As the horizon began to warm up and the striking wall that is the Keeler Needle started to glow pink, Chris and I took a minute to appreciate the exposure of the bivy site we had dug into the narrow snow slope. Our two-man tent barely fit and now we could only see the void beneath—a 1,500-foot drop to the slopes below Mount Whitney’s East Face. It was surreal to be here, in the middle of one of the most photogenic sunrise views in the High Sierra that either of us had ever seen.
Hundreds of thousands of people had photographed this view over the years. For the moment at least, Chris and I were a tiny part of this surreal landscape.
Mount Whitney, the highest peak in the lower 48, to me is special for more than its height. Close to 10 years ago, it was my first major climb. Completing the Mountaineer’s Route, in winter, was sort of a metamorphosis. On the descent, we ran into two guys who were going to try to climb one of the more technical climbs up the peak the following day. I had not done any roped climbing at that point—I had not even gym climbed at that point—so technical climbing in winter was unfathomable. Yet I was fascinated by the idea, and knew I would want to learn some day.
Over the years, I became increasingly passionate about hiking trails and scrambling local peaks in the Sierra Nevada. I picked up technical climbing skills on variable terrain and began to climb new routes no one else had ever climbed. Soon I too was pushing myself in the realms of alpinism and winter routes. I was able to complete climbs up some of the more beautiful and difficult peaks in the world, mountains like Chacraraju, Alpamayo and Chopicalqui, in the Cordillera Blanca, Peru; Fitz Roy, Poincenot and Cerro Torre, in Patagonia; and walls and mountains in the U.S. like El Capitan, Castle Rock Spire, Angels Wings, the Incredible Hulk, Bubbs Creek Wall, Denali, Xanadu, etc.
I have returned to Mt. Whitney, too, climbing three other established technical routes—including a possible second ascent of Left Wing Extremist— and three first ascents. One of them, dubbed the Inyo Face, has already been repeated by half a dozen parties.
A first winter ascent on Mt. Whitney was something that eluded me. I had thought of climbing the Hairline in winter and proposed the idea to different partners over the years. The route combines difficult aid and free climbing up a steep, 2,000-foot section of Mount Whitney’s East Face. It is the highest (in altitude) big-wall route in the lower 48 states and the route itself has seen only a few repeats—maybe five?
I had a few specific reasons for wanting to do Hairline in winter. Hairline was one of the standout routes put up by a prolific Sierra first ascentionist, Bruce Bindner, known as Brutus of Wyde, and I wanted to retrace his steps on another of his creations, as I had done on other routes before. Also, completing one of the most difficult big-wall routes in the Sierra Nevada, in winter, would technically make this the hardest winter ascent of a Sierra big-wall, and stood out as a distinct challenge. Finally, the ascent would be a symbolic climb for me after passing those two climbers on the descent from the Mountaineer’s Route 10 years earlier—a sign of how far I’d come.
Doing it mid-winter, when the days are short, cold and the approaches long was not part of my original plan. I had thought of squeezing it in during the last days of calendar winter, in late March, with more daylight and warmth. Alas, circumstances conspired in such a way that different plan came together…
I am training for a trip to the Himalaya and as part of that training I have been trying to get out and do challenging peaks this winter. Before a chunk of time off from work, I saw the winds were finally slowing down to 20 to 25 miles per hour in the High Sierra. I planned to do some general conditioning by hiking up the Mountaineer’s Route, maybe continuing up the crest to Mount Muir, maybe tagging Mount Russell before hiking out. A few other people were interested in joining, but bailed.
My good friend Chris Koppl said he would be happy to join. Chris too was soon leaving for a long trip to Asia, and he also happens to be one of my strongest partners—I knew we could do more than a hike. I brought up climbing something a bit harder….
Chris, of course is no slouch. He agreed, despite never having heard of the route: Hairline (V 5.10d C2+).
I drove up after work the day prior and slept at around 7,000 feet. In the morning I woke up early and did some photography at sunrise, before a bit of solo ice climbing in Lee Vining to acclimatize.
