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No Rest Days in the Sierra Nevada

No Rest Days in the Sierra Nevada

Stephen Porcella

THE EAST FACE of Mount Whitney is normally an easy 5.4 route, but on this long, cold April day, with the standard cracks full of ice, it turns into a 5.8, A2 route for us. We reach the summit as the sun says goodbye with a beautiful magenta sunset. With the sun now gone, the wind begins to howl. Instantly the water bottles on our harnesses freeze solid. We quickly start the traverse of the north icefields to gain the Muir Route down. Lacking crampons as well as headlamps and confronting difficult ice, we back off and wisely opt for a night on the peak. In our lightweight polypro, we open the door to the dilapidated summit shelter and find it full to the brim with snow. We worm inside the corrugated aluminum roof and shiver non-stop until dawn.

Reality returns with the sun. Cameron Bums and I look at each other and wonder what the hell we are doing. Our goal is to climb all California’s 14,000-foot peaks, climb the classic routes, put up bold new routes and do it all in three months. The information we collect will go into a guidebook on these peaks. Before the Whitney climb, we thought this ludicrous goal would be easy. With our brains now permanently frozen, we decide to go for harder routes in more extreme conditions.

In mid May we hike into the Williamson-Tyndall Basin under increasingly cloudy skies. The surrounding peaks are dressed in white veils that give us quick glimpses of unexplored rock faces. We look for Mount Williamson, but it is hiding and refuses to greet us. We decide instead to do the Pacific Crest Rib of Mount Tyndall.

Halfway up the rib, we’re hit by swirling winds and falling snow. We continue in 40-foot visibility, eventually gaining a ridge. Unable to see where the summit is, we follow the ridge until we reach what we think is the high point, but we are full of doubt. Could the summit be farther off along the ridge? “Maybe it’s that shadow off in the clouds,” someone says. It’s getting dark and we have to do something. Suddenly, Cam hits a rectangular rock with his ice axe and it rings with a metallic sound. It’s the summit register and we are ecstatic. We start down the north ridge, wading through deep snow that is now a foot deep. My ‘quality’ brand-name gaiters have failed and are now in two pieces, flapping in the wind. We can’t see the class-two route we had hoped to descend. Instead we are stranded among gendarmes that appear to overhang on all sides. Desperate to get off this ridge, I suddenly find myself hanging over empty space, trying to free-solo an overhanging hand crack in mittens and mountain boots. Cam takes a fall. He tries to self-arrest, his axe skipping and chattering over the ice-covered rock. He disappears into a white swirling cloud. Dan, a friend of mine, stands nearby and begins mumbling thoughts I had been struggling to suppress.

“Get on top of the ridge again!” a voice calls out of the swirling gray void. The voice of God I ask? No, it’s the voice of Cam. A hidden ledge had grabbed his ice axe and arrested his fall. He is now past the gendarmes and on easier ground. Dan and I belly-crawl along the top of the narrow ridge, arms and legs dangling on either side. We gain the class-two route and descend into the basin.

While walking through the basin to Shepards Pass, I begin to hallucinate. The exertion and stress have taken their toll. The dark rocks around me suddenly become white, while the snow that I walk on becomes a jet-black abyss. I stumble on, listing like a ship that has lost its captain, barely able to avoid the brilliant fluorescent rocks in front of me.

It’s June, we’ve quit our jobs, and now are totally committed to the project.

After watching the snow and rocks tumble down the east face of Mount Tyndall, Cameron and I start up the safer and unclimbed east-facing arête. Five pitches of steep, solid granite with a 5.9 crux bring us to a small pre-occupied ledge. The tenant is a deer that had tried to hold precious heat from the wind that now whispers through its bleached and pitted bones. As I set my anchor, ready to belay Cameron up, I feel empathy for the little critter. I hope that some day I don’t leave this planet the same way.

Two days later, we start a very early and cold climb up the untouched south arête on Mount Williamson. After seven pitches of 5.8 over loose, exposed rock, we stand before a thousand feet of unroped fourth-class climbing to the summit. We top out at 5:30 P.M., exhausted.

The next morning I lie on the ground, sore and weak. I want only to sleep indefinitely. Yet Cameron stands above me with the air of an unconquerable Viking. He gives me a critical eye and bellows, “No rest days!” I whimper, having heard that phrase before. I curse under my breath and raise my withered frame to its feet. I don’t know it, but in two days our roles will be reversed. I will be the Viking, bellowing the battle phrase and he the pitiful creature who lies sprawled, begging for deep sleep.

One week later, we enter the Palisade Basin and do five routes (three of them first ascents) in four days. Our single 9mm rope becomes more frayed and tattered. We cover the white core with tape and continue climbing. In the Putterman Couloir, I witness Cameron float up a wall of loose sludge and rock. Hesitantly I follow, for I know this conglomerate mass is begging to roar down the gully, taking anything with it.

