Whitney: Mountain of Solitude
by Paul Richins, Jr. (updated 2/23/05)
WHITNEY WITH SNOW, SOLITUDE, SEVERITY, STUNNING BEAUTY, by Paul Richins Jr., Special to The Sacramento Bee, published Thursday, February 3, 2005
It was a brisk Thanksgiving morning. The temperature had dipped to 12 degrees. Fresh snow covered the ground near my tent and an inch of ice encrusted the surface of the small lake at Trail Camp at 12,000 feet. Despite the icy cold, I was up at dawn ready to climb 14,491-foot Mount Whitney.
With Walt Wheelock's climbing manual, "Climbing Mt. Whitney: The Complete Guide for Hiking and Backpacking," I set out to summit the highest peak in the lower 48 states.
This peak is attempted by more than 30,000 people each year, but on that morning I was alone on the mountain. I ascended the 97 snow-covered switchbacks in the trail with great anticipation. With each step, I broke through the fresh snow to my knees. The climbing was arduous but the adrenaline was flowing and I pressed on, excited to be on the mountain for the first time. I reached the summit that glorious day, inspired by the solitude and energized by the mountain's rugged beauty.
That was 35 years ago. Winter ascents of Mount Shasta, Lassen Peak, Pyramid Peak and many others followed. Looking back, I realize how little I knew that fine day, but those early trips galvanized my desire for mountain travel. Even though I have been on many successful expeditions to Alaska, Canada, Argentina, Ecuador, Tibet, France and Norway, the splendor of the Sierra Nevada and the drama of my first ascent of Whitney remain etched among my fondest memories.
In subsequent years I have returned to Mount Whitney to climb its rugged slopes and to photograph its splendor. For many years I planned to ascend the famous Mountaineers Route couloir (a steep gully) and circumnavigate this magnificent mountain on skis. Each winter, there seemed to be other valued trips that prevented my goal.
Finally, in April, I set aside time and headed for the Mountaineers couloir and the great east face of Whitney. With a backpack stuffed with a tent, sleeping bag, fleece jacket, gloves, tripod, camera gear, stove and food for six days - and with my telemark skis strapped to the pack - I started up the Whitney Trail, from 8,365 feet. Prince, the American Eskimo dog who has joined me on many adventures, bounded energetically ahead.
After hiking several miles in light snow and below-freezing temperatures, we reached deep snow. I removed the skis from my backpack and attached climbing skins to the ski bottoms. The skins allow skis to slide forward, but hairlike nylon fibers grip the snow to keep them from slipping backward. Using climbing skins, backcountry skiers can glide many miles a day over snow. Prince and I climbed steeply for several miles, passing Upper Boy Scout Lake, at 11,300 feet, and arriving at Iceberg Lake, at 12,600. I set up the tent on 10 feet of snow and Prince curled up on my empty pack beside the tent.
In John Muir's footsteps
The Mountaineers Route couloir is the distinctive, snow-filled gully on the northeast face of Whitney. John Muir, though not the first person to summit the mountain, was the first to climb the steep gully route. Some years after that 1873 trip, he wrote: "For climbers there is a canyon which comes down from the north shoulder of the Whitney peak. Well-seasoned limbs will enjoy the climb of 9,000 feet required for this direct route, but soft, succulent people should go the mule way." (In the 1800s, the "mule way" was the easiest route up the mountain, ascending from the west.)
At our camp at Iceberg Lake, the weather deteriorated: Wind buffeted the tent and snow began to fall. From the safe haven of the tent, I could peek out through the storm and see the intimidating couloir bisecting Whitney's precipitous east face.
The next morning in stormy weather, poor visibility and falling snow, my little dog and I ascended the steep, snow-filled gully. I was climbing with crampons (metal plates with 12 spikes) strapped to my boots and my skis tied to my backpack. At the 14,000-foot notch at the top of the couloir, I carefully traversed the dangerous north face to the summit ridge. The hard snow in the couloir and precariously steep north face require use of an ice axe and crampons. A slip would result in a terrible tumble down the steep ice and over a rocky precipice. While I proceeded with caution, Prince darted about, unconcerned about the hazards of the route.
Again, just as I experienced 35 years ago, I was the only one on the mountain. After spending about an hour there taking photos of the storm, we descended. It was not an elegant ski descent of the couloir, but I survived and we reached the safety of the tent.
