Peak(s):  Mount Whitney (14,505')
Date Posted:  10/16/2020
Date Climbed:   08/26/2020
Author:  Hoot
 Mt Whitney via the Mountaineers Route  

Mount Whitney (14,505’, California #1)
Dates Climbed: 25-27 August 2020
Climbers: Andy and Hoot
Trailhead: Whitney Portal at 8,365'
Route: The Mountaineers Route
Distance: 14.3 miles
Elevation gain: 6149'
Difficulty: Difficult Class 3

On 15 May 2019, Andy, Chris and I made a solid attempt at a single day climb of Mount Whitney on good snow via the Mountaineer’s Route.

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Heading up the chute to the Notch from Iceberg Lake on 15 May 2019

However, when Andy and I reached the Notch, just 400 feet below Whitney’s summit, we decided to turn back due to several safety concerns. Despite the disappointment of not reaching the summit, I thoroughly enjoyed the beautiful and rugged Mountaineer’s Route and was eager to reattack the mountain via the same approach, but without snow for some added variety. Six months out from our planned follow-up trip, I was lucky to snag three of the ten available overnight permits for the Mountaineer’s Route as soon as they became available at 2:00 am one night in February. My ambitious plans for an August trip from Ohio were for a big loop that would get me to seven new state highpoints (IA, NE, UT, NV, CA, AZ, and NM). COVID-19 forced me to change my plans.

The new starting point for my August trip became Maine where I spent most of this summer. That made an already long road trip even longer. To reduce my time on the road and link up with Andy in Colorado Springs, I cut out all state highpoints except for Whitney and nearby Boundary Peak in Nevada, reducing my road trip to just 6,500 miles. But COVID-19 trail closures into early July, a 24 June 5.8 earthquake causing a big rockslide into the Whitney Portal area, and then multiple out-of-control California wildfires in August all conspired to make our prospects for a successful trip look pretty unlikely.

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A rather long drive to get to Whitney and back!
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Our route to Mount Whitney (CA #1) took us past Wheeler Peak (NV #2) and Boundary Peak (NV #1)

After linking up with Andy in Colorado Springs and successful climbs of Wheeler Peak and Boundary Peak, both in Nevada, Andy and I pulled into Lone Pine, California on 24 August under a cloud of thick smoke. We assumed there must be a new fire on the eastern side of the Sierras and that our chances of climbing Whitney starting the next day were remote.

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Looking toward Whitney from Lone Pine hotel Monday night

But when we woke up in Lone Pine on the morning of the 25th, we were surprised and extremely happy to have a clear view of Mount Whitney with no smoke in sight.

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Same view Tuesday morning!

When entering the Whitney Portal area that morning, we passed many cars parked along the roadside, but were very lucky to find one open spot in the parking lot closest to the trailhead. Before starting out, I moved our food and other “smellables” into a bear box in the parking lot – but more to come on that front.

Despite the threat of smoke returning from California wildfires west of the Sierras, there were lots of people on the trail that morning. Most people who climb Mount Whitney do so via the extremely popular Mount Whitney Trail which gains and loses about 6000 feet in a strenuous 22-mile round trip. An annual lottery provides 100 daytrip and 60 overnight permits per day to hike the Mount Whitney Trail from April through October. Still, winning the lottery, especially with prime August dates, is not easy. Despite its length, elevation gain, and sustained exposure above 13,600 feet, the Mount Whitney trail provides the easiest route to the summit, a Class 1 “walk-up” when snow-free. Sharing its trailhead with the Mount Whitney Trail, the Mountaineer’s Route provides a much more direct and much less crowded route to Whitney’s summit. But shorter means steeper and the Mountaineer’s Route has a number of steep sections requiring challenging Class 3 scrambling. Since that’s my favorite kind of climbing, the Mountaineering Route was how I wanted to climb Whitney!

Since Andy and I only planned to hike a little less than four miles to Upper Boy Scout Lake on our first day, we were able to enjoy a leisurely start at 8:30 am from the Whitney Portal trailhead.

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A leisurely 8:30 am start at the Whitney Portal
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Hiking on the Mount Whitney Trail below the Mountaineer's Route

After hiking 0.85 miles, we turned right off the main trail, just before it crosses the North Fork of Lone Pine Creek. This is the beginning of the Mountaineer’s Route which climbs directly toward Whitney up the North Fork of Lone Pine Creek drainage. After a bit more hiking we crossed to the south side of the creek on solid rocks through a tunnel of willows.

