Thursday, November 26, 2009

Getting Schooled on University Peak

This past weekend (November 21-22), I climbed Independence Peak and University Peak in the California Sierras.  The 300-mile drive into the mountains on Friday was exacerbated by two factors.  First, escaping the greater Los Angeles metropolitan area took three hours because of heavy traffic.  Second, the weather forecast was calling for a snow storm and high winds in the Sierras that night, which added a nagging uncertainty.  After twice missing the poorly marked road to Onion Valley, I began the gradual ascent in search of a bivy spot.  Not wanting to get stranded in fresh snow in the 9,200 foot Onion Valley parking lot, I parked roadside much further down and slept fitfully inside my car, which was buffetted by strong gusts all night.

Awaking at dawn on Saturday, I was glad to see that the forecasted snow storm had not materialized.  So when I pulled into Onion Valley a little while later, I saw not fresh snow on the ground, but something much more worrying: a lone figure wandering around the parking lot with a rifle.  Coming to a complete stop, I stared at the armed, camouflaged man for a full minute before concluding that he was simply a hunter -- a bear hunter, as it turned out.  Trying not to think too much about the rifle-toting man with whom I was sharing the otherwise vacant parking lot in the middle of nowhere, I slowly packed for an ascent of the West Face of Independence Peak (11,744 feet).

View of Nameless Pyramid on the trail to Robinson Lake.

I followed the trail for about one mile over occasional patches of hard, slick snow to the point where I thought the West Face route began.  Departing from the trail, I ascended a scree slope for a few hundred vertical feet until it funnelled into the broad couloir that rises over 1,000 vertical feet to the summit ridge.  The moderately angled couloir was plastered with a foot of snow that varied from hard and icy to soft and unconsolidated.  Midway up the couloir, the sound of a gunshot reminded me, somewhat disconcertingly, of the only other person in the vicinity. 

Looking down the lower half of the couloir.

Near the top, the couloir steepened into a narrow gully involving several sections of third class scrambling.  Reaching the notch on the summit ridge, I deposited my ice axe, crampons, and trekking poles, and weaved my way up the serrated, sometimes exposed, crest to the summit.  Downclimbing the third class rock in my big leather boots and descending 1,000 feet of alternatingly icy and unconsolidated snow was somewhat tedious.  Returning to my car 7.5 hours after starting, I was surprised to see that the bear hunter's car was still the only other car in the parking lot on this glorious, sunny day.      

Looking south from the summit of Independence Peak.

Having warmed up on Independence Peak, my plan for Sunday was to climb the North Face of University Peak (13,632 feet).  Since the peak is named after the University of California-Berkeley, I thought it would make sense to climb the peak with someone affiliated with UC-Berkeley.  After all, climbing the East Ridge of Mt. Russell with someone whose last name was Russell -- namely, James Russell -- had been a great success.  Thus, I recruited a post-doc from UC-Berkeley to join me.  Coincidentally, that post-doc was James Russell.

After picking up James in the town of Independence, we drove back up to Onion Valley.  Confronted with an array of bear warnings, I assured James not to worry, because the only other person camping up there had a rifle and a permit to kill bears.  Partially because of that, but also because of the regular wind blasts, I was glad to be the one sleeping in the van instead of a flimsy tent.

The day began, as many days in the mountains do, with a visit to a cold and dark pit toilet.  At dawn we were hiking up the Kearsarge Pass trail and chatting amiably about a variety of light topics, including God, mountaineering deaths, and the collapse of civilization. 

A Mt. Everest-like snow plume blowing from the summit of University Peak.

After two miles we turned left onto a side trail leading to Matlock Lake.  At the lake, we left the trail and began working our way up snowy ledges toward the unnamed lake at 11,400 feet.  The snow was hard and steep enough to justify strapping on crampons. 

Matlock Lake [Photo by James Russell]

Every few steps, we would break through the crust and plunge annoyingly through a foot or two of soft powder covering leg-twisting rocks and branches.  After about thirty minutes of this, we arrived at the barren, cold and very windy lake which marks the bottom of the North Face of University Peak.

After another 15 minutes of crashing through unconsolidated snow, we began ascending a moderately angled couloir filled with thankfully firm snow.

