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The Overlooked Adventure Gear You Need in Your Pack – Sunny Stroeer

Thursday, December 6th, 2018

10,000ft & Getting Dark

We are at 10,000 feet in the Austrian Alps, and it is getting dark. This is going to be the first time that I spend the night on the wall during a big rock climb, and it’s exactly what my climbing partner Hannes and I wanted: to break up our chosen weekend adventure’s 2500 feet of vertical rock-climbing into two shorter days with a deliberate bivouac on the route. We have planned the adventure meticulously, researching our route and packing overnight gear and food for two days. Everything has been working out exactly according to plan – until about twenty minutes ago.

“I thought the floor of this cave was supposed to be flat!” Hannes shouts over to me with exasperation in his voice. We have crested the top of the last difficult rope length of climbing and are now in a big cave system halfway up the wall, the cave system which we have been counting on to provide a good sleeping spot for us.

Surveying our sleeping quarters for the night. The cave we’d counted on wasn’t what we’d expected.

Turns out that yes, it is a massive cave that’ll protect us from weather… but sadly the floor is far from flat. Hannes and I are walking – precariously, still protected by our ropes – on unstable talus and slippery tundra, steeply sloping down towards the valley some 1600 feet below us, surveying the scene for a safe spot to put down our gear and unrope but not finding one. This will make for an uncomfortable night.

“Oh well. I guess it’ll be a full-value vertical experience.”

Over the Edge

I shrug my shoulders and get to work fixing anchors to the rock in the back of the cave, so we can securely hang gear from the wall and get set up to sleep suspended in our harnesses, ropes tight to prevent us from sliding down the steep slope below us. It won’t be comfortable, but it’ll be safe and warm in our sleeping bags.

At least that’s what I think, until Hannes fumbles his sleeping bag. I hear a muffled curse and look over just in time to see him lose his grip on the soccer-ball sized stuff sack. We watch in disbelief as the crucial piece of gear bounces down the talus, gathering speed, and rapidly disappears over the edge in an unstoppable arc towards the valley.

We look at each other in silence as cold reality sinks in. The temperature up here at 10,000 feet is supposed to dip into the thirties over night; the evening air is already chilling, and it’s not even fully dark yet. With semi-hanging sleeping quarters, there is no way for us to share the single remaining sleeping bag. We are both too tired and worked to consider climbing through the night for warmth. There is just one saving grace: while prepping gear yesterday, I decided to include a Survive Outdoors Longer® Bivvy in my emergency kit.

Waking up after the cave bivvy in the Austrian Alps

I am wearing much warmer clothing than Hannes, so he ends up using my sleeping bag and I spend the night in the bivvy.  To say that I was comfortable would be an overstatement, but this little lightweight piece of gear ends up singlehandedly saving the day – or rather, the night – in a situation that would have been infinitely worse had I not brought along the bivvy.

The cave bivvy, all packed up in the morning as we get ready to set out

The Ultimate Contingency Plan: The Escape Bivvy

That epic cliff-side overnight happened years ago, during my days of being a weekend warrior, long before I became a professional mountain athlete. Today, I climb and run for Mountain Hardwear; I am a high altitude endurance specialist, and epic missions are my jam:  48 hours non-stop around 22,838ft Aconcagua, 55 hours in a single push through the Colorado Rockies – that’s the stuff I love. Yet still today, as a professional athlete, guess which piece of gear always has a spot in my pack? The good old bivvy from Survive Outdoors Longer®.

I used the Escape Bivvy to take a much-needed trailside nap at 17,000 feet on Aconcagua while setting the women’s speed record on the mountain; to stay warm in poor conditions while being stuck behind a slow party while soloing the Grand Teton; to be safe on a light-and-fast speed mission along the Pfiffner Traverse in Colorado; and in a pinch, it once even replaced my -30F sleeping bag at Aconcagua’s basecamp for an entire night. But what’s more: despite repeated use of the Escape Bivvy in some of the most difficult and rocky terrain, terrain that would eat up run-of-the mill emergency blankets in the blink of an eye, I am still using the very same bag today that kept me safe years ago.

 

woman in escape bivvy

On the Pfiffner, still using the same Escape Bivvy that I bought in 2012

If there is an overlooked piece of gear that belongs in the kit of every side- and backcountry adventurer, it’s this: the Escape Bivvy is the ultimate contingency plan for everything from a sprained ankle to a lost sleeping bag. It’s in my kit, and it should be in your kit, too.

My gear setup for Colorado’s Pfiffner Traverse, a 76 mile cross-country route that I completed this past summer in ~55 hours (becoming the first woman to succeed on it in a single push)

About the Author

Sunny Stroeer is a rock-climber, mountaineer, and trail runner living on the road.  In the US, she splits her time between exploring the desert and bagging peaks in the mountain ranges of the west, but for part of the year she trades her Chevy Astrovan for a four-season mountaineering tent and travels the globe in pursuit of high places (and new perspectives, too!).

The Call of Adventure: Preparing for the Palisade Traverse and Beyond

Tuesday, November 13th, 2018

There’s nothing like the call of adventure, especially when it’s calling you to push yourself. Adventurer Kevin McDermott shares how adventure got ahold of his life, where it’s taking him next, and what new gear he’s packing to #BeSafe. – Adventure Medical Kits. 

Working & Playing in the Mountains

Throughout the past five or more years of my life, pushing myself and testing my limits in the mountains has become my biggest passion.  It all began back in the summer of 2012 with my first season working on the AMC professional trail crew in the White Mountains of New Hampshire.  Facing endless hours and days of back-breaking labor, sleep deprivation, and suffering in such a harsh and unforgiving environment for two long summers forged me into the adventure-seeker and mountain-lover that I am today.  Since then, I have worked as a professional tree cutter and wildland firefighter for the US Forest Service in both Central Idaho and the Lake Tahoe Region of California, fighting blazing wildfires and running chainsaws for long hours in some of the harshest terrain and conditions imaginable across the western US.

When I wasn’t working hard in the mountains, I was playing hard in the mountains.  I soon found myself tackling serious climbing objectives and major summits in some of the most pristine mountain ranges in the country, from the Sawtooths of Central Idaho and the Tetons in Wyoming, to the Cascades of northern Oregon and Washington.

I fell in love with the exhilarating sport of ice climbing

I also naturally fell in love with the exhilarating sport of ice climbing, facing committing alpine objectives and steep snow/ice climbs throughout the Northeast.  Over the years and through countless adventures, I have come to realize that hard work and mountain climbing are in my blood.

The Drool of the Beast

Earlier this past winter, my friend Kellen Busby and I decided we would test ourselves on a route with one of the toughest ice climbing grades we had attempted to date.  This route is known as ‘The Drool of the Beast’; a fairly short, but very steep and thin ice flow through a narrow chimney of rock, tucked away up in Mad River Notch in the White Mountains of New Hampshire.  Joining us on this climb was our new-found friend and climbing partner Joe Miller.

The Drool of the Beast

Making our way a couple of miles up the steep and winding trail, we approached the base of the climb.  Our initial thoughts upon first glance of the route were hesitant at best.  It was definitely steep, and much thinner than we expected.  After a brief period of forethought and reluctant hesitation, Kellen stepped up to the plate ready to face the challenge that lay before us head on.  Kellen made short work of the climb with a level head and skillful movements, and Joe and I hastily followed as the late-morning sun began to heat things up.

Upon descending back to the bottom of the climb, Joe began to talk with us about his work at Tender Corporation, maker of brands including Adventure Medical Kits and Survive Outdoors Longer. The company specializes in designing emergency outdoor equipment such as first aid kits, bivvies, shelters, and various survival tools.  He had also handed us both a S.O.L. bivvy, which Kellen and I had the opportunity to test out as we posed for a photo at the base of the route under the warm sun, lazily lounging in our new favorite survival bivvies.

Enjoying our new S.O.L bivvies

Scheming for an Adventure

As the winter passed into spring, Joe and I fell out of touch.  Kellen, Mac Weiler, and my Idaho friend Mike McNutt and I made an attempt of Mt Rainier in early June.  Though we didn’t make the summit, the trip opened our eyes to the incredible beauty and grandeur of these massive glaciated volcanoes.  Several months after our return, I discovered a couple of posts describing Joe’s recent big mountain adventures on social media.  The first described a technical ascent of Mt Whitney, the tallest mountain in the lower 48, while the second described a trip to high summits of the Wind River Range in Wyoming.  ‘Wow!  These are the kinds of adventures I live for!’ I thought to myself as I gazed in astonishment and pondered the possibilities.  My soul was already hungry for more big mountains to climb.  It wasn’t long before I sent Joe a message about coordinating a trip of our own, and so began the scheming for our next big adventure.

