Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Route Profile : East Buttress of Mt. Whitney, III 5.7

As someone who's had the opportunity to travel and climb around the country over the past nine years I've gotten used to (but never tired of) visiting a new area and being told, "Oh, you need to go check out X, Y, and Z routes; they're classics!"  And there is still a sense of adventure and discovery that wells up in us climbers every time we're in that situation. These folks are right, and their prized routes stand out for their perfect in-cut crimps, their pleasing movement, the engaging variety of techniques they demand, or simply their aesthetic surroundings.

Very occasionally, you'll happen upon a route that seems to combine all of these things, and after climbing it you'll tuck the memory away to cherish until you get a chance to come back and do it again. The East Buttress of Mt. Whitney (which at 14,494' is the highest peak in the lower 48 states) is such a route.
AAI Guide Ian McEleney kicks his shoes off by
Lower Boyscout Lake on the approach to
the East Buttress.  Casey O'Brien
The hike in to Iceberg Lake at the base of Mt. Whitney begins at the Whitney Portal trailhead (8360'), about 20 minutes West of the town of Lone Pine.  From there, the trail climbs steadily, gaining 4,300' in just over 4 miles as it winds its way up a creek drainage through the forest and past beautiful lakes before emerging in the alpine and scree at the base of the peak and route.

The distinctive ridges of Mt. Russell, just North of
Whitney, exemplify "the Range of Light."  Casey O'Brien
The route itself seems unlikely from a distance, but as one nears the base, obvious lines of weakness appear amidst the blocky assemblage of the Buttress.  The climbing is straightforward and engaging from the start, and pitch after pitch has the leader shifting back and forth between fun 4th class scrambling, and short, steep moderate cruxes.  Moving up the arĂȘte, the leader has their pick of easily protected variations ranging from 5.6 to 5.8 on a number of pitches, which makes for fun route finding and allows climbers to move between several different style of climbing in rapid succession.

AAI videographer John Grace moves up toward the Second Tower.  Casey O'Brien.
Eleven pitches and 1,000 feet of varied and exceptional climbing after the day begins, climbers top out on Whitney's deceptively broad summit and have a chance to savor their accomplishment and the broad vistas stretched out below them.  The registry beside the small stone shack at the summit affords a quaint opportunity to document your presence on the summit before descending back to Iceberg Lake via the Mountaineers Route.

Looking down the East Buttress from the upper pitches.  Casey O'Brien
Though imposing from the base, intermediate climbers will find the East Buttress to be a suitable challenge, an awe inspiring route and a significant accomplishment that they can take away with them. Thankfully, once you've climbed the East Buttress there are innumerable other climbs in the High Sierra to challenge and inspire you in all seasons.  The range is an ideal place to learn and push yourself ice climbing, Winter mountaineering, or backcountry skiing; if you haven't already, this ought to be the year you get out there and explore.

A post-climb fortune cookie puts us on the right track.
Casey O'Brien

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