Skimo Co

3/12/2024 Contrived Adventures on Mt. Whitney

By Matt Randall, Photos by Matt Randall and Garrett Culligan

Have you ever considered doing a multi-pitch alpine rock climb with ski gear and skiing back down? If you said “No, that sounds dumb,” you are right! Not ones to shy away from dumb stuff, Garrett Culligan and I put our collective heads together to dream up a rather contrived adventure following the epic winter of 2023/24.

Garrett and I have done lots of “fun” shenanigans in the Wasatch that led us to consider combining a multi-pitch alpine rock route with a ski descent. We’ve ice-climbed together in Maple, dry tooled in Provo, wrestled rocks in Little Cottonwood Canyon, and skied some committing and exposed lines. We have similar motivations, tolerance for risk, and skillsets, which lends itself to a solid partnership. As both climbers and skiers, we have often talked about using both these skill sets to creatively access and ski some of the more iconic ski mountaineering lines.

Following the epic snowfall that characterized the 2023/24 season, I heard and heeded the call of the Sierra. I had been out in the Eastern Sierra for a month and a half and Garrett was envious of the skiing I was doing, he wanted in! We talked about how fun it would be to climb a moderate rock climb and then ski back to the trailhead. We settled on the “East Buttress” of Mt Whitney, an 8-11 pitch 5.7 that dumps you at the summit. From there, the North Face takes you a few hundred feet down to where it intersects with one of the 50 Classic Descents, the “Mountaineer’s Route”.

East Buttress and Mountaineer’s Route, North Face out of sight (Photo: Matt Randall)

On the drive in, we were happily greeted by the fact that the road to Whitney Portal had recently been cleared of boulders and we could drive to the trailhead. What a luxury! We made quick work of the morning approach and soon headed up toward the busy Mountaineer’s Route before veering to the left to arrive at the base of the East Buttress.

First light (Photo: Garrett Culligan)

We switched ski boots for rock shoes, racked up, and decided that I would take the first “block” of simul-leads through pitch 4. My block would take us up a 5.6 opening pitch to gain the buttress and past a 5.7 section with fun face climbing. After the 5.7 section, 5.5-5.6 terrain takes you up towards the infamous “pee-wee”, a dangling block of rock that somewhat resembles… well, a pee-wee.

Garrett coming up pitch 4 with the busy Mountaineer’s Route in the background (Photo: Matt Randall)

Below the “pee-wee” we swapped and Garrett took the lead for the next 4 pitches, taking us through more type-1 fun climbing past the “pee-wee” and culminating with a 5.7 chimney section that was a bit awkward and funky with skis and boots on the back.

Garrett leading with the “Pee-Wee” on the left (Photo: Matt Randall)

Garrett made an anchor at a solid ledge and belayed me the rest of the way up. From here we scrambled the remaining 3 “pitches” of 4th class terrain and popped right onto the summit, 15’ from the USGS summit marker.

Garrett on the summit of Mt Whitney (Photo: Matt Randall)

We had some snacks and enjoyed the views for a few minutes before switching back to ski boots and walking to the top of the North Face.

The North Face was nice and steep (~45+ degrees) and had very firm but smooth snow. We made controlled jump turns and soon were down at the notch that marks the top of the Mountaineer’s Route. Thin coverage below the notch had us downclimb a few hundred feet before donning our skis again, but then we enjoyed semi-soft and semi-moguled-out turns down into the Iceberg Lake basin.

We cruised back down towards Whitney Portal where we enjoyed a few beers at the car and chatted with a few other ski parties The entire day ended up being around 11 hours and 45 minutes. Not bad for 8-11 pitches of climbing and a 50 Classic Ski Descent all in one!


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