We started from Lone Pine on road bikes at dusk heading for Whitney Portal. Brent Obinger and I would attempt to summit Mt Whitney from the bottom using hiking and bicycles through the night & down then biking back to town and pedaling North to Big Pine and the classic winding road climb up to the Bristlecone visitor center at 10,00 feet - finally switching back to hiking and this time mountain bikes for the summit of White Mountain Peak - Two 14ers and a lot of mileage in between - and the highest points across on both sides of the deepest valley in North America (Owens Valley).
It was Brent's plan and an ambitious and good idea. I was excited to find someone else local that wants to get after something so big and seemingly crazy and knew I was in immediately - arranging my training schedule and few seasonal goals around entirely. (Read: I'm pretty much in for any of these kind of challenges if someone comes up with another "good" idea!)
It felt good to hit Whitney and Whitney Portal fresh for a change first thing that evening starting at 5 PM. We cruised it at PR pace for me while still trying to just spin it out. James Nichols followed in my truck and provided extra stoke and a few essentials before a quick transition at the portal into light weight packs and running vests. We were joined up also by our local friend Tyler Honeman for this biking and peak section for his first time on Mt Whitney (and ours' too entirely by dark!) .
Last year Brent and I had learned our lesson in being a little light weight on the summit after the Badwater to Whitney Push & this time came well prepared with full fingered ice climbing grade gloves, down jackets, shells, head and neck gators intentionally for the 29 degree forecast.... this COLD would be a theme indeed for the trip as the winds picked up on the mountain heheheheh little did we know yet oh yeah......
We moved quickly and mostly on route navigating the Mountaineer's Gully by dark. My back packing trip with Daniel Moor 3 weeks earlier helped keeping the trail fresh in my mind in addition to a last minute decision wearing a special biking grade/running edition Light & Motion headlight that could see 100 yards off distances at a time.
There was very little trouble until arriving about 2/3 of the way up at the typically moderately technical rock step just below Iceberg Lake. The small but broad 1/2 to 1 inch trickle of water across the step had mostly frozen in place leaving the wet but "un-fronzen" spots more secure to step in as we traversed around via some tenuosly loose rocks surrounding while trying to get our feet as little wet as possible in the cold! Be quick!
We took a short snack break before re-collecting and putting on all our shell layers besides our puffy jackets for the steep and remaining direct climb up the gully off we go power hiking! I had come down the looker's left side of the gully a few weeks prior and recommended this for a moment catching back up to Brent, "I think the steep snow might be too exposed to cross higher up." Brent responded "You can usually climb on the side around it." I thought hmm this could be interesting and realized we were already in a completely different gully already anyhow. Okay!
I remembered this now from last year's ascent now scrambling up the rock exactly here (and later Don Bowie telling me this was the shortest way) with Brent the tiredest I'd ever been (perhaps for him too) in a high mountain situation or anywhere after coming up hard from below sea level at Badwater. I'd been so worked I'd experienced these strange bright white flashes off in my peripheral vision akin to lightning shocks on the horizons, but there wasn't any lightning - Stop, breathe, breaths, 10 seconds, move!, crawl, go 10 more steps!, breathe, wooo, wooohhhh, ahhh .. oh yeah I remember that.
Coach Lakey carefully and perfectly guided us on the 4th class finish with exact hand and foot beta like I would give a first time climber hoping for a good $ tip at the end of the trip (in our matching trio of Altra running shoes ha!). Pulse oximeter was still in the 90's on the summit and hiking all the way out through it with not a sip of water from the summit that night gave me a whole understanding of my self confidence and how low I could go, but really really go..... Brent had open bivied part way down the descent near trail camp and refused to let Coach and I start him an emergency fire below - adamantly telling us to leave (later arriving a few hours after knocking on the camper at Whitney Portal). This was a true wild man in heart too! Badwater to Whitney is no joke either.....
