Mount Whitney from the East

Mount Whitney

14,495 feet

June 1998


About five years ago, Terry Mataya, Mitch Hungate, and Ron Husa attempted to bike and climb the "lowest to highest", from Badwater, Death Valley at 282 feet below sea level, to the summit of Mount Whitney at 14,495 feet. On top of all that, the plan was to climb the technical East Face Route.

This involved first riding bicycles from Badwater to the Whitney Portal trailhead. Because two smaller ranges had to be crossed, this represented over 15,000 vertical feet and about 150 miles. Ron dropped out of the bike leg early to save energy for the climb. With the bike leg over half complete, Terry collapsed from dehydration and was hospitalized. Mitch made it all the way to Whitney Portal. Ron and Mitch then continued on to climb the East Face.

Present Day

Terry has wanted to climb the East Face ever since. He had climbed the Mountaineers route in bad weather in an earlier East Face attempt even before the "lowest to highest" attempt. So this year he began recruiting early and put together a team that included me, Mitch, Ron, Chip Carpp, and Brian Dodge. Brian flaked out at the last minute, so Terry brought along his 21 year old son, Eddie.

The six of us met at Sea-Tac Airport at 5 PM on Friday the 19th. We flew into the Ontario Airport, about 40 miles east of LA, rented a minivan, and were on the road by 9 PM. A short 10 mile hop on I-10 took us to the San Bernadino Freeway (I-15). We took I-15 Northeast for 30 miles to US Hwy 395 which we took for another 170 miles North to Lone Pine.

Lone Pine

Lone Pine sits in the Owens Valley immediately below Mount Whitney. The valley floor is at about 3000 feet and is bordered by a small mountain range to the East, and the spectacular Eastern Sierra to the West. The climate is arid and most of the vegetation is sagebrush. I remember getting out of the van and thinking to myself "something smells familiar", then saying "Oh yeah... sage... like in my spice rack!" Just South of Lone Pine we saw a huge dry lake bed, the size of Lake Washington. It used to be Owens Lake.

Owens Dry Lake
Owens Dry Lake Water Heading for LA Water Heading to LA

The Owens Valley has a unique place in the history of Los Angeles. In the 1920's the famous LA city engineer Mulholland constructed an aqueduct from the Owens Valley to Los Angeles. At that time, Owens Lake was a robust resource that contributed to the local agriculture and recreation. But it was a doomed lake. LA sucked it dry and turned the area into a dust bowl. To this day, people in the Owens Dry Lake area suffer health problems from wind-whipped dust containing toxic alkali and mining residue from the dry lake bed. LA's quest for water has since extended over 100 miles farther North to Mono Lake, but that's another story.

Another attraction near Lone Pine is the Alabama Hills, the filming location of many Hollywood westerns.

We arrived in Lone Pine close to 1 AM and checked into our hotel. In the morning, we packed our gear, had a big breakfast, and headed up the West side of the valley to Whitney Portal.

The Approach

El Niño did us no favors on Mount Whitney this year. The snow pack was three times normal, and the normally snow-free East Face had numerous snow patches on the technical rock routes. There is a "tourist route" up Whitney that consists of a 10.7 mile trail that is gentle enough for pack animals. Because of this easy ascent route, the mountain sees over 1000 summiteers a year. Due in part to the heavy snow, we saw only a few parties all weekend.

Terry at Lower Boy Scout Lake Goin' Up The trailhead is at 8300 feet and we planned to camp at Iceberg Lake at 12,500 feet. The first obstacle was the Ebersbacher Ledges. It was easy scrambling, but with our huge packs, it was important to maintain sure footing. Since Eddie was not used to such exposure, the Ledges were a bit intimidating for him. By the time we reached Lower Boy Scout Lake at 10,000 feet, Eddie was ready to give up. Terry decided that they would bow out, stay the at the lake, and wait for our next-day return. Mitch, Ron, Chip, and I continued up.

Still Goin' Up The trail was snow-free up to the lake, but completely snowed-in above. One of the side effects of planning for the snow was the extra gear we had to haul. We carried complete snow, ice, and rock equipment. We decided to camp at a point just under 12,000 feet since we were all getting pretty pooped from the heavy packs. It also seemed that Ron was having some altitude problems.

Chip Carpp Ron Husa Mitch Hungate

East Face and NE Couloir Terry and Ron are the top rock climbers in the group and we were relying on them to lead the crux pitches on the East Face. Without Terry, and with Ron not feeling tip-top, and with the route being in questionable condition, we decided to do the less technical Mountaineers route. This route consists of the steep 1400 foot Northeast Couloir, and an airy traverse to the summit plateau.

The Climb

Mt. Whitney in Morning Light We got up Sunday morning, strapped on our crampons, left the rock gear behind, took one rope in case it was needed, and headed up. Ron hadn't eaten much and was still suffering from the altitude. He had to stop two-thirds of the way up the couloir, found a ledge, puked, and waited for our return. Traverse to Iceberg Lake Topping Out on NE Couloir

When the three of us reached the top of the couloir, we saw our remaining objective. It was a 300 to 400 foot traverse of the North Face, with the first fourth of it being quite steep and exposed. We considered roping up and belaying the initial section, but decided that ice axes and careful cramponing in the existing steps would be adequate security.

Following the traverse, we removed our crampons and walked up a gentle slope to join the Whitney Trail near the summit. Still standing in good repair is the Smithsonian Shelter, built in 1904. We were alone on the summit under a clear blue sky. BK on Summit - Owens Valley in Background CC and MH on Summit - Sierra in Background

The descent went fairly quickly and included a rare 1000 foot glissade of the Northeast Couloir. We met up with Terry and Eddie and were back in Lone Pine by 6 PM.

The Return

We checked back into our hotel in Lone Pine, went out to dinner, and hit the sack early. The next morning, we got up, re-packed, went out for breakfast, did a little tourista shopping, checked out, and headed back to the Smell A area.

We pulled into Ontario at about 2 PM. Our flight out wasn't until 9 PM. We planned the late flight in case we had to spend Sunday night on the mountain. Since we had a lot of time to kill, Mitch met up with his brother who lives in the area, and rest of us headed for the beach.

On most expeditions with these guys, the first objective is to climb a mountain, and the second objective is to go to a Hard Rock Cafe. This trip was no exception. We wound up spending most of the late afternoon at the Hard Rock Cafe in Newport Beach, then drove back to Ontario and flew home.

Another great adventure!