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East Buttress of Mount Whitney

Trip Date: 8.1.20

Sarah and I have been talking about doing the east buttress of Mount Whitney for a long time. In 2018 when we did the mountaineer's route we saw all climbers topping out at the summit and scoffed at the idea of climbing so much technical terrain at 14000ft. None the less we had in the back of our minds and this past January when we were planning out some trips for the summer we decided it would a nice goal to try and climb the east buttress of mount Whitney two years later. We weren't sure if we'd be ready yet, but it was going to be a good goal for the summer climbing season.

Soon after we had booked our permits the world ground to a halt and we stayed inside for months on end and we figured that our plans for climbing this summer would be shot. In may things started to open back up again and we were able to (safely) go climbing again. Over memorial day weekend we went to shuteye ridge to dust off the cobwebs, and before we knew it august had snuck up on us and we were driving over to the east side to get started.

The east side of California is such a wonderful place to be and I always love to get a chance to have some more time over there so Sarah and I thought it would be nice to spend the day in Mammoth Lakes, while she worked from the truck parked at Library. I wanted to do a little hike to get acclimated, so I looked at a map of the area and saw that Mammoth Rock, was a couple miles away on some nice trail and thought it would be a nice scramble. The trail was quite nice and started at the parking lot for the Sherwins where I had started for a ski tour up Punta Bardini the year before, a lot warmer now though. It was a nice easy scramble with just 40ft of 4th class to reach the summit from the backside and afforded really nice views of the area.

View from the top of Mammoth Rock, a nice scramble

After I finished Sarah picked me up and we met up with Cathy and she offered us some cold water melon, which was really appreciated. A couple hours later Maxine had made it down from Truckee and we started caravanning towards lone pine. We found a nice high elevation trail head to sleep at to make sure we were ready for the hike up to iceberg lake on Saturday.

With the temperature in lone pine predicated to be over 100 degrees, we wanted to get an early start since we knew it was going to be hot. After finishing packing up we all were dreading the hike up with 45 lb packs, but figured it wouldn't take to long. Once we were on the trail it was pretty empty since the North Fork of Lone Pine creek trail splits off from the main Whitney trail quite quickly. The hiking was pretty uneventful albeit slow, even the 3rd class Ebersbacher ledges felt much better than the time before. I guess I've gotten used to scrambling on approaches after two years of Sierra approaches and descents. We enjoyed a nice rest in some shade at Lower Boy Scout lake, the first of the three lakes on the approach. The first setback happened between upper and lower Boyscout lake, we took a higher trail through some Talus that happened to lead to a dead end in some thick Willows. Just as we figured out that we were completely off route, we saw some other hikers strolling up the slabs on the correct trail. After soaking my shoes in the creek while trashing through the brush, we found a rock band and made it back up to the normal trail, we were all exhausted after that detour and needed another break near upper Boyscout lake.

Talus between upper and lower boyscout lake
The route we mistakenly took through the willows

After getting some more water from the creek just below the lake we made the final push up to Iceberg lake. After you ascend the bench just above upper Boyscout lake you get the first up close view of Mount Whitney, Keeler Needle, and Day Needle.

View from the bench above iceberg lake

We made it to the lake and set up our tent. Sarah and I figured that with Iceberg lake being so desolate there would be no bugs and it would be safe to bring our light weight Beta-Mid tent, which is essentially just a tarp supported by hiking poles. Definitely worth not having to carry a normal tent, but we did have to worry about birds and rodents getting in the tent since there was no floor.

Whitney and Iceberg Lake
Full moon over the drainage

We were happy to see that there weren't many other tents at the lake, just one other party planning to do the Keeler Needle the next day. Last time, there were at least five parties hoping to do the East Buttress, this was a pleasant surprise and meant we didn't need a alpine start.

The next morning we got up and definitely felt tired after not getting the greatest sleep at 12600 ft. We made coffee, racked up and headed up to the east buttress. There was one party that started an hour and a half before us but when we got to the base there was no one around and we had the East Buttress all to ourselves. Finding the start wasn't too difficult as there is a pretty obvious tower that marks it. I took the first lead and headed up a 5.5 corner. I had never climbed at such a high elevation, the start is at around 13200 feet, so it felt odd to have to stop and rest when climbing such moderate terrain. The topo mentions that there is an abundance of natural protection for the belays, but I never expected it to be so nice, there were only a handful of belays that didn't have a nice horn or block to sling. After the second or third pitch there was a quite a bit of exposure on either side of the buttress which made for some pretty spectacular views.

