This was my first time every doing anything like this. Previous experience included two small trips backpacking in the Sierras at low elevations and one climb up Cathedral Peak with a guide practically pulling me to the top. Cardio workouts started 6 months out, 3 to 4 times per week, with high intensity interval training (HIT) and spin classes with avg. heart rates between 145 and 155 for an hour. Our group did one day hike up Baldy and I did 6 days of hard cardio in row leading up to the trip. I’m 49 years old and weight 187 pounds. Resting heart rate 48 BPM and body fat at 22%.
Started by acclimating in Mammoth at 7880 feet four nights before the climb. Day 1 did a 1000 foot mtn climb from the Village to Horseshoe Lake up Lake Mary Road. Day 2 and 3 snowboarded between 10,000 feet and 11,000 feet for a few hours and did a 3 mile hike at 9000 feet.
We hired Kurt Wedberg and Tristan Sieleman from Sierra Mountaineering International in Bishop to lead our group of 5
Day 1 of the hike
Pack weight was 37 pounds including 3 liters of water, a two man Marmot tent minus poles, and I opted for the large 8 quart stock pot for the carrying of group items. Started at the Portal at 11 am and headed towards Upper Boy Scout Lake. What an amazing hike up that canyon! The Ebersbacher Ledges are not for anyone afraid of heights. Water was raging and the creek crossings were easy using poles. There was one section of snow above Lower Boy Scout lake that had water running underneath it where the guide had to make sure we didn’t punch thru. A full collapse could have sucked you under the snow and down the waterfall. I felt strong all the way to camp and made an effort to drink around 4+ liters of water with Nuun hydration tabs. I was never out of breath and my heart rate stayed low. I don't get sunburns, but made an effort to use lots of sunscreen and made sure to keep the sun protection hat on. I think it took about 4 hours to reach Upper Boy Scout. Our campsite was stunning with towering granite mountains behind us and the steep canyon walls framing the view of the valley floor and Lone Pine. I was thrilled to find the lake full of active fish!
That night we learned that we would be waking up around 2am to eat and get ready for the hike to Iceberg Lake. Dinner was excellent and better than expected! Soup before dinner with cheese ravioli pasta with pesto and vegetables. The guides hiked in frozen food that made the meal far better than any dehydrated stuff. One member lost his appetite around 5 pm and was feeling the effects of altitude and headed for his tent. Sleep was tough, almost non existent, waking up and tossing around all night.
At 3 am we started hiking towards Iceberg lake in the dark with only 4 of us since one member couldn't shake the nausea from the night before. I started with 3 liters of water and my backpack with a few layers of clothes and lots of snacks. At around 5 am we were told to ditch our walking poles, put on our harnesses, helmets, and crampons. This is just when the alpenglow started to shine on Whitney and sheer magnitude of what we are about to do hit me. It was typical Sierra backpacking up to camp, with no feelings of nervousness, but now we were sitting below these massive granite peaks that truly looked impossible to climb. This was the moment it went from a fun trip to a serious one for me. We stopped at Iceberg Lake for a break on an open patch of rocks. The lake was frozen and there was snow from the edge of the lake all the way up the chute to a few hundred feet below The Notch. The snow was firm in the am but very sun cupped.
Each guide took two members and placed short ropes on us to start the climb. About 1000 feet in we lost another member who was feeling nausea and was low on energy. The second guide took him back to camp and we now had three members of our team roped and climbing. The snow was firm enough to get a good bite with each step but it really took focus to place each step carefully and at the right angle. It was hard going up but my stamina felt good and watched my heart rate swing between 110 and 140 bpm. Knowing that I’ve pushed my heart to 180 bmp in the previous week, and could sustain 155 for an hour or more, I had confidence to keep charging. A little passed that half way mark, another member started to lose energy and stated he might not be able to make it. The guide said that we would either need to all go back down or he would need to try to make it to The Notch where he could rest awhile. The guide took his pack and threw it on top of his own to help make it easier for this climber. He persisted and kept going. The chute was steeper than I could have imagined and I now could see how a slip could be deadly. I tried to stay focused by looking up and not down. I think it took us about 2.5 hours to climb from the lake to The Notch but we made it. This is where our third member was told to rest while we summited up the Final 400.
I was feeling good emotionally up to this point, but when I saw what we were about to climb, I got filled with doubt and uncertainty. I had no idea that we were going to climb something that looked like it was meant for serious rock climbers. I started swearing in my mind and needed to remind myself that I’ve made it this far, felt strong, and that our guide had the experience to safely get us up. We now moved forward with just two out of the original five members.
