Buttercup and the Whitney All-Stars: MR

Originally posted on the WPSMB on 12-8-08

Richard, Len, me, Mike, and Rick in the first sun of the day on Saturday. (I’ll let Richard put up the list of noteable quotables from the weekend)

First the deets, then you can read the fluff if you like:

1) Lower trail is melted out for the most part. Not really any consistent snow until above the creek crossing, which you really shouldn’t have any trouble finding if you simply follow the 5000 cairns along the route…

2) The boulder field above LBSL is a mess: unconsolidated snow and a bit slick in the boot track. Again, routefinding is not an issue with the MONUMENTS people have erected apparently in their spare time.

3) The slabs below Clyde Meadow are really quite treacherous: blue ice on the slabs Saturday, then covered with a thin layer of new snow Sunday. Watch your step. There is still running water at CM.

4) The men broke trail all day Sunday headed to Iceberg (thanks, guys) as well as in the chute. The approach from Iceberg is a posthole mess: none of us could really find a good route and I almost gave up here. Snow in the chute was variably excellent: some hard pack which made for great front-pointing, intermittant soft patches made for good rest spots (I had lots of those). Walking down the chute was long, as it had firmed up in a number of spots and plunge-stepping was more difficult.

5) I didn’t get a shot of the Final 400 since my lens was fogged, but it looked a bit dicey with the fresh snow. Again, the men decided to try the traverse, but I didn’t like the feel of the snow and the possibility of kicking out one of the steps with limited purchase either with crampons or axe. So I turned here. I’ll let Richard, Mike, Len, or Rick describe the conditions on the traverse.

6) I was glad we (Len and I) hit the E-ledges with the light just fading. The stretch that Kurt photographed last week was still covered with ice, and I asked Len to run me on belay to cross it. Ice was crunchy and had good purchase with crampons, so I may have been fine. Len walked it without ‘pons and didn’t like it one bit.

I got the shout out from Richard Thursday morning as Doug Sr and I were putting the finishing touches on hanging a few of my photos in the Hostel. It drives me nuts that they plan on such short notice: I’ve said more than once that I come home from work on Monday night, pour a glass of wine and rip open my topos and my peak descriptions, letting my mind wander as to where I want to explore next. Well, at least this time Richard didn’t simply state that he needed a cook along for the ride. I met Len and Richard at the LP McD’s Friday evening before we cruised up to the Portal, the TOF not really enjoying the long patch of snow and ice covering the road above the campground and below the first switchback. Not long after I had curled up for a long winter’s nap I got a text and a call from Mike, saying he couldn’t get up the hill in the Silver Bullet due to the same problem, so I told him I’d come down to pick him up in the morning after throwing my cables on the front tires.

Saturday dawned brisk and clear, the ice on the road shining brightly. After cruising down to the campground to pick Mike up, we called Rick Kent to see if he was coming or not, and he indeed was just past Olancha. When he heard me on the phone, his reply was, “Oh! You’re coming?” \:\/ We met another guy in the parking lot who was up to putter around solo for the weekend, but Jeff decided to join us after all (read: he missed the turnoff for the North Fork, not having been there before, and came up behind us in the canyon). Finally, around 0930 we were headed up the main trail, which is clear and the snow patches easily avoided up to the North Fork cutoff. There is still excellent flow here, as well as LBSL, Clyde Meadows, and even the outlet to Girl Scout/Barney Lake. It was a gorgeous day, the sun lighting up the north side of the canyon, but not melting off the section of the E-Ledges that Kurt photographed last weekend. The guys muttered about putting on their crampons for two minutes worth of walking, but I was happy to do so, and I scrambled up to the ledge above to avoid the ice. The trail up to LBSL has intermittent patches of snow and ice, some quite thick, making footing a bit of a beast on both the ascent and the descent. We reached LBSL in time for lunch, sitting above the outlet in the sun while we weighed our options. The blue ice fall from Barney Lake glowed above the boulder field, and we could see the lower slabs were also slick with ice, so Rick mentioned staying on the north shore of the lake and taking the slab route up to Clyde Meadows. Despite our heavier packs, we were in agreement, so we clambered up the gulley , then stepped out onto the slabs and cracks leading up. There was one section of “friction” that was a bit hairy, but beyond that crux it was a nice walk up to the gulleys emptying into UBSL.

