Trip Planning and Preperation
The plan to climb Mt. Whitney started on the trail to Mt. Baldy (Mt. San Antonio) in the Fall of 2009. While making the trek up the ski hut trail, the conversation topics between my son Cameron and I covered just about everything. One of those topics was climbing, and we of course talked about all of the great peaks in the world (the ones we knew of), and decided that since we had only climbed the three highpoints in southern California (Baldy, San Jacinto and San Gorgonio) and the highest of those at only 11,499', that Mt. Whitney should be our goal.
My son moved away to attend college in northern Utah at Weber State University, so the plan of training together became very difficult. After much reading and stressing about "planning your Whitney trip", "the lottery system", etc. our application was in the mail. Being that this was our first time climbing this mountain, and the effort we would have to put into it in training and travel, I wanted to make sure we did it "by-the-book" our first time. We set our date of June 2, 2010, and waited. During the winter months we both trained by hiking and running, and I even made one trip to Utah which gave us a chance to hit the Wasatch Range for a few days. Because of that trip we are making plans to climb Pfeifferhorn via Little Cottonwood Canyon later this summer.
Our Permit Arrives!!!!
Well, not exactly. What I did receive was the notification that our date was approved, along with a helpful guide to "Planning Your Trip". Everytime I found a new site or Blog with "Planning Your Trip" information on Whitney I read it, and they were ALL helpful. So now we are good to go, having that notice almost feels like you are standing on the mountain! Not so fast, still lots of training and prep to do. I reserved a camp site, again not wanting to take chances, and although it was not necessary, it gave me peace of mind knowing we had a space. We camped at the Portal, just down the trail from the Portal store. The campsite was well maintained and was perfect for our needs.
Last Minute Prep
Training complete (we hope), my son came home from college a week before we were to head out. This gave us a chance to talk about the upcoming climb, get our gear in order, and go out for one last hike together before we leave. Our timing to go shopping for what gear we needed just happened to be during the REI BIG SPRING SALE!!!!! Like two kids in a candy store we were there.
We decided to hike up Mt. Baldy via the Devil's Backbone for the mileage, about 14 miles RT. I had been up to the summit four days earlier and the weather was fantastic, this day however it was much colder and the wind was really blowing. We decided to cut our trip short while sitting on Mt. Harwood just below the Baldy summit. The winds were 60 mph and the temp was well below freezing. This was a very positive part of our training and would be helpful in our journey that awaited us in a few days, because while sitting so close to the Baldy summit, my son suggested we turn back. This told me that he has matured not only as a climber, but as a man. I was very proud at that moment. It was a wise choice to head down.
We Arrive at Our Base Camp
After picking up our "REAL" permit, and of course our "carry out" bags, we headed over to the Portal and set up our base camp. We checked out the Portal store, talked to the friendly staff, had a fantastic lunch then drove out to Horseshoe Meadow for a little preclimb acclimatizing. This was recommended by several people and I too would strongly recommend it. We hiked around for a few hours, it is beautiful up there. But watch out for bears! I have never seen so much bear poop! Does a bear shit in the woods? Hell yes!
After dinner we packed our gear so we would not have to do it in the dark the next morning. We went to bed early, knowing that we had worked hard for this and that a good night's sleep was important.
3:00 AM Start
We started out on the trail at 3:00 am, half moon, clear skies, about 44 degrees. This was a perfect day for our climb. We expected to see other climbers starting out about the same time, but there were none. This was our first experience hiking in the dark with headlamps. You really have to stay focused on the trail. You don't want to roll an ankle now. The trail is very basic as it makes it's way towards Lone Pine Lake, Big Horn Sheep Park and then to Outpost Camp. Because it was still dark we didn't get to see any of this until the return trip. It was now about 5:15 am and we are watching the sunrise back down the canyon we have been climbing. We talked to a couple of campers that were up and they comfirmed what others had already told us, that we were a little crazy doing the "one day" trip. We watched a small avalanche on the north facing slope south of the camping area, had some snacks and proceeded.
Now that the sun is up that changes everything. As a photographer I now found it hard to not stop and take out my camera every ten steps and try to capture all the beauty that surrounded us. My son says, and he's just kidding (I think?) we would save time if I would just leave my camera at home. I carry my Canon digital SLR, maybe I should get a really nice point-and-shoot.
