Monday, January 24, 2011

It Takes Nuts to Climb Mt Whitney

California - where the gas is stupid expensive and the alpine climbing is simply off-the-hook good. The High Sierras are home to some prime time routes, of which I’ve only done a handful, so I was excited to get back there.
The drive from CO to CA is a long one, so we broke it up with a stop in Moab, UT to climb sandstone with a couple Crested Butte friends. From there to Mt Whitney we passed the time by listening to a book on the ipod. I just don’t understand why Harry and Hermione don’t get together, they seem perfect for each other.

Wanting to bypass the annoyance of getting an overnight permit we decided to climb the East Face of Whitney in one long day. We had created a routine of reading the chapter in the Fifty Classic Climbs of North America book to pump us up for the climb. Every chapter has an Equipment section at its end. “Chocks work extremely well, and a selection of 6-8 is sufficient.” We decided it would be fun to do this climb old-school style, and heed the author’s recommendation.

That night we tried to sleep at the trailhead, but the constant stream of fellow hikers getting an “alpine start” put a damper on our effort as they excitedly walked by the van. We finally got up at 4:00AM and hit the trail an hour later.

I had been here to climb the East Ridge a few years prior, so finding the way was not a problem. The fire red morning sun kissed the pale cliffs that make up the range as we made our way up the nearly unbroken granite slabs. We were wearing shorts, a privilege one can experience in the alpine environment few other places in the world, so the sun provided a welcome increase in air temp.

As we scrambled up to the base of the route we heard voices….crap. Not that having other people on the route was unexpected, rather it would slow us down and we didn’t really bring enough clothing to spend the night. There was a party of three finishing up the first pitch, and another party of two waiting to begin. We surveyed the scene, dropped our packs, and began shooting the bull with our newly found climbing buddies.

The climbing on the first pitch was pretty chill. That is, if you don’t look down. If you decide to look down, your stomach might drop a little because there is nothing but air for about 1000 feet. As Janelle led the first pitch there were several fixed pitons along the way, so our stoppers (chocks) were not needed. Once across, we passed the first two guys as we simul-climbed the next several hundred feet. We then did a short pitch to get up on the ridge that divides the two faces followed by a scramble down to a big sandy ledge.

That is where we caught up to the party of three. We perched ourselves on a two foot wide ledge and pulled the parking break. Hanging our feet over the abyss we meet our new friends. They were a married couple who were professional photographers from Italy, Dan Patitucci, here to get some photos of their backpacks in action. Awesome! What a perfect job. Their buddy was having trouble with the next part of the route, so I had time to pepper them with 101 questions about their job.

We eventually got going again, but not before seven other climbers were on the route with us! Welcome to California climbing. The next part of the climb was more like scrambling, so we un-roped and cruised up until the terrain got hard again. During that time Janelle started getting quiet. Anytime that happens I know something is up. Roped up now, I led a full 60-meter pitch and made the anchor. By the time Janelle got up to the belay she felt horrible. The ugly hand of altitude sickness was squeezing her head pretty hard. She bit the bullet, took the lead, and charged for the top. As we pulled away from the other climbers we had about 10 minutes of personal alpine experience, that is, until we got to the summit.

There is very little distance from the end of the technical terrain to the true summit. So you pull over the last big boulder and it’s like you are instantly teleported to the Verizon Wireless store the morning that the iphone goes on sale. People are everywhere. Nearly everyone looks at you slack-jawed, wondering where the heck you came from. “How did you get up here?” is the popular question.

Janelle continued to feel like poo-poo, so she lay down to sleep off the headache. I soaked in the victory and yet another spectacular view. Do you realize just how unbelievably beautiful this country is? Amazing.

We joined up with the crew from Italy on the descent, and the 101 questions turned into 404. I really enjoy talking to people who make a successful living “by their own boot-straps” while still pursuing their passions.

Miles later we were back at the van. We soaked our feet in a snow fed stream, ate chips and salsa, busted into some yuppy cane sugar soda from Whole Foods (Janelle is trying to kick my Coke habit for me), and life was good.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Smiley, Party of Six

“Wanna go climb a 14er with us this weekend?” I asked into the cell phone as soon as we got into cell service coming back from climbing the Petit Grepon. Jake, my good friend since 4th grade, was on the other end. “Of course” he said, “let’s talk more when you get here.”