Looking down at the bottom of the first couloir.  [Photo by James Russell]

We zigzagged our way up for perhaps 1,000 vertical feet, feeling the exposure grow with every step.

As the couloir petered out, we traversed a rib of talus on the right into a broader couloir that extended another 1,000 vertical feet to the summit ridge.  It was at this traverse that we unwittingly deviated from the standard North Face route and into (what I now know to be) the North Couloir. 

More zigzagging up firm, moderately angled snow led to considerably steeper chutes that curved to the right of the summit.  Trying unsuccessfully to avoid the steepening and somewhat less consolidated snow, I monkeyed around on rocks that were steeper than they looked before resigning myself to the snow.  I dithered long enough to lose sight of James, who was climbing at a steady, confident pace.  The final hundred feet of snow was steep (and exposed) enough that I had to face directly into the slope and felt compelled to plunge the shaft of my ice axe to the hilt when it was not stopped short by underlying rock with a reverberating bang.  At this point, I was feeling very tired and had to rest after every few steps.  I was quite relieved when the angle finally relented and I was able to walk onto a friendly saddle and sit down. 

View of Kearsarge Lakes from the North Couloir.

With James nowhere to be seen, I began slowly meandering up the steep, rocky ridge.  Skirting the first pinnacle on the right, I spotted James at the notch between it and a second pinnacle.  James indicated that he had been unable to surmount the first pinnacle and would have a look at the second one instead.  Neither of us knew where the actual summit was.  Moments later, James exclaimed that he was on the summit.  Dropping my pack, I scrambled up to meet him.  The summit register provided sufficient confirmation that we were on the tippy top. 

James on the summit (from his camera).

The wind that had been harrassing us most of the day was strong enough that I could not keep my balance on the summit.  Battered by the wind on the small, airy summit, we left after signing in and snapping a few photos.  It was around this time that I announced my intention not to descend our ascent route.  That final stretch of snow in the North Couloir was just too steep and exposed for my tastes.  Fortunately, I knew of an easier way down -- namely, the second class Southeast Ridge route.  Having felt perfectly comfortable on our ascent route, James had reservations about descending an unknown route.  But my description of the descent route put his mind at ease.  However, there was one conspicuous omission from my description: I neglected to mention the boulder field which is usually described with adjectives like "tedious" and "interminable".

From the summit, we traversed and descended sand and boulders to what we thought was University Pass, but which was actually the top of the "shortcut variation".  Here we re-donned our crampons while being blasted by wind and stepped into the 45-degree couloir that drops about 700 feet into the aforementioned boulder field.  The snow was (thankfully) in perfect condition, making for a fast and easy descent (though I was ready to self-arrest with my ice axe in a heartbeat).

Our descent unfortunately slowed to a crawl in the boulder field.  Weaving our way over and around boulders, we repeatedly plunged through the snow and crashed jarringly onto variously angled rocks.  One such rock sliced right through James' gaiter and pant, leaving a gash in his leg.  Though we desperately wanted to get through the boulder field by nightfall, we found ourselves stumbling around off-trail by headlamp for the next two hours.  Well below Robinson Lake, we finally found the trail and followed it back to the car 13.5 hours after setting out.

University Peak on the right with the "shortcut variation" couloir in the upper middle of the picture.  From the bottom of the couloir, our descent followed the drainage in the right half of the picture. 

Turning the car key, the engine started and then promptly stopped.  I said something like, "huh, this has never happened before".  James shot me a worried glance.  Fortunately, the car started on the next attempt, and we rode happily to Lone Pine, where I returned James to his girlfriend.  At 12:30 AM, I made two wrong turns in a labyrinth of detours near Los Angeles, started feeling panicky in my sleep-deprived state, but got back on track.  By 2:00 AM I had transformed my mini-van from bivy mode to kid-carrying mode and was poised and ready to get Esther to pre-school seven hours later.       