It is warming up so we shed a layer and proceeded to Mirror Lake, did a "drive by" photo shoot and we continued on. Above Mirror Lake the trail was covered by snow so we just followed the foot tracks left by all the climbers over Memorial Day Weekend. The tracks led us up and over a few small hills, boulders I'm sure in the summer, and on to a snowfield that continued towards Trail Camp. At this point we put our crampons, took out our trekking poles and followed the foot tracks to Trail Camp. The snow was still hard, so the crampons helped with our footing as we climbed the shallow slopes to Trail Camp. On the way to Trail Camp I found an ice axe that had melted down into the snow. I added it to my pack, and we made Trail Camp at 7:15 am. More on the ice axe later. There were more Marmots than campers on this day. We decided this was a good place to take a nice break before heading up the snowfield and climbing up the chute to Trail Crest.
Now the "Fun" Begins, Climbing the Chute
it was getting pretty warm now so we shed a layer down to short sleeves, our farmer's tan is now killer! After a well deserved break at Trail Camp we geared back up and set out on the snowfield. We could see two climbers ahead of us, one at the base of the chute, the other left his camp just after we arrived. Funny, he too gave us that "are you crazy" look when we told him we were going up and back in one day.
When there is no snow everyone usually goes up the dreaded "99 switchbacks", our only option was the chute. I knew this ahead of time from checking on trail conditions for two weeks prior to our trip. This was one of the "variations" mentioned in the main Whitney page here on SP.
There is something I must tell you before we head up the chute. My 18 year old son Cameron has never worn crampons before this trip! Having said that, this chute would be his first! I have shared with him my experience with crampons, good techniques, and all that has been shared to me by my climbing buddy's but it was now his turn to put it to use. The climb up the chute was long and hard, and the snow was starting to soften up making it a little slow. It was easier to use our trekking poles than our ice axe. I understand the safety issue and self arrest, but the snow was soft and we were clear of the rocks, the poles made it easier in the softening snow. As we climbed, it just seemed like we were not getting any closer, so we just kept talking to each other, sort of like any other sporting event "good job", "you can do it", "just a little more".
We topped out at Trail Crest at 10:00 am, about two hours after leaving Trail Camp. I was so proud of his accomplishment. If at any time he would have said "I can't do this" or "I want to turn back" I would have completely understood, I remember my first time, and I have a little fear of heights. I overcome it by just focusing on where I am going, not where I have been.
Trail Crest to the Summit
The view from the Trail Crest will leave you speechless, you are probably already out of breath, and now you loose your speech!
After another well deserved break we headed out on the Crest Trail towards the summit. The trail from this point is pretty straight forward, follow it to the summit. Again, doing "drive by" picture taking on the trail.
We made the 1.9 mile trek to the summit enjoying the view all the way up, and still talking about the climb up the chute. As we were climbing the last 1/4 mile up on to the summit we passed the camper we met on his way down, chatted for a few minutes, continued on and passed the other climber on his way down about 100 yards from the summit.
We summited at 12:45 pm. This was a very proud time for me, not because of what I had just done, but because of what my son and I had done together. We both were tired, that goes without saying, but we were both excited that "this" part of the journey was over, we were half way there! After some food and drinks, and yes, picture taking, we started back down.
To my surprise we had the summit to ourselves, and at 1:15 pm we started the trek back. We passed two other climbers on the Crest Trail that came in via Crabtree. We met up with one of the other climbers heading down as he prepared to glissade the chute. We prepared for our turn and took the express route down. We were down at Trail Camp in no time. The worst part of the descent from Trail Camp was the postholing. It was so warm and the snow was very soft. The Trail Camp was now a busy base camp. Tents were popping up everywhere and we passed several more climbers on their way to set up.
We were back at the car at 7:00 pm, and I took pictures too! Our entire trip took us about 16 hours.
This was an amazing day with my son, one that I will never forget.
In closing, listen to the experienced climbers, get as much information about your trip, train hard, then train harder, over prepare, safety first...the mountain will wait for you another day.
About the ice axe I found, well, the day after I returned from my trip I went to the Portal web site to post it and the person who lost it had already done that. He climbed one day before us. I contacted him, he was very excited that I had found his axe. The place he told me he thought he had lost it was exactly where I found it. This axe had accompanied him to Denali, Aconcagua, and Elbrus to name a few, it had sentimental value.
I think the next time we will camp at Trail Camp!!!!!