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Mt. Whitney via the East Buttress 5.7 Route: Our 28-Hour Summit Day

Tuesday, July 31st, 2018

This past June, I summited Mt. Whitney via the East Buttress 5.7 route with my friend Joe Miller (whom you may know as a member of #TeamTender). This ended up being by the far the hardest trip of my life……so far. Read more about this grueling but amazing epic below.

Worked, Sore, & Likely Dehydrated

The old saloon doors swung behind us as we made our way through the crowded bar. We had just limped our way around the dusty streets of Lone Pine California looking for a bite and a beer, and we decided on Jacks Saloon. It was June 8th, and we had spent the last 32 hours working our way up and down California’s Mt. Whitney. We were excited to have just summited the highest peak in the lower 48 states but were absolutely worked, sore, and likely dehydrated from the unplanned 28.5 hours tent-to-tent adventure. It was not long before I started nodding off mid-conversation, and before I knew it was lights out back at the motel. The next day we slept in and started our drive back across the desert to catch a red-eye east. As we drove I could not stop thinking about the exhausting but totally rewarding epic we just had.

2 Days Earlier

On June 6th, we left Whitney Portal around 6am and started our approach up to Upper Boy Scout Lake. The approach starts off really mellow with a series of sandy switchbacks and creek crossings, but after a few miles starts to get steep as you approach the famous Ebersbacher ledges. This is a series of exposed scrambles that can be a bit spicy with heavy packs. In one section you have to cross a no more than six inch wide section with a steep fifty foot drop and lots of open air staring you down. Per usual, Joe effortlessly walked across showing zero sign of fear or even mild discomfort. I, however, can remember wondering what the climb ahead would be like if we were already running into this type of exposure.

After a few miles and some poor talus field navigation, we arrived at the Upper Boy Scout Lake. This beautiful alpine lake area is spectacular, covered with scattered pines and surrounded by the Eastern Sierras. We set up camp next to a stream, well protected by a large boulder wall. Outside of some overly friendly Marmots, we ended up having the entire area to ourselves. We had an early dinner and were sleeping before the sun went down. The next day was summit day.

Our camp at Upper Boy Scout Lake

Our base camp at Upper Boy Scout Lake

Summit Day

We woke up before sunrise, sorted gear, and made an attempt to eat. Not sure if it was the early start or the altitude, but I struggled to stomach a Clif Nut Butter bar. We made our way up a short talus field and then to a series of endless moraines on our way to Iceberg Lake. I will never forget seeing the route for the first time when we rounded the last moraine before the lake. Mt. Whitney and the needles towered over the entire valley.

Our plan was to do the East Buttress of Mt. Whitney, which has been rated anywhere from low fifth class to 5.8.  In the weeks leading up to the trip, I spent countless hours reading the guide book and scanning trip reports on Mountain Project. The consensus was that we would need around a half day to complete the route, and we packed accordingly. As we passed Iceberg Lake, we ran into a guide and his client. We chatted with them about the route and made our way to the base of the wall.

The First Pitch

I agreed to lead the first pitch which is supposed to go at a straightforward 5.5. I took a few seconds to decide on the correct start and opted for a steep, left-facing corner. I traversed left out onto a large flake and started working on placing some gear. However, as I transferred my weight, the entire flake started to pull off the wall. As you can imagine, this was terrifying and made for an exciting first pitch. I gingerly traversed back to the start and opted for going straight up the corner.

About a quarter of the way up the wall it was apparent that I was on the 5.8 alternative start rather than the easy 5.5 corner. The corner had a few amazing lay backs and airy moves, and while I usually have no issues on 5.8, the altitude had me breathing excessively hard. I felt my legs starting to shake towards the top of the pitch. The constant grind of the Ice Axe on my pack on rock did not help with the nerves. Finally, I reached a small ledge and built an anchor to belay Joe up.

Joe scaling a rock wall

My climbing partner Joe, nailing it as usual

Gaining Altitude (and Ice)

Joe easily led the next pitch, and we were starting to feel pretty good about our time and even joked about being back in camp for lunch. That’s about the time that we began to start running into some scattered patches of snow and icy cracks. The third pitch looked easy enough, but the icy cracks made everything harder and made for some serious slow going.

Throughout the next couple pitches, we both found ourselves digging out snow and ice before placing gear.  After some route-finding misfortune and many leads by Joe, we arrived at the Peewee. The Peewee is a massive, ominous-looking block that is easily recognizable from a few pitches away. Once we arrived there, we felt a lot better knowing that we were on route. We took a few minutes to eat, and I broke out my Adventure® Medical Kits Hiker kit to take some pain killers for a mild altitude headache. That is when I realized that I had less than five ounces of water left and only a couple ProBar Chews. We looked at the guide book, picked our route, and Joe set off to lead a problematic-looking hand crack.

