Some background info - On Thursday morning, my boyfriend and I headed up to Trail Camp, planning on summitting Whitney Friday 7-29, then either spend the night at Trail Camp again or Outpost Camp. This was my first backpacking trip ever, and his first time to Whitney. He had backpacked once or twice several years ago. This was my 3rd attempt at Whitney. My last attempt was 8-8-10. I got within a mile of the summit and had to turn around...the downhill was so painful on my knees it took me 3 hours to go from Lone Pine lake to the Portal. So, I decided never again in 1 day but would try it backpacking.
By nature I am clumsy and not very sure footed. On the way up I fell in the creek crossing just before Mirror Lake. Only got a little scraped up on my hands and a bruise on my hip so no worries. The few snow crossings up to Trail Camp were difficult for me but no one else seemed phased by them. (I think you may be wondering why I even tried for this?, hee hee) We made it to Trail Camp and were set up by 4, then relaxed the rest of the evening.
The next morning the sun was so warm, and the sky was clear. We started up the trail about 8:40. As we were headed up the switchbacks we saw a few clouds but I was still warm in my short sleeves. As we got higher I got a little cooler. The few snow fields on the switchbacks were difficult for me for reasons already mentioned...I worried about how the heck I would get down. But most people didn't seem bothered. It doesn't help I have a fear of heights...not the heights itself but of not feeling secure, and knowing how clumsy I am.
We got to Trail Crest at about 11 and rested for a few minutes. We met a nice lady who hikes this trail every year, and few others who've done this. We barely got sprinkled on by really small hail but the sun was still somewhat out. To our south there were dark clouds. Those around us who have done this before didn't seem concerned. We decided to continue to the summit. As we hiked the back side of the needles sometimes the sun was so warm, but then it would go behind a cloud and was so cold. We could hear thunder in the distance behind us, but we could see dark clouds coming in quickly from the west. Then someone pointed out the clouds covering Whitney coming in from the east.
The thunder started getting closer, then the "experts" who were not far in front of us turned around. The sky opened up and it started hailing so hard. We decided to turn around as well. Our trail was covered in hail. It was slick and so cold by now. After we got to the top of the switchbacks, the sky constantly thundered, and in our peripherals we could see the sky lighting up. It was 12 when we turned around (could see the hut from the trail), and it was about 2:35 when we got to trail camp. We asked a couple guys if they thought it was safe to stay there and they said they were planning to. The thunder had been going since 11:30 and it had been hailing/ lightly raining constantly since nearly 12.
Inside our tent was a very small puddle but we had moved everything to the sides and had a dry towel. Some of our clothes were damp but we had enough dry clothes to change into, got into our sleeping bags and warmed up. By 2:45 it was pouring down hard at trail camp. The lightning/thunder and hail/rain was unrelenting until about 6:30...7 hours of this storm! The thunder shook the ground beneath us. After listening to a bird outside our tent for about 15 minutes we decided it was safe to emerge.
There was only one other tent left at Trail Camp! While my boyfriend got the water heating for dinner (Chili Mac! yummy!) I went to talk to the only other ones there. They were packing up to head out. They had summitted Whitney and didn't get to camp until 4:30. They were soaked, they had a puddle in their tent and nothing dry. I saw a backpack for carrying a child next to their tent. They said they had a kid with them and needed to get down. They couldn't brave the night in the cold weather with wet clothes. They said they got within 50 feet of the hut at the top and lightening was striking everywhere! So they came down. We talked about whether we should head down too, if it was safe to stay. We decided to stay because we did not want to go down where the water was going...to all those flooded creeks. We were dry and reasonably warm. But since we are novices, we worried if it was the right choice. At 8:00 we watched the family head down, and we wished each other luck.
Shortly thereafter (we were in the tent because it was lightly sprinkling again) we heard a helicopter fly over. My boyfriend waved them to say we were okay. I knew our tent was very visible to them because I could pick it out at Trail Crest pretty easily. A few minutes later the ranger stationed at Trail Camp (BTW-had no idea there was one stationed there until now) came to talk to us. He said we were safe to stay...we were dry, reasonably warm, and had a lot of high ground around us (a rock higher than our tent was just behind us, plus a lot of other high ground). After checking to make sure we were okay he left. His name was Dave, but I'll call him Ranger Dave in this forum. After awhile Ranger Dave came back and said it is reported that hikers are stranded behind raging creeks and washed out trails. He said in the morning he has to hike down to do trail assessment and offered to escort us down then. As we were novices, we gladly accepted.
The night was damp and cold...we stayed somewhat warm, but were happy to be dry. Every time I awoke during the night I prayed we could get down okay in the morning, and that family with the kid would be okay. Trail Camp was very quiet during the night as we were the only campers left.
In the morning we awoke to a bright sun and clear skies again. It was strange that Trail Camp was so empty. We headed out with Ranger Dave at about 7:45. At Trail Camp and all along the trail we saw a lot of abandoned gear, and came across many search & rescue personnel. Some of the trail we didn't recognize. As we hiked down I could see how much higher the water had been the night before, and how frightening it must have been, especially in the dark when you can't see very well. I was very happy we had decided to stay the night at Trail Camp and tackle the trail in the morning when conditions were better.
At Outpost Camp we took a sizeable break. There were a couple tents setup, with backpacks on the ground around them. Search & Rescue was trying to figure out who it belonged to and what happened to them. The campsite was deserted but looked undisturbed. I wasn't there so don't know what happened that the people camping there decided to abandon everything, but that campsite, and the other commonly used campsites in that area were undisturbed. The storm had caused the creek to change it's course but the campsites were all okay. After awhile the search & rescue learned the owners of the gear made it out okay and were hanging out at the Portal.
So, we continued on our way. As clumsy as I am, I was very nervous about the log crossings. We got our feet wet at every crossing so far, and from the water on the trail. I heard the log crossing was knee high. Well, it was knee high but not like I imagined...I pictured it as knee high upon the logs and wondered how the heck I would balance on the logs when the current up to my knees! This was going to be ugly! Well, we get there, and the log crossing was washed out. It was knee high across that crossing. Well, the water was the least swift here than any other crossing. The water was very murky so was hard to see. It was slow going for me but after it was over, I thought it was the least "scary" crossing. My boyfriend and I thought the worse was the crossing just below Trail Camp...the "waterfall" with the patch of snow just before it. A wrong slip there would be very bad.
We reached the Portal via the old trail at about 1:45. We were so impressed with the rangers, very grateful for Ranger Dave, and impressed with the search & rescue. Parts of the trail were very hard to follow. If it weren't for Ranger Dave, we would have still made it, but it would have taken longer. A couple times it was hard to tell we were on the trail but could see it when we looked back...not sure how the hikers the night before did it.
We were very happy with the decision to stay at Trail Camp and tackle the trail in the morning, hoping the conditions would be better. If we were more experienced, we probably would have gone down without the Ranger, but we decided it was better to be safe with our level of experience. We were grateful for the bright color of the tent. We slept more comfortably knowing rangers/search & rescue knew someone was camped at Trail Camp.