Winter Ascent Mountaineers Route to Mount Whitney, Highest Peak in the Lower 48
It was the best of times. It was the worst of times. Such is Mount Whitney. This mountain challenged me so much, that it has taken a little over a week now for me to spend energy writing about it. I literally took all of last week off to be lazy and even went to Vegas this past weekend for a complete change of pace.
That being said, I really appreciate my experience on Mt. Whitney last weekend. Although the challenge was only enjoyable maybe 20% of the time, I got a lot out of the experience.
Last weekend I went and climbed Mt. Whitney via the mountaineers route. Mt. Whitney is 14,495 ft tall and the highest peak in the lower 48 states and is basically in my backyard. Every year when new years rolls around, I write a bunch of New Years resolutions, and this year I put Mt. Whitney on there. I assumed I would do the Main Trail during the summer as a day hike when I wrote this. Little did I know I would be joining a climbing club that had this as one of their trips but via a challenging winter ascent on the mountaineers route instead. Alas, it was one of my goals and was looking forward to taking a stab at it... my second mountaineering trip.
Some trip stats: Elevation Gain: roughly 8400' elevation gain (2000' Whitney Portal parking lot to trailhead, 6400' trailhead to peak) Mileage from Whitney Portal: roughly 28 miles RT Time: ~30 hours of hiking RT
I've include a map below to give a general picture of the route.
I'll start from the beginning, naturally. I drove up with my friend Jim Thursday night after work into Lone Pine and we met the club members at the Lone Pine campground. Everyone just camped here for the night so we could be ready to go in the morning.
Friday morning was slow going. Most of us were finishing organizing our packs and getting everything ready to go for the first part of the hike and cherishing the use of a campsite bathroom because it would be luxury we wouldn't have the next 3 days. I'd also like to mention there were these mammoth sized mosquitoes at the Lone Pine campground and I still have mosquito bites all over my legs.... they were giants. Texas has nothing on these mosquitoes. So I suggest you bring bug spray if you ever come camp in this area.
I happened to grab a suitcase scale and brought it with me so we could all see how heavy our packs were. Mine was around 49 lbs (not to shabby considering I was carrying water and and a shit ton of camping and winter gear).
The tall guy with long blond hair in the picture below had a pack about 75 lbs... but he was also carrying ropes, and skis... the man is crazy, but didn't seem too worried about it. 49 was heavy enough for me. 50-54 lbs seemed to be the average pack weight for most people on the trip.
Look at all the crap I had to carry! Geeeezeeeeee. I'm smiling because I don't know better at this point.
Oh let's add a cherry on top of this fairytale... The Whitney Portal Gate was closed. Meaning we couldn't drive our cars up to the trailhead. Instead we had to walk this portion which added an addition of about 2000' elevation gain and roughly 4 miles to our already grueling schedule.
It was exhausting, but finally we made it to the Whitney Portal Trailhead to get the real mountaineering trip started. I like this picture below because you can see Whitney there in the background as we enter the Portal. So far away...
We finally got off the road and started onto the trail, and it went on like this for a while...
The trail was pretty easy to follow at the beginning.
It wasn't too hard at this point except that it was hard. It was exhausting carrying a 50 lb pack uphill.
Then there is this confusing sign in the trail that makes you think you should follow the path to the left... However, you should follow the trail to the right. Hence the arrow.
Although exhausted, I was still somewhat positive at this point. I guess I imagined our Friday destination was not too much further. Except I was completely wrong. It was going to be a long LONGGG day. Jim was eating this energy goo stuff, which I hate. I can't get past the texture of the stuff, but if you check out my get up, I've got water on my hip and a bag of snacks in an empty chalk bag. Easy energy access. Key. I always look so nerdy on these events.
Obligatory picture with the Pack your Poop sign, because I'm strange like that.
It was freaking beautiful out there. Just gorgeous.
