American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

A Mountaineer's Route to the Summit of Mt. Whitney

  • Notes
  • Climb Year:
  • Publication Year: 1931

A Mountaineer’s Route to the Summit of Mt. Whitney

The completion of the new trail to the top of Mt. Whitney, which enables almost anyone who can ride a horse to reach it, together with the fact that this mountain is the highest in the United States proper, intrigue the mountaineer with a desire to find a real climbing route to the summit. It appears that it can be ascended by the northwestern shoulder, no difficulty being apparent except possibly a stretch of rather steeply-shelving rock best negotiated with rubber-soled shoes. The north face, consisting of very wide, shallow couloirs separated by low ribs can be readily scaled. Early in the season it would involve a good deal of snow and some ice- work; later the use of rubber soles on the steeply shelving pitches.

The numerous steep chimneys extending northward from Mt. Muir to Mt. Whitney are probably unscalable—or only with great hazard—at least those nearest the latter. During the past summer a rather ill-considered attempt on the part of a youth, to climb the one immediately to the south of the summit, resulted in a lamentable fatality. However, to the north of the peak a fairly steep couloir rises from the east to a notch in an arête extending northward from the summit. This chute affords interesting but only moderately difficult rock-work. Early in the summer it is likely to contain a good deal of snow. The angle is not too steep to preclude glissading on the descent, should the snow be in proper condition. Upon reaching the notch, the route swings around a buttress and up the north face. Here, too, a good deal of snow is likely to be encountered early in the season. This portion of the ascent also is only of moderate difficulty and is about five hundred feet in length.

To reach the base of the chimney, one must either leave the trail at Mirror Lake, an elevation of some 10,500 ft. above sea- level, or at Consultation Lake, about 1,500 ft. higher, and go respectively northwest or north to a pass on a ridge extending eastward from Mt. Whitney. Either route entails not only the crossing of the ridge but also the traversing of a basin beyond it, filled with rough talus.

A much more interesting route, although one necessitating a somewhat arduous knapsack trip, is to leave the trail at about 9,000 ft. elevation—about 800 above Hunters’ Flat and proceed directly westward up the gorge of the North Fork of Lone Pine Creek. Although the bottom of the canyon can be followed, a more adventurous and perhaps easier way can be found by swinging to the left around the buttress, up a steep gulch coming in from the south. After climbing over several hundred feet of broken rocks, a crevice about fifty feet in length can be seen running up a rather steep granite pitch to the right. This can be scaled without great difficulty, although it is best to remove one’s pack and haul it up at the end of a rope.

At the upper end of the crack, one encounters a shelf going westward along the face of the cliff. Ordinarily this can be followed with comparative ease, to its western termination, a distance of about a half mile, but at seasons other than midsummer the presence of snow and ice may render it difficult, if not dangerous.

Above the shelf, the route swings across a strip of loose rock to a glacial basin in which there is a grove of foxtail pine, at an elevation of some 10,000 ft. This is a good place to camp, but one can ascend to the next basin, about 500 ft. higher, and bivouac in it, although late in the season there is no water in the grove of foxtail pines—the most desirable camping spot. To circumvent the steep drop above the basin, several routes are available. The most obvious is one across a talus-covered slope to the left. Better than this, however, are two leading up the north side. The first of these leads up the most conspicuous chimney, to the right of the sheer wall, for several hundred feet, and then diagonals to the left across a broad, apron-like shelving strip of glaciated granite pitching rather steeply to the southeast. This is easily traversed in rubber-soled shoes and can be negotiated with nailed ones.

Upon reaching the basin, all routes converge toward a projection running eastward from Mt. Whitney. It has the appearance of a point almost directly west of the basin and slightly to the south of the summit of Mt. Whitney, then in plain view. At the base of this, one has the choice between scaling the point and thus obtaining an interesting rock climb or of swinging to the south of it and following the base of the cliff westward for a quarter of a mile until a place is reached where the latter can easily be climbed. Both routes emerge in a shallow basin containing a lake and with Mt. Whitney and the desired chimney directly to the west.

To make the trip comfortably, it would require a half-day to knapsack from the base of the Sierra; a day for the climb and a day for the return. However, as other good climbs—including Mt. Russell, 14,190 ft. in altitude and several other unnamed peaks—• are available from this base camp, the stay might be prolonged for a number of days. Both the trip up the canyon of the North Fork and the ascent of Mt. Whitney by this route still possess the spice of novelty as but few have ever done either.

Norman Clyde.

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