Joining The Lineage of Sierra Alpinists
In the wee hours of August 21st, 2019 my partner and I made our way upstream along the N. Fork of Lone Pine Creek. The tallest point in the Continental U.S. loomed above us. We had our sights fixed on the summit of Mt. Whitney, which if we could pull it off would be a brilliant inaugural foray into the endless supply of Sierra Nevada peaks for us as a newly formed alpine climbing team. Dion Akers and I would try our hands at climbing this monumental peak in a style that would push us out of our comfort zones and into the world of Sierra alpine climbing.
We had selected the historic East Face of Mount Whitney route 14 months prior, in June of 2018, desiring to add our names to the list of those who have followed in the footsteps of legendary climbers. There was a group of pioneering alpinists who did a number of proud first ascent in the Sierra Nevada back in the summer of 1931. The group of cutting edge climbers had bubbled to the top of crucible during a Sierra Club gathering in Yosemite Valley and Central Sierra.
Robert Underhill, who was known for making world-class first ascents in the Alps and around America, came to the Valley to teach belaying and rappelling techniques to Californians who at time time were completely unfamiliar with the use of ropes for safety during voyages into the mountains. Underhill’s following of aspiring mountaineers included Jules Ericson, Glen Dawson and Norman Clyde and Francis Farquhar. This band of climbers teamed up in August of 1931 to establish the now classic rock route on the sheer eastern face of Mount Whitney.
Dion and I craved an experience that would include hiking into the Sierra backcountry, doing the bit of route finding, and dancing across the infamous ‘fresh air traverse’ pitch on our way to the summit. We had read trip reports, researched guidebooks and perused through the comments on MP to try and get a sense of what to expect on the route. No matter how much material you are able to read or who you talk to about their ascent, there is so much more to discover when on the wall in pursuit of the summit. Dion and I figured that even if the weather was bad on the day our permit allowed for us to head into the backcountry that we could always pay homage to the long line of mountaineers and alpinist that came before us by climbing the Mountaineers Route and take advantage of the opportunity to gather intel for another try on the East Face in the future. The stars aligned, however, and the early morning sky was clear and the forecast called for it to remain so throughout the remainder of the day. So we humped our way to Iceberg Lake from Whitney Portal ready to take on the East Face and give it our absolute best.
One aspect of the mission that made this trip so special was that the idea that led to the attempt was originally conceived of on the very first day that Dion and I met at Mesa Rim Climbing Center. Dion had called for a belay partner and I was ready to hop on a rope instead of continue bouldering. After a few pitches of exchanging catches and chatting, I recall Dion blurted out something along the lines of, “I really liked that climb, I wouldn’t mind doing that for a thousand feet. I’ve always wanted to do the East Face of Mount Whitney” as he smiled while being lowered to the ground. At the time I acknowledged that I too had dreamed of climbing a mega Sierra classic such as the East Face. I also knew deep in my heart that I wanted to expand into trad climbing after spending over a decade and a half of mostly clipping bolts across California, Arizona, and New Mexico. From that interaction on our first day of climbing in the gym together, I knew that I had found my first real friend since relocating to San Diego. I also had a strong sense that Dion had a like mind to me and that we might end up climbing together regularly. I would learn over the coming months and years as our climbing partnership grew that he was the father of a toddler like me, and was somebody who was oriented to whole-heartedly taking on the process of evolving as a person, a father, as well as a climber. Fast forward three years and there we were sorting gear on the northeast shoulder of Mt. Whitney, making our shared dreams come true.
Not only had Dion and I both received the greenlight from our wives to embark on an prized three day excursion to the Eastern Sierra (a golden wallpass in its own rite) but also, we had been planning and preparing for this trip all year long. Our attempt on the East Face would be the capstone to our first year of trad climbing.
Something else that still impresses me to this day about our ascent of the East Face is the fact that we had never climbed any trad route rated 5.7 until we took on the East Face of Mt. Whitney. Yes, we had trained for 8 months in the gym with this objective in mind, tested our skills and endurance on a few historic Taquitz link-ups, and hiked Mt. Gorgonio to see how elevation might affect us. Nonetheless, over the course of a few years of climbing together we had forged a climbing partnership and a level of trust that propelled each of us to new heights. Having built our relationship from a foundation based on a shared love for life, our families, and spending time at the crag or in the mountains we had charted a course that would allow us to experience the rich history of Sierra Nevada rock climbing. Doing an alpine style rock route with such history felt entirely new, exciting, and full of adventure. Reaching outside of our respective comfort zones together allowed us to pull off such a car-to-car style ascent of the East Face that neither one of us would have imagined to be possible a year before.
The East Face certainly required us to apply all of the newly acquired skills in a cumulative way. Sure we loved getting in late night sessions to run laps on plastic after prying ourselves from our children’s bedroom floors after bedtime stories. We even loved playing the delicate balancing act between work, home-life, and climbing that afforded us the opportunities to spend the time necessary to expand each of those roles as needed. We spent time learning about anchor systems, new climbing techniques, and supported each other’s development every step of the way, both at the crag and at home. We embraced what was left of the unknown and got as prepared as possible for what lay ahead. There was certainly a dichotomy at play: in one sense we felt totally confident that we could do it, that there was no one crux that would shut us down, and that we had put in the work to build the skill sets required to safely handle the attempt. On the other hand, there was the simple reality that this objective dwarfed any of our previous climbs that we’d done together.
Taking on a large challenge and embracing the unknowable characteristic of the entire journey that can only be realized once in the wilderness has a primal feature to it, and is rooted somewhere deep in our DNA. We enjoy the thrill of exploration.
When done right, taking on such challenges in the mountains asks more of us than most other things in our lives because it requires us to find almost perfect balance. Having a solid partner who understands the wide ranging dynamics of how to have fun and is committed to continually scanning for opportunities to improve the team’s position in relation to the challenges at hand is absolutely key to coming home with a wide winning grin, a story to tell the family, and unforgettable memories of being high in the mountains together.