Mt. Whitney, June, 1999
|By John Ceccherelli, KC4TXR Special to The ARS Sojourner|
|The idea to climb Mt. Whitney was hatched when I first met Richard Najarian (Naj, non Ham) in November of 1997. A Mt. Everest map on my office wall sparked the conversation. I couldn't help but think about some QRP activity from 14,500 ft. I kept trying to imagine the facial expression on the other end of R R R, SLD CPY = RIG HR 1W 1W WID DIPOLE UP 14500 FT = =. Naj secured a permit for June of 1999 and the idea became reality. The thrill of standing on the highest point of the contiguous United States was enough impetus for me. With official government sanction for three people to suffer on the slopes of Mt. Whitney via the mountaineer's route, the search was on to fill the third slot.
Naj is a physical piece o' work. He probably would have made the Olympic water polo team if there weren't so many veterans returning for a shot after missing out in the Moscow games that Jimmy Carter foolishly boycotted. An avid swimmer, Naj was accustom to high intensity hypoxic activity. He had climbed the face of Half Dome as a senior in high school so his ability to endure torture was not in question.
My mountaineering experience was limited to east coast adventures in the Adirondacks, Catskills, Blue Ridge and some rock climbing in the Gunks. I was a speed skater in my youth and continue running and cycling to the present. I figured I was reasonably fit.
The 3rd slot was filled by Shawn Weisenberger (non Ham) Shawn has a good bit of rock climbing experience under his belt as well as some mountaineering in the Canadian rockies. He seemed to be a good addition.
The plan was the leave Los Angeles Sunday morning around 9 AM and be at Whitney Portal in the early afternoon to start our acclimatization. Naj and Shawn picked me up at 11 AM. After a brief stop at the ranger station to pick up a copy of our permit that Naj characteristically forgot, we arrive at Portal around 5PM. This put a serious dent in my leisurely hang out and have a few beers plan.
The air at Portal was subtlety thin. After fetching some water, I ran up from the stream to our tent site, I became winded with disturbing rapidity. The transition from sea level to 8000 feet is not trivial. At rest I could not feel any difference but any activity would kick my heart rate up a notch. Naj and Shawn seemed fine and didn't mention feeling the altitude. Shawn was making sure he wouldn't feel it either. He was consuming water as if he had just hiked across Death Valley. This necessitated regular 15 minute breaks to keep his output commensurate with his input.
A guy stumbled into Portal around 7:00 PM. He had just completed the down climb from the summit. He was a strong looking individual, 40ish. I asked him how it was up there. "great now" he said, "it was pure hell at the time".
He asked which route we were planning on taking. "Mountaineer's" I replied. "I hope you're in good shape" he said, "only 4 out of 8 of us made it to the summit" A healthy dose of doubt now started to consume my thoughts.
We awoke early Monday morning. After a scrambled egg breakfast, we packed up the camp and made the final "gear stays, gear goes" decision. This is always painful but the prospect of lugging 70 lbs 7000 feet up forces some tough choices. Naj left behind a North Face jacket and Shawn jettisoned his favorite mittens. I cut the climbing rack down to four pieces of protection and four or five long slings to make room for the radio gear. Not knowing any better at the time, my 20 meter rig consisted of a Ramsey QRP transmitter, Sony Pro-80 receiver, Quantum Ham battery (2Ah), dipole, 35 ft of RG-8X feed line and a Nye SpeedeX straight key fashionably mounted on a nice black walnut base! Thank God it wasn't the model with the shorting bar, I don't think I could have managed the extra weight. We would all question our decisions further up the mountain.
We finally started up in earnest around 9 AM. We blindly walked past the new gentle gradient trail head and trudged up the switchbacks on the original trail. 15 minutes later we intersected with the new route. The intelligence we had gathered at Whitney Portal store directed us down trail 120 feet, across the stream to the north side and up a "Broadway" like start of the mountaineers route. The well manicured boulevard turned into the more typical treachery we expected once we hit the willows of the ravine. We made reasonable progress up the slabs on the south side of the stream. Easy progress turned into a fight through the willows as we approached the stream crossing just below Ebersbacher's Ledges.
