Friday, September 18, 2009

Mount Whitney - A Classic East Face Ascent

In the 1920s and 30s Robert Underhill was one of the top climbers in The United States. Frequent climbing trips to the Alps left him well versed in state of the art rope techniques. In 1931 the Sierra Club invited him to California to teach its members proper belaying and rappelling. Afterwards he and some of the other climbers toured the range and made a number of first ascents. Chief amongst these routes is the East Face of Mount Whitney, which Underhill climbed with Norman Clyde, Glen Dawson, and Jules Eichorn. This fun and exciting route is one of the best alpine rock climbs in the range.

Fiona puts on a monster pack
Photo by Ian McEleney

A few weeks ago Matthew Holt, Fiona McIntosh and I shouldered heavy packs for a hike to the base of Mount Whitney and a crack at this route. Matt and Fiona had travelled to California from South Africa for a week of rock climbing culminating with this ascent. We made the 4 mile hike in in good time and enjoyed a very brief swim in the aptly named Iceberg Lake. Matt and Fiona are backcountry gourmands and their dinner highlights included fresh vegetables, hot soup, tea, and cookies.

We awoke the next morning to the wind tugging at our tents. This made me uneasy; the East Face of Mount Whitney can be a chilly place while a stiff breeze blows. Fortunately it died down as we started up the 400 feet of scrambling that constitutes the approach to the route. It’s easy to know where to rope up for this climb. The Supertopo Guidebook to the High Sierra says, “Intense exposure signals the start of the East Face route.”

Scrambling to the base of the route.
Photo by Ian McEleney

The first pitch is the “Tower Traverse”, 130 feet of airy 5.4 and 5.5 climbing. After this, a prominent 400 foot ramp of easier climbing leads to the “Fresh Air Traverse”. At this point, the youthful Dawson and Eichorn wanted to continue straight up, but more experienced heads prevailed and the party made the now famous traverse. Matt and Fiona moved handily up this pitch, despite the 1000 plus feet of empty space underneath their heels. Fiona had brought her camera along, and frequently asked Matt and I to hold still while she captured the action. Two pitches later we were at the technical crux of the route, a 20 foot corner with a wide crack in it. Usually wide crack climbing is awkward, but this section was passed smoothly with stemming and the liberal use of handholds hidden in the crack.

Looking down the Fresh Air Traverse
Photo by Ian McEleney

After the crux, many climbers traverse right to meet up with the East Buttress route. However, continuing straight up allowed us to enjoy two more long pitches of moderate 5th class climbing on good rock. 50 feet of much easier, blocky climbing deposited us on the summit.

Just below the Summit
Photo by Ian McEleney

This fun and exciting route is one of the most classic alpine rock climbs in the range, if not the nation. It features an unbeatable combination of a classic location, great granite, and excellent California weather.

--Ian McEleney, AAI Guide

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