I was there that day with my 18 and 10-year-old sons.
I've done a bit of hiking but it was our first trip to Whitney. We camped at Outpost Thursday and left at 3:00 AM Friday the 29th for what we thought was going to be a day hike to the summit. I was unaware of any prediction of rain so we left some important gear at camp and as a result were very unprepared for what we encountered. I won't make that mistake again!
We got less than a mile from the top when the first sprinkles started coming down. It ended pretty quickly and we thought that may be the end of it. We were close to the top so we pressed on oblivious of the danger building with the storm. When we reached the structure at the summit, the rods on the roof were buzzing with electricity. We were very nervous about lightning strikes so we left within 5 minutes of reaching the summit.
When we were approximately a mile down the trail, we were hit with a volley of large hail stones that hit us so hard they were actually painful. The trail was more treacherous with the slushy hail/rain but we were more concerned with taking our time to get our footing right than racing down to camp.
On our way down, we encountered the couple with the three small children under five years old. The mother was holding the 1-year-old in her arms. I tried (like many others) to discourage her from continuing to the summit but she pressed on despite my warning. Some may say I am irresponsible for taking a 10-year-old but at least we trained together at high altitude for this trip and did other significant hiking first including Baden Powell two weeks earlier. I continue to be appalled and I really think this was child abuse or child endangerment at the very least. Those children had no business on that mountain even had the weather been beautiful.
When we reached Trail Crest, we were extremely concerned about lightning. We crossed the saddle very quickly and began down the mountain toward Trail Camp fighting very intense rain. Again, we were taking our time to get our footing right so we weren't running like some hikers. In retrospect, maybe we should have made a run for it!
We were soaked, it was windy and the rain continued to come down hard. We were not wearing appropriate clothing - especially my young son who was only wearing a long sleeve shirt instead of a jacket. However, the real trouble didn't begin until we got below Trail Camp. The trail had become a stream which was increasingly difficult to navigate. The lightning and thunder show was simply spectacular - some of it was pink (never seen that before) and striking very close to us. It was very frightening. The further down we got, the worse things got. The "trail stream" eventually became a flash flood with enough momentum to displace large rocks. Newly formed waterfalls were pouring off the mountain directly onto the trail in some places. It was difficult to make out the trail in several places and for the first time, I began to realize how serious our situation was.
With great difficulty, we fought our way to the first stream crossing above Outpost. I believe it was the Mirror Lake outlet but I'm not sure. What was a small stream we had crossed earlier that morning without even getting our feet wet, had risen significantly and was now moving very swiftly. I was extremely hesitant to attempt to cross the swift stream especially with the children in our party (we had an 11 year old with us in addition to my young son) so we looked for an alternate crossing but couldn't find anything better.
Reluctantly, we decided we had to take a chance crossing the stream given we were already soaked, nightfall was going to be upon us soon and at least three of the members of my party were already showing early signs of hypothermia including my young son. With some assistance from my new friend Mark who showed up on the other side of the stream just at this instance, we successfully crossed in waist high and fast moving water. Once we reached the other side, I shouted for joy! Mark looked at me and smiled slightly as he replied "That was the easy one."
We continued a short distance down the trail to find the second stream crossing which was now raging violently and spewing white water many feet into the air in some places. I knew there was no way we could responsibly cross this stream - let alone with kids. My heart sank as the realization set in that we were not going to reach our camp that night which was frustratingly less than a mile away. No one in our party had tents or sleeping bags and we were soaked to the bone.
While we stood at the bank of the stream to discuss the options, we all started to get VERY cold and began to get severe shakes. Two of the adults (including a 66 year old gentleman in our party) were starting to stumble and were incoherent. Mark graciously offered his 3-man tent as a rescue shelter so we piled 6 people in and dug in to spend an uncomfortable night stranded on the mountain. Mark and I immediately heated some water and started passing in hot soup and hot cocoa to the freezing victims.
Around dusk, a search and Rescue helicopter started circling our area and Outpost Camp below us. They eventually made a daring partial landing on one skid in a very tight spot between the many tree branches in the area. Mark talked to them and confirmed they were looking for the 75-year-old hypothermia victim. Mark told them we heard he was up at Trail Camp. They said it was getting too dark and they didn't fly at night so they would have to retrieve him in the morning. They also said they would send more Search and Rescue in the morning to help us.
As the evening wore on, several more parties of hikers came through and joined our emergency camp. Everyone pitched in and helped with whatever they had to offer and we began to triage the victims. We determined the 66-year-old was the highest risk so we placed him with someone first. Eventually, we had enough tents, dry sleeping bags and warm bodies to take care of everyone.
Around 11:00 PM the couple with three small children came down the trail. The children did not look good. They looked like zombies and were staring straight forward and not moving much. It actually looked like they were in shock which they probably were. We invited the family to stay at our camp and told them we would make room for them but they refused. They didn't even have a flashlight so a couple of people in our camp offered their lights to them and they continued on. Mark watched as they crossed the stream. Apparently, the man got in the stream and helped the woman across leaving the children on the bank. Once she was on the other side of the stream, he basically threw the children to her one by one. Mark said it was a pretty scary scene. Luckily, they all made it on the other side and continued down the trail. That was the last we saw of them. I sure hope those kids survived. When we got to the portal parking lot, the sheriff was asking questions about the couple. Apparently, their rental car was still in the parking lot. Not a good sign.
After the family crossed, Mark checked the water again and said it had receded somewhat but it was still moving too quickly and was not safe for crossing. He didn't recommend we try anything until the morning.
By Saturday morning we were all still alive, in much better shape and in much better spirits. We got our group together and headed down the trail again. The stream crossing was very easy as the water had receded to near pre-storm levels. We did encounter some severe trail damage on the way to Outpost. We arrived to find our camp had been completely flooded. Thankfully, someone from a nearby camp had moved our tents out of the flood waters so we had only minimal water and mud in our tents and sleeping bags. We were told that some other stranded hikers had used some of our tents and sleeping bags the night before. I am glad they were able to help someone else especially since so many people had pitched in to help us.
The Search and Rescue helicopters arrived shortly after we got to camp. It was impressive to see how many people they had on the ground and how quickly they deployed. They swiftly interviewed everyone on the ground and began investigating a couple of unclaimed tents and packs. They offered us any assistance needed including some PB&J sandwiches which my son appreciated.
The hike back was pretty much uneventful. We were tired and it was a long hike to the portal. Unfortunately, we had to wade through water because a log crossing just below Outpost had been destroyed. Consequently, my feet were in pretty bad shape by the time I reached the portal parking lot but I was happy to be off the mountain.
I would like to thank everyone who helped at our emergency camp. It was nice to see so many people band together and help each other. There is no doubt these people's compassion and generosity avoided serious injury or even death for several hikers including my young son. Also, a big thank you to Search and Rescue. These people regularly risk their own safety for others. I found them to be helpful, kind and professional.
1) Get an accurate weather report before a hike of this length/difficulty.
2) Always carry light jackets no matter what the weather is supposed to be. Things can change very quickly and it is a long way out.
3) Wear a material that dries quickly. Cotton is comfortable but it stays wet a long time.
4) No more matches. Lighters only from now on.
5) First Aid kits and space blankets are not optional even for a day hike.
6) If possible, carry a tent - even for a day hike.
7) On a lighter note, only 100% Deet repels the mosquitoes on Whitney. Take some! These things were biting me through my clothes including wool socks and liners!