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Fall Conditions on the Main Whitney Trail
Posted by Kurt Wedberg, 10-05-06
Re-posted 10-05-2010 here.Fall Conditions on the Main Trail of Mt. Whitney
For those of you interested in trying to climb Mt. Whitney this fall you should be aware of current conditions, and more importantly how to interpret those conditions to help you decide how to make decisions with safety in mind.
Snow is now present on Mt. Whitney and it will not melt away until late spring or early next summer. You can count on negotiating a snow covered trail from somewhere above Mirror Lake. From the cables until Trail Crest there are hazardous areas where a slip can turn into a fall that can lead to an injury or fatality. This section is part of what most of us refer to as the "97 Switchbacks". When the area receives more storms you can count on snow lower and higher on the route.
Given these conditions there are certain things to keep in mind if you decide to attempt climbing Mt. Whitney via the Main Trail. This list is not exhaustive but is a good place to start:
(1) Recognize that your ascent will take longer than it would if the trail was dry. Plan extra time into your itinerary to account for this.
(2a) Realize that current conditions require climbers to have learned and practiced several mountaineering skills which include self arrest with an ice axe (this is how you would attempt to stop yourself in the event of a slip on the hard snow and ice), how to walk with crampons on, and how to efficiently climb up and down snow covered slopes.
(2b) This means that ski poles are no substitute for an ice axe. Ski poles are great aids in walking. Ascending a route they are like a portable hand rail. On a descent they help reduce some of the jarring to hiker's knees. They will do nothing to help stop a person in case of a fall. Yes, some ski poles are made with self arrest grips. This is no substitute for an ice axe.
(3a) The slope between Trail Camp and Trail Crest is north facing. This means it loses sun exposure early in the day. You can be on this slope during a warm sunny day and find the snow comfortable to walk on, but once the sun leaves this slope the snow will become firm, hard, and slick. It will stay that way until the sun hits it again, which might be the next day, or it might take several days if clouds obscure direct rays from the sun. Even with direct sun exposure the conditions could still be firm, hard, and slick.
(3b) Be prepared to climb on firm, hard, and slick snow. If you find yourself on this slope after 2:30 PM (when the sun begins leaving this area) you need to be prepared to negotiate increasingly firm, hard, and slick snow conditions.
(4a) Sliding down the snow on your butt (commonly called "glissading" among the mountaineering community) from Trail Crest is not a safe option. It doesn't matter if you see tracks from people who have previously done it. Among those who contributed to glissade tracks in previous seasons include several people who lost their lives from the decision to glissade there.
(4b) People have tried glissading here for years. Understand that this slope is subtly angled in such a way that it can pull an unsuspecting mountaineer slowly to the left, which can make you slam into the rocks at a high rate of speed. There have been many injuries and fatalities due to people glissading here.
(4c) If you decide to glissade anywhere on any mountain remove your crampons. Glissading with crampons is never an option. You run a high chance of injuring an ankle, a leg, or worse. It is poor mountaineering technique to glissade while wearing crampons anywhere at any time.
(5a) Remember that the summit should not be your primary goal. Your first goal is to get back to the parking lot safely. If you can stay within a good margin of safety then the summit should be your second goal. This means that just because somebody else decided to ascend in questionable conditions it should not determine what you decide to do. You need to make your decisions based on your known skills and the ability of your group.
Climbing up a mountain is optional, descending is mandatory.
Posted by westcoastdog, 10-06-06Excellent advice. It should be posted at the trailhead.
Because we don't get snow in the lowlands, Californians often don't realize that snow = ice, and ice can mean death in the mountains.
Posted 10-06-06Thanks for the sage advice. I have shelved the ascent this year, based mostly on information gleaned from this site. If anything, I have come away more enthusiastic, and I think somewhat wiser.
Posted by wbtravis5152, 10-07-06Excellent post. I might add...you can rent ice axe and crampons but you can't rent the requiste skills to utilize these tools.
As the signs said last year....People Die Here.
I would suggest anyone planning on a trip to Mt. Whitney next spring spend the ~$100 Mr. Wedberg charges for his basic snow skills course. It will be money well spent.
