Mount Whitney 14,505
Mount Whitney 14,505
|Fifty Years of Mountain Climbing, Mount Whitney 1970-2020|
FIFTY YEARS OF MOUNTAIN CLIMBING, MOUNT WHITNEY 1970-2020
by gore galore
Fifty years seems like a lot of time but 1970 doesn't seem that long ago. In the summer of that year I took my long anticipated “on the road” trip throughout the western United States and Canada for the purpose of visiting national parks.
Driving east out of Los Angeles I noticed the dot on the map that signified Mount Whitney 14,495 as the highest point in California and later as I found out also in the lower U.S. The gap between the dot and the end of the line denoting the Whitney Portal Road didn't seem very wide. I thought this was something I could easily do as I drove north along the Owens Valley on Highway 395 to Lone Pine.
MOUNT WHITNEY 1970
In 1970 Bishop was not quite yet the trendy mountain town of today, there was no permit system that I was aware of to climb Mount Whitney and Norman Clyde of the High Sierra was still living until passing away two years later.
I approached climbing Mount Whitney with the 8:00 AM–4:30 PM mindset of my summer construction jobs. I would eat breakfast and be home for supper. I wore a pair of work boots, jeans and a pull over shirt with a metal canteen strapped to my waist. In my small play pack I had a sweat shirt, a pair of gloves, camera and a sandwich.
In those days the population of California was only 19 million as opposed to 39 million today but Mount Whitney was then as now a very popular climb. The parking area was full and I noticed along the lower trail the many campers.
I had no realization that the trail was eleven miles to the summit or 6,000 plus feet in elevation gain nor would it have ever mattered. I only knew that the gap between the dot and the end of the road was not very wide.
By the time I began hiking my way up the ninety-nine switch backs to the John Muir Trail crest it was late in the afternoon. I began to notice that hardly anyone was coming down the trail nor was anyone following behind me.
At the trail crest Mount Whitney seemed still a good distance away and I began to realize that I was not returning home for supper that evening so to say. Instead I was hiking to the summit of Mount Whitney.
I was fortunate for the shelter of the cabin at the summit and the two other people who were staying the night and the extra clothes they gave me as it was quite cool that August night. In the morning I had one of them take a picture of me in front of the cabin. And I never thought as I descended the trail that I would return fifty years later to climb Mount Whitney and knowing so much more about the mountain in 2020 than I did in 1970.
FIFTY YEARS OF MOUNTAIN CLIMBING 1970-2020
Since that Mount Whitney climb I don't know how many mountains I have climbed because I didn't know you were supposed to count them as is done today. In the traditional sense I have climbed about half of the Colorado fourteeners, half of the state high points, one small peak list and a couple of the Seven Summits.
I soon found out in those early days of mountain climbing that climbing one peak after another without knowing anything of the histories of those peaks was not sustainable for me. In this respect I began spending as much time in libraries ranging from the National Archives to the smallest one room mountain town museum looking for Colorado climbing information as I do actual climbing. I eventually compiled this information into seven self published books.
Although I have climbed in most western states, Colorado ranges and abroad my favorites have always been those mountains closer to home in northwest Colorado of the Medicine Bow Range, Park Range, Elkhead Range, Rabbit Ears Range, Gore Range and Tenmile Range. In the pre-internet days with the exception of Quandary Peak in the Tenmile Range I would hardly encounter anyone on the summits. My only regret is that with the exception of the Mount of the Holy Cross I never did get into those Holy Cross Wilderness peaks.
One of my fondest moments in climbing in these small ranges was the time I walked into the newspaper office in Walden, Colorado and inquired about anyone climbing in the Park Range. I remember the word for word response from one of the two editors present to this day. “We have never heard of anyone climbing around here. Why don't you write something for us!” I wrote about a snow climb on Lost Ranger Peak and it was published in “The North Park Visitors Guide”.
I also found out that after my brief foray into the fourteeners that I was always climbing solitary as no one was going in the direction of exploring unnamed and lower elevation peaks long before it was fashionable. I found this quite refreshing unencumbered by others such that to this day with a few exceptions I have always climbed alone.
Some of those exceptions were the many guided trips to peaks that I was capable of climbing but surely not alone. Although participating in a guided trip may be demeaning to some I have many memories of these trips. Perhaps my most memorable one is climbing the Grand Teton in 1976. The evening before the climb our small group met in the back room of the Exum guide shack where Glenn Exum addressed us. I remember him speaking in such reverential tones about climbing the Grand such that I thought we would be ascending into the heavens.
I have taken many trips over five decades to the mountains of Canada climbing in the Rockies, Purcells, Selkirks, Valhallas and Coast ranges. This gave me the opportunity to climb some of the big expedition type peaks, road side classics, alpine and wilderness peaks from huts or camping and some traverses and rock climbs. Among these peaks were guide Conrad Kain's three greatest climbs of Mount Robson, Bugaboo Spire and Mount Louis and Don and Phyllis Munday's Northwest Summit of Mount Waddington. Although I have climbed peaks at Rogers Pass I regret not climbing Mount Sir Donald thinking of it now as “the one that got away from me.”
