The Mountaineer's Route — Page 8

Mount Whitney - Iceburg Lake

VIII. Iceberg Lake

No doubt about it—arriving at Iceberg Lake is a major milestone. Since leaving Whitney Portal, I've climbed over four thousand vertical feet. The air is thin here, and noticeably cooler.

I drop my pack and guzzle water and Gatorade. Almost immediately, I notice a nasty headache developing. Nausea is not far behind. With a struggle, I motivate myself to get my tent up. Then I flop inside, taking deep breaths.

Mount Whitney - Tent Bound Camp Food Mount Whitney - Mountaineer's Route Day and Keeler Needles

What's happening to me?

Instead of frolicking about the shore with my camera, I'm fighting not to throw up. I'd been expecting the altitude would make for a difficult night—but to be stricken so soon after getting here, in the daytime, is alarming.

Has altitude sickness put an early end to my Whitney adventure?

If so, I'll be making a desperate down-climb in the near future to get lower as quickly as possible.

There is another possibility: maybe I'm suffering from dehydration and heat exhaustion. I've been sweating heavily all day.

My body is low on salt. Add the sudden elevation gain to this, and it's easy to understand my condition.

I take ibuprofen, fix a pot of extra-salty ramen noodles, drink water, and wait.

It takes discipline to put food into my queasy stomach—and keep it down—but the reward comes quickly. My head clears and my nausea eases.

I wander outside my tent, relieved and more than a little spooked.

It's a good reminder that we must always be vigilant in the backcountry ('we' meaning me). Trouble can come at any time, from any direction. Usually, it's what we least expect that creates the most havoc.

Feeling better now, I spend some time scouting Whitney's East Buttress, choosing the line I'll take tomorrow up the East Couloir.

Several choices are available. The simplest way up is to stay in the main body of the couloir, following it steadily to the notch high above. There is often snow in the couloir, which can be ascended quite efficiently if you've got an ice axe and crampons. This year, however, the couloir is essentially snowless.

Consequently the center of the main couloir is mostly comprised of exceptionally loose talus and scree. Under these conditions, many climbers choose to briefly follow the start of the East Buttress Route to the left of the couloir, hoping to stay on favorable rock before traversing back into the East Couloir. To my eye, this option looks steep and possibly exposed. I've never tried it—and I've no desire to do any class 4 free soloing tomorrow.

Still, I'm not enthusiastic about trying to scramble up the center of the couloir. I decide to climb to the base of the East Buttress in the morning. If I like the look of the variation, I'll keep going. If not, I'll traverse into the main couloir. All that assumes, of course, that I'll make it through the night with no new surprises.

next: The East Couloir

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.