Eventually we all had to ditch our light tennis shoes and hide them off the trail somewhere and strap on our mountaineering boots... we were about to tango with the snow.
We started to get off the dirt trail and make our way through the snow continuing up toward the campground... no crampons or snow shoes at this point.
When you hike, you end up forming these groups with people that are at your pace, and I fell in line with these 4 other members and somehow we managed to miss the turnoff for the ledges to go up towards Whitney. We instead continued through the snow.
It was fine, but not fun. We started peg holing (feet falling deep into the snow) a lot and getting our packs stuck in trees, and apparently were at risk of being in an avalanche prone area. Not to mention at one point i slipped and started falling down towards the river, but somehow stopped myself just shy of it. That would've been cold.
We were supposed to be up there, where those tiny people are in the picture below... the ledges.
But we weren't, we were on the other side of the river... here.
We managed though, and made it to the other side eventually. I was pretty exhausted at this point, and we still had a lot longer to go for the day.
There was this nice resting area here where we got to sit and eat a bit before crossing the river to put on our snowshoes and continue up towards the campsite. Some people brought cross-country skis instead of snowshoes because they are more badass I guess. I've never cross- country skied or snow shoed at this point so I actually have no idea how to compare the two.
My snow shoes sucked. I apparently got some shitty ones online and they kept popping off (which is extremely annoying when you have a 50 lb pack on in the snow.)
It was slow going in those snow shoes... and very uphill.
There was this gorgeous waterfall ice that would be amazing to do some ice climbing on... but one hell of an approach hike to get to it.
It started to get a little stormy that night as we made our way up.
About sunset we made it to Upper Boy Scout Lake Campsite... roughly 10 hours of hiking later. Exhausted, I realized we still needed to set up a tent, boil water, eat food, and then fall asleep for some more brutal mountaineering the next day. I just bought a new tent for this trip. It is a 4 seasons, 2 person, wild country tent... and I had never set it up before... and it was getting dark. In this moment, Jim and I were so snappy at each other because it was freezing and we had to figure out how to set up this tent. It felt like everyone else was setting up camp quickly and already starting to boil water while we were just failing at life in that moment. Eventually we got the tent set up, but couldn't get any of the stakes to stay in the snow.... so we took apart our treking poles and used those as stakes and called it good. We quickly set up the inside of the tent and started boiling water. Then sleep.
It was a cold and windy night, but I slept alright. The only annoying thing was that I had to get up 2 times during the night to go pee. In those moments when you wake up needing to pee on a mountain you have 2 choices. 1) try to ignore it and fall back to sleep, which never works or 2) suck it up, slip on your icy mountaineering boots, and run like hell to an area to pee and get back as quickly as earthly possible to your sleeping bag and hope it doesn't happen again..... but it does. We somehow survived it, and surprisingly felt more encouraged to continue the fight to Mt. Whitney.
We woke up at 5 am in hopes to leave around 6 am. I spent my morning rummaging around the tent as long as possible, changing, eating dried food, arranging my pack before stepping out of the tent to join Jim who managed to have the energy to boil water to cook his dried food. We also needed to use our trekking poles, so we had to replace all of our pole "stakes" with rocks to keep our tent from flying away during the day. I left as much as I could behind except the bare essentials: food, water, electrolytes, snowshoes, crampons, headlamps, mountaineering axe, trekking poles, camera and my big warm puffy down jacket which is insanely warm and insanely awesome and makes me look like a big marshmallow but I don't even care its so warm.
It's incredibly warm though once you start going and I ended up wearing mostly just base layers the whole day. The trail is not obvious in the sense that there is one clear path to follow... but there really is only one way to get to Mt. Whitney and that's up, so we continued upwards.
Starting with snowshoes we ended up switching to crampons.
I really love this picture. This area and this season really make a unique experience, and the mountain is so prominent.
Basically more of the same... time passes... we continue upwards. Taking breaks, eating food, drinking water. Talking sometimes.
