“I’ll tell you what, after seeing … thisahere story I’m about to unfold—well, I guess I seen somethin’ ever’ bit as stupefyin’ as ya’d see in any a those other places, and in English too, so I can die with a smile on my face without feelin’ like the good Lord gypped me.”
—“The Stranger,” The Big Lebowski
Sometimes there’s a man…sometimes there’s a man who, through his actions alone, perfectly defines his time and place. Which can be a good thing, or a bad thing.
Stupid people are, well, stupid. No surprise there. But sometimes a very smart person does something incredibly stupid. That’s when the straight and true gets temporarily knocked out of alignment, the earth’s heartbeat skips a beat, and such odd things happen that large chunks of humanity are left scratching their collective head. It’s frustrating.
In June 1995, four of us attempted to climb the East Buttress route up Mt. Whitney. Our attempt was foiled by a freak snowstorm…and a freak of nature. A decade and a half later, looking back at this adventure gone wrong, all the memories—the good, the bad, and the ugly—started coming back. And for the first time, I was finally able to put the whole experience into words. Not that it necessarily made me feel any better about it.
Destiny. I never really believed in it until one late spring trip up the side of Mt. Whitney.
Our motley crew of four disparate souls assembled by near accident to attempt the East Buttress. United by a single goal, but seemingly divided by everything else, four people needed to be in sync for three short days in order to achieve the summit.
First there was me. Just another typical random bastard who liked to abandon all responsibility several times a year and proclaim his manliness by climbing up grand pieces of stone and afterwards spinning even grander tales about the journey.
Then there was Stiv. He was born “Harrison,” but he hated that name; he thought it was boring, and despised the inevitable comparisons to Harrison Ford. He had an unnatural obsession for the 1980s punk rock group The Dead Boys and thus had adopted the moniker of that group’s lead singer, Stiv Baiters. Our Stiv was also in a band, only he wasn’t the lead singer, he was the bassist. But that sure didn’t stop him from living the dream.
Relegated to third in my story is Alex. Third mention out of four is like the literary equivalent of a blind spot; it’s usually where you toss in the almost-anonymous, practically disposable character. Not so in this story, however. For it turns out that Alex is the crux of our torrid tale.
Alex was an interesting human. He was highly intelligent—almost too smart for his own good, you might say—book smart, but street stupid. A free spirit, he had a near-debilitating physical deformity—not that there’s anything wrong with that—that I won’t mention out of deference to his dignity. Yet this unmentionable physical deformity was a direct cause of his sense of adventure. In his endless quest to overcompensate for his horrific handicap, and the unrelenting teasing and bullying it had caused him as a child, the adult Alex asserted his mental recovery by participating in semi-annual adventure travel extravaganzas.
He had been to the rainforests of South America, game reserves in Africa, and even as far as Base Camp on Mt. Everest. He should have been a TV spokesperson for ecotourism. Yet in his most recent adventure catalog he had filled out a reservation form and put down a sizeable deposit for something that sounded like a great idea at the time, but he later was regretting. There was a massive peak in Ecuador he had committed to climb, yet he had no actual climbing experience whatsoever. We got to talking, one thing led to another, and the next thing I knew, I had convinced him to climb a technical route up Mt. Whitney as a training climb for Ecuador, and at the same time I had unwittingly committed myself to not just joining him but organizing the entire trip. Destiny’s ugly hand had slapped me upside my tender face, and that damned hand was attached to my own arm.
I had rock climbed before, and had been up Mt. Whitney as well, but had never done anything of the magnitude to which I had just committed. If this asinine dream were to have a snowballs chance in hell of morphing to reality, we would need some help. And I knew just the person to do it: Tom.
The last piece of our crazy little four-piece jigsaw puzzle was Tom. Tom lived alone in the sleepy little town of Lone Pine, near the base of Mt. Whitney. He was the consummate mountain man. Better yet, he had done the East Buttress route before. Several times. And he didn’t mind taking out newbies; he jumped at any excuse to get outside. With Tom’s expert guidance, we could get a taste of adventure without swallowing the bitter pill of destiny. And he would gladly lead us up it if we bought him beer and a nice dinner. Especially if both the beer and the dinner were Mexican. He loved Mexican.
A few years earlier, Tom, Stiv, and I had collaborated on the ascent of another peak in the Eastern Sierra. This time, I suggested we give the famous East Buttress route up Mt. Whitney a try because I had heard so many good things about it: it was a multi-pitch technical rock climb, but it was relatively easy; it was a very aesthetically pleasing route; and it also had the rare distinction of being designated as one of the fifty classic climbs of North America.
When I tried to explain all of this to Alex, he had no idea what I was talking about. So he was in. Stiv didn’t even want to climb; he just wanted to hike with us up to our base camp, where he could meditate, smoke some pot, and work on his great American novel. So he didn’t give a shit which route I forced on our party of four. Tom was up for anything; as he had previously done the East Buttress route and understood the allure, but more importantly I had promised him the standard post-climb dinner of Dos Equis and carne asada burritos back in Lone Pine. So he was definitely in.
