Alpine Climbing Is Fun

September 10, 2022

My last alpine climb of the summer was a true epic, but not the kind where the climb is too hard and you run out of daylight 1,000 feet up some wall, or the kind where you mis-read the map and get hopelessly lost in rugged terrain, or the kind where you drop the pack and have to finish the climb without food or water (sorry Dan, I still feel bad about that one). It was the kind of epic where the mountains try to kill you with a giant storm, and almost succeed. Where lightweight rain gear seems ridiculous against a monstrous whirlwind of rain and hail at 13,000 feet, and you know, as you cross wet, shifting boulders in high wind and low visibility, that a broken ankle could be fatal because you are dangerously cold and the only option is to keep moving. 

It began with a conversation in Pine Creek Canyon on Labor Day, as shirtless climbers sweated in the mid-elevation heat and the high peaks of the Sierra Crest seemed very far away. It was supposed to hit 105 in Bishop that day, and Natalie and I had both been hoping for one more big alpine climb to end the summer. She had pulled a wilderness permit for later in the week, hoping to find a partner for a route called Sword in the Stone, on Mt. Chamberlin. I’d heard good things about the route—in fact my longtime climbing partner Dan and I had panned to climb it in early August, but a week-long pattern of afternoon thunderstorms had prevented us from going. Now the forecast looked iffy, but not apocalyptic. 20% chance of rain (but no thunderstorms) in the afternoon on Friday, then 50% chance Saturday and Sunday. So there was a storm coming in, but it looked like we could pull it off if we hustled. 

On Thursday we hauled our gear up 5,300 feet of elevation, over the shoulder of Mt. Whitney and into the sublime polished granite and clear waters of Miter Basin, where we made camp on patches of sand between lush alpine meadows, the north face of Chamberlin looming over us.

At the foot of Mt. Chamberlin. Sword in the Stone climbs a line above the left side of the tent in this photo. The original Galen Rowell route, West Pillar, climbs the pillar on the right.

Early on Friday we crossed a moraine of shifting blocks onto a sheet of gravel-coated ice, and with fingers going numb I led the first pitch, a crack through an initial overhang and into a long corner. The route lived up to its reputation—pitch after 200-foot pitch of 5.10 cracks and one distinct crux, a 5.11 thin-hands crack which Natalie led in good style and I barely managed to follow without a fall.

We made good time up the wall, reaching the summit without incident after about 9 hours and 1,500 feet of excellent climbing. Storm clouds were building in the west, making magic light as we started down the descent gully—an unpleasant scramble down loose blocks resting on gravel for 1,200 feet down to the sandy shores of the deep-blue lake we’d been looking down at all day. I arrived at the lake first and laid on the sand, drained and content, watching the play of light and cloud on the horizon. 

We were back at camp with daylight to spare, and the storm was still sitting on the Kaweah Range far to the west. Tired and happy, I went to sleep under a mostly-starry sky. I woke at midnight to dark skies and light rain, considered joining Natalie in the tent, but rolled over and went back to sleep. I woke again at 5:30am to increasing rain. The storm had arrived. 

Heavy drops hit my face and sleeping bag all at once. I jumped up, grabbed my bedroll, jogged to the tent and dove in. Natalie was sitting up already, eating oatmeal and drinking tea, laughing at my antics but also looking worried. With good reason—we were in a deep valley on the wrong side of Mt. Whitney, with light gear and almost no food, and the storm we’d expected mid-afternoon seemed to be upon us already. We’d heard something about a hurricane in the Caribbean; it sounded like a big storm, the kind that could last a few days; and we faced two options, neither good: hunker down in the relative safety of the ultralight tent, which the wind was twisting like a carnival vendor making animal balloons; or attempt to hike out through the storm. A huge peal of thunder tore up the valley from the west, and we sat silent in shared understanding. There would be no attempting the ridge in an electrical storm, no matter how much we’d like to avoid a fast of unknown duration in a small tent at 11,500 feet.

