This is the classic route up the highest peak in the lower forty eight states. The 2000 foot-high face was first ascended by the powerful team of Robert Underhill, Norman Clyde, Jules Eichorn and Glen Dawson on August 16, 1931. These were the finest climbers of the time; their ascent time of three and a quarter hours is rarely equalled by modern climbers with their tight rock shoes and the latest in climbing hardware. Dawson returned to make the second ascent of the route and in 1934 Eichorn pioneered the airy Tower Traverse that all current day climbers utilize. Clyde became legendary in the Sierra for both his unequaled number of Sierra first ascents and the size of the packs he carried. Underhill later remarked that on the approach to the East Face Clyde’s pack was “an especially picturesque enormity of skyscraper architecture.”
Times have changed but the East Face remains a great climb. While only rated 5.6 do not underestimate it! You will be at over 14,000 feet carrying a small pack with the essentials for the day, and ascending about 12 pitches of continuous climbing.
The best guidebooks are Supertopo’s “High Sierra Climbing” by Chris McNamara and Peter Croft’s “The Good, The Great, and the Awesome”.
Our hike in begins at the Whitney Portal trailhead, which is the same trailhead as for the main Whitney Trail. This is one of the busier trailheads in the Eastern Sierra so expect some company at the parking area—sometimes quite a bit of company.
We start on the Whitney Trail but after thirty minutes or so leave this for the relative solitude of the Mountaineer’s Trail. This is a steep, seldom maintained route with sections of scrambling, boulder-hopping, and loose terrain
We usually reach Lower Boy Scout Lake (10,300’) in time for lunch and gain Upper Boy Scout Lake (11,200’) by mid afternoon.
We take a good rest there and gather strength for the final hour push to camp Iceberg Lake. This is a very hard day with a gain of over 4,000’.
Day Two: The Climb
This is the original climbing route on the mountain and is one of the 50 classic climbs of North America. (For more info see Secor’s Peaks, Passes, and Trails and Steck/Roper’s 50 Classic Climbs.) Classic more for its history than the quality of the climbing, this route is mostly third class, with several notable exceptions. For our summit attempt we often get up quite early (4am or so) depending on the weather and how many climbers are in the area. We make our way past Iceberg Lake on increasingly steep scrambling, eventually arriving at the roping up point at about 13,200′.
The first pitch is the famous Tower Traverse—not too difficult but surprisingly exposed (this will wake you up if you’re not already). Shortly after this pitch we arrive at the start of the three pitches that take us up the Washboard, a third class stretch of climbing.
The sixth or seventh pitch is the Fresh Air Traverse. It’s fun to think back to the first ascent party who had hemp ropes, klettershoes, and pitons for protection. The moves are still stout today and many folks are happy to call this pitch 5.7 but at sea level you’d probably call it 5.4. A couple of chimney pitches lead to the Giant Staircase.
We head up this and soon reach the final summit blocks. This is one of those rare routes that ends right on the summit; we un-rope on the very top.
We descend via the Mountaineers Route to the north. With some fourth class rock and usually a bit of ice or snow it’s not a giveaway, but the technical climbing is over quickly; an hour or less after leaving the summit we reach the top of the Mountaineer’s gully and it’s all third class or easier back to camp.
Day Three: The Hike Out
We return down the North Fork of Lone Pine Creek and plan to get back down to the trailhead in time for a lunch of the famed burgers and fries at the Whitney Portal Store, before heading home tired but satisfied.
Elevations and Distances
Trailhead to Lower Boy Scout Lake: 1.9 miles, 2060’ of gain, 60’ of descent.
Lower Boyscout Lake to Upper Boy Scout Lake: 0.8 miles, 1040’ of gain, 30’ of descent
Upper Boyscout Lake to Iceberg Lake: 1.2 miles, 1310’ of gain, 30’ of descent
Iceberg Lake to the Summit: 0.75 miles, 1870’of gain, 30’ of descent
Summit to camp: 0.75 miles, 30’ of gain, 1870’ of descent
Camp to Trailhead: 2.7 miles, 120’ of gain, 4410’ of descent
You need to be able to follow at the 5.7 level and have experience on multi-pitch routes (This level is harder than the rating of the route, but you will be at elevation, climbing with a pack and moving steadily for a good part for the day). Prior backpacking experience is recommended as is experience at altitudes above 12,000’. This is a physically demanding trip and you should be in good condition and have the ability to traverse broken and uneven slopes with a moderately heavy pack.
Price includes guiding, permits, group climbing gear, tents, kitchen gear, breakfasts, lunches and dinners (you bring hot/cold drinks and snack items). Scheduled dates include USFS trail fees. Private programs do not.
Local accommodation is not included.
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