Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Mt Whitney, again

Once again, it has been time to climb!

The Caltech Alpine Club has run a few winter trips! First, there was the training trip to Mt San Gorgonio a few weeks ago. There has been very little snow this season, but I still managed to dig a deep enough hole in which to pitch my bivvy bag. When I woke up, there were ice crystals on the tent fabric all around! Brrr! The next day we climbed to the top, which was hard work in mushy snow and very little air. Photos are here: https://picasaweb.google.com/105494084231616659850/MtSanGorgonio. A long hike out at the other end ensured that I was pretty ambivalent about the main climb of the season, Mt Whitney. I climbed Whitney last year earlier in the season. At 14,495ft (4,500m) it's seriously high, and takes three days to climb while acclimating properly.

However, after only a few weeks I'd forgotten my previous misery and resolved to climb it, if only to make sure that I really, really hated mountaineering! Without going into mind-numbing detail, it was actually nowhere near as bad as I thought it might be. On the drive up we were treated to an incredible sunset just after the almost full moon rose over the opposite horizon. The lack of snow meant we could drive up the to trail head. We slept that night at 8000ft, although it was well below freezing. The next day we weighed in (I had a 50lb pack, up from 32lbs last year, for reasons that will shortly become clear!) and walked steadily up the North Fork trail. Lack of snow in the valley meant we had to do some rather exposed climbing and scrambling along the ledges to get to Lower Boy Scout lake, where my tent-mate D and I found a nice flat patch of exposed ground in which to make camp. Sitting on a warm, dry stone ledge with our fellow climbers while playing ukulele and passing around bottles with various liqueurs, we watched the sun set over the visible peak of Whitney far, far above us. That evening I took a few neat photos, and even got the laser into action!

Next day we continued our walk, this time with crampons up the icy snow into the Upper Boy Scout lake cirque and valley. I stopped where the ice climbers were for a bit to take photos, but opted out of climbing this time, to conserve strength for the following day's efforts. Upwards, ever upwards, into the next hanging glacial valley, and the last gully before Iceberg lake. The lack of snow made the route in particularly sketchy, and having tried it the year before I tried another chute a little further up the valley. To my pleasant surprise it was snowy most of the way, and soon I found myself on the Iceberg lake saddle, only slightly puffed. Before long D made it up from ice climbing, we set up the tent, I took a bunch of photos, and we heard the stories from H, who had climbed the entire mountain (up the east buttress!) in only one day. His climbing partner got a bit altitude sick, and returned to the trail head that day. A nearby tent had an excess of pasta, which I vacuumed up in seconds, and not long after sunset D and I beat the cold to climb into bed. For me, at least, bed consisted of a sleeping bag, a car windshield reflector, and a folded polar fleece blanket. I put my shoes in my inside-out sleeping bag bag under my feet, water bottles near by, and hoped the whole lot wouldn't freeze. When sleeping on gravel with not much padding, it's important to keep everything pretty relaxed! That night I managed to take a few photos, but unfortunately it was too cold to get the timelapse effect I was looking for - the camera battery froze.

Next morning we were up at 3am, ready to get going! Remembering how cold I'd got in the past waiting for someone to get going, I quickly got dressed, collected my gear, and headed for the chute that would take us to the top. Sloped at roughly 45 degrees, this partially snow-filled gully would take us up nearly 1500 feet to near the summit. On the way up I had an opportunity to use my new headlamp in anger for the first time. Putting it on high power, it was more or less impossible to determine if anyone else was using their headlamp or not. There, the leaders set some ropes for us to tie our harnesses to with a prussik, in case of a fall during the last steep scramble. After overtaking a few people on the way up, I was first in line to ascend the ropes, reaching the top of the first pitch before the second one was set, then the top of the second one before the third was set. I scrambled up to a higher ledge to make room for people waiting in line. Buoyed by the rising sun and frustrated by the difficulties of keeping a prussik in a useful place while climbing, I free soloed the last 200 feet to the summit, arriving just as H finished setting the anchor. We trotted across the summit plateau to the hut, where H began a quality hot chocolate production line. The only source of water on the snow-free summit was INSIDE the hut. Last december, when M visited, there was a huge wind storm. With winds maxing out the anemometer at 150mph for 6 hours at the summit, the door was long gone, and the inside mostly filled with accumulated snow. I summitted just as the sun rose. Soon after, full moon having passed, the almost full moon set. I immediately began my scheme of silly photos, first with soft toys, then with a tuxedo I'd brought to the summit for funsies, and finally with a kite. A few other people also brought some cool stuff up, including a hula hoop, a ukulele, a watermelon, a large quantity of beer, and so on. Even L, who had succumbed last year to altitude, made it up. I brought out my finger pulse oximeter and found my blood oxygen saturation to be 93%, considerably higher than the mid 80s where it had been hovering the whole time since leaving the car park. Good sleep and hydration, combined with free pasta/pesto must have made all the difference. Next a bunch of people wanted me to take their photo, so by the time we got back over to the ropes to rappel down to the notch, a large queue had formed. In the 90 minutes it took to get to the front, I had got seriously cold! Also the ropes got pretty shredded by the sharp rocks, which was a bit scary. 

To the notch, stand in the sun and out of the wind for a bit, then work our way back down the rubble avoiding falling rocks to the snowy section. Crampons on and walk back down to camp. Pack up, drink some water (made from melted dirty snow, it wasn't exactly clear. Back down the gully, down to Upper Boy Scout lake, down the valley to Lower Boy Scout lake. I retrieved the wag bag I had stowed there on the way up, chatted to people for a few minutes, then continued down the hill. By now it was mostly no snow, warm, and I was very low on water. We wanted to avoid down-climbing the exposed (ie HUGE fall) ledges, so tried to find another way down the gully. Unfortunately the lack of snow made this easier said than done, and some time was spent struggling through over-grown thickets of willow. By this stage my feet were pretty sore from going down hill, but luckily a couple of fast hikers passed me at a break, and I fell in, matching their pace down to the bottom. Once down I returned D's stove and tent bits, retrieved my corn chips from the bear locker, borrowed someone's water, packed my stuff into various people's cars, and headed down the mountain. Down the road, past all the fallen rock, into Lone Pine, where we stopped at the Mt Whitney Restaurant for our tradition post-climb eat. The same waitress as last year was there, and somehow managed to feed us all. H had a Whitney burger with two chicken patties, something I thought was very appropriate given that he summitted twice in two days.

Before long we were in the car on the way back, a short 4 hour drive back to Los Angeles, with my ears popping at odd intervals while listening to radiohead and passing out.