East Face in a Day

by Barry Beck

Date Climbed: September 23, 2002

Scotty and I dayhiked all of the California fourteeners this summer, and were feeling pretty fit, so we decided to attempt a one-day, car-to-car ascent of the East Face of Mt. Whitney. I have climbed both the East Face and the East Buttress before, and felt confident of my route finding abilities. The two previous ascents of the face were done in the normal manner, one day to hike in, one to climb and descend, and one to hike out. These ascents were slow, as each time we were a party of 3, and we always ended up descending the Mountaineer's Route in the dark. Scotty's multi-pitch experience was limited to climbing Bear's Reach at Lovers Leap one time ( a 3 pitch, 5.7 route), but we did a lot of soloing up to 5.6 over the summer, especially on the Palisade Traverse, Thunderbolt to Sill. We felt confident in our abilities, and we intended to make better time on this trip.

Our motivation was a passage from R.J. Secor's The High Sierra Peaks, Passes, and Trails, second edition, which follows: "A one-day (from Whitney Portal) ascent of the East Face or East Buttress is not a realistic possibility for most rock climbers. The climbing begins after 4,500 feet of gain in a mostly trailless approach.
I know a handful of individuals who have done this successfully, but they had an intimate knowledge of the approach and climbing routes. Even so, for them
it was a predawn to post dusk affair." Secor also wrote, "The first-ascent party took an incredible 3 1/4 hours to finish the climb from the First Tower. Most parties seem to take 6 hours or more to do the route these days."

We left Reno Sunday evening and camped at the (free) Tuttle Creek campground just west of Lone Pine off of the Portal Road. We awoke at 3:30 am and drove up to the Portal. There were a few tourists gearing up for their own pre-dawn start, and we joined them in getting ready. We hit the trail at 4:15. We did both the hike and climb in 5.10 Cesiums, a low-top sneaker-type shoe shod with stealth rubber. They smear well, but are pretty clunky for edge work or finesse. They do jam well in wide cracks. We bought these things in a closeout at Campmor for $30.

After a mile or so, just before crossing the North Fork of Lone Pine Creek, we turned right onto the climber's trail that ascends the North Fork drainage. There are trails on both sides of the creek, but the trail on the north side is much better. We made Lower Boy Scout Lake in an hour seven, and Upper Boy Scout Lake in a another hour or so. We arrived at Iceberg Lake at 7 am, and added some filtered water to our hydration packs before heading up the talus to the start of the route. As we were filtering water, we watched two tourists head out of camp up the talus slope, so we finished up and hucked up the slope to pass them before the start of the route, as we did not pack helmets.

As it turned out, they were headed for the Mountaineer's Route, but we passed them anyway, and cruised up to the base of the Second Tower. Here we harnessed and roped up, and racked our sparse selection of gear: 7 stoppers, and a #1 and #2 Camalot, a few sewn slings, and a 100-foot length of 8.8-mil dynamic. As I started up, 2 other climbers pulled up beside and began gearing up. They were pleasant enough fellows, and said they were glad to have someone to follow as they were unfamiliar with the route.

The first time I climbed this route, I ascended the line of the original climbing party. This route goes up the face of the Second Tower, and over the top, down a rubbly ramp, and down a chimney to the Washboard. This time, we elected to take the Tower Traverse to the Washboard. Much easier. The Tower Traverse is 5.3, and is fairly exposed, but very easy. The traverse is short, and I set up a belay at the bottom of a chimney leading to the Washboard. Scotty followed along, and right behind him was the other party of two, and they acted as if they were going to be fast. Scotty joined me at the belay, and I clambered up the face to the right of the chimney, and gained the Washboard. Scotty quickly joined me.

We piled the rope in Scotty's pack and lit out up the Washboard, hoping to put some distance on our pursuers. The washboard is class 3, and is 2-3 pitches long. As we topped the Washboard, we still didn't see the climbers tailing us. At the top of the Washboard the route goes left over a short, steep headwall, followed by 30 or 40 feet of downclimbing onto a giant ledge system. From here you can see the Fresh Air Traverse (5.4), the chimney system above it, and the Grand Staircase. We third-classed out to a ledge just right of the Fresh Air Traverse and roped up again. I stepped out onto the traverse, which is really a long step-across, and stopped to take a couple photos of the large exposure. From this vantage point one can see all of the 1500 or so feet straight down to the talus. There are 2 fixed pins protecting the traverse, and a not-too-good ring pin protecting the moves after the traverse, on the way to the chimney. Some of the holds here are micro-thin flakes, but the rock is solid. All of the ledges here are piled with fresh debris, evidence that a helmet is a good idea. I set a belay in the bottom of the chimney, and brought Scotty up.

Finishing the chimney took only a short time, and we were once again on 3rd class terrain, so we packed up the rope. We spotted the climbers following us, just now to the top of the Washboard. It turns out that they belayed every pitch of the route, very time consuming. The Grand Staircase was next, a system of ledges punctuated by short, steep cliff bands, and all except the last can be negotiated as 3rd class terrain. The last step is an overhanging off-width crack (5.7), with lots of good handholds, and good footholds as well if you have climbing shoes. The "pitch" is only 15-20 feet high, and could be treated as a boulder problem, as the landing is good. After this there are a few minutes of scrambling over blocks to the summit, and the tourist extravaganza that awaits you there.

We popped up a steep boulder to the top, and postured for the 25 or so tourists already there. Total face climb time: 2:55. We headed down the Mountaineer's Route, the first time I have ever seen it in daylight, and stopped at Iceberg Lake 55 minutes later for another fill-up before the remainder of the descent. Leaving the lake, we could see the climbers that had been right behind us still on the Grand Staircase. We carried on, and were back at the Portal at 2:30, for a car-to-car time of 10:15. Not particularly fast, but definitely respectable.