North Ridge of Lone Pine Peak trip report
July 5 2005
by Grant Horner
(Note to climber friends) This is geared down a bit for all my friends and family who are not climbers but have asked for the stories and pictures. Sorry to be talking down to the rest of you!
Lone Pine Peak is a hair under 13,000 feet, somewhat less than half of Mount Everest, and although the altitude bothers a lot of people, it’s nothing like climbing in the Himalaya, where the base camps of many routes are at 15,000 to 17,000 feet. For Lone Pine Peak you start hiking at the 8,000 foot level, at Whitney Portal (which also leads up to Mount Whitney.)
Lone Pine Peak is the summit on the extreme left while the summit on the extreme right is Mount Whitney.
Christof Koch and I drove up Monday night, July 4. 2005th, and made it to the town of Lone Pine from my house in 3 hours. We camped low where the air was warm and thick so we could get some rest. We slept about 3-1/2 hours and got up at 3.30 am for a classic “alpine start,” a phrase which, if properly rendered from the original German, means “you’ve got to be kidding me – it’s the middle of the night and my sleeping bag is warm and that mountain is scary looking in the dark!” The Milky Way was a bright smear of lights across the sky. We retrieved our food from the bear boxes and brewed up tea for me and coffee for Christof, plus some oats and other stuff.
We made a pretty fast approach hiking in the dark with our headlamps. The trail is neither long nor steep, ascending a few thousand feet over several miles. We were climbing ultralight, with just hydrator packs, wind/rain shells, ice axes, and a bit of food. If we got caught by weather or nightfall it would be pretty uncomfortable, especially up high, though not dangerous, and by taking very little we would be able to move quickly. We worked up the zigzaggy, switchbacked trail, glad not to have big packs. The Eastern sky slowly lightened as we got to about 9,000 feet, and birds began singing and the morning breezes kicked up a bit. It’s always very lovely in an alpine environment at the beginning or end of the day – there’s nothing quite like it – it is absolute peacefulness. We met up with a young couple from the Rock Creek area who were doing the North Ridge for the first time. I gave them some beta on the route, as best as I could recall (it’s far too long to remember all the details) and we hiked together a bit. At many points, broad snowfields still covered the trail.
We worked up the Meysan lake drainage, paralleling but far above the stream with its many icy waterfalls, until we got to about the 10,000 foot level, where we cross-countried past some sequoia and fir and some wide-open rock slabs just below the natural dam that forms the lowest of the several gorgeous alpine lakes in the upper basin. We hopped across the creek on boulders at a narrow point. The sun was now up, though hidden behind the eastern side of the North Ridge, which loomed above us. The pink and orange light of the first rays of the day’s sunlight lit up the summit block — thousands of feet above us — like a gas jet. The day was very clear. We walked across the talus slopes, boulders shifting occasionally underfoot, and traversed a small snowfield. There was so much snowpack in the Sierra this year that we might encounter snow at almost any point on the route – even in July, and though you gain altitude quickly, you really are working your large muscle groups rapidly. Christof is a runner who jogs up trails in the San Gabriel mountains behind his Pasadena home. I sit and read old books; he is also approximately 4 inches taller than I am and this utterly unfair extendage appears concentrated in the lower extremities. Thus, he was way the heck ahead of me, even though I have been climbing for about 22 years longer than he.
So I’m just climbing along on easy 4th class, and it’s getting harder and harder, and I have the Beach Boys on my MP3 music player, talking about cars and California girls and surfing and whatnot. Suddenly I hear a supplementary, rather Wagnerian-germanic voice on the “Little Deuce Coupe” track, and I look up, quizzically. Christof is 100 feet lower than me, and hundreds of feet left, on easy ground. I have been absentmindedly climbing some bizarre spur of rock that gets very hard just above me before it meets the ridge. I turn red and climb over to my “junior partner” — who is properly on-route. I catch up to him as he crests the ridge and enters the sunlight.
“What are you listening to? Mozart? he asks. Uh. Beach Boys! What? In the MOUNTAINS? This is a Mozart ridge!!! How can you do this thing? I feel terribly “American” at this point. I try to think up all the nerdy-scientist jokes I have ever heard so I can repeat them with relish. I don’t know any.
We moved up more easy third class and some fourth class ground unroped, past some pretty alpine scrub and flowers, and wandered up separately, staying close to the ridge itself. It was still very early, but already warm in the sun. Christof’s long legs continue to serve him well. I begin to curse my demanding training regimen, which consists largely of Pinot Noir (with brief excursions into Guinness), Kalamata olives, ancient books, sleeping and fine salami.