When the 4th Class Talus Field Becomes 5th Class Climbing

The guide book said to go left after the Peewee, but we must have went a little farther left then recommended. Instead of reaching the easy 4th class talus field, we ended up turning the planned 8 pitches into sustained fifth class 14 pitches. Throughout the upper pitches, we kept expecting to hit the talus field. I must have asked Joe “How’s it look up there?” or “Is it fourth class?” fifty or so times. But each time we ran into more fifth class climbing. Each time we regrouped at the belay and got back after it.

Mt. Whitney – 14,505′

After 14 hours on the wall, we finally reached the summit around 8:30 pm, just as the sun was setting over the High Sierra. After some high fives and obscenity-laced proclamations, we celebrated, threw off our climbing shoes, and snapped some pictures. I was ecstatic to have just finished my longest and most technical alpine climb.

We were running on empty from the lack of water and food a few pitches back. We were so desperate for water that we filled a hydration bladder with snow and shoved it in our jacket hoping for it to melt as we made our way down. Our celebration and sense of accomplishment was short lived when we started to scout our decent route.

On the summit of Mt. Whitney

Pumped to reach the summit of Mt. Whitney as the sun set!

Rerouting Our Descent

Our plan was to descend the Mountaineer’s Route, which is a steep, class three snow gully that dumps you back at Iceberg Lake. We walked over to the top of the route and quickly gave it a collective “nope.” The snow which had been melting all day in the sun had now frozen and was looking more like a W2 ice climb. It would be extremely dangerous to descend frozen at night, and arresting a fall would be nearly impossible.

We were left with only one option: to descend the standard Mt. Whitney Trail which leads back to Whitney Portal. For us, this meant hiking back down to the trail junction and then hiking back up to clean up camp at Upper Boy Scout. Since we did not plan to use this route, we had little knowledge of it and had written it off as merely a hiking trail. This ended up being more than 14 miles and meant dropping from 14,505 feet to around 9,000 feet at the trail junction, then back up to 11,350 feet at camp, and then back down to the parking lot at 8,375 feet.

Besides running on no sleep, food, or water, things were going pretty well.  Then around 1am we ran into Mt. Whitney’s famous “chute.” This is a large, steep, and exposed 1,200 foot snow gully. During the day, this route could be easily glissaded, but for us it was frozen wall of ice.

Bivvy at 11,200′

After a few hours, we reached the bottom and desperately searched for water and a flat spot to bivvy. We found some glacial runoff, filled our bottles, and made our way down towards a large rock garden. We found a bivvy spot and began setting up. At this point we had been on the go for more than 19 hours, and the temps had dropped into the low thirties. I put on every layer I had, laid down a Survive Outdoors Longer® Emergency Blanket as a tarp, and then got in my S.O.L. Escape OD Green Bivvy (Joe had the Escape Pro Bivvy). We were extremely fortunate to have the bivvies, as they were key in preventing almost certain hypothermia.

After a few hours of nodding in and out of consciousness, we were disturbed by large swaths of hikers making their way to the chute. For the next 6 hours, we made our way back down, up to our camp, and then down again to the car. We answered the question “how was the chute and did you summit” many times as we passed weary eyed hikers making their way up.

32 Hours Later

We arrived back at Whitney Portal looking worse for wear and settled for the comfort of a burger and cold beer at the Whitney Portal Store. My pants were ripped, my hands looked like raw meat, and I was pretty sunburnt, but overjoyed to have completed the climb. Joe was an absolute monster and just put his head down and pushed through the pain and fear.

This trip solidified the adventure partnership that Joe and I have built over many years of exploring. We pushed each other and ultimately worked in sync to keep it together when things got hard. I am sitting here on a dock over a thousand miles away from Mt. Whitney, but I can’t stop thinking of the beautiful Sierra’s. Now it is time to figure out what’s next.

About the Author

Andrew Piotrowski is an all-around adventurer residing in Southeast Pennsylvania. He can commonly be found trad climbing in the Gunks, paddling the Chesapeake Bay, or trail running and backpacking in the Catskills. Andrew grew up running and kayaking but fell in love with the mountains on a few trips to the Adirondacks. Since then he has focused on alpine climbing and mountain running objectives in the Sierra’s, Bugaboos, and White Mountains. Andrew’s favorite training partner is his dog Calvin, who has helped him to log countless training miles. When not outside, Andrew enjoys Canadian Lager and gardening.

Trip Safety: Don’t Get Stuck in the Dark

Thursday, March 22nd, 2018

Embarking on a backcountry adventure can be one of the most rewarding experiences. When all the planning, anticipation, and physical effort culminate in awe-inspiring views, you receive a feeling of escape not available in the front country. While one of the greatest gifts you can give yourself is to continually go deeper and find more remote settings, it’s not without its own perils. As a Search and Rescue (SAR) Member, I’ve seen firsthand how a potentially fantastic day can turn into the worst day of your life for you and your loved ones.

Adventures – no matter how amazing – are not without peril

Preparation is crucial for trip safety in your backcountry expeditions. This simple statement has so many layers to it; it’s easy to brush it off and assume you have done enough. Route planning, properly packing your bag, and even preparing your physical and mental fitness all go into preparation. Today I’ll touch on a couple trip safety tips that, when applied, can help prevent common mistakes for everyone traveling in the backcountry.

Trip Safety: Pack the Right Gear

Gear is sexy. You can read a million and half blog posts or YouTube videos on gear.  From reviews to proper load-outs, there is a lot to learn and it seems to keep getting more complex. However, the basics maintain true. Pack your 10 essentials (Don’t know what these are? Go check out REI’s great post on them). While I firmly stand by my alpine “light and fast” style and agree that the ability to move quicker adds safety, there are certain things that are worth the weight.

Illumination

Last summer, there were multiple rescues to aid hikers stuck in the dark. Even if you’re setting out at sunrise and you feel overly confident you can get your hike done in just a morning, please still bring a headlamp. It makes my wife happy when I get to eat dinner with her on a Sunday night, instead of setting out to rescue hikers stuck in the dark.

Pack a headlamp so you don’t get stuck in the dark

In that same vein, bring extra batteries, especially if you’re working on a big day. Fancy headlamps that use built in lithium Ion batteries definitely help cut weight, but when it dies, it’s dead until you get back to a charger. My climbing partner was the victim of exactly this scenario coming down a 30 degree scree pitch off Mount Temple (BANFF, Canada) at 3 am. Our fast decent turned to a crawl when we were reduced to one headlamp. Learn from our mistake.

First Aid Kits

First aid kits are our specialty here at Adventure® Medical Kits, and I love the fact that I have so many supplies at my disposal to build kits. I’m a huge fan of our Mountain Series Day Tripper Lite kit. It’s perfect for day trip adventures and isn’t overloaded with unnecessary supplies. It also has great organization and labeling; in a rush, you can find exactly what you’re looking for. Another option is the custom bag from the Mountain Series, which lets people like me build their own kit and label it as needed.

My med kit for day hikes: the Day Tripper Lite, QuikClot®, an elasticized bandage, and a C-Splint™

Regardless of if you build your own kit or use a premade version, go through it often. It’s incredible how quickly you forget you used something in the middle of your climb when things start going well again.  A couple things that I mandate in even the smallest med kit are an elastic bandage, some form of a splint, Diphenhydramine, Ibuprofen, a couple big gauze pads, a small roll of medical tape, and an emergency blanket. Knowing what is in your kit is almost as important as knowing how to use it! I highly recommend that every backcountry enthusiast takes a Wilderness First Aid course (WFA), where you’ll learn the necessary skills to administer basic first aid in the backcountry. This can make the difference between a scary and stressful hike out and a confident, enjoyable return to your car.

Footwear           

The Mountains are a rugged place. They require rugged footwear. Most likely your road runners are not going to cut it, and your designer flip flops won’t make it even half a mile. Choose a stiffer, more supportive shoe to give you better protection. Unless you have seriously trained your body, a minimalist shoe can cause you long term issues. Not only does having a supportive shoe protect your feet, but your knees, ankles, and hip will also thank you. Having proper footwear ensures your body is taken care of. There are tons of debates on whether it’s better to have waterproof shoes or not in the summer. Some argue the non-waterproof will dry quicker and breathe better.  In the winter it’s almost no question – go waterproof.

Allow stiffer boots and trail shoes some time to break in. Once they do, you’ll never want to buy a new pair.  The break in process shouldn’t be overlooked; the first couple outings should be a bit easier than your usual hike, as both your feet and shoes need to adjust. Definitely bring some extra moleskin or GlacierGel® for blisters during your break-in period. At the end of the day, waterproof or not, find a shoe which really protects your foot and ankle, gives you good traction, and fits well.

Clothing              

Dressing for a hike is similar to dressing for other athletic activities; however, you must take exposure into account.  Your clothing must work well for extended periods in inclement weather, high wind, or extended sun exposure. The age old saying in the backcountry is that “cotton kills,” as once cotton is wet, it doesn’t insulate anymore.

Take into account ridgeline walking, where exposure to the wind and weather can be intense

In the mountains you can get hypothermia year-round. To combat cold any time of year, dress like an onion – layers layers layers! There are three basic layers: a base layer to move sweat away from body, an insulation layer, and an external layer to protect from elements. The specifics obviously all change depending on the season, but the principals stay the same.

