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300-lb Giant Climbs Mt Whitney


Submitted by southswell on 2008-11-21 | Last Modified on 2008-12-08

Rating: 12345   Go Login to rate this article.   Votes: 17 | Comments: 22 | Views: 6536

by Brady Sorenson


At the time “The Ass” and I decided to climb Mt. Whitney, we had very little trad experience. (Not MY ass – THE Ass – my climbing partner.) Both of us had recently started climbing again after five years of very little effort. Although most of our experience was top roping and bouldering, The Ass had a rack worthy of the meatiest gear routes, so there were no worries there.

We had tried a couple of trad routes in the past, but for some reason it never really stuck. That spring, however, we were hitting it hard and hell-bent on learning the art of traditional rock climbing, especially after a trip up to the Portal. So, we decided on a moderate training schedule. My plan was to climb or hike after work once a week and spend one weekend a month climbing, hiking or backpacking.

Of course it never really works out like that.

We set our target date to August 2008. Our “training” over the next 15 months consisted of 30 pitches of trad climbing (Joshua Tree, Tahquitz, Keller Peak, Riverside Quarry, Stoney Point, Echo, Malibu Creek) averaging 5.6 in difficulty (not a whole lot, but considering what I had done up until that point it is a substantial amount of climbing), many hours of bouldering in Corona Del Mar and over 200 miles of hiking/backpacking with over 26,000’ of vertical gain.

I would have liked to lose some weight before Whitney. When we started climbing again (early in ’07) I was 275lbs. By that May, when we first went up to the Sierras I was down to 255. Even with all of the additional physical activity (I’m sure I traded some fat for muscle), I have hovered within 5lbs of that weight to this day.

You see, I have a problem with food. I eat too much of it. My weight problem WAS part of the training goal for our Mt Whitney trip. But weight loss was not nearly as fun and easy to commit to as the other parts of our training regimen. Rock climbing, hiking, backpacking and summit bagging are some of my favorite things to do. Unfortunately, eating less than I want happens to be one of my least favorite things to do. It seems I have little willpower and a taste for instant gratification… and cream). Just writing the word, “cream,” held me up there for a few minutes. The Ass (much stronger and more fit) had no such concerns.

In the months leading up to the climb, when I was not climbing or hiking, playing with the boys, out to dinner/dancing with the wife or working, I was lost somewhere between REI, steapandcheap.com, a sea of pictures and trip reports on Rockclimbing.com or Summitpost, chatting with the regulars at the Portal Store forum or reading my 14th book on the Sierras. That rock had, and still has quite the hold on me. I still check the message boards every day, living vicariously (although momentarily) in the Sierras through the amazing trip reports of a few very lucky people (namely Moosetracks and DUG67). My wife thinks I’m crazy.

Four weeks before Whitney we climbed Mt Langley (14,026’) via the East-Southeast Ridge. “Piece of cake!” I wrote in the register. I could definitely feel the altitude, however. You never realize just how thick air is at sea level until you’re at altitude. No headaches or nausea though… which was good.

At times (leading up to Whitney) I would feel confident, and sure of success. Other times I would be thinking about the kids, asking myself if I was making the right decision. It’s hard to answer that question. All I knew is that I wanted to be a climber and I wanted to climb this mountain. I would rationalize the dangers. Other times I would doubt my abilities. On a technical route such as the East Face of Mt Whitney, there are committing parts of the climb where you can’t sit down, stand up, let go, or otherwise stop to rest until you're past that particular difficulty. Would I be able to get my fat ass up those parts?

My wife was another worry. She was fully supportive of me, but still concerned about what would happen to her and the kids if something were to happen to me. I would always say something like, “Its more dangerous for me to drive to work in the morning than to climb that mountain.” (I still believe that to be true. Anyone living and working in the OC or LA area would probably agree.) I wanted to get her on board: on the rock, tied to a rope so she could get a sense of why we do what we do. That never did happen, though. Still hasn’t. Either way, I was stubborn and she was forgiving.

Two weeks before our ascent we made one last trip to Tahquitz. We wanted to focus on our gear placements as we had not trad climbed since a trip to Joshua Tree 2-½ months earlier. We did not want to push our luck so close to Whitney, so we changed our original plan to climb Left Ski Track (5.6) and climbed the familiar Trough again, this time breaking it into six short pitches to exploit the many different belay opportunities.

