Taking on the Challenge
Having hiked and climbed many smaller peaks throughout my life, I decided that I wanted to start taking on the challenge of climbing the big ones. Up until this point, the biggest mountian that I had climbed or hiked was Pilot Peak in Nevada at 10,715 ft, which I bagged in less than a day during summer. I now had my eyes set on Mount Whitney, the tallest peak in the lower forty-eight. I'm one of those people who likes to be challenged, and so I decided to climb this peak in November. Since my winter mountianeering skills are limited, I decide to take the Whitney Trail.
It was now July 2006, and I was determind to get prepared for this climb. I began an intense workout routine of strength training and cardio. I also took a lot of time learning about the various routes up the mountain, and any other information that would be important to know. This continued throughtout the summer and into the fall. Up until this point I had never put a lot of time into preparing for a climb or hike, but I knew this would be much more demanding. I planned on making this a four day expedition rather than try and haul ass to the summit and then haul ass back to the parking lot. This would end up being my highest, longest distance covered, and most days spent out on a climb. I prepared a lengthy itinerary which I left with a trusted friend. This outlined every aspect of my climb, local agencies to contact, and a list of my gear. As november neared, I felt ready for my solo trip to Mount Whitney.
Days One Through Two
Thursday 9, November
After driving all evening from Oceanside, California, I arrive at the Whitney Portal, 8300 ft, at around 11:00pm PST. I slept in my truck in an attempt to get few hours of sleep and to slowly start acclimating to the altitude. Coming up from sea level, I'm thinking that altitude could be a problem.
Friday 10, November
I wake up at daybreak to the awsome sight of the granite cliffs and peaks towering over the parking lot. The sun is casting an orange glow over the top of the rocks. This is an awsome sight. The morning is cold, and the skies are clear. I prepare a quick breakfast, pack my gear, and set off on my journey. There are a few other vehicles in the parking lot of other people preparing for a trip up the mountain. The weather forcast calls for mild and clear conditions for the duration of my trip. Having grown up on the West Coast I know better than to trust the forcast, and so I'm bringing gear for the possiblity of harsher weather. My pack and overall gear is weighing in at 70 lbs. A bit heavy, but I want to be prepared for four days on the mountian. I decide at the last minute to leave my snowshoes in order to cut wieght. This decision almost proved disasterous. The climb is steady and rapid up to 10,000 ft. The trail is bare dirt and rock. I pass one set of day hikers coming down the mountian somewhere around 9500 ft. They seem impressed at my massive load of gear, and snap a couple pictures of me. After I reach 10,000 feet I can feel the effects of altitude. After crossing this mark, I start slowing down. Once I reach 11,000 feet I'm having great difficulty going very far without stopping to catch my breath. The weight of my pack is beganing to become a real pain in the ass at this point. I'm really hoping to reach Trail Camp before dark. I'm beganing to encounter large patches of thick ice covering the trail. I manuever around these without much difficulty. Finally I reach Trail Camp. I find two other climbers here who were beganing to set up their camp. I notice that they are packed very light. At this point I notice high clouds approaching from the West. I talk to them about the weather, and that I thought the weather had changed. I'm thinking that within 12-24 hours we might see a front move in. They sort of shrugged this idea off, telling me that the weather will be plesant. I decide to move up a little higher and find a place to make my base camp. I find a nice, somewhat sheltered rock ledge about five feet above the ground. After setting up my tent, I notice the clouds thickening a bit, with some ice crystals hanging down from the high clouds. I check my barometer and it's showing a drop. I decide to stake down every point on my tent, and to build a small rock wall. I had never went to this extreme setting up my tent before, but something told me that this would be a good idea. The ground here is bare, with only a few snowing patches and frozen puddles. I find a large icy puddle below my camp and use this for a water source. I eat dinner, and call it a day. I'm absolutly exhausted and ready for a good nights sleep before my summit attempt. Sometime after dark a warm South wind begans to blow. Now I know a cold front is coming. The wind increases to around 50 mph.
Saturday 11, November
It is around 1:00 am, and the warm South wind has now turned into a 70+ mph bitter westerly wind, and it is snowing. I'm wondering just exactly what the limits of my tent are. I brought a North Face Mountian 25 tent. The wind is racing down the mountian, and is so loud that I can hear each gust thirty seconds or more before it reaches my tent. It sounds like a jumbo jet is flying through the area. I feel like I'm in a sand blaster with the icy snow hitting my tent at 70 mph. I experience blizzard conditions throughout the early morning and this continues all day until evening. The only time I go outside of my tent is to turn the snow yellow, and to gather more water for purification. Oh yeah, the other two people that camped below me are now nowhere to be found. I think they got the hell out of there sometime during the night. Finally in the evening, the storm breaks and the sunlight is shinning on the ridge tops as the sun sets.
