Posted by Bob R, 04-16-05
I always cringe when I read such questions as "I plan to do the Mountaineer's Route next week; do I need a rope or crampons?" Or "Should I go up the first chute or take the traverse?" Or "What's the avalanche danger up there?" Or any of a number of similar questions, most of which have only subjective answers.

By my count I have climbed the MR over 30 times, a good number of them being winter ascents. So I know it pretty well.

I cannot say it more clearly than this: The MR in winter is a prime example of something that only experienced mountaineers, who are skilled in technical winter mountaineering, should undertake. You need both the background to know what to do and how to do it, and the breadth and depth of experience with ice ax, crampons, and snow and ice rope work, to be able to do it safely. You must have practiced self-arrests repetitively, and you need to have the maturity, wisdom, and foresight to back off or change your plan if the conditions or weather dictate. Most often the situation is not this severe, but you always need to be ready for it. Climbing the MR in summer will not prepare you, nor will winter hiking with the occasional use of crampons and ice ax under benign conditions.

One caveat: There is nothing wrong with going with those—such as a reliable guide service or qualified friends—who do have the skill, experience, and equipment, and who will make sure you do the right things and protect you if necessary.

People say they want to do the MR because it is shorter than the trail. That's a true statement, but there are other vastly more important differences. The upshot is that there have been many more people killed on the MR than the trail, even though it has far less activity. If one guesses the danger of death on the trail to be X, then it is my opinion that the danger of death on the MR is at least 20X and may be of the order of 100X.

Skilled winter mountaineers have been injured or have died there, but it is safe to say that far more relative novices have suffered those fates. I am not sitting in judgment on the two recent fatalities, because I do not know their mountaineering backgrounds. Perhaps they were fully qualified and just unlucky, but I read some things in the accounts that I would never, ever, do myself. In any case, these incidents are truly tragic, and—while we cannot have the depth of sorrow and loss of their families and friends—we who go into these mountains always feel a special anguish when a tragedy occurs in the high places we love so much.

Sometimes the questions on this board are legitimately posed by people who do have the skills and experience, and they are simply trying to get data on current conditions. But if you are asking because you really don't know what the climb entails, you are cautioned to do easier winter mountain ascents first. A whole lot of them.

One immense problem with these message boards is that you usually don't know the background or qualifications of those who post. It goes both ways. If, to a question about the MR, someone gives an answer, how do you know to trust what they say? Moreover, how can someone give such advice when they don't know the background of the one asking the question in the first place?

These issues are also valid for summer ascents, but are particularly important for winter. Not only are accidents more likely in winter, but also the outcome is far more apt to be serious.

Unfortunately, I see too many people approaching this climb too casually these days. If you think I am being an alarmist, catch me out there someday and I will tell you a few stories.

Posted by Memory Lapse, 04-16-05
Right on!

Posted by Richard P, 04-16-05
Reading the last paragraph reminded me of a conversation that we had a few years ago about the wisdom of giving too freely of advice on message boards. Thanks for the reminder. I'd fallen back into the assumption that someone who asks for advice would be able to interpret that advice based on their skill level. (Example: recommending cheap instep crampons, which is terrible advice for someone who doesn't have an extensive background in "winter" conditions.)

It would be nice if we could come up with some type of ranking system (not based on the number of posts), so that new members of the community would be able to determine whether the answer is posted by someone who knows the mountain. For those of us who have been around since the early days, that's pretty easy. I know who I can trust, and I even think I have a handle on who will give a conservative answer.

I've got in the neighborhood of 30 ascents of Whitney, 10 of which were in "winter" conditions. Only one of those "winter" ascents was up the Main Trail...something that I'll probably never repeat.

Posted by gravlin, 04-16-05
"But if you are asking because you really don't know what the climb entails, you are cautioned to do easier winter mountain ascents first. A whole lot of them."

Any recommendations on other winter mountain ascents to do first?

Posted by runrjoe, 04-16-05
Great posting. Even better advice. All of us who climb Whitney should take heed to the advice whether we climb winter or summer. Experience counts in either situation.

Posted by teleuwhat, 04-16-05
Excellent sermon!

