Why We Wanted to do This Ridiculous Route
I met Nic at the beginning of 2010. At the time, I was looking for activity partners through Summitpost and more specifically for people in the San Francisco area and his profile popped out with my filter. We arranged to meet at around lunch time in a coffee shop in the Mission. I remember getting a coffee while he ordered a beer and sitting on a rather uncomfortable couch. All Nic had with him was a book about California County high-points; we went briefly through it and spotted some common objectives, like North Palisade and White Mountain.
Nic mentioned that he tried White Mountain several times in winter but every attempt failed; I didn't pay much attention at the time, but today everything is so clear...Nic never mentioned to be a rock climber (he climbed El Nose of El Captain, the north face of Half Dome and many other tough routes in the valley), but did mention that the west ridge of White Mountain is "hell difficult." I promised him that one day we would try that together and no failures would be allowed, naively thinking that would pose no problems whatsoever. And here we were, March 2012. The mini-expedition included myself, Ephrat and Nic, all eager to conquer the third highest peak in California.
One caveat: Nic warned us that the route we would be taking is not the "conventional" south-west ridge, but the more brushy and direct west ridge, which is hardly climbed (I later discovered that Mark Thomas did go up the same way, but discended the south-west ridge). The plan was to do one day of acclimatization in the Tahoe area, then drive down to Bishop and spend the following day approaching the beast. We had no idea how to acclimatize for a "fourteener" in winter since any mountain of decent elevation would be tough by itself. On Friday morning, during the drive on Hwy 50 to Tahoe (Tioga pass is closed, which leaves 50 as the most direct way to Bishop from San Francisco) we opted to go for Rubicon peak, a non-technical, easy peak on the west side of the lake which offers fantastic views.The day was clear and, although we felt particularly slow, it took little more than 1 hour to reach the summit rocks. We took a good break at the peak, hoping that the 9,183 feet of this tame mountain would help us on the following adventure...
Black Eagle Camp
Then off to Bishop. After loading up on caffeine at Starbucks in Heavenly, we started driving east. We eyed the east couloir of Jobs peak, one of the next objectives in that area, then arrived in Bridgeport almost painlessly where we took a good break at the groceries store. Hwy 120 east is generally closed in winter just a couple of miles past the intersection with 395, but this year had been so dry that the road was completely dry, offering us not only a shortcut, but a more enjoyable drive to our "trailhead."
The plan was to crash at some cabins that Nic advocated as a "must," then have an early start (3am initially, then postponed). The following day we would do the climb, then return to the cabins and spend the night there; this would fix the problem of finding lodging and we would be in a beatiful place. I always encourage car-to-car outings (I suffer a lot with a heavy pack), but this seemed to be a perfect tradeoff.
Our start was at the end of the paved section of White Mountain Ranch Road. Nic had been there at least 4 other times before and he was very familiar with it (good, because the trail wasn't shown on any of our maps!). The road was fairly easy, but a very early obstacle makes it 2-wd unfriendly. We righfully decided not to take chances with the Corolla and opted for hiking the initial driveable section. Our packs were heavy, since we were carrying water for the 3 days. We started at 6.45 pm, just when the sun was setting at 4,500 feet elevation. White Mountain Peak is 14,246, leaving us quite a bit of elevation... (at the end of the trip, with ups and downs my Garmin Etrex showed 14K of total ascent, totally believable considering our physical conditions...)
It turned dark shortly after we started walking and I was already dreaming of the cabins. I was ignoring it would take us almost 4 hours to climb the 3000 feet required to get to Black Eagle Camp. The trail was disappearing in places, but the expert lead of Ephrat and Nic allowed us to waste little time route-finding.In fairness, they would have been maybe 30 minutes faster to reach the base camp, but in my defense I was carrying more weight then they were, so I didn't feel too bad. The camp looked amazing despite we could not see much; the main cabin was taken (surprisingly!) so we got other 2 small cabins. Nic had his own and I shared one with Ephrat.
