Muir and Whitney
(Wasn't this the splendid east buttress of Mt. Muir?)

11-13 Jul 2002 - by Mike Zimmerman

After some cancellations and an addition, I had a group of three participants to go on this trip at Whitney Portal, which were Larry Hoak, Tony Padilla and myself. Tony and I sorted through a "rack" that we thought we be good for the East Buttress route for Mt. Muir, since he already had the beta for the route from an earlier attempt. We took a medium sized one, with eight slings and two cordelettes and plenty of carabiners. Before we cast off up the Mt. Whitney Trail, we had a moment of silence for our fellow CMC climbers and friends who lost their lives on Huascaran last month. This moment was shortened by the arrival of a Forest Service ranger, who asked for our cattle tags, which is evidence of having a permit for the Mt. Whitney trail along with the heavy and overpriced bear cannisters. The Forest Service requires that day and overnight hikers that use the Mt. Whitney Trail have these tags attached to their packs whenever they are on the trail, except if one is day hiking up to Lone Pine Lake. This was all new news to me, I suppose that it makes enforcement activities easier for the rangers. Anyway, we had our cattle tags on our packs and I also had the lottery permit too.

So with the tag situation taken care of, we cast ourselves up the Whitney Trail. We had fairly warm weather conditions. The temperature down in Lone Pine was forecast to be 105 degrees fahrenheit which was going to be a warm day anyway. It was in the low 80's heading up the Whiney trail, bright and sunny at first with more high clouds moving in as the day went on. Tony had his three chip Sony video camera, and was taking video clips of us hiking up from near the stream crossing for the North Fork of Lone Pine Creek and for the rest of the trip. More on this later.

At Mirror Lake, we were looking at the Pink Perch route and also the Satan's Delight route on the south face of Thor Peak. The face was quite awe inspiring, and I thought I saw a climber at the Pink Perch. Upon further inspection, it turned out to be a block of rock which I thought was moving. I blame the heavy load and loss of electrolytes for this, or maybe it was the taco salad I ate at PJ's down in Lone Pine the previous night. Anyway, Tony and I thought that the Satan's Delight route looked like that it could be a difficult 5th class route, probably in the 5.10 something range. A certain guide rates it at 5th class, but 5th class what? It looked like the devilish route from hell, some brimstone I think I will stay away from for now.

Well the devilish waltz up the Whitney Trail continued from there. Larry was up ahead along with Tony, since I had to stop below Trailside Meadow to rearrange my pack and put the insipid bear cannister lower down so that the weight would be more centered. The trick worked and made the load go closer to my shoulders instead of the feeling like I was being being pulled backwards. Boy, that rearrangement of a couple of heavy items in my pack gave me a 180 degree turnaround on my mental state and attitude-it made the job of getting up to Trail Camp easier.

After passing the lovely purple shooting stars of Trailside Meadow (no camping allowed sign-for good reason) I made my way up the switchbacks up the Whitney Freeway up to Trail Camp. The section of trail from the Consultation Lake turn off to Trail Camp I had not hiked since my Boy Scout days in 1976.

Trail Camp, at which I arrived at 4:30 PM, was a veritable tent city of proportions I have never seen in my life. It looked similar to the base camp of Everest, there must have been at least 25 tents. Also something I immediatly noticed that was not there in 1976-a solar toilet. This thing was not there then, but I realize that this is a necessity.

Folks, could you imagine if the the toilet was not there? Number two would take awhile to break down if buried, since the soil at this altitude, which is at 12,000 feet, does not have a lot of organisms in it to break it down and the dreaded contamination of the watershed with at least half a dozen unwanted waterborne organisms besides Giardia (which is of least concern). Anyway, I am glad a solar toilet was installed, since in 1976 the foot traffic and the large number of campers at Trail Camp was nothing like it is now on this freeway to the highest point in the continental U.S..

Well the solar toilet was a welcome sign, since it meant I could plop my pack at camp and meet up again with Larry and Tony. Also the sight of Mt. Muir from Trail Camp was certainly spectacular, especially of the East Buttress route, which was easily seen from here and evaluated. We set up camp and had dinner and got our packs ready for the big climb the next day. During the night, by around 10:30, we experienced a thunder shower for about an hour. It was pretty heavy and poor Tony ended spending part of the night in some sort of cave (which people had used for a bathroom) instead of spending the night under the solar toilet, a potential lightning rod during the thunder storm. I did offer my dinky one man tent until it was over.

