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#52474 - 11/27/17 12:18 AM Thanksgiving at Trail Camp
Matt S Offline

Registered: 11/26/17
Posts: 2
Loc: CA
Hey all,

Got some good info for my most recent trip from the discussion here, so figure I'd contribute. I'll probably add a note to the current conditions thread too, but this seemed like the best place to talk about my trip late last week - overall plan was to camp out at Trail Camp Thursday 11/23 and have a go at the summit Friday morning, with a return Friday night or Saturday morning.

TL;DR if you don't want to read my ramblings - despite beautiful weather most of the trip, heavy snowfall at the top of Trail Crest from last weekend and several other seemingly experienced and well-equipped hikers turning around at that point caused me to keep my trip below the summit, but it was a great hike.

Before the hike logistics
Arrived in Lone Pine around 10pm Wednesday night (11/22) after some maddening traffic out of LA and stopped at the Eastern Sierra Interagency Visitor Center to fill out a self-permit - no one ever checked it and I'm sure you could get by without one, but there's a kiosk right alongside the road as you drive up, and the process only takes a few minutes to write down your info (and it might help SAR if you get into trouble). They also have wag bags for free. I spoke to a Ranger earlier that day who said that even though the Whitney Portal campground is "closed", no one is going to stop you from camping there in a tent (vs. RV, etc.). I found several other groups posted up when I arrived. The water is turned off, but the bathrooms are unlocked and there were plenty of open ~7'x7' campsite spots available.

First day
Set off on Thursday morning (11/23) around 8:45am and was surprised at how warm it was - probably 50 degrees or warmer in the sun. Hit snow right at the beginning of the Muir Wilderness sign, but it was all pretty thin/soft, so it had little effect all the way up to Outpost Camp other than some icy patches on the log bridges across the stream.

About a mile into the trail

The snow at Outpost camp was pretty well-trod, but only about ankle-deep even in the fresh parts. Met a bunch of nice Russian guys, two of which were coming down from Trail Crest after deciding to turn around due to deep snow at a (the?) narrow section, and two who were also headed up to Trail Camp. Again, no real issues plodding up the switchbacks to and past Mirror Lake, other than the occasional posthole or slip on a rock or packed trail section.

Path into Outpost Camp

The snow started to get deeper right at the beginning of Trailside Meadow - either due to not looking at a map or just deciding to blaze ahead, it appears that all of the travelers through the meadow decided to go straight up the hill rather than hang a nearly 180-degree turn at the beginning of the meadow and follow the actual trail up the switchbacks and contour along the cliff. I decided to follow the blazed path, and despite a relatively steep ascent compared to the actual trail, it was probably easier than making a new route - just stay close to the wall, since the middle of the meadow is soggy and I saw a few very deep postholes straight into the creek that likely dampened someone's day. The rest of the way up to Trail Camp was what you would expect on a sunny early winter day in the mountains; snowy up to the shins (or knees if you're unlucky and punch through a deep section) but otherwise fairly easy going. I never felt the need to stop to put on crampons or gaiters; the snow was still relatively dry since the sun stayed below the south mountain faces. I got in just before 3pm, which puts the ascent at about 6 hours - I was pretty damn tired, but seeing as I live at sea level, I think that's a reasonable estimate for someone in relatively good shape. For reference, I'm a dude in my late 20's, I was hauling about 50 lbs, and took maybe 30 min rest along the way (not counting the frequent 30s interludes to admire the mountains or wonder what it is about people that makes us think wheezing our way up a mountain is fun).

Path through Trailside Meadow

Trail Camp
First things first - good luck finding liquid water. I had stubbornly held out hope that the small basin at the entrance to the site would have a thawed section I could siphon from, but it was frozen fairly solid, and I didn't want to risk soaking my boots by stomping a hole. Melting snow sucks - if I could get a mulligan, I would have just filled up at some point prior to the meadow and hauled it up despite the extra weight. As far as campsite selection goes, most of the spots have surprisingly little snow and are pretty dry, but very few offer any substantial wind protection. I wandered around for about 10-15 minutes searching for an ideal site, and eventually settled for a spot with a large boulder and two thigh-high piled rock walls. It was better than nothing, but well short of a real windbreak - I'd estimate the winds were somewhere between 20-40 MPH vs. the forecast 5-10 MPH, and they were in every direction, maybe foreboding the most recent storm. I've had good experiences with my sleeping bag (Marmot Helium, ~15 degF rating) and a liner (Thermolite Reactor Extreme, allegedly up to 25 degF extra warmth), so I've only ever camped with my three season REI Half Dome 2 tent - I was plenty warm, but I woke up about every 30 minutes to what sounded like the tent about to rip apart and fly away (the tent is actually awesome, it just wasn't really designed for what I use it for sometimes). I think you could still get away with the same setup, but I bring a bunch of guy wire unless you want to ruin a tent and bivvy the rest of the night...or just bring a real mountain tent. For what it's worth, I met one BAMF who was headed up to the summit that night to bivvy at the top and "spend some time stargazing" - I hope he made it.