Joe’s ascent up Mt. Whitney had me hungry for a big adventure

Not long after this scheming began, so too did the training.  Miles upon miles of running each week led me to my first ever Spartan Ultra race in September, facing 30+  grueling miles and 60+ soul-crushing obstacles through the hills of Vermont.  Finishing in just over 10 hours, this was perhaps one of the hardest days of my life.  After endless miles of steep hills, mud, cold swims, and relentless obstacles, it took every fiber of my being to push onward to the finish line, even as my body approached the brink of total failure.  As hard as this race was, perhaps it has helped prepare me for even greater challenges yet to come.

The Palisade Traverse

Since my time working for the US Forest Service in the North Lake Tahoe region of California and exploring the High Sierras the previous summer, there was one place in particular that stood out in my mind: the Palisades.  Though I had yet to witness this pristine range of jagged peaks for myself, I knew these mountains were just waiting for Joe, Kellen, and I to answer the call.  Our intended route, the Full Palisade Traverse, ascends six 14,000 foot peaks and traverses the Palisade Crest in its entirety, covering roughly 8 miles and 70,000 feet of elevation gain.

Palisade traverse

The Palisades are calling Joe, Kellen, and I to go

When Adventure Calls

This route will test us, pushing our physical and mental limits harder and further than any challenge we may have experienced thus far (possibly even harder than the Spartan Ultra race).  Not only will we have the physical difficulty of the route to contend with, but the unforgiving elements of this high-elevation environment as well.  We are attempting this route in early November, when the days will be shorter and nights colder. When the sun sets over the horizon and the temperatures begin to drop, I’ll be glad to have my S.O.L. bivvy with me!  Though we hope to find a window of fair weather for the traverse, the possibility for inclement and unpredictable winter weather is certainly there.  The odds seem weighed heavily against us, but to succeed in such an epic challenge would be the ultimate triumph of willpower and endurance.  Regardless of whether or not we do succeed, this climb will prepare us for even bigger mountains and greater challenges going into the future.  When the time comes to answer the call of adventure, we will be ready!

My First Time Mountaineering (and Other Firsts from Expedition #BeSafeGannett)

Thursday, August 30th, 2018

I’m not a mountaineer. I want to start off this post telling you that, because if there’s one thing this mountaineering experience taught me, it’s that you are stronger and more capable than you think.

The First Time I Heard of Gannett Peak

The first time I heard of Gannett Peak was about 9 months ago. Sometime around Christmas, I got called into a meeting, having no clue what we’d be discussing. The people around me start talking about awesome trips, mountaineering expeditions, and this remote mountain Frank (my boss) hiked in Wyoming, called Gannett Peak. Then they pulled up some images on Google. Wow.

Google image results for gannett peak

Some Google image results of Gannett Peak

This is where I need to pause and give a bit of background on me: I’m a 23-year old 100% New Englander. I was born and raised in New Hampshire, and I grew up hiking the White Mountains with my dad. The 4,000 footers have been my summer romance almost since before I can remember, and recent years have seen me moving deeper into winter hikes as well (Mt. Jackson = best winter day hike).

My point is that I’m a huge outdoor lover and hiker, but my glacier, rock-climbing, and mountaineering experience at this point were non-existent (though I did at least get some wilderness first aid training in last year). I’d never summited or attempted to summit anything higher than Mt. Washington (and that one was in the summer). I had never done anything that felt close to mountaineering, and I was not a mountaineer.

So I’m sitting in that meeting, staring at pictures of remote, gorgeous, breathtaking mountains, mountains like I have never seen before, and my mouth is watering, because it looks like hiking heaven. Not, of course, the kind of hiking heaven I pictured myself in, as I had no outdoor aspirations beyond finishing my 4,000 footer list and re-hiking all my favorites until I was over 80. But as they talk about Gannett Peak and decide they want to send a team up it, this crazy but totally impractical idea starts to go through my head though: I wish I could go on this mountaineering expedition.

That’s the moment Frank says, “Hey Jenny, would you be interested in going on this trip?”

Against my better judgment and all reason, I said yes.

My First Time in Utah

So flash forward through 9 months of training with my amazing team members (Joe, Chelsea, and Ben), and I’m stepping out of an airplane and standing in Utah for the first time. We’re headed to Wyoming (obviously), but we flew into Salt Lake City.

