The Mountaineer's Route — Page 9

Mount Whitney - East Face at Dawn

IX. The East Couloir

Morning. Through the wall of my tent I watch as the sky begins to lighten. I rustle about in my sleeping bag, eager to get started. >Dawn breaks slowly over the Inyo Mountains.

Too the east, the silhouette of Lone Pine Peak stands in sharp relief. This may well be my favorite moment in a hike: the start of a perfect day for summiting. All the external obstacles have been surmounted. Now it is just the mountain and me, no more distractions.

Mount Whitney - East Buttress Start

The Start of the East Buttress

Mount Whitney - Climbers

Climbers on the Lower Buttress

Mount Whitney - Iceburg Lake

The View Below — Iceberg Lake

Mount Whitney - Climbing the East Couloir

Climbing Up to the Heavens

As Whitney's East Face begins to glow spectacular, vivid reds and pinks, I pack my gear. At 5:30 a.m. I leave camp.

I feel strong. I've slept well, with no recurrence of yesterday's unpleasantness.

I have hiked extensively both as an acclimated mountain goat and as a Sea Level Dweller (which I am now).

Most people will never know the joys of climbing while fully acclimatized. Like me today, they will need to find effective strategies to cope with the altitude.

For my part, I try to keep my respiration up and my heart rate down. That won't protect you from all of altitude's potential effects, but it will keep your blood oxygenated.

After perhaps fifteen minutes of easy climbing, I catch up to a group of guided climbers who've chosen to rope up for the Mountaineer's Route.

I stop, drink some water, eat more pretzels, and take a photo of the group as they pass a short crux section.

Like me, they've decided to ascend the lower part of the East Buttress, then traverse into the East Couloir.

I wait until they're clear of the tricky part, then follow them into the main couloir, leaving the East Buttress-proper to future dreams. By keeping to the left side of the couloir, I am able to stay on mostly firm ground. Any venture toward the center of the couloir, however, instantly kicks off small landslides. Now high above Iceberg Lake, I stop again to contemplate the view.

I am struck by the magnificence of this route. John Muir must have thought he was climbing up into the heavens when he first ascended this mighty couloir. Giant striations in the couloir's walls angle diagonally, inspiring feelings of whirling vertigo.

The sky at this early hour is impossibly blue against the hot white of Whitney's granite. The landscape beneath me stretches clear down to the town of Lone Pine in one grand sweep—a distance of some two vertical miles. To reach Whitney's summit there is only one last challenge ahead, of course: the north face.

next: The North Face



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