Mt. Whitney and Eastern Sierra Blog
The Mt. Whitney Day Hike and Backpacking Page
Posted by felipe, 10-23-06Classic advice Kurt,
Love the closing quote,
"Climbing up a mountain is optional, desending is mandatory"
with the only caveat being the desending might be in a body bag or on ones own two feet.
Reminds me of the quote I heard from a great Honduranian FIFA level soccer ref., "If you don't run during the game, you better be able to RUN for your LIFE afterwards".
Posted by sloflyer32, 10-25-06I know there is snow on the trail but does anyone know if the cables are obscured on any part of the climb?
Posted by Wayne, 10-26-06sloflyer32, the only part of the climb that there are cables is on the 97 switchbacks less than a mile above Trail Camp, between switchbacks 45 and 46, at the 12,700-foot level. It takes many feet of snow and ice to cover the cables, which has not happened so far this season. There are no other cables on the main trail.
What happens, however, is that the trail itself gets covered with frozen snow and ice, at a steep angle (like over the side of the trail, on the downhill side, for a quick ride to end your hiking days). And even though the cables are not "obscured," walking can be extremely treacherous. And the rest of the switchbacks above the cables can be extremely hazardous, and, of course, there are no cables on them to protect a fall. Be safe.
You can see a map of the trail where the cables are located HERE.
Posted by Doug Sr, 10-26-06Hi Slo once the snow covers the trail most climbers use a straight line , avoiding the steep slopes and shaded areas which tend to be hard snow/ice ,very few non climbers can kick steps and pick a path that will make a summit in one day, one needs to know the area so no time is lost on false starts and following tracks may be the worst thing to do unless you know where they lead.
This time of the year and late April/May conditions are very unstable storms move through every few days with no ideal of the amount of snow they will place or how high the winds that move the storms , we have watched 500' spindrifts off the ridge line between trailcrest and the summit causing snow to fall to the Portal.
A goal for the first trip in the winter would be trail camp area, route finding and conditions would be tested and you could then spend some time on the slope to trailcrest. This could be done as a day hike so the pack would not slow you down. Speed in the winter is critical due to the very short days ,sun up in the Portal is about 11:30 and sets by 2:00 PM so much of the lower part of the trail will be in the shade, North Facing. Thanks Doug
Posted by Sierra Sam, 10-26-06Good advice Kurt. I have only one quibble. I agree the first goal is to be safe. However, I think getting to the summit is the third goal rather than the second. In my book the second goal is to have fun. If you climb safely and enjoy doing it, it is a good day whether you reach the summit or not.
Posted by Steve C, 09-27-07Here is a recent trail report:
I just came back from a day hike from Whitney Portal on Mon (Sept 24th). The trail was icy prior to reaching Trail Camp. There was 1-2 ft of snow accumulation on the 96 switchbacks. The snow was powder in the morning, turning to wet snow in the afternoon. The ice in the lower section pretty much melted off during the return hike. The lake at Trail Camp was frozen. There was a hole in the ice to filter water, however.
I did not hear of anyone hiking beyond Trail Crest due to heavy build up of snow. My group also stopped at Trail Crest. I hiked in day shoes with poles. I've never used poles before, but they sure saved me on the switchbacks from slipping numerous times. I've uploaded some pics at http://www.flickr.com/photos/14189951@N03/sets/72157602169686208/
One of the pictures (24-Sept-2007):
Posted by pattywatty, 09-28-07I just did the hike to trail camp yesterday, 9/27. I had no intentions to do the summit. I got the day permit that morning when the visitor center opened at 8am and started at 9 and returned at 4:30pm. Thus just wanted to see what the trail looked like.
It is snowy prior to trail camp but nothing really dangerous but the trail sometimes hard to follow I just followed the other foot prints in the snow.
Some people turned back at the cables because they said it was too icy and did not have crampons.
I would do it again just for the views which are outstanding.
Posted by Norm_B, 09-28-07I reached the Mt. Whitney summit yesterday 9/27th, 12:30 pm with 4 other folks. We tried not to use crampons as much as possible as it really slows you down. We were able to reach the trail crest just on our hiking boots. Beyond trail crest, where you get the most winds, constant snow drifts puts new powder on the trail making it harder to traverse. Although we saw a few people plowed thru on their regular hiking shoes, we decided to keep it safe and put on our crampons. If you can not get one, as a minimum you need to get the Yaktrax to give yourself some traction, but crampons are the best to secure your footing.