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Our first crossing of the North Fork of Lone Pine Creek

The year before this had been a challenging crossing on icy rocks with high water from snow melt off. However, last year the deep snow did give us an advantage. From this point we were able to climb on steep snow covering the willows and on steep slabs which now, in dry conditions, presented a formidable barrier to ascending the ever-narrowing drainage.

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Willows clogging the narrow North Fork drainage

The solution to getting above this steep, narrow, willow-clogged section is climbing along the notorious Ebersbacher Ledges.

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The Ebersbacher Ledges route traverses this face left to right to left

We followed the trail climbing on the south side of the creek until it led us back to the creek just below a small waterfall.

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A small waterfall just below start of the Ebersbacher Ledges

After hiking in the creek on rocks a bit, we hiked a short distance on the north side of the creek until the trail appeared to end at the huge rock face at the base of the north side of the drainage. At this point, we scrambled up several large boulders to the base of the large foxtail pine that marks the start of the Ebersbacher Ledges. The E-ledges are a system of high ledges on the rocky north side of the drainage that allow climbers to bypass the chokepoint of willows in the steep narrow creek bed below. From the trail below, the E-ledges high overhead looked somewhat intimidating. But after reading and watching several online reports of climbing the E-ledges, I was confident we’d have no trouble with them.

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The scramble up to the large foxtail pine marking the start of the Ebersbacher Ledges

From the foxtail pine, we followed a comfortable ledge east, zigging back toward the way we had come, but quite high above the trail we had hiked up. Pretty quickly we came to the narrowest section of the ledges which offers up a major dose of exposure on the right.

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The most exposed section of the Ebersbacher Ledges
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View down from the edge of the ledge

For those who have issues with exposure (fear of heights), these 20 feet of passage might be the crux of the entire Mountaineer’s Route. There are two options for proceeding up at this point. You can just continue walking forward right on the edge of the cliff on sloped but grippy rock. Or you can climb a short ramp to the left to minimize your exposure. Going up, both Andy and I climbed up the ramp. On our return, I just walked along the cliff edge as that looked safer than descending the ramp toward the cliff edge. Fortunately, I’m not bothered by exposure, especially on easy terrain like this. Beyond this narrow section, the ledges widen and feel far less exposed.

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Climbing the short ramp above the exposed section

I had remembered the directions I had seen for the narrow section of the ledges, but I incorrectly thought the route through the ledges switched back right after this section. That wasn’t the case and Andy and I explored a few options for climbing up to the final section of ledges which lead to the west. When I eventually looked at the stored GPS track on my watch, our choice of climbs was obvious and we headed up the usual way (and later saw the big cairn marking it). To get up to the top of the ledges, we scrambled up to the east on a sequence of large steps with only minor exposure. This final bit of scrambling was easier than the initial scramble up to the foxtail pine.

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Looking up at the final scramble up on the Ebersbacher Ledges (taken on our return)
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Looking down the final scramble up the Ebersbacher Ledges

Once above this section of ledges, we followed the now well-established trail against the north canyon wall, well away from the cliff edge. This easy-to-follow trail led us back to the creek, high above where we left it and past the worst of the willows. We took a snack break here and I filled my BeFree filter bottle with nice cold water. Once above the E-ledges, it was a short hike to Lower Boy Scout Lake.

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The trail above the Ebersbacher Ledges before it rejoins the creek
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View of Whitney from the trail just below Lower Boy Scout Lake

We crossed the creek again on rocks at the outlet to Lower Boy Scout Lake. There are some nice camping areas in the trees on the south side of the lake. At 2.5 miles from the trailhead, this is lowest of three camping options along the Mountaineer’s Route. It is possible to continue up on the north side of the lake which is a more direct route to Upper Boy Scout Lake. But this way crosses large angled slabs with significant exposure. The more commonly used route goes around the south side of Lower Boy Scout Lake and then climbs through a boulder field that skirts the willows along the creek. In May last year, we hiked with crampons above the boulders on good snow fairly high on the slope on the south side of the lake and creek.

