Full Moon and Wildfires

By Chuck Graham   |   November 2, 2021
Even in the middle of the night, it looks like daytime on Mount Whitney

Fed by a beaming full moon, the gritty granite walls were lit up like an ancient coliseum as we ascended the Mountaineering Route on Mount Whitney in the Eastern Sierra. 

Days earlier, I had my doubts on whether we would be allowed to ascend Mount Whitney. All the National Forests throughout California were off limits to recreation until September 17, with year-round wildfire weather wreaking havoc on the Golden State. I had a climbing permit to access the Mountaineers Route on the tallest peak in the Lower 48 at 14,505 feet. By September 16, the call had been made to reopen the Inyo National Forest, but other forests were to remain closed in Southern California for another week.

Nevertheless, as I cruised up Highway 395, smoke from three fires burning on the west slope of the Sierra were wafting eastward throughout the Eastern Sierra and settling in the barren Owens Valley, with the Inyo Mountains to the east. However, when I picked up my permit at the visitor’s center, I was told the mountains were completely cloaked in smoke and not visible the day before. At least I could see those majestic peaks although they were smothered in a smoky haze. Still, it was forcing me to pause and rethink whether I wanted to inhale all that smoke while working hard at elevation.

I drove up to the Whitney Portal, where I rested until 11 pm. Fortunately, it continued to clear. The moon shined brightly through the pine forest, mule deer tiptoed nearby, and a few hikers/climbers milled about the portal and trailhead readying for their ascents.

With two other climbers, Forrest Van Stein and Solomon Nahooikaika, we left the trailhead at 11 pm, taking advantage of the Harvest Moon, the scent of fall in the alpine air. Mostly, we didn’t need our headlamps as we ascended the sheer granite walls of the gorge until we reached Lower Boy Scout Lake. Also, in the moonlight it was clearly visible that water levels were lower than I’ve ever seen them in the creeks and alpine lakes in the Eastern Sierra.

It was warm along the creeks and the first two lakes as we ascended above tree line, then weaved a path through a maze of willows where streams of water spilled off massive slabs of granite. The first section of loose scree forced us to concentrate on our steps as we attempted to find the paths of least resistance toward Iceberg Lake at approximately 12,500 feet. We found a fun, quick scrambling section that allowed us to bypass some of the loose scree sections. Before we knew it, we were at Iceberg Lake. There were no climbers at the frigid tarn. We were the only climbers on the entire route.

Despite fires in the area, the views off Mount Whitney are mesmerizing
The Notch at Mount Whitney

However, the temperature had dropped noticeably once we reached Iceberg Lake. I had to walk in place to keep warm as the boys fetched more water and rested in the moonlight. Mount Russell, another 14,000-foot peak just to the north of Mount Whitney, was lit up so brightly it almost appeared as if it were daytime, but it was 3:30 am. Once we began the monotonous trek and scramble up the exposed chute, the crux of the Mountaineers Route, we were out of the moonlight as the moon sank behind Mount Whitney and the towering spires due south/southwest.

As we trekked upward, it took 90 minutes to ascend the chute and the small plateau known as “The Notch.” The first light of dawn crept above the Inyo Mountains to the east, brightening the long, narrow granite route.

The last 375 feet was a fun scramble to the summit. Lots of handholds and ledges allowing for easy route finding on the western face of Mount Whitney. It was the first time I had never seen ice on this section of the route, a place that doesn’t receive a lot of sunlight throughout the day. It was a disturbing sign of impending drought-like conditions looming over California once again.

Despite the doom and gloom of wildfires and drought, sunrise on the summit of Mount Whitney was as always breathtaking. There were just two others enjoying the warm glow, resting on those granite slabs as a long wisp of smoke drifted from the Western Sierra toward Lake Tahoe.

It’s still Mount Whitney. The summit that day is the one before the next, one granite slab after another.


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