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THE APPROACH

8/13: The Ass arrived at about 10am. I kissed my beautiful wife's visibly worried face goodbye and we began the drive up to Lone Pine. As we drove, pangs of guilt evaporated and our minds raced with possibilities of success and the consequences of failure, so we numbed them as best we could with one of Mother Nature’s great creations. After a long wait at the Visitors Center we headed up to the Portal for burgers, and then set up camp just a few yards from the trail head. We spent the evening trying to squeeze unnecessary ounces from our packs and retired to our tents at about 8:30. I have not yet cracked the code of high altitude sleep, so the night was not very restful.

8/14: Got up at about 5am feeling like I could go right back to sleep. I had Granola with Blueberries for breakfast, shouldered my 59-lb pack onto my 250-lb arse, and The Ass and I started up the North Fork. My god that is a steep trail! Route finding was much easier than I had imagined, as were the EB's. What a beautiful hike. Wildflowers were in full effect. Shortly before the Ebersbacher Ledges we were passed by a threesome of day hikers who were headed up the MR. I was envious of their puny little daypacks. Our original plan was to camp at Iceberg Lake, but much rationalization and an ongoing argument between my legs and backpack led to (what I believe is) a much better place to camp: Upper Boy Scout. We set up camp by 11am and had the rest of the day to play around the lake and contemplate Friday’s activities. After much chilling and a hike around the lake we settled in for dinner. I had Ramen noodles with string cheese, tuna and Wheat Thins (pretty good actually, especially for 90 cents). Over dinner we agreed on a 4am start time. At 9pm we were off to bed for another night of, unfortunately, very little sleep.

8/15: I woke up at 5:15 – an hour and 15 minutes after my alarm had gone off and apparently given up on me. I woke The Ass and we started up to Iceberg around 5:45. For the first hour or so I felt absolutely horrible. I am not used to eating early, two days with little sleep and 40-degree slopes at 12000'. Add to that an already nervous belly. After a while, though, my belly and my brain stabilized and I began to feel much better. With a slow pace we arrived at Iceberg Lake at 8am, refilled our bladders and I stashed my pack and the water filter. By 9am we were roping up at the notch behind the first tower and coming to grips with what we had committed ourselves to. There were no other climbers to be seen.

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THE CLIMB

The first pitch went to The Ass. The unassumingly named tower traverse starts out by stepping down off of a block onto a narrow downward-sloping ledge. The move itself is fairly straight forward. Below the ledge, however, and only a few horizontal feet away lies the moraine at the base of the east face proper... 800 vertical feet below. This is one of the defining features of the climb: immediately going from easy 3rd class with very little exposure, to rounded friction hand and foot holds tickling the void. Usually you have to gain the exposure as you climb up. That’s just not the case here. The very first 5th-class move is over what might as well be infinity.

I followed the leader and found myself looking up at the Washboard. I have read several times that the Washboard is 3rd class. But while the climbing is easy, I think an unroped fall here would be hard to arrest and likely result in catastrophe. It should be considered 4th class. We traded leads for three pitches to reach the top of the ridge left of the Washboard. From here we scrambled down to the large gravely ledges that lay before what's known as the Fresh Air Traverse. We sat here to eat lunch and enjoy the views that were becoming increasingly grand. By this time the apprehension that had been building for 15 months was mostly gone. The climbing is fun, easy and very protectable. I took the next lead. It was definitely the most exposure I have ever faced on the sharp end, but the climbing was so easy; the exposure did not bother me. You start by climbing a ladder of small blocks up to a ledge guarded by another large block that must be climbed over or traversed in front of (pushing you closer to the void). I took the latter route. Then you step across a section about six feet wide, while looking between your legs at house sized boulders that look like grains of sand in the moraine below. After the big step across is a series of ledges that offer fun climbing, but not much in the way of protection. The piton either just before or right after the big step was my last piece of pro, before I made it to the relative safety of the chimney below the Grand Staircase. A big WOOHOOOO and YEEAAAOOUUU signified the end of the pitch. I was STOKED!

