The past week or so has produced some amazing displays of afternoon weather. Muggy air masses in the late morning and clouds build throughout the day. Billowing, white popcorn shapes morph into towering anvils foretelling the precipitous events to come. As the heavens darken with the weight of their load, gray, sweeping shafts stretch down to the earth’s surface in the distance. The smell of rain just a few miles away is as recognizable and pleasant as a fresh-cut lawn.
The storms that we have been experiencing have an almost tropical feel — the air is warm, the duration is brief and the oversized droplets thump down and splatter in an almost rhythmic cadence backed by the soft wind that comes like a sigh of relief. Last Monday, the afternoon event built into an electrical display over the North Shore that made Regan Beach the impromptu front row for a dazzling light show courtesy of crafty Mother Nature.
In the evening, broad bolts broke pinkish-purple in the cool, heavy air. Each ignition illuminated the castle-like clouds from which they were spawned. Thunder reverberated off the mountains and made its way to the South Shore. Ohs and awes followed as on-lookers were both startled and amazed by each sudden presentation.
I must say, this is probably the best way to experience a storm event. We were close to the shelter of our home, we were at a safe distance and all things considered, the weather was fairly mild, even pleasant. However, I have been in less accommodating situations when these afternoon dandies have crept in and rained on my parade.
I think that it’s safe to say that this summer has been truncated by weather on both ends. That’s all fine and good for skiing, but the heavy snowpack has made it mighty difficult to get into the high mountains to our south. The sheer number of disillusioned Pacific Crest backpackers laying over in Tahoe this season will corroborate the snowy story.
As the reader may know, I love to climb, and putting the skills honed on local cliffs to work in the high mountains is the ultimate goal. Hanging above the calendar in my living room is a list of classic routes up peaks in the High Sierra that I had hoped to climb this season. Though ambitious in its length, this list did not seem unobtainable when I scribbled it down over beers with a friend. I just needed to start early and be consistent in my effort. However, we didn’t even get our start until mid-July.
Those first attempts were stymied by snow and I felt as if the season was going to be a bust. However, at the beginning of September, I was offered a slot on a much-coveted permit into the Mt. Whitney region to do some climbing with a party of three that was short by one. I lept at the opportunity.
The Whitney area is chocked full of some of the highest peaks in California and the lower forty-eight. It houses classic, monolithic granite peaks comprised of relatively solid rock – at least by mountain standards. Moreover, three of the routes on my tick list were located in this area.
For those readers who haven’t laid eyes on the crown jewel of the Sierra range, allow me to paint a picture. Mt. Whitney stands tall, proud and distant from the little town of Lone Pine east of the range. Looking west up the canyon that leads to the peak, Mt. Whitney appears to be crowded by its neighbors. However, as one moves up this drainage the spacing between the peaks is made apparent.
At the head of this canyon sits Mt. Whitney, elegantly guarded by its towered, southern buttress. From Upper Boy Scout lake the peak looks like a white King in the castle position early on in a chess game. A wall of granite stretches out in front of the massif like pawns blocking the view of its base, while the needled peaks flanking its left side look like rook and queen, adding to its fortified appearance.
Still laden with patches of snow, Lone Pine creek flows over slabs of granite and pools on benches creating oases of mossy-green carpeting that are the beds for still ripe wildflowers, willows, and pine. Outside of the narrow riparian zone, white ramparts angle up to enclose the narrow canyon. Above are blue skies, white clouds, and the golden Sierra sun. Entering this region puts one in the company of giants.
The Sierra range has a vibrant and well-documented history of climbing during the last hundred years. The Whitney range in particular has a very rich heritage. So, when I say that one is in the company of giants, I couple the names of Norman Clyde, Warren Harding, and Galen Rowell (to name just a few) with those of the monumental peaks that they dared to climb so many years ago.
My partner, a mountain guide by the name of Tim Dobins, and I wasted little time and got to climbing first thing in the morning the day after our approach. We left camp while “dawn’s rosy fingers” still caressed the eastern faces of the range. We traversed north and then west over Whitney-Russell col in pursuit of our first objective: Mithril Dihedral on the southern face of 14,086′ Mt. Russell.
Done with our first climb and back at camp by mid-afternoon our confidence was up and we looked around at the possibilities. The other members of our group had gone after the aesthetic Keeler Needle that first day and their accomplishment had me eager to repeat the task. However, fear and doubt left a bit of a knot in my belly as I mulled over the idea. And though my partner frequently caught me eying the face from our camp, we avoided discussing the climb.
The next day we slept in late, ate a lazy breakfast, and watched as a large group made their way up the tortuous East Face route on Mt. Whitney. This natural passage was first climbed way back in 1931 — an impressive feat for the time despite the fact that it now goes at the modest rating of 5.6.
Sporting light gear and moving simultaneously, we charged up this line and tagged the Whitney summit in short order. We were graced with gifts of watermelon from one hiker curiously named “Sleepy” and made it back to camp in three hours. We spent the rest of our day eating and making hot lemonade for dehydrated parties coming down off the summit.
The sun moves over the eastern escarpment of Whitney early shortly after midday casting campers at the base in a shadow for the majority of the afternoon. As the blue skies began to fade into a darker shade the talk around camp turned to the following day’s climbing plans. I didn’t know when I would return to the southern reaches of the range and that reality goaded me into suggesting Keeler Needle for the following day.
Keeler is no joke. The next-door neighbor to the prominent Mt. Whitney, Keeler Needle’s slender, tapering figure draws the eye away from its taller parent peak. At nearly 2,000′ from base to summit, Keeler first and foremost challenges the mind. Its massive height begs the question: what will we find up there? Will we find strength, confidence, and climbable terrain? Or, will we be crushed by this wall’s minimal weaknesses? I went to bed knowing that, one way or another, the following day would reveal the truth.
Rising again to dawn’s rosy glow, we made our way down into the cirque at the base of the peak. Moraines, snow, and talus reminded us of what it took to shape the massive tower that we aimed to scale. Men never conquer mountains as arrogance leads them to claim. We are simply allowed passage. Safe passage was all that I asked for as we climbed the still firm snowfield at the base of the wall.
Shortly, the sun was on us and we were in a fairly steady rhythm swinging leads. After a few pitches our breathing smoothed out and we gained confidence with our progress. I have always broken long climbs up into sections demarcated by their crux pitches. As these difficult portions are completed I become lighter on my feet and more confident in the summit to come. The climb was working out in this sort of fashion. However, clouds were building and the ominous warning of a Ranger from the day before came back to me: “40% chance of thunderstorms in the afternoon.”
Just as we had broken through the barrier of hard climbing two-thirds of the way up the face, graupel began to fly. Before long snow began to accumulate on our shoulders and the ledges we were working through. Our morale sunk and our pace slowed, but we were cheered some by the thought that “at least it isn’t raining and thundering.”
Frustratingly slow progress finally led us to the final pitch. The warmth of the rock had melted the snow and the cold air had refrozen it as ice. What was seen as easy terrain from below was now precarious, insecure, and, well, sketchy. It was my lead. Tim put me on belay and said: “get us to the top.”
Knowing the summit was near, I shoved my body into one last chimney. When I popped my head out the top of this wide crack, the summit block became visible. To the west the storm was breaking. Low angle golden rays of sunshine made our final goal glow like a divine pinnacle of safety amidst a stormy sky.
We had made it. The sky opened up in a rich, full-on Sierra sunset that lit the sky on fire. The scene seemed to say that we had earned this grand conclusion with our efforts below. We hugged, grateful for the experience together, and headed back to camp. We were greeted by the smiling faces of our friends and hot lemonade. Sleep came shortly after.