The guide book says you have two options here; take the ledges and deal with the exposure or bushwhack up the willows choking the bottom of the ravine. The tangle of willows below didn't look like a pleasant route so we took the ledges. I'm not sure what "exposure" the guide books were referencing. This wasn't the least bit hairy. Further up, as we found out, is a much different story.
Our progress was slow but steady. We stopped occasionally to regain oxygen in our blood stream and took major breaks once per hour. The climbing was quite strenuous. We broke for lunch at lower Boy Scout pond. I was already wasted and lunch seemed to make it worse. Naj and Shawn appeared pretty chipper. Five pounds of radio gear was starting to feel like 50.
After about 20 minutes, I was feeling better so I decided to continue slowly up. I expected Naj and Shawn to overtake me quickly once they finished filling water bottles and hit the trail. Shawn had been keeping up his water intake drinking four quarts to my one. After a rare 10 minute flat section of trail, I entered a difficult boulder field. The trail here is marked by cairns which are remarkably easy to miss. After all, a chairn is just a pile of rocks and against well pile of rocks, it's not that obvious. The gradient didn't seem quite as steep as the ravine to Lower Boy Scout but the combination of altitude gain and fatigue necessitated a rest after every two or three steps. Looking back I saw Naj and Shawn off route and it became apparent that they weren't going to overtake me anytime soon. This was to be the only time I would enjoy the lead position on the trip. After an hour of arduous travel, I took a "pack off" break by a pyramid shaped boulder.
About 15 minutes later, Naj and Shawn arrived. To my surprise, they seemed to be having about the same difficulty that I was experiencing. Naj even looked a bit fatigued. That was short lived; after some water and GORP (granola, oats, raisins, peanuts. Naj's recipe calls for M&Ms to ensure a good "sugar hit") he was blasting up the trail like a mountain goat. We chose the south side of the stream and had to traverse some high angle slabs. We were following route suggestions we gathered at the Portal Store. The route suggested in the guide books would have been more desirable. We made the decision to cross to the north side as we approached Clyde Meadow. The angle of the slabs and the snow fields just didn't look too attractive.
We inched our way down the slabs to the meadow. One thing I can't stand in terrain like this is to give up hard fought elevation but we really had no choice. The angle steepened somewhat as we descended. It got to the point where I no longer trusted the traction of my boots and scooched along on my butt. Shawn was slowly walking down next to me. What I had feared, happened to Shawn.
Shawn lost traction on some loose debris and started a "granite glissade". He immediately hit a snow field and started to accelerate head first. I could see him struggling to turn around to get feet first to effect a self arrest. Gravity viciously tugged at his center of mass. He managed to orient him self feet first but on his heavy backpack. Fortunately the snow was soft and he came to a halt. He escaped the incident with a nasty granite induced hamburger looking wound on his arm and a few other assorted scratches.
Naj, ever prepared, was carrying a pharmacy with him. After about 10 minutes, he had patched up Shawn as best he could and we traveled on. We tangled with the willows in the meadow and made our way up to Upper Boy Scout Pond.
I was whooped. Naj was looking strong and Shawn was somewhere in between. We planned on camping at Iceberg Lake which was another mile out and 1000 feet up. We took a five minute breather and continued on.
A figure emerged from the boulders above. When he approach shouting distance we struck up a conversation. "How was it there?" we asked. "Not bad" which seems to be the pat answer. "How far to Iceberg" we inquired. "You guys been hiking all day?" "Yep" we replied. "It'll take you two hours". "Mother of creatures big and small" I thought, I didn't think I could go 10 minutes let alone 2 hours. "What's the lake like?" we asked. "All frozen over". Yes!, my prayers had been answered. Now it was time to capitalize on Shawn's weakness "Gee, if we don't have access to water maybe we should camp here. We can get up early and hike light to the base of the massif we'll load up with water here" I said. "I suppose you're right" Naj responded. He took the bait and Shawn reinforced it. Actually, I think we all had the same thing in mind. We we're done for the day and would hike light weight from here to the summit. In retrospect this was the best option. The energy expended to get the full pack to Iceberg would probably have sapped me to the point where I wouldn't have had any hope of obtaining the summit.
