* SUMMIT ELEVATION: 14,494 feet
* TOTAL ELEVATION GAIN: 6,100 feet
* DURATION: Two to three days
* SNAPSHOT: Scale a big wall via an intermediate route
IT'S A BADLY kept secret, but California's 14,494-foot Mount Whitneynot Rainier, Shasta, or Longsis the lower 48's highest point. Hiking up its nontechnical west side is no small accomplishment, but you will soon earn serious climbing cred on Whitney's formidable East Face. "The route requires good mountain sense," says Chris McNamara, climber and founder of SuperTopo.com, the leading online guide to Whitney. "You need an instinct for knowing when you're off-routeit's moderate face climbing, but the route finding is tricky, leaving you always on edge." On this wrinkled sheet of Sierra granite, you'll follow the handholds and footholds of Norman Clyde, Jules Eichorn, Glen Dawson, and Robert Underhill, American alpine legends who, for their 1931 first ascent, mustered "considerable steadiness, as the ledges were narrow and there was a thousand feet of fresh air below." Once you finish, raise a toast to yourself at the Double L Bar in Lone Pine, the hangout for Whitney climbers, where you can share your tales from the mountain.
** The Route
Whitney will have you ascending a total of 6,100 feet, the last 1,200 of which involve vertical, exposed, and difficult rock. The route begins auspiciously with a long, scenic haul to camp at 12,600-foot Iceberg Lake, hard by the base of Whitney's 1,800-foot EAST FACE. When dawn breaks red on the summit the next day, knock off the lower section by scrambling up to a granite spire to the north. The real fun begins at 13,200 feet, when you finally slip on your rock shoes, rope up, and slowly make your way across good holds and up the face proper with 800 feet of clean California air below you. Nearly smack-dab in the middle of the wall lies the crux, the Fresh Air Traverse, a tenuous path of flakes and tiny cracks and the most hair-raising 5.6 move on our roster. Spider up a chimney, then climb easy ramps and short steps to the top. But stop to enjoy the solitude and the Mars-like expanse of desert below before you top outa couple hundred visitors who walked up the south side may be eating lunch right above you.
GUIDE The Sierra Mountain Center leads three-day trips on the East Face throughout the summer. To help acclimatize, spend the eve of your climbing class camping at the Whitney Portal trailhead. The next day, hike to Iceberg Lake and review the proverbial ropes: multipitch climbing, rock protection, belaying, and coping with altitude. On day two, attempt the East Face. Day three is for your triumphant return. ($695 per person; 760-873-8526, www.sierramountaincenter.com)
Rack up for the East Face with BLACK DIAMOND CAMALOTSthey lock in quickly and hold tenaciously ($50-$112; 801-278-5533, Black Diamond) Then add uniquely shaped WILD COUNTRY ROCK NUTS (convex on one side, concave on the other), which work where other pieces won't. ($6-$8; 801-942-8471, www.wildcountry.co.uk) Round out your hardware with TITAN/SPECTRA RUNNERS from BLUEWATER ROPES, durable leashes that will help ensure your placements don't pull. ($3-$11; 770-834-7515, www.bluewaterropes.com) Hitch all this gear to the METOLIUS MULTI-LOOP DOUBLE D gear sling. Its ergonomic design keeps your pro organized and easy to reach. ($31; 541-382-7585, www.metoliusclimbing.com)
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