Marx said “the only antidote to mental suffering is physical pain.” Don’t know if who said it was Karl or Groucho, or some Marx in between. And I wasn’t sure that trudging through the snow at 4am on the way to solo several thousand feet of alpine rock was good for one’s mental health…yet driving back home euphoric, I once again realized the tremendous power of the mountains.
Marx’s idea can be applied to climbing in general: it’s an easy –or maybe a lazy– way to get to essential things in life. Need some focus for your fuzzy mind? Soloing easily brings things into focus. Feeling bland? A classic climb is an easy remedy to bring joy. Having trouble finding God in the city? Even profane men like us can find God out in the mountains.
East Face of Whitney-the higher diagonal snow ribbon is the washboard on the E Face route.
I love soloing alpine because I can reflect and take in the fantastic vistas when I want to stop, and I’m able to zoom at my own pace when I feel good. But I also like the camaraderie of climbing. Having so many good climbing partners, I haven’t been out alone in a while. So seeing a weather window in the forecast, I was very much anticipating this trip. As it turned out, I was the only one in the North Fork of Lone Pine Creek. There was one other car when I got back, maybe they went up the trail or hung around the campground. Such solitude, an amazing mountain to myself, was one of my greatest climbing experiences.
I’d never climbed the East Face of Whitney. It’s so historic and classic, and easy and safe enough that I wanted to solo it. Because there would be enough time in the day, I would combine it with another route. Because of the proximity, East Buttress seemed like the best option. I would guess both of the routes have been soloed in winter; I’m not sure if they’ve been linked in winter but probably Peter Croft or some other beast Owens Valley climber has done it and probably added in some route on Russell as well.
A gorgeous February almost-full moon sets over the Sierra on the approach, Lower Boy Scout Lake
The road was icy and full of debris and rocks put passable until about one mile before Whitney portal. I got going at 4am. Thankfully there was enough snow that navigating Ebersbacher ledges on the approach wasn’t needed. A broken trail led to the (now icy) slabs before Upper Boyscout lake; after that I had to put in the tracks myself to the peak. The moonset and sunrise were both incredible and it took 5.5 hours to get to the start of the routes.
East Buttress was first, and was in very good shape. Only the parts of the route that go on the North side, in the shade, had some snow or were chilly. I did the alternate (5.8) start, which I didn’t do last time. It has plenty of exposure for the first 2 pitches but then rejoins the route and is quite safe with minimal exposure on the rest of the climb. It went very quickly, even easier than when I had climbed it a couple years ago in the summer. Sometimes soloing feels easier, I am not sure why. Just like sometimes following a route makes you think it’s harder. I often feel this way on easier pitches that I follow. Hard pitches, it’s not the case.
I felt great on the summit, still had some food and water and it was 11:20 so I still had time for the second part of my plan. A quick descent down a very windy mountaineer’s gully brought me to where I started.
Next up was East Face, an onsight for me. The route was not in good shape, tons of snow and icy chimneys made it more difficult. The snow sometimes meant that to stick to clean rock I had to do slightly harder variations. But since the route is mostly mid-5th, this generally wasn’t a problem. The only snow and ice-free pitch was the fresh air traverse, which was very nice, though reports made it seem way more scary that it was actually.
The only place it became a bit difficult to avoid the snow was a few pitches after the fresh air traverse (pitch 10 Supertopo numbering) where the entire place was plastered with snow. A 5.9 variation seemed the easiest (most snow-free) option. With hands sunk deep in snow-filled cracks and my wet and snowy shoes sliding all over the place it seemed more like .10+ in terms of effort. Though a fall there would only have meant a 15-foot landing onto a nice ledge piled with snow, it still got my heart racing. This was the only wild section, otherwise both climbs were very chill. After this part I was pretty tuckered out but the rest of the climb was thankfully very easy to the summit. The snow made for a fast descent and I was at the car before sunset. A very peaceful day, with just the right amount of effort and perfect solitude!
Ben Horne, Feb 10, 2012
Mt. Whitney East Buttress and East Face Winter solo
Portal-to-portal 12:05, Car-to-car 12:45, East Buttress 1:45, East Face 1:30
On the summit a second time, haggard.