Our continued use of a taped 9mm rope with a small rack of hexes, wedgies and wire stoppers prompts another phrase. Whenever the leader is in a dire situation and appears ready to peel, the belayer, in a commanding voice, shouts, “Poor climbers don’t fall!” The phrase has surprising results and our climbing abilities soar.

Out of food, we leave the Palisade Basin via the U-notch with full packs. After fourteen rappels down the eastern couloir, we collapse at the base of the glacier and pass out for several hours.

After a day of pillaging in Bishop, we hike over South Fork Pass, turn north and camp that evening at the base of the west face of Middle Palisade. Clear morning skies beckon us up a massive buttress for ten pitches of thrilling 5.9 climbing. We rappel an impassable notch and then finish off two more pitches of fourth-class to gain the narrow summit. We name this route the Smoke Buttress in honor of Smoke Blanchard who died in a car accident that summer. On the hike out, we solo up and down two different routes on the east face.

The constant physical exertion of the approaches and the climbs are taking their toll mentally and physically. Fingertips ooze constantly, our feet are sore, and cabin fever rears its ugly head. The town of Bishop seems to look like a bizarre, antiquated village in a Lovecraft story. We talk of blowing up the only radio station that plays nothing but country-Westem songs 24 hours a day.

It is August 8 and the summer is more than half over.The first day back in the Palisade Basin, Cameron and I, like two possessed fiends, climb unroped up one class-four chute and descend another on Thunderbolt Peak. The next day we do three pitches of 5.8 climbing to the summit of Polemonium Peak and rappel off. At the bottom of the rappel, my brother Don acts as a 215-pound anchor as we pendulum across a large patch of steep blue ice to regain the notch. In the next two days, we ascend and descend five different routes on two 14,000ers and bag a 13,000er.

We’re back in Bishop to get food, but this time we’re singing our favorite country-Westem songs. Cameron walks around downtown Bishop wearing a fluorescent outfit consisting of lime-green tights, shorts, socks, tank tops, shoe laces, watch band and sunglasses, all the while looking skyward and spouting something about a mother ship coming soon. He gets accosted by a huge, sweating fat man, who takes a swing at him. While hiking into White Mountain under an eclipsing moon framed by stars, I think about the mother ship and wonder if there is room on board for me.

Three days later, we’re nearly sprinting into Palisade Glacier with two friends, Dan and Paul. We get up with the sun and while hiking to the Swiss Arete on Mount Sill, Dan and I are almost swept into oblivion by a rock avalanche. Once on the arête, the climbing is fun and uneventful. However, the rope team of Cameron and Paul is off-route and doing some 5.9 climbing. Paul is screaming something vicious. I notice from afar that every time Paul reaches Cameron’s belay, he punches him. I find out later that Paul had never been on a multi-pitch climb and that Cameron had told him that this route was a walk-up with a cable. Ah, true friends!

We slip into Bishop for supplies at Neccer’s Bart grill and begin calling the radio station requesting our favorite songs.

The hike to Split Mountain is long, dry and seemingly vertical. Our packs are especially heavy and the heat totally exhausts us. We continue to the west side of the peak. From the summit of Middle Palisade, we had noticed a huge arête that curved like a giant horseshoe, eventually joining with the south summit of Split Mountain. The arête is jagged and broken and is over three miles long. It takes us two days to do it because of poor planning. The entire Split Mountain trip turns out to be the most exhausting yet. Hauling full packs over three passes in the dark, I can see Cameron in front of me only by the sparks from the rocks that fly every time he falls. Soloing fifth-class over rock and gravel that feels so loose, I can swear that nothing is holding me up but my thoughts. Most importantly, I have scary thoughts of Bob Goode who died only two months ago on a similar ridge nearby that collapsed under his weight.

Time is running out. We banter the “No rest days” phrase back and forth like a tennis ball in a tennis match in Hell.

Lost, with a full pack, on top of a ridge on the way to Mount Russell, I attain a new level of frustration. We eventually find the peak and in four days ascend and descend six different routes. On the fifth pitch of the west chimney, caught between a run-out section below and scalloped holds above, my mind runs away. My two heels respond by bobbing up and down like twin turbo-charged sewing machines. I lunge for a small rounded ledge and friction-mantel onto it. Another 50 feet and I’m sucking thin air down my parched throat. Shaking from adrenalin, I am thankful that Cameron has the next lead through the roof above.

In one endorphine-crazed day, we leave Mount Russell, bag the summit of Whitney and Muir, hike the entire Whitney Portal Trail and collapse at the car at two A.M. Two days later, both of us hike over twenty miles to Mount Langley to ascend and descend the peak by three separate routes.

The summer is over, we’re out of money and now, finally, it’s time to rest. During roughly 100 days, we have ascended and descended 45 established routes and put up eight new technical routes, all on the 14,000ers. We have missed Shasta, but it must wait till next year.

Our greatest achievement is not the new routes, the number of routes, nor even the technical nature of many of the ascents. It is the personal knowledge that, given the time and limited funds we had, we climbed to our absolute limits. Although, looking back, if we hadn’t slept in that one particular day, we could have done one more.