Operation Occupy Iceberg: A plan originally hatched in 2011 with a Mr. Jeffery Hebert, permits for the Whitney Zone were strategically acquired in April 2012 and the foundation was laid: Get a posse of great people for deluxe camping at Iceberg lake at the base of Mt. Whitney’s east buttress and prepare to climb as many Sierra alpine classics in the area as we could when August’s delightful weather came around.
Fast forward to the month of Augustus. With the low snow year, the alpine season was off to a great start
with people devouring lines up and down the Eastern Sierra
[a direct contrast to 2011, where many alpine routes were not dry until September]. Occupy Iceberg was shaping up to be great…until a most persistent and strong monsoon system pushed its way inland and stayed put for two weeks – everyone on the invite list abandoned due to weather, work or alternative plans. Things didn't look good. In an even more inauspicious start to mission fulfillment, Mr. Hebert’s flight was diverted back to LA from Mammoth due to the same weather system raking the local airport with vicious crosswinds – making the logistics that much worse. Better to order a beer at happy hour and let things sort themselves out.
The weather influenced travel as well as climbing plans
I got a call while sipping my beer and nibbling my truffle-oil saturated polenta cakes: “I met a couple of dudes in the same predicament…we’re renting a car and driving to Mammoth. See you in six hours. Booyah.”
With strong weather still making a trip to the Whitney zone and it’s multitude of classics a bit precarious, we decided to wait a couple of days and formulate a plan B while the weather situation improved. A Tarantino-esqe summary before the body:
Day 1: Laurel’s NE gully
Day 2: Cardinal Pinnacle: West Face, Cucumbers, V8 crack
Day 3: Logistics/approach
Day 4: Star Trekkin, Mt. Russell
Day 5: East Face/East Buttress linkup, Mt. Whitney
Day 6: Mithral Dihedral, Mt. Russell
Jeff’s arrival in Mammoth in the posh soccer mom rental minivan occurred at 0200 on Friday. “Let’s sleep for a couple hours and fire a low fifth class piece of hero rock right above the airport…it’ll be chill and perfect for acclimation.” “Ok.”
Suns out, guns out on Laurel's NE gully
Day 1: Bivy at the trailhead and a leisurely 0700 wakeup had us fueled, hydrated and ready to hit the trail by 0745. Laurel’s NE gully is a lesson in constant movement, gorgeous geology and beautiful views of the Convict Lake region. Summit pics and lunch happened by noon and we were swimming in the lake and drinking beers by 1430 – the weather was being fickle, but in all, locally we were in the clear but still glad we didn’t aim immediately for the big mountains.
Hey Jeff, Mt. Laurel is glad you paid a visit
Happy Hour ensued, as did planning for the next day. Weather report was not good: “Major storms with ½ - ¾ inch hail expected…flash floods…downpours…strong winds…” Like any mountain range, whether those conditions would hit us in our designated area was not certain, but with percentages north of 40% and consequences of validating said weather as high as they were, it was enough to consider another plan b.
The author on Cardinal Pinnacle's upper west face. Photo Jeff Hebert
Day 2: For a consolation prize, we set a course for technical granite climbing at elevation on Cardinal Pinnacle. All routes climbed on that stellar piece of granite were fun, well protected and aesthetic. “The pinnacle looks like a mini Hulk.” “Yes, yes it does.” After a Whiskey Creek happy hour, we witnessed one of the most impressive lightning storms I’ve ever seen in the Sierra.
Tall Swede, lots of granite: "kinda looks like a mini hulk" - I'll let the ladies determine whether that refers to the man...or the rock
“Never was the decision to avoid Iceberg for another day so validated.” “True, true.” Hot-tubbing ensued in a Mammoth downpour and our worries about the situation dissolved in the soothing warm water. It was decided to look at the weather again in the morning – the monsoon was expected to push out the next day – and make a final call for heading in for the real objective.
Immaculate granite and exposure: a double whammy of good
Day 3: Morning weather reports looked promising, so the decision was to go for it. Logistics were worked out, provisions acquired and miles logged to Whitney Portal. On the trail with heavy packs [this was to still be a posh camping experience, albeit without the summer-dress bedecked camp chef and liters of wine] by 1500. Mr. Hebert set a blistering pace up the north fork trail and – to our surprise – we were setting up camp by 1830 above Iceberg Lake.
Jeff, on the gorgeous approach to Iceberg
We watched the sunset as we cooked dinner and sipped the vitamin G. I would argue the Whitney Massif makes one of the most dramatic vistas in the Sierra. This is a bold call, I know, as the Sierra is brimming with awe-inspiring chunks of breathtaking, humbling, gorgeous chunks of granite, and everyone should have their own opinion. When I sit above iceberg lake and take in the shear vertical of Whitney’s buttress and face, and its regal Needle neighbors, I’m left without words, and reduced to the wide-eyed little boy that forgets everything else needing attention and just stares in wonder.
Views of camp, and from camp did not suck
We decided on the routes for the next day [thank you for the beta, Jimmy B]: climb star trekkin with double ropes, rappel the Mithral Dihedral and climb it, summit and head back to camp – maximize the classic pitches on Russell’s SW face.
Day 4: 0600 wake up call, breakfast and off to the Whitney Russell Col. At the col by 0730. “Damn Russell looks amazing.” “Yeah, it also looks as cold as the ice cream sandwich we ate two days ago, let’s wait for the route to get in the sun.” We paused for a bit, then the sun inched closer to the splitter crack that is Star Trekkin and we were bound for the golden granite face like pilgrims on a Hajj. Roped up and ready to go by 0900. The first loooong pitch is ok, but the real money comes in the next few pitches. The crux 10c is passed and it’s jamming galore until you either run out of gear, or you get too pumped.
Let the routes warm, and let us climb
Plenty of beta out there on the tubes so I’ll leave out the details and just say the picture on the front of the super-topo high sierra book is justified: ST and it’s next-door neighbor the Mithral are a pair of uber-aesthetic alpine rock climbs worthy of anyone’s tick list. We topped out after the wide last pitch and I was worked. Timing was more conducive to a nap and descent to camp, so we decided Mithral would wait. That sun was glorious…as was the short bit of lost consciousness at altitude to dream and relax.
"Perhaps I'll give this jamming thing a try"
Summit tomfoolery was necessary to commemorate
, and after a civil descent down the 3
class gully, We were back to camp with plenty of time to cook up a feast and sip some vitamin G while the sun played with the remaining clouds in the sky.
. Spock, we salute you. Photo Jeff Hebert
Day 5: We linked up the East Face and East Buttress of Mount Whitney in a day. Because we camped at the base of Whitney, that meant a leisurely start. Now, this linkup has been done in much burlier fashion by many a hard man and woman, but we were geared to make this climbing trip less about hard, and more about pure enjoyment. The exposure on the east face is worth writing home about, but compared to the east buttress, this author opines there isn’t a comparison: East Buttress is far superior.
After a top out on the fourth class of the face, we were greeted by a summit that – at the time of our arrival – had already seen 82 people that day. Wow...on a Tuesday? Popular indeed. Summit pics, lunch and digital interaction with a rather photogenic marmot had us descending the mountaineers route with an aim at completing the linkup in good time.
You and 83 others on top of the contiguous US' highest peak
There were no indications of a storm – just some puffy cumulous filling the sky, this already in the early afternoon. At the base of the buttress our fate was sealed: “
Let’s do this
.” Blasting the first ~3 pitches without rope meant we were moving quickly…but not as quickly as the weather. Thor made his presence known with thunder claps and Zeus threw in some lighting to boot – we were lucky it was only inter-cloud, but the thunder was instantaneous, and cause for much consternation. “I pray thee, make haste.” And haste was made. In all, we stayed in our approach shoes for the entire climb, never felt unsafe, and roped for only two pitches. By Zeus’ beard the rock quality on the East Butt will live on in my dreams for eternity.