Campsite at Trail Camp

Summit attempt
Woke up around 3am and wrestled my tent into the bag - at this point, the wind was a fairly consistent northeasterly ~20-30 MPH coming down the slope, though there were plenty of dead calm moments and ~40 MPH gusts. The ambient temperature was probably in the mid 20's. Being basically right after a new moon, visibility was about 15 feet with a headlamp and pitch black without. I wore gaiters and recommend them - if you posthole, you're going down to the knee in several sections unless you follow footprints. Finding the switchbacks wasn't that hard despite a few false starts following the wrong set of footprints, and the first few hundred feet up was relatively straightforward. From there, it started to get less clear-cut - some sections of the switchbacks are easy to follow, but others have been completely snowed over/windswept, so there's a collection of random footpaths that either cut the switchbacks entirely, or follow some invented path through the thinnest portion of rocks. I lost the path a few times and backtracked based on my GPS' indication of the path. Overall, it wasn't that hard in terms of physical exertion, but it's frustrating to have to stop and/or turn around every minute or two - I found myself wishing I had just left at 5am and had the benefit of visibility at the expense of softer/wetter snow. With a decent weather forecast and a willingness to camp at Trail or Outpost Camp for another night after the summit bid, I think this could potentially be a better strategy than the traditional alpine start.

In terms of snow coverage and quality, it was a weird hybrid - half of the trail was exposed, half of the trail was completely covered. Some sections were knee-deep, others were completely exposed down to the concrete-like gravel...overall, I'd say it averaged at ankle to shin deep. Pretty much over the entirety of the switchbacks, it was a crusty, light, unconsolidated powder - not difficult to kick your feet through, but easy to slip on if the crust is particularly hard, and I had no confidence that I would be able to get any purchase with my axe to self-arrest if the snow quality was the same higher up. I was maybe halfway up the switchbacks when I crossed paths with one of the Russian guys I met the day before - he had gotten a head start on me and was headed down from Trail Crest after apparently having to self-arrest twice after unsuccessful bids to wade through the "thigh-high" snow at the top (seems consistent with other depth reports I've heard; we're both about 5'11"), particularly at the narrow section, which he said also had relatively icy rocks underfoot. Combined with my current emotional response to stinging feet and eyes from 40 MPH gust sandblasting me with ice particles, this was enough to turn me off from a summit bid - I just didn't want it that badly. I thanked him for saving me the effort of trudging all the way up to come to the same conclusion, climbed a few hundred more feet up, and enjoyed watching the sun rise over the Sierra before heading back to camp.

Terrible low-light phone camera image of the switchbacks a few hundred feet above Trail Camp

Twilight at Trail Camp

Sunrise over the Sierra

Retreat to civilization
The trip down was uneventful other than generally higher winds (20-40 MPH) until the protection of the mountain walls below Outpost Camp, and much icier paths due to a relatively warm day previously, and decently heavy foot traffic. Above Outpost Camp was bearable, though I slipped in several (non-critical) sections and had to use my poles to avoid falling. Below Outpost Camp I was surprised at how icy the trail was, and everything below Lone Pine Lake was essentially a luge course. If I wasn't so stubborn, I would have put on my crampons and had a much smoother descent - I just slogged on in my boots and never felt unsafe, but definitely slid small distances a few dozen times. Microspikes would have been a good compromise. All of it was mad worthwhile by a bacon cheeseburger and beer down at the Mt. Whitney Restaurant in Lone Pine.