I tanked up at Clyde Meadows, not knowing if there would be running water above at Girl Scout Lake, where we had agreed to camp. (Turns out the outlet is completely viable, and Len only chopped a small hole in the morning.) We packed out over the slabs , hunkering down beneath the western shoreline . The air was clear and chilled, the moon rising over the ridge of Thor Peak directly overhead. I scrambled around to the east side of the lake to take pics while looking back up to Whitney and Russell , the last light of afternoon lighting the aretes and buttresses with golden edges. Venus and Saturn rose over Pinnacle Ridge as we all settled into evening chores and boiling water for dinner, Jeff keeping us in stitches the whole time with stories of grand adventures in Alaska and Utah. I passed the flask around, the spiced rum warming those who partook down to our toes. Darkness swallowed our camp, but the half moon gave enough reflection off granite and snow to make headlamps unnecessary for short trips. Finally, around 1930-2000, with the breeze picking up, we each dove into sleeping bags to stay warm and wait through the long night for sunrise.

I heard Len say something about coffee the next morning, and we roused from down warmth to snow showers. “Where’s my coffee?” I asked, and Len made the comment about getting more water for “Buttercup”. Whitney and the Needles were partially hidden behind a curtain of clouds, emerging in and out with shifts in the wind. We all were game to go for it, since the snow was falling rather down-like, as opposed to horizontal with whipping winds. In truth it was quite warm, all of us stopping to peel layers shortly upon starting up for the day, and I opted to wear a headband and leave my head open to weather from the warmth. Trudging along the base of the cliffs to Iceberg was almost surreal, the steel skies hardening the edges of the rock and turning the landscape to monochrome . We were the only colors to stand out: Rick in bright yellow, Mike in blue, Richard in dark red, Len and myself in orange. The waterfall route has brilliant drips and flows of ice cascading down the rock, so Rick and Len led a route along the ledges, with a crux of using a bomber crack and hauling ourselves up to the next ledge. I got from more than one of the guys that we perhaps should have stayed below a bit longer, finding the standard route a bit further to the west. From Iceberg, we had our choice of fun, but the left side route had a few rock bands exposed, leading to our general decision to hit the main chute.

Getting there, however, turned into an interesting battle, at least for myself. Len and Richard had traversed low, above Iceberg Lake, then turning straight into the mouth; Jeff had originally headed their direction, but turned west earlier up the rocks; Mike and Rick headed straight up from the break rock, then cut over; I tried the angled traverse approach, unfortunately finding more than one section of thigh-deep powder. I honestly almost gave up right there as I struggled to find footing and break trail for my heavy steps. The early winter powder was unforgiving, and I broke through crust at rock edges everywhere, trying to reach the top of the ridgeline to enter the chute. I finally found Mike’s and Rick’s path, traversing into the chute where I saw all five of them ahead . I felt bad about not breaking trail, but could not have been more thankful for their steps. (Thanks, guys!) The snow was fairly perfect for frontpointing, and I climbed with ice axe in one hand, a pole in the other for leverage as I hauled myself upward. Len wasn’t too far ahead, and shouted support down to me. Twenty steps at a time, I fought my way up, more than occasionally breaking through the already set staircase. Just below the Notch, with Len perched 100 feet above me, a perfect powder fall cascaded down the north face, the wind having blown a drift off the edge. Len and I sat and stared as the light snow poured down the face, not making a sound as it lighted on the floor of the chute. With the air of the chute being completely calm, a light snow falling, it was just another moment of peace amidst all the hard work.