The next day ended up being clear with some high clouds. I was concerned if the rock on the East Buttress would be dry. Camp seemed to be fairly dry, so we decided to go for the climb. Larry was ready to go to hike up Mt. Whitney, which he had never climbed before, and climb Mt. Muir from the backside standard class 3 route. He left by 5:30 AM. Tony and I cast off up the Whitney Trail by 6:00 AM to make the approach to the toe of the East Buttress on Mt. Muir.

The approach up to the buttress was not too bad when we headed west off of the freeway. It consisted of fairly solid benches and not too much talus. We were at the toe of the buttress by about 7:15 AM and started putting our gear on for the climb. Tony had the video camera and took some footage here at the base. I had my climbing shoes on, Tony put in a belay anchor, we were both tied in to the rope (an 8.5 mm 50 meter) and we cast off for the first pitch.

Tony was leading the first pitch which started out with a 20 foot chimney that had a few 5.1-5.2 moves. We also found that the rock was dry, the storm from the previous night did not seem to affect it or if it did the rock was warm enough for it to evaporate. Once we surmounted the chimney, we were on the right side of the rib/crest, as it says to go in the usual guide books. We found that we were climbing up low angled dirt and loose rock for several pitches going up the buttress. The exposure could have been classified as fourth class going up this stuff, one can get seriously injured or die from an unroped fall. I lead on the fifth pitch which about 90 feet up to a snow patch on a very wide ledge. I went up the snow patch in my climbing shoes, via a moat and it did not look like it would go. On the right was a headwall that was looked to be in the 5.6-5.7 range. On the left side there was a narrow strip of rock slab which was low angled and adjacent to the snow patch, but went up onto some fourth class rock. I stopped and set up a belay anchor to belay Tony up here on the wide ledge. I figured the rope drag would be serious if I carried on leading and I was not getting very good purchase in the moderately angled snow with my climbing shoes.

Tony came up to my belay station and since he was climbing in his moutaineering boots, he just went up on the lead for the sixth pitch. He chopped in steps with his boots and hands (with his over gloves) up the snow patch and up the short stretch of fourth class rock. I followed by going up his steps in the snow, but I ended up climbing up the narrow slab strip to the fouth class rock, downclimbing down about 10 feet, while fighting the rope drag since I was trying to get a piece of protection that the rope was clipped into down below me. After getting that piece of protection, I believe it was a good #9 hex, I climbed back up the fourth class section of rock and climbed up to the next belay station, which was wide flat spot of dirt below another chimney.

We took a brief snack break here to get regrouped for the seventh pitch. Tony decided to take some more camera footage here and he was able to make a couple of cell phone calls at this spot, one he put on to the video camera. A novel thing to do, I have never seen this done.

Our next novel thing to do was to carry on with the climb. Tony cast off leading again on the seventh pitch which featured a slot shaped chimney with a chockstone wedged in it. This feature I was able to see from Trail Camp the day before, from there it looked very steep but from our vantage point it was not quite as bad. This one was about 40 feet long with the chock stone near the top of it. I followed Tony up it, cleaning the pitch as I climbed. There were a few moves I thought were really low fifth class in the chimney and getting over the chockstone was the crux, probably a 5.2 move at the worst. This chimney had mainly fourth class rock in it. This feature was steep and fun to climb besides the small bits of loose rock that were coming down, several of them that hit my helmet.

After climbing the slot chimney the terrain eased off to easier third class rock and I climbed up to Tony's belay station. He gave me the rack so I could lead the next pitch. I lead up what was the eigth pitch and it was easy, just climbing up third class rock up to a wide ledge that angled up to the left. I climbed up the ledge and made a right turn going over a flat section of very large talus. The rope drag was really bad here so I looked for another belay station. I found a good one that had a large chicken head type that passed my tests I performed on it for soundness and visually it looked fine. I set up the belay station here. I noticed at this point of the climb, we were not on the right side of the rib/crest. This is where we turned to the left, which was more like three-fourths the way up the buttress not half way up it.

Tony climbed up to the belay station, I gave him the rack and slings and he carried on with the lead going to the left, as the guide books said to do. We were able to locate the well fractured chute which was at the end of a traverse. The traverse here was over class 2 type terrain that was still loose as lot of the climb was so far which had us wondering when the climb was really going to be "splendid". Tony made this traverse, and needed more rope to set up a belay station, so I had to move forward about 20 feet so he could set up another belay anchor for the tenth pitch.

