American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

North America, United States, California, Sierra Nevada, Mt. Whitney, If at First....

  • Climbs And Expeditions
  • Climb Year:
  • Publication Year: 2005

Mt. Whitney, If at First.… We began this route on the east face of Mt. Whitney in 1999, with 14-year-old Scott Thelan. We sat in a tent in the rain for 36 hours and got back on the face only to have the clouds come in. We accomplished one pitch before deciding that a hanging death flake made the cracks we were in too dangerous. I made a second attempt with my ex-wife, Jackie Carroll, in 2002. We opted for the farthest left crack system, where we could quickly gain the edge of the face. However, to save time we ventured way left on the south face, to easier ground, and cut back right to the edge of the face at the top of pitch 6. From here I followed a beautiful crack to a groove on the south face proper. Steep. Runout. We went down.

In the summer of 2003 I enlisted a ropegun, Seth Dilles. We fixed the first five pitches and waited for my wife. She would hike in the following day, and we all would send it to the top. However, she went to the wrong campsite. Since Seth was my ride home, I left and the ropes remained. Later that summer Seth and I enlisted extreme skier Johnny “Rotten” McGrath. The day after we arrived at base camp it rained, but it dawned clear the following day. Seth and I jugged the ropes, reached our high point, and got to work. Seth ran it out on 5.10 ground and then placed a bolt. Then the sky opened up, we were in a full blizzard, and we went down. On our fifth attempt, we got to our high point, and Seth ran it out to discover…no belay, no cracks, nowhere to go. He weaseled in something to back off and got back to the ledge. We went down and removed the ropes.

On the sixth attempt we gave ourselves seven days, but things did not go as planned. I was approached by a Whitney Trail hiker, who asked if we could porter a load for his daughter, who had a broken arm. We got the overloaded pack to their base camp, but my back was in spasms. We marched off toward the North Fork and camped beneath Pinnacle Ridge, where Seth discovered he still had some of the girl’s stuff. He circumnavigated Wotan’s Throne and arrived back in camp at 2 a.m. That was the sixth attempt.

On the seventh attempt Seth was determined to do it in a day, so we came in, fixed almost to our previous high point, and took a rest day. We awoke at 2 a.m. and were jugging away when the sun rose. From atop the original first pitch, we took a line left for several pitches, because it was easier than the original. From our highpoint Seth dashed around the corner into space. I sat and waited. Not a sound did I hear from him. I had hoped he was going to climb the outside of the dihedral we had spied from the ground. But as time passed, I imagined Seth out there, no pro, sketching out. What would the rescue scenario be if he fell? With one rope and a 5mm tag line, not pretty. However, he called off-belay, and I followed the most spectacular pitch I have ever climbed in the mountains. Sustained 5.10 on the outside edge of a dihedral, with 1,500' of air beneath me. A great pitch of hand cracks led through a roof, then an easy pitch, then a hail storm. I climbed into the dark and collapsed onto a ledge. Seth jugged, which was fine with me, because I was tired. We spent the rest of the night shivering.

The next day went quickly, as we climbed easy ground to the summit. We called our 2,800', V 5.10+ route If At First.… One of the finest routes in the Whitney region. This was my seventh first ascent on the nine pinnacles between Mt. Muir and Whitney.

Mike Strassman

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