Climbing Whitney has been a nagging idea of mine for a while. Slogging up the summer trail with 200 other people did not seem appealing though. Neither did wasting time on bad weather in winter or early spring. Ah, but there is May! Snow is usually good for climbing, days are long, weather reasonable and crowds have not yet arrived. So that was settled - I will take a couple of days around Memorial Day and give it a shot.
The MR sounded good, but I was more comfortable soloing the tourist route. With snow on it, it was theoretically pretty close to the MR as far as difficulty, albeit not as exposed and longer. So as potential partners came and went, the reality of a solo trip sank in. Permit was not too much trouble, and after sitting on the runway in Chicago for two hours due to "approaching weather" followed by a bumpy 4 hour flight, I finally landed in LAX. The rest of the evening was to be a nagging reminder of the most unpleasant aspect of climbing in my book - getting to the trailhead. The luggage took forever, so did the rent-a-car, and after picking up stove canisters from a friend in Long Beach, I finally arrived at my hotel in Victorville at 4 AM. At least the rest of the commute was easy - the next morning I drove to Lone Pine, picked up the permit and drove up to Whitney Portal.
The weather was looking great and my spirits began to rise as I drove past Alabama Hills admiring the sweeping views of the Sierra in front of me. The Whitney Portal area was relatively empty, and after picking up a bear can at the Portal store, I headed up the trail. As far as gear, it was not clear if snowshoes and an extra sleeping pad would be needed. Being a hopeless overpacker however, I packed both.
I spoke with a climber who summited earlier that day and was now coming down. He attempted last weekend but was snowed off - the area received about a foot of new snow on May 18-19. My concerns about avalanche danger dissipated after talking to him - he said all of the new snow was now gone as the weather has been really warm after the storm. He warned me about the exposed sections along Trail Crest and said that was the most significant challenge along the route.
I knew there is a winter shortcut above Lone Pine Lake, but I did not bother looking for it - I just stayed on the main trail, which was snowed in spots above the lake. After slugging up and down a bit some sections of the trail, getting some snow inside my boots and a lot of cursing, I arrived at the Outpost camp and set up for the night. The weather was still beautiful and I enjoyed a restful 10 hours in the sack - something I haven't done in months. It was good to feel the daily grind fade into nothingness. That's one reason we take to the mountains - right? Gas prices and the latest election results don't seem to matter when I am up there. I contemplated a bit going for the summit directly from where I was, but decided against it. There was one other party camped by the creek and we dutifully waved to each other.
I took my time packing in the morning. I talked to two hikers headed for Trail Crest. They were packed very light with small day packs. We wished each other luck, and they departed. The party that I saw in the evening appeared to have left for the summit earlier - their tent was all zipped up and quiet. I headed up still attempting to stay with the trail. There was a party of 7 heading up, and we took turns finding and loosing the trail until we cleared the shelf above Mirror Lake. From here the way was obvious - it headed straight up the now continuous gentle snow slope. My snowshoes stayed strapped to my pack as the snow was fairly consolidated - we were postholing only occasionally. I was a little surprised by the lack of experience of the group I met - some of them have never been to 11K, some have never even backpacked, and for most of them this was going to be the first significant climb. They were in turn surprised that I have flown 2000 miles to climb Whitney. We watched a pair of rascal marmots play on the rocks above us we were taking a snack break.
The guys I talked to this morning were now coming down. They made it to about 12.5 before turning around - they were out of time for the day.
The route to Trail Crest was now clearly visible and seemed straight forward.
The winds have picked up significantly above the treeline, but the weather was still gorgeous. We arrived at Trail Camp in mid-afternoon. I found a nice sheltered spot behind a large boulder and set up my tent there. I talked to a couple of folks from the group later that evening - they were uncertain if they would attempt the summit in the morning. There was another party who came up later who said they will not try because of the winds. The winds got stronger through the evening and were gusting to perhaps 40 mph. I set my alarm to 4:30 am and went to bed, deciding to see what the conditions look like in the morning. Winds continued through the night, but seemed to diminish toward morning. The weather wasn't perfect but who says the next day would be better? I decided to go for it and hit the snow at 5:45 after a quick breakfast of freeze-dried eggs.
Snow was rock hard and I made steady progress up the slope infamous for the 99 switchbacks. Of course now it was just a snow slope reaching about 40 degrees closer to the top. As I neared the crest, I could hear the winds howling on the other side. The winds were not bad where I was. I took a well deserved break and crested the ridge bracing myself for the winds. The views into the park were stunning. I removed my crampons and continued along the crest being extra careful along the exposed sections which were all snow/ice, but good boot track was present throughout. The ice axe was really useful for balance here, but crampons were unnecessary. The winds were fierce and the temps were still in the 30s. I had my down jacket on and was not hot despite having just climbed about 2000 feet. I have not seen a single person thus far that day. I passed several openings in the crest and was literally almost sucked into those by the wind. My stomach was beginning to feel queasy, and I wasn't sure if it was food, altitude or nervousness. I lost the main trail close to the final slope up Whitney and just headed straight up, boulder hopping sometimes, and staying on the snow when I could. Finally the summit hut came into view and before I knew it, I was staring at the survey plate. I was the tallest person in the lower 48 states - I was alone on the summit. The snow covered Sierras stretched out in front of me in all directions. I did not stay long - the winds were still strong and my stomach didn't feel any better. I had a few snacks, took a few summit shots and headed down.
The return was tough. I was pretty wiped out and the exposed traverses of the ridge were even more of a challenge on the way back. Clouds now came in and the snow was as just as hard as it was in the morning. The crest seemed endless. A couple of times I almost lost my balance and toppled backwards as I was pulling my axe out. Pressing my left knee into the snow slope was really effective for balance. I finally heaved myself over the crest and sat (or should I say fell) down for a break. I was surprised how tired I was - I followed a similar schedule many times before on climbs more difficult than this one. The good news was that my stomach queasiness was much better. At this point the hardest part of the climb was behind me. Sweeping views in front of me included Wotans Throne, Mount Irvine, Consultation Lake and Trail Camp. After taking a few pictures, I removed my crampons and headed down. I didn't want to glissade as the snow was still pretty hard and I thought it would be prudent to go spare my favorite bones as well as my Goretex. I plunge-stepped down making every step count. It soon became apparent I would have been better off with crampons - the snow was too hard for step kicking, and I was wasting a lot of energy. I continued as I was however and was off the steepest part of the slope in no time. At that point the climb was done - the rest of it was just a walk back to camp. I crawled into my tent at about 3:30 PM.
I rested/hung out around camp for the rest of the day considering another climb for the following day. Mt. Irvine looked doable from Consultation Lake - just gain the saddle via a snow slope and scramble to the top. I also considered Wotan's Throne which was looming almost directly above me, but I felt I needed a rest day to attempt another major climb. With my main objective being accomplished though I didn't really care. Snow flakes were flying in the air all evening, but bad weather never materialized. I ended up sleeping in the next morning and exploring Wotan's Throne for a couple of hours in beautiful windless weather. Trail Camp was much busier now - I saw at least a dozen climbers heading up to Trail Crest, and more were arriving as I packed. I headed down at noon. The way down was much more obvious - good boot track was now present all the way to Lone Pine Lake. Snowshoes were still useless even though it was quite warm. I met a lot of folks heading up. The number of clueless questions you get seems to be inversely proportional to the distance to the trailhead. I was back at Whitney Portal at 5 PM.
I drove to San Diego and spend the next day with friends there. It was nice to smell the ocean and get my feet wet. It occurred to me that CA is probably the only state where you can ski in the morning and surf in the afternoon. California rocks!