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A Climbers Guide to Mount Whitney, East Face Route

Written by Rick Booth May, 2003 
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The East Face of Mount Whitney
East Face of Mount Whitney, Shadow of First Tower Visible

The East Face Route on Mount Whitney is one of the earliest rock climbing routes in the west. The fact that this route is on the tallest mountain in the lower 48 states makes this route a solid attraction for many technical mountaineers. There have been many descriptions of this route, however, climbers still seem to get lost, either on the hike in or on the Fresh Air Traverse itself.

The hike in to Iceberg Lake on the North Fork of Lone Pine Creek Trail is not particularly straightforward. Head up the Mount Whitney trail. In about a mile a right hand exit from this well traveled path is taken. The forest service has marked the first possible exit with a sign stating that this particular exit is, in fact, not the trail to the North Fork of Lone Pine Creek. The correct cutoff is now marked with a sign right at the trail. The North Fork Trail then winds through a forested area heading up the drainage. After a while a left turn is taken which heads directly for the creek and a creek crossing. Take this turn. The old trail goes up the right or north side of the drainage and will get the unwary hiker into a serious willows thrash. There has been an attempt recently to discourage people from taking the right turn by piling downed branches onto the old trail. The trail on the south side is quite good, for an un-maintained trail, so any sign of a willows thrash is an indication the left turn was missed.

The North Fork Trail winds up the drainage and then goes back to the north towards the granite cliffs. The trail again crosses the North Fork Creek and goes a little further up the canyon and ends at a large triangular shaped block that is detached from the cliff. This marks the start of the Ebersbacher ledges. These ledges allow the hiker to get around the last of the willows in the canyon. The Ebersbacher ledges go back and forth and bring the hiker to a better trail that runs through a sandy, forested area. These ledges do not go back towards the Owens Valley much more than about one hundred fifty feet so going any further than that indicates the upward exits from the ledges have been missed. In particular, going down or losing elevation is a bad sign. This is usually not much of a problem going up but it seems to be something to keep in mind when coming back down. I have seen people rappelling further down the canyon from the strangest perches. The Ebersbacher ledges trail has been re-routed somewhat and now goes right up to the cliff and winds as close to the cliff as possible instead of staying close to the edge of the big drop into the canyon. The trail goes up and breaks out of the canyon at Lower Boy Scout Lake. So far, this has been the straightforward part.

Trail past lower boy scout lake
Trail past Lower Boy Scout Lake
Go below smaller boulder

The trail past Lower Boy Scout Lake is indistinct. There are several trails and paths up through the scree and talus at the west end of the lake. This confusion is exacerbated when snow covers the slope at the west end of the lake. Essentially, the correct trail, or nearly correct trail, stays close to the inlet creek flowing down from the upper slabs. This is easy to locate. Looking up the scree slope above the inlet to the lake are two gigantic boulders. The trail goes right underneath the lower, smaller, right hand boulder. For some reason there is an old trail that goes above the gigantic left hand boulder. The next hazard is to find the path back to the north and cross the water flowing across the slabs and get on the slabs. The trail skirting under the previously mentioned boulder goes up and then heads north towards an improbable looking break in the slabs. Head for this break, go down into the break, cross the stream, and then get on the slabs on the other side. The water may be running down across these slabs and can make picking a path through to the other side a skittish proposition depending on the amount of water flowing over the nasty dark lichen and moss. If you find yourself heading up the scree slopes on the south side looking for breaks in the willows that is understandable. There are, in fact, several faint trails and breaks running through these willows. Negotiating these breaks is unpleasant. Try not to do this although it may be an attractive option if there is a considerable amount of water running down the slabs. In any case head up the canyon towards the treeless outlet from Upper Boy Scout Lake.

The trail does not go quite to Upper Boy Scout Lake but now breaks south and up hill. Go up this section and now the trail winds back to the west along the south edge of the bottom of a large longish ridge. The trail goes steadily up and over several moraines and then appears to head up hill towards a waterfall. This waterfall, or the cliff to the left of it, can be ascended but it is sketchy to say the least. It is far better to continue further west about 200 yards, which requires a modest amount of going down hill, and locate the second break in the cliffs. This has another wetish area but the trail stays to the left and avoids most, if not all, of the water. Above the cliff is Iceberg Lake, base camp for parties ascending the East Face, East Buttress, a lot of routes on Russell, and home to about half the Sierraís marmot population.

Notch behind First Tower
Climbers heading for notch behind First Tower

The climb itself has its own nuances. From the southern edge of Iceberg Lake the Mountaineers route should be clearly visible. To the left of the Mountaineers route there should be a notch visible. Head up to this notch. The tower to the left of the notch is First Tower. This notch and the tower to its left are not visible from most viewing angles of the East Face but should be visible from the south end of Iceberg Lake, even in direct sunlight. The notch is the roping up point for the Tower Traverse, the first of the East Face Routeís famous traverses.

Pitch 1 (Tower Traverse). This is about 5.3 to 5.4 in difficulty. From the notch ascend the crack and narrow face on the right side of the notch upward and toward the left. This tops out after about 20 feet and after a short step down the traverse itself is started. The traverse is blessed with large obvious footholds but has a disconcertingly minimal number of handholds. The traverse ends and a short chimney is ascended. Exiting from the top of the chimney and moving left brings the climber to the start of the Washboard.

Pitches 2,3, and 4. If you use a rope on the Washboard then it will take about three pitches. There is a nice crack right in the middle of the Washboard and this may be easily ascended. There may be a section of the crack, which will appear bottomed out and difficult to climb, but fortunately many face holds appear on the face to the right. The washboard is rated ìthird classî but many a climbing team has belayed or roped simul-climbed the Washboard.

