The Whitney Trail @ 110mph

Page Type Page Type: Trip Report
Location Lat/Lon: 36.57860°N / 118.293°W
Date Date Climbed/Hiked: Apr 14, 2002

April 13-15, 2002

0) Introduction

Standing on top of Mount Whitney is an ever popular past-time. So much so that climbers have to contend with the terrible and bureaucratic quota permit process for the so-called "Whitney Zone". Luckily, this does not yet affect other peaks such as Mount Shasta, Mount Hood, and Mount Washington (NH). So it was during April 2002, that I found myself itching to visit Whitney again before the quota season started on May 1. I checked with a few friends to see if they wanted to tag along. Originally I was gunning for the Mountaineer's Route (MR). One person was busy during the weekend I had planned and several more had no interest in the MR. I suggested the East Face which got some interest but then was turned down when the weather forecast predicted high winds at upper elevations. Undaunted, on Friday afternoon, I decided to head down by myself sure that there would be a ton of people climbing the mountain so close to the start of the quota period (not to be the case).

So on Friday April 12, I dropped off my 2001 tax returns at the post office and headed down to Whitney Portal. I left the Bay Area around 3:20pm and arrived around midnight via Bakersfield.

1) Mount Whitney - Whitney Trail - April 13-15, 2002

1.1) Day 1: Whitney Portal to Trail Camp

As usual, not only do I not use an alarm clock, I wait till the sun is up and I am warm before I start moving ;-) The morning was gorgeous, the skies were clear, and the sun was out. There was no snow in the parking or that could be seen on the trail. I packed my gear and started heading up intent to check out the Mountaineer's Route. When I got to the first stream crossing there was a "blank sign" next to some use-trail. I looked at my directions which said that the turn off would be 'not well indicated' at the second stream crossing. I wasn't sure what stream crossing this was, but it was certainly not well indicated so I headed up. I followed some footsteps up through some very wet ground and soon after the footsteps stopped as I entered some rocky areas. I followed a rock gully up a little ways before taking some class 2 farther up. Seeing untramled plants on the west side towards the mountain, I started heading up a gully going northeast. It was class 3 to begin with. At this point, I was pretty sure I was off trail but still thought it might be fun just to do some random looking around, but when the moves got more difficult with my pack, I decided to head down and change plans, heading up the Whitney Trail instead. I had been up the Trail before so route finding should not be an issue there I thought to myself.

By the time I got on the main trail again I had lost 2 hours and soon ran into the second stream that was prominently signed "North Fork of Lone Pine Creek" with a trail heading up to the right. I thought about the MR again for a few moments before deciding to increase my chances of bagging a 14er earlier in the season. Heading up some more, the snow started under the shade of the trees somewhere after the switchbacks where I found a sleeping bag and sleeping pad. This was very unusual since there was no one around, the gear looked virtually new, and it was right in the middle of the trail. A solo hiker and a father and son (Chris and Brandon) would soon appear. We guessed that the things must have fallen off of someone's pack on the hike out. I never got the solo hiker's name but ended up hiking with the father and son for most of the day. It turns out that Chris had also turned back on an attempt on Shasta's Casaval Ridge during this past winter. We had a nice hike up through Big Horn Sheep Park, Outpost Camp, and Mirror Lake. When we got above Mirror Lake to Trailside Meadow, however, the meadow was full of soft snow and we began postholing to our knees with about every step. This was discouraging since the last time I came, it was much cooler and I had just walked up the snow in the meadow to Trail Camp. At this point, I wasn't sure whether to camp here and head up at night or not, but with a little bit of exploring Chris discovered that the trail was to climber's right along the rocks and free of snow. I had never seen this part of the trail before but was happy we found it. We hiked up to about 11,920' where there was a small traverse in the shade. At this point, Brandon was very tired and really didn't have much experience on steep snow so Chris and Brandon turned around to set up camp just below. Although not needed, I strapped on my crampons and got my axe out for the mini-traverse before getting on to solid ground again and heading up to Trail Camp. The one other hiker I had seen in the morning had set up camp along the trail before the camp, however, I headed up to the camp proper where, to my surprise, I found only one tent. Trail Camp was positively deserted.