Our route up the North Couloir of University Peak.  [Photo by Craig Jackson] 

Friday, November 20, 2009

Review of "K2: Life and Death on the World's Most Dangerous Mountain"

This book is the second collaborative work by Ed Viesturs and David Roberts.  Viesturs was the first American to summit all fourteen 8,000 meter peaks (and he did them all without supplemental oxygen) and Roberts is a prolific author of mountaineering literature, in addition to being the author of several harrowing first ascents in Alaska.  The book was prompted, or at least made more relevant, by the disaster high on K2 in 2008, in which eleven climbers were killed after the partial collapse of the notorious serac above the crux "bottleneck" section.  The dangerous traverse below this serac is featured on the front cover of the book.  When this incident was first reported, I remember thinking that someone would write a book about it.  This is that book.  Well, sort of.

K2 (the book) switches back and forth between first-hand account/analysis of climbing "the savage mountain" and scholarly history of the many disasters that have unfolded on its flanks in the last century.  The rigorous historical narrative ends, seemingly prematurely, at 1986.  Even though Viesturs is listed as the primary author (the book is by Ed Viesturs with David Roberts), it seems obvious which author wrote which section.  Having read several of Roberts' books, I recognized his characteristic style throughout: lots of quotations (especially from personal journals), dense and careful prose, and the occasional sesquipedalian.  Roberts' style is epitomized in his eye-opening, myth-busting True Summit: What Really Happened on the Legendary Ascent of Annapurna.  Almost by default, I assumed that the sections in the book that were more casual and conversational were penned by Viesturs.

Given Roberts' strong presence in the book, I kept forgetting that Viesturs was the primary author.  Thus, when the writing was in the first person, I imagined Roberts' doing the talking -- that is, until the person talking would mention climbing K2 or some other Himalayan peak, and then I would realize that Viesturs was the one talking.  Another problem with the book is that I experienced deja vu several times, most notably in the chapters on the 1939 and 1954 expeditions.  The writing about the respective American and Italian expeditions sounded too familiar.  I couldn't help but think that I had read something very similar in one of Roberts' other books.  He does seem to have a habit of repeating himself from one book to the next.

Despite the aforementioned problems, K2 is a captivating and enlightening read.  Viestur's unparalleled analyis of the perils of high altitude climbing is educational.  For instance, throughout the book Viestur's extols the virtues of "wanding" routes -- that is, placing lightweight, bamboo gardening wands at regular intervals through sections where routefinding could be difficult in a whiteout -- and provides several studies of cases in which climbers could probably have avoided fatalities had they bothered to wand the route.  Having read this book, I will be much more inclined to visit a lawn & garden center before venturing onto a big, glaciated mountain.     

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Crazy for "Crazy for the Storm"

Most people try mountaineering by choice, but others are forced into it by circumstance.  Such was the case for Norman Ollestad.  In February 1979, a small plane carrying the 11-year old boy crashed into Ontario Peak in the San Gabriel Mountains of southern California.  The injured boy found himself perched precariously in a steep, icy chute in the upper reaches of a drainage just north/northwest of the summit.  Reluctantly leaving his dead father and pilot behind, Norman and Sandra, his father's girlfriend, began a terrifying, inch-by-inch descent of the steep chute, roughly 3,000 feet above Chapman Ranch.  Unfortunately, after descending just a few feet, Sandra slipped and plummeted about 2,000 feet to her death.  What followed for the young Norman was a harrowing descent that called upon every piece of mountain wisdom imparted by his father over the years.

Crazy for the Storm, written by Norman Ollestad, is primarily a book about surviving a plane crash, but it is also about the complex relationship between a boy and his larger-than-life father.  Norman's father was an extremely interesting and motivating figure.  He once wrote a tell-all, insider's tale about Hoover's FBI and routinely coaxed Norman beyond his comfort level on surf and turf to find diamonds in the rough.    

This book is riveting from start to finish.  I was at the edge of my seat not only during the sections chronicling Norman's survival epic, but also during the sections about surviving a broken family.  Some of the most suspenseful moments in the book occur when heated interactions involving his tempestuous stepfather rise to the combustion point.      

Now I must make a confession.  I didn't read this book.  Yes, you read that right.  Just to be clear, I'll say it again: I didn't read this book.  Instead, I listened to the audiobook, which is read by Norman Ollestad himself.  Norman's spoken reading is excellent.  There are subtle changes in his tone throughout the book which greatly enhance the listening experience.  For instance, when speaking as the young Norman, he assumes a slightly sullen and bratty tone.  However, when talking about being a father himself, he sounds more like his indomitable father.

