Mountaineer's Route or Main Trail for novice climber.

Posted by ltdanp21, 05-12-05
I'll be doing either the main trail or the mountaineer's route on 5/24-5/27 (next, next week).

I'm taking a snow travel class with Sierra Mountaineering Int'l next Monday (5/16) and practicing what I learn on Tuesday and Wednesday (5/17-18) as I climb to Trail Camp, camp there on Tuesday night, and climb back down to Whitney Portal on Wednesday. I've read all the relevant parts of Mountaineering: The Freedom of the Hills twice. That will be the sum of my mountaineering knowledge and experience when I attempt the full climb the following week (5/24).

Right now, which route is safer and easier: the mountaineer's route or the main trail?

Also, how hard is it to stay on either route right now? I'll be using a compass and topo map and what I learned out of Mountaineering's chapter on navigation for the first time when I do the climb to Trail Camp. I'll be using wands so, at the very least, if I get lost, I'll be able to find my way back down.

Finally, I know that there's little avalanche danger but is there an Avalanche forecast for the Southern Sierra?

You're help and advice is very much appreciated.


Posted by Wayne, 05-12-05
Dan, you are biting off a lot for a first-time big mountain in winter conditions. Based on what you've written here, I recommend the main trail, as it does not require rock-climbing/ice-climbing skills that the MR would put on you. However, you must have your ice axe skill down pat. You must be able to self-arrest instantly. From what has been posted here, the backside of Whitney, past Trail Crest, poses significant danger for you, particularly if no one has broken trail beyond Trail Crest. With all of the snow, and possible ice conditions, there is major exposure. I've seen the reports on this board about those who did not have experience with crampons and ice axe take the plunge and not live to tell about it. I think it was the winter before last that a 50-year old, on his birthday, summited, then managed to lose a crampon at Trail Crest on his return, on the west side. He never made it back. Some birthday...

Since you apparently plan to camp at Trail Camp, you can get a lot more practice with your ice axe in that area on the slope up to Trail Crest--head-first falls, feet first, on your tummy, on your back, etc. You would be taking the main chute, as the switchbacks right now are not an option for you.

Be prepared to bail. We want to hear a good report from you, whether you summit or not. We do not want to be reading someone else's analysis-report about Itdanp21's errors in judgment, etc. Please be safe and enjoy the mountain. It's not going away. Make sure you are able to come back. smile

Posted by wbtravis5152, 05-12-05
First off this is not to be construed as a shot.

I read these posts where people with either no experience in the snow and ice or just a little feel they can go out and conquer the world.

Recently, Bob R wrote what I those was a powerful cautionary piece about the dangers of this place and how lightly they are taken by some.

Any of us who have posted on the board for years have seen reports of deaths on this mountain, most of which were preventable.

I have three years of experience with ice axe and crampons, including a snow travel course and I am just getting to the point where I feel comfortable with the idea of doing this mountain in May or June but not this year.

I am not looking forward to reading about a person glissading down from Trail Crest utilizing trekking poles as a break, losing it and ultimately dying. However, based on what I've read here and elsewere my feeling is there are going to be a few dead bodies on this mountain before the summer is over.

Lastly, don't let your desire to summit cloud your decision making process. If you can't self arrest instinctively and correctly early season Mt. Whitney might not be the place for you.
Mt. Whitney and Eastern Sierra Blog
The Mt. Whitney Day Hike and Backpacking Page

Posted by Doug Sr, 05-12-05
Hi WB may sound a bit harsh but to the point, Mountaineering in winter conditions requires many skills and past experiences to draw from. Each day is different, no one can tell you what to expect, THAT is what makes it mountaineering . Be safe be kind be well. Thanks Doug

Posted by 67brickie, 05-12-05
Itdanp21 - don't do it. What do I know? not much, but like you I'll be trying for the first time to reach the top, the big difference between our efforts is that mine will be in late July and yours is next week. After getting my permit and getting a group together (all of whom have less outdoor experience than I do) my first chief concern was weather during the hike (storms, lightning, etc) which might prevent summiting. In recent days, upon reading all the information coming in here about continued winter weather higher up, my hopes/expectations are faltering a great deal. I understand perfectly well that to accommodate my hike attempt nature will have to stop snowing, warm up and stay that way. Will it happen? who knows. Point is, my anticipations and hopes to reach the summit, experience the natural high (no pun, really), put an entry in the book, have run square into the reality of what's up there and may still be there in July. Do I want to make the top? Hell yes. Am I willing to endanger myself or those I've asked to do this hike with me? absolutely not. I'm a flatlander and would love nothing more than to do what I'm studying, preparing and setting out to do. But there's also a large dose of pragmatism that needs to be involved, too. My air tickets are all purchased, a vehicle rented, preparations continue for July. All I can do is cross my fingers that nature cooperates, and I'll be crossing them as well that you don't do something nutty.

Posted by 67brickie, 05-12-05
just reviewed my last post - the asterisks block three letters which I guess the server interprets as profane. Let it be known that the missing letters would have completed a word whose literal meaning is "not drunk". now you know....

