Marching Up Whitney

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Trip Report
California, United States, North America
Date Climbed/Hiked:
Mar 20, 2004
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Created On: Jun 2, 2004
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Whitney Trip Report

Essential Gear:

-          Tent, Sleeping Bags, Sleeping Pad, Crampons, Ice Axes, Trekking Poles, Mountaineering Boots, Gaiters, Sunglasses, Nalgene Bottles, Primus Stove, Weatherproof Matches, Kettle, Freeze-Dried Food, High Protein Snacks (Clif Bars, Powerbars, Gels, Nuts, etc.), Winter Clothes (base layer, fleece layer, hard shell, down parka)


Extra Gear:

-          Canon 1D Digital SLR Camera, 24-70mm f/2.8L Lens, 70-200mm f/2.8L Lens, Gitzo Mountaineer Tripod, Gitzo Magnesium Universal Ballhead with Quick Release Adapter, Galen Rowell Graduated Neutral Density Filters, Sony MiniDV Camcorder with High-Grade 0.6X Wide Angle Lens


Weather Conditions (Lone Pine, CA):

-          Max Temp, 81 deg F; Min Temp, 36 deg F; Dew Point, 24 deg F; Precipitation, 0 in; Max Wind Speed, 15 mph


Day 0 - Thursday, March 18, 2004:


I picked up my friend, Renzo, at 9 p.m. Thursday night in Los Angeles to start our trip to the Whitney summit.  We were determined to climb the Mountaineer’s Route during winter.  We had been planning this for a while and kept careful watch of the weather and snow conditions.  A high pressure system was expected to be in the area for several days, so the weather forecasts looked good.  In fact, the weather in Lone Pine is expected to be summerlike!  Traffic on the freeways was light and it took us only 3 hours to arrive in Lone Pine.  We stopped at the Whitney Ranger Station in Lone Pine and obtained our permits.  Lone Pine was pretty quiet at that hour.  Since it wasn’t necessary to stop to eat (we usually like to stop at the High Sierra Café, open 24 hours/day and with a clear view of Whitney from the dining room), we drove up Whitney Portal Road before snow prevented us from going further.  (We didn’t want to push it since we wasted 3 hours getting the car unstuck the last time!)  We ended up about 1.5 miles short of Whitney Portal and it was 1:30 a.m. Friday morning.  There were about a half dozen cars parked there and it appeared that people were sleeping in some of them.  Not a stir from any of the vehicles.


Day 1 – Friday, March 19, 2004:


After having some snacks (Clif Bars, Powerbars and nuts) and some Gatorade, we gathered our packs and, at 2 a.m., headed up the road to Whitney Portal and started on the main Whitney Trail.  The snow was firm but not icy and we proceeded without crampons.  There were patches of bare ground on the Trail especially in some of the southeast facing areas.  After 30 minutes, we turned on to the North Fork of Lone Pine Creek at the sign and continued through the pine trees and up the canyon.  We strapped on our crampons at this point.  Lone Pine Creek sometimes poked out from under the snow, but for most of the time, it was very quiet with only the crunching of our boots/crampons on the firm snow.  Trekking poles helped tremendously since they provided additional power and balance going uphill.  Renzo and I split as much of the load as possible, but I was carrying 17 pounds of camera and video gear.  It’s the price you pay for getting the good shots.


It took us 3 hours from the start of the North Fork to reach the entrance to Lower Boy Scout Lake.  The last time we went through the North Fork, it took us nearly 5 hours.  The big difference was the firmness of the snow.  Previously, we went up the North Fork in the middle of the day and the snow was slushy and slippery.  This time, it was nice and firm making progress much easier.  However, we did have to cross Lone Pine Creek twice where the snow bridges did melt away.  We also were also trying to be mindful of thin snow bridges where we could potentially punch through.  We got through all right, and it was a few minutes to 7 a.m. when we reached Lower Boy Scout Lake.  Just at that time, the sun struck the Whitney summit and began to fill the valley with that spectacularly deep red/orange alpenglow which lasted about 5 minutes.  Weather conditions couldn’t have been better.  Not a cloud in the sky!


After we broke out of the shade just above Lower Boy Scout Lake, we were getting the full brunt of the bright sunshine.  We took our fleece layer off and just hiking in our base layer was pretty comfortable.  Sunglasses and sunblock were mandatory with that sun and snow all around.  I opened the side-zippers on my pants halfway to prevent oveheating but I still sweated profusely.  However, the headband I brought this time prevented my sunglasses from getting all fouled up.  The snow was still firm so the crampons worked like a charm.  But, that luxury would eventually come to an end later in the day.


