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Skiing For Ourselves, But Doing It For The Kids On Mt. Whitney | UNITED STATES, CALIFORNIA | 01/19/2011, by BrennanLagasse
When we talked about it over the summer it seemed pretty casual. Sure it’s the highest peak in the lower 48, but in all reality it’s not too technical of a mountain. I hiked Mt. Whitney when I was 22 and it was my first “14’er”. It felt so weird to be that high because the altitude really made you feel, well high. The elevation buzz was a nice glow as I looked out over the High Sierra and the many amazing ridges, valleys, and mountains that encompassed my vantage. It was cool to be standing atop the highest mountain in the continental USA. But on January 8th, 2011 it was cold, real cold. Actually, I hadn’t been this cold since Denali and honestly it was a bit of a buzz-kill.
As the wind kept picking up and my hands got colder and colder I thought about all that powder we skinned through back at the lower elevations. That’s going to be nice to ski through, I thought to myself. But that still didn’t do the trick to get my concentration off the fact I was cold and not feeling so well. I drifted back to a subsequent trip on Whitney when Jeff and I had set out to climb the East Buttress. It’s a gorgeous multi-pitch traditional rock climb that goes at around 5.7. Man that climbing day was warm, oh so warm…
Snapping back into it I recounted the morning. We woke up at 3:15, slowly. We gathered ourselves together and started skinning in the dark at about 4:30. Not the fastest wake up, but at least we were moving. We departed from about 6500’ where ice and snow covered the road to the Whitney Portal Trail Head, and followed the glow of our headlamps zigzagging up the snow caked road to the actual trail head where you’d usually begin your summit attempt in the summer or fall.
The sun began to rise, and we had mostly been skinning through powder. The stellar conditions stayed with us for several thousand vertical feet. For Jeremy and I it was Jeff who was tough to stay with, as usual, being one of those guys that’s takes just as much pride in breaking the up as he does skiing the down.
Winding our way up the canyon it was pretty smooth sailing till about 12,000 feet. Here’s when we got our first taste of the variability that comes with skiing bigger peaks. Off angle punchy snow over some scattered cliffs with a solid drop off. No worries though. A quick boot, some awkward skinning, and before we knew it we were starring at a pretty filled in Mountaineers Couloir lining the looker’s right side of Mt. Whitney proper.
Excitement was beginning to build, but I kept it mellow knowing the chance there would be no interesting events prior to the top was foolish. The wind was already picking up and cold enough to let me know we’d be dealing with something, the Mountaineers Couloir is almost never in “good” conditions anyway, and the last ramp leading to the top is where most guidebooks try and scare you into passing on the mission as a whole. I think one of them basically tells you to pass on the summit and just ski the couloir if you want to live through your adventure!
Jeff, Jeremy and I were all on the same page. We all wanted to ski this line, get it from the top, but our motives were slightly askew on this mission. The reason this particular line had come into our focus for this year wasn’t because it just got named as one of the 50 Classic Descents of North America, it was because Jeremy had asked me many months prior if I would be willing to do it with him in hopes of raising money for an amazing charity. Having Jeff along was all we needed to give the mission a go.
Bay Are Wilderness Training is an amazing group and anyone who’s reading this piece should take a few moments to check out their site: http://www.bawt.org/. Specifically, Jeremy wanted to go under the Climbing for Kids program http://www.climbingforkids.org/and tailor the mission to our pursuits as ski mountaineers. You can read his whole fundraising goal here.
Booting up the couloir wasn’t too bad although it was definitely variable in spots.
Overall the snow was soft on top and we knew were going to have a good ski. As we walked through some rock debris and topped out on the couloir, the next ribbon of snow to the top was no joke. This is what those guidebooks are always trying to scare you about. It was steep, climbed through a weird cliffy type section, and then got super steep at the top rim. Luckily the snow was textbook bombproof for ice axe climbing. Perfect shaft placements allowed you to basically set your axe and mantle on it for your next steps. Not bad at all.
At about 2pm the three of us stood atop Mt. Whitney. Stoked for ourselves, stoked we might be doing something to get a few other kids up here that may not have otherwise had the chance. Oh yeah, but then there’s that whole business of skiing. It was pretty smooth and relatively straightforward once we got through the cruxy top section and around the dicey rocks at the top of the couloir. The Mountaineers Couloir actually skied pretty well, and actually most of our 8,000 foot descent was pretty sweet powder. Of course there were a few spots of melt-freeze and a few spots of wind-pack, but overall for such a long run it was amazing to get it good and in proper winter conditions.
Riding out to the car the sunset was so brilliant at least one of us just plain fell over. The buzz from the altitude was gone, but that buzz all of us backcountry skiers chase was in full effect. It was a nice long day and a great classic line to get in January. The fact it was also something to benefit children we might not ever meet, but might profoundly impact through their time spent in the glorious “Range of Light” that has influenced us all so greatly was the cherry on the top. I’ve been fortunate to log a few good descents in my life, but this one will always be a special link in the unbroken chain of every thankful day I get to spend in the mountains.