Upper Boy Scout lake, elevation 11,500 feet, sits at the bottom of an impressive cirque with white granite peaks topping out 2000 feet above lake level. The wind constantly howls from the peaks above. It was 5:00 PM by the time we selected a camp site. We had been hiking for eight hours. We set up in a sheltered area behind a huge boulder that served as a wind break right next to a snow field. Shawn and I were relaxing while Naj was talking to the party that had just descended from the summit. A bird flew down and landed inches from Shawn. It was obvious what it wanted food. We tossed him some crumbs and derived a bit of entertainment from the creature. There is a plethora of literature that says not to feed the wildlife but I couldn't resist. When he wanted more, he'd stare at us and fluff up his feathers. He was too cute to resist. Besides, the trail was not littered with species driven into extinction because humans fed them and they forgot how to survive in the wild.
Naj returned from his intelligence gathering and we proceeded to prepare dinner. "They didn't use their climbing gear or crampons" he said. Maybe we could lighten our packs further I thought. We could use a break from the grind we went through today. And it was a grind. We had all been through this before. We knew about the sore shoulders and hips from the backpack. We knew about the blisters and bruises from the boots. I was wondering why we do this when we know how much torture it can be. I'd been in this position a dozen times before. At least this trip had a new twist; oxygen deprivation.
We quickly consumed our freeze dried pasta whatever and some soup. The temperature was falling fast as the sun was going down. Naj and Shawn quickly cleaned up camp. I tried to quickly calculate just exactly how many BTUs I expended to drag five pounds of radio to this point. I finally arrived at the answer Too much. Exhausted, I hit the sack. There was just no way this camper was going to play radio tonight. By sunset, the temperature had fallen to 32F.
Someone's watch started beeping at 3:30AM. Sore, stiff, tired, we slowly got ourselves together. I made a run to the lake for water. This was punishment for my early retreat to my sleeping bag the night before. The wind was ripping and the pond had a nice layer of ice. Back to the tent I trudged leaning into the wind to retrieve my ice axe. We prepared some instant oatmeal for breakfast and hoped to hit the trail by 4:30AM. At 5:15 we started off for the summit.
The time from our start to just below the Iceberg plateau is a semiconscious passage. We passed a couple that had bivied somewhere in between Iceberg and Upper Boy Scout. It looked like they had spent a very cold night out there. By 7:30 AM I was fully awake and had to negotiate a 7 foot ledge. Naj climbed it using a bridge maneuver against the corner. Shawn got up it in a blink of the eye using a lieback. I was trying to chimney up a crack and the corner but was getting nowhere fast. I threw my pack up the top and that made the difference. Just before 8AM we were finally at the shore of Iceberg lake, elevation 12,600 feet, awestruck by the Whitney massif.
The summit block was a triangular hunk of white granite with a shear wall facing east. With the exception of the pointed top, a dead ringer for El Capitan. The Mountaineeer's route was a distinct gully on the left. Mountaineers use the French term "coulior" (pronounced cool waar) to fool the general public into thinking we have culture. When we first observed this coulior from Lone Pine, it looked vertical. Standing against it, Shawn said "it doesn't look any less vertical" Naj responding with "yes, a lot of verticality".
Naj had been working at IBM for 18 months. As soon as he uttered "verticality", I thought he truly became an "IBMer". IBMers have a unique ability to make up words. Or artfully misuse them. My favorite is "solution" as a verb. As in "we have solutioned the problem". One might think that "solutioned" means "solved" but they are not synonymous. Solved means fixed, done, resolved. Solutioned means addressed to the point where it doesn't have to be reported to management anymore but not necessarily "solved". I looked up verticality when I returned home. It's a bonafide real word, go figure. 2000 vertical feet separated us from the summit.
We rested and ate for about 45 minutes. The bird landed next to Naj. He put some crumbs on his boot and the bird ate them as if this was business as usual. I snapped a photo.
A team of three was about 1/3 of the way up the mountaineer's route coulior. We watched as they made their way behind the first tower obviously diverting for an east face climb. As they vanished from view, we started our assault on the coulior. After an easy traverse of the lower snow field, we hit the coulior in earnest.
The mountaineer's route coulior is by far the steepest section of the entire route. It ascends 1500 vertical feet for the same horizontal distance. A 100% gradient or 45 degree angle. The lower 2/3 of the slope is snow filled. By the time we were negotiating it, the snow had started to soften. For the most part, it provided good travel with occasional post holing to mid-thigh. From here it was simply grind along until you get to the top.