We left the summit around 1 pm and our way back, we reached to trail crest with just our boots but had to put on our crampons on the switchbacks as they became icy. Again due to wind gusts, some parts got covered with new powders due to the snow drifts.
BTW, for anyone else attempting to summit with current conditions, make sure you carry marmot precip or similar windbreaker with you. The windgusts is really cold, without such outer shell to cover you.
Posted by Chuck Ellsworth, 10-06-07We camped at Trail Camp on Tuesday night, 10/2/07, and did the summit on Wednesday. The cables were the safest part of the trip and were standing out with the snow melted from their bases. Just above the cables there are several switchbacks with no cables and an extreme drop off below. That part was particularly scary. When we were beginning our trip, we talked with a party at Whitney Portal that had turned around at that point the day before. We just got the perfect window of opportunity with a storm blowing in as we left the mountain on Wednesday night.
Wear crampons and know how to use them. We did neither but we were simply lucky.
Posted by Placerville, 10-06-07Kurt,
I climbed the Main Trail on Oct 1st and I would like to add one item to your list of excellent advice. After I left Trail Crest headed to the summit I estimated how long it would take to get to the summit and return to Trail Crest and get to the cables by 2:30. From this, I set a time that I had to leave the summit. I was about 200 yards from the summit when that time came. I turned around and started back down the trail and was able to pass the cables prior to the time the cold turned the trail to ice. My point is that the urge to summit is so strong that sometimes people will postpone the correct decision or use poor judgement which will get them into trouble later in a climb so setting limits early is wise. I based my decision on the following facts:
1. I was traveling alone
2. I am 59
3. Although I have summited before this was my first time in this type of conditions.
Although I did not summit, I had a great climb, learned some things about climbing in snow conditions and will be able to climb again another time. I hope this approach will help someone else to make a correct decision when it is needed.
Posted by VersatileFred, 10-12-07Inyo NF Update
~ updated October 7, 2007 ~ It is autumn in the Eastern Sierra and winter conditions have come to the upper elevations. Several recent storms have begun to deposit snow and ice. The days are getting shorter and temperatures can drop well below freezing.
Expect deeper snow and ice coverage the further and higher you hike on the Mt.Whitney Trail. Expect to camp on snow if you are doing an overnight trip. Conditions can change rapidly depending upon weather and the time of day.
Ice and snow above Trail Camp can be technically difficult and hazardous. Winter mountaineering skills and equipment are now essential for a safe excursion on the Whitney trail. The decision to use ice axe and crampons depends upon your own blend of skills and experience. Numerous injuries and 3 deaths occurred in 2005 with similar snow and ice conditions. Bottom Line: Mount Whitney is not the place to try and use winter mountaineering tools if you have no prior experience! This is not a complete list of the hazards that can be encountered in the wilderness. YOU are responsible for evaluating if weather and conditions permit safe travel for yourself. If you have no prior experience with winter mountaineering, don't make your first experience your last!
New 2008 lottery information and applications will be posted in December. The "How to Get A Wilderness Permit" page will also have new information soon.~~~Wilderness Permit Office ~Fax 760-873-2484 ~Phone 760-873-2483
Orientation Notes for Whitney First Timers
Posted by Theloneus, 11-24-07Very excellent advice Kurt.
Will add a couple of points, one gained from painful experience:
After a heavy snow the area around the cables may have so much snow in a drift that slopes from the wall to the edge, as one post said, that it is very difficult travel the trail. In that case, I find it easier to go up the chute. Good ice axe and crampon skills are a must if you do that.
One factor that can be very important is that the weather/visability can change drastically in a very short time. I was once on a solo trip to the summit in which the weather was good, visability clear, predictions were for good weather. At the summit I could see all the way to the Lone Pine area. Within an hour I couldn't see 5 feet in front of me. It took 3 days to get back from the summit to my camp at Trail Crest.
I almost died.