Pest Control

Know the pests in the general area. Bug bites are a really annoying. A bear bite can be catastrophic. Understand that you probably should bring some form of deterrent for bugs and bears if they are known in that area. Ben’s® Clothing and Gear is fantastic to treat you gear before heading out.

From bear spray to head nets to bug repellent, pack for the pests in the area you’re visiting

Packs

One thing the 10 essentials fails to bring up is how to carry all those things. A good fitting backpack is necessary. It’s worth investing in a durable pack to get you through years of adventures. The biggest aspect of any pack should be its fit. Different disciplines have slightly different requirements. For instance, my hiking bag has large, cushioned hip straps, so that the load will sit on my hip bones. My technical climbing pack has minimal hip straps as it will get in the way of my harness. Figuring out the proper size pack is also important (I’ve blown zippers in the backcountry from stuffing my pack too tight). I’ve also had back pain from under-filling a big pack and having the contents rattle around on a decent. Having a number of packs for different outings will keep your back happy and pain-free.

Choose a pack appropriate for your activity – consider both size and fit

Trip Safety: Know Before You Go

Having fun and enjoying the outdoors is best achieved when you are properly prepared. While carrying the proper gear will help mitigate potential issues, there are intangible things that are invaluable in preparing for a hike.

Know what the climate is like where you are going.

In the early spring my SAR team might have 4 rescues in a day, while mid-summer we get 1 in a weekend. Why is this? In the White Mountains, we’re only 2 hours away from Boston on the interstate.  On early spring weekends, weather in Boston may be sunny and warm, with no snow; however, weather in the Whites includes waist-deep snow and raging rivers fueled by the spring melt.  Check the weather and trail conditions where you’re going – don’t assume it’s the same as what you see from your front door.

Seasons can look quite different in different places – like snowy springs in the White Mountains

We live in a wonderful age where Facebook communities, Sub-Reddits, and Instagram posts can help you deem what true current conditions are.  Weather has different patterns in different locations; do some research and see what generally occurs in the area you will be traveling. The weathermen do their best but are often wrong. Getting caught in a surprise summer thunderstorm in the alpine is life threatening. Learn the basics in reading the weather and apply those skills with knowledge of the local weather patterns.

Set a turnaround time before leaving the house.

This should be a firm time in which you know you need to turn back. A turnaround time keeps you honest with how quickly you are actually moving. The mountains will be there another day, and setting the time before leaving the house keeps the emotions in check.

Let someone not on the hike know of your planned route.

Text/call right when you set off and right when you return. In some places people will put detailed notes on their car dash. This is especially helpful for technical routes, as it lets other parties know what line is going to be most crowded.

Account for elevation change.

Elevation gain is not easy, neither is elevation loss. Remember getting to the top is optional, getting down is mandatory.

Don’t just check the mileage – check the elevation change!

Don’t discredit what elevation change is on the hike. The general rule of thumb is every 1,000 feet of elevation change will feel like another mile on the hike. For example, if I hike 4 miles to the summit with an elevation change of over 2,000 ft., that will feel like 6 miles. So a seemingly 8 mile roundtrip hike can really feel like a 12 miler. Plan your hike accordingly. Know your party members and what constitutes a fun day.

Be realistic on where you and your party is at physically.

If you haven’t had a cardio day in months, and you don’t know what leg day is at the gym, pick a more introductory hike. Check your ego and build up to that big hike. There is no shame or pain in hiking something under your threshold. A carry out on rugged terrain with broken bones is pretty miserable. Even hiking a couple miles hungry and exhausted will make you not want to return to the mountains for a while.

Plan for sunshine, prepare for thunder.

You may blow through your hike as fast as you think, but you might not. Bring enough food and water for some extra hours. Think about exposure to the elements: some extra time in the sun or wind or getting caught in a rain storm can make for a miserable outing.

Conclusion

Backcountry travel is no easy task. There are so many variables which go into a good adventure. I’m constantly re-evaluating gear and travel techniques to help keep me safe and have a good time. From gear to pre-adventure prep, there are plenty of trip safety actions you can take to ensure you have a great next adventure.

About the Author

Joe Miller is an alpinist residing in the White Mountains of New Hampshire. He serves on the Pemigewasset Search and Rescue team, which has received some fame from the television show North Woods Law. Joe loves everything about the outdoors and can be found taking full moon laps up Cannon Cliff, ice climbing classics in Crawford notch, and slaying powder on his splitboard. Joe started working at Tender Corporation in 2015, as he loves the proximity to the mountains. When not outdoors, Joe lets his inner geek flag fly; he can be found holed up with his dog and cats tinkering with electronics and computer systems.