This 190 foot traverse brought us to what appeared to be the well fractured chute. From the bottom of it we could not see the two gendarmes that were mentioned in the guides where you head to the right by going up this well fractured chute. We made a route finding error by climbing to the left of the chute, since this feature looked like it did not go anywhere. Anyway, the tenth pitch went up some steep fourth class rock on a face and over a very small ridge and angling up to the left on a wide open face of steep white granite, which was also fourth class with several moves of very low fifth class on it. There were also one or two several loose horns on it that caught our attention. The eleventh pitch continued up the face and got very steep with several low fifth class moves on it but mostly fourth class. Tony kept saying "splendid" as he was leading the tenth and eleventh pitches.

I climbed up the eleventh pitch, up the very steep face on some of the best rock that we had climbed on the entire climb so far. I got up to the belay station which was in a cave. Tony was tied off to a really bombproof horn that was solidly wedged into the rock in this cave. We were at an impasse here. Tony told me that I had to save the day, so he gave me the rack and gear, which I reorganized and I took a look at the terrain for the twelfth pitch.

I saw a crack along a ramp above a steep slab that went off to the right from the cave. This looked fifth class, but there were a couple of very narrow ledges that went across downward on the steep slab. I put in two pieces of protection into the crack and climbed down the narrow ledge option. I continued across and saw a very small arete that went up. There were no spots at all to put in protection and the feature went to a dead end. I looked at my watch and it was 5:15 PM. I looked up and saw what looked like the summit of a gendarme, but I did not believe it to be the true summit of the peak. At the time, we were about 250 feet in elevation below the summit. We were out of time.

At this point I told Tony that I thought we should retreat and I climbed back to the cave, after cleaning out my protection.

We talked about a couple of options. One was to go down a scree chute that was below us. The other was an escape route that Tony thought would go and that was to rappell down to the chute, climb up a little bit of snow to a notch, and descend down to a large scree chute that went to the crest. This was one of the "windows" along the Whitney trail. I put my boots on and we prepared for the rappell from the cave.

We did one half-rope rappell and two more shorter rappells down to the snow patch in the chute down below. We climbed up the snow and over the notch and down a narrow, loose chute to the main chute which was wide and very loose. We climbed up this chute about 250 feet in elevation and made it to the crest. We looked up to the right to see the summit of Mt. Muir only about 60 feet in elevation above us. It was 7:30 PM by the time we topped out on the crest, so we decided not to go to the summit. We descended down to the Whitney Trail, which was a welcome sight. I was glad we did not choose the option of descending down the wide scree chute all the way down, since we would have had to rappell in the dark down an unknown route. This was the best choice.

We took off down the Whitney Trail with the light of the sunset off to the west which had hues of bright orange and red. It was truly spectacular. This was the first time I had been down the Whitney Trail since during the 1976 Boy Scout trip that went from Onion Valley to Mt. Whitney, so it was a nostalgic trip down memory lane for me. We continued down the 99 switchbacks going down the trail. We had to put our headlamps on for the rest of the hike down to Trail Camp. We appreciated the headlamps that the folks down in camp had on, thank you. We made it down to camp about 10 PM.

I caught up with Larry and he made it up to the summit of Mt. Whitney as well as climbing Mt. Muir from the backside route. Larry and I spoke about climbing Mt. McAdie the next day with a tentative 7 AM start time. Tony and I had dinner and some well earned "happy hour". We had some of Tony's pastrami that was from Trader Joe's. It tasted great, thank you Tony! I had some pepperoni too, but we were tired and full for that. We all crashed for the evening.

Saturday morning at about 6:30 AM we were greeted with another thunder storm that was coming in from the tropical depression that was down south. The weather was not looking too good. Larry had a headache and Tony needed to head home so we decided to cut out a day early. I think that was a good call since I noticed that the skies were getting darker along the Whitney Crest and it would not have been worth exposing ourselves to the objective hazards. We all made it to Whitney Portal safely and took off.

I want to thank those who made it on the trip and made it a success and a safe one. Congratulations to Larry for climbing Mt. Whitney and Mt. Muir and for getting his first ascent of Mt. Whitney. Tony, thank you for doing most of the leading on the buttress including the more difficult parts. It was a fun climb, despite some of the objective hazards on the route and it was a good learning experience of how buttresses can be bewildering in finding the correct route. Also we learned a good escape route off of the buttress. Fortunately the weather held out for us during the climb with fair weather cumulus clouds that were blowing by in the afternoon. Well, this is a fourteener that I will have to return to climb, since it is my goal to climb all of the fourteeners in the state of California. Mt. Muir will always be there for another day.


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