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Lower Boy Scout Lake - the trail climbs through the boulders left of the creek and willows

Around the lake we passed a few hikers and rock climbers on their way down. One couple reported ashes, presumably from fires west of the Sierras, falling on their tent the previous night. While we still had beautiful blue skies as we climbed, we were a little concerned about what changing winds would bring.

The trail above Lower Boy Scout Lake was not as well defined as it was below the lake. While there were occasional cairns along the way, Andy and I debated the best route a few times and took different twists and turns through the boulders. We had no doubts about the general direction up the drainage, so it was just a matter of finding the easiest way around large boulders and through the willows.

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Climbing in the boulders above Lower Boy Scout Lake and above wildfire smoke in the valley
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A few more big boulders left

Shortly after climbing through the last of the large boulders, we followed a narrow path through dense willows back down to where the creek flowed across large slabs.

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Into the willows!
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Looking back at our path through the willows - I built the cairn to mark the entrance for our return

This path worked out well and once we were through that patch of willows, the going was relatively easy on the final half mile to Upper Boy Scout Lake.

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Easy hiking on big slabs - Upper Boy Scout Lake is up to the right; the Mountaineers Route curves up to the left

Andy and I arrived at Upper Boy Scout Lake at 11,350 feet, a little before 12:30 pm after 3 hours and 50 minutes of hiking.

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Upper Boy Scout Lake
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Very clear water in Upper Boy Scout Lake

It was a little odd to be finished hiking for the day so early in the afternoon, but it was nice to have lots of time to set up camp and enjoy the area. The skies above us were still clear and smoke-free, but it was surprisingly windy and hot at the lake. There were lots of options for setting up tents on the open east side of the lake. While we were tempted to place our tents on nice soft grass right next to the lake, we decided on some more durable relatively flat spots a little further back from the water. In retrospect, we probably should have selected spots a little better sheltered from the wind. Not being rushed to set up camp as usual, I took my time securely guying my tent which I usually forego.

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My well-guyed tent at Upper Boy Scout Lake

Andy found a nice shaded alcove on the south side of the lake basin and hung out there for a while to keep out of the sun. We only saw one other hiker who camped near the lake, but far from us, that night. Social distancing was pretty easy at Upper Boy Scout Lake!

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Relaxing in one of the few shady spots at Upper Boy Scout Lake

Throughout the afternoon we could see the valley to the east becoming increasingly smoky, but the smoke didn’t get up to our level.

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Smoke appeared to be headed up the drainage but it never quite got to us

After cooking and eating tasty freeze-dried dinners, we stashed our food and smellables in the required bear-resistant containers in rocks away from our tents. I had carried up my relatively heavy 7-liter BearVault. Andy used his lighter new Ursack which seem more practical for an area like this, unlikely to see many, if any bear visits.

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Dinner time at our lake-side kitchen

The smoke did make for colorful skies as the sun set. Planning to start out at first light the next morning, we hit the sack around 8:00 pm. I didn’t sleep all that soundly due to the strong winds shaking my tent for much of the night.

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Looking east at a smoky dusk

We got up Wednesday morning at 5:00 am, had hot coffee and oatmeal for breakfast, and made use of our required wag bags. The skies above us remained clear, but smoke in the valley to the east made for a colorful sunrise. Before we left camp, I placed three large boulders inside my tent just to make certain it wouldn’t blow away while we were out climbing. We started hiking from Upper Boy Scout Lake at 6:12 am under clear lightening skies.

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Wednesday morning sunrise

We followed a path that Andy had cairned the day before from the lake to the main trail headed up to Iceberg Lake. This section of trail was fairly easy to follow but looked much different than it had buried in snow the previous year.

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Coming into view: Whitney, Keeler Needle, Crooks Needle, Third Needle, and Aiguille Extra (right-to-left)

We passed by the waterfalls on the big drop off below Iceberg Lake before starting the steep climb up toward the lake. It looked like there were several trails that might work in this area. I recalled this being one of the steeper sections we climbed on snow last year. On our descent of this section last year, I used my ice axe for a real self-arrest.

Andy and I reached Iceberg Lake at 7:45 am after hiking an hour and a half from our camp.

