The Crux of the Crossing
After another pretty much sleepless night, we awoke at 3:30 a.m. to start the day. I asked Bob how he felt and he replied that he was anxious and ready to go. If we got too far up the mountain and one of us felt that we needed to turn back, we would all have to come down to stay safe. Once again the climb was steep and being on snowshoes was starting to wear on me. I much prefer to be on crampons, even if it meant breaking though the crust of the snow and having to do a bit of post holing. We continued to a point less than 1000 vertical feet below Iceberg Lake and the terrain flattened out for a short distance, Bob said that he had enough and wanted to turn back. As upper Boy Scout Lake was just over the ledge we had just come up and would be in sight, we felt it safe for Bob to head down, which would take about an hour and text us that he was down safely when he arrived. Amazingly, we had reasonably good phone and text service for much of the time we were on the mountain as the view down the mountain kept Lone Pine in sight.
I couldn’t help but think about how great it would have been to have Mace up on that mountain as he would have been in his element, on snow shoes headed up a steep incline on snowshoes, his forte. Mark at one time had held the record for the Alaskan 100 mile Iditashoe snowshoe race. He would have liked the cold crisp air and the crunching of snow beneath his feet. He would truly be in his element. I missed him terribly.
So upwards we went and as we approached the mountaineers gully we could look over and see Iceberg Lake, completely frozen over. This lake could be seen in previous years as I climbed Mt. Whitney and peered at it though what they call the pinnacles. Even in the summer it was rimmed with snow and ice and had a strikingly beautiful turquoise shade to the water.
Looking up, I could see the route that leads to the notch, what we would be aiming for and will signify reaching the top of the chute and the most difficult part of the climb would be over (barring coming down that is). We swapped out our snowshoes and clipped on our crampons and roped up tethering ourselves together hoping to stop one or the other from falling if footing or our ice axes gave way. Strangely, I felt more secure and as we made our way over and started up the chute it seemed doable. And it got steeper and we would zigzag our way up past a huge rock outcropping that lay near the middle of the chute. That’s something a person would want to avoid if he started to tumble. And it kept getting steeper as we would lean into the hill and drive our crampons and Ice Axes in deeply to the snow. I did as I had learned, always keeping two points of contact on the hill, either both feet or the ice axe and a foot would keep me safe, in theory.
Step and breath, plunge foot forward and plant ice axe. Two to four steps and rest as the effort was intense. I loved the rhythm timed with breathing, it connected me with the mountain as we kept on climbing. Iceberg lake seemed to be dropping beneath us and the notch keep getting closer and closer. The wind kicked up in our faces, I’d estimate 40 mph. It was annoying, but nothing I couldn’t deal with. We just had to be more careful. Time dissolves and focus brings me clarity. After about 3.5 hours of climbing I was wearing down, having to stop more frequently to catch my breath. I could see the notch a couple of hundred feet above me, but it was drawing near me so very slowly. Finally after another 30 minutes we made it to the notch and as I said at the start of the story, it brought me to my knees. Trevor looked at me and could see how exhausted I felt and I knelt, bent over as if I was broken. I looked up toward the top of Whitney, I knew it was there another 400 feet up. Trevor asked if I was okay and I told him I needed to “take a breather”. I was SO close.
Okay, this is really a bitch, I thought to myself. Trevor said something to the effect, you know you have been up to the top many times before, and we have to think about getting down. He was right, but I knew if I made it up, I would get down. I thought to myself, I’m at about 140 miles and I should be wasted, but I kept that thought to myself. You see, to utter something negative only serves to stand in the way of success. I told Trevor, trust me, I’m going to slam down a GU and I’ll be fine all the while looking up at the mountain and down at the ground. Heather, Mace and Dr. Bob have seen me many, many times like this and I always come back, just like I had at Panamint. Dr. Bob had told Heather back then that “if it was anybody else besides Marshall”…
So we looked at the options for routes and we could either go up a class three climb or a class 2 climb that would hook around the mountain to where the regular route leads up to the top. I told Trevor that even though hooking around the mountain would take more time and we would have to toe in to cornices to skirt around the mountain, that would allow me to recover and so we did. 30 minutes later after dancing on snow and boulders we joined with the regular route. I knew we were going to summit now and so did Trevor. We clicked axes and stripped ourselves of backpacks, crampons and left the ice axes and rope behind as we hiked up to the summit hut. We had done it; Heather, Bob, Trevor, Mark and I. It always takes a team in life to succeed, no one can do it alone and if they did, it would be bittersweet as there would be no one to share the success with.