Finally, the climbing gets a bit difficult as well as exposed. Even a small fall would have serious consequences. We rope up. We were simul-climbing — me in the lead, Christof at the other end of the rope, moving at about the same speed and keeping several pieces of gear in the rock between us and attached to the rope to protect us from a serious fall — for what seemed like miles and miles at 11,000-12,000 feet. It was tremendous, and easier than I had remembered. Much of the time you’re on the knife-edge ridge, with wild exposure, on three sides. From time to time the rock steepens into a towering mass that we had to climb over or around. Often there was some serious downclimbing on the “uphill” side of the numerous towers that punctuate the ridge. I protected these sections well for Christof, as he was following me and thus did not have a rope from above as usual.
Finally we climbed down into a deep notch in the ridge which is visible from the town, miles away and 7000 thousand feet below us. We climbed a great 5.6 layback crack placing our feet high on wall as our hands pull outward strenuously on the vertical crack that is perpendicular to your body. It was easy rockclimbing for an experienced leader, but the altitude and exposure makes it interesting, to say the least, especially with a pack. We simulclimbed this as well, and the face above, which led to the base of a huge chimney system at around 11,500.
Being protected from the sun, it was choked with hard snow and ice. The left side of this gully was ok, though the snow had melted back a bit and left a strip of rock clean and climbable. There was even a little finger crack in the back of the corner I could use. I just charged up it, not even bothering to grab my ice axe off the back of the pack. Thirty feet up, things changed: the rock was wet and my feet were covered with snow and I really would have paid an awful stack of cash to have my ice axe in my right hand. It was more awkward than hard; my hands worked the thin crack, my feet stayed on the face, and my right butt cheek half-sat/leaned on the snow. It was cold (as snow often is). I couldn’t stop to access the axe. I started clawing the fingers of my right hand into the icy snow and used that for security and upward progress. I cursed the day when, one Saturday when I was fourteen, my dad asked me if I wanted to watch a movie called “The Eiger Sanction. I now realized that theaters are NOT FREEZING, and that you can get hot popcorn at any moment. Also, I am not Clint Eastwood (though I do teach a little art history.) But I am certainly not a government assassin. Eastwood, as “Dr. Hemlock,” the ultra-cool art-history professor/extreme alpinist/government assassin, when death is imminent for the entire team on the North Face of the Eiger, says: “We’ll make it.” The Austrian climber responds: “I don’t zink zo; but ve vill continue vith style”. Well, stylish I’ve never been accused of being!
Ten minutes later, we were out of the chimney and suddenly exposed to surprisingly hot burning sun at altitude. We continued past more little towers, sometimes on the sunny side, sometimes in very cool shade, often on the very sharp ridge with drops of thousands of feet to the right (West) and the even more immense void of the Owens Valley and beyond that, Death Valley on the left (East). You very slowly gain altitude on this part of the route, but it’s great climbing on solid alpine granite, with holds everywhere, protection everywhere, and great photo-ops everywhere. Some towers could not be bypassed by climbing around them at base, but had to be tackled directly, which means climbing up and gaining height, only to find yourself having to climb back down as much as 75 ft on the other side; disheartening and tiring.
We finally came to the last, steepest and largest tower: several hundred feet of rather imposing granite stubbornness clinging to the ridge at just over 12,000 feet. It would be considered a full-sized rockclimbing crag in the lowlands, and practically a major destination area back east. I could not, for the life of me, recall the exact route here. My brain may have been fuzzy due to the altitude (I had not been above 8000 feet for seven months.) Also, my 40th birthday was one week away. People who can watch “Thirtysomething” to “see what the young whippersnappers are up to” do not always have the highest order mental functions intact. The other party, a mountain-bronzed young couple named Drew and Stephanie, asked me where the route went. I looked professorially sage, acted like the scarecrow in “Wizard of Oz,” and said, uhm you can go both ways? We had passed each other several times that day already, and they had not been on the mountain before, and no doubt viewed me as a font of alpine wisdom, which I am not.
All four of us climbed a funky gully and went to the right, the Western side of the tower, seeking shade, if not the easiest route. We ended up on a great ledge with shade and rather massive exposure. The huge wall just dropped away below us, the tarns and lakes below glittering like rainbow trout fish-scales in the midday sunlight. The other team tackled a vague crack system on the left side of the ledge. They were on difficult ground and going slowly, clearly intimidated at this point.
