Monday, May 26, 2008


Last weekend I attempted to summit Mt. Whitney. Operative word; attempted. So, with some humility and disappointment, here is the story.

Mt. Whitney is the highest peak in the contiguous US at 14,495 ft. and is located just 5 hours from San Diego. That's closer than Vegas! So after a couple years "talking" about registering for Mt. Whitney permits, I entered the February lottery for summer dates. In the lottery you pick as many dates as you like. The more dates you chose the better your chances of even getting to go. Then they pull the requests and fill them one by one. Two months later I received a notice from the park service confirming my dates for the end of May. I knew May and June was typically the time when the snows are melting, but the weather is still chilly at altitude. No problem.

Then, the weekend before the trip, a hiker posted a report with photos of their experience summiting Whitney. Sure enough, there were patches of snow. However, it was warm enough that some hikers even had on shorts at the summit! As we continued to check the weather forecast all we could see was the probability of snow. Knowing we'd be at altitude, this was pretty much a guarantee of snow. So, even though I live in sunny SD, I suddenly found myself adding crampons and an ice axe to my gear stash.

The next stop in Lone Pine - the sleepy town closest to Whitney - was the ranger station to pick our permits and bear canisters. For the uninitiated; a bear canister is a bear proof jug that campers must store food in and stash away from their camp. Not only must overnight hikers store their food in a canister, they must also pack out everything the bring in...including human waste. The rangers are more than glad to hand out free "wag bags." Lastly a stop for pizza and beer before driving to the trailhead to camp at 8,000 ft.

That afternoon we had time to hike around camp a bit, test our gear and repack one more time. We'd be sleeping in a RV type van that night. The next day would only bring 6 miles of hiking so there would also be no rush to hit the trail.

The next morning we casually snapped photos under the wooden trellis over the entrance to the Mt. Whitney Trail. The snow was falling lightly, and there was a fog hanging over the valley, but the terrain was still beautiful. The snow hung to parts of the trail in patches as we worked our way through the pine forest. As we gained altitude the snow became thicker and covered more and more of the terrain. The pines bent downwards with boughs of snow ready to pour downward on anyone that dare disturb them. The melts under the snow occasionally took control of the trail and you could again see the rocks underneath. We hiked through open meadows draped in white silence and past frozen lakes.

At 10,000 ft. we reached Outpost Camp; half-way there. The remaining miles from Outpost to Trail camp were punctuated by a lack of trees and jagged rocks that began popping from the thick snow. For this last section, we simply followed the creek to Trail camp at 12,000 ft. Once we arrived at trail camp the sun suddenly began to poke through the clouds. Amazingly it was so hot hikers began taking their shirts off - in the middle of a snow field, next to a frozen lake!

Once at camp we began to setup our gear in the snow. Since trail camp has been know to blow tents off the mountain, we pitched behind a boulder and built a snow wall. Once all the gear was stashed out of the snow and in the tents we could concentrate on food and water. Food is the easy part because we lugged it up in a bear can. Water on the other hand needed to be pumped and filtered from the frozen lake. Thankfully the other campers had already made a hole in the ice (which I had to reopen the next morning). After pumping water and cooking some food, everyone was pretty well beat and still dealing with the altitude, so we all fell asleep.

(Come back for part 2; attempting the summit. Click any image for full album.)

The Trailhead

Going Up.

Trail camp.


Dawn at 13,000 ft.

Just after sunrise.

Headed back down.


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