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Spring Conditions on the Main Whitney Trail
#4246 05/12/10 10:22 AM
Joined: Dec 2009
Posts: 3
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Joined: Dec 2009
Posts: 3
This is reposted from a thread on the Whitney Portal Store Message Board.

For those of you interested in trying to climb Mt. Whitney this spring you should be aware of current conditions, and more importantly how to interpret those conditions to help you decide how to make decisions with safety in mind.

Snow is now present on Mt. Whitney and it will not melt away until late spring or early summer. You can count on negotiating a snow covered trail from somewhere above Mirror Lake (as of mid May) until Trail Crest. From the cables until Trail Crest there are hazardous areas where a slip can turn into a fall that can lead to an injury or fatality. This section is part of what most of us refer to as the "97 Switchbacks". We are still receiving spring storms. If the area receives more storms you can count on snow lower and higher on the route.

Given these conditions there are certain things to keep in mind if you decide to attempt climbing Mt. Whitney via the Main Trail. This list is not exhaustive but is a good place to start:

(1) Recognize that your ascent will take longer than it would if the trail was dry. Plan extra time into your itinerary to account for this.

(2a) Realize that current conditions require climbers to have learned and practiced several mountaineering skills which include self arrest with an ice axe (this is how you would attempt to stop yourself in the event of a slip on the hard snow and ice), how to walk with crampons on, and how to efficiently climb up and down snow covered slopes.

(2b) This means that ski poles are no substitute for an ice axe. Ski poles are great aids in walking. Ascending a route they are like a portable hand rail. On a descent they help reduce some of the jarring to hiker's knees. They will do nothing to help stop a person in case of a fall. Yes, some ski poles are made with self arrest grips. This is no substitute for an ice axe.

(3a) The slope between Trail Camp and Trail Crest is north facing. This means it loses sun exposure early in the day. You can be on this slope during a warm sunny day and find the snow comfortable to walk on, but once the sun leaves this slope the snow will become firm, hard, and slick. It will stay that way until the sun hits it again, which might be the next day, or it might take several days if clouds obscure direct rays from the sun. Even with direct sun exposure the conditions could still be firm, hard, and slick.

(3b) Be prepared to climb on firm, hard, and slick snow. If you find yourself on this slope after 2:30 PM (when the sun begins leaving this area) you need to be prepared to negotiate increasingly firm, hard, and slick snow conditions.

(4a) Sliding down the snow on your butt (commonly called "glissading" among the mountaineering community) from Trail Crest is not a safe option. It doesn't matter if you see tracks from people who have previously done it. Among those who contributed to glissade tracks in previous seasons include several people who lost their lives from the decision to glissade there.

(4b) People have tried glissading here for years. Understand that this slope is subtly angled in such a way that it can pull an unsuspecting mountaineer slowly to the left, which can make you slam into the rocks at a high rate of speed. There have been many injuries and fatalities due to people glissading here.

(4c) If you decide to glissade anywhere on any mountain remove your crampons. Glissading with crampons is never an option. You run a high chance of injuring an ankle, a leg, or worse. It is poor mountaineering technique to glissade while wearing crampons anywhere at any time.

(5a) Remember that the summit should not be your primary goal. Your first goal is to get back to the parking lot safely. If you can stay within a good margin of safety, then the summit should be your second goal. This means that, just because somebody else decided to ascend in questionable conditions, it should not determine what you decide to do. You need to make your decisions based on your known skills and the ability of your group.

Climbing up a mountain is optional, descending is mandatory.

Re: Spring 2010 Conditions on the Main Whitney Trail
Kurt Wedberg #4610 05/26/10 02:11 PM
Joined: Sep 2009
Posts: 8,512
Likes: 103
Joined: Sep 2009
Posts: 8,512
Likes: 103
Bob R posted this elsewhere. Click on his links to see excellent pictures of the area. We are having an unusual amount of snow this late in the spring.

Whitney trail, 23 May

My friend Paul and I wanted to get out for the day, but weather predictions called for storm and high winds seemingly everywhere. Opting for snow instead of rain, in spite of a predicted high of only 18 deg at Trail Camp with winds gusting to 30, we decided to head there and turn around when it ceased to be fun.

Since this was just a hike up a trail, I wouldn't normally have mentioned it here. But there was an interesting twist. As we were about to leave the Portal, a fellow named Steve came over. He had climbed to the summit the day before with his friend Peter, but they had gotten separated on the descent to their campsite a little east of Mirror Lake. Steve reached camp for the night, but Peter never showed up. Steve asked us to keep an eye out.

About an hour up the trail, we met a fellow descending. It was Peter. He had gotten off trail in the dark and eventually found himself in the trees west of Lone Pine Lake (I determined that from his description). He bivouacked. Then, in the light of the morning, he encountered three others who admitted they were also lost. Together they figured it out, however, and got back on the trail at Bighorn Park. Peter then hiked up to his campsite and found the tent,...but no Steve.

He packed everything up and was hustling down to turn off a possible search. He asked if I had a radio (I did), and so I alerted Inyo that Peter was OK. Somewhat relaxed now, he talked about his summit of Mt. Whitney the previous day, his 60th birthday. I offered to video his comments, upload them to YouTube, and he could find the link on this message board. His story: Mt. Whitney Excitement

Everyone did every thing right. When Peter didn't show up, Steve hiked out to report it, but left the tent, stove, etc., in case he did come down and needed shelter. Doug suspected what had happened and told Steve to give Peter a few more hours before he got seriously concerned. And Peter had so little to say about his bivouac, I knew he was well prepared for it. Other Whitney climbers, especially in winter, should take note.


As to the conditions, there was a little fresh snow at the Portal, deepening to about a foot once above Mirror Lake. Paul and I made it to Trailside Meadow, then turned around. The weather was not as severe as predicted.

As always, my trip report is contained in the pictures and their captions.

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