Four Guys and a Peak (May 1985)

Up until 2008, our adventures were retained only as memories and on Kodachromes. While our memories may have faded (just a bit), the Kodachromes haven’t – and we have a lot of them. So we’re digitizing a select few to bring some of our past adventures into the 21st Century. This is one of those.

Two engineers, a physicist, and a biologist walk into a bar. And the bartender says…

Well, we’ll never know what was said (if anything) since I can never remember a joke (except for the one about the three-legged pig) or, if I do, I invariably garble the punchline. But no matter. This is about four guys – Alan, Chuck, Tom, and myself – and our experiment with the fine art of alpine style mountaineering back it what now seem like simpler times (but really weren’t).

Alpine style mountaineering is that done in a self-sufficient manner, carrying all oneโ€™s food, shelter, and equipment and leaving no trace of oneโ€™s passing. It’s standard practice now and had been around in professional mountaineering circles since the mid-1970s. By the mid-1980s it had started to attract the interest of amateur climbers like us. By 1984, Alan and Chuck had been doing a lot of rock climbing and Tom and I had been doing some mountaineering, mostly in California’s Sierra Nevada. The time seemed right to give alpine style a go.

We chose the North Ridge of Lone Pine Peak (12,943 ft / 3,945 m) for our alpine adventure experiment. Lone Pine sits just east of the crest of the Sierra Nevada south of Mount Whitney and can be easily approached from Whitney Portal. In the guidebook of the day (Roper’s Climber’s Guide to the High Sierra (1976)), the North Ridge was described as classic and adventurous and was expected to take a day and half from Whitney Portal. Still it was rated only III, 5.4 (we should have remembered how infamous Roper’s guide was for sandbagging routes).

Lone Pine Peak (1), Lone Pine’s North Ridge (2), and Mount Whitney (3) from the Owens Valley

The light, compact, high tech alpine gear available today to anyone (with money or a sponsorship) didn’t exist lo those many years ago, so we improvised. We stuffed our 25 liter daypacks with a few scraps of clothing, junk food (Poptarts!) to avoid carrying a stove, minimal water (2 liters each, supplemented with melted snow), a summer weight sleeping bag, and a bivy sack. Rock climbing gear – ropes, ‘biners, and some chocks – we divided among us. All told, we might have been carrying 20 pounds (9 kg) each. This might seem like a lot by today’s ultralight standards but back then it was LIGHT!

The North Ridge (arrow) from the Whitney Portal Road

And then, in September 1984, we made our first attempt. The route wasn’t hard per se, just tricky and time consuming. More time consuming than we’d planned for. Morale sagged. Doubts were raised. Philosophical discussions ensued. So we spent a whole day getting maybe half way up the ridge before biving on a ledge, then retreating the next day. And that was it for 1984.

Treading that thin line between gritty persistence and too dumb to know when to quit, we were back at Whitney Portal in May 1985, ready for another go at the ridge. Up the Meysan Lake Trail we went to the 9,600-foot (2,926 m) level, topped off our water bottles in the creek,

Watering in Meysan Creek

and then climbed across some Class 3-4 rock slabs to the top of the ridge.

Tom works his way up to the ridge

Once we were all on the ridgecrest, the guidebook advised “…stay on it, turning towers above notches usually on the right.” Not much detail here but since we’d already been to this rodeo once, we knew that we couldn’t spend a lot of time pondering whether to go right or left around these towers – of which there were more than a few.

Alan climbs one of the towers
Tom belays me up a tower
I belay Tom up yet another tower

And so we spent the whole day climbing up, around, and over towers composed of the finest Sierra granite. We got sandbagged a few times but quickly got unstuck and back on-route. Finally daylight started to wane and it was time to bivy. After a hearty Poptart dinner, we turned in for the night.

Morning comes to the ridge
Chuck discovers his ledge has a vertical view
Tom enjoys his Poptart breakfast

The weather was good so we were up early and on the route as soon as it was graced with direct sunlight. After having spent the previous day entirely on rock, today we encountered snow. It must not have been a snowy winter that year or we would have reached it lower (or the road to Whitney Portal would still have been closed). We’d gone heavy on the rock climbing gear and very light (nay non-existent) on snow climbing gear, so improvisation was necessary to cross these snow fields with some safety.

Crossing a snowfield at about 11,000 feet (3,350 m)
Chuck uses his chock tool as an ice axe

After just enough snow travel to wake us up and make this feel like a “real” alpine climb, we got back on rock.

Getting off the snow
Tom climbs back onto rock, with the Owens Valley below

We soon reached a nominal saddle just below the last piece of ridge before the summit. Today’s guidebooks say that six to eight pitches of Class 4 to easy Class 5 climbing lie ahead here. Our 1976 guidebook didn’t say anything about what lay ahead, other than it was likely to be adventurous. Nobody wanted to spend another night up here eating Poptarts, so we decided reluctantly (Alan really, really wanted to just go straight up) to swing out to the west and climb what looked like slightly easier ground to the summit.

Me and Mount Whitney (arrow) from the saddle below the summit
Me on the “easier” route to the summit
Me on easier ground just below the summit; Mount Irvine in the distance
Alan and Chuck scramble the last 50 feet to the summit

Even on this supposedly easier ground, we didn’t reach the summit until mid-afternoon. But we reached it! And had fun and learned a lot in the process. I do not, however, remember ever eating another Poptart. ๐Ÿ™„

Alan, Chuck, Tom, and me on the summit of Lone Pine Peak

All of us had to get back to our respective jobs the next morning (that’s the problem with work, you actually have to show-up once in awhile). So after some minimal celebrating on the summit, we took the very sandy standard route down to the Meysan Lake Trail and to the Portal and then home.

Lone Pine’s North Ridge (black arrow to the ridge; red arrow descent from the summit)

This proved to be the last time the four of us did a climb like this together. Life would soon take each of in directions (both literal and spiritual) that none of us could have foreseen that afternoon on the summit. And so it goes. But the memories! Oh, the memories. ๐Ÿ™‚

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2 comments

  1. Thanks! Adventure always starts in the mind; you just have to be careful not to start thinking yourself out of having one. I’ve just become more realistic about the adventure I want versus the adventure I can have. As my friend Wayne says: “Be careful not to write checks that your body can’t cash.” So far, despite the onset of decrepitude, we’ve had some adventures that were as good or better than the ones back in the day. ๐Ÿ™‚

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  2. Great post! It is fun looking back at old adventures and you have had some memorable ones. At times, I find myself wondering how much I can still do. I am still adventurous… in my mind, anyway.

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