Mount Whitney, the tallest mountain in the contiguous United States, stands at 14,496 feet above sea level in the southern Sierra Nevada, perched high on the eastern border of Sequoia National Park. Its height and status capture the attention of many summit seekers from around the country. This peak is normally invaded by thousands of hikers and climbers during the mid to late summer months, a hike which involves a 22 mile round trip and a 5000 foot climb in elevation. Like lemmings, the trail is outlined by people trekking up the hundreds of switchbacks. During the winter and spring, it is a completely different mountain. Cloaked in white and hammered by winds, Whitney offers a challenging and more rewarding journey if one can summit.
In December of 2004, 6 friends and I attempted to climb Mt Whitney. We arrived at the snowed in trailhead at 1am and set up camp for the night. After a frigid and fitful night, many aching bodies rose to greet the mercilessly cold day. Unfortunately, after waking, the group disagreed at the trailhead on whether we should continue with the climb due to the well-below-freezing daytime, and subzero nighttime, temperatures. There was anger, worry and a lot of whining in the voices that argued. As a result, the group ended up splitting, and only Tom, Lisa and I went on with the climb, while the others sought refuge in warm, nearby Death Valley. We ended up only camping one night at 10,000 feet where in the morning, we experienced our boots frozen solid, splitting headaches (mainly myself), and dry heaves, and thus turning us around.
We planned on coming back to Whitney, but this time with the longer and relatively warmer days of April. Our original plan was to climb via the Mountaineers Route, a more advance, but shorter route than what we did in December, the Main Whitney Trail. Unfortunately, the previous month before our trip, two separate climbers, in two different unrelated trips, slipped while glissading (a controlled slide on snow using an ice axe, commonly used to descend) at exactly the same spot, a location right above an area known as "The Notch". One of the climbers slid out of control down the 50 degree slope and flew over the edge of the mountain's 1000ft vertical northwest face. There is speculation about what happened to the other climber, since he was by himself and in a storm, but his body was found at the bottom of the same part of northwest face. The first incident spooked all of us, but the second one, which followed three weeks later, flat out scared us. It may have been just a bad coincidence or a message. But either way, after mass amounts of email being exchanged between everyone in our group, 3/4 of them ended up dropping out. It was down to Tom, Lisa, John and I. And we chose to go back on the Main Whitney Trail.
The first day at the trailhead (8900ft) was mild and the sky was a cobalt blue, but most importantly, it was sunny and calm. We started off on the trail, which was snow free for the first mile, and then we switched over to snowshoes when we got to the first creek crossing. We climbed, zigzagging up the snow covered slopes, making good time. As we climbed above Outpost Camp and the frozen Muir Lake, clouds started to gather.
We stopped briefly to rest on the ridge above Muir Lake, where John pulled out his tri-tip sandwich and proudly displayed it to everyone before devouring it. I looked at my trail mix and then at John's tri-tip and sadly and slowly ate the trail mix, while tossing out the chocolate.
As we continued on, the clouds completely engulfed the sky and the winds swept down the mountain picking up snow that blew it against us, and tried to push us back. We leaned into the wind and slowly marched up; the altitude was kicking in and slowing us down, as we just made it past 11,000ft in elevation. Once near our objective for the day, an area called Trail Camp, located just above 12,000ft; we were in complete white out conditions. We saw Tom, who was ahead of the rest of us, fade into view. He already had the stove out and was melting snow for drinking. We dropped our packs and set up camp in the howling wind.
As soon as dinner was ready, we inhaled it. I dropped mine, and so I had flavoring of sand and granite in the pasta and most notably, a hard crunch, which I thought I fractured my teeth on. Then we crawled into our tents and in our sleeping bags exhausted. It was only 7pm. A little later, the storm temporally died down, so we got out and looked up at the crest of jagged monoliths of granite that was now visible that looked down on us. The rays of sunlight peeked through the clouds just behind the peaks, giving it a supernatural feeling. Once that got old, we went back to bed, but not asleep.
The 70mph wind, kept everybody awake. Especially John and Tom, who intelligently decided to bring a 3 season tent into these extreme conditions. The rain fly flapped intensely in wind and at times would fill up with air looking like a spinnaker, ready to airlift their tent away.
It's 1am and the wind still blows. Throughout the night Lisa and I would hear the cries from John and Tom as snow was blowing under the rain fly and through the screen walls of their tent, accumulating in, on and around their sleeping bags. By 3am, Tom yells out above the roar of the wind, that they are planning on hiking back out. I try to convince them it isn't wise to do that in the middle of the night and to wait until morning. They resist for a while then later agree.
Hours pass, the yellow walls of my tent light up from the dawn of a new day. I hear John yell out in a despairing cry like it was his last sentence of his life, "The sun is rising! It's soooo beautiful!" I unzip the door then the vestibule of the tent, just enough so I that can see out, the clouds are gone and are replaced with a red and orange sky with the sun just peaking over the Inyo-White Mountain, which lay distant across the Owens Valley, but the wind remains as intense, continuing to blow snow, hammering our tents.
Later I hear Tom and John outside, and I join them, and to my surprise, Tom, who normally would do anything, isn't willing to conquer the summit. He dramatically explains that he and John had 3 inch snow drifts inside their tent, piled up at the opening of their sleeping bags. I turned around and looked at their tent and saw it still trying to get airborne and then up at the ridge where streaks of snow, which looks like a long streak of white clouds, whipping off the leading edge of the ridge and said. "Well, we would be on all fours, if we were up there." John replies "The only thing I'm sumitting is the 4Runner." And we pack up, carefully taking down the tents so that no part of it is snatched by the wind and is whisked off to Never Never Land.
Once we got lower on the mountain, the winds died. Tom saw an alternate way of getting down off a ridge and we all looked at it. I mumble "there's a reason no one goes down that way," Tom replies "doesn't look bad, come on". Lisa jets past us, marching on down the way Tom suggested. The rest of us, just stand there watching her, like we were waiting for something dramatic to happen, then she travels below the ridgeline where she disappears out of view. I say, "Hell with that, I'm going down the normal way" Tom doesn't verbally agree but also goes with me, John who was behind, also follows. None of us were sure if we're going to see Lisa again. And if we didn't, we sure would have missed her. We continued down the ridge the normal route and arrived at Bighorn Park, a meadow at the base of it all. Tom makes a beeline for the base of the route where Lisa set off for and finds her perfectly fine. When we all meet up with Lisa, she explains that she had to use her crampons to get down on parts and how, not knowingly, walked right to the edge of an icefall. Since it's in retrospect, we laughed about it and descended the rest of the way down to the trailhead and to the car.
The mountain may have beaten us this time. But we're coming back. In July, we're summiting with the rest of the lemmings.