Taking my first step out the airport into SLC (I’m in the back)

At this point, I’ve already encountered a bunch of “firsts”:

  • First time holding an ice axe
  • First time successfully self-arresting with an ice axe
  • First time carrying more than 30 lbs. on a hike
  • First time tying an alpine butterfly, tying a retraced figure eight, and walking as part of a rope team.
  • First time wearing crampons (I hadn’t historically needed more than micro-spikes.)
  • First summer where I hiked more with other people than with my dad
  • First time working out more than 10 hours in a week

Regarding all of the firsts still ahead of me, I had no idea what to expect. Needless to say, I was nervous and even a bit afraid of what lay ahead, as my complete lack of anything to base the upcoming experience on made me wonder if I would like mountaineering, if I had trained enough, and if I would let my team down.

My First Time in Wyoming

We grabbed a rental car and started driving towards Pinedale, WY, which eventually brought me to Wyoming for the first time. The first hour or so of driving, the state did not look at all what I expected it to look like. As the miles passed, the landscape slowly transformed, and a mountain range appeared in the background. THIS was why I had said yes.

My first view of the Wind River Range as seen from the car – mountaineering lies ahead!

The First Day on the Trail

A bunch of firsts happened for me during Day 1 on the trail, though I’m glad to say they were all good ones, overall.

My First Time Hiking with 45 lbs.

I’m 5’1” and not what you’d call built or even muscular, so needless to say when Joe said something along the lines of “everyone is going to carry at least 40 lbs., probably more,” I was internally thinking, “I am not physically capable of this.”

Training tip: take the thing you fear the most and make it your focus. Instead of avoiding it, face it head on. During training, I spent hours walking on rolling terrain with my hiking pack full of my sister’s workout weights, slowly building up how much I was carrying.

We put together our packs at our hotel in Pinedale and weighed each of them. Mine weighed in at 45 lbs., which may not sound so bad until you realize that’s over 35% of my bodyweight.

All our packs stuffed full and ready to hit the trail the next day

Difficult does not mean impossible though! My hours of training 100% paid off, and any worries I had about carrying the weight were gone by the time we made camp after our first day on the trail. I was tired and had a headache (more on that below), but I felt strong and excited for what lay ahead, not weighed down by what was on my back.

Day 1 on the trail we had the heaviest packs – they got lighter as we ate!

My First Time above 10,000 ft.

I broke my elevation record with almost every step I took on this mountaineering expedition, but a few times were especially noteworthy, and this is one of them. Altitude was one thing I hadn’t been able to train for, and it definitely did affect me, though thankfully not for long.

The first day on the trail, I immediately experienced shortness of breath, which lasted the first mile or so before my body seemed to adjust. We went about 10 miles that day, and in the last couple miles I experienced an increasing headache, which Chelsea and Ben also experienced. Although I continued to have an above-average struggle during the first mile of each day after that, I’m glad to say the headache never returned.

My First Steps in the Wind River Range

Western hiking is not the same as Eastern hiking, from the trails to the terrain. We started down the trail through a pine forest (not at all an unfamiliar sight to me), but after a few miles we emerged into a giant natural clearing absolutely covered in wildflowers. I’m a wildflower nut and (no pun intended), it was a field day!

I took a moment to enjoy the wildflowers (without my pack)

We passed through that field back into the woods only to come across an even bigger, more beautiful meadow. And so the hike went – although eventually we left the forest behind for good and passed into more open, rocky terrain, I will never forget stepping into those first few meadows or how, no matter how far along the trail we were, we never went far without being able to see the trail wander off in front of us. (In NH, you hike blind to what’s ahead of you 80% of the time.)

The First Day in Titcomb Basin

Two days of steady hiking brought us into Titcomb Basin, where we would camp for the next several days and from which we would launch our Gannett summit attempt. If you’ve never been to Titcomb Basin, you should go.

I jumped for joy when we made it to Titcomb Basin!

Looking one direction from our campsite, I could see Upper Titcomb Lake, Fremont Peak, and the Wind River Range fading off into the distance. The other direction, we were surrounded by rocky peak after rocky peak, almost all of which had snow on them somewhere.

The view from our campsite looking back towards Titcomb Lake

Cradled among these peaks, I could see Bonney Pass. I can’t say this was my first time seeing the pass, as we’d been staring at the mountains ahead of us the past two days, and I’m sure I saw it at one point – I just didn’t know what it was. From the perspective of a girl on her first mountaineering trip, all I can say is it looked steep. Really steep. I won’t say impossible, because I refused to close that door as I stood there, but it was certainly a lot steeper and snowier than I had imagined.

The view from our campsite looking towards Bonney Pass

My First Time in the Backcountry for Over 3 Days

We spent 3 days at our camp in Titcomb Basin. The day after we arrived we took as a rest day to review our skills, then the next day we went on a side adventure as we waited for the weather to clear up (more on that below), while the third day was our summit attempt. By this time, I was completely covered in a strange mixture of sweat, Natrapel bug spray, and sunscreen that I could no longer smell.