As I sat at that belay, I began to feel cold. After waiting for what seemed like hours for The Ass to catch up and then climb the chimney pitch, I began to shiver and curse the man for being so damned slow. Finally, he set a belay and my mood changed quickly as I climbed up behind him; we had reached the Grand Staircase. This section we climbed unroped. At the top of the staircase is a tricky offwidth in a dihedral about 15’ high. The Ass took the first crack at it (no pun intended). He was able to set one micro cam in a thin crack on the left before sitting on it. I lowered him down and he gave me the sharp end. I was able to grunt my way up with a foul lip to the Ass' lagging belay (I apologize to anyone within earshot of that outburst). I pulled my fat ass over the lip and collapsed on my side for two or three minutes, unable to do anything but breathe.

One more unexpected roped pitch above the Staircase and we were scrambling to the summit at around 5pm. The summit was ours apart from a single hiker who came up the MWT. Rain and lightning (which appeared to be coming in quickly) and the falling sun kept us from spending too much time on top. With tears welling, I signed in at the register, snapped a few pictures, called mom and the wife, and we headed over to the MR for our descent. Route finding was pretty easy but did take some attention. We reached Iceberg Lake @ 7:30, refilled our bladders again, and headed back down to UBS, arriving by head lamp at about 9:30pm. I had neglected my appetite on the way down in the interest of time and again felt pretty horrible by the time we reached camp. I suffered from some sort of lung ailment through the night, and spent a lot of hacking away in my tent. Pulmonary edema? No matter. It was gone by morning.

Although Russell's East Ridge was next on the agenda; fatigue and anticipated soreness prompted us to descend on Saturday (the 77th anniversary of the FA of the East Face route by Norman Clyde, Jules Eichorn, Glen Dawson and Robert Underhill). Leaving UBS after lunch, we headed down the North Fork Trail stopping often to drink, take pictures and marvel at the fact that we had hauled our uber packs up this ridiculously steep trail. Going up was hard, going down just hurt.

We arrived at the Portal at 3pm, dropped off our Wags and went to CJ's for Double Western Bacon Cheeseburgers and Oreo Shakes. We spent our last night bivvied next to Lake Isabella, relishing our victory over the highest point in the lower 48 and floating on a high that would last for weeks.

It’s funny, before Whitney I was just a dad, just a husband, just some dude. I love to surf, but never called myself a surfer. I had rock climbed before but certainly wouldn’t have called myself a rock climber. My family was what defined me. After Whitney and everything that led up to it, I am that same person, but now I call myself a climber. I am defined by my family AND my climbing now. Even though I am not out there pulling 5.14 gnar (or 5.11 gnar for that matter) or pushing any limits but my own, I am a climber… albeit atypically sized.


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22 Comments CommentAdd a Comment

 crackmd
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 2008-11-24
Southswell

That is a well-written and inspiring TR. A real pleasure to read.

No matter who you are and how hard you climb, topping out on Whitney is a great accomplishment. Great job!

I'm currently sidelined from climbing because of an injury and have been struggling to maintain motivation. Experiences like yours on Whitney remind me of why I climb.
 knieveltech
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 2008-11-24
5 out of 5 stars Damn man, way to lay it down. I could see the whole thing. Huge props.
 southswell
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 2008-11-24
5 out of 5 stars crackmd: thank you. I hope you get over your injury soon.

you can see the rest of the pics here:

http://community.webshots.com/album/565533963MlXKwH?vhost=community


 sed
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 2008-11-24
good work sticking to your goal!
 mrswix
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 2008-11-24
that was...awesome. congrats.
 alpenweg
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 2008-11-25
nice!
 sampilee
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 2008-11-25
great article and pics! I am so impressed!

Love, MOM
 dondada
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 2008-11-25
dope TR......im a fat kid at heart so i love hearing this..........GO FOOD....im a big fan!!
 granitewidow
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 2008-11-25
5 out of 5 stars I'm one lucky girl. Awesome job babe....The boys and I are sooo very proud of you and always will be. YOU ROCK!! (heh heh, no 'pun intended') Luv U!
 the_leech
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 2008-11-25
This TR was a refreshing change from the usual tales of 100 pound 19-year-olds climbing 5.15e in Tanzania. Congrats on your accomplishment and thanks for posting. 200+ pound climbers of the world unite!
 lextalion
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 2008-11-25
5 out of 5 stars Congrads on your achievement. I have been eyeing the East Side buttress there but having gone through a divorce this year and all the changes that go with it. I didn't get this route knocked off my tick list.

