Oh, those awful ledges. There are quite a few large steps. If you have great balance, I suppose you could just jump down from one to another. But that was impossible for me, so I'd end up sitting down swinging over the ledge and then hauling myself and the 50 lbs on my back up to a standing position. After doing that a couple hundred times on really sore legs, I definitely wasn't a happy camper. Add to that a backpack that didn't fit quite right which would swing to the opposite side I was trying to move forcing me to pull and additional 50 lbs in the opposite direction in an attempt to continue forward progress.
I wasn't happy when they took this picture. Tried to stay focused during the trip past the boulders and through the ledges, not thinking about how much I really wasn't enjoying this. But after a couple of falls on the ledges, I'd just about had it. I think the scenery was the intended target in this picture. A far better sight than a weary and irritable hiker mentally wishing this journey to end.
I groaned inwardly (and perhaps outwardly, unawares) at the sight of the gully. It looked like an enormous rockwall venturing straight up. The small and medium size loose rocks seemed taunting, as if they knew of my poor sense of balance and tendency to turn an ankle by placing a foot wrong. There were endless opportunities to do that on the gully.
Fortunately, I didn't. We headed straight upwards, at times slipping a bit as out feet sank into piles of rocks. The edge of the gully seemed to move farther away and it didn't appear that we were making any progress. Yet another trick of mind and altitude. At this point, I started to wonder about what the route down would be like. I had a feeling descending this mass of rock and scree would be even more challenging than our upward trek. I pushed those thoughts from my mind and moved ahead, eager to see what came next. Actually, I was just eager to get out of the gully.
We took a rest break after the tough ascent from Iceberg Lake. There was no trail anymore, hadn't been one for a while. Its not exactly necessary as we knew where we were headed.
Someone in the group had one of those watches that can tell you what altitude you have reached. I'm sure they have a purpose, but I wouldn't recommend one. Hikers on the walkup trail are told not to count the switchbacks. You don't want to measure your altitude or distance on the Mountaineers either. Its disheartening to hear that you've only gone a couple hundred feet when your legs and lungs are assuring you that it must be quite farther. Its also painful to hear, as you struggle to catch your breath, that you have 1,000 feet in altitude to go. What we didn't know, but again probably suspected, was that the toughest part was yet to come.
Favorite thing: The peak to the far right is the summit of Whitney. Its in full view and only about 2.5 miles away. It seems so close at this point. That's part of the deception. Its about 7 a.m. at this point and we will not reach the summit for another 6 hours. Thankfully, we were blissfully unaware of that. But even those with limited mountain experience such as myself knew that the mountain in the distance was quite farther than it appeared.
Favorite thing: You really start to hate these rocks after a while. The slow, grinding uphill climb over this unsteady terrain can become quite maddening. Especially at elevation where you're walking much slower than you believe and it really feels endless. Add to that the weight of a 50 lb pack on your back and each step up strains your quad muscles to the point where you can almost hear them scream. This is where the mental game begins. You have to will yourself to stop thinking about how much farther, stop thinking about the pain and soreness setting in and to stop thinking period. Its one foot in front of the other, or above the other. Slow and steady. Even the strongest mental prowess cannot prevent the thought that looms the largest: why am I doing this?
Favorite thing: The boulders were pretty brutal. A lot of really high steps, some places where it was really tough to keep your balance and uphill all the way. But it was worth it to see a view like this, so far away from the crowds at portal and the stream of people we'd find at the summit. A nice reward for all that hard work. But still, so far to go. We'd only made it maybe 2 or 2. 5 miles at this point.
The first 3/4 of a mile or so were just a steady uphill on fairly even trail. Not nearly as strenuous as what was to come. Of course, we didn't know that, but suspected that it would get more challenging as we got closer to the summit.
We started this hike way too late in the day. Close to 1 pm. The afternoon sun was pretty brutal at this 8-9,000 foot elevation level. We figured it wouldn't take us that long to go 4 miles to Iceberg Lake, but vastly underestimated just how tough it would be. If I did this hike again, something I don't plan to do, I'd definitely get an early start. I'd prefer to hang out at the non scenic campsite than to slog onward and upward during the heat of the day.
Here begins the real fun of the ascent. I forget how far we had to go at this point, but it was at least 1,000 feet. This part is extremely steep with lots of loose rock and talus (small stones that make it easy to slip and fall). Once again, we were traversing, making this section longer than it would be going striaght up, but there didn't seem to be a direct route without falling and possibly sliding.
We had a rock fall above us that was a bit unnerving. Fortunately, the medium sized rocks did not impact anyone as we heard the sound and ducked for cover. When climbers dislodge rocks, they are supposed to yell "rock!" to warn those below. These seemed to move from their own volition as no one was above us. We had helmets on which should protect against anything short of a boulder avalanche. Still, this made everyone just a little more wary and we continued, a bit more cautiously, trying to cling to the sides of the gully behind the shelter of some of the larger overhead boulders.
