With my feet scraping against the inside of the offwidth I was struggling to remain composed. “Concentrate on technique” I said to myself as the stinging in my parched throat intensified, this punishing me for messing up the logistics of this big endeavor. Five feet of desperation later, sale I won the battle against the heavy pack conspiring with gravity to bring me down.
We woke up to a beautiful day in Whitney Portal on Saturday and after unsuccessfully trying to obtain backcountry permits over the phone we hit the trail hoping for the best*. About 40 minutes into the hike (just past the switchbacks) we ran into a couple of climbers who had just gotten off the Western Front. As we were walking away from our brief interaction, buy Alex asks the two if they happened to see a ranger up there. “Actually, there is a ranger just 10 minutes up the trail from you, he checked our permits”. Scheizze!
Based on their conversation with him, the two climbers informed us that he was only going as far as Lower Boy Scout Lake to check the permits of a big hiking group. At this point I suggested that since it was still early in the day, we could hide off the trail in the bushes and wait until he passed us on his way down. We ended up deciding to go up a little bit further up the trail and then find a hiding spot in the bushes.
We continued up the trail and all of a sudden Alex stops dead in his tracks (this is where the story takes a ninja-esque twist). There on the upper switchback on the ledges was the distinct uniform of the park ranger complete with green shorts and a ranger hat. By the way he adjusted his gait we suspected that he saw us from above. Nonetheless we jumped into the nearest bushes and proceeded to hide behind a large boulder. We figured that since we had bivy gear and he was in shorts, we would definitely be able to out wait him. Thus the standoff commenced.
After half an hour behind that stupid boulder Alex surreptitiously peers around the corner only to see what looks like the ranger at the top of the ledges sitting behind a bush with binoculars out. Scheizze! After briefly considering leaving the packs and heading up towards him with our water bottles in hand claiming to only be going for a day hike to LBSL, we decided to head back down, he did see us after all. On our hike down we started discussing what we should climb instead of Keeler.
At some point on the hike down, Alex has a realization that we should just hide our packs in the bushes, and then wait for the ranger at the turnoff from the switchbacks to the Mt. Whitney trail. That way we could say that we just came up from the parking lot and we weren’t going up any further. So there we were, two schmucks from San Diego, sitting on top of a boulder, waiting to wave to the ranger as he walks by. A solid plan, indeed. However, as soon as we spotted the ranger on the N. Fork trail, Alex books running for the bushes leaving behind him a giant dust cloud. So much for being nonchalant and waiving the ranger by. Realizing its too late to run, I jump off the boulder, take of my shirt and begin to sun bathe under the clear Sierra sky. The ranger ended up passing me without even looking twice and shortly thereafter Alex and I continued back up the trail to collect our belongings and proceed to Keeler.
We set up camp before the last slog up to Iceberg lake in a protected area with a small pool of water among the boulders. After establishing camp, we walked up to the base of Keeler hoping to kick steps while the snow was still soft. Upon arriving at the base of the snow we found an old pack filled with a full rack of calcium covered cams as well as some big wall gear. Upon further investigation when we got home, it appears as though this pack was buried in the snow for a few years and belonged to the late Mike Strassman. We easily made our way up the first section of snow field, which was pretty low angle and had giant sun cups with amazingly good friction. Leaving our gear in the rock band between the lower and upper snow fields we walked back down to a warm bivy complete with authentic Japanese noodles and Stag chili.
At 5:15am my alarm went off and we made quick business of packing up camp and shoving some breakfast down our throats. Our plan was to have one pack between the two of us for the second to carry. Crimping on sun cups in the upper snow field, we found ourselves roping up for the first pitch at 7am.
Alex and I swapped leads the whole way, here is what I remember from the climb (based on the Supertopo guidebook):
P1) Loose and kind of crappy linked with P2 with about 30’ of simuling
P2) The 5.10b roof wasn’t too bad though I made Alex who was leading wait until I got to a ledge to give him a proper belay through it.
P3) The double cracks were pretty fun though I was initially confused how to get established in them.
P4) Both of the O.W. sections on this pitch were pretty casual and I easily followed them with the pack on my back.
P5) We tried to link P5 & P6 with some simuling but I got confused about where to go when I got to a big ledge with a bunch of cracks above me, so I quickly set a belay and brought up Alex.
P6) This pitch leads to the base of the Red Dihedral which is initially hidden from view (you have to go right a bit).
P7) Super fun pitch with hands in a corner. The hardest part was getting established in the dihedral. The pitch was very long and Alex had to simul five or ten feet to allow me to build an anchor at the top. Protected well with #1, #2, and #0.75 camalots, though a hand jam is like a belay, no?
P8) For this pitch I dragged the pack on a double length sling. Only the last 5 feet or so of the offwidth were desperate, right next to the bolts (the introduction of this TR describes this section). Perhaps this was because I was dragging around a huge pack filled with useless clothes.
P9) A slightly rotten collection of cracks.
P10+) From here we went up a little bit and then escaped to the left on the 4th class ramp, making it to the top in two simul climbing pitches.
Although the cracks at the final headwall look really good, we were pretty exhausted and thirsty by that point and were pretty antsy about getting off and hiking down. Thus we opted to take the 4th class exit. Overall the climbing wasn’t as chossy as I expected it to be though there were a few holds that I pulled off of the wall. All together it is an awesome climb on an awesome formation.
We summitted Keeler at 3:40pm parched and hungry. On Supertopo it says to “start early, and climb fast” since the wall gets really cold when it goes into the shade. Our friends Scotty and Josh corroborated that assertion with tales of their ascent of Keeler. Thus expecting a cold ascent, we traded hydration for heat and each brought many layers of clothing and only 2 liters of water between the two of us. Maybe it was the time of year or our rate of ascent, but we were in the sun the entire day. Scheizze! It turns out that, despite the climber on the wrapper, cliff bars are not so easy to shove down your throat when you have no water to wash them down with. Fortunately, when we arrived on top of Whitney 25 minutes later, we found a bottle of gin and a bottle of tonic at the base of the hut. I chugged some tonic, which allowed me to eat some peanut M&Ms in preparation for the descent.
Speaking of the descent, at 4:30pm we were on top of Whitney and by 7:30 we were back in the car driving towards Lone Pine. Not too shabby if I may say so myself….may I?
Double: set of cams from blue TCU through #2 C4.
Single: blue alien, #3 C4, #4 C4, Set of Nuts
* – Disclaimer: Of course the whole interaction with the ranger is hypothetical as we would never dare enter the backcountry without valid permits.