It is also of comfort that I too can conquer this as I'm 6'2" and tip the scales right now @ 240. All be it I am losing weight as we speak. Hope to be backa a fighting weight of 220 by the time this next spring when I begin to hit the crags hard again.
 snowey
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 2008-11-25
Nice job getting it done! You should make a list of what you learned so that you can improve your system on the next trip (my guess is that it would have do with your 59lb pack). You could share that list here!
 southswell
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 2008-11-25
5 out of 5 stars
Wow, thank you all for your kind words.
Lex: 220 sounds like a good number for me as well. I know what my new years resolution is.
Snowey: I am no expert backpacker by any means. That being said...
Things I should have left behind or upgraded (whatever happened to that stimulus check anyway?):
-2 magazines I did not read. Maybe next time Ill bring a book on the I pod.
-2 man tent. @ 5+ lbs the 2 man is fine for me and the wife, but I refuse to be gassed out by my climbing partner (He isn't called The Ass for nuthin). I am in the market for a Nemo Gogo: a tent style bivy weighing in @ 1lb, 14oz for my future 2 man excursions.
-1/2 of the clothes I brought: 2 pairs of pants 4 pairs of regular underwear, 3 long undies, 2 long sleeve shirts, 4 pairs of hiking socks, fleece, jacket, rain gear, and probably more stuff.
-my rope. I need to get a lighter rope for that kind of stuff. My 10.2, 60m PMI weighs in at approximately 10lbs. I could shave at least 2 lbs off of that.
-my harness. I have a 10 year old Misty Mountain Cadillac. It was the only one they had that would fit me at REI...did I mention that was 10 years ago. I need a new harness. An Alpine BOD (11oz) maybe?
-my camera. another old, heavy relic (and only 4mp to boot).
-last but certainly not least: my gut. I could save 35, 40lbs there easy.

Thats all I could come up with off the top (or bottom)

 jer
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 2008-11-26
Thank you for this TR. Very inspiring. You should submit it to Rock & Ice for their "Outlook" section.
 snowey
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 2008-11-26
You should consider sharing a two person tent with your climbing partner. I have never brought more than one tent between me and a partner on an alpine climbing trip (we did bring individual 8oz bivy sacks on one particular winter climb).

Also, you should be prepared to stink on your climb. That means only one pair of pants, one pair of underwear, 2 pairs of socks, 1 long sleeve shirt, one fleece, one poofy jacket, and perhaps an ultralight rain shell. Basically all your clothes should be on you other than maybe an extra long sleeve shirt and a poofy jacket + shell.

Whats your next climbing objective?
 southswell
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 2008-11-26
5 out of 5 stars My next objective: I want to lead 5.10 Trad confidently. Right now I can barely (and not always) follow sport 5.10's. This would open up worlds of new climbing to me.

I really want to hit the Fishhook Arete next summer.
 no_email_entered
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 2008-11-26
i was rooting for you thru the whole story until the end. YOU WENT TO CARLS JR INSTEAD OF HAVING A PORTAL BURGER???!!! dam son, thats like running for 99 yards and then fumbling. oh well you still need to do the east buttress [more fun anyway] then you can have Doug Jr. fix u a REAL f'ing cheeseburgeee---- or set your sites higher and do a double [EF + EB] which is even more fun but u will need to solo a good chunk of the EF to get back down before dark. Great work tho. cheers.
 southswell
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 2008-11-26
5 out of 5 stars I am so ashamed...We did have the portal burgers on Wednesday night before we went up. And believe me; we had several discussions on the topic on the way down...
 glahhg
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 2008-11-27
Nice job southswell! You're totally on the right track. Shave that weight off your pack, get rid of that gut (stop loving food that it loves), learn to pull down hard so you can get out there and crank some big stuff!

I think fishhook arete next summer is a rad objective.

One thing: I think you should have done Left Ski Track instead of the Trough, precisely because of the extra uncertainty. A friend's motto: "always choose the more adventurous of the two options"
 fenix83
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 2008-11-27
5 out of 5 stars I especially loved your last paragraph, well done!
 ghevans90
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 2009-10-24
5 out of 5 stars An inspiration to 200+ lb climbers everywhere! Congrats!
 DM85
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 2010-01-13
Well done man :)

I was a bit apprehensious to start climbing as I'm 266lbs but this story really hit home and made me realise that the only thing that is stopping me is my own self doubt and not my physical ability.

Cheers for the inspiration I think I'm gonna visit my local climbing centre tomorrow.

Thanks, DM

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