As the sun went down, I found a nice wind-protected spot and setup my bivy, sleeping bag, and sleeping pad on my nylon sheet. I unpacked my new Primus butane stove and eagerly set about melting snow for a Mountain House dinner. I was trying the Mountain House brand freeze-dried dinners based on GuitarWIzard's recommendation ;-) I setup my stove and eagerly clicked the Piezo igniter to spark a flame, however, nothing happened. I clicked it again and again nothing happened. Hmmm... I looked at it closer and noticed that no spark was emanating from the tip of the wire. This had worked in my apartment but now at 12,000' with no matches I couldn't get my stove to light. I wasn't too worried because I had brought along my standard fare of raisin bread and had some extra beef jerky as well but it would be a bummer to not use my new stove. Finally I saw a spark, but since I had turned off the gas, no luck. About 10 more clicks, I finally got it going with the gas on, setting off the flame and getting ready to melt snow for my dinner :-) Although the package said 2.5 servings, I ate it all so as to not leave a mess. While the dinner was cooking in the bag, I boiled more water, continually adding snow so the pot would stay nearly full. When I didn't need any more snow, I took off my boots, and then ate dinner. When I got ready to go to bed, I noticed that my leather boots were frozen solid due to the water that had accumulated inside from the post-holing on the way up. Instead of leaving them ice hard, I shoved them down to the bottom of my regular length sleeping bag before going to sleep. Since this was a regular length bag, I was majorly uncomfortable all night, turning all different directions to try and find the comfort that would not come.

1.2) Day 2: Trail Camp to Summit to Somewhere Above Mirror Lake

In the morning, I got up after the sun was up. I noticed someone at the bottom of the snow slope around 12,900' in the morning but I took my time and waited till the sun was a bit higher and the weather was a bit warmer before I started heading over. At first I hiked up the 99 Switchbacks from the minor rock ridge up to the chains. The previous time I was here, the 99 Switchbacks weren't visible at all. When I got to the chains, I noticed that there were no evidence of use and the snow was about half way up by the bottom of the two chains. A slip would mean either sliding down under the bottom chain or flipping over the top chain. I reconsidered and headed down, traversing over to the low-angled snow slope, following the other climber and my previous hike up. While I was heading up, the person ahead of me had made his way to Trail Crest and disappeared. Another person came up behind me on snowshoes and left them at about 12,700'. When I got near the top I saw two people descending (probably the two in the tent at Trail Camp). Instead of going down the snow slope, they carefully worked their way over to the 99 Switchbacks and descended that way. I made it up to Trail Crest, where I took lots of photos into Sequoia National Park and removed my crampons. I waited a bit and the guy behind me caught up and we hiked into the park together. He turned out to be Richard Piotrowski, a frequent contributor to the Whitney Portal Store Message Board. Having summitted Whitney a three times before this year, he was much better acclimated and since I was taking lots of photos we parted ways with him hiking off ahead while I took my time. About 70% of the way from Trail Crest to the summit I passed the earlier hiker coming down. When I got to the summit, Richard was just leaving so I would have the summit all to myself. I took a number of photos of a large cloud hovering overhead, checked out the summit hut, and signed the summit register. I was the 5th person to sign the summit register that day, meaning everyone who signed it was probably coming up from the Trail. Then I turned around to head down.

Only about 10% of the trail from Trail Crest to the summit was covered in snow and it was very easy to hike over. The snowfield to cross was a small snowfield just below the summit. As I headed down, I headed too far west and ran into these large rock spires that I didn't see on the way up. Heading downward, I found out I had travelled too far west and would have to traverse the snowfield to get back to the trail which cost me some time. Finally I got back on the trail and headed down. Just before Mount Muir I ran into 3 hikers heading towards the summit with the intention of camping on top for the night. I advised them of the good trail conditions and continued my way down. At this point, I had settled on hiking or glissading down the snow slope back from Trail Crest. When I got there I basically glissaded all the way down to about 12,800 before hiking over. The last part to Trail Camp was the worst due to really bad post-holing. Between the small ridge where the 99 Switchbacks start and the rocks at Trail Camp was a lot of soft snow and few rocks resulting in post-holds on just about every step, and I would often sink down to my hip or waist. It was pretty miserable but finally I made it over and started breaking down camp. It was Sunday evening and there was only 1 person at camp, Slava, a computer games programmer from LA who had just hiked up. He was over 6' tall and told me that he had slogged his way up Trailside Meadow, even post-holing in over his head 7-8 feet down once. He invited me to stay but I had planned on heading down so that's what I did. It was starting to get late in the day and the winds were picking up, probably around 40 mph at this point. My goal was to make sure I got to the small snow traverse before dark.

Unfortunately, I couldn't find the trail heading out of Trail Camp! Finding the snow filled Trailside Meadow was easy enough but I didn't want to post-hole all the way down so I spent some time to find the correct trail. I remembered it was to the north side but didn't know how far north so I ended up doing some easy 5th class climbing up a rock ridge. When I got to the top of the ridge, there was no trail, and looking around, I found that the trail was below me across a snow gully to the south so I had to get off the rock ridge (only class 2), hike up towards camp again, cross the snow before heading down the correct trail. When I got to the traverse around 11,920' it was getting dark. I took out my LED headlamp, crampons and axe and crossed. Getting to the other side, it was dark now and started hustling down the trail. The wind picked up to a constant 80 mph and I pulled my parka's hood down over my face as I made my way down. I wasn't too worried about finding my way down except for the bottom of Trailside Meadow getting down to Mirror Lake. When I got to the rocky area above Mirror Lake, I passed a nice tent site intent on pressing forward. Eventually I got to the granite rocks separated by about 20-30' of snow. In the dark, I didn't know which rock was the right one with the trail heading down to the lake. I made my way down but wasn't sure if I was going too far east or not at this point. Finally I couldn't find any footprints and had to decide whether to pull out my halogen light and do some more route-finding or just put down for the night.

Since I had my bivy gear, sleeping bag, and 2 snow flukes, I decided that work on Monday wasn't so important that I should do some more night-time routefinding. I found a small rock with barely enough space behind which to set up my bivy. While I was inflating my Therm-a-Rest the wind was howling and blowing it all over the place. I had to keep a tight grip on my sleeping pad and bivy as I set up camp. I slid in my sleeping bag, buried the 2 snow flukes and used 2 locking biners to lock in my bivy and pack. I made sure everything was attached somehow to the flukes before going to bed. Since I wasn't too happy with the boots inside my sleeping bag the previous night, I decided to put them inside the bivy but outside the sleeping bag below my feet this night. With the wind so strong, I didn't want to slide the boots in from the top so I unzipped the bivy from the bottom and slipped them in. I also didn't want to change any clothes so went right in wearing my outer shell parka. I couldn't zip shut my sleeping bag but that was okay since I could zip up the bivy. Eventually I zipped the bivy so there was only a 2" diameter breathing hole at the top. I didn't sleep a wink that night and several times I could feel the wind almost pick me, my bivy, and sleeping bag up a little, but I found a spot to push against with one knee for a little more resistance.

1.3) Day 3: Somewhere Above Mirror Lake to Whitney Portal

Eventually the sun came up. The wind was still running strong. I was hoping that it would die down with the sun but no such luck. I stayed in my bivy for a while, occasionally looking out the 2" diameter hole in the bivy and when the sun had been up for a while I got up and packed up my things. The rock with the trail I was looking for turned out to be about 200 feet north-northwest of where I was which was not all that easy to spot even in the daylight. Hopping from rock to rock with my Leki trekking poles, the gusts hit about 110 mph and I would be blown off my feet for the first time ever. This happened a few times but luckily I never fell over due to the great grip of the ceramic tips of my Leki poles. Eventually I made it down the trail to Mirror Lake. While I was crossing the small stream on some slippery rocks to the west of the log, I slipped into the freezing water. When I got out, I noticed that one of my Leki poles had partially collapsed and the water had frozen it in place so I would make my way down with one shorter pole ;-)

Then I heard someone calling me. It turned out to be Slava who had decided to head down today instead of attempting to summit in the high velocity winds. He told me that he was 225 lbs and that coming down the hard snow in Trailside Meadow, he was blown over several times and sent sprawling before catching himself. We agreed that the winds were hitting very fast. His independent estimate of wind speed was that the wind gusts were hitting him at 50 meters per second (~110 mph) in the morning. We made our way down the mountain, finding ourselves at Lone Pine Lake and then traversing over to the main trail before heading down to Whitney Portal. We met two climbers preparing to attempt the MR, but that's all that were there. We then parted ways, he to LA and me heading back up to the Bay Area.

2) Conclusion

Yes, I did hike the Trail ... but oh what a trail! Now I just need to go back to do Mount Muir before the quota season starts :-) As a final parting thought, given the high winds encountered and the low walls of the rock walled shelters, I feel that in high wind situations, a bivy is much better than having a tent along the Whitney Trail.


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