I met a lot of people (probably close to a dozen) who were turned off from the summit due to sketchy conditions at the narrow section at Trail crest; at the time, it sounded like no one had traveled across it, which I would generalize as being outside their/my comfort level. It was likely doable, and with a few more freeze-thaw cycles and a few people travelling through, it's probably a lot better. Despite not reaching the summit, I had a great time, and this part of the season is great since the weather is generally agreeable, there's no quota, and there's a good balance of people on the trail to have someone to talk to and also get a lot of solitude.

Happy plodding,

#52476 - 11/27/17 02:34 PM Re: Thanksgiving at Trail Camp [Re: Matt S]
JedHiker Offline

Registered: 01/02/15
Posts: 9
Loc: Bishop
Matt: thanks for the detailed report. Just a few more things to balance the report:
1: any AMS symptoms with or without meds? That was a quick ascent and was it just a weather/environmental decision to turn back?
2: what's your level of conditioning and experience to attempt a late season summit?
Reason for inquiry: I talked to many hikers this season during my Whitney PSAR trail days and followed many others on blogs. Frequently after all of the congrats and kudos, what was not mentioned in the posts was an ambulance ride from the Portal, an ER visit in Lone Pine or a doctors assessment that they had PE. (Obviously all three hikers put themselves at great risk). Without that background knowledge, other less-experienced hikers may have followed their lead and put themselves at risk also.
Thanks for your reporting efforts.
Rescue 18 Inyo SAR

#52479 - 11/27/17 04:36 PM Re: Thanksgiving at Trail Camp [Re: JedHiker]
Matt S Offline

Registered: 11/26/17
Posts: 2
Loc: CA
Hey Ed - great points.

1. No AMS symptoms that I noticed (other than general tiredness and shortness of breath from the exertion...probably could have taken it a bit slower), and I didn't take meds - sleeping at the Portal campground the night before definitely seemed to help. I was also in good health/spirits and drinking a few liters of water a day in the week leading up to the trip, which definitely didn't hurt.

My decision to turn back was purely based on my comfort level with the conditions that were being reported up at Trail Crest with deep snow and slick conditions where the runout was bad - I decided to take the other hikers' word for it and didn't feel like ascending further just to come to the conclusion myself. The conditions (wind, temperature) got a little better shortly after the sun came up, and I never felt particularly at risk during my ascent up the switchbacks.

2. I consider myself in pretty good shape - I try to work out/run a few times a week and generally do a lot of solo backpacking at elevation with a relatively heavy load. In the last year or so I've done multi-day trips through Yosemite, Grand Teton, Sequoia, and Denali NP (not a Denali ascent). The Yosemite and Sequoia trips have included November-February visits with the same gear, so I had experience with the same level of conditions as last weekend (otherwise I would have been pretty hesitant).

EDIT: I should also note that I did a Whitney trip this past May with some friends - the snowpack was still insane from the record winter, and the trip involved a fair bit of crampon travel. My trip out to Grand Teton NP this past July also involved a bunch of crampon/axe travel up the Middle Teton glacier/winter route to the Lower Saddle at ~12,000' due to similar record snow last winter (probably something like 1000-1500 vertical feet over a few miles).

In general I feel like I have a pretty healthy outlook on risk assessment (and a relatively low risk tolerance when I'm traveling alone), so I wasn't worried about being able to call it and turn around if I felt uncomfortable (which I did) - though definitely agree that it's not always straightforward to identify and evaluate all the risks once you're out in the thick of it.

Definitely agree/recommend that other hikers make an honest assessment of their experience and comfort level, plan for contingencies, and listen to their bodies/gut when they're out there - and don't let your ego get in the way of being honest with yourself when you probably don't have the experience to do something safely.


Edited by Matt S (11/27/17 04:53 PM)

#52480 - 11/27/17 04:51 PM Re: Thanksgiving at Trail Camp [Re: Matt S]
JedHiker Offline

Registered: 01/02/15
Posts: 9
Loc: Bishop
Bonus points for you: that keeps the SAR volunteers home safely with their families.
Hopefully, many hikers will read our discourse and apply the sound training, preparation and experience to their summit attempt. You can remove most variables including weather by doing what you did and making the right decision.
AMS can strike any time, prepared or not, and a slip, fall and injury requiring SAR is but a step away on any trail. Thanks for participating.
Ed Rescue 18

#52491 - 12/02/17 09:23 AM Re: Thanksgiving at Trail Camp [Re: Matt S]
Panorama Paul Offline

Registered: 06/12/17
Posts: 20
Loc: Ridgecrest, CA, USA
Remember the great scenery from the top…check out: