Today’s attempt to summit Mount Whitney was a crazy adventure that did not go as expected.
I woke up around 2 am, and was unable to get back to sleep, largely because of the competing interests in needing to go pee in sub-freezing temperatures, and wanting to stay in my warm sleeping bag.
I eventually gave up on remaining warm, capitulated to a 3:30 summit attempt, and started to get out of my tent, only to find that my crocs had snow on them. This did not bode well. So much for the conventional wisdom that Whitney’s weather happens in the afternoon.
Fortunately, I did not have to haul all my gear up the mountain. I left most of my gear in my tent, which turned into a pancake on the ground once I removed my trekking poles, which keep it upright. I took only what I was going to need for a 15-mile day-hike, plus my water filter (to keep it from freezing).
Running a bit slower due to the cold, Flowers, Ninja Fabric, and I left around 3:50 am for the summit. Our first obstacle was crossing over Whitney Creek. The side trail from the John Muir Trail to Crabtree Meadows crosses the creek, and it was a pretty simple crossing yesterday when it was warm. Now, though, it was cold, I was shivering, the log bridge was frozen over, and the rocks I used for support were not well placed for the return trip.
I made it about halfway across before getting “stuck” — the cold and shivering pretty much killed my dexterity as it was, and the adrenaline rush of standing over a freezing-cold foot-deep creek in the dark on a frozen log didn’t help matters. I almost successfully made it across, but slipped near the edge of the creek and wound up getting both feet wet.
Stumbling out of the creek, I made my way to a rock and immediately set to work getting my shoes and socks off, drying my feet, and shutting off my 4 am alarm that starting ringing just then.
I brought a second set of socks pretty much for that contingency (and also in case my feet got wet from snow on Whitney), and used my towel to soak up some of the water in my shoes, but they were still soaking wet. I had with me, however, two one-gallon plastic bags — the one my spare socks were in, and another one with my toilet paper, which I expected not to need, but threw in anyway. So, I used both plastic bags as an additional waterproof layer between my socks and my shoes. They’d keep the water off my feet, and maybe also keep my feet a little warmer.
Flowers and Ninja Fabric made it across the creek with no troubles, and once I was dry enough and ready (and I silenced my alarm for real, having only hit the snooze earlier), we set off in light snow flurries towards Mount Whitney. A flash of lightning should have served as a warning to turn back, but we didn’t let that deter us.
With only headlamps to guide us, the trail was occasionally less than clear, and we made a short detour through a swampy area, rather than following the trail around it. It wasn’t ideal, but my feet were protected, and we were on an adventure anyway. We hoped that the snow would stop soon (and it did for a time), but it eventually started again.
As sunrise approached and the sky started to lighten, we started to be able to see the silhouettes of the mountains surrounding the canyon we were hiking up towards Whitney.
The trail itself, for the most part, is a long climb. It’s not too steep, but seven miles of nearly continuous uphills from Crabtree Meadows — almost 4,000 feet of elevation gain — combined with the altitude made for a strenuous hike, but aside from the snow falling, the trail was largely clear of any significant snow until we got near Guitar Lake (named for its shape).
Past the lake, the trail climbed through three relatively flat snow fields and began climbing up the side of Whitney itself. As the trail reached a major feature: a mile and a half of switchbacks up the face of the mountain, the snow got deeper and more slippery as the accumulation continued, and I had to stop to put my microspikes on my shoes to help with traction.
This was the first time I had used the microspikes (despite having them for over a year), and they worked surprisingly well, and my sliding around on the snow almost completely came to a stop.
To the south, the clouds occasionally parted slightly, slightly revealing the sky, giving us false hope that maybe the skies would clear as the hour grew later.
As we continued to climb, the trail on the mountain became less trail and more footsteps through snow, and on the steep sides of the mountain, there were places where there was no trail, just a depression from yesterday’s hikers, softened by snowfall, and crossing an otherwise unbroken slope of snow.
Eventually, we reached a milestone on the climb, the junction with the Whitney Portal trail. There, a sign warns against being on the summit in a variety of weather conditions, including dark clouds (check) and hail (also check). We kept going anyway.
About a third of a mile past the junction, on the face of Mount Muir, we reached a particularly dangerous traverse. Initially it looked like the traverses across snow slopes we successfully navigated while coming up the switchbacks, but now, the small pellets of hail that were falling weren’t even accumulating: they were simply rolling down the slope. Flowers and Ninja Fabric made it across, but I got stuck a short distance in (my footing made it difficult to make forward progress), and as I half-stood half-kneeled on the slope, the hail filled up their footsteps and started burying my knee.
Now, with the clear threat of avalanche conditions (and the ongoing continual avalanche of new hail), plus the fact that even if we made it across now, conditions would only be that much worse when we made the return trip down the mountain. I also pointed out that with the clouds showing no signs of stopping, there’d be no views at the summit even if we made it — so what would be the point of continuing on in dangerous conditions?
We ended our ascent of Whitney ended sometime shortly after 8 am, at an elevation around 13,700 feet, leaving us about 1.5 miles and 800 feet of elevation shy of the summit. And a good thing too: our footsteps were completely filled in on our entire hike back.
It continued to snow on us our entire hike back to Crabtree Meadows, and with even less visibility of the trail, we wound up making a number of additional detours off the trail, lengthening our return hike. Still, the surface was pretty solid, and our downhill hike was much faster than our hike up. We made it back to our camp around 11 am, sad that we weren’t able to summit, but still with an adventure (and great views) under out belts.
My tent was covered in snow, but the inside remained surprisingly dry. I retreated into my tent, exhausted, tired, and hungry.
My plastic bag liner “socks” got holes near the toes, allowing in water. My right foot looked a prune. I changed into another set of dry socks, retreated into my sleeping bag, and tried to take a nap.
I’m unclear whether I actually got any sleep, but after awhile, Dylan invited me over to Flowers’ tarp; Flowers, Quoi, and Dylan were hanging out there, dry, and attempting to keep somewhat warm. Later, Ninja Fabric joined us. Quoi had started up Whitney about an hour behind us, and had turned back before we did, because with the clouds, there’d be no views at the summit.
We decided to attempt to summit tomorrow, leaving at 6:30 am. (Trying to get up for a strenuous 3:30 am hike two days in a row was just going to be too hard) Ninja Fabric, running low on food, decided to skip a second attempt, heading on to Forester Pass due to a lack of food. With the unexpected delay, I was feeling a bit better about the 10 days of food I had leaving Kennedy Meadows.
Tomorrow: We’ll get Whitney for sure.