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Mt Whitney and Mt Muir

November 20th - 23rd, 2008

Cold weather success on Whitney and Muir.

Those present:  Adrian Crane, Deborah Steinberg, Ray Kablanow, Derek Castle, Carey Gregg and Rudolphe Jourdaine.

Pictures on Flicker

 The theme for this trip was “est”:      We had the longest summit day; it was our coldest climb so far; from a technical standpoint (with a few exceptions) it was our easiest climb; and we had by far the prettiest views of all our climbs to this point.                    

 Our last story about our climb of Middle Palisade Peak left the reader worrying if the extreme nature of our endeavor to climb all of California's14ers was destined to be a grueling challenge.  We had  originally planned to climb two 14ers on that trip ( Split Peak along with Middle Palisade), but were stymied by the size and difficulty of a mountain pass that looked much easier on the map. At the end of our trip we had decided to climb only one summit per trip. HOWEVER, on this trip we already made an exception as Muir Peak is just so close to Whitney, that we had to attempt it if conditions were good.     

Derek Castle, Ray Kablanow, Deborah Steinberg & Adrian Crane  on the Summit of Whitney

As it turned out, our weather was wonderful, although quite cold, with temperatures dropping to the mid teens overnight.   If we were lucky enough to be climbing with the sun upon us, the temperature would climb to around 50 degrees.  To stay warm, you had to keep moving, and our breaks were necessarily brief.    

 Friday morning everyone pulled their packs out of Ray’s van with their gear neatly packed, but as per typical, Adrian pulled out an empty backpack and a full-to-the-brim gear bag and proceeded to sort all his gear in the parking lot. He started to worry that he would earn his reputation as the guy that is always last ready when he remembered that it takes Deborah 20 minutes to prep her feet with blister prevention pads and tapes!   At 10 am, with the obligatory permits and WAG bags in our possession,  we set out for our base camp at Upper Boy Scout Lake along the mountaineering route to Mt. Whitney.

Since we knew we were going to attempt Muir Peak on Saturday along with Whitney, the sensible thing to do would have been to walk up the main trail, the traditional switchback route up the mountain, and set up camp along the way there. However, several in the group had their heart set on the more challenging mountaineering route, which meant that our timing on summit day was critical if we didn’t want to descend the more treacherous parts of the mountain in the dark. On the way to our base camp we enjoyed the beautiful winter conditions of powdery snow, gorgeous natural water fountains, the bluish tinge of iced-over waterfalls, and clear blue sky.  Early on, Deborah lost her digital camera while bushwhacking in the dense alder along the stream. It was only  later that we learned about the more technical “ Ridge Route ” that allows you to avoid the brush. Even so, the nice thing about climbing Whitney in off-season is that you don’t have nearly as many people on the mountain, and you don’t have to deal with the lottery process to get your climbing permits.  As it turned out, when we arrived at Upper Boy Scout Camp there was only one other climbing party there, a group of college students celebrating the 21st birthday of one of their members.  Although the climb to base camp was slow and steady, our altimeters read 11,300 feet at our destination, and Carey and Rudolphe were suffering from mild Altitude Sickness by the time we reached camp at 4 pm on Friday.  Since Carey and Rudolphe didn’t feel well enough to make a bid for the summit, only Adrian, Deborah, Ray, and Derek left 6 am Saturday morning to attempt Mt Whitney and Muir.     

We set off towards the northeast side of the mountain following mostly good trail, and Deb had the feeling that this was all going along much too easily. Adrian must have been feeling bored, because eventually we came to a large rocky bluff that we had to either climb up and over (the “macho route”), or climb down toward a trail along the valley floor (the “wienie route”). Naturally Deb wanted to take the “wienie route”, but Adrian decided we should climb up the icy rocks and around scary ledges of the bluff. Once over the bluff we arrived at the foot of the mountaineers route, a steep snow gully below “the notch” of the mountain. Once our crampons were on securely, we roped up together and slogged up the mountain for nearly an hour and a half. Once at the top of the ridge we stopped to rest briefly, but realized we were so cold that stopping for long was not an option.   

Adrian on the endless snowclimb of the mountaineers gully

We crossed the Sierra crest to the west side and traversed west then south, where eventually we joined up with the traditional walk-up Whitney trail and hiked the last quarter mile to the summit itself at 14,495 ft. We brought two mementos to the top to drop into the summit box for STOP CANCER:  Adrian brought a photo in memory of his brother Christopher, and Deborah brought a penny in honor of Harriette Kirschen.  As we signed the summit log we realized that we were the first group that day to reach the top of Whitney. We found out later that we were also the only group climbing the mountaineering route to reach the summit that day. Unfortunately, once Deb reached the summit she was “done” and had absolutely no motivation to climb Muir Peak. It took a lot of cajoling from Adrian, Derek, and Ray and more than a few Oreos to convince her that climbing Muir today would save her a trip up the mountain another day. Fortunately the trail for Muir was a mere mile down the trail from Whitney’s summit, and only 500 vertical feet of climbing above the trail. Derek was pretty tired at this point, and decided to wait for us where we left the trail. Muir, at 14,150 ft is less well known than its more famous neighbor but was a quick exciting scramble to the top. We did actually have to rope up at the end for a small section of Class 4 climbing, but it was a rather fun peak. With Whitney and Muir behind us, our California 14er total came to 5 down, 10 to go! Once we had climbed down the summit rocks and descended the talus back to the trail it was 4 pm, and time was critical. Adrian was worried that we would be climbing the more

Deborah on Whitney plateau

precarious traverses across Whitney in the dark if went back the way we came, so he decided we should travel down the traditional Whitney trail to a point where we could cut across cross-country to our base camp. When we arrived at Trail Crest it was almost 5 pm, and Adrian, Derek, and Ray took a look at our route in the last of the daylight. From our high viewpoint we could see that the section where we would be traveling cross-country, that looked so plausible on the map, looked a lot less feasible when we saw how steep an intervening ridge appeared to be and knowing we would be trekking with headlamps in the dark. Our only remaining safe option was to trek down the traditional Whitney trail 9 miles in the dark all the way to our vehicle at Whitney Portal. The switchbacks from Trail Crest descended 2000 very icy feet to the Trail Camp area and then we continued by headlight along the snowed over trail. Eventually as our altitude lessened the snow cover became less, and apart from icy patches to catch the unwary once we had removed our crampons, the trail was mostly good. We arrived at our van at 10 pm exhausted. Unfortunately we had no sleeping bags, and Carey and Rudolphe were still at base camp wondering what had happened to us. Lucky for us, Ray’s Sportmobile does not need to run all night to run the heater, so we had no problem keeping warm, but we had not been able to reach Carey by radio since the Whitney summit, and we still needed to retrieve our gear at base camp. So the next morning we set out once again along the mountaineering route toward Carey and Rudolphe. Carey had the good sense to hike up to a promontory where amazingly he was able to reach us by radio at about 7:30 am. Relief was evident in his voice as we told him what had happened, and that we would be arriving there soon. By the time we reached camp at 10:20 am, Carey and Rudolphe had packed up most of the gear, so in about 30 minutes we were once again traveling down the mountain with our packs toward the van. The ice and snow that we had had easily trekked on uphill was feeling a little more treacherous going downhill and Deborah’s crampons were in the van. Lucky for her, on the way up, Derek had found a pair of crampons on the trail. We arrived back at our vehicle at Whitney Portal at 2pm, feeling fortunate that all had gone so well. On the drive back we discussed our strategies for climbing the rest of the California 14ers.

Adrian Crane and Deborah Steinberg

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