I wish I was
Home, where my thought’s escaping
Home, where my music’s playing
Home, where my love lies waiting
Silently for me
How do you define home? Is it where you were born? Is it where the bulk of your family remains while you are off searching for your destiny? Or is home a feeling…something you can experience regardless, and often in spite, of where you are at the moment?
Scotty had clearly not trained for our trip to the Sierras. Our plan for the first day was to hike from Whitney Portal over the Whitney-Russel Col, and climb Western Front (IV, 5.10) the next day. But Scotty was a little sore in the legs when he arrived at Iceberg Lake a couple hours after me, so we set up camp next to a group of bible thumpers, who were debating what the apostles might have brought for food if they had decided to have a go at Mt. Whitney. Scotty rested in the tent while I sat outside and stared at the array of Alpine spires and walls all around us. “I kinda want to run up something,” I said, mainly just to let Scotty know that I was psyched, and not really expecting him to jump out of the tent yelling, “hell yeah, me too, lets go!” Instead he called me out and suggested, with a smug air of casualness, that I “run up” the East Face of Whitney (III, 5.7). Now I had a choice; to take Scotty’s “dare,”or sit in camp like a chump who talks shit. I sat quietly outside the tent, not really wanting to climb the 2000 feet to the summit and descend. I was unable to see Scotty but envisioned myself kicking his lazy ass for calling me out and putting me in a quandary. As if to remind me that he had not forgotten his suggestion, and pushing my buttons in classic Scotty style, his voice asked calmly through the tent wall,“so are you going to climb it? I’ll cook dinner while you do it. I bet you could get up and down before sunset. 2 1/2 hours roundtrip would be a pretty decent time.”
I threw my climbing shoes in a small pack with a half liter of water, breathed a sigh of inevitable suffering, and climbed the route. Far from suffering, the climb was invigorating and sunset from the summit was surreal. There were only 2 other people up there who had just topped out the East Butress. In classic Scotty style, dinner was not ready when I returned after 2 hours, but he did have our Gatorade bottle, full of cheap whiskey, within reach. We enjoyed the remains of the day in style.
Similar goals make for good climbing partners. Scotty and I both had the same focus for this trip. To have fun, to climb new routes in good style, and to soak up the energy of the Sierra Nevada high country. Anyone who makes it to Trail Crest, after enduring the endless switchbacks up the Whitney trail, is rewarded with a sight of the entire Mt. Hitchcock massif. Most folks are blinded by their ambition to walk to the top of the highest mountain in the lower 48 states. While Mt. Hitchcock will continue to be overlooked by the peakbaggers, its unclimbed rock buttresses presented us with the chance to blaze new trails, to touch virgin granite, and to fulfill a desire to climb new routes in the mountains and get a taste of that (nowadays) forgotten element of climbing…exploring the vertical unknown.
To most of us and most living things, home is comfort, safety, and homeostasis. That is what we seek, and we find it in all sorts of forms. For many it’s a dwelling with amenities, others a suitable patch of land where roots can be spread and fed. Maybe its where the climate suits your clothes or where your lover waits for your return. Maybe home is your country or your state.
The Warrior is at home when engaged in war, when strategy is put to action. The Pirate is at home roaming the open seas. And the climber…well that’s what many climbers ponder, even go to extremes in order to find out. I have seldom been up high in the Sierra Nevada and wished I was home. But I have often found myself in many other mountain ranges, battered by cold and bad weather, longing to be back in the Sierras where the endless climbing lies silently waiting.
Western Front on Mt. Russel was stellar. We started climbing around 1pm, after the face had been sufficiently bathed in warm sunshine. Scotty flashed the crux pitch, and soon we were surmounting the final blocky terrain as the summer sun took it’s time sinking into the horizon.
Now we were sufficiently warmed up. The next morning we hiked down Arctic lakes basin, oggling the walls all around. From the Western shore of Arctic lake, we got our first complete view of Mt. Hitchcock. It was chossier looking than I had remembered, and I wondered if Scotty was thinking the same thing. But we both kept our mouths shut, because negativity never got anyone up or down a mountain, and everyone knows there is NO chossy rock in the Sierra Nevadas anyway!
Our campsite on Hitchcock Lakes was right below the massive line of beautiful virgin buttresses…mmmmm, virgin buttresses. We ate some lunch and decided to go for a late day climb since we were so close to the tempting walls. 5 hours later we reached the summit plateau via a soaring buttress. In reference to Alfred Hitchcock, we named the route Stoners on a Train (III, 5.10), after the film Strangers on a Train. It begins slightly up and right from the toe of the buttress, aiming for a wide hands splitter. After 4 exciting pitches, we unroped and soloed along the buttress for another 350 feet until it petered out on the summit plateau.
The next day we rested and scoped. We chose the far right buttress as our next objective and stashed our gear and some water at the base late in the afternoon. The night was cool and clear with a bright moon.
We were at the base of the wall at 830 the next morning, and I set off up the first pitch, a fun corner with a traverse into splitter double cracks, about 5.10-.
Then Scotty fought his way up a wide overhanging corner/roof, leap frogging our only #3 camalot, and probably wishing (although he will deny it to his death) for the extra #3 and #4 he had vetoed from the rack at the beginning of the trip.
2 more circuitous pitches brought us to the center of the buttress and the headwall.
What had looked like a splitter section of fissured vertical rock from below, now revealed its true nature. Blocks, from the size of a microwave to the size of a car, were ever so neatly slotted into place. As I started up the pitch, a wave of calmness swept away the reality of the situation.
While the climbing was no harder than 5.9, every move required a delicate concentration in order to avoid riding one of the big blocks off the wall and down onto Scotty’s head. Before committing to some of the looser sections, I would take in my surroundings…the awe-inspiring high Sierra, capped by a cerulean sky, flooded with crisp alpine air, and Scotty, who appeared and disappeared from view as I weaved up the wall. I was home. Where my epinephrine and norepinephrine are in balance, where my mind has room to roam and reason to focus, and the end of the pitch “lies waiting silently for me.”
My head was clear as I brought Scotty up the pitch. The small boulder I was anchored to and the granite I sat on might as well have been the leather couch in my living room and the radio…the slight breeze my favorite song playing on the intergalactic station, while the sun warmed my bones better than any fireplace or space heater. When Scotty got up to the belay my home was complete, because no matter what you tell yourself, home is always better when you can share it with others.
After scrambling a couple hundred feet to the summit plateau and traversing across the entire backside to get to our descent gully, we ran into Mike Pennings and Josh Finklestien, who had just pioneered some new routes on Mt. Chamberlin. They told us about a route—a 5.12— they had put up on Mt. Hitchcock on a buttress we had not yet gotten to, and gave us cookies! Mike suggested we climb a line to the left of it, which he swore would be “5.10 hands.” We got back to our campsite as the afternoon sun dipped behind Mt. Hitchcock and keeping with the trend, decided to name our new line Psycho Buttress (III, 5.10-, C2). I am sure that a stronger party will free the line at somewhere around 5.11-.
Scotty’s knee was mysteriously swollen and painful the next day, so I shouldered the bulk of our weight and we began the miserable hike over Trailcrest back to Whitney Portal. The throngs of people hiking to Mt. Whintney’s summit quickly put an end to our wilderness experience and we hoofed it back to the portal in time for a burger and fries. After a long day’s hike, it was good to finally be back to another home, the Eastern Sierra, where the beer is colder than the air and you wake up to a view of sunlit adventure.