Friday, October 12, 2012

Thursday Adventure: Mt. Whitney via the Mountaineers Route (Sierra Nevada, CA)

I've made no secret of the fact that the Whitefire Mountains in the Shattered Sigil books are based on California's Sierra Nevada. The eastern Sierra are the mountains of my heart: rugged, starkly beautiful, challenging for the climber yet blessed with inordinately good weather during the summer months. Today I'll share pictures from one of my favorite trips in the Sierra: an ascent I did of Mt. Whitney via the Mountaineer's Route with my husband-to-be, way back in 1999.

Mt. Whitney from the Owens Valley (picture courtesy of
At 14,505 ft. Mt. Whitney is the highest peak in the contiguous US, looming high over the sagebrush desert of the 3,000-ft Owens Valley.  The standard route climbs a steep, long, but carefully maintained trail that's so popular the Forest Service allots permits for both dayhikers and backpackers by lottery.  (50 backpacking permits per day, 150 dayhiking permits per day.)  But for the more adventurous hiker, there's a different, better way to reach the summit: the Mountaineers Route.  This ascends a different, more direct canyon to a basin just beneath Whitney's sheer east face.  From there, you scramble up a class 2 couloir to a notch on Whitney's north ridge (see picture below), then either climb class 3 rock straight up to the summit or traverse across alternating snowfields and talus on Whitney's west slope to reach the broad summit plateau.

Annoted picture courtesy of  The Mountaineers Route travels the canyon visible at the picture's far right, up past the Ebersbacher ledges to Upper Boy Scout Lake.  The Notch at the top of the Mountaineer's Route couloir is marked on the right side of the peak.
For extra fun, Robert and I ascended the route and then spent a night camped right on Whitney's summit, so we could stargaze and enjoy the incredible sights of sunset and sunrise from such a high elevation.  (It truly is spectacular.  The shadow of the mountain extends for what appears to be a hundred miles; and the rainbow of colors in the sky, from deepest crimson to indigo, is breathtaking.  Not to mention the stars after sunset - they really do look close enough to touch, and you've never seen so many.)

Years ago I wrote an extremely detailed trip report (non-climbers will find it too much so, no doubt!), so I won't repeat that here.  The trip was also in my pre-digital-camera days, so my pictures don't do it justice...but here are the few that turned out reasonably well.

First view of the summit as we head up the North Fork of Lone Pine Creek.
The first important part of the route-finding is to identify and ascend the Ebersbacher ledges before the canyon cliffs out.  The ledges are narrow but easy to traverse, even with a full pack.
Me in the barren upper canyon, heading toward the scramble up to Iceberg Lake. 
The east fast of Mt. Whitney along with Keeler Needle and Day Needle, as seen from the upper canyon. One day I really want to climb one of the east face technical rock routes!
Robert and the view back down-canyon to the Owens Valley and the far more arid White Mountains.
Morning alpenglow on Whitney's Needles, from our campsite at Iceberg Lake.
More alpenglow. Whitney is the peak on the left side of the picture.  The Mountaineer's Route couloir and Notch are just to the right of the peak.
Looking back down at Iceberg Lake from within the couloir.
Me standing in the Notch at the couloir's top.  
Success! Robert and I on the summit.  Note the jackets - it's chilly up there even in high summer.  And when the sun sets, it gets really damn cold, really fast.  If you want to stargaze, bring your warmest clothing.
Looking north from the summit.  This pic's actually from an earlier trip I did, in which smoke from a forest fire was hazing up the view.  But it gives the idea.
Morning on the summit (Robert's walking back from peering down the east face).  Yes, there's a little hut there - it used to be an observatory.  Now there are all these huge signs on it saying DO NOT TAKE SHELTER HERE IN A THUNDERSTORM.  Apparently people have made that mistake and gotten killed.
The view west from Trail Crest, the pass on Whitney's south ridge.  After our night on the summit, Robert and I headed down the ordinary trail - makes for a quick an easy descent, rather than slogging down scree and talus.


  1. For pictures that don't do it justice, those are awesome. :-)

    Here's an Easterner's question - when you're that high up, does the air get thin enough to make you slow down?

    1. For most people, the answer is a big YES. Altitude sickness is a serious problem for many hikers above 12K feet. Not just gasping for air, but nausea, headaches, debilitating dizziness, etc. Thankfully 14K isn't really high enough for the truly deadly effects as are seen in the Himalayas (embolisms, strokes, etc), but it's enough to prevent many folks from summitting 14ers without careful acclimatization first.

      I myself won the genetic lottery - to me, 14K feels no different than sea level. Presumably my red blood cell count is higher than normal or there's some other factor that causes my body to be more efficient at transporting oxygen. Whatever the reason, it's saved my ass on many a peak climb - I skip up the mountain while everyone else is gasping and crawling at a turtle's pace.

      The good news for "ordinary" people is that you can prevent altitude sickness by slowly acclimatizing yourself - gradually ascending higher and higher over a period of days. That's one reason my husband and I did a backpack trip in the Sierra immediately prior to attempting the Mountaineer's route - he has serious trouble with altitude and so we needed to spend some time between 10K-12K so he could adjust. Here in Colorado, when he gets ready for summer hiking, we do successively higher peaks: 10K, then 11K, etc, up to 14K, and that takes care of the issue. Once you're acclimatized, the effects last as long as you keep going high every 2-3 weeks.

    2. Thanks for this. When you mentioned camping there, it really got me wondering 'cause Peter Lik was photographing stars from the observatory atop Mauna Kea, also at 14,000 ft, and he was having problems after just a few hours due to the thin air. So I'm glad to know there's a way to adapt.

      I skip up the mountain while everyone else is gasping and crawling at a turtle's pace.

      If you trace back your family tree, I bet you'll find a Sherpa. :-)

  2. Wow!

    The bit about the hut is sobering--the idea that it could be fatal in a thunderstorm boggles my mind.

    1. The hut's the tallest thing on the tallest summit in the entire lower 48 states...hellooooo, lightning magnet! And it's not insulated or anything so lightning strike to roof means deadly currents throughout. Thank goodness, the Sierra has far more stable weather than the Rockies. The thunderstorm cycle is on the order of several days to build up enough moisture, instead of storms every afternoon.

  3. We are getting older, and then some. I may be asking questions where I should not be, but Mt. Whitney has always fascinated me. So will give it a go. What route could you recommend to just take a drive as far up as we can, where we will get the best view, take pictures?

    1. The Mt. Whitney Portal road goes up the trailhead and is very scenic. You can also drive up into the White Mountains on the opposite side of the Owens Valley and get excellent panoramic views of Whitney and the surrounding peaks.