Pitch 5. At the top of the washboard is a huge wall. The escape is to the left through a blocky area that is about 40 feet tall. This is about fourth class to 5.7 depending on the crack system chosen.

Pitch 6. Drop down from the top of the blocky area to the lowest sandy shelf that continues around to the right. This is third to fourth class. The targeted shelf is large. Continue around to the right into a small alcove. Above the alcove are two steep (very, very steep) crack systems. To the left of the small alcove is a blocky wall. This is the start of the infamous Fresh Air Traverse.

Start of Fresh Air Traverse.jpg
Start of Fresh Air Traverse
Go up about 35 feet, then left across
ledge, then behind 6í x 6í block

Pitch 7 (Fresh Air Traverse). Climb up the blocky wall about 20 feet to a shelf running to the left. This passes a large block about four feet by four feet and about a foot thick. Pass either behind this block or on the outside, which is a tad exposed. Step down from the top of the block and take a look at the crux of the Fresh Air Traverse. There should be a nice crack for the hands above a wall with no footholds. This appears to head for a corner facing away from you with a dubious looking face to the left of the corner. There are two bomber pitons in the crack as of the summer of 2002. A couple of quick moves with the hands in the crack and a good stance is soon achieved. Either ascend the crack that drops down to the stance or the aforementioned dubious looking face. It isnít as dubious looking when right on top of it. This brings the climber to the base of a long chimney system. Belay from here. This traverse is also about 5.4 to 5.5 or so. The major difficulty would appear to be that the Fresh Air Traverse move itself does not appear to be 5.4 and climbers look to other places on the wall to climb through. The expectation is that ìjust 5.4î should have lots of obvious holds. Not so, in this case. Glen Dawson was a bold young man in the summer of 1931 to be heading out on this traverse using a hemp rope and sneakers.

Pitch 8. Ascend the chimney system. This is somewhat harder than it looks but goes about 5.6. This eventually exits to the right at the start of the Grand Staircase. This should be called the Grand Loose Staircase.

Pitches 9 and 10. The Grand Staircase is about 200 to 300 feet of class three climbing so if a rope is used it would be about two pitches. All climbers are strongly urged to not use a rope in the Grand Staircase, with the exception of the weird 5.5 move about two thirds of the way up. Dragging a rope over all the loose rocks will only knock this pebble potpourri down on the following climbers who would be right in the middle of the Fresh Air Traverse. The Grand Staircase ends at another wall.

Pitch 11. There are several choices that can be made to escape the Staircase, but the two most popular are the 5.7 offwidth to the left and the 5.8 finger crack to the right.

Pitch 12. Above the escape from the Staircase is a long, low fifth class pitch, that angles up and back to the right. This is the end of the technical difficulties.

The remainder of the route is third class climbing over blocks. About fifty feet above the last belay spot the route joins the East Buttress Route. Head up about another 300 feet to the summit. In some sense the best is saved for the end. The last move from the blocky region pops the climber over the edge to within spitting distance of the 14,495 foot benchmark and the gaping looks of a flock of startled peak baggers. No hundreds of feet of second class junk to climb to finally reach the summit!

Arun leading Fresh Air Traverse
Arun Mahajan leading through crux of
Fresh Air Traverse

The descent is via the Mountaineers Route. From the old stone USGS cabin at the summit there should be a stone windbreak visible to the west. This shields the, uh, toilet. Hike past the windbreak about 50-100 feet and look to the right (north). This should be the top of a steep couloir. Head down this couloir about 500 feet in elevation and look to the right (east) for an obvious gap behind a large tower on the ridge. This gap is about 35 feet wide and going through it brings the climber to the top of the Mountaineers Route. If the way down looks anything harder than class 2 then you have found the wrong gap. During dry years this descent should be straightforward. Many years, or perhaps early in the climbing season, there is a snowfield in the couloir and this snowfield is usually traversed near the top. If the snowfield is icy this can be a dicey proposition and an ice axe at the minimum, or perhaps ice axe and crampons, is highly recommended. Finally, the route is regularly climbed in a few hours, round trip, by soloists and there have been, no doubt, many an epic involving bivouacking on the route, but most capable climbing pairs should be able to climb this route in five to six hours.

The Fresh Air Traverse Route on the East Face of Whitney is a true North American classic. It was first climbed by Robert Underhill, Jules Eichorn, Glen Dawson, and the legendary Sierra figure, Norman Clyde, in August, 1931. This ascent marks the beginning of technical climbs in the west. The route is not difficult, thus, is well within the reach of most mountaineers and rock climbers. The exposure is terrific, the views outstanding, and the sense of history should fill the climber with a sound appreciation of those who pioneered this route. Many thanks to Alexey Zelditch, Arun Mahajan, and Scott Kreider for participating in this adventure.

The High Sierra, Peaks, Passes, and Trails, second edition, R.J Secor, The Mountaineers, 1999, ISBN 0-89886-625-1.

Climbing Californiaís High Sierra, second edition, John Moynier and Claude Fiddler, The Globe Pequot Press (Falcon Guide), 2002, ISBN 0-7627-1085-3.

Climbing Californiaís Fourteeners, Stephen F. Porcella and Cameron M. Burns, The Mountaineers, 1998, ISBN 0-89886-555-7.

Fifty Classic Climbs of North America, Steve Roper and Allen Steck, Sierra Club Books, 1979, ISBN 87156-262-6.

Mt. Whitney, East Face Route III 5.7, Allan Bard, Shooting Star Guides, Allan Bard (now the Bardini Foundation), 515 Sierra Street, Bishop, CA 93514.

East Face Route Map
Mount Whitney East Face Route Map