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Pitch Black: A Night On Mt. Whitney

by Mary L. Gray originally published in Rock and Ice, July 1997

"I don't think it was pride that pushed us, it was.. well.. more like confidence," I said, scanning the laughing faces of my friends gathered around me in a sloppy semi-circle. Cafe Roma had long been our meeting place to swap stories, study, or just spend slow days together. Until that evening, I hadn't really tried to explain my latest adventure, not even to myself.

Tom prodded, "And the difference between pride and confidence would be..?", motioning with his hands that I should continue trying to explain just how Brendan and I ended up spending the night on the face of Mt. Whitney, with nothing but ropes for blankets and an apple, raisins, and one stale chocolate chip cookie to last us the length of our unexpected stay.

I sat quietly for a few moments as their giggles trailed off. What was my point? Why did I feel what I experienced was different from the "adventure-gone-bad" sagas I'd read about countless times?

The middle of September, I finished a short warm summer of hard work and equally hard play at Vogelsang High Sierra Camp in Yosemite National Park. I had a plane reservation for a flight to South America departing October 17. When Brendan suggested we climb the East Face of Mt. Whitney, I thought, "great, the perfect distraction"-- something to keep me from dwelling on my South American adventure still two weeks away.

This had been a year full of experiences for both of us. We had both finished our undergraduate degrees at University of California, Davis, earlier that Winter; now we spent our time climbing and hiking as much as possible, he in Tahoe me in Yosemite. Most of our contact was in the form of quickly scribbled postcards updating each other on our last excursion.

At the time, there seemed little to plan; we both needed to be back by the end of the week. Brendan would be flying off the following week to visit his girlfriend, Cathy, a Peace Corps volunteer stationed in Poland, and I needed some time to outline my itinerary for South America. He had the climbing gear and the experience leading technical climbs, and I was an enthusiastic first year climber with my own harness and shoes.

The day Brendan drove down to pick me up, we spent the better part of our afternoon pouring over the details of the climb as described in a book of classic U.S. climbs. We sidetracked each other reading excerpts from other route descriptions-- Devil's Tower, The Grand Teton, Royal Arches, El Cap. We daydreamed out loud about when we would look back on this Whitney climb as a long day hike.

The description of the approach to the East Face of Mt. Whitney said most climbers hike the eight or so mile mountaineer's route the first day and camp at the base of the climb. The night's rest allows for acclimation and leaves a full day for climbing. We both figured, however, with an early start, the extra day wouldn't be necessary. Once to the top, the fifteen mile descent on the other side of the peak would be a breeze, even in the dark. It all made sense. I had spent a summer living at 10,000 feet; the top of Mt. Whitney was another 4,000 feet. How much difference could that really make?

We headed for Movie Flats, a cluster of sandstone formations ten miles south of Lone Pine-- a popular, unofficial overnight parking spot. As with most of the hiking trips I've been on, I spent most of the night awake with excitement about the day to come. The wind howling and swirling around our tent didn't help. Brendan snored away; at least one of us was getting some rest.

The morning couldn't have come soon enough for me. We drove the twenty more miles up the hillside to the trailhead, just as the sunlight was pouring into the Flats below. By the time we geared up and decided what we needed, our early start had slipped away. "It's already 8am, B," I said, as casually as I could. I don't like nagging about getting on the trail. I spent four years in college working as a backpacking and skiing guide, and the last thing I wanted was to feel as though I was back at work.

We started out at a quick pace, trying to make up for lost time. We planned to make it back to the car by 10 or 11 that night, so we left a lot of our gear stuffed under the car seats. No need to carry extra food for dinner or sleeping bags; extra clothes wouldn't be necessary. We'd survive a late dinner and a little chilly air.

By the time we cut through the first five miles of the chaparral-choked mountaineer's trail, I realized being away from 10,000 feet for the past week or two had brought my acclimation right back to that of a Davis flatlander. Brendan was a bit better off, having come from his home in the Auburn foothills at some 3,000 feet, but he was losing his pace, too. Neither of us thought bringing the route description was necessary; why rip the pages from that beautiful book. Carrying the heavy, hard bound thing for a quick one day hike seemed equally ridiculous; besides, we had both read through the article detailing the Whitney route, and had a fairly good idea of which way to go, more or less.

Unfortunately, with such a good snow season, the summer grasses and willows camouflaged the less worn stretches of trail. I was hiking a whopping one mile per hour, and starting to dry heave the tortillas I had eaten for breakfast. The pounding in my temples was nothing compared to the embarrassment I felt for slowing us down. I sputtered one apology after another to Brendan. He accepted each one with a smile and the same "don't worry about it."

