If I remember correctly, the idea was to basically climb the biggest route possible – in winter.
On January 18th we took our first attempt without oxygen, only one stick of lip balm and a marginal weather window – the results were disastrous. Over 40 gallons of fuel were laid to rest under MY carbon footprint, a pint of Scotch was consumed in bitterness and last but not least, a pair of women’s snowshoes were worn for 12 hours. We knew we were pushing it by going in the first place. Basically, as forecasted, a regional low was on its way down from Alaska and there was no way in hell we were going to make it up and down in time without getting our asses kicked or much worse. When we confirmed the weather forecast in camp and got that unobstructed view of the ridge soaring into the heavens – we turned tale. In retrospect, it was absolutely the right choice; it was just hard to see it then. Needless to say our shrunken egos easily fit back into the truck for the long ride back home.
I am lying in my sleeping bag recollecting our first encounter with the ridge. We were breaking trail through deep snow for most of the day. The last few hours I was altitude sick and followed mechanically in Charles’ steps, trying to ignore my nausea… The sounds of Jimi Hendrix and the weather forecast alternate. The weather is turning bad… a good excuse to fail. I want to fail. I glanced at the ridge as we were setting up camp… it glistened in the setting sun, an endless snake of rock and snow.
After the stamp of failure wore off we began pondering over the calendar, hoping to find a suitable gap between day to day obligations, appointments, regional high pressure systems and snowpack stability. Finally, on Sunday February 10th, we got what seemed like a second chance. This was not without incident however. Over pizza and beer, looking on from the Alabama Hills outside Lone Pine, we were shaken to witness Scotty and Nate’s 0-1 loss to the Northeast Ridge of Lone Pine Peak – the very day before our climb. Somewhat unnerved we headed north to Williamson and began preparing with what felt like the “failure monkey” slowly climbing onto our backs.
At 3:30am we left the truck, hell-bent, with cold coffee and day-old pizza in our bellies. Shouting random obscurities, such as, “NERW!!” (pronounced “N-E-R-W-A”) into the darkness helped dissipate our nervousness. In order to gain the main ridge, we carefully traced an obvious sun drenched line up the first few thousand feet, which we had clearly overlooked in our previous attempt. It would cook all day then turn crispy in the early morning hours – perfect for traveling at night when we would be on it.
Making similar if not better time, we plowed on past our last-attempt camp and raced down along the ridge. We stayed below the crest in order to avoid obstacles and hoping to get the most mileage. On the downside, we ended up doing a lot of traversing along steep slopes, occasionally having to bushwhack and wade through rough snow conditions. Toward the end of the day, we were pushed low into a big bowl with mostly hard snow. Climbing up it, we were able to regain the ridge.
As the sun drew down in the sky, we started looking for a place to bivy. Finally, down on the north side of the ridge, a decent looking ledge appeared and we honed in on it. It took 14hrs to reach this point and excitement settled in as we prepared the area for our tent.
Camp duties claimed the most of the evening hours and cold air eventually persuaded us to retire to the tent with our noodle concoction that included freeze dried chicken, butter and seasonings hijacked from a box of chilimac – Dinner #1.
Just before leaving our car, I decided to wear my leather boots. Less weight and better climbing ability, I figured. Who needs plastic boots for multi-day winter ascents? Now, I am sharing my sleeping bag with them… the wet leather is sending cold waves up my spine. A minor inconvenience in this alpine game.
The weather is good this time. No excuse to turn back. Suck it up!
We rose fairly early and quickly found ourselves in the saturated colors of morning, shining in from the east.
The day was dawning clear as expected and we quickly simuled along, pitching things out here and there where needed. It was nice to be established on the ridge and have the day out in front of us. Everything was pretty uneventful… while passing a prominent notch I had to cut loose a few death blocks into a chasm.
At first, it is awkward climbing with boots and a heavy pack on; I soon however find my rhythm. We methodically scramble up and down on this great spine of granite… Charles is out about half a ropelength. I am looking absentmindedly at the thin cord that connects us, hanging freely between us. He suddenly starts kicking loose blocks into the void. The noise of the rocks exploding at the base of the gully makes my stomach turn… “Be careful when you downclimb this, it’s kind of loose…”
We also had to build our first jingus rap anchor of the trip as punishment for staying on the ridge too long and/or following the beta, still not sure about that one. Before we knew it, we were approaching the base of the East Horn, an impressive formation on the ridge and a fourteener in its own right. It was still early afternoon but we realized there would have been no way to clear the horns and/or find a suitable bivy along the way. I think it was at this point I called Joanna and announced that the “hard” part was just about over and we were in position to take the summit, make Tuesday night cocktails and WYW. I will call this Underestimation #1.
