Betsy and I went on an epic week-long climbing trip in the Sierra at the end of May and beginning of June. We climbed three tall peaks, each via a steep chute topped by a summit plateau and summit pyramid. Here is what we did each day.
Day 0 (May 30): Drive from Del Mar to Lone Pine. Climb giant boulders in the Alabama Hills, and camp at “secluded” Campsite 39 in the Whitney Portal Campground.
Day 1 (May 31): Backpack up the Meysan Lakes Trail from the trailhead at 7,900 ft to Meysan Lake at 11,446 ft. This takes us 9 hours, including finding a good campsite. Online blogs say that the distance is 6 miles, but Betsy’s GPS says it is 7 miles. I packed up this trail in 1978 with Mary, my brother Jay, and climbing buddy Don McEachern.
Day 2 (June 1): Climb Mt Irvine, at 13,770 ft, in 12-and-a-half hours. Betsy’s GPS says that the day’s distance is 10 miles.
Day 3 (June 2): Climb Lone Pine Peak, at 12,944 ft, in 12 hours, 45 minutes. Betsy’s GPS says that the day’s distance is 9 miles.
Day 4 (June 3): Relax, read, and hike on a rest day.
Day 5 (June 4): Climb Mt Mallory, at 13,850 ft, in 12-and-a-half hours. Betsy’s iPhone battery is dead, so we don’t have a GPS distance, but it is probably 10 miles. I climbed Mts Mallory and LeConte in a single day with Mary, Jay, and Don in 1978.
Day 6 (June 5): Backpack out in 4 hours. I drive home, while Betsy joins her friend Emily for another climbing trip 🙂
Photos and commentary follow.
Day 0: Monday, May 30. After driving from Del Mar to Lone Pine, we are treated to this view of the Sierra Crest from the Eastern Sierra Visitor Center. Lone Pine Peak, which we will soon climb, dominates the central skyline, while Mt Whitney is in back to the right and Mt Langley is at the far left. The lack of snow at this time of year is unprecedented in my memory. Day 1: Tuesday, May 31. We start backpacking from our car on Whitney Portal Road. After a quarter-mile pack through the Whitney Portal Campground, we come to the trailhead for the Meysan Lakes Trail at 7,900 ft. We do not see another person the rest of the day. I pack up the trail with Whitney Portal Road and Owens Valley in the distance. We see lots of lizards along the way. This pile of rocks is called a duck. It helps travelers find the route where it may not be obvious, such as when it is under snow. We will see many of these during our trip. A side trail leads to Grass Lake, which is beyond the trees behind me. That is where I camped with Mary, Jay, and Don in 1978, when the ground was covered by several feet of snow. We continue up the main trail to the right. This is Camp Lake. It is partially silted in and only has water in the distance. Marmots watch us warily. We decide to continue on to the higher Meysan Lake to reduce the distances for our upcoming climbs. Mt LeConte is just left of center, while Mt Mallory, which we will eventually climb, is on the right above the trees. Finally we reach Meysan Lake. We find a good campsite and pitch our tent in the twilight. Betsy cooks Pasta Primavera on her little stove, and we both eat and sleep well.
Day 2: Wednesday, June 1. Today’s climbing objective is Mt Irvine, whose impressive east buttress towers over our campsite. The summit is out of sight behind the buttress but can be reached by following the northeast ridge on the skyline. We opt to climb Mt Irvine via the easier east chute south of the lake. That snow-filled chute diagonals up to the right above our tent. To get there we clambor over rock benches and giant talus blocks on the east side of the lake to the left. After getting to the south side of the lake, I am drawfed by my surroundings. I head for the chute, which is a third of the way from the left. Betsy rejoins me and starts up the lower snowfield, which is dimpled with suncups. Our tent is an inconspicuous triangle on the far side of the lake. The suncups get bigger as we climb and make the climbing secure. Here Betsy stands in the largest suncup that we find. I continue up the chute on snow. After reaching the top of the chute, Betsy begins the hike across the summit plateau. The summit is atop the small pyramid in the center of the skyline. Betsy reaches the summit after scrambling up the final rocks of the pyramid. Betsy stands on the summit of Mt Irvine, at 13,770 ft! Mt Whitney is behind her to the northwest. Consultation Lake below her is still frozen. I spent a cold, sleepless night there on my first climb of Mt Whitney in 1965! We celebrate the summit with our traditional Dr Pepper toast 🙂 Betsy signs the register. Kim from Bishop gets to the top just before us. We exchange waves with her, but she leaves before we arrive. Mt LeConte on the left seems to merge with Mt Langley, which is behind it. Mt Mallory, which we will climb later, is in the center to the south across the plateau that separates it from Mt Irvine. We retrace our route down the pyramid, across the plateau, and down the chute. Along the way we see granite boulders with rectangular feldspar crystals, such as these. When we finally get back to camp after 12-and-a-half hours of climbing, I am totally exhausted and get in my sleeping bag without eating dinner.