2:06pm-- After six hours on the trail, and being in the peak's shadow for more than hour, we clambered onto the washboard slabs of granite that marked the beginning of the Whitney East Face technical route. With the early afternoon light scouring its sides, the climb looked soaked in a white spotlight. To the north, over a low saddle, the fourth class ropeless scramble to the summit silently teased our doubts. "Do you want to scrap the 5.4 rope route and take the saddle to the top instead?" Brendan asked. We had come so far and as tired as I was, I couldn't imagine walking away from the climb now. "No, we can do it; we might get back to the car later than we'd planned, but I think it'll be worth it," I responded. Brendan smiled and pulled out his harness and shoes.

Eighteen pitches. Over 1,000 feet of vertical climbing. In the guidebook, the climb is broken down into eighteen pitches, if a climber stays on the established route. Brendan had told me the most he had ever led was eleven consecutive pitches, but then how hard can seven more be on a 5.4 route? I had complete trust in his ability. Brendan grew up climbing Tahoe granite before bolted sport climbs were anywhere near his neck of the woods. He considered protection climbing a more natural, honest experience. The only difference here was the near 2,000 feet of exposure.

There wasn't a view around us that wasn't a shear drop down some 1,000 feet or more. Every nut, every cam placement was important. Every anchor would have to be correct. We knew from past experiences that his lead falls usually take my footing away, sending me sailing through the air or into the rock in front of me. Our belay stations had to take that into account; they would have to be secure.

As he finished up the first pitch and gave me the signal to follow up, the once beautiful and serene view of the eastern horizon and its valley floor twisted into a staircase of vertigo. How did he do the first move? I saw no way of working myself over the knob of rock jutting out into the abyss below. It was some kind of mantle move; I just needed some weight transfer. Why did this look so difficult? After ten minutes of looking down then looking up then down again and hearing Brendan call out "is everything O.K.?" for the third time, I swallowed some air with a "yup" and swung myself over the outcrop-- first move. When I realized I was into my third move, I forced as much air out of my lungs as I could; I didn't want to start gasping for breath now that I was on my way.

The first three pitches were much like that first move-- an effort to push past the startling reality of where I was. When I acknowledged exactly what I was doing, I was really frightened. Then, as the view of the bottom became more obscured by shelves of granite wedging themselves between me and the floor below, I found myself renergized, moving faster and faster. I urged Brendan to place as few pieces of protection as possible. "We'll move faster.. I feel fine," I shouted up to him. The sun was beginning to fade. I love sunsets, particularly from mountain ridges, but as the sun slipped below the crags around us, I felt anything but at ease.

Even though the pitches were passing smoothly and quickly, we both realized they were becoming more and more difficult. "I think we're a little off route," Brendan yelled down to me. The wind toyed with his voice-- usually, it boomed against granite walls. "That's O.K.," I yelled towards his voice, "I'm still pretty comfortable." Actually, I wasn't paying attention to the route; I was busy trying to loosen a camming device Brendan had placed all too well. "Shoot.. Damn it.." I grumbled. "What's up?" I heard faintly from above. "Nothing.. I'm having some trouble cleaning this piece from the crack, that all," I grunted back. Ten minutes went by and I was still trying to pry the $45 camming unit from the rock. "Are you going to have to leave it?" Brendan called out. I wasn't about to leave it behind. I gave one final tug and squeeze and out it came, unfortunately accompanied by bits of my knuckles. "Got it!" I bellowed triumphantly. I heard nothing from above, but I knew Brendan well enough to know he was smiling.

Pitch #13-- by this point, I was losing the feeling in my hands and feet. I've always had poor circulation, but with only a fleece pullover and shorts, there was little hope of bringing back any warmth. I tried climbing with my polypro liners, but after putting holes in the left thumb and forefinger, I resigned them to belay duty. I couldn't figure out how Brendan was climbing so quickly. He moved as though it were a summer day on a one-pitch climb he'd done a thousand times. Then, as I reached him at the next belay point, I noticed him wringing his hands and shifting his weight from one leg to the other. "Can you feel your hands, B.?" With the rock as cold as ice cubes, I couldn't imagine his hands had any more circulation than mine. "Well, yeah.. pretty much," was his mumbled reply.

Voices and thoughts raced through my mind-- we can't stop.. we don't have sleeping bags.. I'm in shorts.. it's below freezing.. but we can't keep going.. my hands and feet are numb...

