 mile from the site, the second tent was lost, along with a variety of small items. Sleeping bags, pads, extra clothes, hats and more are all scattered somewhere in the range. We are lucky to find a backpack 1/4 mile away, and even a sleeping pad about one mile from camp.

Back on the Buttress, we are unable to hear each other through the wind. We can yell short distances but once the lead climber is beyond 50’, our communication is limited to pulls and tugs on the rope.

An hour before sunset, we reach the crux of the climb: a difficult off-width crack, followed by an awkward overhanging slab. As the lead climber struggles to make the move, we realize our mistake: we are veering off the route and into unknown terrain. We yell at him to move left, but he can’t hear us and continues right. He rounds the corner and we’re helplessly forced to follow.
Recall what climbers warn about wrong turns. This is about to become an epic.
The 2nd and 3rd climbers fight their way through the pitch, leaving skin and blood on the rocks.

Being the last to climb, I wait alone for the others to finish the pitch. What is taking so long, I wonder aloud. Eventually I feel 5 hard tugs on the rope and I’m free to climb. As the twilight turns to night, I race up the crack, smash my knees into the crevice, bear hug the slab, jump a 2’ gap onto a hanging boulder, and join my friends on a small snowy ledge above a 1000’ foot cliff. There’s blood everywhere.
I can feel warmth oozing down my legs, as my knees stick to Gore-Tex. I notice another trail in the snow, and realize a teammate has torn up his knuckles. With limited supplies and reduced optimism, he simply lets the blood run down his fingers and drip to the ground.

It is on this ledge, huddled together, where we realize the gravity of our situation. It is much too dangerous to rappel down this unknown face, particularly in the dark, and a 4 foot snowy ledge is no place to survive a night of howling wind. The decision is quickly made and our leader scurries around the corner as darkness falls.

His pace is excruciating. A foot at a time, or sometimes less, the rope pulls around the corner and into the gloom. A minute passes between pulls. I notice the stars are out and bright. I eat the rest of my food, a mere three bites of sugary stuff, thinking of the freeze-dried dinners, trail mix, and Clif bars we left at camp. My water bottle begins to freeze. After 15 minutes, or an hour maybe, the rope is finally taught and my partners climb into the dark.

The next hour is the most difficult I have ever spent in the mountains. Uncertainty becomes anxiety, which becomes fear.
I sit alone, in the snow, on a ledge, midway up a face of the tallest mountain, listening to the wind howl through the dark. I’m out of food. My water is now ice. I’m shivering. My radio is broken, there are no cell phones, and my only lifeline is coiled at my feet, slowly unwinding and dragging itself up the mountain. Like all reptiles, the 60 meter green snake moves slowly in the cold.

The anxious fear boils into anger. I curse the dark cold wind. I yell at the stars. I scold myself and my climbing partners. What were we thinking? Why didn’t we turn back? What the fuck are we doing up here? How are we going to get through this? I can’t help but think of solitary confinement. I’m trapped in a small, dark, uncomfortable space, alone with my thoughts, and I have no idea how long I will be there. Perhaps this is the punishment for making a few poor decisions along the route.

Suddenly, I feel 5 sharp tugs and I snap out of it. I click on my headlamp and turn to climb once more. The short pitch is not enough to warm my body. I shiver immediately upon reaching the next belay point. I coil my rope against the rock, sit on it, and wedge myself against my backpack to block the wind. I close my eyes and wait for a tug.

The snake slithers its way through boulders and ledges, back and forth before finally pulling taught once more. I sit up and notice for the first time how beautiful the night is. I can see lights from 100 miles away. We must be nearing the summit, I (mistakenly) think. My attitude instantly changes. The waves of emotion have settled and I realize everything is going to be fine. I know we’re going to make it. I no longer despise the wind, the cold, the dark.
I turn to the face, lift my head, and send the pitch easily. That is, of course, until I reach the next crux move just short of the belay.
Two large boulder ledges form a funnel, angling gently towards a 4 foot gap between them. In the dark, by himself, our leader jumped this gap with very little protection. If at ground level, in daylight, a 5-year-old could do it easily. But up here, in the dark, with 1000’ beneath my feet, the gap is suddenly impossible. I know the three climbers ahead of me have already jumped, but I ask anyway, “Are you serious?”
“Yeah, I got you,” says the belay…. OK. 1. 2. And 3. Right. Left. And leap.

It must be approaching midnight, we’ve been climbing in the dark for 4 hours, and it’s time to take a break and gather ourselves. On yet another exposed blocky ledge, we huddle against the wind. I can tell morale is low, and perhaps still dropping. We check our supplies. Food: empty. Water: empty, or frozen. Warm clothes: on, but insufficient. I notice, however, that I’m the only one wearing boots. It was so cold, 5 hours ago, that I had to remove my climbing shoes and replace them with wool socks and heavy boots. It impedes my climbing, but at least my feet are warm-ish. The others still have constrictive climbing shoes on and are all complaining about their numbed feet.
Time for a morale boost: everybody, remove your climbing shoes and put on some socks!

After my twilight low point, my attitude has steadily improved. I see the team is still very low, so I start making light of our situation. Stories, jokes, complaints, dreams, thoughts of food, anything that comes to mind, I spew it to the group. We sit for an hour on the ledge, recuperating our mental strength to continue the climb. We still have a ways to go, and it’s too cold to sit any longer.

Another major morale boost occurred on that ledge, and it involved a blue plastic bag. If you don’t instantly know what that means, here’s a g-rated version of how to use a blue bag in the mountains.