Norman returned to the remote (and elusive) crash site in 2006 and published his memoir thirty years after the crash.  His amazing recollection of details indicates that he is still reeling from the impact.

Friday, November 13, 2009

First Snow of the Season in SoCal

Still reading Crazy for the Storm, primarily about a plane crash on Ontario Peak, I couldn't resist the urge to get back on that mountain for the second time in a week.  But which route should I take?  I wasn't about to go groveling in Falling Rock Canyon again, and the standard trail was not even worth considering.  So I turned my head slightly to the left of Falling Rock Canyon and found an unnamed ridge for which no information was available on the internet.  Satellite imagery indicated some precipitous sections that looked questionable.  It was perfect.   

Arriving at the Icehouse Canyon parking lot before dawn, I noticed that something didn't look right high up on Mt. Baldy.  After a regrettable experience in the dark public restroom, I focused more closely on Mt. Baldy and came to the conclusion that the upper slopes were covered in the first snow of the season.  Hmmm.  Would Ontario Peak be covered in snow?  I looked at my sneakers.

At about 6:00 AM, I started hiking up Icehouse Canyon.  I turned right into Fir Draw, which I followed for only about 100 yards before turning right and ascending a scree slope to gain the steep, sharp ridgeline.  I then followed the ridgeline straight up to Peak 8688, just east of the main summit of Ontario Peak.  I summitted at 9:00 AM after roughly 3,700 feet of elevation gain.  By 11:15 AM, I was comfortably seated in the public restroom back at the parking lot.

Looking down at the lower third of the ridge.

Looking up at the middle third of the ridge.

Looking down at the crux of the ridge (about halfway up).

Mt. Baldy viewed from the upper section of the ridge.

Wasteland below the summit of Ontario Peak.

 View from the summit of Peak 8688.

This ridge is excellent.  I think it is better than Sugarloaf Ridge and possibly even Register Ridge.  The crux of the route is the 3rd class, 20-foot, narrow gully pictured above, which is surmounted by repeated stemming on mostly secure rock.  There is also some rock scrambling lower on the ridge which probably rises to 3rd class as well.

A ridge this good needs a name.  Two names that immediately came to mind were "The Sam Page Victory Ridge" and the "Sam Page Conquered This Ridge".  However, upon reflection, I came to the opinion that these names are rather imperialistic, and perhaps even a bit self-aggrandizing.  You are of course entitled to your own opinion.  Regardless, I have tentatively settled on the name of "Falling Fir Ridge" for the following reasons.  First, the ridge is in between Falling Rock Canyon and Fir Draw.  Second, as depicted in the image above, there are many fallen trees at the top of the ridge.  The name would be perfect were the fallen trees fir trees, but Wifey PhD thinks that they are pine trees, which she insists are not fir trees.  Well, as Steven Wright says: "You can't have everything.  Where would you put it?"      

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Crazy for the Grovel

This past Saturday, whilst other SoCal hikers were doing laps on the Cactus to Clouds trail, I set my sights a little lower.  Inspired by reading Crazy for the Storm, an autobiography primarily about surviving a plane crash on Ontario Peak, I thought I would have my own (hopefully less exciting) adventure on Ontario Peak.  Incidentally, Crazy for the Storm is an excellent read, in part because you are never sure if the author will live or die.  After all, the book could literally be ghostwritten.

My plan for the day was to grovel up the Sugarloaf Ridge route on Ontario Peak. Turnout for the hike was less than desired, but I set off alone anyway from the Icehouse Canyon parking lot at 6:00 AM. After about 15 minutes of walking on the well-maintained trail, I headed off-trail up the aptly named Falling Rock Canyon.

While I was picking my way up Falling Rock Canyon, I heard the sound of, um, falling rocks. Their source was the little guy pictured below, who I think was a Bighorn Sheep lamb.