I had never been on such a long backpacking trip before, and needless to say I was rather dirty (as were my companions – I think Joe and Ben wanted to see who could be the dirtiest). I wasn’t sure what I’d think of being in the wilderness for so long, but I can safely say I loved it.

Spending 7 days in the backcountry proved refreshing and invigorating!

The deeper we want into the wilderness, the more my excitement grew. The views were amazing, but more than that there was something refreshing about being completely surrounded by nature, getting plenty of exercise, and spending all day outdoors, completely tech-free. I obviously prefer using toilets to tree stumps, but the trade was worth it on this trip, and I suspect I’ll find it worth it on any lengthy trips to come.

My First (Mini) Experience with (Real) Rock Climbing

Our second day in Titcomb Basin, Joe, Chelsea, and I decided to warm our legs by attempting to summit Fremont Peak, the third highest peak in Wyoming. The mountain was almost completely bare of snow, and the route consisted of what seemed to be a never-ending talus field.

Having spent some time in the Presidential Range of NH, I was not unfamiliar with rocky routes. However, this was by far the rockiest route I’d ever been on, as well as the most time I’d ever spent on a talus field, navigating my way through scree. Definitely watch your footing!

Chelsea and me scrambling up Fremont Peak’s rocky slope.

We must have been over two thirds of the way up when we ran into some dangerously-loose terrain. Joe went ahead to see if he could scope out a better route and came back with a sturdy but more technical option. In college, I tried my hand at the rock wall a few times, but most of my experiences with rocks came from the White Mountains, where I’d never gone on a trail above a class 3 scramble.

Fremont Peak was the longest I’ve ever spent going through a talus field

Joe said the route he found was great, but had one class 4 spot. If you asked any real rock climber, I’m sure they tell you that me pulling my way up and over that small cliff (which I successfully did!) was not rock climbing, but it’s the closest I’ve ever gotten!

My First Time above 11,000 ft.

Around that time, Chelsea checked her watch and said we were above 11,000 ft. My record was broken! We pressed on for another fifteen or so minutes only to run into a cliff – literally. Since we didn’t bring any rock protection, we headed back down to camp to do final preparation and get to bed early for summit day.

Right before we went to sleep around 5 pm, I also experienced my first hailstorm in a tent – we were glad the hail didn’t get any larger than it did!

The hail came out of nowhere and lasted 10-15 minutes

My First Time Bivvying (& Being Above 12,000 ft. & Being Belayed Down a Couloir)

We hit the trail at 1 am on summit day. Titcomb Basin was pitch black, lit only by our headlamps. We turned off our headlamps for a moment over our rushed breakfast and saw the most amazing view of the Milky Way I have ever seen.

After a mile or so of trekking to the base of the pass, we started up the steep slope of ice and snow. In the pitch black, we ended up veering too far to the right and getting off route. We came up off the ice field onto some rocks on a ridgeline, with a steep upward slope to our right and steeper downward slope to our left, where we were relatively sure the correct route up Bonney Pass was. After a quick discussion as a team, we decided our best course of action was to bivvy until there was enough light to see if we could lower ourselves down the slope to the left.

Though rather rocky, our bivvy perch had a great view!

Needless to say, it was cold. We were above 12,000 ft. (the highest I’d even been up to that moment!), sitting in the pitch dark on a windy, rocky ridge. I pulled on my extra layers and pulled myself into my Survive Outdoors Longer Escape Pro Bivvy. Straight up honesty here: This was the first time the whole trip I was truly scared. Something about not knowing where I was, sitting in the pitch dark, and losing feeling in your feet just sucks the sense of adventure right out of you. My bivvy kicked in though and my feet regained feeling as the light increased.

Packing tip: ALWAYS bring a heat-reflective bivvy or blanket, even on day trips – we would have been in a real pickle without ours!

With the light, Joe could see that we were just a steep couloir away from the route, so he took out the rope and got to work belaying us down. Having never been belayed before, I managed a not-so-graceful decent that involved smacking the rocks once and some nervous tears. Not all firsts are fun, but I’m happy to say that the 3 other times I got belayed that day, I quickly found myself moving from being nervous to totally enjoying it!

The second time I got belayed was on the side of Gannett – super fun!

