First, a caveat: I left my camera on the mountain, so sadly this TR is only sparsely illustrated with pictures that I pilfered from other websites.
Dave and I are quite competent climbers, having started climbing 4 years ago. However, we were predominately boulderers until this summer, when we got into sport, trad, and mountaineering. Lone Pine Peak was to be our first true mountaineering trip.
We left San Diego at about 6am on Friday, and arrived in Lone Pine by 11:00. From town, the North Ridge of Lone Pine Peak dominates the Sierra skyline. After some greasy eggs and hashbrowns, we drove to the trailhead at Whitney Portal. We planned to hike to the base of the mountain on Friday, camp there Friday night, and get an alpine-style start on the climb on Saturday morning.
After parking at Whitney Portal, we had to backtrack for half a mile on the road to get to the Little Meysan Lake trailhead. Through a campground and the trail begins in earnest, winding its way south-east across a ridge. The North Ridge is visible for almost the entire hike up, and provides a stunning backdrop for an otherwise mundane slog. After hiking for about 4 miles, we came upon an obvious campsite: a large flat area adjacent to the river and the north ridge. We set up our tent (although one could easily bivy here as well -- overhanging boulders provide ample shelter from the rain), and went to scout the massive, 3000 foot west face for an ascent route.
Although the standard route ascends the face via a class 3 gully on the north side (the blue route), we found another gully further south on the face that looked like it might go (the red route). Plan in hand, we returned to the campsite for an early night and an early morning start.
After a quick breakfast, we hiked across the screefield at the base of the mountain to our chosen gully. We began ascending the gully at 7:00. However, after a couple hundred feet of class 3 scrambling, it became obvious that the gully was not going to lead to the ridge. We began looking for escape routes, and found what looked to be a good crack/flake system up the left-hand wall of the gully. From the bottom, it looked like it would go without any trouble, so we put on our rock shoes, uncoiled the rope, and started climbing.
Dave lead the pitch, and was soon out of view from my belay stance. Although the crack seemed straightforward from the bottom, it soon became clear to me that it got a bit more difficult further up. Dave's progress slowed to a crawl, and he began questioning the safety of his placements. He was nearly out of ear-shot at his point, so it took nearly five minutes of shouting back and forth for him to ascertain that his draws were indeed running straight, and not zig-zagged. I later learned that he was standing on a ledge at this point, looking up at a runout face climb to the top.
Eventually, the rope started to strain against my belay device, a clear signal that Dave was moving again. From the base of the cliff, I heard Dave shout "ROCK!" followed by a pause of about 5 seconds, then "ROCK! Shit, FALLING!". He must have been falling directly towards his last piece, because the rope went slack in my hands, rather than tight. Shit! -- I started pulling the slack as fast as I could, and then pulled into the break position just before I felt the rope go tight. It turned out that both of Dave's handholds had pulled out on the face (the two falling rocks), causing him to fall back down to his break ledge. Because the ledge broke his fall, we never had the opportunity to test the security of his gear placements.
The fall left a nasty gash of Dave's knee, but nothing too serious. After a brief rest on the ledge, he continued up the face, and called for me to follow. The beginning of the climb was great -- nice liebacks against a less-than-vertical slab. However, the crack soon flared out and widened to an off-width. I have very little crack climbing experience, so this gave me quite a bit of trouble, and I was very relieved to gain the ledge and the more comfortable face climbing that followed. At the top, we rated the pitch a 5.8 R (although the 15-foot runout on the face might cause some old-schools to disagree with the R rating).
The pitch spit us out on the top of a false ridge on the north face. It was a fairly exposed position, and afforded a nice view of the creek and lakes below. However, It was now 10:00, and we were still nowhere near the north ridge. Dave went to scout the route while I sorted out the rack. He returned to report that it looked like we didn't need the rope for the next bit, so we coiled it, and began scrambling towards the ridge. A few hundred feet of scrambling later, we climbed a 5.6 pitch and then had a clear view of a gully that would lead us to the ridge. The scramble to the gully was exposed and scary, but we got there, and soon gained the north ridge -- the true start of the climb.
Some easy scrambling soon steepened into a class 4 slab. And while the climbing was not too difficult, it was commiting. From the top of the slab, we would downclimb into the first notch, and then have two towers to deal with before the summit. We knew the upcoming part of the route is the business section for those that ascend the face via the standard class 3 scramble. What we didn't know was whether it would be more difficult than the two pitches that we had already climbed.
In the end, with 5 hours of daylight left, we decided that we couldn't risk getting stuck on the ridge, and therefore decided to abandon the route. Descending our ascent route would have required two rappels off of suspicious anchors, so we decided to descend our gully, and then try to work our way north on the face to the standard ascent route.
The descent was not without its spicy moments. The nature of downclimbing a face is that you can only see the route for about 10 feet in front of you. After that, it looks like the scramble ends in a precipice. However, as you continue down, you see that the scramble actually continues.
For the most part, that is. But quite a few times we were forced to turn back, as our descent route actually did end in a cliff. At one point, we found ourselves at a thin, slabby ridge, edged on one side by a rock wall and on the other side by a cliff. Although the downclimb looked fairly benign, the consequences of a fall would have been pretty dramatic. So we decided to down-lead it. Although this would not prevent a fall, it would prevent a catastrophic fall. Luckily, neither of us fell.
After more scrambling, we found ourselves at another cliff, this time with seemingly no easy way around. It was pretty slabby, and we contemplated downclimbing it, but it would have been a very uncomfortable downclimb. Instead, we found a solid flake to use as a rappel anchor, and rapped over the edge.
It was 7:00 by the time we got to the bottom of the rappel. Our descent-gully goal was still in sight, but with no clear path to get there, and darkness threatening, we decided to bivy and finish the descent in the morning. It was a good decision -- just after we got into our bivy sacks, the rain started. The clouds parted after about an hour, and we poked our heads out for an eyefull of stars, and a great view of Lone Pine far below.
We got up with the sun the next morning, and continued working south to the gully. It took another hour to arrive at the gully, and from there, another hour to descend back to camp. We made some hot food, decamped, and were heading down the trail by 10:45. We got back to the car by 12:30: dirty, tired, and hungry, but with our first mountaineering trip under our belts.
Perhaps we erred on the side of caution when we decided to turn around; perhaps the climbing would have been straightforward and easy, and perhaps we would have made the summit well before dark. But if we learned anything on the climb up the west face, it was that seemingly easy climbing often is not, and that the mental energy expended on route far exceeds the physical energy. I'm disappointed that we didn't summit, but I'm not disappointed in the trip. We wanted to challenge ourselves, and we did. We wanted to scare ourselves, and we did. We wanted to get out there and rely completely on ourselves and eachother for survival, and we did.
My only real regret is that I left my camera on the mountain. It was a Sony camera, and I left it at the top of our descent gully -- the highest gully on the class 3 scree just before the ridge steepens to class 4. It's a long shot, I know, but if by any chance you happen to find it, I'd really love to get those pictures back. I'd be happy to pay for postage -- email me at fred at federico dot name.