The Mountaineer's Route — Page 10

Mount Whitney's North Chute

X. The North Face

No portion of the Mountaineer's Route generates more discussion and anxiety amongst first-time climbers than Mount Whitney's north face—and deservedly so.

Any month of the year, the north face can be covered with snow and treacherous ice, making an ice axe and crampons mandatory. Faced with such conditions, the unprepared are best advised to turn back at the Notch. I have done so myself in the past and not regretted it.

Mount Whitney - the view from the Notch Mount Whitney - North Face Traverse Mount Whitney - Looking up the North Chute

The temperature drops and the view shifts abruptly as I top the East Couloir.

Hikers may find the sudden sense of exposure at the Notch overwhelming.

We are essentially perched atop a 300-foot high cliff, giving the sensation that one slip will send the unlucky climber all the way down to Arctic Lake, two thousand vertical feet below.

That assessment may not be entirely inaccurate: climbers have slid to their deaths here.

Today, thanks to the near-record dry winter, there is less snow on the north face than I've ever seen.

Nonetheless, Whitney's north face lies in shadow, and the north chute looks icy through the middle, with dry rock elsewhere.

Climbers may choose to either head directly up the north chute, or else attempt to traverse across the north face toward (hopefully) easier terrain.

Given the multiple threats of cliffs, steep terrain, and ice and snow, one might expect guidebook authors would call particular attention to this section of the Mountaineer's Route. With few exceptions, however, that is not the case.

The traverse is sometimes referred to as 'easy'. And climbing up the north chute often receives little more than an ambiguous Class 3 rating. This is perhaps a consequence of mountaineering literature's long-standing tradition of understating danger and underrating difficulty.

Back to the climb: in order to better contrast the difficulty of the two route variations, I plan to ascend the north chute and return via the traverse. So, up the North Chute I go. Compared to my last Whitney visit, my climbing skills are sharper, and my tolerance for exposure significantly greater. I find it easy enough to work around the ice, and the climbing is enjoyable—though it certainly is climbing in one or two spots rather than just mere scrambling.

A key advantage of ascending the north chute is the directness of the route. In no time at all, I'm nearing the summit plateau. Meanwhile, the group of roped climbers below are making their way up the North Chute below me. They zig-zag around the icy patch, traversing back across the chute to its now-sunny western edge. I stay in the shadows beneath the eastern arete, though the climbing looks easier where they are. Either way, it is obvious that all of us will be summiting Whitney today.

next: Mount Whitney's Summit

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.

Pray for snow.