Thy mercy, O Lord, is in the heavens; and thy faithfulness reacheth unto the clouds. Thy righteousness is like the great mountains…” Psalm 36:5-6a
It was 3:15am when we checked out of the hotel in San Jose and headed for Lone Pine, CA and adventure that awaited on Mt. Whitney via the standard trail. This was just about the time another climber, who we did not yet know, was leaving the Mt Whitney trailhead on a solo climb. As of the time of this trip report, he has not yet returned to the trailhead and we are hoping and praying to hear of his safe return.
We arrived at the Eastern Sierra rangers station on the south side of Lone Pine at approximately 10:00am where we picked up our single day permits for Thursday June 13. We then headed over to Elevation outfitters to pick up crampons, then on to the grocery store for food, beverages, and snacks, before a quick lunch and beautiful drive up to Whitney Portal.
(A quick note on Elevation outfitters – their prices are phenomenal. Equal to or better than online prices for new gear and far better than leading national outfitters. The rental prices are also excellent. If you need gear on your trip I recommend picking it up here as the brands carried are excellent and the price is right. They also happen to have the best location in town at the corner where all cars must turn to head up to Whitney Portal.)
(Another quick note, this one on Lone Pine and cell service. If you plan to be at Whitney Portal for a while to acclimate, you may not have cell phone service. I use At&T and did not have service at Whitney Portal or anywhere on the mountain. My climbing partner had a different service and had coverage at Whitney Portal. Take this into account before heading out of Lone Pine if you have any work to accomplish or family to speak to in advance of the hike.)
We arrived at Whitney Portal shortly before noon and had reserved a campsite to hang out at during the afternoon. We were tired but not able to sleep given the anticipation. We headed up to the Whitney Portal store, had a beer and some snacks, visited the Lone Pine Creek Waterfall, played some cards, and it was still barely 2:00. We napped and hung out at the campsite until about 6:00 than decided to park at the overnight hiker’s lot until our expected departure time of midnight.
We talked to a few returning hikers until about 8:00 and then tried to grab a nap in the car until 11:00. It was fitful starts and stops on the naps interrupted by visitors to the Portal shining their brights on the parking area. A little frustrating when trying to sleep but to be expected and exactly what I would do as well when driving into an area unfamiliar at dark.
Finally, got out of the car around 11:15 to get suited up for the climb and were at the trailhead at approximately 11:50pm. My climbing partner’s bag weighed in at about 25 lbs while my bag weighed in at about 31 lbs without including the camera. The nighttime temperature was not bad…maybe low 60s at the Portal. We had plenty of layers but were quickly down to base layers as we ascended uphill. Whitney Portal to Lone Pine Lake: The Ascent
We made short work of the lower portions of the trail below Lone Pine Lake. Along this route a few things to note: 1) Lone Pine Creek crossing. This was a surprise to us as there was significant volume of water. However, we were able to make our way over the rocks to the other side. I was glad not to be able to see how far down and steep the water went. This was a whole other ball game on the descent 20 hours later. 2) We passed several hikers who looked at the latter end of the exhaustion spectrum. Not all of them had trekking poles, they seemed to be following the exhausted leader of the group but other than weariness they looked good, had summitted, and were almost back to the trailhead. Well done! I trust this group of four made it safely down the last mile. They had been travelling for more than 24 hours non-stop as they advised us that they attempted the switchback trail (we had already decided not to attempt this path in the snow). 3) Scorpions! Who knew – the first few miles of the Mt. Whitney trail are Scorpion friendly. We saw several on the trail up to Lone Pine Lake. Due to snow we did not notice any afterwards. Be careful sitting or setting your bag down at night. The Descent:
For the most part we were keeping up a 2-4mph speed on the descent as it was getting darker, we were feeling good, but we wanted to get back. We had been anticipating 16 hours round trip but it would come in at just over 20 hours. The big surprise for us was the Lone Pine Creek crossing. It was a monster crossing now at over 30 feet long due to snow melt all day. There were two waterfalls feeding into the trail and then a significant waterfall below the trail. My partner tackled the semi submerged rocks on the edge of the trail immediately and made his way safely across. A slip here would have been bad as a steep waterfall waited with plenty of rocks.
Knowing we were only a mile or so from the car, I decided I had taken enough risks during the day and tested the depth of the water and the current with my trekking poles. Judging both the current and depth to be manageable, I proceed to walk right through the crossing in the middle of the “trail” where the water came up about two feet high at its max but at that point the current was also slowest. Naturally my boots were filled with water but again, I was a manageable distance to the trailhead and car and it was not cold.