As it turned out, the trip was almost over before it began. I guess that’s why they call it destiny.
The day before our fateful attempt, we camped at Whitney Portal and hiked around in the cold rain to acclimatize. Then it started snowing. A little surprising, maybe; but we were in one of the world’s biggest mountain ranges, and it was still technically spring. So it wasn’t completely unexpected.
Sorting through our gear at the campground early in the morning on day one of the climb, we realized Alex had no jacket. It was snowing, we were at about 8,000 feet in elevation and headed up to above 14,000 feet, and he had no jacket. And it’s not like he had accidentally forgotten his jacket at home. It had just never occurred to him that he might need one. This was my first clue.
Alex immediately and vocally volunteered to stay behind and camp at Whitney Portal for three days while the rest of us continued up the mountain. This was my second clue. Not yet getting the hint, Tom and I immediately devised a plan of action. Tom had an extra fleece in his car. In addition to my heavy winter jacket, I had packed a lightweight but waterproof rain jacket. Alex put on Tom’s fleece and my rain jacket, and voila, the man without a jacket suddenly had a jacket and could continue on the adventure. We were ecstatic that our ingenuity had saved the day. Alex, not so much. He reluctantly let out a nearly-inaudible “thanks.” Clue number three.
It was cold and damp. We started up the trail in a light rain mixed with snow. As typically happens, we started to get hot; partway up the trail, we stopped to adjust our loads and remove some extra layers of clothing.
As we continued, Tom led the way up the Mountaineer’s Route, the approach to the technical rock climbing routes up Mt. Whitney. We settled in to a pattern. At times, the trail was tough to find because of the buildup of fresh powder, but luckily our “guide” Tom had been on this trail so many times he could read it by Braille.
We came to a partially iced-over stream crossing. Tom moved across so gracefully and seamlessly that he appeared to walk on water. Next was Stiv, who negotiated it expertly. Then came Alex. His body was as stiff as a board when he crossed, and I was worried he was going to fall in. But there was no way anything like that could happen. Such thoughts were just crazy thoughts. We were mountaineers, less than a mile up the easy part of the trail. Alex made it across unscathed. But it wasn’t pretty.
As we started up the Ebersbacher Ledges, the snow started to concern me a little, but nobody else seemed concerned so I forgot about it. About half way up said ledges, at the turnaround where the trickiest part is, the thought of muscling through these moves in the snow loaded down with 65-pound backpacks seemed utterly and completely absurd. But Tom, with his calm, soothing voice, managed to talk us through the crux easily. Even Alex made it through with just a few minor moments of near-terror.
As I crested the top of the Ebersbacher Ledges, shivering partly from the cold and partly from the insanity of what we had just done, my head clad in a blue balaclava, Stiv yelled “Smile!” and snapped a photo of me. A couple months later, I got an “urgent” fax at work…it was the photo of me in the snowstorm, wearing my blue balaclava, with a caption that said something about the “Chess Piece of the Month Club.” Thanks Stiv!
Above the Ebersbacher Ledges, the storm gradually increased in intensity as we inched forward to the next waypoint: Lower Boy Scout Lake. It was one hell of a hike, and taxing me more than anything I had ever before attempted. I could only imagine what Alex was going through.
I stopped for a break, to catch my breath, drink some water, and chew down a snack. A minute later, Alex, out of breath almost to the point of hyperventilation, caught up and joined me.
As we sat there on a large snow-covered rock, I looked down at one of my trekking poles and noticed it was damaged.
“Damn!” I said to Alex. “I must have lost one of my baskets and snapped the carbide tip off my pole somewhere back there. Damn it!”
“That’s nothing,” Alex said, with little emotion. “I lost my watch back there somewhere.”
He lifted up his arm and pulled back the two components of his makeshift jacket to reveal his bare wrist, where his super-expensive state-of-the-art digital watch with built-in altimeter had been just half an hour ago.
We continued on, getting ever closer to Lower Boy Scout Lake. Despite being surrounded and pelted by water in both liquid and solid form, we were all breathing heavily and going through water quickly, and needed to refill. Tom said that when we reached the outlet of the lake, there would be a great little spot there to drop down and fill our water bottles.
Our order on the trail at that point was Tom leading, Stiv fairly close behind Tom, and Alex far behind; I was trying desperately to stay at the midpoint between Stiv and Alex, so as not to lose sight of both the head and the tail of our party. Despite my disdain for this awful situation, I was feeling somewhat responsible. After all, this trip was my idea. Me and my big mouth.
By the time I got to the outlet of Lower Boy Scout Lake, Tom and Stiv had already filled their water bottles. Stiv decided to press on, worried about losing momentum, not to mention body heat. Tom had stayed behind to make sure Alex and I were OK.
I could see Tom standing nearby through the mist. I quickly filled my two water bottles, dropped in the requisite iodine tablets to treat the water, and walked over to Tom.
“How’s it going, man?” Tom asked.
“OK, I guess,” I replied. “This is pretty tough.”