The guys were just about to depart the Notch as I arrived, having decided to attempt the “easy walk off” traverse. Len had set the tracks, with Rick following a few minutes behind, and I could see he wasn’t particularly happy about it. Mike marched across, but it was Rick’s description that gave me pause. “Each one of those steps may break through. The snow isn’t all that thick and there isn’t much to purchase your axe on.” In the chute, facing forward, I had punched through the stairwell of five guys. Here, only three had passed thus far. “You don’t have to do it.” Rick yelled across. “I know,” I said back, and I turned for the day, telling Richard it was too risky for me and I was done. I had said back in camp that I would turn if I didn’t feel right, and I was sticking to my word. I don’t ever want to put myself and my climbing companions at risk if I don’t have to, and for once, ego lost out to brains. I watched the guys disappear around the corner from the Notch, sending out wishes for them to be safe. After scarfing some dried apples and having my fingers go numb, I started back down the chute, my heart aching to be on the summit with my friends. My fingers came back to life about half way down, and I sat cradling my hands as the blood rushed into re-expanding capillaries, tears coming from frustration and pain. Maybe someday I’ll be strong enough and brave enough. Just not yet.

Len called out to me a few minutes later, apparently some miscommunication occurring up below the summit and he had hit his turn-around time. “What’s up, Buttercup?” he said as he reached me. We would descend together, after I asked him to lead the way down the steep part of the chute that was starting to firm up underfoot. He had said his plan was to return to camp, pack up, and slowly descend, waiting for the other’s arrival at the Portal. Glad to have company, we strode (well, as best we could through the boulders and rocks) back to GSL and loaded up. Above us, the Crest was swallowed by another set of clouds, and I sent good vibes to the chute to keep my friends safe on their descent. Len and I picked our way down, especially across the slabs into the lake and below Clyde Meadows , where the ice and slabs were completely obscured by the new light coat of snow (1″?). Descending the boulder field was a broken ankle waiting to happen, but we reached the willows without incident, following the path that is cut through to the north side of the lake. We carefully stepped down the trail, minding the ice in the fading afternoon, reaching the E-ledges just before headlamps were needed. Something about the ice made me nervous once again, but Len had the rope, and after I donned ‘pons one more time, he belayed me across. We spotted the lamps of Richard, Mike, and Rick (Jeff had turned at the Notch also due to time restrictions) just after crossing the stream at the falls below the E-Ledges, and knew they weren’t too far behind. “What time is it?” Len asked. “About 1745,” I replied. “Nope,” he said. “It’s BEER THIRTY!” I knew I liked this guy.

We arrived safely back at the Portal around 1800, Rick about 15-20 minutes later, then Richard and Mike beyond that. It was the best beer ever, followed by complete engorgement at Carl’s Jr. I even picked up Doug Sr from the Hostel to come and eat with all of us.

There has been a bit of discussion lately on the Board about safety, generalized questions, and sharing of opinions as well as factual information. There were many occasions on this trip where I had to pull judgement calls: the E-Ledges, the slabs above LBSL, the ledges above the waterfall, and the Notch. The weight of those decisions rests on my shoulders alone, and I am (once again) ever so lucky to have been with a group of climbers who would push me but never force me. It is difficult for me to separate the two pieces of giving information and not giving an opinion based on my limited experiences. It reminded me of the guy at the Shepherd Pass trailhead who asked me if crampons and axe were needed for the journey, and got pissed when I asked what his comfort/experience level was. We can only take care of each other by asking such questions, and it is out of respect for each other as mountaineers that we DO ask those questions. It takes a stronger person to be part of a group and say no when reaching your own limit than to follow while disregarding that inner voice. And that is something that is not inherent, only learned, sometimes painfully, through experience on the mountain. The men on this trip gave me that opportunity, without passing judgement, without sniggering behind my back (at least I don’t think so), or disrespecting my decisions.

And I am thankful for that.

A few more moments from the weekend:

Rest of the pics are here .

From the luckiest girl in the world: Climb Hard, Be Safe.



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