I have mixed emotions when I look at this picture. It was posted on UKC and was voted into the top 10 two weeks in a row. The route is Bony Fingers and as you can see it’s a continuous finger crack on an otherwise blank granite face which is dotted with round black ‘knobs’. What you can’t see is that I was crying with fear and frustration as I struggled to second this route.
The day started full of promise in the Pleasant Valley Campground just outside Bishop, with a drive through towns with truly American names like Independence and Lone Pine. The road climbed steeply into the Sierra Nevada Mountains, and in no time we rose from an elevation of 4,000 feet to over 8,000, Highway 395 less than a hairs’ breadth in the panoramic view of the valley we’d left behind. At Whitney Portal, granite towered above us on all sides, framing the jagged peaks of Mount Whitney.
The walk-in began on a beautifully soft trail of pine needles where in the higher altitude and thinner air an uncompromising clear blue sky contrasted against greywhite rock and occasional vivid green pines. Looking up we saw The Whale, the hump of rock split by our route, but we missed the approach and the walk in became a sweaty and frustrating ascent through a boulder field. We finally reached the route feeling dehydrated and testy.
The 90 meter finger crack is undeniably beautiful. And yet as I watched my partner lead the first pitch, beginning with a hard thin slab and then a run out traverse, I just felt a flat sense of dread. As much as I’d trained, I find finger cracks painful and difficult to climb. I’m scared of traverses and this one definitely required as steady a head for the second as the lead. I began climbing already defeated. I struggled, I pulled on quickdraws. We left gear to protect me on the traverse. I was terrified, and couldn’t muster the spirit to climb English 5c move after 5c move. Something about the whole experience overwhelmed me, and just below the first belay my partner lowered me off with tears in my eyes.
I don’t know if I defeated myself, or if the route defeated me. I left Bony Fingers disillusioned and frustrated – unsure if I even love climbing any more. One of the things I do love about climbing is the places it has taken me to. Although I didn’t have a great time on what should have been a classic route, my lasting impression is the feeling of experiencing that place for the first time – the sheer expanse of granite, the sense of distance from the valley below, the summit of Mount Whitney another 6,000 feet above us, looking so near and yet so far. I wasn’t aware of it at the time, but Mount Whitney is not only the highest peak in mainland USA, it is also the start of the John Muir Trail. I still haven’t figured out how I feel about climbing, but when one door closes another one opens. I have a feeling that next time I go through that Portal the journey might end in more Happy Isles…