My First View of Gannett Peak

Back on the right route, we soon found ourselves on the top of Bonney Pass, where I saw my first view of Gannett Peak (which was blocked from view the whole way in from being so deep within the range). Wow.

This was our first view of Gannett Peak

This was the moment all my enthusiasm that I’d lost while bivvying came rushing back in. Mountains are definitely my happy place, and all I can say of Gannett Peak is that the view is worth the wait.

My First Time on a Glacier

I didn’t realize I was on a glacier for the first time till I’d probably been on it several minutes, as the Dinwoody Glacier at first just looks like the other side of Bonney Pass – a field of snow and ice on a steep slope! Once we had made the initial descent down the back of Bonney Pass though, Joe stopped us so we could rope up.

After reaching the top of Bonney Pass, we headed down the Dinwoody Glacier

On our way up to the Gooseneck Glacier, we had to jump over one crevasse, skirt around another, and ascend a steep snow bridge over two large crevasses. Needless to say, those were all first for me.

Our rope team on the Gooseneck Glacier

If you followed our expedition, you know that shortly after reaching the end of the Gooseneck Glacier, we ran into a hanging snowfield that was quickly deteriorating. Joe sank up to his waist after just a couple steps, and he’s not a short guy. As a team, we came the difficult conclusion that we needed to turn around, especially as our current speed meant we’d be cutting it close to make it back to camp before dark.

Gannett Peak descent

Joe and Ben starting the descent of Gannett

Looking back on that moment, I’m glad to say we all know we made the right decision. It would not have been safe to continue with the glacier and snow in the condition it was in, and we made it back to camp just in time to gobble down our Thanksgiving-themed dinner as the last rays of light disappeared. I’m pretty sure I was asleep before my head hit the pillow.

My First Time Mountaineering – It Won’t Be My Last!

I won’t go into the details of our hike out and other happenings from this mountaineering trip (though you should definitely check them out on our trip report!). But despite not reaching the summit, I walked out of the wilderness two days later and felt like I was glowing, despite having rather sore feet. I think if you’d asked me if I wanted to go do the whole trip again, I would have said “Give me 24 hours off my feet and eating burgers and ice cream, then YES – LET’S GO!”

What made my first time mountaineering so amazing? Obviously it didn’t hurt that I spent seven days in one of the most beautiful, remote places I’d ever been, but I think it was more than that.

Team Tender – from left to right, Joe, Chelsea, Ben, and myself – in Titcomb Basin 

I had an amazing, supportive, and fun-loving mountaineering team. I can’t convey how truly great they were, but I want to share at least one thing about each of them.

  • From rapping in the backcountry to belaying us down couloirs to making us stay ridiculously hydrated, Joe was everything you could ask for in a trip leader. If you’re headed out on a “first,” it’s vital you trust the experienced members of your team. Joe took his role seriously and always made sure to put our safety first, while also helping us have a good time.
  • The best tent-mate award goes to Chelsea! Not only was she an amazing backcountry chef who made sure we all had the nutrition we needed, but she also had a positive, can-do attitude perfectly coupled with a realistic look at our current circumstances, helping us to make smart decisions as a team when it counted most. If you’re going to sleep in the same tiny enclosed space with someone for seven days, make sure you pick someone as awesome as Chelsea! (Plus, she liked to go to bed early, so we both got waaaay more sleep than the boys did.)
  • Let’s just start with the fact that Ben has the best vision of anyone I’ve ever seen – he could spot wildlife or other hikers from miles and miles away! From reminding me to get all the points of my crampons in the snow to helping us lift the bear bags into a tree, Ben added a steady presence and relentless good humor to our team that made him a pleasure to travel with.

So here’s to first time adventures – I hope my story has encouraged you to pick one of your own! You will in all likelihood have to work harder and prepare more than you ever have in your life, but difficult is not impossible, and with a lot of preparation and a solid group of people, there’s not much you can’t accomplish.

That was my first time mountaineering, but if I have anything to say about it, it definitely won’t be my last! After all, there’s a whole lot of world out there, and Gannett Peak is definitely still waiting for me…

my first time mountaineering

My first time mountaineering on Gannet Peak is an experience I’ll never forget

About the Author

Jenny Hastings fell in love with hiking from spending hours in the White Mountains with her dad. She spends most weekends in the summer and quite a few weekends in the winter out on the trails. The #BeSafeGannett Expedition was her first experience mountaineering, and she was excited to rise to the challenge with the training and by developing her technical skills. She’s always looking for a new summit and ways to spend more time outdoors, whether on the trail or reading in her hammock.

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.