Climbing the most direct, aesthetic route up our highest peak
Story and photos by Brennan Lagasse
Mt. Whitney is the highest peak in the United States outside of Alaska. Clearly visible from the sage-surrounded frontier town of Lone Pine, thousands of hikers, climbers, skiers, and mountaineers attempt Whitney’s summit each year (14,505’).
One of the most celebrated aspects of Mt. Whitney, beyond its stature as the highest point in the lower 48, is that there are no fewer than three distinct ways to reach Whitney’s broad summit plateau.
Despite the incredible snow year we had in the Sierra, now that we’re into late summer, it’s prime time for hiking the Mt. Whitney trail (easiest choice), scrambling up the Mountaineers Route, or climbing one of the many excellent rock-climbing routes to the top.
Somewhat overlooked due to the more famous neighboring route known as the East Face, the East Buttress (Class III, 5.8, aka, the PeeWee Route) is a high quality backcountry climb that can hold its own in a sea of moderate multi-pitch classics that line the Highway 395 corridor.
Why? The East Buttress takes the most direct route to the top of Whitney, is somewhat sustained, and is much more aesthetic than the neighboring East Face.
It should also be noted that the route has been called a 5.6, 5.7, and 5.8 depending on whom you ask. For the purposes of this article, in the author’s opinion, the climb feels like a 5.7, but we’ll go with Moynier and Fiddler’s rating of 5.8 (from “Climbing California’s High Sierra” by John Moynier and Claude Fiddler) just in case.
In the scheme of things the crux moves are located near the bottom of the dihedral on pitch two. From there, while sustained, the climbing is much easier, very fluid, and again, in the author’s opinion, deserving of the grade 5.7
Coming in at eight pitches, the East Buttress isn’t the longest classic trad climb out there. However, based on its locale, coupled with the unique feeling one gets when they top out on the highest shard of land in the continental U.S, climbing the East Buttress is a must-do for any alpine climber skilled enough to make this adventure happen.
While the climb is often done in one big day starting at the Whitney Portal Trailhead, many climbers choose to break up the trip into a two or even three-day affair. The one caveat with this choice is the added effort it takes to lug a heavy pack up into the zone to camp, as well as the need to score a lottery-style permit. If you make a one-day push you can avoid the permit hassle — you’ll just be pretty wiped out come sunset.
As far as gear goes, a standard alpine rack will do. Cams up to 3 inches with one set of medium nuts and long runners are perfect. You can get’er done with a 50m rope, but a 60m rope will let you skip a pitch if you’re feeling it. A helmet is surely recommended. Even though there isn’t much loose rock on the route, the Mountaineer’s Route is super loose (and it’s your down-climb), and there is some loose rock on the East Buttress, so it’s definitely advisable to wear one.
To access the East Buttress take the normal Mountaineer’s Route from the Whitney Portal Trailhead to Iceberg Lake. Reading up on the approach in a local guidebook is recommended, as there are some twists and turns to the approach, but most savvy climbers won’t have a problem making it to the base of the route. I recommend Supertopo’s book, High Sierra Climbing (Note: Supertopo also calls this route 5.7).
Once you’re at Iceberg Lake (12,400’), you have about 1,000 more feet to gain through talus, covering some third-class terrain, before getting ready to climb. Aim for the right side of the buttress above Iceberg Lake. Locate a notch behind the tower, throw your pack down, rack up, and get climbing!
If you’re spot on, the Mountaineer’s Route should be off to your right, and the climbing will be brilliant right away. Eight pitches is all it takes to get to the top. Suddenly, you’ll be pulling up over the lip of Whitney, probably startling some hikers catching their breaths after the long hike up the Whitney Trail. They’ll likely be astounded that some “crazies” (aka, you) chose a more difficult way to the top.
Want a guide?
The Sierra Mountain Center out of Bishop guides the East Buttress route of Whitney. They use a client- to-guide ratio of two to one.
Since the first night’s camp near Iceberg Lake is at more than 12,000 feet, they highly recommend clients spend at least one night at moderate altitude (more than 8,000 feet) just prior to the trip. According to SMC, “80 percent of our unsuccessful attempts on these routes fail due to problems with altitude. (And the balance due to weather.)”
For more information, contact SMC at 760-873-8526 or visit www.sierramountaincenter.com.