Day 3: Thursday, June 2. Today’s climbing objective is Lone Pine Peak. It is lower than Mt Irvine, so we start later at 8:35 am expecting that the climb will take less time. Soon after we leave camp we see the tedious talus traverse that awaits us to reach the steep chute leading to the summit plateau of Lone Pine Peak. This may not be a short day after all. Traversing the talus requires care to avoid injuring a leg. Here we are almost to the chute, which is filled with loose scree. That means a slippery slog. Finally I near the top of the chute! This duck in the lower center marks the top of the chute. There are many more ducks from here to the summit plateau. Betsy finds a giant block of quartz, but it is too big to take home 🙂 Here is the summit plateau and summit pyramid. The actual summit is not visible. We follow footprints along the west ridge of the summit pyramid and come to the top of the rock rib shown here. Betsy climbs over it and continues along the ridge. Eventually we reach the summit of Lone Pine Peak at 12,944 ft! Betsy holds the giant register box. Mt Whitney is in the background. The register box is really big because Lone Pine Peak is frequently climbed. Nonetheless, we have the summit to ourselves. Betsy soon finds the most recent log book and signs it. This is the stunning view to the west. Four lakes are visible. Moving diagonally down to the right they are Meysan, Camp, Grass, and Peanut. Mt Irvine is in the center, and yesterday’s climbing route to the left is clearly visible. Betsy approaches the top of the chute as we return to camp. A duck is to her right, but the correct chute is just above her head. It is really important to find this chute. As we retrace the tedious traverse, we find these sticky polemonium flowers nestled among the rocks. We finish the last half hour with headlamps in the dark! Here I climb the last few rocks to the bench with our tent. After 12 hours and 45 minutes of climbing, I am again too exhausted to eat dinner.
Day 4: Friday, June 3. I decide that I need a rest day to recover after two grueling days of climbing. Betsy cooks scrambled eggs, the first of three hot meals today! I start reading E.O. Wilson’s wonderful book The Social Conquest of Earth, while Betsy takes a nap. I decide to wash up by the creek at the outlet of the lake. The duck in the lower center marks a rock staircase down to the creek from the bench with our tent. Betsy and I go for an afternoon hike and find this giant vein of quartz! I look for gold but do not see any. Betsy continues hiking without me and gets to the bottom of this waterfall.
Day 5: Saturday, June 4. Today’s climbing objective is Mt Mallory. The route goes up the narrow Y-shaped snow chute above the right-side of Betsy’s head, as seen here. We start at 6 am to ensure plenty of daylight. After going around the lake again, Betsy starts up the chute on snow. Above her it turns to the right behind the rock outcrop. There the chute is blocked by this small frozen waterfall. Betsy uses the adz of her ax to cut steps for her feet and scrambles up. I follow her but am uneasy with the marginal handholds on the rock to the right. I do not look forward to coming back down this way. The snow is so hard this early in the morning that the long spike on my ax will not gain a purchase. Thus, I use the short pick on the head of the ax for extra support along with the points of my crampons as I work my way up the chute. Betsy reaches the top of the snow. We take off our crampons and continue up on rock. A duck marks the top of the chute. The summit plateau and summit pyramid are ahead. Betsy plans a route through the rocks of the summit pyramid. The summit is off to the left. Betsy sits on the summit of Mt Mallory, at 13,850 ft! The snowy peaks in the distance to the west form the Great Western Divide. Mary, Jay, and Don sit on the same summit rock 44 years ago on May 28, 1978! The recent disappearance of the typically heavy snowpack shows the dramatic effect of drought fostered by climate change. Betsy signs the register. Here is her nice note. The last climb before ours was three weeks earlier. To the east are Lone Pine Peak above and four lakes below. To the south are Mts LeConte and Langley. We retrace our route back down the summit pyramid and plateau to the chute. Soon after we start descending, we shout and wave to a party of three that is approaching the summit via a different route. When we get back to the frozen waterfall, we decide to go around it on these rocks. Because they are covered with loose scree, we rope up and belay each other. Here I belay Betsy from below. The rope goes from me to her around the rock next to her. I let out slack as she descends. She unties afterward, and we retrieve the rope. We find a garden of buttercups when we get to the plain south of the lake. I feel good back at camp and enjoy a hot dinner of Pasta Primavera with Betsy 🙂
Day 6: Sunday, June 5. It is time to collect our gear and pack out. Here are all our clothes that got wet in the soft snow yesterday afternoon. My pants took a beating sliding on rocks and have three horizontal tears across the seat. Fortunately my butt does not have matching stripes 🙂 I put on my pajama bottoms to start the pack out. We find some shooting stars that burst into bloom since we were here five days ago. The final stretch of trail has a steep drop-off. We are back to our car in four hours after our epic adventure!