I attempted to set this topic on fire, because no one was addressing it. It seemed that people only wanted to discuss other less important topics. This year, due to snow levels and conditions, there are many different topics to be covered.

Coming from rock climbing, where I witnessed 3 deaths in a year, I decided to take up hill climbing instead. The intensity is less but, I have found the exposure to danger almost the same.

This sport is becoming more popular each day and most people from the writings on this board practice high levels of gusto, but do not discuss the realities of the sport itself.

In my opinion (forget humble) the solution is not only to take courses and practice, but to use common sense and fluid intelligence, when thinking about the elements that surround all of us, while in the out doors.

Bob R.-Thanks for taking the time to craft an excellent post.

Posted by HalfDomeHike, 04-16-05
Classic! Very well said!

Posted by Doug Sr, 04-16-05
Hi Thanks Bob, Will they ever listen? Did We?
Great trip report by whitwalker "Survial" around the end of March.

Posted by Mr_Man, 04-17-05
I was also very troubled by the recent deaths on Whitney, but I'm not very experienced so I did not feel like it was my place to comment.

Thank you for saying what needed to be said.

Consider practicing on steep slopes of hard snow where the slope gradually levels out below you in case you fall. When you are on top of that slope imagine rocks and cliffs below you and then down climb it. Gain confidence and experience slowly any doubts turn back. The mountain is not going anyplace.

Posted by Adrian, 04-17-05
One thing worth adding is: it's pretty risky to rely on self arrest on steep slopes ending in cliffs. Many things can interfere with self arrest. I've never been on The Mountaineers route, but I've been on steep icy slopes with dangerous rocks or cliffs below and descending them is much more tenuous than ascending. Seeing people's pictures of that traverse and the chutes makes me think there's places where rope and belay should be used.
I once came close to getting killed by an icy slope fall where my attempts at self arrest were rewarded by a nasty facial cut from the axe bouncing into my jaw. When that happened, things got out of hand very quickly. I was saved by the providential presence of a patch of scrub vegetation which beat me up, but stopped me before I came to a drop-off. This happened on Lion Head on Mt. Washington, some time ago in the sixties. A couple of years ago a man fell to his death nearby after slipping while trying to retrieve a pair of sunglasses he had dropped.
It's easy to visualize how the recent victim fell while descending that Mountaineers Route chute.


Posted by Russell, 04-17-05
Well said on all of the above.I do not post often but having been on MR this weekend it is not for begineers.Alot of snow and step hard snow in all shuts and on North Face.Climbed the first shut after the Notch and it is very steep with a small cornice at the top.Everyone climb safe and when in does'nt look right or feel right turn around and come back another day.Error on the side of caution and live to climb another day.

Posted by wbtravis5152, 04-17-05
I have 3 or 4 years experience with crampons and ice axe still feel uncomfortable about doing the Main Trail in May or June, let alone the MR in winter. Yet, there will be people asking, will I need...I have started to answer these questions with yes, you will need them but you will need knowledge and skills in self belay and self arrest. However, for everyone asking these question how many folks are there out there who don't ask and with hubris use this mountain for they first time on crampons, snowshoes and utilizing an ice axe.

I read these recent posts with sadness. Sadness for friends and loved ones who will be asking the why question for a long time.

This winter I saw two people fly by me unable to self arrest while practicing in an area with insufficient run out and in extremely dangerous conditions. Both ended up in a creek bed after a 4' fall, requiring SAR and air evac from two counties. It certainly make me a bit more reflective about what I do in the winter.

Thanks for the thoughtful post Bob.
Mt. Whitney and Eastern Sierra Blog
The Mt. Whitney Day Hike and Backpacking Page

Posted by lcpman, 04-18-05
Thanks Bob. Good head check for us all. I just hope the next potential victim reads it and heeds it. Humbly spread the word!

Posted by Walther, 03-23-06
Seeing this post at the top again reminded me of a book I read recently, Deep Survival by Laurence Gonzales. It has some great insight into why wilderness accidents happen and why some people survive them while others don't.

Posted by BSquared, 04-14-06
I've got "Deep Survival" on my mightstand, ready to go after "Wilderness Noir," a fascinating (but somewhat depressing) true chronicle of a park ranger's work. Sort of Anna Pigeon meets reality TV? No, really a lot better than that...

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