Mt Whitney
(Mountaineer's Route)

1 Sep 1999 - by Dana Chaney

I climbed Mt. Whitney via the Mountaineer's Route yesterday along with another solo climber I bumped into (figuratively speaking) on the Ebersbacher Ledges. It is a long grunt up to Iceberg Lake, a climb of 4,250 feet with the hardest part coming at the end above 12,000 feet. It took us, more than the average time, over seven hours. The east face of Whitney is certainly imposing but it is less than 2,000 feet rising shear above Iceberg Lake so the climb the second day was the easier of the two days. The weather was perfect and there were several groups of rock climbers doing various East Face routes. We were on the trail before 6:30 AM and were the first ones in the chute so we didn't have to worry much about rock fall. In the Mountaineer's chute the rocks tended not to bounce very far and I never did put on the rock helmet I carried to the top.

For the unwary just starting to venture into real third class climbing I suggest carrying a rope. I left behind the emergency cord I had when the other fellow held up a rope which, in the dim light before dawn, looked like a length of real climbers rope. When we got in a tight place squeezed against some ice in the chute above the notch, he pulled out 30 feet of trucker's rope. You can actually climb with the stuff if you have to but I plan on following Steve Eckert's recommendation of having 80 feet of 7 mm rope for emergencies. We looped a rock just in case. On the way back, we did the traverse around the north face since we didn't like the idea of downclimbing the chute to the notch. There were still two ice patches on the north face big enough that we had to cross them. I again belayed the other guy with his trucker's rope just in case he fell. I took a rock climbing class so long ago that they still were teaching the body belay without a belay device. I had no trouble crossing the ice without the belay but that is one steep face and is entitled to respect if there is more than minimal ice or snow.

We were back at Iceberg Lake by 12:30 PM so we decided to hike out. It took less than half the time coming out as going in but it was still a long day with a total of 6,200 feet of downclimbing. I would have to say that the well ducked, use trail is so obvious that there is not a great deal of route finding necessary to get up or down the Mountaineer's Route. In places, the use trail approaches a maintained trail in terms of quality. Still, it is steep and rugged. There were permits available on August 31, the day we went in, on all routes including overnight camping on the main trail. I'm sure this weekend is sold out.

Tony Cruz adds:

I climbed the Mountaineer's route last summer. It was my third ascent of Whitney (I also did dayhikes from Crabtree Meadow and the Portal). I dream of doing the East Face but that may be in my next life.

The Mountaineer's route, while not technical was exciting. I agree that the section to which you refer as "the North Face" is rather dangerous. Last year it was solid snow and ice and we did it with crampons and ice ax. Somebody died on that stretch last summer. As a consolation, last year's heavy snow made the chute a piece of cake. No bad rocks or ice as I've heard should be expected. I butt-glissaded two- thirds of the way down!

Michael Gordon adds:

> I agree that the section to which you refer as "the North Face" 
> is rather dangerous.  Somebody died on that stretch last summer.

More than one soul has died attempting to cross here or died falling while descending directly to the notch - as happened with the climber last year after a successful ascent of one of the rock routes.

Ron Karpel adds:

Last month when we climbed the Mountaineering Route there was a large patch of snow, but we easily walk around it. It required dropping some 50 ft of elevation, but was worth not having to cross the snow. Once on the other side it was a straight forward class-3 to the top.

Dana Chaney replies:

I think the problem with the north face of Whitney is that the main gully up the Mountaineer's Route can be clear of snow/ice for weeks while the north face still has significant snow fields. A climber goes easily up the gully to the notch without crampons and ice ax and then has to confront the exposure on the north face. I read all the route descriptions and got some recent information off the email bulletin board run by the Whitney Portal Store. Recent information said the route was completely clear. The patches of snow/ice I ran into were not very big but I had no ice ax, thinking there would be no occasion to want one. I had no trouble crossing the sun cups but the other guy I was with needed some help. I think part of the problem is that experienced mountaineers downplay the hazards that don't present much of an obstacle to them but which might get a novice killed. The Mountaineer's Route is probably heavily traveled by mountaineering novices just like the main trail is heavily traveled by novice hikers. The point is that unless it is late summer and the climber knows for certain that the route is well melted out, no one belongs up there without the right gear and knowledge of how to use it, preferably learned some place with less exposure than the north face of Whitney.


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