The East Buttress of Mt. Whitney is certainly the best known climbing route in the Whitney area, and for good reason. With ten high-quality rock pitches at moderate difficulty it would be classic even if Whitney weren’t the highest point in the lower 48 states. But with that distinction The East Buttress becomes a “must-do” for the alpine rock climber, a little harder and steeper than the more popular East Face. The route was first climbed by the redoubtable Glen Dawson along with Bob Brinton, Richard Jones, Howard Kostner and Muir Dawson in 1937. Originally called the Sunshine-Pee Wee route after the large block part way up, the route became one of Dawson’s favorite Sierra routes.
This is our video description of what it is like to go up the North Fork of Lone Pine Creek with SMC to approach the East Buttress.
The hike in begins at the Whitney Portal trailhead, which is the same trailhead as 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’ so be prepared for this and remember to save energy for the climbing day.
Day Two: The Climb
A more direct line and more difficult than the East Face Route, this offers technical climbing at elevation on impeccable rock. Some ten pitches of perfect climbing on a thin Arête lead directly to the summit. If the East Face Route is classic for its history this route is classic for its quality climbing and its position. We use the same camp and approach as the East Face Route .
The rope-up point is about twelve feet to the right of the start of the East Face. Several variations are possible for the first pitch, ranging from a 5.8 hand crack to the traditional 5.4 start. Both starts meet two pitches later on top of the Second Tower. A traverse to the right, up a ramp, and we’re at the start of one of the best pitches of the route: the spectacular 4th pitch ends at a tiny stance on the very prow of the East Buttress.
The fifth pitch is good too with delicate climbing on the Arête. Four more pitches of mixed face and crack lead straight up the buttress, past the famous Pee Wee Pillar and to the final summit blocks. We join the East Face about twenty minutes below the top, un-roping on the very summit.
We descend via the Mountaineers Route, to the north. With some fourth class rock and sometimes 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 5.8 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.