Monday, February 10, 2020

Mount Whitney - First Winter Ascent of the Hairline (V 5.10d C2+)

As the horizon began to warm up and the striking wall that is the Keeler Needle started to glow pink, Chris and I took a minute to appreciate the exposure of the bivy site we dug into the narrow snow slope. Our two men tent barely fit and now we could only see the void beneath - a 1,500 foot drop to the snow slopes below Mount Whitney's East Face. It was surreal to be here, in the middle of one of the most photogenic sunrise views in the High Sierra. Hundreds of thousands people photographed this view over the years and now Chris and I were a tiny part of this surreal landscape.

Mount Whitney, the highest peak in the lower 48 states, to me is special for more than its height. Close to 10 years ago, it was my first major climb. Completing the Mountaineer's Route, in winter, was sort of a metamorphosis. Yet, on the descent, we ran into two guys who were gonna try to climb one of the more technical climbs up the peak the following day. It was unimaginable how some humans could do that, but I had not done any roped climbing and had not even gym climbed at that point, so its totally understandable technical climbing in winter seemed impossible. Yet I was fascinated by the idea, and knew I would want to learn.

Over the years, I became increasingly passionate about hiking trails, scrambling local peaks in the Sierra Nevada, picked up technical climbing skills on variable terrain and begun to climb routes no other humans have climbed in the past. Winter climbing and alpinism became a part of the passion and I was able to complete routes up some of the more beautiful and some of the more difficult peaks in the world; like Chacraraju, Alpamayo, Fitz Roy, El Capitan, Chopicalqui, Poincenot, Castle Rock Spire, Angels Wings, Incredible Hulk, Cerro Torre, Bubbs Creek Wall, Denali, Xanadu etc. I have returned to Mount Whitney too, and not only climbed three more technical climbs on it, including a possible second ascent of Left Wing Extremist, but also found three other ways no other human has climbed. One of them, dubbed the Inyo Face, already has been repeated by half a dozen parties who reported it to be a fun experience.

During the last several years I thought of climbing the Hairline in Winter and proposed the idea to different partners. It has been a goal of mine because technically, it is the highest (in altitude) big-wall route in the lower 48 states and the route itself has seen only a few repeats - maybe 5? The route combines difficult aid and free climbing up a steep, 2,000 foot section of Mount Whitney's East Face. It was one of the standout routes put up by a prolific Sierra first ascentionist, Bruce Bindner, known as Brutus of Wyde, and I wanted to retrace his steps on his another creation.

Completing one of the most difficult big-wall routes in the Sierra Nevada, in winter, would technically make this the hardest winter ascent of a Sierra big-wall, and stood out as a distinct challenge. Doing it mid-winter, when the days are short, cold and the approaches long was not part of my idea. I thought of squeezing it in during the last days of calendar winter, in late March, with more daylight and warmth. Relatively speaking, in more enjoyable conditions, that are winter only on paper.

Rough overlay of the Hairline
The faith, had a different plan. Because I am training for a trip to the Himalayas, I have been trying to get out and do some peaks in the winter. Before a chunk of time off from work I saw the winds were finally going down to 20-25 mph and planned to do some general conditioning by hiking up the MR and maybe continuing up the crest to Mount Muir, maybe tagging Mount Russell before hiking out? A few other people were interested in joining, but unfortunately bailed. My good friend Chris Koppl said he would be happy to join before we both depart from US for extended trips to Asia and because he is one of my strongest partners I knew we could do more than a hike. I brought up climbing the Hairline (V 5.10d C2+), a route he has not even heard of, and because Chris is no slouch, he simply agreed. I love Chris!! :)

I drove up after work the day prior, slept around 7,000 ft, did some photography at sunrise and did a bit of solo ice climbing in Lee Vining to acclimate to the altitude. The following morning Chris and I met up, packed and got far from an alpine start for the approach sometime after 11am. Our packs weighted in at 60 and 62 lbs at the trailhead. Even though the road closure was a few miles before the actual trailhead, our excitement and fitness made up for the late start and we managed to make it to a camp between Upper Boyscout and Iceberg Lake at 4pm. We were mega-psyched to go to sleep early, as both of us did not get enough sleep for more than a few days in a row, for me personally it is difficult to get much sleep, as I balance 12 hour work shifts with a climbing addiction which requires me to regularly work out (at a climbing gym which is close to an hour away), serious relationship, time for errands and social obligations. First world problems are still problems! Next thing I knew, my perfect evening went to shit, as while melting snow, my Mountain House dinner tipped over, the lock opened and the food I was looking forward to eating spilled all over my sleeping bag. Just another reminder that the quality of their freeze dry food packaging is garbage. Most of the other freeze dried food companies have packaging of better quality. They open, close, open again. The zip lock part on MH dinners often peels off or in this case open under minimal pressure, which in my opinion it shouldn't, as we pay restaurant prices for freeze dried foods. After having a few snack bars, I was able to relax again, and went to sleep, dreaming of finding a decent bivy ledge for the following night.

