Whitney's East Face — Page 6

Whitney's East Face - Tower Traverse

VI. The Tower Traverse

Oy! That first peek down Whitney's east face gives me a formidable kick to the gizzard. One moment we're happily scampering up blocks of broken granite; the next, we're staring out at space.

If Eileen and I were hoping for a gentle introduction on our first roped pitch, it's not going to happen. The opposite side of the notch offers only a sheer drop of a thousand vertical feet or so to the distant moraines below, where jagged talus now appears as fine grains of sand on a grayish beach.

Eileen at the Notch Kurt Wedberg - Tower Traverse Sunrise Eileen Following Belay Station Tower Traverse Andy Climbing

It's instantly obvious here at the notch that this is where the roped climbing begins. Kurt drops his pack and begins assembling the climbing hardware while I fumble around with my harness and climbing shoes, shivering in the suddenly cold breeze that has kicked up.

Pitch one of today's climb begins at the notch and traverses east across tower 2's south wall, which, once again, really does just drop off into empty air.

Beyond the traverse, we'll climb a short chimney to connect with the Washboard, which offers mercifully moderate Class 3 and 4 climbing.

And beyond that...well, maybe we shouldn't let our minds get too far ahead of ourselves right now.

Today we'll be climbing with two ropes, one each for Eileen and me. I try to puzzle out how this will all work when Kurt begins our pre-flight instructions.

Kurt, obviously, will be leading the route, meaning he goes first, dragging both ropes behind him and setting temporary anchors into the rock (nuts, cams, etc) to secure him and us in the event anyone falls.

We will wait in the rear until Kurt reaches a suitable belay location, where he will set up an extra-solid anchor system and then effectively top-rope us: haul in slack while Eileen and I climb up to meet him.

Kurt explains that we can climb in whichever order we please, and even simultaneously, since we'll be on separate ropes. Belaying two climbers simultaneously is an advanced technique, but it offers the considerable advantage of speed—our group doesn't have to wait for Eileen and me to climb each section separately.

As an added bonus, Eileen and I get to stick together through most of the route, offering encouragement or perhaps a few jaunty taunts as one or both of us veers toward freak-out land.

Kurt gives both of us the once-over, deciding our harnesses are too loose and cinching them up accordingly. Then he's off, leading the traverse across a wall of mighty sheer-looking granite, while Eileen belays him from the relative security of the notch, and I snap photos.

Uh...wow. We're really doing this. Somehow I'm remembering all that TV-show advice about not looking down, so my eyes fix on the horizon as if there's nothing at all unusual going on down below. Kurt moves easily across the rock and then disappears from view. Soon, we hear him shout, "Off Belay!" which means he's set the top anchor and is ready for us to switch to climbing mode.

I'm thinking the gentlemanly thing to do here is let the lady go first. So I wish Eileen good luck and off she goes, moving out onto the traverse. As for me, I'm not far behind, stepping onto a narrow but doable ledge and shuffling gingerly across. The 5.4-rated Tower Traverse offers solid footing for the most part, but the tricky bit is the really slim pickings in the handhold department.

I've got my still camera in a case on my chest, which compromises my ability to keep my center of gravity close to the rock, and suddenly right here on pitch one I'm having an authentic Oh Shit! moment as the reality of where I am hits. No thanks Reality—I make a quick detour from those thoughts, distracting myself momentarily by watching Eileen.

All right—she's across. I scrape and slide my body along the wall, finding (just) the right places to stick my feet, clawing smooth rock here and there with my fingers, and then I'm across also. Yep. We're in for it. I dimly wish we've already passed the crux of the route, but I know harder climbing undoubtedly waits for us above—lots of it.

next: The Washboard

About SierraDescents

When there is snow, SierraDescents is Andy Lewicky's California backcountry skiing and mountaineering website. Without snow, sierradescents becomes an ill-tempered hiking and climbing blog.

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