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Mt. Whitney or Bust

An upcoming adventure illustrates the common denominators between John Muir, group-think and sushi.

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Welcome to Monday campers! And please accept my profound condolences on the beginning of your work week. Economics is indeed “the dismal science.”

By the time you read this I’ll be heading across Highways 6 and 50 through austere, Great Basin Nevada, heading west (my favorite compass point) for an attempt on the Mountaineers Routeup Mt. Whitney’s spectacular East Face. Fear not; This is work. I’ve got gear to test, photos to shoot, and willing lab hamsters along for the ride. (The Dramatis personae: My wife Jen, her oldest/younger brother Jeff Kirstein, his uber-wife Nancy, and her cousin Alan Budden.)

Jeff got permits to climb Mt. Whitney’s ultra-busy trail route but, being allergic to crowded hikes, I suggested we blow off the standard slog and take this spectacular but potentially straightforward classic first pioneered by John Muir his-self – solo as usual – in October of 1873. My thinking is, if you’re going to climb the Lower 48’s highest peak, you ought to take a route that lives up to the numbers.

Despite its prehistoric first ascent date, the Mountaineer’s Route is still a stout proposition. It’s always a mistake to understimate the skills of pioneer climbers, because many of them were damn near superhuman. The first time I scoped out the MR from the Owens Valley near Lone Pine, California, my initial impression was “No Way! Dead Vertical.” But steep mountains always look hairy from a distance, and climbing the route with a Summit for Someone group on a Big City Mountaineers pledge climb (photo above) proved much less hairy, and far more scenic, than expected. As a reader service FYI, these trips are huge fun for a good cause. Highly recommend.

As in all backcountry travel, difficulty is largely determined by current conditions. I expect mostly dry talus and rock, but since the Sierra Nevada saw a foot of snow several weeks ago, with mostly bluebird weather ever since, the upper, north-facing couloir of the Mountaineer’s Route may well have frozen meltwater (called verglas) covering the granite, making the last 400 feet a poor man’s Eiger. So we’ll arrive heavily armed with spikey tools and oodles of cordage, and sort it out from there. We’re also showing up with trail hiking footwear in case the currently stable weather deteriorates, making the Whitney Trail a smarter move, especially for a large party with varied climbing resumes.

This all boils down to several tips-o-the-day:

–First: Choose a trip for the skill level of your group, or a group for the challenge level of your intended trip. Make this decision up front, because mixing the two objectives is a recipe for frustration, drama and disaster. Long ago I learned I was never doing friends a favor by letting them join up on hikes, climbs, canyons or whitewater rivers they weren’t ready for. The ‘thrash and drag’ method of teaching friends may be traditional (particularly in low-fat mountain resort towns) but it’s also counterproductive and dangerous. Assuming no altitude sickness, our group should be OK on the MR, but I’ve forewarned everyone to be heads up, and e-mailed them all the route descriptions and gear lists. It also means that I’ll have to be more heads up than anyone. Inattention not allowed.

–Second: It’s always smart to have a fallback itinerary, and the gear for it, to allow for changing conditions. This is especially true for leaderless groups of friends, where on-the-fly changes usually involve paralyzing debate. My brother once identified and named an interesting principle: “Howe’s Law of Mob Intelligence.” To determine the collective decision-making abilities of any group, simply take the average IQ of its members and divide by the number present. It’s a very repeatable experiment, but I don’t recommend trying it yourself. The research gets repeated a thousand times every weekend and once every four years during our national elections. The math is not encouraging.

–Thirdly: Advance information (aka beta, a rock-climber’s term) is always good. And like fish, the fresher it is the better. Sometime on Monday I’ll call Kurt Wedberg of Sierra Mountaineering Internationalin Bishop, CA. Kurt’s the veteran guide who led our BCM pledge climb, and someone I keep running into on adventures from Ouray’s Ice Park to Mt. McKinley. SMI runs trips up the Mountaineer’s Route every weekend, so they’ll have beta that’s fresher than sushi tuna and twice as healthy.

–Lastly: The bigger the group, the more chances there are for injury – more ankles to twist, knees to blow, rocks to roll – so the bigger your First Aid kit should be. I spent yesterday morning tricking and re-stocking my trauma pack.

If all this prep sounds a bit anal, it is. If I was solo, or with an experienced climbing partner, I’d just toddle on out to Muir’s old stomping grounds and free-solo/third class this route (with a rope along just in case). But being the most experienced in the group means, officially or not, I’m de facto guide, and that is a completely different bag.

Some wilderness traditionalists consider beta to be cheating, that it lowers the level of adventure. But even with desktop map scouting, waypoint bombsighting, internet info and route topos, I’ve never found adventure to be lacking on my wilderness forays. There are always surprises. The challenge is to keep them manageable.

Stay tuned. I’ll post a report and photos upon return. –Steve Howe

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