Stress and discomfort can bring out a raw, unfiltered side of people. Some folks change dramatically—I’ve seen easygoing goofballs become wide-eyed white-knucklers, and I know normally high-strung people who laugh in the face of danger, riding the adrenaline and the freedom from uncertainty that comes as options narrow and complexity drops away. I’d never been in a situation like this with Natalie. I was pleased to see that she was calm—worried, but smiling. A manager of groups in her professional life, a careful planner and a clear communicator, she began verbally mapping out our options. 2,200 feet up loose scree to the ridge should take between two and three hours. The entire hike in had taken ten hours, but since it’s mostly downhill going out, we can probably do it in seven. We can use the satellite device to get an up-to-date forecast. I chimed in to say that in my experience, a storm like this often lets up first thing in the morning, then closes in again mid-day. Increasing wind and rain outside the tent seemed to put the lie to my words, but she smiled and said she hoped I was right. 

Natalie was busy over the next hour—packing, filtering water from the nearby stream, going to the bathroom. I don’t purify my water in remote parts of the Sierra, and I’d brought no food that requires cooking, so I’d already finished my morning routine: roll up my sleeping bag, eat a bar. I laid on my back with the climbing rope under my head, feeling the sand under the floor of the tent, the walls being pushed side to side by the wind, enjoying the sensation of being warm and mostly dry. Listening to the rain, smiling foolishly, I knew I should be worried but there was nothing I could do. I guess I’m one of those people who relaxes in the face of danger. Not much to worry about, when options are limited. Right now the options were stay, or go. Periodically the storm would subside, then return with force. The morning lull did not seem to be coming. I checked my food supply. Three bars and a handful of almonds. We might have to stay. It might be a long couple of days.

By 8am we were both sitting in the tent with nothing left to do. There had been no more thunder, and the rain seemed to be lessening. The wind had quieted considerably, and the sky had grown light. My sleeping bag was damp, and the lightweight tent was barely keeping water out. Packed, these items would become soaked through. If we failed to make it over the ridge and were forced back down into the basin, we’d be wet, cold, and hungry. If we stayed put, we’d merely be hungry. It was a brief discussion; hunger won. Optimism defeated caution. We broke camp in minutes and were hiking up slippery slabs in a light drizzle, towards a gap in the peaks invisible behind thick clouds. At least we were no longer inside of the clouds, which were lifting gradually. 

The rain was light, but steady. We had good rain jackets, but neither of us had brought rain pants. Natalie had decided to hike in shorts, on the theory that pants would just get cold and heavy. I wore pants, which quickly became cold and heavy. In thirty minutes or so we reached the upper part of Miter Basin, where we were to leave the valley floor and strike upward through steep, loose scree—an awful morass of mixed sizes from gravel to boulders, all shifting underfoot like a wet, sandy treadmill. Finally we caught a break—after twenty minutes on the treadmill, the wind and rain slowed, then stopped. We looked back to see a shaft of sunlight breaking through the clouds, illuminating Mt. Chamberlin at the end of the valley, and the lake below.

As we leave Miter Basin… the storm relents and the clouds part. Run for it!

What is there to say about an hour and a half spent slogging upwards into thinner and thinner air, leg muscles already weak from two long days of effort? We did it. Not much was said. We felt without having to discuss it that this was our break, and we pushed as hard as we could to take advantage of it. The cloud didn’t lift any further, so we hiked up into it and visibility dropped to a few hundred feet, then even less. Near the top, navigating by dead reckoning, I thought I knew the most direct way but Natalie, who had her phone out and a GPS app tracking our progress, said I was aiming a bit too far to the right. This may have saved us ten or fifteen minutes, which mattered more than you might think as shortly all hell broke loose.

