The Mountaineer's Route — Page 4

Mount Whitney - North Fork Lone Pine Creek

IV. The North Fork

The North Fork of Lone Pine Creek leaves the Mount Whitney Trail and instead follows a steep, narrow canyon. Here, the Mountaineer's Route proper begins.

While the majority of Whitney Hikers will stay on the trail and cross the creek, Mountaineer's Route climbers will instead begin following a use trail up the north side of the canyon. As you quickly gain altitude in this dense and claustrophobic canyon, it is worth considering the miseries it must have caused John Muir on his first ascent.

Mount Whitney - North Fork Trail Sign Mount Whitney - Granite Slabs Mount Whitney - Creek Crossing Whitney Portal and Lone Pine

Originally, climbers took myriad paths through the willows. Repeated creek-crossings were the rule, as was getting stuck in spirit-sapping dead-ends and backtracking.

In the process, all that tromping around caused a good deal of damage to the fragile environment. Thankfully, a consensus route is emerging, helped along by the Forest Service, which has begun reconstruction efforts in damaged areas.

This, alas, will become a theme for the duration of the Mountaineer's Route: on the one hand, there is a strong argument for maintaining the Route in its original, trailless-state (and thus preserving its high adventure).

On the other, this remains a high-use area, and without a trail, people scramble across it indiscriminately, inevitably eroding and degrading the landscape.

Matters are complicated by Canyon's sides—smooth granite slabs that funnel traffic toward the willow-clogged creek.

The gist of the route today consists of a brief hike up the north side of the creek, staying in a small pine stand to avoid the brush.

Soon, however, the route plunges into the brush, crossing the creek, and then leading high up the south side of the canyon.

Following years of heavy snowfall, these creek crossings can become serious matters, and hikers have drowned in such circumstances. This year, however, the creeks are low, thanks to an abnormally poor winter (which will be of particular benefit on the route higher up). Now on the south side of the canyon, I am treated to fine views of Whitney Portal and the town of Lone Pine far, far below. From here, I can also see the Ebersbacher Ledges, on the opposite side of the creek.

The Ledges have become a clever and infamous part of the Mountaineer's Route, allowing hikers to bypass the worst of the willows—at the cost of a section of exposed travel. If you miss the entryway to the Ledges, it is possible to continue upward, battling your way through the merciless willows. Faced with their formidable barricade, however, many unlucky climbers have simply abandoned the effort entirely and turned back.

next: Ebersbacher Ledges

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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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