The following morning Chris and I met up, packed and got far from an alpine start f0r the approach, sometime after 11 am. Our packs weighed in at 60 and 62 pounds at the trailhead. Even though the road closure was a few miles before the actual trailhead, our excitement and fitness made up for the late start and we managed to make it to a camp between Upper Boyscout and Iceberg Lake at 4 pm.
We were mega-psyched to get to sleep early, as both of us were more than a little sleep deprived. (I balance 12-hour work shifts with a climbing addiction (which requires working out at a climbing gym an hour away), serious relationship, errands and social obligations—first world problems are still problems!)
In the morning we blasted to the base, which involved a lot of trail breaking through deep soft snow, which slowed us down. For efficiency, we decided to lead in two blocks. As a more efficient aid climber, Chris led the initial pitches of aid. I led the following pitches of free climbing. It made sense because swinging leads would have required a lot more time for reversing of the roles. Taking off winter boots and reracking after jumaring for 160 feet wouldn’t be as simple as passing the collected gear to the leader.
While we were in the sun for the first three pitches, it was perfectly warm on the wall, but after that the sun left and it became so cold that I jumared and climbed in a down jacket. We brought oversized climbing shoes for the leader, so that we could always wear thick socks underneath.
For speed, neither of us gave a shit about keeping it strictly free in spots that might normally go free: we yanked on gear whenever it would allow us to move faster.
Just before it got dark and just after I fell victim to the screaming barfies, I finished my last lead. We were now up on a series of 3rd-class ledges where we planned to bivy for the night. As we set to work cutting a platform from a narrow snow slope above the void, we warmed up. The more we worked on it, the more we became optimistic it will be possible to set up our tent!
When we had finished chopping out our ledge we set up our tent and—lo and behold—it was the perfect size for the area we had cleared. Incredible! We melted water, checked the weather, ate a ton of food and went to sleep, happy as clams.
For years I had dreamed of seeing the sunrise from this location in the relative solitude of winter. When Mount Whitney along with all of its striking needles stretching down to Mount Muir begun to light up in pink and red glow during the early morning hours, it was as magical as I imagine it is to see the Earth from the moon.
The temperatures had plunged far below freezing during the night. We knew that a couple of hours of sun would allow us to climb the rock with our bare hands, so we took our time tearing down our bivy and getting started.
But we couldn’t dally too long. Temps were supposed to go all the way up to a whopping 30 degrees Fahrenheit at 12,000 feet by 11 am—good climbing conditions—but after that forecasts projected the temps to drop into the teens and the winds to reach 40 mph.
Luckily we didn’t have much further left to go—we were at 13,500 feet and the summit is at 14,505 feet. I took the first two pitches of and Chris led the last pitch, after which we climbed another short step before unroping and scrambling 3rd and 4th class terrain (with the occasional 5th class boulder problem) for another 500 feet to the summit. Climbing these last sections with 50-pound packs at 14,000 feet wasn’t particularly enjoyable, but I was surprised by how quickly we managed all of it. No rest steps, no rests to catch our breath; just constant movement while trying not to let the winds knock us over.
It was windy as hell on the top, and I was surprised to see only three entries for 2020 in in the summit register. We went and hid in the summit hut. Chris told me he was happy to have me as a partner for such a mission. It was nice to hear—last time I heard something similar from Chris we had nearly drowned while trying to do a first ascent on a granite dome. A thunderstorm came in quicker than we expected, and we had to scramble up 4th class slab/waterfall to bail.
The climb finished, we scrambled down the Mountaineer’s Route and began hiking all the way back to our cars with our huge loads of big-wall gear. But it felt easy. I told Chris I was the lucky one. Partners with greater drive, a better work ethic, higher skill and as good a sense of humor as his exist only in the imagination.
We got back to the cars with just an hour to spare before sunset. At the trailhead, we ran into a guy who was going up to “take a look.” Weather forecast for the following day was complete garbage, he was wearing skinny jeans, a cotton shirt, stylish shoes… I usually see people dressed like that on popular trails during summer, but winter is a different beast— Chris and I were a little worried, for him. Hopefully the man stayed safe and had a good trip. And who knows—maybe he’ll do a winter ascent himself of a technical route up on Whitney one day…