The procedure was simple enough; plant one foot, the other, the ice ax , then breath. Repeat until at the top. The only individual variation was on the breath part. Naj seemed to skip it altogether while Shawn and I savored it. The combination of gradient, snow and rarefied air made for a living hell. My heart was pounding like a locomotive. At 13,000 feet each ventricular contraction translated to a pulsating headache. Naj, observing our declining performance, started setting more immediate goals. "Let's get to that boulder then take a break", "let's get to that ledge". And so it went for four hours until we topped out the coulior at 14,000 feet.
We stopped for 20 minutes for some rest and water. This was quite an agreeable place and a good photo location. Only one obstacle remained before the summit. After a short descent and sharp left was the final chute to the summit. We trimmed down our gear even further. Helmet, crampons, empty water bottles, etc. would stay at this notch. "I think I'll leave the climbing gear here, that other team didn't use theirs" I told Naj. "Make your own climbing decision" he replied. "If you don't want to carry it, I will" . Better safe than sorry, we took the rope, harnesses and climbing gear.
I made an interesting physiological observation. Naj's lungs were clearly out performing my thighs and Shawn's youth. Muscle mass doesn't do much good if you can't supply the oxygen to service it. It may in fact be a detriment since any more than required to do the job is just excess baggage to lug up the mountain. Twenty plus years of swimming had trained Naj's body to get oxygen at the next available opportunity. Shawn and I were used to oxygen on demand but on this day and altitude, the demand was there, the supply was not.
We descended through the notch and headed left up the final coulior. The route was choked with hard snow which we hadn't expected. We scrambled up some very steep ledges on the left and there is was. We had heard rumors about it. Now it was staring us right in the face. The Blue Monster.
The Blue Monster is snow pack that has consolidated into a sheet of slick blue ice. Having left our crampons at the notch, we had no choice but to work our way up the ledges on the left. Naj bolted up without hesitation. Not me. The ledges really weren't that bad but as I looked down the coulior, it was apparent that a fall would land you about 3000 to 4000 feet below. In my hypoxic estimation, that would not be survivable. "This is foolish" I yelled up to Shawn. "We're playing for keeps here, I think we should call it a day".
I'd felt a lot of things on this trip. Hunger, thirst, fatigue, blisters, cuts, scrapes, soreness, suffocation, elation. Now a new experience fear. Raw fear. Shawn and I yelled up to Naj, "we've seen enough we can save that last 500 feet for another day". Naj had somehow suffered temporary deafness and did not heed our concerns. Since Naj was carrying my rope, rappelling down was not an option. We reluctantly continued upward. I told Shawn "Naj can down climb this if he wants but I'm definitely rappelling off this shit on the way down". Shawn agreed. Naj provided navigation instructions to assist Shawn and me up the ledges. As he topped the coulior he shouted "this is it, we're here". "Yea right" I thought. I was last out of the chute and there it was. We had "solutioned" summit, elevation 14,500 feet (rounding up of course).
The top of Whitney is a broad plateau that slopes upward to the east. The surface is a jumble of large horizontal slabs of white granite. The wind was blowing at a constant 15 MPH, the temperature was hovering around 40 F. A small hut, built by the Smithsonian Institute, is located on the high point of the plateau at its eastern edge. We made our way a couple of hundred yards to the summit hut. We passed the remains of what appeared to be an outhouse. Either someone dropped a pipe bomb in it or the wind must blow with some ferocity. There were scraps of wood here and there and a steel garbage can buried to the rim in the rock. It was chock full of its intended payload. Another guy was up there. He had taken the hiker trail (wimp). After a brief conversation, we asked him to snap our summit photo which he did. We signed in on the summit register. Shawn was ready to leave. "let's go!" he said abruptly. I had a feeling Shawn had been reading too many stories about climbers being killed on the way down from Everest. He seemed to have that look like he was about to be stranded on Hillary Step and his oxygen bottle was almost empty. Naj and I took a bunch of staged summit photos.
The last thing I really wanted to do at this point was set up a dipole. I was waxed. But after hauling this useless crap all the way up here, I felt duty bound. Plus I had a prearranged sked with my buddy KC4YJU back home. After some 20 minutes or so of fumbling around, I managed to set up a funky looking sloper on some ledges below the summit. The good news was that it should have had a little directionality to the east. Half heartedly I started tapping out KC4YJU KC4YJU DE KC4TXR. After about 10 minutes, I heard something besides white noise in the earbuds. KC4TXR DE KC4YJU UR 217 217 217 = BK R R R TNX TOM, TNX TOM UR 339 339 339 CUL 73. Now I'm OK with the 2 1 part but the 7 really hurt. I do have to admit that the Ramsey TX is really chirpy. So after 2 days of suffering, I finally bagged my 14,500 ft QRP QSO. Never ever again will I do it that way.
I sat down to drink some water. The bird landed next to me in hopes of scoring some food. I snapped a photo of him instead. I spotted a Marmot about 100 yards away. Back East where I'm from, we call 'em woodchucks. Up here, they have a thick reddish brown coat and yellow fur on the belly so they're called marmots.
I was a bit puzzled about why the creature was up here. What the hell to they eat granite? Other than our bird, there was no sign of life. Maybe marmots eat birds? I gathered my things for the descent.
Naj and Shawn were in the summit hut drinking water and munching on Hershey bars. I informed Naj that there was no way on God's green earth that I was down climbing those ledges, so I suggest that we all put our harnesses on now. Well I would have told Naj that if he didn't already have his harness on. Shawn check our harnesses to ensure we didn't kill ourselves with a stupid rigging mistake. We had been on the summit about 50 minutes.
We traversed to the summit plateau to the coulior we had ascended earlier. A previous party had left a rather bizarre rappel anchor. We were playing in Shawn's sandbox now. When it came to ropecraft, rigging and rocks, Shawn was the expert. What Najarian had gotten us up, Weisenberger would get us down. Shawn examined the rap anchor for five minutes or so and declared it safe to use. It was a rat's nest of slings and carabiners. We mulled over the possibility of cannibalizing it for rap anchors further down. After some debate we decided that would compromise its "integrity" so we left it as is.
Shawn set up the rope for descent. I was the first down and found a suitable ledge to anchor off for the next pitch. Naj was next to descend. We didn't realize at the time that it had been a good decade or so since Naj had rappelled off anything. Shawn and I climb fairly regularly so this was routine to us. But hanging your ass over a 3000 foot drop suspended by two strands of 8mm rope must have been quite unnerving for Naj. Besides, the top of Mt. Whitney is no place to suddenly practice one's rappel technique. I was providing a bottom belay just in case so he wasn't in too much danger. When he arrived on the belay ledge, his respiration rate betrayed the steel facade he was trying to project. I have to admit I enjoyed putting him through a little panic. By the fourth and final pitch he was rappelling like a marine. We had made it back to the notch without incident. The final coulior was certainly the crux of the climb. We had entered it as three individuals. We exited as a team.
We gathered our gear and prepared for a 1500 foot decent back to Iceberg Lake. The scree that had been such an energy waste on the way up was a pleasure to surf on the way down. When we hit the snow field, Naj and I descended with a combination standing glissade and plunge stepping. Shawn put on his rain pants and zipped down via a sitting glissade. It looked like a lot of fun but I didn't want all that snow jammed up the back of my shirt. What had taken four hours to ascend was descended in 20 minutes.
Back at Iceberg Lake, we picked up some more gear we had previously ditched. My headache was gone. We seemed pretty strong and ready for the down hike to Upper Boy Scout Lake. We opted to take the main route down that runs low in the ravine and avoid the 7 foot ledge I had difficulty with in the morning. The trail was good and distinct. I used my ice ax as a walking stick and tried to get some sort of utility out of it. Otherwise it was dead weight, kind of like the QRP rig. I had seriously thought about heaving the rig over a ledge but managed to resist the temptation. After a hour of travel, we were back at Upper Boy Scout. It was now 6:30PM and we had been on task for over 13 hours.
Shawn and I sat next to a rock while Naj went to get some water. "Sure feels good to NOT be climbing" I said. "Yup" he said and he didn't have to expand on that. I knew exactly what he meant. We sat for a while like a couple of dial tones. The bird returned for his handout. We prepared some Ramon Noodles for dinner. Naj broke out a snack that never in a million years would I have thought was fit for human consumption; Kippered herring and saltines. It was exquisite. Again the sun went down as did the temperature. We cleaned up quickly and bolted into the sleeping bags.
