Fear on the Top

Posted by: Whitney Zone

Fear on the Top - 07/03/06 11:21 AM

Posted by Skinnerhead, 07-03-06

I just thought I should share with the community my recent experience at Mt. Whitney. I am a 41yo husband and father to 2 wonderful kids. My only other major summit bid prior to this was Mt. San Jacinto. I am by no means Mr. Everest. I am just an average Joe.

Anyway my best friend and I came into sunny conditions at Trail Camp Monday June 26 about noon after a 5 1/2 hour trek from Portal. We set up our tent and spent the rest of the day relaxing and watching hikers return from the summit, glissading down the chute from trail crest. About 4pm the weather turned and it became cold, windy with rain. We awoke the next morning to clear skies... a great beginning for a summit attempt. We chose to bypass the switchbacks and head directly up the chute to Trail Crest. It took roughly 2 hours to complete. It was one hell of a hump and we were both glad to get that section over with.

Now here is were it gets interesting. I knew from checking the weather reports prior to leaving that they were expecting thunderstorms in the late afternoon. It was now roughly 8am or so with clear skies. We have plenty of time. Roughly a half-mile from the top I looked back at my buddy who was a 100 yards behind me. Then I noticed 2 happy little fluffy cotton ball clouds hanging in the sky down the valley towards Trail Crest..nothing threatening. I did however tell my buddy to hurry it up just in case.

We made the summit about 10:15 am. Still sunny, however the two happy little clouds had now merged together to form a big ugly grayish thing. But it was still down the valley away from us. Never the less we weren't hanging around enjoying the view. We knew we had to start moving down. I wanted to change my socks and get into some shorts. Along came 2 brothers who wanted me to take their photo.

I remember being bent over zipping up my pack and seeing the snowflakes bouncing off my hands. One of the brothers said, "here it comes" We moved off together. The sky was now suddenly dark and beginning to grumble. We start to move faster.

I noticed there was a hissing sound coming from my poles in my pack. The sound, which I will never forget, was very much like a bike tire with a hole in it.

Thunder was getting closer now. In our haste to get off the mountain we had somehow lost the trail. There is a big patch of snow that covered the trail just below the top. It now stood between us and the salvation of the lower trail.. I could now see hikers coming up the trail stopped in their tracks, eyes locked to the darkening sky.

Now the sound coming from the poles in my pack is getting louder..and the snow is falling harder. I remember thinking to myself that this sound is being caused by our descent and the air pressure in the poles must be escaping. I reached back to the poles to see if I could adjust them so that the air could some how be released and I could be rid of this irritating hissing sound. As I reached back to grab my poles I was instantly shocked. At the same time one of the brothers was zapped too. Instantly the four of us hit the deck. The hissing sound was all around us now. I was below my buddy and the brothers. I found myself near some rocks and I began to try to make a shelter of sorts. The rocks hissing at me as I worked. I am bleeding now from my knees..why had I changed into my shorts?

As I sat there listening to the hissing and thunder I thought what a ****ty way to go. My thoughts turned to my wife and kids sitting by the pool at the Dow Villa enjoying themselves unaware that daddy was about to get roasted. I looked to the sky. It was still snowing with little sign of letting up. I felt so useless and stupid just sitting there waiting to get hit.

Finally I could not wait any longer. For lack of a better word, I bolted. Feeling bad for leaving the group I said my goodbyes to the brothers and my buddy. With my pack in one and poles in the other I set off across the snowfield toward the lower trail. Each step I sank up to above my knees in snow. The going was slow and I felt so exposed. At one point my poles snapped in two. I now only have an ice axe to help with my decent. After some time I made it to the trail and just ran all the way to Trail Crest.

The hike down from here was a whole other adventure unto itself but I wont bore you with it. I do want to say thanks to Dr. Jim from Monterey who kept me calm during the psycho traverse in waist deep snow from the crest to the switchbacks.

I wanted to make this post in hope that maybe someone might learn from my experience. Like the poster at the start of the trail says "The top is only half way".

Learn about lighting..what are the signs...what to do when you are in such a situation as mine? Know your limits. Have fun but remember that the brown stuff hits the fan real quick up there.