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Iceberg Lake at 12,650 feet

At 12,650 feet, Iceberg Lake is the highest of the three camping options along the Mountaineer’s Route. There was still a little ice on the lake when we arrived and there were a couple of tents at the rocky campsites next to very large boulders. In addition to a few climbers wanting to get an early start on the final 2000 feet of the Mountaineer’s Route, the Iceberg Lake campsites are primarily used by technical climbers. Iceberg Lake is near the start of Whitney’s stellar East Face and East Buttress routes, both many-pitch 5.7 trad, and other more challenging routes. At the lake we briefly talked with the climber who had camped near Upper Boy Scout Lake the night before and had climbed to Iceberg Lake via a more direct and less traveled route. We got some water from the lake and took a snack break before putting on our helmets and continuing up.

Our next 1,500 feet of climbing was up the wide and steep 1,500-foot chute on the northeast side of Whitney’s summit. Last year we motored up the center of the chute on excellent snow. While it was an exhausting snow climb at altitude, it was fun and relatively easy compared to climbing the chute dry on a mess of loose talus and scree.

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Mount Whitney's East Face and East Buttress from Iceberg Lake with the chute and prominent Notch on its right

Following the advice of others, we decided to climb the slope to the left (south) of the main chute. While steep Class 3 scrambling in places, the rock here was more solid than in the main chute, it was completely snow-free (unlike the main chute), and there was a faint trail to follow.

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We climbed and descended the rock on the left side joining the main chute above the lingering snow
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Climbing in the more solid left side
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Looking down at Iceberg Lake
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Climbing in the steepest section of the chute

After climbing most of the way up the left-side route, we got a little too far to the left on some more difficult Class 4ish rock. I think we were just below the East Buttress route as we could hear rock climbers communicating not far above us. After a few sporting moves back to the right, we reached the less steep ramp that leads back to the upper portion of the main chute. Upon seeing our route ahead to the top of the chute, I told Andy, “It’s a cakewalk from here!” If not for all the loose rock in the upper chute, that might have been the case. We continued carefully climbing in the upper section of the chute, staying mostly on the left (south) side which seemed a little more solid.

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Above the hardest climbing, it was almost "a cakewalk" to the Notch
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Climbing in the upper section of the chute

Andy and I reached the 14,150-foot Notch at the top of the chute a little before 10:00 am after an hour and 45 minutes of climbing from Iceberg Lake. This is as high as Andy and I climbed last year before heading back down. We stopped at the Notch for a snack break and scouted our interesting route ahead.

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Taking a break at the Notch
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14,088 foot Mount Russell and its airy East Ridge to the right from the Notch

There are two routes to Whitney’s summit from the Notch – the steep “Final 400” couloir which climbs directly toward the summit plateau and the “easy walk off” route which traverses above high cliffs and is treacherous most of the year when covered with ice and snow.

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The "easy walk off" route from the Notch - the lingering snow looks avoidable, but slips here have been deadly

The Final 400 is also filled with snow and ice most of the year which makes it a challenging steep snow climb.

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Looking up the Final 400 couloir from the Notch

This day in late August, there was still some snow and ice in the couloir. But from recent reports, we knew that we could work our way around it on dry rock. The Final 400 was the part of the climb I was looking forward to the most! We started up the Final 400 a little after 10 am under still clear blue skies.

The entrance to the Final 400 couloir is on its right side a little below the Notch opposite the chute side.

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The Class 4 (California Class 3) climb up into the Final 400 begins just left of the snow

The first few moves getting up into the couloir are the most technically difficult of the entire Mountaineer’s Route. I’d rate the difficulty of these moves as easy Class 4 which is considered Class 3 in California. The exposure, here wasn’t that bad as the moves are only 10-15 feet above the relatively wide deck. On snow, however, a fall here likely would be your last. Andy led the way up.

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Scrambling about 10 feet up into the Final 400 couloir - the most difficult climbing on the route

After these first few moves, most of the climbing in the couloir was Class 3 scrambling on good rock. At about 20 feet up, we crossed to the left side of the couloir and then climbed up just left of a wet and icy section of black stained rock in the middle of the couloir.

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After crossing the couloir, we climbed on the left side to just above the icy black rock

Once above the icy section, we traversed back across to the right wall of the couloir which provides the easiest climbing to the summit plateau.