Cathy arriving at the top of the 4th pitch
Awesome exposure mid-pitch
Looking down on the 3rd pitch
Maxine arriving at a belay
Sarah leading the 4th pitch
An overlay of the east buttress route

The crux of the climb comes on the third pitch, it's a bit of sparsely protected thin face climbing. The piece of pro that protects the hardest move is a piton that is so close to the rock you can't even clip a carabiner to it. I improvised and slotted the wire of a nut through the hole and clipped both ends of the nut. Though in hind sight I should've just girth hitched a sling through it.

Threaded Nut

The rest of the pitches went by pretty uneventfully and it was such fun climbing with amazing views down to Lone Pine and over to the fishhook arĂȘte. Sarah and I were using half ropes which made for slightly more difficult belaying but offered great piece of mind given the alpine nature of the route with the rope running over sharp rock or the possibility of a loose block falling on the rope. After a while the climbing eases off and becomes 4th to low fifth class. Sarah and I started simul climbing for the last 3 pitches to the summit.

Fishook ArĂȘte on Mt. Russell

We arrived at the summit around 5:15 PM and saw no one else there. Its a rare sight to see no else up there as there is usually hordes of people that came up the main trail or just finished the John Muir Trail. Apparently they were all smarter than us and didn't want to be at 14500 feet at 5 in the evening. None the less we got to enjoy a nice rest, snacks, and water before we headed down the Mountaineer's route.

Panorama from the summit
Relaxing at the summit

After an hour on the summit we walked down the summit plateau to find the top of the 4th class descent. Two years prior when the Mountaineer's route was our main objective it was filled with snow and had a narrow rock rib that barely let us get up and down without having to climb 50 degree snow. This time there was barely any snow and made for a easy and ice-free descent.

Heading down the mountaineers route

After an hour and a half we were back at our camp. Whitney towers above Iceberg lake to the west, meaning it looses sun quite early in the day. After getting back to camp we fired up our stoves and enjoyed some mac and cheese, which tasted so good after eating very little of our food throughout the day. As it became dusky the full moon began to rise and as it shined on Whitney and the needles we noticed a headlamp about two thirds the way up on Keeler Needle. We thought that must've been the party camped near us who hadn't returned to camp yet.

Cooking after dark
Moonlight lit Whitney, Keeler, and Day Needles with a headlamp seen 2/3rds of the way up

The Harding Route on the Keeler Needle is one of the most popular 'hard' routes in the high sierra, being over 2000ft and 5.10+ including some offwidth at 14000ft. We figured if they were attempting it, they'd been benighted before. When we woke up in the morning we saw them stumbling down the mountaineers route about an hour apart. When the first climber came down she seemed in good spirits after spending a few hours trying to sleep in the summit hut on Whitney and not having had water since 5pm the day before. Her partner, who she said was more susceptible to dehydration came down an hour later and didn't seem to be in as good of shape.

We packed up our bags and headed back down to Whitney portal. The hike wasn't nearly as grueling as the way up, but still wasn't easy with heavy packs and tired legs. After making it down we got some water, tossed our wag bags into the trash, and started walking to the cars. When I got close to the truck, I saw the hatch on the shell in the back was open, and I thought Sarah had somehow beat me to the car but when I got closer I noticed that she wasn't there and that it had been broken into. I threw down my pack and started investigating. It looked like someone had broken in to the truck, stolen some stuff and then left it open for animals to get into. One of the boards that comprised the sleeping platform had been completely ripped out, the hatch was open and the locks were still locked.

Aftermath of the bear break-in

After taking inventory of what was and wasn't there, it became obvious that the only things gone were food. My duffel bag that was plainly sitting on the bed hadn't been touched, and the laptops stowed away under the bed were still there. The majority of the damage was a bite mark in the foam mattress, the board ripped out with screws still in it, some plastic bins that had been shattered, and some Trader Joe's Tikka vegetable packets that had been completely torn open. It became clear pretty quickly that it was just a bear that had broken into the truck. Looking back we should've put all our food into the bear boxes provided at the trail head, especially since the shell on the back of a pickup is not nearly as scent proof as the trunk of car would be. We probably would've thought about it if we hadn't had to park so far down the road away from any of the ample signage there is in the normal packing lots. I feel really bad for feeding a bear in such a busy place, I'll always be putting my food in bear boxes in active bear zones in the future now.