To complete the planned circumnavigation of Whitney, we ascended to a small notch at 13,060 feet on the jagged ridge connecting Whitney to Mount Russell. On the other side I traded crampons for my mountaineering skis and was soon gliding past Arctic Lakes, Guitar Lake, Timberline Lake and Crabtree Lakes. Around 11,000 feet, we started the three-mile ascent to 12,560-foot Crabtree Pass. This took us across four more frozen lakes and beneath the near-vertical granite walls of Mount Chamberlin. This remote and seldom-visited lake basin provided an exhilarating backdrop for a campsite and the eventual tour up the canyon.
Signs of other people
On Crabtree Pass I spotted boot and crampon tracks in the hard snow. I was surprised to detect human activity in this remote area and was further perplexed that the party was not on skis. My ski descent across spring corn snow to the upper end of Sky Blue Lake, at 11,600 feet, was superb.
I pitched my tent on about 10 feet of snow atop a bluff overlooking the frozen lake. The scenery was accentuated by sheer granite rising from the lake. I planned to camp here for several days to rest and explore.
For the first "rest" day, I planned to ascend 13,485-foot Mount Pickering and ski the Primrose Lake canyon headwall gullies. Above Primrose Lake, a small glacier and an 800-foot headwall occupy the basin ringed by cliffs. Four steep, snow-filled chutes bisected the headwall. It appeared the northernmost gully had the best line for an exhilarating ski descent. On my ski down Pickering, the 25-foot-wide, 40-degree slot proved an excellent choice for a thrilling ride.
Upon returning to Sky Blue Lake I was surprised to meet other people, Catherine and Geir Boe. The San Francisco couple were camped at the lower end of the lake, out of sight of my camp. It was their tracks I had seen the previous day on Crabtree Pass (they had climbed Mount Whitney). That evening the wind intensified. Powerful gusts whipped the tent on its exposed perch overlooking the lake. The wind's intensity was building, making life inside the tent miserable. Before I finished cooking dinner I decided to move the tent to a more sheltered location.
I quickly crawled out, removed the poles to collapse the tent and placed several large rocks on it to prevent it from blowing away in the surging gusts. My custom was to place the empty pack beside the tent for Prince to sleep on. But the pack was not there. My mind searched for an explanation. Where was the pack? And, without a pack, how would I carry my gear out? I was 12 miles from civilization. Surely the wind could not have blown it too far away. I anxiously searched the area. I could not find it. In desperation, I descended over the cliff and down the snowfield toward the lake. What a relief to find the pack. It had indeed blown down the mountain and was 300 yards away.
Back at the tent, I quickly found a sheltered spot and moved camp to a less-exposed spot and finished dinner.
I was up early the next day to take photos of the lake and the surrounding scenery, especially focusing on the sheer granite face rising from the lake's shore. The alpenglow at sunrise added to the morning mood.
It was time to leave Sky Blue Lake and head home. I headed up the steep valley toward Arc Pass and ascended to a 13,520-foot notch in the rugged, saw-toothed ridge between Mount Irvine and Mount Mallory.
The other side of the pass was steep and icy. After cautiously climbing down , I traded crampons for skis and enjoyed a 2,000-foot run to Meysan Lake. Below the lake I continued skiing the rugged canyon another 2,000 feet. It has to be one of the finest ski descents in the Sierra Nevada. Where the snow ended, I hiked down the trail to the Whitney Portal Road and the car.
I will remember this journey and I hope to repeat it soon. Days in the backcountry might well be the finest days of my life.
If you're hardy enough to go ...
Starting point: Whitney Portal trailhead (8,365 feet), west of Lone Pine and Highway 395
Passes: Russell-Whitney (13,060 feet), Crabtree (12,560 feet) and an unnamed pass a fellow climber has officially proposed be called Richins Pass (13,520 feet)
Summit climbs and ski descents: Mount Whitney (14,491 feet) and Mount Pickering (13,485 feet)
Elevation gain: more than 16,000 feet (combined)
Difficulty: strenuous ascents; advanced-expert skiing terrain
Mileage: about 45 miles
Trip duration: six days
Best time to go: April to early May
Trip highlights: Ski ascent and descent of Mountaineers Route couloir on Whitney, descent of the Arctic Lakes recess, traverse of the Crabtree Lakes basin, Sky Blue Lake, ski descent of the Primrose Lake headwall gullies, ski descent to Meysan Lake.
