Freak Storm on Mount Whitney
I was to climb Mt. Whitney; the tallest mountain in the United States outside of Alaska. Located in the beautiful Sierra Nevada in California, it stands at 14,505 feet and is located just 76 miles west from the lowest point in the U.S.; Death Valley at -282 feet below sea level.
I arrived at the Whitney Portal campground from San Diego on Friday, May 23rd. The mountains were in and out of the clouds. What I could see was spectacular beauty with the wispy clouds hanging on the mountains, painted behind the large, green pine trees. I had a bit of a headache and was a little dizzy, sort of the same feeling one has after being punched in the head a few times, having come directly from sea level in San Diego (5.5 hour drive). So, I drank a lot of water and took 2 Ibuprofen. That seemed to do the trick. It turned out that two of my neighbors, Edwin and Melissa, were also there at the campground and invited me over to their campfire where we hung out until dark. After cooking some dinner on my stove, I retired to my tent and slept soundly.
I awoke in the morning and ate at the Whitney Portal Store. Talk about a huge breakfast!!! A pancake the size and thickness of a Chicago style pizza, scrambled eggs, thick, juicy bacon, and an OJ for around $8. Obviously, no one ever finishes this size breakfast. I then rented a bear canister for my food (required), packed everything, and was on the trail by 11:30 am. My plan was to climb the 6.3 miles (12,039') to Trail Camp and sleep there the first night. The next day, I would climb to the summit (14,505') and back to Trail Camp. On Memorial Day, I would hike out and drive back to San Diego. That was the original plan.
From the Whitney Portal trail head (8,637'), I started up the trail through the amazing scenery. I was surrounded by tall pines, humongous cliffs, a little bit of snow, and beautiful cascading waterfalls. Unfortunately, as the day wore on, the clouds began to thicken considerably and it started to snow. I was able to snap a few photos but it was becoming apparent that the weather was going to continue to deteriorate. I met up with a bunch of young climbers on the trail who are dental students at the University of California Riverside. We engaged in casual conversation while hiking up the trail.
Crossing a stream, we pushed on past Outpost Camp (10,360') and over to Mirror Lake, which was now completely covered in snow. As we hiked above tree line, the weather was really turning worse and the snow was getting deeper. In addition, one of the climbers was beginning to feel the effects of altitude sickness. We eventually found a wide open area off the trail and decided it would be best to make camp there. At that point we were about 11,200 feet above sea level and a little over 1 mile away from Trail Camp (12,039'). We flattened the deep, snow covered area, pitched our tents, and cooked dinner. All around us, the clouds became so thick at times we couldn't see more than 20 feet in any direction. The snow was intermittent; heavy at times, and it was getting much colder and darker. At times, however, the clouds and snow would break. I was then able to snap a few pictures of Wotans Throne above us and Mirror Lake, which was now far below us.
Later that evening, one of the students threw up. I suggested that he be brought back down to Outpost Camp for the night to recover from the effects of altitude. However, he refused and was content with staying in his bag to rest. I concentrated on my pressure breathing; a technique I learned from a mountaineering video, which helped immensely in staving off the headache which nearly everyone else had. After a bit of joking around among each other, we retired to our tents at around 9:00. The air was still but cold as it continued to snow.
Sometime during the middle of the night, I heard some noise. One of the girls in the party had also succumbed to the effects of altitude and threw up, twice. I later found out that the students had stayed in a hotel in Lone Pine the night before, and went straight up to 11,200 feet. They said that next time they would stay at the Portal at 8,637 feet to acclimate to the altitude the night before attempting this climb.
The next morning brought more snow and clouds. After eating a bit of breakfast, we spoke to a few climbers coming down the trail who had made it up to Trail Camp. All informed us that the snow was waist deep beyond Trail Camp and only one person had made it to Trail Crest (13,777') before having to turn back. It was hard to believe that just the weekend before the temperatures on the summit had been over 60 degrees! We decided that the mountain wasn't going to let anyone climb it over this Memorial Day weekend. We made the obvious but disappointing decision to turn back.
When I arrived back at the Whitney Portal, I changed clothes and ate the delicious cheeseburger and fries at the Whitney Portal Store. It was so delicious! While there, I also found out that the storm had stalled over Mt. Whitney and that conditions were supposed to remain the same until at least that coming Thursday. I decided that I would return to climb Mount Whitney again very soon.
UPDATE: I returned and summitted Mount Whitney on June 20, 2008, less than a month after I was turned back on my first attempt. There was still snow but the weather was perfect! Unfortunately, I witnessed a man attempting to be resuscitated on the trail by rescue personnel who died of a heart attack. He had his 14 year old son with him. Very sad. The following month, I stood on the summit of Mount Rainier in Washington state with my best friends Chris and Michael on July 11, 2008.