Brendan's voice came out from just above me on our next belay ledge. "Let's sit here for awhile and warm up." Was he reading my mind? "I think we better talk over bivying here for the night." Without calming my inner voice, I sputtered back, "We can't stop tonight, we'll freeze to death." He was silent for a moment, and in that moment, I realized the weight of what I'd blurted out-- death, dying, dead-- this had never occurred to me. In all my past epics, I never had a fear of not making it to another day, to another climb. I had many "close calls", circumstances where I walked away from a situation that potentially could have resulted in severe injury, but I couldn't remember a time I really thought "this one could kill me". I began laughing to myself; I'm not certain if it was an audible laugh, but as I turned towards Brendan and he enveloped me in a hug, we had practically the same words coming out of our mouths, "Ahh, we'll be fine." A simple statement, but we had no reason to doubt ourselves or each other. Our abilities, our strengths seemed endless at that moment. Worrying about anything other than what we were going to do next seemed out of place. The only thing that could prove us wrong was failure, our own mortality.

After twenty minutes of hugging each other back to warmth, we started our fourteenth pitch. We calculated that we were about four pitches from the top, but there was no way to know if we were back on route. "Is that a chimney problem?" I yelled to the inky night above me. "Yeah.. pretty straightforward, but a bit awkward with a pack.. better string the packs behind us." "Damn," I mumbled under my breath. Of all the climbing moves, working my way up a chimney is my least favorite. I think about it too much. Half way up, I lost my balance, and my back and feet peeled away from the wall. "Damn it!" I yelled. I smacked the granite reflecting in the light of my head lamp. A warm sting trickled down the center of my palm. Deeper chunks scraped out of my knuckles when I fell from my hold. "Stay still; I'll pull you up," I heard from above. Before I could protest, I felt my legs bobbing and jostling with the upward movement of the rope. I tried to help, but Brendan was pulling me through the chimney faster than my limbs could even get out of the way.

In most climbing circles, being hoisted up a pitch would be the ultimate defeat and embarrassment. Brendan never gave me a chance to feel embarrassed; by the time I got my bearings at the belay station, he was tied in and ready to start the next pitch. I was beyond feeling self-conscious. There was no reason to dwell on it.

As Brendan headed up the rock, I noticed for the first time that he was beginning to slip. I had been lulled into taking his strength for granted. The unexpected jolt of having to hold his 6'3, 180lb build, threw me off balance. What he couldn't see in the dark was me struggling to keep my brake hand set as I scrambled to reestablish my footing. That was it. Until that point, I was thinking of my own safety, only how I felt. His fall made me all too aware that his life was literally in my hands; I had reached my limits. As I threw my body on top of the ledge marking the end of the fourteenth pitch, I looked at Brendan and said, "I think we better settle in for the night."

The wind was still howling below and around us. It raced vertically past us like a breeze working its way across a wheat field. The only protection our ledge offered was a crack etched into the wall of the rock to our left. "It looks like a bobsled," I said laughing; I pictured men in skin-tight lycra suits and hard-shell helmets hurling down tubes, through icy corners. Brendan set the rope down on the floor of our "sled" and then crawled inside. I want to ride for the Norwegian team," he said, bouncing his head side to side, shifting his body, maneuvering through the imaginary tight, fast corners. I pulled the rope from my pack, crawled in and sat myself between his long legs, spreading our second rope over the top of us. "Which team rings the cowbells?" I asked. "Swiss, I think.. I'm not sure," he responded pensively.

We didn't have much for insulation-- the ropes, our harnesses, our day packs, each other. We decided, since Brendan generally kept his body heat better, it would be best for him to keep the sweat pants. "I've got more surface area anyway." "You're such an engineering geek, B.," I answered back, hunkering deeper into the sled and against Brendan as much as I could.

We laughed and snuggled. We drank all but a quarter of our water and finished off everything but one apple and a near-empty Ziploc baggy of raisins. "I don't really care for raisins." "Now you tell me, B.!" We teased and jabbed at one another off and on the rest of the night. I remember hearing Brendan snore two or three times, thinking, much like the night before, at least one of us is getting some rest. With my feet tingling and my teeth chattering, I did my best to maintain some circulation.

I believe the mind falls into a certain panic when it thinks the body is trapped. I fought this claustrophobic feeling most of the night. I don't think I've ever scrutinized a sunrise quite so closely. I watched on as the glowing white of the sky overtook the night's darkness and then spilled through a spectrum of oranges and yellows. Neither of us needed to be awakened. As the sun fell upon our "campsite" and the rock came alive with heat, we both sat back down for an early morning nap, just a little time to rest free from chilled shivering and numb limbs. We slept in our pretend bobsled for an hour more-- the most satisfying sleep I'd had in two days.

8:30am. We were both anxious to start back on the climb. There was little acknowledgment by either of us that our stay through the night was anything special; it had to be done. We did it. We left the bobsled/campsite with our own separate good-byes. I don't remember saying much more to the place than a simple thank you and a quick comment, "you were the smallest campsite yet."