The Final 400 had some clear ice sheets covering rock ledges in the lower section. This was scary to cross as you couldn’t grab on to anything but another ice ledge with your hands and could only rely on your crampons sticking in to the ice. There was snow covering most of the middle area. About 100 feet up, on the east side of the route we stopped behind a large rock with a flat wall about 8 feet tall. As we headed west across a ledge I heard someone yell from above “rocks” and the guide yelled “Crap”! I saw a medium size one coming right at us from some climbers that were going up the class 4-5 route. We immediately ran back to the boulder and crouched low and in a ball to shield us from the oncoming rocks. We could not see what else was coming. As soon as I took cover, I heard the rumbling of what I thought was a massive avalanche of rocks coming towards us. No joke, this sounded like a 1000 rocks the size of basketballs and cars were heading toward us. Thank God it was just a jet fighter going by! It really sounded like death was coming for us! It wasn't until about two seconds later, you could hear the jet engine and we realized were weren't going to die! The boulder flew passed us without incident but now the guide went into full serious mode. He said we needed to quickly get across the snow portion of the chute and over to the class 3 route where nobody would be above us.
Now I really felt scared about what were doing. I started having more doubts than ever. I really thought I was going to die a few minute earlier and that unexpected, uncontrollable event took my confidence away. The view down was outright scary enough to take your breath away. The view up was crazy too with rocks that I felt were to hard to climb and no visible way up to my untrained eye. I had to dig deep and give myself a pep talk to keep moving forward. In all my research, I don't know why I didn’t come across any videos of the Final 400. I can honestly say that had I known what this section looked like, I would not have signed up for the mountaineering route. All I keep saying to myself is “ this is outright bonkers! I can’t believe I’m doing this. What did I get myself into”!
We kept moving on and with each move upwards I started to regain my confidence. A few feet at a time I started to conquer the route. My partner started to lose steam about half way up. I could only try to encourage him that we were close to the top and to take as much time as needed to dig deep. He charged on and within a short time we threw our legs over the top rock to the summit. I got to the top and started to cry and so did he. I have never been so overwhelmed with this type of emotion that comes from overcoming doubts and fear and accomplishing something that I’ve been planning for almost a year.
We spent about 45 minutes at the top and summited around 10:30 am. I had also run out of water at this point. The descent was challenging with a combination of us lowering ourselves feet first and sliding on our butts and lowering ourselves, facing the rocks, looking for hand holds. We made it back to to the Notch in 3 hours round trip and started our descent down the rocky upper portion of the chute. When we hit the snow, we threw the crampons back on and now had to learn about carefully placing each step heading down. I took the lead and quickly learned that it was best to lean downhill, push the long handle of the ice axe down into the snow, then take the next step down. Having my hand on that securely planted handle of the 70mm ice axe made it easy to take the next step. At this point the snow was very soft, and being the lead, I had to push my heels in hard to help make a good step for the person behind me. There were a few streams from snow melt that I could sip out of. We made it down the chute with some of us slipping a few times but the guide was always quick to arrest our slide. It was nice to see how that works!
We made it back to camp around 4 pm. We had been hiking and climbing for 13 hours and I was exhausted. Going downhill was tough on the inside muscles right next to the knee caps. Every other part of my body felt good except that knee area. I wanted to fly fish but needed to lay down and recuperate. Dinner was eaten and I faded at 630 pm and slept 12 hours.
I woke up at 6:30 am and fished at Upper Boy Scout Lake. I caught 7 fish between 10 and 11 inches. This was the only time I needed the thermals and only for a few hours. We headed out around 9 am and made it back down to the Portal at 12:30 pm where we celebrated with some burgers.
Some take aways and tips from the trip.
A 3 liter bladder is far better than a 2 liter bladder. You at least having the option of carrying less.
A long, two piece fly rod is tough to carry on a back pack. A four piece rod would be best.
Secure your climbing poles high enough on your pack so the tips don't catch when sliding down over rocks.
Be religious about drinking water often. My rate was around 1 to 1.25 liters per hour while active.
We drank out of the streams without the need for a filter.
Weight matters. Some members bags were 8 pounds heavier. When buying gear, all those ounces add up. The pack or sleeping bag that weights 6 ounces less is worth it.
Physical training and multiple days of acclimatization is vital to successfully summiting.
Hiring two or more guides is smart if you have a group of people.
Osprey Atmos Backpack 65L
REI Aluminum Walking poles
3 liter bladder
REI Flash sleeping pad
Kelty Cosmic Down sleeping bag 20 degree
Scarpa Zodiac Boots
Outdoor Research gaiters
Columbia Zipper hiking shorts/ pants
Patagonia synthetic blend T-shirt
Patagonia Nano Puff jacket
Patagonia Capaliene-air thermals
Patagonia rain jacket shell
Long sleeve synthetic lightweight shirt
Really Tough socks
One liter Naglene bottle REI
Black Diamond Half Dome helmet
Two Black Diamond locking carabiners
REI rain pants shell
North Face sun hat
Sunglasses with Chums strap
Nemo Fillo Elite pillow
Black Diamond headlamp
Small tupperware box to hold two sandwiches and to eat out of
Small coffee cup REI
Knife, external battery charger, fly fishing gear
Nun Hydration tablets, Stinger Wafflers, Beef Jerky, Oatmeal, Coffee, and PB&J sandwhiches for fuel.
Plastic spork REI
Garmin Fenix 5X Saphire
DEET spray, WAG bag, small sunscreen tube
Stuff sack REI
Rented Crampons, Marmot Tent, harness, and a Black Diamond 70mm ice axe.