Please Note Two Things Here:[/b] 1) This crossing can at times be impossible to safely cross. Please don’t let our actions make you assume it’s safe when you are there. It was on this time and date but is not always. Significant snowfall and especially significant rain can make this impassible. 2) If it is impassible, I became aware of an “old trail” down to the Whitney Portal store. It is near the signs just before the Creek crossing. Consult maps and other posts to find this trail and be aware of it if you need it. While I was descending my only thought was that I had to cross Lone Pine Creek as I was unaware of other options. There are other options so keep this in mind and do your research.
We returned to Whitney Portal a little wet, somewhat tired, and overall thrilled with our adventure at 8:05 PM more than 20 hours after setting out. Lone Pine Lake to Outpost Camp:The Ascent:
This was an easier walk than the first stage of the trail. We started crossing snow sections here and occasionally used Gaia GPS to confirm our trail but we never really lost it in this section. We arrived at Outpost Camp and tried not to shine our headlamps at the many tents set up there. This was a calm portion of the trail. If you feel good, we would recommend moving quickly in this stage as you will need the extra time further up.
(A quick note on the GAIA GPS App. I use this exclusively on an iphone 6 or an iPhone XR which run GPS without the need for cell or wifi service. It has never let me down on Mt. St. Helens, Mt. Shasta, Mt. Whitney or numerous summits in CO. Without this app or GPS, I don’t see how we would have summitted or found our way up in the dark or safely down when it was light. )
(Another note here. The stars were amazing heading up from Whitney Portal. However, the nearly full moon shed too much light on the sky to see many stars clearly. By the time we were at Outpost Camp the moon had moved further down behind the mountains and the full beauty of the night sky opened for our enjoyment. We saw the milky way clearly and millions of stars in and around it. )The Descent
(Outpost Camp to Lone Pine Lake): Risks decreased on this section and we picked up time. We did have to pause to check the GPS for the trail a couple times but we moved fairly quickly and none of the risks compared with the prior sections above Outpost Camp on the trail. Just pay attention and watch out for holes in the snow. Outpost Camp to Mirror Lake:The Ascent
Here we began to lose time. It was not an unpleasant hike but route finding was very time consuming. Boot prints went every direction. Often because of the snow we hiked straight up to the trail we could see switch backing above us but not the trail to get there. No real danger zones that we noticed hiking up as the snow was solid, just time consuming. We had to constantly position using GAIA GPS as our aid. The Descent
Mirror Lake to Outpost Camp: This section was surprisingly difficult on the way down as the trail was difficult to find and in the daylight it was even easier to be deceived by the boot tracks. Just above Outpost Camp the trail moves towards the left (on the Descent) and switchbacks some steep terrain until you reach Outpost Camp. However, when above Outpost Camp it seems the best way from the tracks is to skip all of that and just go straight down to the camp. Some have written about attempting this very thing and almost losing their lives. Several years ago at least one person died while attempting this incorrect route. Make sure to follow the trail to the left. There is a waterfall and a cliff above Outpost Camp that you do not want to deal with.
We had to cross country back to the trail when we saw on the topo map how far off we were from the trail and the steep conditions in front of us. Pay attention in this area – just because you are below tree line does not mean you are below dangerous conditions. There are also dangerous holes with running water underneath. An injury could very well happen here if one is not careful.Mirror Lake to Consultation Lake/Trail Camp:The Ascent:
If you look at a map of the standard route. About ¾ of the way between Mirror Lake and Consultation Lake, the trail turns 180 degrees twice in order to climb a ridge to the right of Consultation Lake. We were determined to try and stay with the trail until the Switchbacks and chute at which time we would take the Chute up to Trail Crest. When we got above tree line and Mirror Lake there was an obvious trail parallel to Consultation Lake but the standard route was supposed to climb the ridge. We decided to climb the ridge which we did and may have been the only ones to do so that day.
The ridge resulted in an unnerving traverse over a steep (50 degree +) frozen snow field just short of Trail Camp. In order to cross this we had to make steps into the snow field to make it across. About ½ way across we looked up and realized a large crevasse was above us! Not what we wanted to see but little we could do now. We kept going across and made it safely to the rocky continuation of the ridge. The point of this story was at this point, we should have followed the boot trail and ignored the ridge trail. It was not the ideal way to go at this time of year in the snow.
We made it to just beyond Trail Camp for our first major break and switch up gear to tackle the Chute. The sun was just rising so it took us almost 7 hours until this point. This was not the result of slow moving or fatigue but merely the result of struggling to find the trail in the dark and taking the summer route over the ridge instead of the snow path up to the Chute. The Descent:
Trail Camp/Consultation Lake to Mirror Lake. Perhaps the easiest part of the descent after the glissade down the chute. We simply plunged stepped our way down to Mirror Lake following the clear trail in the snow. This is a place to make up time so don’t delay here. Just be careful of soft snow conditions and use baskets on your trekking poles to help you from falling to deep into the snow.
