This account is meant to be more of a comical story of what not to do. I cannot provide you with too much advice on how to bag Mount Whitney during the winter.
In January 2012, four of my friends and I decided to tackle Whitney. We thought we'd have the trails to ourselves, and the weather looked like it was going to be nice enough; we were right about one of those things.
We started our hike in nearly pitch-darkness at 6pm, with 50 pounds of winter gear on our backs. By midnight, we had made it to Outpost camp. The wind beat down on us making tent set-up difficult, but we woke up to a beautifully sunny and calm morning.
Our hike up to base camp was relatively uneventful, although it took longer than we would have wanted. We all had heavy packs, and one of our group had never backpacked before. We arrived at the exposed basecamp, and the heavy winds that had pummeled us throughout the afternoon continued to make life difficult. With fading light, we set up our shelters and began to make dinner.
The wind made sleep difficult, and halfway through the night we realized that snow was not just being blown around, but was falling from the sky. Heavily. Weather reports told us we might have to deal with a couple inches of snow, but we were not prepared for the two feet of soft stuff we woke up to. We had packed crampons and ice axes, but nothing to deal with soft snow.
Upon leaving our tents, we quickly realized that we had to abandon all hopes of the summit. The wind was ripping our shelters apart, and snow continued to build up. We tore everything down and began our descent without melting snow for water or eating breakfast bigger than an energy bar.
Our nine mile, nine hour descent was one of the most physically trying things I have ever been through. The wind forced us to lay on the ground many times, and visibility was down to 20 feet without goggles, and about six inches with them (lenses kept freezing). The temperature may have been 10 F, but we were kept warm by our exertion. After four hours, when we finally reached a running stream, I tried to fill my bottle, but the water froze as soon as it touched the plastic.
This may be a textbook example of what not to do, but I do not regret any decisions from that day. We did not know if or when the storm would break, and with no visible trail markers, we had no choice other than to head straight down.
We live to climb another day, and have a new healthy respect for the mountain.
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