Along the way I encountered one of the most unique mountain guides whose trips were mainly focused on first ascents or new routes. And I know some of our climbs were done in this manner in the 1980's. And of course I always made time to visit the Archives of the Canadian Rockies in Banff where surprisingly I found some Colorado climbing information.
There have been a few highlights along my mountain way. I have an entry in an encyclopedia of mountaineers published in Poland. I was also once listed as an Harvard alum in the Harvard Mountaineering Journal but I think they mixed up the journal mailing list with the alumni list.
I have climbed on four continents and was close enough to look into a fifth but I have had little interest in high altitude Himalayan climbing. I do however have a New Zealand 10 spot bill signed by Sir Edmund Hillary.
I have approached mountains in a fixed wing aircraft landing on a glacier and a gravel bar of a river in Alaska and two helicopter approaches in Canada and by train and a teleferique ride to glaciers in Europe but I thought better of not contemplating a trip using horses to ferry loads. I have also had three memorable river or creek crossings.
I have encountered many of the names in the world of mountaineering from attending American Alpine Club annual meetings whenever in Denver and the Telluride Mountain Film Festival. I remember well the Great Debate at the AAC meeting in Denver in 1987 between the traditionalists and the tricksters (sport climbers).
I remember also standing next to the only two guests of honor at the apres table in the old courtyard of the Sheridan Opera House at the first Telluride Mountain Film Festival in 1979. Governor Richard Lamm had climbed all of the fourteeners and T. Melvin Griffiths was of the old San Juan Mountaineers.
I have climbed at the 5.9 level twice but I do not consider myself a real technical climber because I have never owned a rope or climbed in an indoor gym. But I once attended a Fred Beckey technical peaks climbing slide show in Keystone, Colorado in the 1970's.
I have never set any records in the mountains but as a recreational climber I have climbed the 4,000 feet of the Hornli Ridge of the Matterhorn in three hours and fifty minutes at age 50. We were first on the summit that early morning and I wrote my story as “The First Ascent of the Matterhorn.” And I have learned to pole pole on a mountain in Africa.
I have climbed one 6,000 meter peak which sounds better than saying an almost 20,000 foot peak because Bolivia's Huyana Potosi is only 19,974 feet.
I have climbed Popocatepetl long before it was formally closed to climbing but the climb of interest for me in Mexico was the El Picacho del Diablo on the Baja California peninsula.
Perhaps the finest climbs I have made in a classic sense at my level are the Cosmiques Arete on the Mount Blanc massif and the west ridge of Pigeon Spire in the Bugaboos. But I also favor the knife edge ridge of Peak L in the Gore Range closer to home.
I have been a member of the Colorado Mountain Club for 45 years but I have never went on a club hike or climb thus retaining my “A” hiker status which may be appropriate because Michael Chessler, the bookseller has always referred to me as a hiker rather than a climber.
I will never make a mark in the mountaineering world to have a mountain named after me but I have been successful in having the U.S. Board On Geographic Names formally accept my proposal to name Atlantic Peak in the Tenmile Range in 2001.
And whether hiker or climber, I am mentioned as being a small part of Colorado mountaineering history in the Early Mountaineering chapter of The Gore Range in the book “Roof of the Rockies.”
My most lasting climb may be the first ascent of Peak T in the Gore Range with two others in 2002. In this respect I have been the subject of two magazine articles on climbing in the Gore Range. One of them stands out because the writer asked me what my favorite peaks for others might be. I almost fell into the trap of naming a checklist of peaks but quickly recovered and gave this response which was headlined in bold letters as “A Climber's Creed”.
“Everyone should climb a mountain for their own reasons. My favorites may not be other people's favorites. Find your own. That's where the sense of exploration comes in. Don't follow someone else.”
That's something I have tried to follow for most of fifty years.
MOUNT WHITNEY 2020
It was with anticipation that I drove south from Reno onto Highway 395 towards the Owens Valley in the last week of August 2020. Bishop has been a trendy mountain town for quite some time now, the guide service took care of the permits for climbing the Mountaineers Route on Mount Whitney and unfortunately the Eastern Sierra Museum in Independence with its Norman Clyde exhibit was closed due to COVID.
Mount Whitney is a great mountain with all its climbing routes and climbing history but it also has as most fourteeners do its element of hype and in this case it is the Ebersbacher Ledges on the approach which seemed to me as quite overrated in difficulty. The crux of the Mountaineers Route is the loose rock encountered in the chute or the initial 15-20 feet of the north facing gully from the notch.
A great feeling of elation swept over me as I reached the summit. I had someone take a picture of me in front of the cabin just as in 1970. I opened the cabin door and wondered if the bench on which I think I slept on 50 years ago was the same. I signed the register and sat on the rocks at the summit benchmark until it was time to leave. I had accomplished something I never thought would happen.
And now I am thinking it would be neat to climb the Grand Teton again in 2026 fifty years after I climbed it in 1976.
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