It took most of the first pitch that morning to bring my feet back to working order. One pitch after another, the energy from my half an apple breakfast drained away. The morning sun would only push me so far. As my forearms reached their burning point, we reached the last 100 feet-- the summit of Mt. Whitney stretched above us, a fourth class crawl away.

The relief of putting away the ropes washed over me. I hadn't realized how much tension I had been dragging up the rock. The freedom and exhilaration of moving across rock without ropes abruptly ended as I realized how exposed I was. I felt like I was back hanging on that outcrop, my first move, on the first pitch. Fear cut my pace in half. My mouth was dry from dehydration and the heat; I nervously licked my lips. Brendan must have noticed my change in speed. He called down, "Look at those clouds!.. they sure are moving fast up there, eh Mar?" I recognized his efforts to distract me from staring at the drop below. "Thanks B.," I called back. I pushed upward, quickening my pace and racing after Brendan, who seemed miles ahead of me. I scanned the rocks above just in time to see his heel disappear as he shifted his route to the right. "B, are you at the top?.. Can you see the top yet?" Silence. I though to myself, "He's ignoring me, the jerk." "Hey, B.. are you up there?" Mantling onto the ledge, I at last saw Brendan; he quietly sat on the rocks just above me. I was too consumed with beaching myself onto his ledge to notice where I was. "What do ya think, Mar?" I grunted, swiveling my right leg over the top of the smooth, granite slab. His stillness and quiet, calm smile told me where I was before my eyes ever took in the view-- the summit of Mt. Whitney, highest peak of the continental United States.

There were other hikers looking over the edges, ones who had arrived via the hiker's trail. It was no small accomplishment that any of us were standing here, but to come up the other side-- to come up the side everyone was looking down at and to look down and see no clear way of making it to where we were standing-- felt so different, so special.

As usual when I see something magnificent, I could say little more than "Wow" for the next ten minutes. "I feel kind of sick," Brendan moaned, as he crouched over dry heaving, holding his stomach. I put my hand on his back and I watched clouds swirl in funnels along the wall that had only hours ago been our cradle.

We made it down the fifteen mile trail to the car in a little over four hours. Most of the trek we ran, letting gravity and wind milling arms push our speed. My relatively short legs barely kept me up with Brendan's pace, but I could count on the few uphill stretches to slow him down. The last two miles used up every bit of energy I had left. I didn't realize how hungry and thirsty I was until we reached the car with food and water waiting inside.

After a full quart of water , swallowed in a matter of seconds by the side of the car, I started rummaging through the backseat for something to eat. My throat was still too dry to choke down a stale onion bagel I found, so within another few seconds, I finished off a second quart of water. I turned my efforts towards some half-melted MandM's-- at least they would be less effort to swallow. I prodded Brendan to drink his water and offered him a chocolate chip cookie I found wrapped in foil under the driver's seat; Brendan always had a chocolate stash somewhere handy. It's easier to get him to eat chocolate than anything else. Shaking his head, he said, "No.. well.. maybe a little, I still feel queasy." He sighed, jamming half the cookie at once into his mouth, slowly chewing.

By the time we packed our gear into the car and made our way back down the mountain, sunset had settled in around us. The East Face of Mt. Whitney, our makeshift bobsled/campsite, and even the summit itself were indiscernible now. We stopped the car at Movie Flats, and I stared back at the range of mountains, yawning in an effort to pop my ears. "How 'bout pizza in Lone Pine, your treat?" Brendan asked with his usual enthusiasm when talking about food. I was relieved to hear him coming back to his hungry, silly self. "Who'd you say was buying?" I asked back, straining and yawning as though my ears were still plugged with pressure. "We'll see," Brendan countered with a sly sideways smile.

"It wasn't pride that pushed us on, it was faith or confidence or.. well.. I wish we could call Brendan in Poland so he could help me explain this," I said through the banter and chiding of my dear friends. "O.K., so you did all that crazy stuff for.. what?" Nan teasingly questioned. "Because of confidence did you say?" Dan chimed in. Everyone let out another round of boisterous laughter. "It made sense at the time!" I protested trying to contain my own laughter.

Was it crazy, a case of overconfidence and pride? Brendan and I believed in ourselves and each other; we came to that conclusion talking over the climb while devouring a large half pepperoni half vegetarian pizza in Lone Pine that last night. Perhaps it's only when you're no longer around to explain your actions that someone else decides you were the casualty of poor planning or stupidity-- according to someone else. With 20/20 hindsight, I probably would have done many things differently, but I think I would have learned far less.