I awoke at 4:00 AM. I gazed at the stars and watched the sun come up. Shawn and Naj started stirring at 5:30 AM. I went down to the lake for water and started the stove. After coffee and Pop Tarts, we packed up and started on our way back to Portal. We all knew what we were in for. The 3000 foot vertical drop from here to Portal would hammer our knees and shred our quadriceps. Our heels would get a break while our toes would be slammed into the front of our boots. We put all of that in the back of our minds and said good bye to Upper Boy Scout Lake.
It was a quick trip down. At Lower Boy Scout lake we decided to take the route through the willows rather than the ledges. Just to see what it was like. Bad plan. There was a lot of fighting through the thick brush and what seemed like a million steam crossings. We were careful to keep our boots dry at first. After a while, I decided " the hell with it" and just splashed through. Knees, feet, legs, shoulders and hips were all thoroughly beaten to a pulp.
There is a hierarchy to vacations. A vacation where something goes wrong becomes an adventure. An adventure with some adversity becomes an epic. Throw an accident into an epic and you have a tragedy. This trip was an Epic.
We arrived at Whitney Portal around noon. I had casually observed that there were four beers in the cooler when we departed Portal two days earlier. By my calculation, that meant one for Shawn, one for Naj and two waiting for me. I opened the cooler faster than a bear can break into a Honda Civic (which happens frequently here). We sorted out all our stuff, reloaded the car then stopped at the Whitney Portal Store for some trinkets. We headed down, off the high Sierra for the greasiest burger we could find. The Mt. Whitney Restaurant in Lone Pine was happy to oblige.
I suppose I could finish this little story with a list of what we learned or how to negotiate the Mountaineer's route better than we did or what radio equipment not to take. I'm not sure that would be particularly useful though. The conditions we came across were specific to June 15, 1999. Besides, half the fun of the trip was the surprise. Instead, I'd like to try to explain why we did it at all, what the attraction to Mt. Whitney was or is.
When George Mallory was asked why he was climbing Mt. Everest he replied "because it's there". That's pure bull and less than honest. He was climbing Everest because he wanted to be the first to conquer the tallest mountain on earth. There's none of that with Mt. Whitney. It's not even in the top 10 on the continent. Besides, hundreds of people summit Whitney every year. I don't think it's thrill seeking either. Sure you can kill yourself on Mt. Whitney but you have to try a bit to pull it off.
Naj and I were discussing this topic one night up there. I think it has more to do with testing limits and your reaction to adversity. Removing yourself from the safety net of modern society. Every action you take has an immediate effect. Your comfort is directly proportional to your ingenuity. We planned carefully but didn't require detailed schedules or profit and loss statements. Nor would they have been any utility to us. Our resources were limited to what was on our backs and what God laid before us. You have to wing it through the unexpected. Mountaineering, life, business, QRP is not, and cannot be "paint by numbers". Mother nature loves a surprise party. Food, water, shelter and warmth are top on your "needs" list. Any pretensions or facades are quickly stripped away.
Leaders emerge, skills are seized upon. That final coulior was the hammer that forged us into a team. Richard Najarian emerged as the leader. It was natural and unspoken. Yet he yielded control to Shawn or me where the situation or experience warranted. Just as naturally and silently, it was yielded back as our role was complete. No executive committees, no review boards, no paperwork. The team dynamic was intriguing.
You can immediately tell where you succeeded and where you failed. There was no need for an annual review. The climb was a fast track window into our character and soul. Sometimes we liked what we saw, sometimes we didn't.
Or maybe it was a just convenient excuse to have fun with some buddies. In any event, QRP Bob at Wilderness Radio got a call from me shortly after the trip. Now SST equipped, my radio weight has been cut to a little over one pound.
That's rig, key, antenna, feedline, phones and power. Lesson learned the hard way.
John Ceccherelli, KC4TXR, is an accomplished outdoorsman and low power operator. He is a Senior Engineer in GPS Product Development for IBM Microelectronics, Hopewell Junction, NY.