Dinner for the first night was Indian food in pouches with garlic naan. We set up the little camping stove in our cabin (we needed just some boiling water) when Nic said "look what I found man!" I step out into a bigger cabin and opened the door, just to find a fully stocked kitchen and a huge dining table. Ha! We quickly transferred dinnerware to the more comfortable location and had a quick dinner; we knew we were not going to sleep much... We decided to leave at 3.30 instead of 3 and we woke up little after 3, giving us less than 4 hours of sleep, ugh.
Opening my eyes was painful as usual and this time it was the same for Ephrat, who generally behaves like a German soldier when she wakes up in the morning. I was afraid it would take much longer to start off, but we hit the trail by 3.45 am. Nic knew the way and we got to Jeffrey mine at 5.10 am, just in time for breakfast. The trail was washed out in places, but in excellent conditions (I was surpised it wasn't shown in any map). The peanut-butter-nutella sandwich could not taste any better and it wasn't too cold; breakfast took only 10 minutes, since we wanted to keep the momentum.
From Jeffreys mine the remainder of the way to the summit is cross-country. From the breakfast spot a very steep and loose gully led - to my surprise - to a use trail that we soon abandoned in order to gain the west ridge. Nic mentioned the route we selected was by far the best he had done so far and we were pretty enthusiastic to hear that. Once we left the use trail we had an amazing view of the Sierras with the first sunlight which must be one of the best I've ever had in the years I've been bumming around that area.
Vegetation wasn't too bad, but it was slow going. We could see the notch we were aiming for and we knew staying on the actual ridge was too slow, so we were always traveling 100 feet or so below it. I started to get a bit worried when I noticed how slow the progress was; Nic nick-named the huge hill we were about to climb "Hell hill" and I soon discovered why... Obstacles included rock pinnacles and tons of manzanita, but we somehow managed to keep it manageable. Snow conditions were almost summer-like and we mentioned multiple times that maybe this is not a real winter ascent... Later we all agreed that the monster talus and scree slopes we went through would have been much easier if covered in snow, so our outing did count as a real epic.
When at the notch with "hell hill" we briefly stopped for a snack and my camera died (I later discovered that both batteries were low, so there was nothing wrong with the camera itself). I forgot my sunglasses, which certainly didn't help. For a little while I borrowed Nic's ski goggles and that helped to contain the headache I was starting to build up. The top of Hell Hill is a little shorter of 12 thousand feet and we still had quite a way to go on the rugged ridge. Right at around 12,500 feet I really started to feel the elevation and the temperature dropped quite a bit; I was rest-stepping and I was afraid the 2 team-mates would be much faster than I was, but they were also struggling.
Nic warned us of a "small class 3 section" and we were wondering how hard it would be in the current conditions. The section right before the class 3 looked a lot harder than it actually was, but we were moving so slow it wasn't even fun. We looked for options to bypass the intermediate bump on the ridge, but found no way around it and ended up climbing it to its top. I recall saying "the worst must have gone" and I really didn't know what I was talking about. The GPS showed the peak to be 0.5 miles away with about 1200 feet of elevation gain. In the conditions we were, nothing was trivial. I was aware we could no longer see the summit of White Mountain Peak (easily denoted by a large cabin) and what we had in front of us was a false summit.
Nic was in front of me by 100 feet or so and Ephrat was a bit behind. I climbed the false summit, expecting another slope up to the actual peak. Unfortunately what we found was a huge drop and the way up the real summit looked quite intimidating, although we knew it could not be more than third class. Nic downclimbed something I would not even attempt in good physical conditions; once he was down I inquired how the downclimb was and he said "it's a stout 3rd class, just downclimb the crack". I was very skeptical and decided to find a better alternative; later he admitted to have summit-fever and that there were at least a couple of hard fourth class/low fifth class moves.
Dropping down 80 feet to the north side was no joke and in that moment I rejoined with a rather beat up Ephrat. She was convinced the false summit was our objective and almost busted into tears when I said that was not the case. We looked for a way around it and a very icy stretch (maybe 50 feet) interruped us (we would have needed crampons for sure). We decided to give another try to the false summit and see if there was another easier downclimb, so we regain the 80 feet with my extreme joy. No go. Nic meanwhile looked smaller as he was approaching the real peak. We didn't panic and decided to go to the icy stretch and put crampons on, but while heading there I found a narrow passage a bit higher that was ice-free. After 5 minutes and a coupld of bold moves (but easy) we were at the beginning of the final slope.
