After weeks of planning and preparation, Rich (early 30s) and I (early40s) arrived in Lone Pine, ahead of the main group in order to conduct a leaders' reconnaissance. We arranged for a hotel (Alabama Hills---very climber friendly and will let you store your vehicle there), made a qucik visit to the road to the Portal, and got self-issued permits.
On the morning of January 12, Jason, Jeff, and Eric arrived. We took everything up the Portal Road as far as we could, then launched all but two hikers. The other two took a vehicle back to the Alabama Hills Hotel and then brought the Jeep Wrangler up as far as they could get it. It was frustrating to note that two four wheel drive vehicles could not get above the lower elevation family camp ground.
Jeff, a former Marine, led off, breaking trail in the 18 inches of fine powdery snow. We walked for quite some time with the hope of getting to Out Post Camp. Despite snow shoes designed for heavy loads, we made progress at a snail's pace. Ultimately, with sundown imminent, we hastily replanned and decided to set up Camp One at the Whitney Portal (8,300 feet), instead of Out Post Camp which is at 10,330 feet.
We broke out shovels and set up two tents in the hiker's campground, where one must pay in the summer. Since there was no one there, it was free. We shoveled off snow from the tables, the ground where the tents went, and a bear box.
We made some grub there and got to bed.
We woke up on the 13th of January, and noted it was 12 degrees F. We also got a late start. We eventually plodded our way up the Whitney Trail, and bumped into a lone foreigner (sounded like a French accent) who was descending due to head aches. After many hours, we set up Camp Two (at Military Grid Reference System Coordinates 11SLA88314911), still below 10,000 feet.
We got camp established a little prior to dark, and were thrilled at the beauty of the place in winter, and virtually alone. We ran three stoves (two MSR Dragon Flys with white gas) and a propane stove. We made certain all of our water was topped off and stored it in our sleeping bags. Some birds were very brave and came incredibly close for any scraps of food.
We woke up on January 14th with a low temperature of 8 degrees F. It stayed at 8 degrees until approximatly 10:30! After some discussion, we realized we would never make the summit in this deep powdery snow, despite our excellent snow shoes. We would need more time, and a lot of it. We were supposed to be at 12,000 feet already, and we had not reached 10,000 feet. Since we all had real jobs to go back to in order to support our families or hobbies, we decided to turn back. After Jeff, Rich, and Eric went up a bit more just to see things, they returned and stated it was not getting any easier at altitude.
We packed our gear and returned to the Whitney Portal where we had Camp One. Rich and Jason went below, while the Jeff, Eric, and I set up Camp Three. The truck could not get up to us with the fresh hot dogs and stuff, so we tore down camp and walked to the vehicles. Then we drove to Lone Pine and stayed in the Alabama Hills Hotel again.
We never got to a point where we needed our ice axes crampons, or ropes. We used our snow shoes all of the time when not actually next to the tents, and our two snow shovels were gainfully employed at each camp.
We had three stoves, and two tents. The tents were a Marmot Sanctum and a The North Face Ambition 35. Both tents served very well and were never an issue. The stoves and cooking pots worked great. The Lexan water bottles held up great too.
We had a variety of sleeping bags rated from -20 up to zero degrees F. All worked well and were never an issue.
We all had three layers of clothing and they worked well. Gaiters and protective trousers were the key clothes at all times.
Two of us regularly got very cold toes when not actually hiking. I had Montrial AT boots and Jason had similar leather boots.
We used bear cannisters and carried camping food. The bear cannisters really frustrated our packing, as our backpacks were very heavy and the darned bear cannisters were not easy to stuff. We figured our packs were around 65 pounds. Note, we had a lot of gear, but we were determined to be absolutely self-sufficient and not need a rescue. Winter mountaineering is not for amateurs and in my opinion, if someone has to jeopardize their life to try to rescue you, you are VERY wrong.
Overall, it was frustrating to make such pathetic progress. On the positive side, we learned a lot about ourselves as well as winter back packing and the variety of equipment. We definitely had to kick our selves in the rear to get moving earlier. We enjoyed the beauty and solitude of Whitney in winter, and I will definitely have plastic boots with better insulation for the next winter effort. Ultimately, we came back with all of our body parts and a lot wiser.
Our Liquid Crystal Display (LCD) equipment was very much effected by the cold...digital cameras, GPS, etc. The liquid crystal just does not work worth a hoot until up at a more normal temperature.
A week after we posted our effort on the Whitney Portal Store website, another team went up and thanked us for clearing the trail a lot for them. They too, did not make the summit due to the powdery snow.
A number of photos from Operation Cannibal can be viewed at http://photos.yahoo.com/C4M3caa/ They will show a lot of our gear and the environment rather well.
I hope to try this again in January 2004. The difference between winter and summer on Whitney is like night and day.