Before some climbs, I catch my mind spinning like a stupid hamster on a wheel. My good friend Pratyush is no stranger to these circular ruminations: the night before his first alpine climb, as he tossed around in his bag at The Chief's secret spot near the Palisade glacier, he tried to find excuses to skip out on Swiss Arete the next day. Would the rock be verglassed? Would there be rockfall? Maybe the avalanche danger is serious? The more I climb, the less I worry before big climbs: though routes themselves might have unknowns, climbing itself has become so habitual that I would be legitimately more terrified of a night of dancing at a club than of any climb I would care to get on in the first place. I used to be afraid of not knowing what to do in unimaginable circumstances: what if my partner never calls off-belay? What if our rappels end in no man's land and we can't go back up? Now I pretend I'm only afraid of important things.
Mithril Dihedral, as a winter climb, had been my fantasy since before I had done any proper winter routes. Since I hadn't done any winter climbs in the Sierra, I didn't know what to expect on a steep, 5.9/10a route: would there be snow in cracks? Would I have to drytool? After Winter Route on Lone Pine Peak, East Buttress on Whitney, and the NE ridge of Bear Creek Spire--after some winter climbs--I knew enough to know that the conditions this winter combined with the forecast I was staring at on February 29 meant happy and warm climbing on Mithril. The forecast was for a high of 37 degrees and a low of 15 with a light breeze.
I met Vitaliy at one of the campsites around Lee Vining this winter--the same weekend of Mark's infamous FA of Effervescent Glory, WI0--but I'd known him for a long time through his prolific Internet bullshitting. If Daria and The Chief had a son, he would be Vitaliy. I liked him: he was just irreverent enough to be interesting but not a raging embarrassment, he was modest enough to know what he sucks at what he's good at, and he seemed to have a good sense of humor. He seemed like the sort of guy who impresses girls easily; good, maybe he'll teach me something, I thought. I guess I could have asked anyone to join me on Mithril, but I asked Vitaliy because he'd done Third Pillar of Dana this winter in good style and because he would believe that doing Mithril would be possible, even enjoyable. Other people would have had doubts. He seemed excited about it, so we decided to meet Saturday morning at the road closed sign.
I had a shitty couple of nights on Wednesday and Thursday, so I conked out from midnight to well past eight on Saturday. Vitaliy tried to politely revive me via texts, but I slept through them in the muffling bliss of the down feathers around my head. At last, I woke up, opened the door, and immediately grinned: it's WARM! I hobbled barefoot over to Vitaliy's car and grinned at him through the window, "dude, it's friggin' warm! This is going to be awesome!"
We drove uneventfully all the way to Whitney Portal in Vitaliy's car, where we geared up quickly and headed up. Including triples of hand size pieces, doubles of some others, a three, four, 70m rope, stove, tent, and snowshoes, we weighed in at just over 40 lbs each with food and water. I felt like I had overpacked, too: a heavy shell I probably wouldn't need, big down jackie and little down jackie, a zero degree bag... 40 lbs, sweet! We hiked up in excruciatingly warm conditions, pausing for a long water break at Lower Boyscout, and made it to Iceberg casually in a little over five hours. Snowshoes, for once, were useful where skis wouldn't have been: one could have skied, but it would have been contrived and silly. They would also have gotten hung up on the godforsaken willows.
We spent just enough time outside at Iceberg to melt snow and poop, then settled into a remarkably flat and comfortable site next to the big ol' rock for a long night. We'd heard that the dihedral stays in the shade until 11 am, so we were planning on the opposite of an alpine start. I was looking forward to tent-time because, for once, I'd brought something more appetizing for dinner than tortillas and Nutella: ramen!
After waking up for the billionth time--I can never sleep for more than eight hours continuously, and the night had been way too long--I put on some music to pass the time until sunrise. I was cocooned in my bag with little more than my prodigious nose poking out, watching the green of my tent turn lighter, grinning like an idiot at what we were about to do. Eventually the sky was bright enough that I considered it polite to wake Vitaliy, and we started to pee and to do all those morning chores. After dressing and socking frozen boots--ha, socking, get it?--I walked back towards Whitney's east face to get a better view of Russell. I saw Mithril Dihedral and figured we had about three hours before the corner got sun. Intentionally dragging our feet to give the face time to warm up, we left camp around nine and hiked towards Russell Whitney Pass with snowshoes. At the pass, we ditched our sunglasses, snowshoes, poles, ice axes, and crampons since the south couloirs looked bone dry. I even left my big down parka; I was confident we would finish the climb in a few hours and wouldn't need it.