Posted by Ken, 05-12-05
Dan, I'm going to take a little bit different point of view.

I agree with most, that a person heading up with gear that they've no idea how to use, is simply foolish. For example, crampons, in combination with an unuseable ice axe, only allows one to put oneself into a more dangerous place than one could attain without either.

However, one has to start somewhere. One has to have a concept of one's limitations. As winter mountaineering goes, either route is actually quite tame. Dangers, yes. However, the specific dangers are easily identified. If we all simply avoid danger, we can enjoy these climbs in the safest way possible...from our armchairs.

You are doing something that 99% of people do NOT do: getting professional instruction. You will be working with the pros at SMI, a very reputable group. You are spending a couple of days to work on your skills. Excellent!

I'd say, see what you think. Be prepared to be conservative.

North Fork may actually be easier and safer. Probably be more people up high.

Avi reports: Normally, the best, but they ended a month ago

Best current info may be from Yosemite:
Good judgment comes from experience,
and experience, of course, comes from poor judgment.

Posted by sierramike, 05-12-05
Considering that two climbers died over the last two months on the mountaineers route and both appeared fairly experienced, I would not consider these routes at this time easy. It appears that for the last few months, the death rate to summit ratio is pretty high. The only responsible way for novices to learn is to climb with much more experienced climbers.

Posted by Bob R, 05-12-05
By now you realize that the Mountaineer's Route in winter is not a place for someone whose only contact with mountaineering is having (1) read a book, (2) taken a course, and (3) hiked once to Trail Camp and back. While summer may be on the horizon by late May, it is a distant horizon this year. Many places—shaded slopes and couloirs in particular—will remain winter-like into July, and even throughout the summer. This applies not only to the MR, but also to the Whitney trail and much of the entire Sierra.

If you decide to tackle the main trail, be aware of some problems that novices are typically not ready for:

·Recognizing signs of changing weather,
·Recognizing a number of objective hazards,
·Recovering from mistakes in route selection,
·Dealing with injuries and illness, and...
·It sounds like you are going solo, and that is a big concern.

Posted by patroller420, 05-13-05
Itdanp21, I made my first winter attempt in early April and like you I waited 3 years to do this,getting my training by Joining the national ski patrol and I went with an experienced climber. We didn't make it to the top. We stop before the notch due to time constraints. If I were you I would start my climb with the attitude of going as high as you feel completely safe about. You may end up like me only getting as far as iceberg lake. But even that was worth it. Practice your self arrest as you go up in safe spots (In other words if you slide and cant arrest make sure you end up at the bottom of a drainage with no rocks or cliffs. If you make it to Iceberg and feel confident, climb to the top of the notch. Come down if you don't feel confidant. If you fell ok continue on. But at this point on is where it will get "expert" . If its warm, sunny and the snow is soft, ask someone thats continuing on if they will get you to the top. If you dont fell confidant about going on, turn around and look at it like I did, for my next attempt (June 6-8) I will know 70% of the trail. Good Luck, go slow, watch the weather and have fun

Posted by Memory Lapse, 05-13-05
I don't mean to poke fun about a serious subject and I for one am guilty about not spell checking but I found the previous post oddly humorous because feel was mis-spelled twice as fell and almost fit in the sentence.

My advice is to listen to Bob R. He is by far one of the top resources posting on this board and has extensive mountaineering experience world-wide. Anyone else recounting their own experience with a couple of attempts just does not have the necessary experience.

A few years ago I was backpacking in the San Bernardino mountains north of Mt. San Gorgonio and was caught in a heavy thunderstorm that swept in unexpectedly. Later that evening, a ranger come through our camp and reported that two people drowned in the subsequent flash flood about a mile and a half below where we were camped.

My point is that weather changes very rapidly and most all weather systems on Mt. Whitney come in from the east where you cannot see them coming until it is upon you.

I apologize in advance if I am under estimating your mountaineering experience but this is not the place to learn by yourself.

Go with God and be safe, err of the side of caution.

Posted by patroller420, 05-13-05
Thats what happens when you try to post at work and have to go to work. Sorry if my spelling caused you to chuckle but thats what happens when you go to school in Texas. But as I said I would look at the trail in sections. If you complete the first, move on to the next

Posted by Bob R, 05-13-05
Memory Lapse, thanks for the compliment. But there are a lot of people who post here with excellent comments. By the way, I thought your description of the heavy "thuderstorm" was very graphic!

Reminds me of the time I misspelled "rattlesnake" as "rattlesnack" and a few of you had fun with that.

Posted by AlanK, 05-13-05
Bob -- since the previous poster brought up Texas, I believe that is is considered a "rattlesnack" in those parts. :-)

Posted by Scott M, 05-13-05
And now there is the ever popular Rattlesnack with chipolte available at your participating fast food drive through. Please specify skin on or skin off when ordering.

Posted by Memory Lapse, 05-13-05
Bob R and Patroller,

Well I guess it's time to admit I was born and raised in Houston so this spelling problem must be a Texas thing.....

and Bob you're welcome for the complement and you are way too humble.