In the morning we blasted to the base, which involved a lot of trail breaking through deep soft snow, which slowed us down. For efficiency, we decided to lead in two blocks. As a more efficient aid climber, Chris led the initial pitches of aid and I led the following pitches of free climbing. It made sense because swinging leads would require a lot more time for reversing of the roles. Taking winter boots, racking etc, after jumaring for 160 feet, wouldn't be as simple as passing the collected gear to the leader. While we were in the sun for the first three pitches, it was perfectly warm on the wall, but the sun left and it became so cold that I jumared and climbed in a down jacket. We brought an over-sized climbing shoes for the leader, so that we could have thick socks underneath. For speed, neither of us gave a shit about keeping it strictly free in spots that go free, and yanked on gear in places when it would allow us to go quicker. Putting five minutes in trying to decipher a single boulder problem while the belayer is shivering wouldn't be cool and we hoped to get to the belay ledge early enough so that we can have some wiggle room if our plan didn't work.

Just before it got dark and I fell victim to the screaming barfies, I finished my last lead and we were up on 3rd class ledges where we planned to bivy for the night. As we worked on cutting a platform from a narrow snow slope above the void, we warmed up and the more we worked on it, the more we became optimistic it will be possible to set up our tent! When we did set it up, our ledge turned out to be of perfect size. Incredible! We melted water, checked the weather, ate a ton of food and went to sleep happy as clams. The phone service was decent enough that I was able to check the weather forecast for Patagonia and send my friend an update - at the moment he was climbing the Fitz Roy.

 For years I dreamed of seeing the sunrise from this location and when Mount Whitney along with all of its striking needles stretching down to Mount Muir begun to light up in pink and red glow during early morning hours, it was as magical as looking at earth from the moon. Very similar to that. Darkness brought temperatures that were far below freezing and a couple of hours of sun would allow us to climb rock with our bare hands. Because we needed the rock to warm up, we took our time getting up, as jamming our paws into ice-cold cracks would be extra painful if we didn't wait. Unfortunately, we couldn't wait long. The forecast stated the temperature will rise all the way to whopping 30F at about 12,000 feet by 11am, but after 11am, the winds will start increasing to 40 mph and the temps will begin to drop towards teens. We were at about 13,500 feet and climbing to 14,500 foot summit, so we knew it would be colder. I took the first two pitches of climbing and Chris led the last pitch, after which we climbed another short step before unroping and scrambling the 3-4th class terrain with occasional cl. 5 boulder problem for another 500 feet, to the summit. Climbing up with 50 pounds of gear in our packs at 14,000 feet wasn't particularly enjoyable but I was surprised by how quickly we managed to gain elevation. No rest step, no rests to catch our breath, constant movement while trying to not let the increasing winds knock us off balance.

It was windy as hell on the summit, and I was surprised to see only 3 entries for 2020 in the register. After taking a few photos, we hid in the summit hut and Chris told me he is happy to have me as a partner for such a mission, as he wouldn't want to do something like we did with many others. It was nice to hear such a complement. Last time I heard something similar from Chris, we nearly drowned while trying to do a first ascent on a dome, which basically flooded after a thunderstorm came in quicker than we expected. We had to bail and scramble up 4th class slab which was literally a waterfall. Today, in comparison, we were on a casual walk, which isn't too far from truth. After the climb we completed, scrambling down the Mountaineer's Route and hiking out all the way back to our cars with our huge loads of big-wall gear felt easy. I told Chris I am the lucky one, as partners with more drive, work ethic, skill and sense of humor exist only in imagination. We started our descent and hiked all the way back down to our car with another hour to spare before sunset. At the trailhead, we ran into a guy who was going up to "take a look." Weather forecast for the following day was complete garbage, he was wearing skinny jeans, a cotton shirt, stylish shoes...I usually see people dressed like that on popular trails during summer, and that's ok, but winter is a different beast and Chris and I were a little worried. Hopefully, the man stayed safe and had a good trip, as the Whitney Cam the following morning showed a scene from the apocalypse.

To my surprise, I managed to make it back to Visalia with time to get a full body massage from my dear girlfriend Mariah, who was feeling sorry for the wrecked soul that entered our apartment. Even our cat seemed to sense I was a little off. The following day my legs felt like jello and I felt good about the decision to drive home. I would not have much fun staying on the east side and trying to rock climb after another night of car camping. Although I did go bouldering at a climbing gym, which was quite enjoyable.

The preparations for Nepal continue, and although I don't think I will do many other walls this winter, the Northeast Ridge of Mount Williamson is big goal. Big, burly, long, aesthetic. Hope the winds are low next time I have time off from work!