I knew that at some point I had to climb out of the canyon to the right toward the saddle between Sugarloaf Peak and Ontario Peak.  I almost got suckered into a steep, narrow chute, but continued to a broad scree slope leading up to a clearly discernible saddle a few hundred feet above.

Ascending the scree slope was not nearly as bad as it could have been, as the rocks in a shallow chute on climber's left are larger and mostly stable.  I have certainly experienced worse slopes in the San Gabriel Mountains.  From the perfectly shaped saddle, I followed the ridge -- which is comparable to Register Ridge in terms of distance, angle, and quality -- to a sandy, brushy plateau.

Turning around on the plateau, one is confronted with an outstanding view of Mt. Baldy.  Just above the plateau, a maintained trail is intersected and followed west to the summit.

From the summit of Ontario Peak, I found myself scanning the slopes below for remnants of the 1979 plane crash, wondering which steep, icy chute Norman Ollestad was forced to descend.

Back on the saddle between Ontario Peak and Sugarloaf Peak, I found a certain Aerosmith song running through my head before realizing why.  The tune energized me to confront the scree slope descent, which is described as "a real ankle bender. Really loose, and about as fun as a trip to the dentist."  To my delight, the scree skiing from the saddle down to Falling Rock Canyon was excellent.  I descended about 500 vertical feet on soft sand in about two minutes.  The trick is to descend about 100 feet skiers left of the line of ascent.  But just when I was starting to think that the entire Sugarloaf Ridge route was a classic, Falling Rock Canyon began seriously aggravating me.  The rocks in the canyon are loose, and on several occasions I stepped on an ostensibly secure rock which shifted, resulting in painful ankle abrasions.  One stable-looking rock turned out to be a trap door through which I fell about two jarring feet.  Because of the loose nature of the rock on the lower half of this route, it is probably best done solo or with at most one other person. 

Returning to the parking lot at 11:30 AM, I once again tainted an aesthetic experience in the mountains by visiting the public restroom. 

The northern aspect of Ontario Peak (8,693 feet).  The Sugarloaf Ridge route is clearly visible to the trained eye.

Monday, November 9, 2009

25,000 feet of elevation gain . . . in one day

On Saturday, three hikers each ascended the notorious Cactus to Clouds trail three consecutive times.  The trail begins near Palm Springs, CA and climbs roughly 8,400 vertical feet to a tram station on Mt. San Jacinto.  The hikers started at various times between 2:00-3:00 AM and rode the tram back down after each ascent.  They finished their last ascent at 9:45 PM, seconds after the final tram had descended.  Alas, smooth talking prevailed and the tram operators graciously arranged one more ride for the weary hikers.

News of this feat has been received enthusiastically.

Mt. San Jacinto Outdoor Recreation Forum
Rick Kent's Photos

Friday, November 6, 2009

A tussle with Mt. Russell

Sure, Mt. Whitney is the highest mountain in the contiguous* United States, but after climbing it twice (or even twice in one day), one begins to look around for other challenges.  What one sees when one looks around from the summit of Mt. Whitney is the precipitous southern wall of Mt. Russell.  At 14,086 feet, several hundred feet lower than Mt. Whitney, Mt. Russell is sometimes dismissed as just another fourteener in the Sierras.  But R. J. Secor's description of the peak can get one's attention: "This is the finest peak in the Mount Whitney region.  It is high and beautiful, and none of its routes are easy".  It got my attention.  In early October, I recruited several people to join me for a Sunday climb of Mt. Russell's classic East Ridge.

As we approached the weekend, the weather forecasts got progressively worse.  By Friday, the forecasts for the Sierras called for 50 mph winds with gusts up to 100 mph on Sunday.  That was enough for most people in our party to cancel.  But I had not been to the Sierras in over six years, so it was going to take a lot more than talk of 100 mph gusts to discourage me. 

On Saturday, I made the 5-hour drive to Lone Pine from Orange County and picked up my reserved day-hiking permit.  I then drove up to Whitney Portal at ~8,300 feet and found my reserved campsite at the full campground.  To my surprise, the two guys in the adjacent camp site were also from Orange County.  Not wanting to drive all the way back down to Lone Pine for dinner, I thought I would see if the Whitney Portal Store was still open, and if so, have a look at the menu. Wanting a solid and "safe" meal the night before my big outing, I was a little wary about eating a burger and fries at the unfamiliar Store.  Fortunately, the meal was perfectly satisfying and filling.  In addition, I sat around the communal table and chatted with several interesting people (more from Orange County), including Larry Goldie, the owner of North Cascades Mountain Guides, who had just completed a 12-hour car-to-car ascent of Mt. Whitney's East Buttress.

