When Roman was coming to town and thought he could spare a day of his trip to go climb a mountain with me, I was tickled. We both really wanted to do the East Face of Mt. Whitney. Having two or three days to do it would have been better but we knew we could do it in one long day. It would be 20 hours or so but we could pull it off. We had done a similar outing on the Grand Teton and it had turned out to be one of my best days ever in the mountains.
The East Face of Mt. Whitney is a long route of 13 pitches with a rating of 5.7 (a grade we were both comfortable with). What got us in trouble was the commitment level of the climb. Once you get about half way through the East Face there is no longer a retreat option. The only way off the mountain is to finish what you started. The other problem was the route finding, which had been reported by many as difficult and had rendered many climbers lost.
We got to the trailhead at about 1:30 AM got our packs together and laid down for an hour before our 3:30AM start time. The hike in was a little longer than we anticipated. We got a little lost in the dark and that cost us about an hour of light. We had planned to be to the technical climbing around 7 but it was closer to 9.
During the last hour of the hike we could look up at the face we were planning on climbing.
It is an intimidating looking face.
It was a beautiful day and we were both enjoying the thrill of having such a classic climb to ourselves. The climbing seemed more difficult than we had expected which made the climbing all the more enjoyable. After the fourth pitch we realized the reason for the increased difficulty was we were off route.
It took us two traversing pitches to get back to the route, and cost us more precious daylight.
We were to the famous Fresh Air Traverse pitch where the guidebook said was the easiest place to get lost on the route. We could not afford to get off route again. It was getting late in the day and we were worried about possibly having to spend a night on the mountain.
We took a good look at the guidebook and were pretty convinced we could see the Fresh Air Traverse. We went for it. It required a rappel that we could no way go back up on. If it wasn't the Fresh Air Traverse we were certainly going to be spending the night.
I wanted to record the Fresh Air Traverse with the GoPro so I got it out and turned it on. When I realized we were not at the Fresh Air Traverse I hit a new low in Mountaineering. The stress of the situation was tangible. I never would have recorded it on purpose but turning off the GoPro was the last thing on my mind. Below is some high mountain drama. Warning: my wife says it is boring and could be rated PG-13.
After finishing the plan formulated in the video above we had time for one more pitch before it was mostly dark. We talked about trying to continue on with headlamps but decided it would be safer to man up and wait for morning. It was time to put on our thermals (thank goodness we brought them) and get ready for the longest night of our lives.
We were on a small sloping ledge, too little to dare sleep without being harnessed into the rock. We dressed, tried to eat and drink a little, and sent a text off to our wives that said we were going to be out another day. Remember we had only slept one hour the night before, so I figured we would get some sleep despite the horrendous conditions. By 8:00 it was pitch black and we were getting into our warmest position. I fell asleep and woke up 50 or 100 times. I snuggled with Roman. I spooned with Roman. I went through cycle after cycle of "shiver, violently shiver, shiver, violent shiver. I felt Roman do the same. I dreamed I was falling off the edge 10 times. It had to be almost morning. I finally dared to look at my watch. It was 9:45!! How was that possible? It had already been the longest night of my life and it had only just started. The rest of the night I never dared to look at my watch, I couldn't have handled that kind of disappointment again.
Oh how we were looking forward to that sun coming out and warming us up, when it finally got light there was no sun to be seen. Clouds had rolled in during the night. We forced ourselves to get up. Roman couldn't feel anything in his feet. I didn't realize that he had slipped into the river the day before and his shoes and socks were still wet so he had only had his climbing shoes to wear that night. Despite the daylight my body still just wanted to stay in the fetal position and shiver. It was very difficult but we forced ourselves to rack up our climbing gear. We were both so cold that our bodies were barely working and we wondered if we even could climb.
We climbed one pitch and my body started to work again. I warmed up to the point that I wasn't completely miserable. During our second pitch it started to snow. I simply ignored the snow and kept climbing, refusing to admit that it was really happening. The climbing was more difficult than it should have been and I didn't know if it was because of the snow or because we had never really gotten back on route after missing the Fresh Air Traverse. We climbed a third pitch and the snow continued to fall harder and harder. The snow was impossible to ignore now. Drifts were gathering at the top of the wall and every few minutes the drift would get blown off the top and we would watch it roll down the cliff face and then brace ourselves for it to hit us. The barrage of snow drifts would push the snow down even the tiniest of openings between clothes and skin. I was getting wetter and wetter. I was climbing in a light pair of belay gloves and my hands were freezing. The thought of spending another night on the mountain, this time wet, was enough to scare the heck out of me. I had seen enough episodes of "I Shouldn't Be Alive" to know the misfortuned mountaineer is most likely to lose his fingers, toes and nose. It felt like that fate could realistically be ours if we didn't make good decisions. The pitches were getting increasingly more stressful, and the snow was making them harder and harder. We did a fourth pitch and I got to a point that I should have been able to climb but with the snow it wasn't happening. I wanted to cry. I was getting scared enough that it was hard to think straight. I lowered off on a cam and started up a different crack. After another 70 feet of climbing I was right in the same predicament. I really don't like wasting gear but our situation was getting desperate. I lowered off on another cam. Roman had noticed a small hole in the rock he thought we could take cover in at the start of the previous pitch. He suggested we go back and take cover from the storm. It was the right thing to do and I was glad he suggested it. I am a little bummed that we were so stressed on day two that we didn't take a single picture. The conditions were the gnarliest mountain conditions I had ever witnessed, by a lot.
We rappelled back to the shelter. I was the first one down and when I saw it I didn't think we could both fit in it, but we cleared some rock out and it barely housed the two of us. It was only 1:00 in the afternoon. It was going to be another long night.
It was embarrassing but we knew with the amount of snow that was falling we were going to need to be helicoptered off the mountain. We had no reception on the cell phone. We tried to call out an SOS on the radio, but could not get any one there either. I assessed our food and water supply and figured we could hold up in the "crack" for at least a week if we had to. We figured we would get reception on the cell when the storm broke whenever that was.
We watched as the doorway filled to the top with snow. The snow made it like a little igloo. It wasn't warm but it was a lot less cold than we had been the night before.
We finally manage to sleep some while we waited for the storm to break.
Story of the rescue to come.