By the time we arrived at his place in Lafayette, CO, he was already trying to get out of his newly appointed fatherhood responsibilities for the next three days with his wife, Becca, and maintain a happy marriage. Their new twin girls were still the size of footballs. Since mother’s work is never done, this was a tough sell.

Becca is an amazing woman. The following day she cooked us breakfast and wished us well on our adventure. As we piled in the Sprinter, I’m pretty sure (but not positive) that she grabbed Jacob by the throat, pulled his ear to her lips, and said in a loud forceful whisper, “If you die, and leave me here with our babies, alone, I swear I’m going to kill you!” Then smiled, kissed him on the cheek warmly, and shut the door. You might be able to argue the logic, but you can’t argue the point.

We hit 25 minutes of bumper to bumper in Denver, which made me want to chew off my own hands and throw them at something. You see, we live in a small mountain town and the only traffic jam happens when the ranchers drive 500 head of cattle down the road to switch pastures. And that only happens in the Spring and Fall. So I have lost all patience for waiting on other cars. “How do people do it?” we wondered aloud. Our answer: Money, lots of money, and a health plan that includes dental coverage.

South-central Colorado is great. The mountains are tall, the ranches are big, and the people are friendly. We rolled into Westcliffe, where the elevation is 17 times greater than its population, and met up with the rest of our team. Janelle’s younger brother, Owen, came down from Aspen, and Steve and Melody Hanford came from Bailey.

The Hanfords worked as rafting guides in Buena Vista just after the turn of the century, and we have stayed in touch since then through various climbing adventures. It was great to see them again. We had dinner in Westcliffe and then made our way to the trailhead. Excited hunters, eager to get some meat early the next morning for opening day of rifle season, joined us at the trailhead “campground.”

At 3:00AM the hunters fired up their un-muffled four-wheelers and were off. We got up an hour later, ate some oatmeal, and continued up the too-rough-for-our-rig road on foot. The miles passed quickly as we talked to our friends, catching one another up with our current affairs.

Creston Needle is very striking. The Ellingwood Ledges route is visible from miles away, cutting up through the sky like…..something really sharp, and big. We rounded the alpine lake at its base and headed up the talus field to the base of the climb. There were already five other people on the route! I guess it was a weekend, and it is a classic route. Several rocks came shooting down, dislodged from the climbers above. So we waited at the base for them to climb much higher, thus eliminating the danger.

Janelle led Owen and Melody and I took Jake and Steve. Janelle climbed the first pitch, made an anchor, and started belaying her team up to her simultaneously. I started climbing right on the heels of Melody, clipped in to the anchor Janelle had made, and belayed Steve and Jake up. While I was doing that, Janelle started leading the next pitch. Soon we were on lower angle ledges (the name sake), so we coiled the ropes and scrambled several hundred feet.

The mountain tipped back again, and it was time to rope up. So Janelle and I went back to work. Climbing, trailing two ropes, and belaying our friends as they climbed at the same time. It was pretty cool to be right next to Janelle at every belay ledge. Normally she is either climbing or belaying me, so we don’t get to see one another very much during the climb.

At 1:00PM we arrived at our self-declared “lunch ledge” and busted out the sandwiches. We were livin’ the dream, soaking up the warm afternoon sun, laughing, and lazily enjoying the view.

The final section presented the crux of the route. The climbing turned out to be really enjoyable. We crested the summit ridge and touched the top at 14,197’.

The way down was sporty with several sections of scrambling and some exposed steps. This, along with general fatigue, brought the conversations to a halt. We made it down without any drama, and headed back down the jeep road to Lulu. A couple miles before arriving at the van we had to bust out the headlamps for the second time that day….indicating it really was a long day.

Back inside Lulu we brought forth the bounty and enjoyed chips and salsa, refreshing beverages, war-stories of the day, and ideas of our next adventure together. Hopefully that will be sooner than later.