Returning to my campsite after dark, I was glad to finally meet James Russell, who would be accompanying me the following day.  James Russell, as it turns out, is a celebrated young scientist back home who is currently a postdoctoral researcher at UC-Berkeley.  And his last name certainly augured well for our climb.  After a horrendous night's sleep, in which I laid wide awake all night listening anxiously to the regular jet engine-like roar of the wind gusts, I stumbled out of my tent at 4:00 AM and began packing up.  By 5:00 AM, we were hiking up the trail by the light of our headlamps.

The first major obstacle we encountered was the dangerous Ebersbacher Ledges.  Knowing that the ledges were narrow, precipitous, and hard to find in the dark, we had done our research and easily spotted the crucial entry point by headlamp.  Thereafter, we moved carefully and had no trouble on the ledges.

Happy times near Clyde Meadow before the sand/scree slog.

The second major obstacle was the dreaded scree slope which begins in earnest at around 11,200 feet and eases at around 12,800 feet.  The drudgery of this steep sand slog exceeded all expectations.  Since most steps up this slope are followed by a downward slide of half a step, it really involves about 2,400 vertical feet of unrelenting misery.  The only positive experience I had on this seemingly interminable slope was the realization that the wind had dissipated and we probably had a good shot at the summit.

Above the sand/scree slog with the East Ridge of Mt. Russell in the background.

After the steep sand/scree slope, it was a relatively quick and easy walk to the saddle between Mt. Russell and Mt. Carillon, where one is simultaneously confronted with the sheer north face of Mt. Russell and the surprisingly huge Tulainyo Lake (alleged to be the highest lake in the United States, or something like that).  Upon reaching the saddle and being promptly overwhelmed visually by the dark blue of the vast lake, which contrasts sharply with the prevailing tan color of the surrounding landscape, James exclaimed, "What the hell is that?"

Tulainyo Lake

By this point, we were both very tired, but glad to get off the sand and onto some solid granite.  The solid granite of the east ridge quickly narrows to only a few feet in places, with terrible exposure on either side.  The east ridge is rated 3rd class, which means that (1) you need to use your hands to climb, (2) there are always good hand holds if you stay on route, and (3) the consequences of falling are such that you wouldn't want to fall.  In many places on the east ridge, the consequences of falling are such that you really, really wouldn't want to fall. 

The East Ridge of Mt. Russell as seen from the Russell/Carillon Col.

Upon arriving at the first really steep and exposed section, it occurred to me that we might not make the summit.  It looked sketchy and I was tired.  But we picked our way along the right side of the ridge and, although the exposure held my attention, the climbing was quite easy.  Further along the ridge, and at about the point where I was quite ready to be done with the ridge, I arrived at the crux.  Staring at this narrow and frighteningly exposed section of the ridge, I despairingly thought it was impassable without taking more risk than I was willing to take.  After all, I am a family man.  But my despair was unwarranted as moments later I followed James around to the right on what seemed to be easier ground. 

The East Ridge of Mt. Russell as seen from the summit.

After a few false summits and many short breaks to catch my breath, we stepped onto the summit at around 2:30 PM.  I was exhausted and my summit portrait, which I will not post because I look considerably less happy than someone is supposed to look in such a place, shows it.  Somehow James had the energy for exuberant summit poses, even though I suspected that he was similarly drained.

Russell on Russell.

Given how steep and exposed our ascent of the ridge was, I had reservations about descending.  But we picked our way along the ridge and before too long we were back to the safety of the sand.  My expectation of a quick descent did not come to fruition, as James experienced constant cramping in his legs that made it temporarily impossible for him to straighten his legs after bending them.  Some hours later, after negotiating the Ebersbacher Ledges in the fading light, I became the slow poke as my new shoes, which were one size too small, began crushing my toes.