Days Three Through Four
[Sunday 12, November
I wake up in the morning to find a very different landscape than the one I encountered on my first day. The ground is now completely snow covered and it is very cold. The good news is the sun is out. I head out for my summit attempt carrying a 15 pound summit pack. I have to strap on my crampons now because the route is very icy. I reach the base of the endless switchbacks and began my accent. The route starts out gradual and very icy at first. The trail here is supposed to be fairly decent, and easy going in the summer. Now the route is one big snow and ice covered slope. Progress up the slope is slow and steady. I finally reach Trail Crest at 13,000 ft and I can now see to the West. Up until this point I experinced very little wind. Now it was blowing around 25 mph. I notice that there are thin high clouds again approaching. The rest of the route from Trail Crest to the summit of Whitney is icy with spots of deep snow. I reach the Whitney summit and the views are abolutly breathtaking. Now I'm definently feeling the effects of altitude. I'm feeling a little winded and sick. I take some cool guy pictures, rest a bit, and then began heading down the mountian to Trail Camp. The clouds are really moving in fast, and I know that I need to get down as quickly as possible. So much for the mild forecast. Never trust West Coast weather. I reach Trail Crest and have to stop because now I'm feeling very sick and out of breath. I hydrate a bit and eat some food, which makes me feel alot better. I began decending the endless switchbacks, which is actually just an icy slope with some glimpses a trail. The snow had melted a bit during the day, and has now refroze making the slope very slippery. I start down through an area called the Cables. This is extremely slick, and is a fairly good drop if one were to fall. I procede toward the cables and lose my footing. I slip and start slidding down the slope where I slam my ice ax into snow. I stop slidding about ten feet down the hillside below the cables. Let me tell you, this scared the crap out of me, but I was impressed that I was able to get stopped before eating the rocks at the bottom. After getting myself back up above the cables I began to procede down the icy trail. Finally I reach my camp, and prepare dinner. I crawl into my tent and hope to get a good nights sleep since tomorrow I will be headed back down to the parking lot. Sometime after nightfall, the warm wind begans blowing agian at about 50 mph. Here we go again!
Monday 13, November
It is early morning, and the wind is screaming along at around 80 mph. This is the hardest wind I have ever experienced. I confirm this windspeed later when I get home by reviewing the weather history for the area. I'm amazed at the fact my tent is withstanding this fierce wind. I peak out and the snow is really coming down. The wind is roaring over the ridges above me, and it is awsome sound. I hope that the storm lets up by daybreak so that I can head out. Luckily I left a detailed itinerary with someone outlining what I would do if the weather got bad. Basically I stated in the itinerary that if I did not call by Monday, that they were to check the weather. If the weather was bad then I would shelter and come down the following day. As morning approaches I see no chance of getting out of here. It is a full blown blizzard at this point. I decide to pack what I can anyways incase I catch a break. The temperature is reading 9 degrees. Shortly after daybreak, the cloud deck lifts slightly and the winds began to subside. I began tearing down my tent, which is nearly impossible to put back in its stuff sack with the high winds. Finally I manage to pack everyting up and start my decent. The storm is still raging above me near the high ridges. The route down is now covered in a couple feet of snow, with deeper drifts. I reach the treeline, and the weather turns much more mild here. However, snow is blowing off of the peaks and is falling down on me. The farther I decend, the milder the weather becomes. By the time I reach the parking lot, it is very warm, sunny, and no snow on the ground. It was like walking out of deep winter into late spring. The temperature changes nearly 30 degrees from my camp to the parking lot, crazy stuff. After I got home, I don't think Whitney recieved anymore snow for the rest of the month. I guess I just got lucky enough to catch it right and experience the wrath of the mountian. Would I do it agian, hell yes!
In the summer this might be a fairly easy summit to acheive, but in the late fall and winter it's a whole new ball game. Knowing how the local weather works, and being prepared for anything went a along ways towards having a successfull solo climb. One thing that I have since changed is to carry less wieght. I guess one just figures this out over time with more experience. I don't recommend climbing solo, but I feel it is also the altimate way to challenge yourself. If I had recieved anymore snow than I did, I could have had a very hard time getting out. Next time I will not leave the snowshoes in the truck.