We reached the ridge in 40-foot visibility and increasing wind. Rain began spitting, then pouring, then hail began pounding our backs. At least it was coming from behind us. We staggered forward. We knew it was less than a half-mile to the trail, but we were on jagged, slippery boulders and the wind was fierce. Really, surprisingly fierce. I’ve been in a lot of Sierra storms, but I’d never been caught by one at 13,600 feet. Dimly through the gale, we could see the rock outcroppings on the ridge top. Keeping them on our left we picked our way along the ridge. I was ill-equipped for these conditions in soggy climbing pants and running shoes, reaching the level of cold and wet that is truly dangerous. 

I looked back at Natalie, a tiny person with a heavy pack, in running shorts in a violent hailstorm, and she was not moving well. My legs are numb, she said. I can’t feel my hands at all. Don’t get too far ahead. You got it, I said. If she goes down, I thought, do I have the strength to carry her? Or carry her pack, if that enables her to keep moving? I think so. But better slow down so she doesn’t break an ankle trying to keep up. 

I have no photos of the worst half-hour or so, on tilted slippery blocks in a raging gale. This is just before that–we’re still on sandy terrain and it’s just starting to rain.

In moments like these I can’t help thinking of the Japanese climbers who died in October, 1984, just fifty feet from the summit of El Capitan, as buses full of tourists on the valley floor made their way from gift shop to pizza deck, probably grumbling about the rain and sleet but unaware of the truly dire conditions 3,000 vertical feet above and a mile or two away. Not having sufficient gear to weather the storm, the climbers tried to push for the top but didn’t make it. Both became coated in ice during the night, and by the time conditions permitted a helicopter fly-by, they were thawing in the morning sun. 

Of course I’m being overly dramatic. Of course we staggered and stumbled the last few hundred yards along the ridge and found the trail heading down to Whitney Portal. Of course we made it down the trail, ankle-deep in hailstones and brown slush, shoes filling with ice water. Of course we kept moving, and numb legs and fingers gradually thawed as we hiked out from under the storm, to the lakes below, out of the rocks and into the dripping woods. Of course we were in Lone Pine by mid-afternoon, eating burgers and watching tourists in shorts and sandals navigating puddles on the sidewalk. 

Once we reached the trail it was all downhill. Wet, tired, and hiking through ankle-deep slush… but we knew we’d made it to safety, we just had to keep slogging.

Alpine climbing is good fun. As we sat at the diner in Lone Pine, glowing with exhaustion and exhilaration, already fading in memory were those moments on the ridge when a badly rolled ankle could have been fatal. I asked Natalie if she’d been near her limit. She smiled and said, not emotionally… but that she’d never before experienced that feeling of cold when your body begins to slow down and fail you. When you tell your legs to move and they don’t. When you can’t use your hands, and you wouldn’t be able to set up a tent anyway because the wind is too severe.

My legs were crampy and sore the last hour or so of the hike. My back was a bit tight yesterday, driving over the Sierra and across the hot Central Valley to visit my parents. I’m off to Yosemite later this week, to play at big wall climbing for a month or so, but I can’t wait to get back to the High Sierra. Next summer I’d like to hike over Bishop Pass to try Edge of Time Arete on the Citadel. I’ve never been out to Angel Wings, but I’d sure like to go. I’ve climbed two routes on Merriam Peak but there’s one more called Gargoyle that I’d like to try. The best days of my life have been in these mountains. I love being pushed to my limit, and the calm that follows extreme exertion. I guess it’s just endorphins, but it’s all I know of nirvana. In the 48 hours since we hiked through that storm, I’ve hardly worried about my lack of purpose in life, or my complicity in the ongoing ecological catastrophe that is the Anthropocene. I was blissed out driving over Tioga Pass and through Tuolumne Meadows, and entirely unruffled by traffic as I drove into the urban sprawl of the Bay Area. I spent today contentedly doing laundry, cooking dinner with my parents, walking around the park where I played as a child. Alpine climbing is good fun. I do think I’ll get back in the habit of carrying rain pants.

Storm? What storm?