Returning to the trailhead at around 7:30 PM -- after ascending and descending almost 6,000 vertical feet over the past 14+ hours -- neither of us had the luxury of relaxing.  I still had to make the ~5 hour drive back to Orange County and James had to figure out how to get back to San Francisco since his ride had (for reasons I won't get into here) left without him.  After contemplating a variety of scenarios for getting home, some involving me doing things I really didn't want to do, James opted to stay at the new hostel in Lone Pine, which is owned and operated by the owners of the Whitney Portal Store.

It pleases me to say that this story has a happy ending as I managed to get my daughter to pre-school (almost) on time the next morning and James made it back home the following night.  Now for the moral of the story: climbing a mountain with someone whose last name is identical to the mountain's name is a recipe for success.

*Word Challenge: Use "contiguous" in a sentence that has nothing to do with the United States.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Two much on Mt. Whitney

At ~14,500 feet, Mt. Whitney is the highest peak not only in the California Sierras, but in the contiguous United States as well.  With a paved road leading to a trailhead at over 8,300 feet, and a well-maintained trail free of snow for several months a year carved all the way to the summit, Mt. Whitney is ascended hundreds of times annually.  The peak is often done as a day hike, either by the 22-mile (round trip) trail or by off-trail routes, such as the 3rd class Mountaineer's Route.  Once upon a time, when I was fit and well-acclimated from living at around 8,000 feet in Mammoth Lakes, I hiked the trail in 11 hours round trip.  That same summer, I took three days to do the Mountaineer's Route.  Suffice it to say, climbing to the top of Mt. Whitney from Whitney Portal and back again in one day is challenging for most mortals. 

But climbing Mt. Whitney once in one day is not enough for some.  Recently, several contributors to the Whitney Portal Store Message Board have chronicled climbing to the summit twice in one day from the trailhead at Whitney Portal.  Such a feat involves around 12,500 feet of elevation gain (and, of course, 12,500 feet of elevation loss).  One of the mountaineers, Rick Kent, reported taking about 17 hours for the double-header, while Richard Piotrowski reported taking 20 hours.  Even before their Whitney doubles, these peakbaggers had become notorious in the regional mountaineering community for their outlandish outings.  It will be interesting to see what they come up with next.  It will also be interesting to see what kinds of harebrained outings their Whitney doubles inspire among their peers.      

Monday, November 2, 2009

Off the beaten track on Mt. Baldy

Yesterday I dragged a former college roomate, who I had not seen or even spoken to in 16 years, to the summit of Mt. Baldy (10,064 feet) in southern California.  Fortunately, he has taken good care of himself over the years, so slogging up and down 4,000 vertical feet before noon was no problem.  Aside from catching up with Eric, the highlight was seeing a group of about six bighorn sheep, including some lambs, meandering around Baldy Bowl.

Mt. Baldy, a.k.a. Mt. San Antonio, is one of the big three alpine summits in southern California, the others being Mt. San Gorgonio and Mt. San Jacinto.  Most hikers heading for the summit of Mt. Baldy opt for either the Ski Hut Trail or the Devil's Backbone Trail, but there are excellent alternatives that avoid the crowds. 

The Register Ridge route, which we ascended yesterday, follows a steep, rough path for over 2,000 vertical feet between the beginning of the Ski Hut Trail and the middle of the Devil's Backbone Trail.  The path is not maintained and disappears in some of the rockier sections.

Though we saw about one hundred people during our descent of the Ski Hut Trail, we saw nobody on our ascent of Register Ridge.  In fact, in the six times I have been on Register Ridge, I have seen no one but my companions.

Fatality on Mt. Whitney trail

A hiker was found deceased on the eastern slope of Mt. Whitney on Saturday, October 31.  He set out for the summit on Sunday, October 25 via the main trail which originates at Whitney Portal.  The experienced 73-year old man was last seen near Trailcrest, roughly 1.5 miles from the summit, in the late afternoon on Sunday.  He was reportedly struggling but still ascending when last seen.  A coordinated search began on Tuesday in bad weather after he did not return to his car at the trailhead.  The cause of death has yet to be publicized.

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