Till we finally got to an area where it was useful to have our mountaineers axes out because the inclines became steeper.
Our little group reached the base of the couloir and could see a lot of the group in the middle of the couloir. I was thinking we might even catch up with some of them, and it was encouraging. However, we took quite a long break eating lunch here before continuing up... and the couloir was much longer than it looked.
It was steep, and each step was more exhausting than the next. I kept counting my steps in sets of 10 and then breaking, and then trying 10 more. I remember being so exhausted at this point but I kept saying... Ok, you can do 10 more.
So somehow we continued up.
Until finally, ages later, we were at the top of the couloir and we all crashed. I hit my limit at this point, and as I saw some people headed down the mountain I started to lose any and all motivation to continue going up. I had hit my limit physically and mentally... or so I thought.
At the time, it was hard even to appreciate the beauty that was surrounding us. Nothing really made me happy at this point, and sadly I was probably pretty pessimistic at least to myself.
There were 2 ways up at this point and we were super close to the summit, less than 500'. The quick and easy way would have been to go straight up to some fixed ropes some other members had assembled, but we were told that there was a bit of a "traffic jam" at the ropes of people coming down and that we might be better off traversing around to the top. Then we were told we could descend the ropes from up top. Sounded like an OK plan. I still didn't feel like continuing up, but thank god for peer pressure. I didn't want to be the only one in my group not to continue on. They were just as exhausted as I was and the summit was literally right there. Also, I remember hearing Jim say to someone as we rested.. "Well, I'm really tired... but I don't have anything better to do today besides summit this mountain." and he was right... what other plans did I have? So we began the traverse. Straightforward except for in a few spots where there were no places to put your axes and there was only granite and a sheer drop to your doom. I was exhausted and mentally overwhelmed.
We got to the top to find we (4 of us) were the only ones left there, and to our luck a storm rolled through just as we summited. So, I proceeded to hit my limit again to have a slight panic on the top of Mt. Whitney. Here we were, on the tallest mountain in the lower 48 and a storm just rolled through. We couldn't see anything and the ropes were gone... meaning we had to do the traverse back again. Oy. I was in such a bad mood at this moment that I literally just pulled my camera out and took only 1 photo on the top of Mt. Whitney. This one below. I put my camera up. I didn't explore around at all (taking any additional steps seemed out of the question), and we began our journey back down.
I didn't take pictures on the way down, it was more trouble than it was worth at the time. We traversed back around to the couloir and then decided we would glissade down the couloir to save some time. Glisading on our last mountaineering trip was fun... but this time was just scary to me. It was rocky and steep, and I kept feeling out of control, but we made it down to the bottom of the couloir. Long story short, we eventually made it back to camp around 10 pm. 15 hours of hiking that day. I literally got in my tent and immediately fell asleep that night.
Next morning we packed up and I had a stomach bug 80% of the rest of the hike back down from Upper Boy Scout Lake to the parking lot... but I survived, and we made it back 6 hours later.... and ladies and gentlemen, the mountaineers route is not easy.
Why would I put myself through such torture? How can I find something like this enjoyable? Well, I'm not sure I find it all that enjoyable. I'm not one of those Happy-go-lucky I love suffering kind of mountaineers, and when I got off the mountain I really had to think about this question, why I would endure something like that for a weekend instead of kicking back and taking it easy in Southern California. Here is what I think:
It's not really about bagging peaks, although, that is a bonus... Its about seeing what my limits are. Its getting myself out of my comfort zone and enduring. It's setting aside all the bullshit that surrounds me in life and all the meaningless crap I worry about and really focusing on a goal. It is about proving to myself that I have what it takes to kick ass, and when its all said and done, it feels great. I'm glad I did it. I'm really glad my friends helped me mentally make it to the summit. I wouldn't have made it on my own.
This mountain on this route during a winter ascent really pushed my limits. I have a lot of training to do to get better.