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Crossing back above the ice to climb the ridge on the right side of the couloir

I led the way scrambling up the steep ridge that forms the right wall of the couloir. The views back down the couloir and across to Mount Russell were pretty spectacular.

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Approaching the top of the Final 400

After climbing about 25 minutes from the Notch, we topped out of the couloir and could see Whitney’s stone summit building a few hundred feet away across the large summit plateau.

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A welcome view from the top of the Final 400 couloir

Andy and I climbed onto the highest boulder on Whitney’s summit at 11:00 am after 4 hours and 45 minutes of climbing from Upper Boy Scout Lake.

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On Mount Whitney's 14,508 or is it 14,405 foot summit!

Unsurprisingly, there were a lot of people at the summit, perhaps 20-30 people, when we were there. Of course, we took a lot of summit photos and a few videos, trading off taking pictures of others. Although smoke did obscure some of the distant views, we had great views of the range to our north and south. After some snacking, I explored the stone building and then looked to the south to identify Mount Muir which Andy and I had considered adding on to the day’s climb.

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The stone building on Whitney's summit and smoke to the west

At 14,012 feet and just under a mile south of Whitney’s summit (it looked like a long mile), Mount Muir is one of California’s twelve ranked 14ers. After conferring with Andy, we decided to forego Muir on this trip. As Muir is a relatively short Class 3 scramble detour off the main Mount Whitney Trail, I’d love to climb Muir if I ever climb or descend Whitney via the main trail.

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Looking south with 14,012-foot Mount Muir in the center, Keeler Needle in the foreground and the Mt Whitney Trail barely visible on the right

After enjoying the summit for about half an hour we decided to head back down to camp with lots of blue sky still above us. Andy suggested we descend via the “walk off route” and we hiked toward its start from the summit plateau to check it out. The route appeared pretty straight forward and I suspect it would have been relatively easy to get around the remaining patches of snow near the Notch. However, I was hesitant to take this route as quite a few people have fallen off it and died, granted, mainly when the route is covered with ice and snow. I eventually convinced Andy that we should descend the route we had climbed and just take it slowly in the more difficult sections. While scrambling down the steep rock was a bit more challenging than climbing up it, we took our time and had no problems getting down the Final 400 to the Notch. Near the Notch, we saw a few other hikers on the walk off route and, in retrospect, I’m sure it would have worked out fine for us this day.

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Downclimbing in the Final 400

At the Notch we began the most unpleasant part of our trip, descending the steep chute loaded with tons of loose rock.

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Starting our slow descent in the chute

We both descended very slowly and carefully. I talked for a while with several hikers on their way up the chute and a couple of rock climbers headed down the chute to their camp at Iceberg Lake. From the rock climbers’ description, Whitney’s East Buttress route with about ten pitches up to 5.7 on excellent rock, sounded spectacular. About a quarter of the way down we took the ramp on the right side to get onto the steep slope just south of the main chute. Even staying on route, the transition into this south slope was the most challenging scrambling of the descent below the Notch. However, the more solid rock along this section did compensate for its steepness. Descending here last year with plunge steps on the steep but soft snow had been much easier.

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Downclimbing on the left side of the chute

We got back down to Iceberg Lake around 3pm, took off our helmets, and enjoyed an extended snack break.

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Campsites at Iceberg Lake - the best sites were next to the wind-blocking huge boulder on the right

On our way back down the steep section just below Iceberg Lake, we passed a large group of about a dozen rock climbers and guides on their way up to camp at the lake. They were not happy to hear that the “best” campsites at Iceberg Lake were already taken. We later learned that guided groups do not count against the ten permits per day limit along the Mountaineer’s Route. The remainder of the hike back down to Upper Boy Scout Lake was uneventful. I enjoyed the last of a few flowers along the way.

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The last of some shooting stars along the trail
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A few more wildflowers along the trail
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A cute little pine at tree line

We got back to our tents a little after 4:30 pm in the afternoon. It had taken us 4 hours to climb to the summit and about 20 minutes longer to descend the route as we descended so slowly in the chute. While we had just enough daylight to make it back down to the Portal that afternoon, we were in no hurry and I was happy to spend another night camped at Upper Boy Scout Lake.

