Whitney's East Face — Page 9

Mount Whitney - The Fresh Air Traverse

IX. The Fresh Air Traverse

From our comfortable perch atop the relative safety of the sandy ledge, we advance westward into a rocky corner, where a grinning Kurt sets up the next belay.

That done, Kurt begins leading the next pitch. He is around the corner and out of view in moments...and then, for the first time on our climb, Eileen and I suddenly hear Kurt shouting. No, these are not shouts of trouble, they are whoops of delight coming from our leader as he climbs the most famous pitch on the route.

Scouting the Traverse Eileen Starts Up Ledges and Lunch Downclimbing Ledges and Lunch Belay Station

The combination of our limited field of view plus Kurt's enthusiastic yells echoing about make for an interesting effect on my already-buzzing psyche. "Off Belay!" shouts Kurt, and now Oh Boy it's our turn to follow.

Eileen goes first. Like Kurt, she quickly climbs out of view, scrambling up and around a pillar of granite. After I clear and rack the gear at the belay station, I'm right behind her.

If you were going to design the perfect pitch, I think you'd be hard pressed to do better than this: the Fresh Air Traverse starts out deceptively, tucking you into that corner of rock so that you're well protected from any potentially disturbing view.

Scramble up the pillar a bit—just ten or twenty feet or so—and then you creep along a little ledge around that little corner, no problem at all, and...Shazam!

Are those really my feet standing on that tiny ledge over all that...space? The view is so wildly skewed, so utterly out of order, it's hard to take it seriously, as if it can't possibly be real.

Welcome to the void.

As if on cue, a sudden wind kicks up, causing the anchors ahead to clank gently against the granite wall. Even as I feel myself slipping off to my happy place, I've got to admit: this is a masterpiece.

That said, Don't Look Down is proving kind of difficult. For one thing, that little ledge is about all there is to stand on right now. For another, there is unquestionably a hypnotic pull to that void.

I'm not going to go so far as to say it is calling to me, exactly, but there does seem to be some sort of a message out there, and I'm not sure listening to it right now would be such a good idea.

I find the best course of action is to temporarily disconnect whichever part of my brain is responsible for processing gravity.

Slow, cautious steps take me to Norman Clyde's famous gap in the ledge, which does indeed look formidable. Hmm. Eileen has successfully passed this point, which is good, but now she's gotten tangled up with my rope ahead, which leaves me perched right at the edge of the gap with a whole lot of time to do nothing but hang tight while she works to clear the snarl.

Spare time for my mind to start thinking about things proves less than ideal at this particular moment. I stare at the gap as if it were some sort of puzzle. How the heck am I going to get across that thing, I wonder? Honestly, I don't see any easy way across. I'm not even sure if I see a hard way across, which feeds nicely into thought #2: how exactly did I get here, again?

Eileen is free and moving once more, which means it's finally my turn. And then a most unexpected thing happens—a sequence of moves suddenly flashes into my head, and without thinking I grab the rock and move cleanly and easily across the gap in one smooth motion, as if the solution had just been beamed into my head. Awesome! Mortal terror notwithstanding, I break into a full grin and even find the moxie to shout up to Kurt, "Hey, when do I get my Fresh Air??"

next: The Grand Staircase

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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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