Mt. Whitney attempt
Written by Trevor Luepton – May 17, 2011.
Months ago I had come up with the great idea to attempt to summit Mt. Whitney. Only knowing what I had read from various online articles, Mt. Whitney seemed like a good mountain to start my mountaineering experience on. With little more than a permit in hand and a goal, I set out to plan my first real summit attempt.
After reading about the probability of getting a permit from the Mt. Whitney lottery, I wasn’t too hopeful that this year would be the year I attempt Mt. Whitney. Even so, I downloaded the proper forms and mailed in a permit application for a group of 6 hopefuls. Months later, I receive an email informing me of my success in obtaining 6 permits for the endeavor. Of course, as with most planned trips, my group quickly dwindled quickly leaving only me wanting to attempt to summit Mt. Whitney. As the weeks passed I felt as if this attempt would now turn out to be a relaxing camping trip at the base of the mountain and no longer a summit attempt until an Ohio transplant moved into the available apartment upstairs from us.
Chris Reed is an Ohio transplant who moved here weeks ago following a career opportunity. Chris has had backpacking experience as he is an Eagle Scout and an avid hiker. He accepted the Mt. Whitney summit attempt challenge happily and we started planning. The final group ended up being just myself and Chris Reed.
Friday the 13th was the day in which our attempt began. (Yikes!) All of us had to finish the work day before we could begin our journey to Mt. Whitney Portal. We left Vista, CA around 6pm and arrived at the Whitney Portal around midnight. After setting up camp for my mom, Chris and myself headed out on the Whitney Trail around 1:30am.
The hike from the portal to Lone Pine Lake is 2.8 miles yet we seemed to pass this lake and never did visit it. The switchbacks quickly became covered in snow and ice after about 1.5 miles of hiking up the trail. Since the snow had frozen and become iced over we decided it was best to put our crampons on. This made for easier navigation through the ice covered slopes. Around 3am the moon dipped behind the mountains and the darkness swallowed us leaving it very hard to navigate our path. Hours later, as we watched the sun rise, we decided we needed some rest if we were going to make it.
We decided to make camp around 5am on a rock outcropping since there were snow avalanches along the base of the cliffs we wanted to stay clear of. We tried to sleep but after 4 hours, it was time to get going. After eating and packing up we head out around 11am to move further on up the mountain towards Trail Camp (12,000ft). This is where we planned on staying Saturday night to rest up for our intense push towards Whitneys 14,505ft peak!
The next 2 hours of hiking were a breeze as we made our way past Bighorn Lake and Mirror Lake. We were enjoying the beautiful views and clear skies. Once we moved further past Mirror Lake, we encountered very strong winds and gusts making it hard to stand and stay planted in the snow! With our overly heavy packs (55lbs) and the wind blowing against us as we began climbing up the snow covered slopes, it quickly dawned on us that the worst is yet to come!
Our energy levels dropped rapidly as we began the brutal game of counting steps to our next resting spot on the increasingly difficult slopes. We began a 20 then 20 game. 20 steps (baby steps one foot in front of the other) then 20 a second break and keep moving. If we stopped any longer than this, it became twice as hard to start again and we could feel the lactic acid building up in our muscles already not to mention the cold! If you are not moving at this point in the climb then you are starting to get cold; quickly! We had passed the tree line when things starting to really turn for the worst – and quickly.
After the tree line and near Consultation Lake, the wind never let up. We had a steady head-on wind blowing against us as we tried to make progress up the mountain. This was such a physical and mental fight. Postholing, winds gusts, and altitude made even a small hill climb take around 30 minutes or more to overcome.
After reaching the 12,000ft mark we decided to take a much needed break and re-group. We were both feeling the cold at this point and it was only 3pm with the sun peeking out here and there. The weather was changing by the minute and we realized we could be in for a problem if we continue and camp at Trail Camp overnight. We brought gear rated for around 0 degrees, but with the wind blowing and the temperature dropping, we realized our 0 degree gear may not be enough. The winds were bashing us, throwing our weight around like nothing, and keeping us pinned on the mountain and we were getting cold fast! We made our summit that day at 3pm. It was only 12,000ft but it was enough.
Being near Trail Camp, we decided we needed to hussle to get down the mountain if we wanted to get pizza and beer! This was the only thought in my head at this point that kept us hussling. We decided we were going to glissade down as much of the mountain as possible to try to get down quicker. Having hiked over 3 miles to this point meant that our trip down was going to be over 6 miles and we were already exhausted from the 3+ miles to that point.
Glissading is not as easy as we thought. Firstly, my pack was too large and kept me from getting a good smooth surface to slide on. Also, the snow was a little soft in spots so we would just sink and not slide. I resorted to a running sort of butt flop to gain some momentum and slide down the slopes. This worked although not as well as hoped. At one point, I got a really nice slide going and was quickly gaining speed. As fun as this slide was, I realized I was headed towards an ice covered river. I used my ice axe to slow my glissade and self arrest to a stop very quickly and with ease. Chris Reed followed with some hoots and hollers as this was the best glissade of the day!
The rest of the hike was pretty uneventful and brutal. I spend the majority of my time digging and rolling my way out of massive postholes sinking me up to my waist everytime. This coupled with dehydration and fatigue made for some choicest of words for the mountain. We pushed on ignoring the queasiness in our stomachs and need for rest. We knew we had only about 3 hours to make it down the mountain before the temps dropped, the sun dipped behind the mountains, and the snow froze to ice. Pizza and beer…pizza and beer…pizza and beer. We pushed on.
We made it to camp where my mom was waiting. On the trail near Lone Pine Lake we saw footprints in the snow and large dog prints as well. I quietly suspected my mom (being the stubbornly strong and motivated woman she is) as the culprit but didn’t want to mention it. Chris Reed asked about wolves but I just reassured him those prints are from my moms dog, Bam.
As we reached camp I asked about the footprints on the trail. My suspicions were confirmed. My mom had made her way up the Lone Pine Lake trail with her dog Bam. She had been hiking in her running shoes and had made it up the trail a ways. We asked with surprise about the conditions and she mentioned others asked her why she is hiking without crampons. Luckily, after slipping, sliding, and falling she made a wise decision to go back down. I should have guessed, knowing my mom, that she would do something like this. (tisk tisk)
The pizza and beer was great, but the rest that night was better. We camped that night in the warmth of the tent at around 9000ft. The warmth left us as we woke up to a snow covered campsite. As we packed up our things and made our way down the mountain back home we stopped and snapped one last photo.
The weather had turned for the worst! The winds were howling so hard it flipped the tent at the main campsite. The snow was coming down consistently and the visibility was dwindling. Further up the mountain the conditions looked like whiteout conditions. We made a wise choice to turn around and I’m grateful we did. Even though we were not successful in our attempt, the mountain calls and I will answer that call again!
Key Take Aways
We had no business being on Mt. Whitney during this attempt. We were both unexperienced in snow conditions, had overly heavy and inadequate gear, and were not physically ready for this attempt.
- Take this mountain very seriously.
- Have all the proper gear – weather rated.
- Take time to acclimatize.
- Be aware of changing weather.
Do you have a Mount Whitney story you’d like to share? Tell us about it in the comments or send us a message – we’d love to hear about it!