The climbing along the ridge continues for hours. We get off route in a series of towers and are forced to rappel. More scrambling… I am relieved to see our second bivy spot. We spend the remaining hours of daylight basking in the sun. I take in the view, dazed from the altitude and the day’s effort. Time to get some rest…
We were soon ready to go into dinner mode. Getting stoked, we cooked up and ate, adhering to the two bite max rule – take two bites pass and repeat. Seemed like our dinner could have been bigger but, hey, what are you going to do, bring a steak along? We listened to some radio programming out of Vegas for a couple hours or so (I am admittedly a HAM radio dork, but ask my partners, the thing is great when times are tough) and knocked out with some Ambien. We decided that an early night should be countered with an early rise. I think we were sleeping by 6:00 or 7:00pm.
We were up at 3:00am and started scrambling up the horn by 4:30am. As planned, we got to watch the sun rise from behind the White Mountains while sitting on top the East Horn at 14,000+. Sweet! We signed in, ate some food… and started shitting our pants. The West Horn was situated on the other side of huge chasm!
A seemingly endless slog puts us on the summit of the East Horn at sunrise. I force a GU down with some water, trying to appreciate the magical view of the Owens valley. We press on. Poor routefinding results in Charles rapping into no man’s land; he reclimbs the rotten rock to the anchor, gasping for breath. The blank walls and big notch that guard the passage to the West Horn make us anxious. How do we find our way through this maze?
We start downclimbing down the north side of the ridge. The horrendous rock quality in some areas keeps the climbing interesting. When it gets too steep, we rap, each time offering the mountain a little bit of gear. Our 8.5mm rope looks particularly vulnerable in a backdrop of loose sharp blocks. I am relieved every time we pull the rope in one piece.
Finally we hit some mixed 3rd/4th class stuff and began gunning for the West Horn. On route and all charged up, thinking we have it made, we are soloing up several hundred feet of 4th/5th and running out of stuff to climb. Inside I am getting stoked because I know just at the apex the rock above me is going to be a great view of the summit plateau and our easy route to glory! Kostas and I look at each other with big smiles. Underestimation #2. We crest out on the horn and realize there is something wrong. The summit lies on the clear on the other side of this FUCKING HUGE abyss!
Having lost hundreds of feet in elevation, we are at the base of a steep gully that leads to the summit of the West Horn. We switch to crampons and start up again. Frontpointing up hard snow is followed by mixed climbing on snow covered rocks. Charles gains the summit of the horn before me. I hear him swear out loudly. I make the final moves and realize the cause of his outburst: another abrupt notch lies ahead guarded by blank walls. On the other side, the summit plateau appears to be gained via a steep and exposed snow slope.
It looks like a day’s work just to clear it! In fact, even when we figure out how to cross this mega-obstacle there is a knar looking rock and snow slope that will need climbed or traversed to gain the summit plateau. For some reason I think we felt like we were not going to make it. It’s weird how easily you get to thinking that it’s game over in the mountains. I don’t know how many times I have failed and on the way home have just become wrenched with the thought that I did not try hard enough, hate that! So we buck up. Maybe we will reach the summit by dark, just maybe. Following the beta, this time we are looking for a “steep chute”. We follow the ridge down till it started to get pretty wild then we dropped off the crest. Well, as always, there are chutes going six ways from Sunday. We pick the most prominent one and drop down into it, breaking off a fair amount of mid- 5th even though it was not advertised in the beta. It basically dead ends or would have put us a good 500-600 feet below the ridge had we forced it down. It did not seem right because if we went down there were no guarantees we could get back to the ridge, which we would need to get over to the summit plateau especially in winter conditions.
Shit. We both knew if we go down there and can not regain the ridge it would be game over. We would have to take the looming 3000 foot couloir that dropped below us all the way down to the bottom of the drainage – come back and see us next year! We could not take the chance so we pulled the rope out and headed back to the top of the West Horn to rethink the beta and our route finding decisions. This was hard for some reason. We both kind of felt like we were done and that this was just our final throws. Up on top we decided to delicately chase the half-of-a-knife-edge-ridge out into mid air to see what we had to work with in terms of rappelling options or giving away gear as we like to call it. It looked really bleak, but two raps with our 35m rope should get us to a wild looking ledge. If we followed that, we could give some more gear away and MIGHT, JUST MIGHT, make it to easier ground that would lead us to the base of the summit plateau. If the promising ledge proved to be bullshit then many, many more raps should lead us to another couloir that would eventually spit us out in bailing territory. We went for it and our gamble paid off. An additional rap and we gained easier ground.
Once more, we start downclimbing down the north side. After a painstaking hour or two, it becomes apparent that if we drop down too far, it will be impossible to regain the ridge. I linger in disbelief… my body is tired after three days of effort on the mountain. The very real possibility that we might not be able to summit is disheartening. I don’t want to accept it, yet my mind already starts going over our retreat options.