Our trip leader and I huddle shoulder to shoulder, minimizing our exposure to the wind. He proclaims, “Well, it’s gotta happen,” pulling a bag from his pack.
“I'll give you some space,” I say.
“Don’t worry about it,” he says.
Let me reiterate. We are sitting on a 4’ square boulder ledge, a thousand feet up, with our hips and shoulders touching, and he plans to remove his harness and shit in a bag without me getting in the way.
I know things are pretty bleak, but I am not about to go that low today. I gingerly step to the adjacent rock, providing a few feet of space, if not privacy.

With a blue bag filled and sealed with laughter, though still shivering, thirsty, hungry, and tired, we resume our climb. Desperate to avoid the punishment of climbing 4th, I propose a new strategy. We begin simul-climbing when the route allows. The leader and I now simultaneously climb, and belay the 3rd and 4th climbers in parallel. For the most part, we are now climbing in two groups of two, instead of the snaking relay that dominated the lower, more difficult, sections. Though no faster, it improves our mood. There is nothing, however, to do about the cold.

For the last few hours, I’ve done everything to avoid touching the rock. I sit only on the rope, or on my pack, or simply stand in the wind. I shiver when I stop climbing, but I feel stable. The others, however, are much colder. I see them collapse after each pitch, exhausted. Sprawling on the rocks and snow, they are losing heat. I watch a teammate shiver uncontrollably, barely able to breathe. He hyperventilates as his whole body tremors. I’ve not seen anything like it. My eyes meet those of another partner and we share our concern wordlessly.
I ask if the breathing is a voluntary way to warm up, but he stammers, “No.”
I wonder if the altitude is affecting him. Perhaps it’s just exhaustion, mixed with hunger and dehydration, amplified by cold, and wrapped in stress. No matter the diagnosis, the only cure is to get down to camp, get food, get water, get warm, and get off the mountain. And, of course, there’s only one way to do any of that; we must first make the summit.

Pitch after pitch, snake by snake, we continue upwards. As his exhaustion nears delirium, our leader makes another wrong turn, again pushing us into more difficult moves.
The monotony is numbing, or maybe it’s just the cold. Climb shiver belay. Shiver climb shiver. Belay shiver shiver…
Passing 3:00am, one of our altimeter watches says we are only 40’ from of the summit. We crane our necks upward but our headlamps only illuminate the same things we’ve seen for the last 8 hours: rocks and darkness. A second altimeter suggests we’re still 400’ below the summit. Uhg. It’s the classic backcountry mistake. As soon you think the end is right around the corner, there’s always another corner. One false summit leads to another, to another, to another.

Shaking our heads as we prepare for another few pitches, we notice the snake moving with a vigor before unseen. Suddenly, above the wind, we hear a shout. To our disbelief and relief, our leader has reached the peak and is standing on the highest summit in the lower 48. We hurry to join him, doing our best to avoid the other major backcountry mistake: becoming careless when the finish is near.

We share congratulatory hugs and high fives and immediately coil the ropes and scurry into the National Park Service summit hut. It’s barely more than a tin roof on a pile of rocks, but it does block the wind and provide the warmth of a safe place, even if the air inside is only 25 degrees.
It’s 4:00am. We lay our ropes and lean our packs, close our eyes and wait for the sun to rise.

Finally, mercifully, the sun crests the horizon and brings the energy of renewed optimism. The wind is still blasting, but it doesn’t feel so cold. We take summit photos to prove our existence, if not our success, and drop into the Moutaineer’s route to descend to camp. In only two hours, we arrive at the place where our tents used to be, the same place where we started our climb 24 hours prior.

We eat our remaining food (last night’s dinner), drink from the frozen lake, collect our scavenged gear, complete the 4-hour hike to the car, unload our bags (including the blue ones), return to Lone Pine, and promptly devour some epic cheeseburgers.

After 2 months of reflection, it’s easy to see our mistakes. First and foremost, we simply had too many people in our group. With only one competent lead climber, our relay method was inexcusably slow, even leaning towards dangerously slow.
Additionally, we weren’t strong enough climbers. Our fitness was decent, as we made the hike at a good pace, but we wasted too much time on climbing moves that should have been completed more easily.
Also, always obvious in retrospect, we should have better prepared for the long climb by bringing extra food and water, and warmer clothes too.
Lastly, much to our surprise, we should have had a stronger tent. The one we lost was designed for Everest expeditions, but that claim is laughable after seeing how it faired at 12K’ in the Sierras.

On the other hand, we must also reflect on the way we handled the difficult situation without letting a few bad choices become a disaster. We mitigated our risks when able, we climbed safely and methodically, we worked as a team, and we knew when not to hunker down and wait for help. Although our decision to climb in the dark sounds a little careless to some, I believe that we would have fared far worse had we stopped climbing at dusk and waited 10 hours for sunrise.
Another scenario that keeps playing in my head is the one where we summit near dusk, descend in the dark, and find our tents missing with no other shelter nearby. It would have been an impossible night on an open snow field with no tents.

It becomes one of those any landing you walk away from stories, when things go wrong but you survive nonetheless. Things certainly didn’t go according to our plan, but we landed on the summit and we all walked away.

Thanks to Nate Hansen, Nate Tang, and Andrew Yue for walking with me.
Thanks to the NPS for constructing a way-above-average-but-not-quite-epic summit hut.

1 comment:

  1. Great write up and play by play Jeremy. That was an adventure worthy of the "Epic" status for sure. I feel a little sheepish about how risky things turned out but, like you mentioned above, good about the way we all pulled through. Your positive attitude during those last few pitchs was so helpful to everyone. Lots of lessons to be learned from this that can and will be applied on our next grand adventure!