Posted by Ken, 05-13-05
As I was thinking about my response, I thought about the issues some more. I agree that the solo aspect is the most troubling. One reason to go where the most people are, if you decide to go.

However, you should ask and listen to the professional guides with which you will be working, who guide this mountain often. They will be able to do several things that we cannot: assess you physically, how you move on the snow, the adequacy of your gear, your attitude and judgment in the outdoors. All pretty important.

I don't just say don't do it, as I think of all the adventures that all of the veteran posters here have had, in their learning curve. I surely don't like to be in the position of "do as I say, don't do as I've done". Learn from others' experience, but measured adventure is what mountaineering is all about. It's just critical to have a margin of safety as you learn.

Posted by Bob R, 05-14-05
A similar "sermon" on another thread evidently struck a chord with Doug. He responded "Thanks, Bob - will they ever listen? Did we?"

To his first question, I think the answer is: yes, most of the time. So it is worth the effort.

To his second, the same answer: yes, most of the time. But we had some of our best adventures when we didn't listen. Alfred North Whitehead wrote "Without adventure, civilization is in full decay."

Sometimes the quest for adventure ends memorably; sometimes it ends tragically. Doug and I have been lucky so far--we are still around to talk about them! I think my most memorable is one I had when I was also a novice to mountaineering, and I wouldn't trade it for the world. But I could easily have ended up a statistic.

Posted by thetoffa, 05-14-05
Bob - I enjoyed your story of your first ascent all those years ago immensely.

With regards to 'listening to advice', however, times have surely changed. Would I be wrong in thinking that at that time very few people ascended the mountain - and therefore resources of advice were not available as they are today? I'm sure you would have planned your climb differently if you had had access to this website at the time!

As a newbie I welcome all the advice I can get, and I thank you all for imparting your experience on message boards such as this. The constant re-iteration of the dangers is good practice - it starts to sink in after a while!

Keep it coming, you words may actually save lives.


Posted by Wayne, 05-14-05
Fascinating story, Bob! I'm glad you put it to pen, and look forward to many more. For us who love Mt. Whitney, a Bob R. book would be much appreciated...and purchased! With good advertising, I think many across the nation would love your stories. smile

Posted by Sierra Sam, 05-14-05

Here's a somewhat different way to answer your question - go on either route, but go with a professional guide or highly experienced climbing partner. While I agree with others that you are probably pushing the envelope too far to go solo with your current level of experience, the only way you'll improve your skills and experience is to take on the challenge. The safest way to do that is with someone who can teach you while also providing a safety net.

Posted by wbtravis5152, 05-14-05

My post wasn't meant to be harsh it was meant to make sure folks know what they are getting into this year. I've already seen two people slide down a slope and off a 4' lip into a creek and another break his arm sliding into a tree during the same climbing accident.

A lot of folks are going to come to Whitney Portal this year clueless about the conditions. I just wanted point out mistakes in the early season can be costly, especially if you come here without any knowledge in the use of crampons and ice axe you just purchased or rented.

You are absolutely correct everyday is different this is why I pointed some of these things which have gone wrong in the past. You have to prepare for the worst and hope for the best and most of all don't exceed your skill level at any time on your trip up the mountain.

I hope people have realistic expectations this year in the early season, especially those with little to no experience. I have seen their posts here and elsewhere and it like the snow and ice is just a bit of an inconvenience, it isn't.

Different every day is what keeps me coming back.

Sorry, if I ruffled some feathers that is something I did not mean to do.
Mt. Whitney and Eastern Sierra Blog
The Mt. Whitney Day Hike and Backpacking Page

Posted by Ken, 05-15-05
Bob, I have to admit that your story crossed my mind, as I wrote my last comments.

However, you have done some serious editing!

What is that phrase? "of a quality suitable for publication"

Should make a nice chapter in that book!!

Posted by ltdanp21, 05-16-05
A very sincere thank you to everyone who's posted so far. Thank you for taking the time to give a stranger valuable advice.

My girlfriend and I (there are two of us) are going to make the trip to Trail Camp this Tuesday and Wednesday. This part of the adventure was never really in question but both of us will be much more careful and more willing to turn back than if no one had posted. Really, you've made much more cautious mountaineers out of us with your posts.

We'll work on all of the techniques we learn with SMI as we ascend to and descend from Trail Camp. I'm taking relevant sections of the book with me (an extra pound) to be certain we're doing the techniques properly. If we make camp at Trail Camp early, we may also try to get up to Trail Crest to see what we'll have to deal with next week. Given the level of concern some of you expressed I've ordered a pair of harnesses, a rope, carabiners, and five pickets for next weeks trip so that we'll be ready to use running belays and anchored belays on any sections that we feel warrant them.

I'll take lots of pictures and notes so I can, in a small way, return the favor to others who read this board.

It's 2 am and I'm off to make the five hour drive to Bishop for my 9 am class.

Thanks again,


P.S. Bob, great story!

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