Lost in my thoughts, I barely acknowledge Charles’ suggestion that we reclimb to the top of the ridge and rap down its south side. “There are some ledges down there that might connect to the final snow slope…” I think that it is a crazy suggestion but I don’t say anything. What have we got to lose?
I am lighter than Charles so I rap second and remove the backup gear. I hold the rope with more force than necessary and rap down very gently. I am all too aware of the thin sling around the protruding block that constitutes the anchor… We make it down to the ledge system and start traversing. We are elated to see that we can safely get to the base of the final slope with one more rap.
The sun was setting fast and we had one hell of a snow slope to deal with next. About 400 feet of steep scary traversing put us into loose mixed ground which we happily dealt with at this point. So stoked to be on somewhat solid ground we finally pulled onto the summit plateau and looked for bivy options. Elated, I picked up a signal and called Joanna to announce were a couple hundred feet below the summit; separated only by easy scrambling and getting ready to bed down – our first time sleeping at 14,000 feet. I also mentioned that we would easily tag the summit and we should be down to the car in respectable time (Underestimation #3). I think Kostas and I imagined coasting down the hill tomorrow, waltzing up to the truck and making San Diego by early evening. BWHAHAHA!
Concentrating on what is surely the final effort of the day, we carefully frontpoint up the exposed slope. Some more scrambling and we are at the summit plateau, a desolate flat area at 14000ft. The real summit is a pile of rubble a few hundred feet higher. I know now that it is ours. We pitch the tent in the setting sun. I let Charles do all the hard work of anchoring the tent and collecting snow. I get into my sleeping bag and start shivering. I am exhausted.
After Dinner #3 (our last one), we listened to the radio and dozed off. I remember being awakened to a stiffening breeze that was creating quite a ruckus. I lay in bed for an hour waiting to sleep but nothing, the commotion outside was just enough to keep me alerted. I whispered over to Kostas to see if he was making due with the annoyance, “Hey dickhead, you sleeping?” “No.” “Well let’s eat some Ambien and pass the fuck out.” Done. A few hours sleep are rudely awaken by some serious flapping and the tent is not doing so well.
We decided to pack up. As we were packing the wind got down right violent. We had to keep our backs against the windward side of the tent to keep it upright. We quickly packed up and were literally forced out. We rolled up the tent, grabbed our gear and started for the summit when a large gust easily moved me down to my hands and knees. “Shit”, I thought to myself. That has never happened before. A few more steps and Kostas was on his knees trying to hold steady. We both slowly started freaking out. We realized our only method of progress would have to be a system of hiding behind rocks and waiting for lulls, then going for a few more feet. Slowly we worked our way to the summit which was pertinent to locating the West Face descent – the standard way off; part of our plan.
The wind has gotten progressively stronger throughout the long night. It is almost sunrise and the tent is now flapping really violently. We pack hastily, eat some espresso beans and get out. I realize that my helmet, which I had left outside the tent, has been blown away. It is hard to even remain standing in this wind! I feel like I want to puke those beans out.
We slowly start climbing. When the wind gets too strong, we hide behind rocks and wait for the next lull. Before long, we are at the summit of Mt. Williamson. This is the culmination of our multi-day effort and weeks of planning. We hug and sign the summit register. Yet the anxiety of reaching safe ground overshadows my satisfaction. We have to get moving…
We managed to sign in and start down the west slope looking around for the descent but the wind was insane! We could hardly move at all! After some deliberation, we realized that we could very easily get blown off balance and fall. We headed back to the summit and decided there would be no way to get off the west side. What happened next was more of survival thinking. With the wind blowing from the west we just let it push us to the east while searching for ways down. A mega-couloir came into view and seemed to basically head all the way down to the Owens Valley as it cruised more or less parallel with the NERW which is about 5 miles long. Easy enough, except the wind was accelerating over the various undulations and it looked down right scary, not to mention it was tipped at 50 degrees for several thousand feet. If this did not avalanche and we would not be blown down it – it should work.
The strong wind blowing from the west rules out descending down the west face route. We decide to downclimb a series of east-facing couloirs that drop down for thousands of feet from the summit plateau.
I don’t know how long we are downclimbing for. I lose sense of time in the repetitive motions. Sink the ax, kick, kick, repeat. When the wind gets strong, I grab my ax with both hands and bend my head over it. I feel the wind jerking my body. Powerless, I start swearing at the elements. My right arm is in pain and I can’t feel my toes. I want this ordeal to be over. Ironic… this is what you signed up for, this is what you get.