Doug, it was a pleasure to chat with you at your store. Thanks for providing this message board, which help me, prepare for the hike...without it I know I wouldn't have made it. Also VERSITILEFRED..thank you for all the awesome posts and links..you made it so easy.

Yours, Skinnerhead


Posted by VersatileFred, 07-03-06
Thanks for sharing your experience. I added a link to your report in the orientation notes to benefit future hikers. Future readers should also look at the following links for related reports:

(wpsmb_link)

_________________________
Orientation Notes for Whitney First Timers


Posted by wingding, 07-03-06
Very frightening!

Last June I got caught in a storm about 200 feet from Boundary Peak. Just as I caught up to a couple that were ahead of me lightning struck the rock next to where they were sitting. The electricty ran through their bodies, but didn't hurt them. We could feel the lightning coming just before it struck and would put the poles/axe down and crouched down. After each lightning strike, we ran until we felt it coming again staying on the side of the ridge (we didn't want to be on the ridge). Conditions turned to minimal visibility with hail/snow coming down. My friend further down the mountain was sitting taking a break when he felt himself sending a tracer up from his head - he ran really fast and fell and cut up his leg.

We were all very happy to get down the mountain that day.


Posted by Rightstar, 07-03-06
Thanks for sharing your story. I think I'm going to have second thoughts the next time I hear thunderstorms in the forecast. You, your friend, and the other hikers are lucky to be alive. Your post highlights how dangerous Mt. Whitney can get-and how quickly.


Posted by whhs, 07-03-06
Thanks for this cautionary tale, so honestly told. This sincere self-appraisal will probably help and maybe even save many other hikers.
_________________________
Marty


Posted by TheGiantMan, 07-03-06
Skinnerhead, you must be the person that a man at the Dow Villa Hotel pool was talking about. Two of my friends were at the pool that evening talking to a man who I guess had been talking to you earlier and told them your story. We too were on the mountain at that time, there was 8 of us, about 3/4 up the 97 switchbacks. We never saw the lightning, but turned around at the first sound of thunder. We got back to Trail Camp quickly where the weather was nicer. We also encountered Sollydog, who has a post about his Mountain Rescue. Sound like everyone on the mountain was caught off-guard with the morning storm. Glad everyone was safe.


Posted by AsABat, 07-04-06
One technique is run down as fast as possible, feel your poles buzz and your hair stand up straight, throw the poles as far as you can and hit the deck, repeat until down. This will amuse your friends safe in their tents down below who will be laughing their heads off as you run for your life. (Spoken from experience on Italy Pass thanks, cuz.)


Posted by kennyhel77, 07-04-06
Yeah but even your tent poles attract lightning. Scary time to be stuck in a storm regardless of shelter!


Posted by Sierra Sam, 07-04-06
What you experienced is called St. Elmo's Fire. It is caused by the build-up of static electricity on metal objects, usually when you are inside a building thunderstorm cell. I've seen a beautiful blue corona on my ice axe climbing in those conditions and it means that it's time to head down (or was time to head down 30 minutes ago).

The FAA has done a lot of work on how T-storms develop and have found that it can go from that single small cloud to a 50,000' towering thunderstorm in as little as 20 minutes under the right conditions. I never believed that until I was on a jet watching such a cell develop in front of us both on the radar and through the windscreen. We were at 40,000 feet and it built way above us in just a few minutes. They can dissapate just as quickly.

Since weather forecasts for the Whitney area often contain mention of possible afternoon thunderstorms, the best thing for climbers to do is get to the summit early and leave before they happen. You can also watch the surrounding cloud development and use nearby billowing tall clouds nearby as a caution signal of what is coming.


Posted by Skinnerhead, 07-06-06
Thanks for everyone's response. I thought St. Elmos Fire was some movie staring Rob Lowe...just kidding. The point is we were stupid. We should have backed down the minute the innocent fluffy little clouds started. Play it safe..make it down to your loved ones. I admire the restraint of the guys comming up who were all so close to the top and had to turn around. Thanks everyone!

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