Climb: Mount Whitney
Where: Eastern Sierra, Sierra Nevada Mountains, California
Roundtrip Mileage: 22 miles
Elevation Gain: Roughly 6,600 feet.
I had a good opportunity to be in LA this past week and potentially be in a position to climb Mount Whitney again before returning to New York. I had been wanting to climb Whitney in the snow, or at least partially in the snow for a while, though for various reasons, had not been able to make it happen.
After having secured my permit and driving up from LA, I spent a day acclimatizing, taking one last check on the weather forecast and targeted Saturday, May 12 as the day.
Luckily, there was still some snow left in the Eastern Sierra and more than enough to be able to climb the "Chute" after Trail Camp, which would add more of a mountaineering flavor to the Main Trail.
For the sake of simplicity, I was aiming to do this as a long single day climb up, as I've done in the past. I arrived at the Whitney Portal parking lot at 2:30AM and shortly before 3:00AM I hit the trail. Very few cars were in the parking lot and I saw nobody else hiking up until well after sunrise. It was as though I had the mountain for myself - not something you can say too often on this popular peak.
The approach up was pretty uneventful. All of the stream crossings were straightforward and easy to walk over, though with more water flowing in them than in the Autumn. The trail does have some boulders and branches here and there but was fairly easy to follow. My headlamp actually caught the eyes of a few trout in the water under those long logs you walk lengthwise over, which was pretty neat, and a bit strange to see. I almost fell in the water as I was watching them! Speaking of eyes...
At a point at around 9,800ft, I was met by a pair of eyes staring at me in the pitch darkness, situated about 24" off the ground to the side of the trail. The hairs on the back of my neck stood up as the pale greenish/yellow eyeshine pierced the night air watching me as I now remained motionless. With a heavy pulse throbbing in my throat, seconds seemed like minutes as I waited for a hungry feline to pounce on me... I decided to slowly move up the trail, axe in hand, playing the odds and figured if a cat was going to attack, it would do it from the back and I'd never see or hear it anyway... soon I saw the silhouette of a pair of ears...deer ears, thankfully...sigh...I thought I'd have to break in my wag bag a bit early today.
As my heart rate returned to normal...
Hiking up the drainage into the basin you are greeted with stupendous views. This shot below is just before Trail Camp where the snow becomes deeper and some "short cuts" become available, though at this point, it was easy enough to follow the trail proper, despite the snow patches in some areas. Postholing becomes an issue, however and care needs to be taken with each step. The below shot I took on the way out (in daylight).
Trail Camp appears soon enough and there was only one other hiker - the only one I saw up until this point! Time to refill my water bottles. The lake was frozen, but nothing a few chops with my ice axe couldn't take care of. I had a bit of an issue here as the batteries in my Steripen had died despite having worked fine the night before and my tablets had gotten wet ... Thank you to the gentleman who gave me some of his excess water to save me from having to super ration my remaining water and Vitalyte.
The Sierra Crest just overwhelms you no matter how many times you've seen it.
From Trail Camp, there are several options to ascend. I opted to head for the beginning of the switchbacks, moved up a couple of them, then once at suitable elevation, cut across to the base of the snow chute which would lead to Trail Crest. When in "shape", this is clearly the crux of the route and amounts to roughly 1,650 vertical feet of snow climbing alone.
The below shot was where I opted to turn out and shoot for the snow field along side the Sierra Crest towards the west. The first few switchbacks were dry, then become snow covered. Plenty of snow here for a fun snow climb! For traversing this part (west of the switchbacks), trekking poles helped, crampons helped more, though at this point an axe probably is not needed yet, unless you crossed higher up where it was steeper. The cables area had quite a bit of snow from what I could see, though I didn't walk up to them to inspect.
Despite the warming temperatures and reports that there is little snow in the mountains, there was plenty of snow to climb the Chute this weekend.
This below shot is near the entrance to the snow climb, where the terrain starts to steepen. Two climbers are near the rock band towards the top of the photo.
The below shot is from the base starting out on the Chute, looking back towards the direction of Trail Camp with some climbers coming up.
After climbing a bit up, I am looking up the slope at what remains with a fellow climber to my left. There is a lot of climbing to do here. This was going to be a test of my cardio.
I am about half way up the chute here looking back down at those folks coming up.
To show scale, note in many of the photos the climbers at the bottom who appear like ants in the photos.
Climbing this was pretty exhausting, but made for an awesome workout! It also makes you appreciate the Whitney climb more than the switchbacks, though I can say I've had some
"memorable" times on those also :-P. There are a couple of ways up, I chose the first entrance coming from the east, then angling up towards the middle of the chute. There is a rockband showing which bifurcates the snowfield into two parts, east and west portions down lower.
As I climbed up, the conditions and quality of the snow changed often. In some spots my axe sunk in just right enabling me to get nice crisp steps up several at a time. In other spots, my axe point hit solid ice and in yet others, found soft snow and sunk two feet to its head. My crampons generally bit well, though as the morning progressed, the snow was softer towards the top and became slushier and as such, more slippery, requiring me to rely more on my axe to stop any slides.
I took these two shots from around Trail Crest towards the top of the chute. Yes, this is really that steep. If the snow is hard and icy, be careful here. I am not sure what angle the slope is, but it steepens a bit towards the crest and is enough to warrant care to not slip as it would a long fall down.
This shot is right at Trail Crest looking down, where the snow was pretty soft at this point in the day (late morning).
After Trail Crest, you have awesome views west into the Sierras. This spot has to have one of the nicest views anywhere. A nice place for a rest.
There is some patchy snow remaining on some critical areas in the back side after this point located at and soon after the intersection of the John Muir Trail. While not too difficult to pass, attention is needed here not to make a careless slip as there is some spots where you don't want to fall. See climbers here for scale.
Moving further towards the summit, there is one last snowfield you must cross, right before you make the sharp right turn up to the summit. At this point, the snow was soft enough to not warrant crampons - the deep boot track certainly helped here too.
The same snowfield looking back towards the needles. Note the blue skies all the way!
After a seemingly endless climb from that last snowfield, the shelter finally appears and I was soon on top for Summit #3! Not only was the weather perfect with any wind dying down by now, but I was alone on top for nearly 30min. A lone chubby marmot kept me company, though he surely had an ulterior motive of waiting for a piece of Clif Bar.
Needless to say, the views were spectacular in all directions.
After downing my obligatory summit Snickers, I signed the register notepad and I reluctantly started back down for the long walk back to my car at the Portal.
Once back at Trail Crest, I was caught between making an easy glissade down or the old plunge step in the now softer snow (late morning/midday). I opted to walk down the upper steeper portion and then use a very controlled glissade (i.e. slower) once past the halfway mark.
Note here: If you are doing this in the late afternoon or (worse) early evening and have slippery snow pants on, this is sure to ice up and will require extra care here and will need an axe (not poles) to help you safely down. There are several glissade tracks, which would likely ice up sooner, on which you'd pick up considerable speed if you are not careful. This could make for a long slide into the rocks below. If in doubt, just spend the extra time walking it.
On the descent, past Trail Camp over the next mile or so down, there are some spots where the snow is very soft and you'll posthole up to your waist if you're not careful (but, maybe it was that extra pizza I ate the night before).
All in all, it was a simply awesome day in the Sierras!
Thumbnails for uploaded photos (click to open slideshow):