It’s funny how things just creep onto your “to do” list. I had climbed Mt. Whitney quite a few times before it occurred to me that I had done it in nine different months, and that I might try to do the other three.
An argument with somebody on WPSMB prompted me to climb the switchbacks in January 2011 just to prove him wrong. Thirteen months later, RichardP and I did a February day trip. That left December, which Carine and I did in 2013. Done! A Whitney summit in each of the twelve months!
Then I noticed that I had day hiked Whitney in eleven different months. Could I day hike it in January and make it twelve? It would take near-perfect conditions. I would have to be able to park close to the trailhead; a couple of extra miles each way would push this goal out of reach. I would need a long dry spell to let the snow consolidate on the route; wallowing in fresh avalanche-prone snow was not a formula for success. I would also need great weather for the climb. I watched conditions in January 2013, but never saw the opportunity I wanted.
A few weeks ago, I was reading something about climbing the Mountaineers’ Route in winter. I was sort-of subconsciously thinking “I’ve done that” until I realized that I hadn’t. I had been up and down the Mountaineers’ Route in all kinds of conditions, but never in winter (meaning between the winter solstice and the spring equinox). How did I miss doing that? I’d better add that to my “to do” list.
Maybe I could kill two birds with one stone: a January day hike and a winter Mountaineers’ Route at the same time. It’s been a super dry winter. By the time we get another winter this dry, I’ll probably be too old for this nonsense. I figured I had better go for it.
I emailed a few people for advice, noted when the full moon would occur, watched the weather, and finally left Reno on Sunday afternoon. After a good Mexican meal in Lone Pine, I headed up to a quiet, level spot just off Horseshoe Meadows Rd. to get some sleep.
The alarm went off at 3:40 AM. I don’t know where the time went, but by the time I got dressed, cooked and ate breakfast, drove too far up the road, turned around, organized all my stuff, and started hiking, it was 5:20. I had parked near the Meysan Lakes trailhead because of the snow and ice, so it took another 20 minutes to get to the Whitney trailhead.
As expected, there wasn’t much snow. However, the E Ledges had some snow and water ice, making them dangerous. There was just enough snow on the left side of the canyon to allow bypassing the ledges and the willows. A good boot track led up left side of the canyon and all the way to Upper Boy Scout Lake. Stepping out of the tracks sometimes meant punching through to the top of my boots or maybe going in knee-deep. Staying on the beaten path meant I rarely sunk in very far. I carried snowshoes and never used them. I used crampons until well above Upper Boy Scout Lake. After that, the snow coverage was spotty. Do I wreck my crampons on the rocks, risk a slip on the hard snow without crampons, or spend the whole day putting on crampons and then taking them off again?
When I got to Iceberg Lake, I headed up the right part of the couloir that had the most snow. There were steps kicked into the snow part of the way, and I felt comfortable using ski poles, rather than an ice axe. Crossing several rocky sections was a real pain. The snow petered out up higher, and the couloir became a gravel chute.
To my surprise, the Final 400 was almost completely free of snow. I’m sure that I took fewer than twenty steps on the snow the whole way up. It was like September, only colder. As I walked to the summit at 1:15, I was feeling good. I’ll be 65 next month, and I never even noticed the altitude on the way up. I signed the register, sent a Spot message to a favorite buddy who was at his desk at work, and headed down. I found a route down the final 400 with even less snow than on the way up.
I headed down the gravel chute, glad that I was going down and not up. In the lower part of the couloir, I took the rocky ramp on the right and stayed off the snow as much as possible. I didn’t put my crampons back on until I was well below Iceberg Lake. I grinned at the thought that I had pulled this off without ever taking my ice axe off my pack.
The trip back to the truck was pretty much the same as the trip up, only much faster. I used crampons from above Upper Boy Scout Lake until I hit a long section of dirt on the main trail. By this time, it was getting dark, and I was glad the moon was up. With the headlamp in the pack, I could see where I was going, but I couldn’t identify the icy spots in the moonlight. After an embarrassing slip, I put the crampons back on. I was back at the truck before 6:00.