As you can see in the photos, there are tons of loose rock up here. It is practically impossible to take a straight path upwards, especially earlier in the summer when there is more snow. We did a good bit of traversing- crossing back and forth at an angle as opposed to going sraight up. This made things easier, but also added to the length and time of the climb.
After our 30 minutes of fame at the summit, it was time to begin the climb down. Clouds started to gather and it was rather late in the day to be up there. About 2 p.m. is my estimate, but I stopped keeping track of time.
We were all dreading the descent. We knew how tough it was to get up there and knew it would be even tougher coming down. But we also knew that we had no choice. So we began with our descent of the ledges.
Climbing down the ledges is more difficult than climbing up. Given that these are ledges and not an actual wall, they can be done without a rope. But I saw a few groups pull out ropes for the descent. It makes it easier as, sans rope, you really have to pick your way down. With the security of a rope, you can lower yourself a few feet or inches when you hit a tricky spot and there is nowhere to step. Its pretty time consuming if you're doing this roped. Actually, the descent is time consuming without ropes as well as you do need to watch your footing. This small section probably took us at least an hour.
At the top of the gully, we found the ledges. The last 100 feet are still considered non-techincal Class 3-4 hiking. Many people do this section without ropes, in part because they don't feel that its dangerous and also because roping and belaying really slows you down. We roped up for this section and I'm glad that we did so.
As you can see from the photos, this wasn't vertical climbing. But it was steep enough to get your heart racing. The worst part for me was the wait on a ledge while the guide scrambled up to set up the next belay. There were no level spots up here and we ended up crouched on a slanted section of rock which made me feel like I was going to fall at any minute. Add to that the increasing view downward, the increasing wind and the altitude which makes you dizzy to begin with, and it was pretty nerve racking.
If you have no fear of heights, this part will not bother you a bit. The group was pretty relaxed and didn't seem to mind any of this much. But those of us who have the fear will end up taking some deep breaths and getting a little more shaky with each pitch as the ground is further and further below.
Favorite thing: The trail crosses water at a few points. Creek crossing is an art I have yet to perfect, as the photographer has so kindly caught on film. Some people are seemingly born with a natural aptitude for balancing on wet slippery rocks while carrying a fully loaded pack. I was just grateful I'd put an extra pair of socks in mine.
The summit is a pretty active and happy place. Most people are excited about the prospect of having made it up here and are roaming about, taking photos and even talking on cellphones (Verizon actually gets service up here, in case anyone's interested.) There is a lot of discussion about which route you took and how long it took, etc.
Most of the summiteers were walkups having taken the 22 mi roundtrip trail. We were one of the few mountaineers route groups. Since I went with an organized group, we were loaded down with gear- helmets, ropes, etc. and were quite a sight to the others on top of the mountain.
The photo shows the official plaque that marks the summit of the mountain. There is also a registry you can sign to make your visit official. Sadly, there are no bathrooms up here, or concession stands. Although, at this altitude, eating is pretty much out of the question.
I would have given anything to be able to walk down the other side and avoid the ledges, gullies and boulders that awaited. It seemed so much easier to just put one foot in front of the other and walk down a trail. In talking with friends who have done the one way walkup, many said the same thing about our route and their wanting to be down in 6 miles instead of the 11 that awaited them. I guess that, even on a mountain in the desert like Sierra Nevadas, the grass always is greener on the other side.
Our summit stay was brief as we still had to tackle the route down. To be continued....
Favorite thing: From Iceberg Lake, the first section you encounter is a steep uphill with some almost techincal moves. This section took longer than expected because we kept traversing (walking back and forth seeking an easier route instead of climbing back up.) We didn't rope up at this point and I doubt that many, if any, climbers do. But there were some sections where you have to navigate around boulders and it was quite easy to lose your balance. There are great handholds in these sections and its relatively easy if you keep your nerve. You wouldn't fall all the way down, but the steep angles can test your nerves a bit if you're afraid of heights like I am.
Favorite thing: We did a rest stop here, pausing to refill water bottles and grab a snack before heading on. Everyone was pretty happy and relaxed. The weather was holding and we weren't far from the summit. Or so we thought.
It took almost an hour an a half to get to Iceberg Lake. After the rock field, we had to scale some good sized boulders. I could not imagine doing this whole section with a backpack on. Even with an earlier start, this section would be brutal if you're fully loaded. Anyone contemplating the Mountaineers Route should give serious thought to camping at Upper Boyscout Lake. It will make your summit day longer and will pretty much require you to camp a second night. But this is ankle turning, thigh burning territory up here.
Iceberg Lake was a bit more crowded than our secluded spot. Lots of people getting a "late morning" start and just emerging from tents at around 8 a.m. After all, its only 2 miles from this point.