When we reached the face, we scrambled up a ways to the right on fourth class. I started the first pitch with a leftward traverse until I reached the diagonal ramps which lead to the dihedral; I followed these for the rest of the pitch and did some weirdly three dimensional but fun climbing on the way. The pitch had begun in the shade, where it was chilly, so we stayed in our boots until the second belay station. This pitch felt 5.7, maybe easy 5.8; climbing in the red Trangos is even more awesome than it was with the sticky tennis shoes I used on NE ridge of Lone Pine Peak last summer. I reached a large ledge which is a short pitch below below the beginning of the dihedral; Vitaliy came up and joined me. We put on rock shoes and he led the next pitch to the base of the dihedral, where we swapped leads and I started a block through the corner. Our pack was large but contained only our boots and water, so it wasn't too burdensome while following. Of course, I didn't follow with it through the offwidth, so Vitaliy might have a different opinion. The leader climbed without a pack, though I stuffed my down sweater into a little sack which I kept clipped to my harness next to my gloves until belays.
The corner pitches were fantastic. Every time I looked left, towards the Kaweahs, I felt so privileged to see them covered in snow; views are way cooler in winter. There are also no freak thunderstorms in winter, yay! The corner was warm, though windy as advertised, and I had no problems climbing with bare hands and in rock shoes. It had been overly optimistic to bring a chalk bag, though; I scrunched it closed when I noticed chalk getting sucked from my butt up through the corner towards the summit. I hate offwidths, so I made a belay under the offwidth so Vitaliy could shout beta at me as I did it. I tried to climb the offwidth straight in for a couple of minutes, but I resorted to face climbing around it to the left until I could get a finger lock in a crack on the right wall.
The crux pitch was easier than all the 5.9s I've done at Joshua Tree, so it went quickly and before I knew what was happening I was hip-thrusting and whooping on the belay ledge. Vitaliy scampered up and was off on the last fifth class pitch after a congratulatory high five and about two minutes. I was totally impressed that he'd managed to jam the dihedral with the raging angry blister on his pinky toe. Soon, we'd pitched out the last of the fourth class and were on the summit together. Cheburashka, that god-damned free-loader doll of Vitaliy's, made an appearance for summit photos then skedaddled back into his rucksack haven for the ride down.
The ridge climb to the entrance to south couloir right was easier than I remembered, since there was so little snow, and we got to the rap station in about five minutes. We rapped, and shortly we were walking down the loose and annoying rocky couloir. About a third of the way down, I walked down a slab--I remember thinking, "hm, this granite is darker than usual"--and in no time at all I was sliding unbelievably fast on my side towards some pointy rocks. I hit them, had a Peter Griffin moment where I clutched my leg and "owwww, owwww"ed, then realized everything was fine and continued walking, though not on black iced slabs anymore.
The sun set beautifully when we reached the pass, and we had a memorable descent of breakable crust to camp. If anything made this a winter climb, it was the battle of descending the weird snow that night to the cars: every time the crust broke and my foot slid forward on the loose snow beneath, my shin, which was swollen from the slide in the couloir, would bang into the crust and make me wince. When I finally rolled--hobbled?--into camp, I was pretty bonked and considered going to sleep before descending. In not unusual me-fashion, I'd packed about half as much food as I should have, so I'd run out completely about six hours ago. Vitaliy graciously stuffed me with all a manner of weird energy things, and in fifteen minutes, once my blood sugar started going up, I started wondering if I should stay another night to climb East Buttress the next day.
It was 15 degrees at Iceberg, but it was a lot of work to descend in the breakable crust so I hiked in my t-shirt-like baselayer until the car. It took about as long to descend as it had taken to ascend, since the snow conditions were so crappy, but we got there around 10 and started to drive more or less immediately. Cheburashka, the little ass, didn't even say goodbye, but Vitaliy and I at least had a handshake. It was great to climb with you, Vitaliy! I'm surprised I beat you to spraying on the Internet, but I'm sure you'll get to it soon enough. And for my good readers: the moral of the story is that there is warm, solitary, beautiful, and totally feasible rock climbing to be done even in the dead of winter. This trip was very nearly 1 part pleasure and no parts suffering, and I hope you'll get a shot at some winter action!