The top was surprisingly void of snow, and after snapping a few pictures in spite of a brisk wind, we decided to head down. We had made reasonably good time going up and I felt confident that we might be able to get down in the dusk. We retraced as best we could around to the top of the notch and it seemed like the wind had intensified and was gusting more. We were roped up and started our way down the mountain on the sometimes crusted, loose and unpacked snow being careful to set our ice axes and crampons firmly in the snow. As we zig-zagged our way down, the gusts became more pronounced and Trevor said he thought, after we were down, that some were upwards in the 60 mph range. It didn’t surprise me as there was a good half dozen times we would have to stop facing uphill leaning into the wind and hang onto our ice axes for 20 or 30 seconds until the gusts would subside. At one point as I was changing directions headed down hill, a gust knocked me off my feet and I was able to catch myself before sliding too far feeling the tug of the rope as Trevor was helping me to stabilize myself. There is nothing better than to feel that tug of rope as it is better than a security blanket.
And so down we went, carefully and deliberately until we reached the bottom and transitioned to our snowshoes taking only one break at the bottom of the mountaineer’s route. We made good time going down and passed the spot where Bob had turned around. 45 minutes and we were back at camp and the sun was just dropping behind Mt. Whitney and the Sierra Nevada range. It was about 4:00 p.m. Trevor mentioned that it would take 9 to 14 hours and we had made it in about 10 and one half. Bob was outside the tent and said that he had talked to 3 climbers that were just below us waiting to head up the next day. I breathed a sigh of relief and stumbled around camp for an hour or so, getting my bearings, savoring being down from the mountain and getting cold.
The next day we broke camp late, strapped on our snowshoes and headed down the slope to lower Boy Scout Lake. My snowshoe bindings where they mounted on the platform were tearing away, my cleats were worn and not grabbing the snow well and I was having trouble getting purchase on the snow. Bob was having problems with his snowshoes also and we switched over to crampons even though we were breaking through the snow in many places. Our progress was slow, but eventually just after noon we dropped onto the regular trail and ditched our crampons. The trail had little snow on it and Trevor said “this is where I relax now”. Being the consummate guide and having babysitted for three and a half days. He could now breathe easy.
The remaining five-mile hike down past the portals and onto the road was reasonably straight forward with the exception of Dr. Bob falling on the icy road and almost doing it again about a half mile from the bottom of the switchbacks. He was slipping and sliding and at times it reminded me of something akin to break dancing.
As we approached the lower gate, Ben and Denise Jones and Heather were there to greet us after 6 long days of crossing the desert, climbing and descending the mountain and successfully completing the first winter Badwater to Mt. Whitney, with a summer crossing just six months prior, making it also the very first “Fire and Ice” challenge. Needless to say, it was nice to have it over and I couldn’t help but think that Mace would be proud.
So, after having done the Badwater 146 in the summer numerous times and the winter crossing once, I’m sure the question will be asked, which is harder? A summer crossing involves 24 hours of extreme heat and a straight forward route up Mt. Whitney along with many people. A winter crossing on the other hand, crosses Death Valley in moderate to much cooler temperatures with even more traffic than in the summer to deal with, even cold temperatures as Towne Pass was below freezing as well as other spots leading into Lone Pine. And then running into ice and snow starting up the switchbacks and spending days on the mountain on ice and snow to get to the top of Mt. Whitney and back down. That last 18 to 20 miles was by far much harder than the first 131 miles across the desert. I think to answer that question a person would have to do both the full 146-mile Badwater in the summer and a shorter but steeper version during the winter to compare for themselves. All I can say is to some steal words of wisdom from Ken Chlouber, the iconic race director at Leadville: the hardest thing to do is the one that you are tackling at the moment. How true.