The Switchbacks in Snow
The Switchbacks in Snow
Page Type: Trip Report
California, United States, North America
36.57860°N / 118.293°W
The Switchbacks in Snow
Jun 26, 2005
Created/Edited: Jun 28, 2005 /
Object ID: 170168
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I just got back yesterday from Whitney. We spent Friday night (6/24) at the portal campground (made the resevations back in March) to acclimatize. The rangers told us that crampons were not necessary but that no one was going up without ice axes. I knew this wasn't completely true, but thats what they were telling people. Also, they were recommending the route posted by Bob R last week (up the rock band and traversing over to switchback 90).
We tried to rent ice axes at Lone Pine Sporting goods but they were rented out AND sold out of them. The guy wasn't very nice about it either. We decided to just hike as high we could and be satisfied.
We started up a 8:00AM. My pack weighed in at 44 pounds, my Dad's (who is 63 years old) weighed in at 38. I had trekking poles, he had a pair of ski poles he picked up at a garage sale. We had no ice axes or crampons. We wore layers of cotton clothing, with nylon pants (the kind with the zip off legs) and nylon shell jackets. With that and our $20 tent we got on sale at Big 5, we were pretty low tech.
We ran into lots of nice people on the way up. About a dozen or so felt the need to check if we had crampons and then tell we'll never make it up after we told them no. I explained to one guy about climbing up the rock band and traversing over to the upper switchbacks that are open and he insisted that NONE of the switchbacks were open and we couldn't make it. I gave up explaining to people after that and just nodded when people told us we wouldn't make it.
Incidently, we got our permit check by rangers twice on the way up. I wouldn't even think about trying to hike without one.
We stopped for lunch at the meadow around 11:00 and watched a pair of deer grazing in the brush. We also saw several grouse hens with their chicks along the way. At noon we cleared the treeline. I looked at the snow trail going up to trail camp and I looked at the main trail headed up into the rocks and I decided we should take our chances in the snow. Plus, I figured if we couldn't do that, we'd never make the snow chute to trail crest. It was long and hard and we were tired, but finally rolled into trail camp at 3:00.
We set up camp and got water and cooked some dinner. The solar toilets are closed "due to vandalism". However, there was a dispenser for wag bags and containers to put them in next to the toilets. The bags were actually a more pleasant experience than the pit toilets back at the portal. I surveyed the chute and cables with a pair of binoculars and debated whether to try the switchbacks or not. We crashed at 7:00 and slept off and on through the night.
At 6:00 AM we were up and eating breakfast. We watched the first few groups go out. I'd like to say we pioneered the switchbacks that morning, but at 7:00 we noticed a guy at the cables. I watched him through the binoculars and I saw him traverse the snow field at the cables by holding on to them and walking on the downhill side. After he cleared the next snow field we decided to get moving.
Two groups started out just ahead of us: one group of three women and a group with two asian gentlemen. One of the guys in the second group was very friendly and very encouraging to everyone. He created a real team spirit that morning. He advised us that chute was shorter, but we just waved and thanked him and told him we were going to try the switchbacks. We went straight up the chute from trail camp into the rocks, while the other groups bore off to the right. Once on the rocks, we saw the switchbacks clearly and we were at the cables by 8:30.
Now the cables are only partially exposed. About half way they disappear and then reappear again (photos to follow). We were about to cross, when a young couple (wearing shorts and carrying no equipment) overtook us and crossed ahead of us. We crossed on the uphill side until the cable went into the snow. Here we stepped over them and crossed from the downhill side, while hanging on to the cables. There were nice footholes, about knee deep already made for us. People had evidently been using this route for several days.
After the cables there were a few small snow sections that were easily traversed or gone around. There were also a few sections where water runs down the trail in the afternoon, but is frozen solid in the morning. They are fairly level, but extremely dangerous if you aren't paying attention.
Eventually we got to the large snow field in the middle. of the switchbacks. We didn't see any tracks across it and decided to climb the rock to go around it. This wasn't the best decision as we scrambled further and further from trail. We got ourselves in a bit of bind in a loose section of rocks. One large one gave way and went crashing down the slope. We yelled "Rock!" several times as loud as we could. We yelled it again after a few seconds because we could still hear it making it's way down. I'm guessing no one was hit, since we didn't see a med-evac chopper that day.
Eventually we hit the trail again, and along the way I found a cache of some kind that been there for a long time. I'll post a pic soon. There were several cubical metal containers that were badly rusted and meant to hold liquid. I tapped them with my pole and they sounded empty.
We figured out that we were on switchback #90 and that we had wasted about an hour with our little rock climb. Looking down, we could clearly see where people had cut the switchbacks on the opposite side of the snow field. We agreed to go down that way. Then we looked over to see a group that started out about 45 minutes before us traversing from the snow chute to the switchbacks. The chute must be really tough right now. From here it was pretty smooth, as I expected from last week's pictures... except the last 50 feet to trail crest.
There is a snow field covering the last bit of the last switchback. The only word I can think of for this is "scary." The field itself is as steep as the chute and has about the same runout. I was only able to do it because the foot holes were knee deep and I didn't look to my right. I just looked at the next step until the next step was rock.
When we got across, we were several yards above where the actual trail hits the crest. It was an easy scramble down to the trail though. It was already 11:00AM and we had previously figured on summitting by 12:00 noon. We were obviously behind schedule, but weren't willing to turn back now.
From trail crest to the summit was fairly uneventful. The altitude was bothering me and we had to stop every 100 yards to rest. Previous posts are right, you can walk past the windows without even noticing them. The places where the trail is cut out of the side of the rock are more extreme. One thing I didn't get from previous posts however is that it is a LONG way from trail crest to the summit. I think people skip over it because it's so monotonous.
Finally we got to the summit approach. There was big snow field to cross there. We decided to pick our way through the rocks to avoid the snow as much as possible. This turned out to be very easy. When we looked back, we could see a whole network of use trails coming up through the rocks.
We finally summitted at 2:30. A woman there was nice enough to take our pictures and even suggested two different angles for them. We still planned to hike out that night so we only spent 30 minutes on the summit. We signed the log and headed down at 3:00. On the way down, we ran into the two groups who took the snow chute about the same time we headed up for the switchbacks. I would say the switchbacks are at least an hour faster, maybe two if you account for our rockclimbing jaunt) unless you are experienced at climbing snow chutes.
We figured 2 hours to trail camp, 30 minutes to pack up and about 4 hours down, which would get us back to our cars just after dark. Our estimate was dead wrong.
I no longer had the adrenaline boost compensating for the altitude. Every 100 feet I had to stop keep from puking. It was almost 5:00 before we got to Trail Crest. The snow was much softer and traversing it on the switchbacks was much scarier. When we got to the cables, the snow below was giving way and hanging on to cables was necessary, instead of just a reassurance. At 6:00, we were at the top of the short chute down to trail camp. We glissaded, but had to use the poles to push ourselves to keep going, even in the slick bottom of the chute.
We rested and got water and had a decision to make. Our permit was up and we had no way to contact our wives and to let them know if we decided to stay another night. We decided to try and hike out and then get a motel for the night. We started down at 7:00PM, figuring if we cleared the snow before it got completely dark, we would be okay. It turned out to be our first (and only) accurate estimate of the day. We got onto the rocks above outpost camps, before we had to turn the flahlight on. With only one flashlight, though (low tech, remember?), it was EXTREMELY slow. It was 11:00PM before we got to outpost camp. We decided we had to risk the ticket and sleep until daylight. Luckily we managed to get cell reception enough to get a static-y message out to our wives. We set up camp (sincere apologies to anyone we disturbed) at outpost camp and slept.
At 5:00AM, we got up and repacked as quietly as we could and headed out. By 8:00 I was eating a pancake, three eggs, and 5 pieces of bacon at the portal store.