“No shit. I’ve never seen it like this…”
Just then, Tom turned to look back towards the outlet. Alex was approaching, slowly and awkwardly.
“See our footprints there?” Tom yelled to Alex. “That’s the path down to the outlet. Go down there and make sure you fill both of your water bottles.”
Tom turned to me and started to say something, while half keeping a watchful eye on Alex out of the corner of his eye. I don’t remember what Tom was trying to say; his lips parted as if to speak, but he may not have even got one word of his sentence out. That was when we both heard what sounded like a weak, forced whimper, followed by the splash.
The splash of destiny.
Tom and I were about 30 feet away from Alex, but the distance, both visually and audibly, seemed like much more since we were in the middle of a raging snowstorm. Tom turned to me, his jaw hanging open. “I saw the whole thing!” Tom exclaimed, half-whispering, even though Alex never could have heard him. “He fell in on purpose! I swear! He fell in on purpose!”
We rushed to Alex’s aid, pulling him from the near-freezing water. Stiv heard the commotion, and ran back down the trail to see what was happening. Alex was as limp as a dead fish; physically exhausted yet uninjured, his problems were all mental. He offered little assistance in his own extrication, letting Tom and I do most of the heavy lifting.
I noticed two things about Alex as we pulled him from the creek. First, and most obviously: he was soaking wet. The second thing was even more disturbing. For the first time since we had started, there was now a little twinkle in his eye and a slight smirk on his face. He was suddenly relieved, and could hardly mask his joy.
For Alex, the trip was probably over. Which most likely meant it was over for all of us.
Alex had realized from the parking lot that he was in way over his head on this trip, but had refused to say it explicitly. And we failed to read the signals he was sending us. We thought he was just a jerk, an asshole; we saw him as a threat to our adventure, and were brushing him off, while he was concerned that he might actually die on this trip.
Still in denial as to what was actually happening, we formulated a plan and tried to salvage our trip. We sat Alex down, removed his boots, and dried his feet; Stiv pulled out his extra pair of dry socks and gave them to Alex. I found two plastic bags and Alex placed them over his feet before he put his boots—which were now frozen solid—back on. This way, his feet would stay dry despite the little dip his boots had taken. We would be able to continue after all. Yes!
It took about half an hour to recover from the splash, and then we were back on the trail. We rounded the southeast shore of Lower Boy Scout Lake and started ascending the steep slope up towards Upper Boy Scout Lake. The higher we got up this slope, the harder the snow was coming down.
When we got to the little saddle above Lower Boy Scout Lake, Tom was standing there waiting for us.
“Decision time,” Tom said.
The four of us stood at the top of this slope, in blizzard conditions, one of our party having just fallen into Lower Boy Scout Lake. It didn’t take long for us to decide the inevitable: we had to abort our attempt at the East Buttress.
Looking back, I really couldn’t blame Alex. In reality, it was the weather that had actually done us in. There was so much snow and ice on the mountain that the anchor named Alex, no matter how annoying, wasn’t what actually pulled us down. But I didn’t see it this way until many years later.
We made our campsite near the shore of Lower Boy Scout Lake at an elevation of about 10,400 feet. We had to shovel 6 inches of fresh snow off the ground before setting up the tents. And that night, it got cold. Real cold.
How cold was it? Before we retired to the tents for the evening, which was about 6 p.m., we boiled as much water as we could and filled up our water bottles with it. I put on every piece of clothing I had, and placed two bottles of boiling hot water between my legs and feet at the bottom of my sleeping bag. The bottles were so hot that even with several layers of socks on, I could not keep my feet in contact with them.
A couple hours later, they were nice and warm on my feet.
A few hours after that, they were the same temperature as my feet.
Towards morning, they started to feel cold and I pulled my feet away.
When I woke up, I pulled out the water bottles out of my sleeping bag, and they were nearly frozen solid.
Our second day on the mountain was supposed to be our time scaling the magnificent East Buttress route. Instead, we were greeted at dawn by a virtual winter wonderland on the shores of Lower Boy Scout Lake. It was partly cloudy and fairly warm, but everything was covered in snow and ice so we never even considered going further up. We just decided to kick back by the lake and enjoy the scenery.
Stiv worked on his novel. I ran around and took a lot of pictures. Tom brewed a lot of coffee. Alex mostly moped in his tent.
All day we heard the snap and crackle of large ice and snow sheets breaking off the sides of the surrounding cliffs. Every time we heard one of these, we knew we had made the right decision.
The next day was even more beautiful as we descended back to the parking lot at Whitney Portal. Tom opted out of my offer of Mexican beer and food; he just wanted to get the hell home and forget this trip as quickly as possible.
They say time heals all wounds. After almost twenty years, the open sore of this trip is finally starting to scab over. Some pain is still present—at this point, all mental. But looking back, it was quite the adventure. And in the end, it was just another great excuse to get up into the Sierra.
Our attempt to climb the East Buttress on Mt. Whitney was foiled by a freak snowstorm and a freak of nature. Two separate things, or one and the same? You decide.