Front-pointing down, getting whipped, shaken and as I like to say “attacked” by the unrelenting wind storm, we make it down the first section only to come to another steeper section. We took a “break” from the direct wind by hiding behind more rocks wondering if we should somehow try and wait it out. We manage to bring in another weather forecast and found that no break was expected until the next day. Probably better that way anyhow because we might have tried to wait it out. We were freaked. After a scouting run to see if the next couloir would let us down, we start our front-pointing campaign down again. Finally, the angle eased and we were able to turn around give the calf muscles a much deserved rest after more than an hour of nonstop use.
Still the wind was raging, but now on stable ground it started to become more of an awesome spectacle, now knowing we would not be getting blown into oblivion anymore.
We find shelter from the swirling spindrift behind some rocks. It might be possible to bivy here… Charles pulls out his radio. The forecast predicts winds of increasing force well into tomorrow. Down we go again… finally the couloir eases off. Relieved, I look at the gentle slope ahead of me.
We charged down glissading here and there until we finally reached tree line and a nice flat rock. It seemed that the wind had let up or else we were in some kind of vortex. In the sun now, we pulled off some layers and started to relax and eat. Until this point I had 4 chocolate-covered espresso beans and a small piece of cheese. We had been on the go for about 8 hours now.
Getting excited I called Joanna and mentioned we had a hell of day and were now on solid ground. I mentioned we would be down in a few hours and that all we had to do was chase this canyon down to the Owens Valley (Underestimation #4). Underestimating this part was an understatement. What we did not realize is that climbing up for 3 days and gaining almost 10,000 feet would certainly not be shed in a few hours of descent. Easy slogging down for what seemed like an eternity gave way to brush and more brush. A quick glance at our topographic map indicated that we should be close. I predicted 45 minutes. Underestimation #5. 3 hours later and we were still wallowing in a frozen quagmire with no end in site. The canyon just kept going and going.
I slipped while traversing a snow clover slab and fell 25 feet only to be caught by my right snowshoe in deep snow. Panicking, I shout for Kostas who helplessly gazed across the creek at me and my dilemma. Suspended upside down I pleaded for help. Since I could not reach my foot, desperate swings with my ski pole slowly dislodged my right foot. I slid another ten feet down only to stop a couple feet from the exposed icy stream. My knee still hurts as I write today, WTF! More bushwhacking, cursing and predictions of when we may be freed led to a great idea by Kostas, “Let’s get the fuck out of here!” We scrambled up several hundred feet to the ridge above and descended back down back into the Owens Valley along the axis of this ridge.
The drainage system we are following degenerates into a creek, where bushes and trees of various sizes are hidden below a layer of soft snow. I accept the fact that once every indeterminate number of steps I will sink to my waist – or further – without warning. Often, I find myself balancing on thick branches with my snowshoes.
At some point, Charles takes a tumble, while traversing a snow-covered slab. He is upside down, trying to dislodge his stuck snowshoe with his ski-pole. I watch apathetically as he finally steadies himself a few feet from the running water. I laugh mechanically at the absurdity of our situation… We toil through this snow-filled jungle for hours. I am almost convinced that we are going to bivy in it, until the creek starts to open up. A scramble up a steep slope puts us on a foothill overlooking the Owens valley. We’ve made it.
Looking everywhere for the truck we finally found a suitable direction to travel as we eased into the rugged chaparral of the valley. As we looked up, to our surprise, a wall of dust, clouds and wind was swirling right for us from the north, completely filling the valley in an awesome spectacle.
We were both thinking “Is this real? Did we not just battle for hours and hours? Can this be over yet?” I donned my ski goggles and we marched on. After a long circuitous hike, around 3 miles, we emerged on the truck at 5:30pm. I dropped my shit and went digging around for some beer I had stashed in the snow. I never found it, but I did come out of the truck with a bottle of whiskey I had picked up on the way up at Kramer Junction. Even though it was crappy whiskey, we referred to it as victory scotch each time we took tugs. After getting changed up we headed to Lone Pine for a meatball sandwich only to notice northbound 395 had been closed from the insane wind storm that chased us out of the hills.
We pulled into town on Wednesday at midnight. Since then, we are both stoked to be back, even though we had sworn off climbing. In fact, I think we are looking to dig up another adventure before the winter closes. A good alpinist has a short memory. Lastly, its good to be a member of the Winter Club!
While finishing this I just got some crazy news from my doctor. I have been climbing with a cracked tibia suffered from a battle with Right Banana Crack three weeks before! This explains a lot of my recent knee pain. P=G!
It took a while to find the car. While Charles was looking for the beer he had stashed away four days ago, I started changing into dry clothes. We pulled off one hell of a climb, yet I didn’t feel happy, just empty. The ridge was hidden behind gray clouds and the wind was getting stronger as we started driving towards Independence.