Slightly different summit scene the second time around: Solitude on top of America
We avoided major electrical hazards and after some brilliant lighting on the barren summit [all previous visitors had hastily departed] and another snack, it was apparent from the neighboring storm cells that we got lucky – neighboring parts of the range were getting rained on…a lot. An hour later and we were happily brewing up tea at camp.
Don't be late for dinner, and avoid the trudle fallout in the Mountaineer's Chute
Day 6: It was time to return to Mithral: We’d wait as long as we could for that section of the mountain to get sun, and then fire. Only problem was the memory of our run-in with Thor the previous day: There were thunderheads forming to the south, so after a brief pause for more warmth, Jeff was off on the first pitch. Clouds continued to form as Jeff used some sling improvisation and liberal simul-climbing to reach the base of the Dihedral: Strong work, Jeffrey. Clouds still forming…but oh that dihedral looks so damn good. I couldn’t help but reference one of my favorite
from the previous decade: A scene when they were stormed off the same route with faces glossed in worry. They were forced to bail in the midst of a fast-moving storm bringing snow and electricity. “Let’s try to avoid that.” “Agreed.”
Stem, jam, layback and face climb your way to the top of this gem
I’ll just say the Mithral is worth the hype. Jamming and dihedral moves at 13k feet with wild exposure and incredible views fuels the very fire to be strong and to get outside. The final move up the layback is a phenomenal finish to the technical portion of the route and a most fitting bookend to the climb – worthy of the back cover of Peter Croft’s dictionary of how to enjoy the Sierra alpine.
Mithral top-out, I love you.
Wow…but the clouds still formed, and by the time we both hit the last anchor,
Thor was above us again and he was angry. This time, it was with hail, some snow and rain. After the fourth class scramble to the summit, it was an electrical storm, prompting a very fast descent of the peak to low, safer ground. Once out of the immediate danger, we gathered our thoughts as we grabbed a bite to eat under a boulder…a collective sigh of relief was cast and we were on our way back to camp – just in time for some timely sun rays on Iceberg lake.
Thor and Zeus on Russell? thatjusthappened.com Photo Jeff Hebert
“That was so fast, we have plenty of light to get back to the car…we have beers waiting.” “You are a wise man, Mr. Hebert…I pray thee, make haste.” We were packed up and ready to roll in no time. After finishing up the Scotch emboldening the joints for the pounding 3.5k foot descent, we were off. Back to the Portal before it closed to get a recap on the drama that was a lost hiker on the portal trail the previous day and to get the scoop from Miles on his new route on Keeler –
. We jumped in the car and were eating fetus-sized burritos at Las Palmas in Bishop by 2115.
Lighting on our final descent was brilliant. Photo Jeff Hebert
This marked one of the first long-term planning [six months being long term in my current sphere of chaos] done for a trip in the Sierra. If that’s what it takes to lure Mr. Hebert and other friends from far away, I’d do it again in a heart beat but how the itinerary played out is a testament to remaining flexible and open minded – and always having a plan b. If I were to foresee a theme emerging for the 2012 year it’s ‘playing the hand you’re dealt,’ or more simply, ‘lemonade.’ Plans required shifting, and they were…for the better. We made sure both of us were properly acclimated ensuring our time at Iceberg and at 14k feet was as good as it could be. And when plan B involves “great” routes in Croft’s chef-d'œuvre, that doesn’t hurt either.
Soak in the view one last time
We originally planned on having five days at Iceberg lake with a large posse – there were even promises of a camp chef in a summer dress [ahem, Julie, tears were shed in your absence], and liters of delicious vino. When a Cascadian weather front decided otherwise, the copious alternatives in the Sierra did not disappoint. So here’s to having a plan B, maintaining a positive attitude and having a spectacular time with great people in the Range of Light.
Strategically placed brew dogs bringing closure: Huge. Win.