It looked a lot more difficult that it actually was and, although we were all suffering of headaches, we all made it to the summit by 2.25 pm, more than 10 hours after we started. We had lunch on top and for a moment I forgot how miserable I was feeling; we even spent some time reading the summit register, but it was so messy that we gave up. We knew for a fact that the views of the Sierras were going to be awesome from there, yet my heart started pounding from the view (or maybe I was about to have a heart attack, who knows...).
It was 3 pm when we started the never-ending downclimb. I was hoping losing elevation would help with the severe headache, but we were moving only slightly faster than on the way up. To aggravate the situation, all of us had some sort of accident on the way down. I think I got the worst one, with a big boulder crashing my shin; the pain was so intense that I could not move for 30 seconds or so and Ephrat got worried about it, but I was able to resume the struggle quite soon.
While heading to the third class section Nic said "I think there are people coming up". I thought it would be impossible, but fair enough, there were 2 people! We briefly talked to them and they seemed clueless; it was pretty late to head to the summit and temperatures were definitely sub-freezing. I assumed they'd know the area pretty well, but they said they had never been up there before; I hope they made it back safely. They were parked at 9,000 feet at the end of a 4wd road, so I'm pretty sure they had much less of a problem to go down.
Descending "hell hill" was easy, since it was all scree. The main goal was to reach that notch in daylight and we achieved it, but from there we had to use headlights. The first person to run out of water was Ephrat on the way up to the peak. We all had 1 gallon and that proved not to be remotely enough. Dehydration, exhaustion, headache, altitude sickness and darkness made the way back to Jeffreys mine an absolute nightmare. We completely relied on the GPS track that was recorded on the way up and I and Ephrat took turns in leading the way down. With sunlight, we would have been a great deal faster. Nic was quiet and supportive; Ephrat had a psycological breakdown when the GPS routed us to the wrong direction and I was trying to explain that it was no use to complain at that moment. My last liter of water supplied the three of us and was carefully shared over the last few hours.
We all distinctively remembered the initial gully and when we got there we descended it one at a time, since rock falls were inevitable. I was the first one to reach our breakfast place at about 11pm. Ephrat was the last of the three to reach the concrete platform where I was laying and prompted us to start walking rather than wasting time in that cold spot. The trail was easy to follow and we got back at Black Eagle camp shortly after midnight.
Back at Camp
We were so physically debilitated that we agreed to skip dinner and go straight to bed, compensating the following morning with an abundant breakfast. Stupidly, I drunk almost no water that night and the following morning I paid the bad decision with a massive headache. Once inside the sleeping bag Ephrat pointed out that the dessert that night would have been a carrot cake with white frosting; it didn't take long before we decided to have at it and we both had a pretty sizeable chunk. For the record it wasn't nearly as good as it looked and it made both of us feel even more guilty for not brushing our teeth that night.
Generally when I'm so tired I cannot fall asleep easily, but that Saturday night it definitely wasn't a problem. The following morning Ephrat woke me up asking whether I wanted some oatmeals; by the time I was able to stand on my feet she had already taken a tour of black eagle camp. We spent some time around taking pictures and contemplating the eastern Sierras from a viewing platform. The camp also features a "museum" with a great number odd exhibits; we even discovered of a "White Mountain brandy"...
We managed to talk to the occupant of the front cabin, who leisurely drove his 4wd just few hundred yards from the camp. I envied it at the moment, but I knew the success would feel so much less rewarding if we had reached camp in a motorized vehicle. Walking to the car was somewhat liberating and seeing the maze of canyons behind us gave me a feeling of accomplishment that's hard to forget. I was happy to share such a beautiful adventure with Nic and my beloved Ephrat, and our minds were already spinning by the time we reached the car. We eyed Boundary Peak, Montgomery, Indian and many other on the White Mountain range as next possible objectives in that area.
Now Nic will have to find a new challenge; I hope conquering the west ridge of White Mountain - which haunted him for years - didn't leave a blank in his heart; if so, I'll definitely work with him for some new goals...