We met a few people on the descent at Trail Crest who very kindly filtered water into our empty water bottles for us from a stream near Trail Camp. We were down to less than two Gatorades between us due to a fall on the Chute and this extra water allowed us to enjoy the return trip to Whitney Portal. If the couple from Seattle reads this, thank you again for taking the time to give us some filtered water! (We did not make it back to the Portal in time to buy you a beer but perhaps our paths will cross again and we can make it up.)Trail Camp to Trail Crest:The Ascent:
Having climbed Mt. Adams and Mt. Shasta previously, I was excited to see the “short” length and “moderate” slope of the Chute. The climb to the false summit on Mt. Adams is the only place I have ever thought I might not be able to finish a climb. The climb up Avalanche Gulch in perfect nighttime conditions took 4 hours and reached perhaps 45 degrees. The Chute on Whitney is not nearly as bad as either of these other mountains. However, if you either: 1) have not climbed a steep snow field; or 2) are climbing in the sun with soft snow; the Chute will likely be your most dreaded part of the Whitney trip.
My partner and I divided the Chute into five pitches and then worked each pitch with a break at the end of each. By the end of the 5th pitch we were at Trail Crest. With the sun up by the time of our arrival (7:00am), it took us 2 hours to reach Trail Crest. I was pleased with this time given it was a first time on similar conditions for my climbing partner and the snow softened rapidly. I cannot imagine trying to scramble up this after about 10:00am.
About halfway up the main shoot, my partner, who had been using only crampons and trekking poles switched to an ice axe. The timing was providential as only seconds later he slipped and self arrested with the axe very quickly (Great work on your first self-arrest buddy!) However, while injury was thankfully avoided, 48 ounces of water fell out of the backpack and down the chute to the abyss. This was an issue as this was basically his hydration for the return trip.
No further incidents were experienced, and we reached Trail Crest at 9:00am. The Descent:
Glissading!! We had a blast glissading and covered the distance to near Trail Camp in about 15 minutes. What a thrill! Just make sure you: 1) Don’t have crampons on while glissading!; and 2) Use your ice axe properly so as not to cut yourself if you have to self-arrest. Other than that, enjoy it and watch out for rocks! Trail Crest to Whitney Summit:The Ascent:
While enjoying the beautiful views at Trail Crest and congratulating ourselves on “basically finishing Whitney” we had no idea what was waiting for us on the remaining 1.9 miles to the summit of Whitney. I think it is fair to say that if we had known what trail conditions would have been like on this section before the hike we would not have attempted Whitney at this time of year and would have found another mountain to pursue in June.
First you have to go down a good bit and than work your way up and around the back side of Mt. Muir and the Needles before you make it even into sight of Mt. Whitney. This backside approach included the most technical climbing at altitude I have ever done. The typically narrow trail in the summer was non-existent as it was covered by slopes of snow and ice. We had to make several technical maneuvers against significant exposure to navigate the trail. This included holding onto rocks while holding onto our ice axe and using crampons to move around corners. It involved hoping snow slopes would hold a while longer (at least while we passed) when there was no apparent way to self-arrest if we fell. It was a sketchy area.
We moved very slowly here and saw many people getting ahead of us. We were also experiencing the altitude issues with shortness of breath, etc… When we finally made it into sight of Mt. Whitney we realized we still had a long trek to make and another snow Chute to climb to just below the summit. The snow slope was better than the “Chute” below Trail Crest but it took a while to ascend. We finally reached the summit right at our goal of 12:05pm. Please note, it took us 3 hours from Trail Crest to the Whitney Summit. This was far longer than we anticipated.
We met a father and son who were tackling the PCT together. When asked about the highlights of their trip to date, Whitney was one of the biggest highlights. Congratulations on summitting – I hope they made it back to their camp taking an off trail route.
At the top we also met a fast and friendly climber by the name of Andrew. He kindly gave each of us a sip of his water so we could maintain our Gatorade reserves after losing the bottle on the Chute. We met up with him several more times on the descent.
We took a few summit photos, had beautiful weather, and headed down. Perhaps we stayed on the summit 20 minutes. Knowing what was to come we did not delay. The Descent:
Well, it was about as bad as the ascent accept that we were trending downhill. Any time we saved on the downhill part we lost on the technical aspects of the melting ledges of snow and ice. One of the pictures tries to show the exposure of these ledges but it is hard to appreciate from the angle of the photo. It took us three hours to get back to Trail Crest. In other words, we were above Trail Crest and 13,600 feet for more than 6 hours. The result of this was that the end of the trail to Trail Crest changed in appearance by the time we returned. So much snow melted out it seemed like an entirely different trail. We were thrilled to arrive back at the Chute and prepare for the glissade.
Mt Whitney is an amazing day hike if you are in shape. Enjoy it but understand the risks and changing conditions. Don’t climb alone and manage your time well. Always be willing to turn around if conditions are not ideal or you are unprepared physically, psychologically, or by experience for the journey. Other than that, enjoy it!