It felt frickin' great to be fresh in this gully this time, even as the winds picked up. We easily scrambled up the familiar rocks approaching the notch thankfully dry and entirely free of ice. I looked for options to cross the snow as we went higher if needed and saw one "sketchy" spot that might involve hopping onto an exposed boulder in the middle hmm.. As we reached the top of the snow patch, it met the cliff and we were running out of real estate. The snow here was bullet hard and clear ice along the top edge with big exposure... I'm not hiking across that. It was really crampons and 2 ice tools terrain right there at the moment and we had one ultralight Camp Corsa ice axe between 3 people. Nope!
Brent looked out ledges to the right . I looked across at the other side of the familiar snow patch from 3 weeks ago. It had been sketchy then kicking my heels in momentarily in the middle of the snow pack and this time it was bullet hard pack. I'm not sure that goes tonight either! We could go back down and around and see, but yeah looks gnar from here!
Brent suggested traversing a ledge to our right and having a good look. We traversed across about 40 feet on a couple foot wide ledge and looked off above. Hmm. It looks easier soon like 3rd class and then a ridge after a couple moves across through those flakes? We looked at the snow again. I climbed up. I climbed back down. Is it worth it, does that go? I didn't look that hard. I looked off above with my 100 yard flashlight beam again. This trip isn't going if we don't do this gully somehow.. I made the moves - easy lie back and another nice ledge okay! I climbed up more and looked at the easier ridge above. It looks like it goes looking off and better terrain above again. A few moves to a big ledge again, then a 5.6 move off the ledge- Handjams feel pretty damn solid in gloves thankfully! I told Brent I was going to check it out further with the good light and raced above climbing quickly 100 feet to more ledges and occasional 4th and single 5th class moves more than I bargained for, but always getting easier ... alone in the dark, midnight, 30 degrees, 13,000 feet, gloves, running shoes, and cold wind heh. I realized I could see about 20x further than the other 2 guys with this super headlamp. It'd have to be me to figure this out or come down. Perhaps the first time I've said in my head honestly "I feel like I'm in Patagonia" likely on some unknown descent trying to go home or at least I imagine this is what that might feel like.
Luckily the wind felt calm and sheltered as we got further inside the gully. One last short corner above some 3rd class (my feet are jamming perfectly into this slabby crack sweet!) and then a horizontal splitter that fit both my hands like a #2 camalot in a solid double hand jam to mantle my feet onto another good ledge while holding on securely and I was at the top of something. Okay where? There was a crack system heading down to the left that could go if we had to that looked also about 5.6, but not if we could find something else first. I headed up and found a long narrow but totally flat 2 foot ledge traversing around the back of the formation. I walked along the ledge easily and then was standing on mellow ground and soon found cairns and an easy 2nd class way into the gully above the snow! I saw Brent and Tyler eyeing another possible down climb below that looked far worse I'd checked on the way by. Nope EFF that way!! It goes, the rock's not that bad, except careful climbing around the flakes inside the crack over there, then it's super easy from here! I climbed back down to meet them just above and guide directions with my light. They climbed the moves around the mantle and the last corner and joined me on the buttress where we easily and thankfully followed the ledge back into the main gully. Good route finding DUDE! Few! Enough of that for one night too! Brent "Yeah soloing in gloves is something, what grade do you think it was Ryan?" Hmm 5.6 or 5.7 maybe? Good thing hand jams in gloves felt good! I wouldn't have done it if it didn't feel secure I told myself, but I wandered about down climbing 100% if I'd got cliffed out at the top, it'd been a bit of gamble, more than I'd anticipated over the first step, but it had worked out! Tyler with a goofy look - "Alright guys we finished phase death climbing!"
The wind blasted us as we turned the corner and made the traditional last 4th class moves seeming super mellow now in comparison. Are we going to down climb all that for the descent again though?? Eff no! On the summit at midnight, okay, not too bad! We hit our first big time hurdle and committed to the longer 12 mile trail hike out (that lower we step would likely all be frozen solid ice now and probably worse too, another reason). Apparently I only hike down the regular trail with Brent twice now officially after about 10 times on Whitney- after last year we were too fatigued and knew it to negotiate the down scrambling and this year the conditions sucked and we'd had enough for a night... going back down to the snow level again and having to come back up would likely be a sure fail for the trip too.
We got some pretty funny stares and comments - 3 fit guys racing down the trail passing eager hikers at 2 in the morning and carrying minimal kit. "Did you guys summit? Yep the view was great!" It's definitely the first time I've done Whitney entirely in the dark.
The wind picked up more and more on the hike out and encouraged us to move. Finally my mega spot light battery was done after about 6 hours (rated to 9, but I figured nothing lasts quite as long as it's rated and I'd turned it on full blast for vision a good amount) and I switched to the back up e+LITE I'd kept tucked in my front pocket. Functional, but not as fast hiking for sure! Luckily Tyler had also brought 2 headlamps and spare batteries we soon augmented mine to keep me full speed on the trail as possible. The LCL/PCL tear/ meniscus knee injury I'd suffered earlier in the summer began to ache during this speed downhill hiking phase, but I did my best. I felt bad dragging just a little behind and Brent told me to keep together with them so I did my best. I was the only one that had carried super light trekking poles up and over the mountain fortunately and that did help! Slog on this trail is so long switchbacks....... Cold wind!
Alright transition time! Tyler kept all his clothes on from hiking and said, "I'm rolling down road warrior style guys, I got to get to work back at the hospital now" -for one of his shifts starting that morning! Brent soon followed and I had the happy experience of stripping naked ninja quick in the Whitney parking lot and putting on a bike Chamois, 3 jackets, serious gloves/neck gaiter/bike over booties etc... okay rolling! Ick wind! Sweet a North wind.... The wind was blowing and gusting hard enough on the descent I had to lean in to it to keep from getting blown sideways on the bike. I soon caught up with Brent and we rolled into the park for another layers transition and traded out my truck for James Nichols' so he could make it home in time for a job interview that afternoon too!
Brent "Yeah that wind, it's almost like a North Wind eh?" We knew we kinda hosed heading North straight against the wind (the forecast later reported North wind gusting 18 - 45 mph). Sweet we are heading North dead on against the wind.... We both knew what it meant, but we didn't say much, head down, let's roll.
This was brutal. If anything kills your psych mercilessly, it's hours of dead on headwind biking. The combination of the cold and the wind together in the dark was just evil awaiting the sunrise as I tried to regulate calorie intake and forced down salt tablets to keep myself wanting to drink and a few 350 calorie ensures (ultracyclist's secret calorie bomb weapon in 20 seconds or less!).
The ride went on and on.... What normally takes me under 2 hours casually, took us 4. We couldn't keep up the power into this, just spinning around out there. At one point I got pissed at being cold and insisted riding in full down jacket and balaclava until I was hot just to give the wind the middle finger in my own way for a while! Ugh oh man...
Dr. Peter Clark found us on the road and brought some cheerful energy to the ride as best he could, "You guys should have done White Mountain to Whitney, you would have rocketed there in like an hour flat going the other way! Haha".
Finally Big Pine... and the sunny shelter of the canyon heading up Westgard Pass. I got on my easier geared climbing bike and laughed... Spinning up this iconic and steep climb on moderate gears out was the most pleasant this trip had gotten too yet, normally the crux moment of the Everest Challenge races and many a personal ride. Pete headed up to the White Mountain Research Center at Barcroft to check out the conditions up ahead and returned with good news! "Stepping out of the car at 11k with the 60 mph wind was like exiting the Mars Lander. Mid 20 degrees with howling winds!" Cool.
I caught up and traded places back and forth with Brent a couple times on the climb. We really are a pretty good honest match for each other. Seemingly always within 5 minutes either way on these longest adventures. We enjoyed a cash of sparkling fruit sodas and chocolate chip cookies we'd left hidden next to the entrance Kiosk amongst bushes inside a bear canister the day before sweet! I prayed for the wind to please die unavoidably imagining riding the final head wall in a dead on headwind at 10,000 feet+.
Mentally that was a draining thought as I started to crank up what Pete referred to as the "Switchbacks of Doom", that wind up so steeply standing on the bike pedals is all but mandatory for the most fit cyclists. Please don't be wind, no more...... I feel bad I'm bonking. This is dumb, what am I doing? Stop and pound a gel, more salt, a 250 cal sport drink, push down hard with your strong legs! Brent was gone I couldn't see him ahead now. Pete headed off ahead "See you guys at the switchbacks of doom, I want to get one of those epic sufferfest black and white photos!"
I suck. What am I doing up here? I can't pedal this right now. I'm falling asleep on my bike (I would notice these micro dozing moments when my front tire inadvertently bumped into the toe of one of my bike shoes, between fatigue and traveling seemingly so slow uphill it was a challenge to steer the bike straight either way). I went into the negative cave... ahh he's so far ahead, I'm blowing the mission, how can I bail gracefully on the mountain bike section if we can't keep up because of me? Keep pedaling. Just keep pedaling! I have done 102 miles and 21,000 vertical feet at this point plus hiking around Whitney 20 miles in a circle all night, I suppose I ought to feel somewhat worse than the Everest Challenge finish line here... this day is so cold man!! Can I even do the 40 miles of Mountain biking right now? I felt uncertain still.
I made it to the visitor center and Brent assured me I was actually still only 5 minutes behind in arrival, it's just difficult in the winding switchbacks to see each other for a while. It was 3:30 PM not terrible, but we had wanted to be here by noon today, those extra hours on the longer hike and headwind had been costly!
I started up the Jetboil while slowly switching into mountain biking kit and started in on my first hot food of the day and one of a few calorie bonking secrets - instant mashed potatoes doused liberally with a healthy dose of olive oil! Something to keep the fire stoking tonight! Ahh that's amazing! There was painful blister on the outside of one of my feet. I have to duct tape over it at least! I felt rushed as I do at every transition in a mega event, but I did my best to put on my gear and stuff every possible piece of warm clothing or bike backpack/bag into a crate and load it up into Pete's 4wd.
We'd lost our primary support person in James Nichols having to head out for the job interview and were planning on doing the final 20 mile out and back mountain bike ride unsupported. The forecast was for 19 degrees and windy. I tried to imagine the 2 races I've been in where I've biked overnight in 20 degree weather and what it took to warm up in the low moments and what that would mean here with dwindling reserves. "What are we doing here Brent? Do you want to go to war tonight?" Not a typically an expression I use on my normal outings.
Pete had offered to drive us out at least to the beginning and see us off on the mountain bikes. We at least had to try! That was a good spark and having someone out there on the most fatigued/coldest part of our adventure yet felt. I could bring a 25 degree ultra light sleeping bag, emergency blanket bivy sack, and a tiny 2 man nylon bothy bag to huddle in I supposed worst case if we had a mechanical failure or one of us went down.. and Brent had borrowed a Delorme satellite messenger that could text all our friends in town if we really needed it bad! Bring all your jackets. Luckily we could just load it all into Pete's rig for now!!
Woah... I felt a spark of energy getting on the mountain bike. It was slow, but so much easier than the last headwall on the Bristlecones just cruising on big tires and gearing. Zak Tourville had loaned me his gravel grinding favorite mountain bike and this thing was awesome! I quickly charged up the first few hills, laughing remember how messed up it was the time Steven Barnes had made us ride shiny road bikes up this dirt road for 3 miles during one of his 24 hour races just to make it hard! I hadn't been back since! I felt good, something about those mashed potatoes. Brent was coming along alright too. I asked him how he felt and he said okay. Twenty miles on this road ehh? We've already done 7 and that was super easy. Maybe we got this?!
Brent wasn't so sure. We'll be up all night a second night in a row till 2 am? Pete's not going to be here with us, we'll have to ride the 20 miles back too. Hmm wasn't I the one secretly wanting to bail out gracefully somehow just an hour ago? Pete said we had to ride at least to the Patriarch Grove. The downhills on the full suspension bike were fun and we enjoyed taking classic pictures with Pete in the perfect evening light. It was 30 degrees out, but miraculously the wind had died with the setting sun on the horizon. This was no joking, very much honestly the warmest we had felt all day(s) yet on this COLD adventure at 11,000 feet as the sun set for the second time almost 26 hours deep.
Wow we'd made it 12 miles and 2000 feet on the dirt before dark. Pete said he was in for the duration whatever we wanted, he'd camp snoozing at the gate if we were going for it tonight or pick us up if the wheels fell off. It's funny because after wanting to bail an hour ago I figured Eff it after so many hours, what's 3 more - and 19 degrees out, no wind, that's probably warmer than Whitney was last night maybe? Who cares anymore anyway it's only been COLD always all day! Damn cold! The part of me that likes to finish things was here and I could believe at least that we could do it. Only 8 miles to go!! Let's beat this thing! We do it or not!
Brent assured me that the last 7 or 8 miles were super rough and that wasn't the point that we could do it or not. I knew he felt we could too right then. This was his wild dream and we were supposed to top out the summit in the daylight, and really not to top out a second 14er at night (all night) 2 nights in a row. We'd lost 4 hours due to problems on the route outside of fitness, it wasn't me or him being particularly slow. We'd gone over the time. We'd really needed a committed support plan on the final mountain too for safety and this crazy cold today! I knew he felt bad pushing Pete here on the fly. It wasn't my position now to decide to go on a bozo run for the finish line here either way. Okay.
I stubbornly ground up the last hill ahead to "burn off" a last little steam in one last burst of energy while Brent and Pete drove off ahead and waited turning my altitude score up from 22,900 to 23.5K for the day, 116.5 miles, 25 hours and 40 minutes. A worthy adventure, and perhaps the toughest day out I've had yet in it's own unique ways. I've never done close to this much vertical feet in so little distance or combined hiking, road, and mountain biking together all in the pursuit of vertical. Haleakala was 30,000 feet, but it was distanced over 266 miles, which is hugely mellower in a different way vs STEEP and hiking too. The sustained cold/headwind was really a tough opponent to tee off with willing against my own mental game and at one point had me in some low points, the low points always suck, but I love this ultra stuff! Brent is an awesome and solid partner and this was a pretty rad idea overall!
After getting back to the stash vehicle at Bristlecones and stepping out into the cold air after the warm ride down in Pete's rig I felt absolutely freezing and totally naked in my strategic layers of spandex tights and down jackets. The temperature had dropped and it felt like without much reserves left, I had no way of generating heat if I wasn't moving and the cold was so real and so sharp! A big part of me was pretty glad too to not be on a go for it mission slogging the summit on through the night again right then!! I think we made the right call! Thanks Brent! =)
Thanks for all those that supported out there or sent encouraging messages on the way and Peter Clark for these awesome photos!!
PS - I felt somewhat frustrated knowing I was unable to attempt my first intended big challenge of the season at all in the past couple weeks due to weather, and missing the target here somewhat again, but it was mentally a successful outing pushing overnight for 24 hours in tough conditions. Can I take a 3rd loss too if I fail at the Badwater to Whitney record attempt in the next few weeks? I only truly have myself to lose to right now at the end of the day? I think I can handle it either way if I know I got out and do my best and really want to be there and do it to that ability in the moment. I hope the weather holds up and lines up okay for a true effort mostly most of all. If I don't get that, I'll have to be okay with not doing it this year too and keep excited with everything else in my life - I'm enjoying staying fit right now a lot so that shouldn't be too terrible and I got a fun climbing trip and official 24 hour race in Nov too! The toughest thing is everything has really come down to conditions or not more recently. The line on Whitney right now is more serious particularly in below freezing temps currently when the snow is hard and recent ongoing snow dustings! But I did the same snow mid day 3 weeks ago feeling pretty mellow and safely when it isn't 29 degrees and howling winds! I'll bring crampons and axe for the rest of this season if returning and intend to get there earlier in daylight hours if so!