First ascent of the Mountaineers Route: October 1873 by John Muir
First ski descent of the Mountaineers Route: 1974 by Galen Rowell
About the writer: Just about this time last year, Paul Richins Jr. was planning a circumnavigation of Mount Whitney on backcountry skis. The 55-year-old outdoor author and climber had chosen early April 2004 because it was on the downhill side of winter. It was his intention to climb when he had to, ski down when he could, explore frozen lakes and camp surrounded by winter solitude. And, of course, he'd have to let his little powder-puff dog, Prince, come along for the weeklong adventure. He and the 19-pound American Eskimo pooch love the climbs. "It gives me a feeling of accomplishment, solitude and inspiration," said Richins, who has climbed peaks all over the Sierra - and several around the world. His specialty is winter climbs. "Being there first (in winter) gives me some fulfillment."
Richins, manager of the environmental office for the California Energy Commission and an El Dorado Hills resident, plotted his circumnavigation itinerary and left copies with friends.
He's planning another Sierra quest this April. He'll team with a longtime fellow adventurer, Dr. Colin Fuller, a Reno cardiologist.
Paul Richins Jr. of El Dorado Hills has been on mountain expeditions to the far corners of the planet, but says that treks into the Sierra Nevada, especially before winter has released its grip on the land, can't be matched.
Paul Richins Jr., has skied throughout California. He regularly skis from the summits of Mount Shasta and Lassen Peak. He has skied across Lassen Volcanic National Park more than 20 times and in various four-to nine-day segments has skied from Lake Tahoe to Mount Whitney and beyond. Richins has completed three east-to-west traverses of the Sierra Nevada and has skied across the Grand Teton range in Wyoming.
He is the author of four hiking and ski mountaineering guidebooks: "50 Classic Backcountry Ski and Snowboard Summits in California: Mount Shasta to Mount Whitney" (a mini-review of this book is on page E10); "Mount Whitney: The Complete Trailhead-to-Summit Hiking Guide"; "Best Short Hikes in California's South Sierra" and "Trekking California," an all-color publication.
His Web site, Backcountry Resource Center (http://pweb.jps.net/~prichins/backcountry_resource_center.htm) provides information to hikers, backpackers and backcountry skiers wishing to explore the mountains of California and beyond.
Reach Richins via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Outdoor Library: Skiing, above and beyond
Book Review by Judy Green -- Bee Staff Writer
Ski resorts don't like it when their customers go beyond the boundaries to make fresh tracks in the backcountry, but Paul Richins Jr. revels in off-piste skiing. So much so that he has written the guide "50 Classic Backcountry Ski and Snowboard Summits in California: Mount Shasta to Mount Whitney (The Mountaineers, $17.95, 240 pages/softcover).
It leads adventurers to go exploring the snowy Cascades and Sierra from Mount Shasta to Mount Whitney. Richins provides all the information a mountain skier or boarder needs to take on the excursions - bonus here; there actually are 51 trips listed - he outlines. Each trip starts with an outline of the best route, time of year to go, time on the trail, mileage, elevation gain, difficulty and maps.
He also provides an "effort factor," which gives an idea of how much exertion to expect.
Richins opens his book with cautionary comments about safety, preparedness and equipment. This second printing includes a cornucopia of supplemental essays on historical crossings of the Sierra and survival stories. A smattering of black-and-white photographs show the author and his dog, Prince, on the trails higher than most of us get with a chair lift.
Sacramento adventurers will want to check out the seven trips he has for the Lake Tahoe region, including Pyramid Peak and Mount Tallac.
Photos of the Mount Whitney trip will be provided in the future--
Photo Caption: Geir Boe of San Francisco, whom the photographer met during his Mount Whitney circumnavigation, skis below Mount Pickering, near Sky Blue Lake. - Special to The Bee / Paul Richins Jr.
Photo Caption: Richins' camp at Iceberg Lake, below Whitney's east face (not seen), showing Keeler Needle, right, and Mount Muir, far left. - Courtesy of Paul and Judi Richins
Campsite and climbers below the east face of Mount Whitney near Iceberg Lake. The Mountaineers Route Couloir is the distinctive snow-filled gully to the right of Mount Whitney. The ascent and ski descent was via this steep gully. Photograph by Paul Richins
From Lower Boy Scout Lake, the route to Upper Boy Scout Lake and Iceberg Lake is up and to the left following the snow covered mountainside. Photograph by Paul Richins
Paul Richins of El Dorado Hills has climbed mountains all over the world. In April, 2004, he and his little dog, Prince, did an unusual feat: circumavigated Mt. Whitney in the snow. They packed in their own food (even the dog carries his own food) and camped while doing the journey. Judi Richins. Photo by Judi Richins
Richins, a California state employee, is the author of four books about hiking and backcountry skiing. Richins puts "skins" on his skis to climb when he's unable to push forward. Then, he skis down. Photo by Judi Richins
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