We had considered climbing 14,088-foot Mount Russell, another ranked 14er, the next morning. Russell’s summit is less than 1.5 miles from Upper Boy Scout Lake and is reached via its super-exposed East Ridge. However, with the uncertain threat from California’s wildfires and having achieved our primary goal, we decided to play it safe and hike out Thursday morning. After washing off a bit with lake water, I joined Andy for dinner and ate a particularly good freeze-dried Chana Masala meal. While it was still windy around the lake, I slept much more soundly in my tent that night than the night before.

Andy and I got up at first light Thursday morning and enjoyed a spectacular sunrise.

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Sunrise Thursday morning
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Another take

As we weren’t in a rush, we took our time with breakfast and breaking camp. We started hiking down from the lake at 7:35 am under clear blue skies but with significant smoke haze below us to the east. We largely followed the same path down to Lower Boy Scout Lake that we had climbed two days before, but once again we each chose slightly different ways through the boulder field.

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Approaching the top of the Ebersbacher Ledges on our descent

As we were about to climb down the first step on the Ebersbacher Ledges, a solo climber popped up in front of us confirming we were at the right spot to descend. We finished our hike at the trailhead at 10:55 am after 3 hours and 20 minutes of hiking from Upper Boy Scout Lake. The first order of business upon reaching the Portal was to dump our biohazard wag bags!

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That's a load off my shoulders - and I'm not wearing the mask just for COVID!

Then we took a few pictures. Then we walked the short distance to Andy’s truck. As I approached the truck, I thought something looked strange. Then I realized that the back window of Andy’s camper shell had been shattered and its frame ripped out. Uh-oh. That could only mean that a bear had gotten into the back of Andy’s truck. And by the way the window was shattered, I’d guess it was a pretty big bear.

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Uh-Oh! Somebody has been in the back of the truck!

We were expecting really bad news inside the truck bed. But to our surprise, the only damage we could find was one broken plastic storage box. Unfortunately we had neglected to remove some baby wipes and sunblock from the box and one or both of these items must have been the target of the bear’s breaking and entering. But even these items did not appear to be opened or damaged.

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Baby wipes or sunblock may have caught the bear's nose

There was also a covered empty cooler in the truck which the bear didn’t touch. Andy and I surmised that someone may have come along and scared the bear away before it had time to do any damage aside from the window and the box. Since the broken camper shell window did not impact the truck’s passenger cabin, we were able to clean up the broken glass and drive back to Colorado Springs without any problems.

After last year’s near miss and all the craziness of this year, Andy and I were super happy with our successful and very fun climb of Mount Whitney. It was especially cool to climb the same route in very different conditions from last year. A week or so after our climb, the entire Inyo National Forest surrounding Whitney was closed due to the California wildfires. We were so lucky to sneak in this climb when we did! While I now have some higher priority climbs on my to-do list, I’d definitely like to get back to the Whitney area when things are a little less crazy and perhaps climb Muir and Russell.

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Our track on The Mountaineer's Route (solid red) versus the Mount Whitney Trail (dashed red)

My GPS Tracks on Google Maps (made from a .GPX file upload):




Thumbnails for uploaded photos (click to open slideshow):
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 Comments or Questions
angry

Nice work!
10/16/2020 09:09
I also did the MR...but as a day trip in Sept 18 and had wished for snow in that couly
Skipped Muir too cause I like bookending things so whenever I finish the CA 14ers, it'll be on Muir.
Glad you had a successful trip!


nyker

Nice!
10/16/2020 10:59
Whitney is one of my favorite mountains. The terrain and air out there just seem different, maybe its the drier air. The last time I did the MR route was in Spring and your photos bring back fond memories. It was one of those rare days where everything goes right.
Think I need to go back there in Spring 2021. Congrats. Hope you were able to get to the Adirondacks on your way from Maine. You should put a photo of you vehicle on "Bear Awareness" signs.


mickknu16

Awesome Report!
10/18/2020 12:29
I was bummed to have my planned Whitney trip October 6th 2 weeks ago cancelled because of fires. I'm jealous! Looked like conditions were great for you and you got your trip in at the perfect time. I Hope to get another chance at it someday soon...


ltlFish99
Excellent report
10/23/2020 17:46
Congratulations. That was a great report with wonderful photographs.
Thanks for posting this.



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