Instead of waiting for them, we traversed right, ate wonderful salami from Christof’s pack, and some pretty darn good hunks of Gouda cheese from mine. Christof, being European, was able to critique the moisture content of my Gouda with amazing precision and perspicacity. I took rapid lower-bourgeois offense to his seemingly-aristocratic snubbing of my fermented curd. Had I not accepted his salami grudge-free, witholding justifiable remarks on the high concentration of sulfites, not to mention the obstreperous (and clearly Germanico-Saxon) overabundance of both black peppercorns and obvious grain-fillers! I suggested therefore that he might lead the next few hundred feet — which looked kind of loose, scary and definitely overhanging for at least the first 30 feet. (I wouldn’t have actually let him do it, as he would have certainly been killed. But I relished the thought of him cringing at saying “nein.” Also, he had recently treated my wife and I to dinner in Santa Barbara, and I therefore thought outright 2nd degree murder a bit excessive, consider it all around.) Thus justified regarding my soft, wet Gouda, I led off into some loose, blocky 5.8 overhangs. Easy climbing for me, but requiring real caution. When the rope ran out after 100’ we began simulclimbing again, keeping several pieces of gear between us. I was now on easier ground, and Christof confidently negotiated the lower crux area. We went up a good ways like this, and eventually I ran out of gear. At the same time the cracks system I was following faded into funky grooves grooves way funkier than James Brown, even.. All I could use to set up a belay was a smallish spike of rock, around which I looped two runners. Christof arrived, a bit disconcerted at my belay. “Are we on-route” he queried. “Yeah, just a little variation”! I began to wonder what the left side of this tower might have been like.
I started right up and went right into another groove system with an obvious fixed piton. It was very rusty, sunk into a wet crack, and looked nasty. I backed right off, as the climbing above looked tough and hard to get good gear in. I traversed left up above the belay on a very thin crack at about 5.8, pretty hard at that altitude, and with just a few places to place gear. I was thirty feet above the belay with two good nuts in. Hmmmm. Ten feet up was a pair of wide vertical cracks. I went for it. The right crack went up and right, aiming for a little ledge I had spotted from below. The left crack was crap – shallow and rounded. I went up the right crack, laybacking hard, and after ten more feet got some decent gear. Now I just had to traverse right 15 feet to a good ledge. But between me and it was some very funky (we’re talking Rick James now), rotten-looking granite. I moved right a few feet. I had my leading right hand jammed into a wide horizontal crack made up of big stacked granite plates. (Note to self: stay away from big, rotten, stacked plates of rock even if granite!) My feet were kind of on nothing but little nubbins. Just three moves to the ledge. Then my right handhold and right foothold both crumbled a bit, simultaneously. Gulp. I moved back. Sweated. Thought. Then I tried the traverse again, lower down a bit, and it was fine. I belayed Christof up to the ledge. Then we simulclimbed a long easy chimney/corner system back into the sunlight, traversed some more wildly exposed knife-edge ridge, downclimbed a bit to get to the notch on the far side of the tower, and stared up at the final summit headwall.
It looks like it’s just 200 feet of easy climbing, though it’s much longer than that. We started off with a cool 5.8 hand crack, which kicked back to very easy fifth class and finally fourth class blocks — pretty mellow. We were tired, but moving quickly with the simulclimbing system, which we had down pat by now. Christof was climbing well, just eating the whole thing up ravenously. I finallyw yelled down “I see BLUE SKY ABOVE ME AND IN FRONT OF ME!” He let out with his usual coyote yelping. It was about 5pm. We had been climbing for ten hours.
We spent fifteen minutes on the summit, taking photos and sucking up the view and the thin air. Then we started trudging down the southern slopes, finally grinding down a scree-filled couloir on the southwest face which dumped us onto some small snowfields above a small tarn. Drew and Stephanie caught up with us on the descent. They were out of water and a little dehydrated, as were we. We all hiked down to the next lake, I think Peanu and I purified some water with my MIOX system, which weighs only one ounce and can be carried easily, and we continued crossing small snowfields and talus until we came to the creek. The day’s hot sun had of course melted a lot of snow up above, so it was now a small raging torrent. Christof and I both ended up on a big boulder in the middle of the creek. Spider-leg man decided to simply bridge across to a little divot in the rock on the other side. He went in almost to his knees, of course. He graciously grabbed my trekking pole to help me in case I missed the leap across to the slabs, which thankfully I did not, though my four-decade knees groaned in audible protest.
We slithered several miles down the grinding, dusty trail, and I wore a huge blister into my right foot. I was limping miles before we got to the car at nearly midnight. We had been up about 21 hours. Christof asked “How did you stay up for sixty hours straight when you were on El Capitan twelve days ago?” I was too tired to formulate an answer. In fact, I couldn’t remember.
Everything was closed in Lone Pine, of course, except the Mobil station. I bought two nasty gas-station burritos, microwaved them to take the chill off, and we drove home, arriving at 3 am.