The highlights of my summer were definitely the North Lake to South Lake trip I did with Manny and Middle Palisade. I had plans for a lot more adventure, including Mount Carillon, but fires raged all summer throughout the Sierras. It was nearly impossible to go anywhere after July. Manny and I managed to summit Clouds Rest late in the summer, but to our disappointment, thick smoke plagued us. The smoke was so heavy we could barely see Half Dome from the summit (see below). That trip left me wheezing for three days.
When November arrived with no snow in the Sierras, I knew I had one last chance to get out before Winter made it impossible. I was hoping to climb Mount Russell, but after trying everyone on my potential partner list, I came up empty. I decided on a solo day hike to Mount Carillon as a tamer objective, but still on the Sierra Peak Section. At 13,553′, Mount Carillon is the smaller neighbor of two Sierra giants: Mount Whitney and Mount Russell.
I drove to Lone Pine early Saturday evening, gorged myself on a high-carb meal of chicken and pasta at a local diner, then checked into the Mount Whitney Motel. I got a great night’s sleep which is rare in mountain sports. By 5:00 am Sunday morning, I was heading up the trail from Whitney Portal. It was a clear, moonless night, and I could see the cloud of the Milky Way above. I’d been away from the mountains for so long that this moment felt like a homecoming. It was 35 degrees, but it didn’t feel too cold, even though my body is still used to 80-degree days.
I reached the Ebersbacher Ledges just after first light. The ledges are a set of narrow exposed granite shelves that are part of a large granite wall. They require some light scrambling. The exposure seemed pretty tame, but I might have had difficulties finding the route back down in the dark if I took too long to get off-trail. I made a mental note to make sure I got past the ledges before nightfall on my descent.
After passing the ledges, I headed up the steep canyon and admired the alpine glow on the distant peaks ahead of me. I could see Thor Peak, but none of the other peaks I was headed toward were visible yet.
The Easiest Way to Get Killed Today is…
No one ever thinks they might die when they walk onto a basketball court. Mountain sports are different. Given the steady stream of obituaries I see in all the hiking and mountaineering groups I follow on Facebook, I take the possibility of my death seriously – even on the “easy” trips. On this trip, I thought my biggest threat was getting stuck out there after nightfall, so I carried a heavier-than-usual sleep system, given the cold nights. I brought crampons and an ice ax, but I still failed to fully comprehend my biggest safety threat… ICE.
I didn’t plan for the blanket of blue ice that covered all the slabs leading up the Lone Pine Creek drainage. I had no choice but to cross back and forth over it for a quarter-mile. I avoided some of it by bushwhacking, but this was exhausting and time-consuming. I knew I couldn’t afford to burn all my time and energy slogging through thick brush. If I did, I’d get back to the Ebersbacher Ledges after dark and wouldn’t be able to find my way down.
In that moment, I decided to cross a large ice flow. In hindsight, it wasn’t the best idea. I soon found myself on a vast smooth granite slab coated with two inches of crystal clear ice. Forward progress was perilous, and going back seemed equally perilous. A slip wouldn’t kill me (at least not immediately), but I’d reach at least 40 mph before I hit the rocks at the bottom.
I ended up pulling out my ax and chopping footholds into the ice one at a time. “Just relax, dude”, I told myself out loud. It took 15 minutes to cross 40 feet, but I made it. I breathed a sigh of relief, and I told myself out loud, “Note to self: Let’s opt for bushwhacking instead of ice on the descent.”
Embracing the Suck on the West Slope of Mount Carillon
Just past the icy slabs was the west slope of Carillon. It’s a steep, sandy slope that leads to a large plateau where Mount Carillon, Mount Russell, and Mount Whitney are all connected by a series of saddles. It’s a beautiful place, but getting there is painful. It took me a little over an hour to slog my way up the 1,000 feet of steep elevation gain. It seemed like every rock I stepped on moved when I put weight on it. This is the definition of what CrossFitters call “Embracing the Suck”.
I complained about it out loud to no one, but I kept moving. For me, stopping is death. If I stop, I’m not going to want to get started again. I’ll start feeling sorry for myself and a bad mental snowball will ensue. No matter how slow I go, I have to keep moving.
The Prize I Got for Embracing the Suck
When I scrambled onto the plateau, Whitney and Russell came into view. Wow! The euphoria of this incredible sight swept over me like spring rain. Photos simply don’t show the scale of how big and terrifying these mountains are up close. I dropped my pack to eat some gels and have some hot tea. I just sat and stared at this amazing spectacle for 15 minutes.
Before I left the motel this morning, I read a passage out of the Book of Joshua where Joshua encounters “The Commander of the Lord’s Army.” When Joshua asks, “What message does my Lord have for his servant?” the commander replies, “Take off your sandals, for the place where you are standing is holy.” With this passage fresh in my mind, I felt compelled to do this myself. It was quite cold, but I was undeterred. Taking off my boots and standing in awe of this place and its Creator seemed like the only reasonable response.
Ansel Adams once said, “No matter how sophisticated you may be, a large granite mountain cannot be denied – it speaks in silence to the very core of your being.” At the core of my being, I felt the overwhelming beauty and grandeur of this place viscerally. I sensed God’s presence here with me and the sensation of being fully known and fully loved but the Creator of this indescribable place.
Climbing a False Summit, then Down-climbing and Getting it Right
I knew I couldn’t stay on this plateau for long. As mountaineers often say, “Speed is safety.” I knew I had to get to the summit, then back down the Ebersbacher Ledges before nightfall, so I started up toward a large pinnacle that made the summit block. The loose scree transitioned to large granite blocks that made for fun scrambling. As I pulled myself up the last block, my heart sank… I was on the wrong summit! Mount Carillon has two summits and you can’t get from one to the other directly. I had to downclimb 300 feet, traverse a boulder field, then scramble back up to the real summit. It took me another 30 minutes, but I finally made it.
Besides the looming masses of Whitney and Russell, Tulainyo Lake was spectacular. It’s the highest alpine lake in the US and it was completely frozen. I took some video, then headed down. It was only 12:30 pm, but the sun was already low on the horizon. I had to cross that miserable ice again and those ledges. There was no time to waste.
The scree slope where I “embraced the suck” earlier only took 15 minutes to descend. I surfed the scree all the way to the bottom. When I got to the icy creek, I bushwacked my way through it. It was awful. I almost chose to cross the ice again, but I eventually prevailed through the bushes.
Reflections on the Freedom of the Wilderness
I made great time. I got off the trail at 3:30 pm, a full 90-minutes before nightfall. I’ve been disciplined about keeping my cardiovascular base strong over the summer, despite not being able to get to the Sierras much. It paid off. I gained 5,000’+ in 4.5 miles to the summit, made it back to the trailhead, and still had gas in the tank afterward. It felt good.
I reflected on that moment on Mount Carillon Col where I took off my shoes, acknowledging that holy place and the God who made it. I couldn’t help but think of this poem by Wendell Berry…
I can never underestimate the necessity of getting back to the wilderness. It’s a crazy, ugly world out there. If I allow myself to dwell on the evil of mankind for too long, I’ll lose perspective. Social media alone can easily turn me into a hopeless, angry person – waving my banner and cursing my enemies. Wildnerness reminds me of the bigger narrative I find myself in. There is an all-powerful, loving Creator that knows me by name. He sacrificed his own Son to give me a future and a hope. Love wins. Evil is not the end of the story, only the middle. The beauty and grandeur of this place reminds me of all these things. I have to leave for a while, but I’ll be back soon.