The valley leading towards Upper Boy Scout Lake gradually grew less in slope and we reached the lake in about 3 hours.  Post-holing became more frequent but it was manageable.  We consciously did not bring snowshoes to save weight.  We noticed the icefall from the Moraine drainage along the way and made a note to bring some ice climbing equipment next time to give it a try.  From Upper Boy Scout Lake, we pushed up through Clyde Meadows and reached the Moraine area which provided our first close up view of the Day and Keeler Needles and the East Face of Mount Whitney.  Too bad all those people on the Whitney Trail don’t get to see this view close up.  It’s pretty impressive.


Continuing through the Moraine valley, we encountered a series of ascending slopes which started to erode our strength.  It was mid-day and the southeastern facing slope of the Moraine area had been absorbing sunshine for several hours turning it into mush.  Post-holing became frequent and in a couple of instances, our leg would sink in to the hilt, cause us to take our pack off and dig ourselves out.  Renzo was handling it fine, but I was starting to hit a physical wall.


We decided to camp amongst some boulders in the Moraine about 700 feet from the slope leading up to Iceberg Lake.  Renzo started melting water with the stove.  My head was pounding and I crashed after laying out my bag.  It was 2:30 p.m.


I woke up and it was dark.  I asked my buddy if he was awake and he said, “Yup.”  I asked him if he was hungry and I got a “Most definitely!” as a reply.  He and I were both starving!  I took a look at my watch.  It was 11:30 p.m.  Having skipped sleep the previous night and hardly eating during the day really took a toll.  After inhaling some Kathmandu Curry, nuts and dried fruit all downed with copious amounts of tea and Gatorade, I felt like a champ once again!  (Mental note:  Don’t skip sleep next time!)


Day 2 - Saturday, March 20, the Vernal Equinox:


At 1:00 a.m., I went back to sleep and woke up at 6:30 a.m. to get some photos of the sunrise illuminating the Needles and the East Face.  If you can get up for that magical 5 minutes, I would really recommend it.  It is absolutely breathtaking


We packed lighter for the summit and we set off on crampons at 7 a.m. towards Iceberg Lake.  The slope leading up towards Iceberg Lake is fairly steep but those before us kicked some nice steps making it much easier.  (We glissaded down this part on the way back using our ice axes as brakes!)  A couple was camping at Iceberg Lake next to the lone boulders.  I said “hello” as they were eating breakfast, and after shooting some pictures and video, we headed up the Couloir.  Again, it was a perfect weather day and all was very calm at Iceberg Lake at 12,600 feet.


The morning snow in the Couloir was firm and made travel up the slope very stable.  About halfway up the Couloir, the wind started picking up.  We donned our windbreakers and the air got appreciably colder as we slipped into the shadow of the East Face.  The snow was steep enough for loose rock and snow to keep tumbling down the Couloir, so we tried to keep falling debris to a minimum for the sake of anyone below.


After reaching the Notch, we finally were able to look West and two choices presented themselves.  We could either traverse the North Face and ascend to the summit on the other side or go directly up the Chute to our immediate left.  We knew the summit plateau was right there above us about 400 feet so we voted for the Chute.  At the notch, a small bird kept flying around us and probably looking for a handout.  I guess it has been fed by others and got used to connecting food and people.  I took a picture of it and later identified it as a female Gray-Crowned Rosy Finch, a native of high alpine snowfields in Western North America.


Three climbers on ropes were coming down the Chute so we waited a bit and passed them near their next to last pitch.  We offered to stay there until they exited the bottom of the Chute to minimize stuff hitting them from above, but they urged us to just go ahead.  Free climbing on crampons on the lower rocks in the Chute was a bit sketchy, but my holds held firm through the exposed sections.  From there on, it was all firm snow to the top of the Chute, and I self-belayed with my ice ax for a little more insurance.


What a great feeling it is to exit the top of the Chute to find yourself staring at the Summit Hut about 200 easy yards away!  We were alone at the summit and the time was 10:45 a.m.  The register contained names from all over the U.S. and overseas, and after signing it, we took some summit photos ( and I shot a 360 degree pan of the summit on video (  Although we were in full sunlight with windproof tops and bottoms, we could feel the warmth being sucked out of us by the wind.  It was cold.  We left the summit at 11:45 a.m., made it back to camp at 1:30 p.m., packed up camp and got back to the car at 6:30 p.m.!


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