Mount Whitney Via The Mountaineer's Route

  • Updated: April 18, 2011
  • Post By: Matthew Hengst

April 16th to 18th, 2011
Mount Whitney (14,495')

Ah winter / early spring. Nothing like looking back at what was supposed to be a tightly packed climbing schedule to see the scattered weather wrecked remains.

Admittedly I’d set out a rather optimistic schedule trying to fit in Snowcreek, Whitney Mountaineer’s Route, and Red Slate all within a one month period but hey, one can dream.

Snowcreek was canceled due to a large snow dump leading to dangerous avalanche conditions and instead I ran around the desert with James Barlow grabbing 3 DPS peaks and poking around a few mines.

Whitney MR was initially derailed at the last minute to an unpleasant cold front sweeping in. The forecast called for 40-50 mph winds with a low of 9 degrees and my partner Steve Eckert neglected to be blown off the ridge like a frozen mountaineer shaped kite. Not wanting to do something drastic like stay home I repurposed the weekend and ran up three 3rd class DPS peaks out near Las Vegas with Jen Blackie and Kim Breul.

When Red Slate rolled around I was eyeing snow conditions and not liking what I was seeing. Things were still unconsolidated with fresh snow falling just the weekend before. After chatting with Steve we decided to repurpose the weekend and go grab Whitney MR as the weather looked much more promising.

Jen Blackie was supposed to be my tent partner but right after the Vegas trip she had come down with a sudden case of appendicitis. My 4 season tent refused to get any smaller or lighter so I ended up carrying a bit of extra weight as a result.

I didn’t mind looking like a mountaineering themed peddler.

Whitney is the high point of the continental United States with an elevation of 14,505’ (14,496’ before the last survey.) In order to get any higher in the US you have to go to Alaska.

The main route up Whitney that is used by the vast majority of climbers is a 21 mile round trip switchback slog that consists of trail all the way. For the slightly more adventurous there is the North Fork / Mountaineers Route that consists of a cross country approach and depending on the time of year a snow or rock ascent to make the summit. The route is shorter so steeper climbing is involved and at one point it is quite possible to manage a fatal fall.

So many people want to climb Whitney that instead of reserving a permit you have to submit a request to the Whitney lottery. You submit several possible dates and hope you win the drawing. Weekends are particularly tricky though I’ve known several people who had no trouble getting a day of permit due to the large amount of last minute cancellations.

A few years back the Mountaineers Route didn’t have any permit restriction and as a result a number of folks were attempting it that probably shouldn’t have. Now it’s on the same permit quota as the main trail but that doesn’t go into effect until May 1st so April is a free-for-all.

The plan was for three days, Saturday through Monday, summiting and hiking out on Monday in order to give us plenty of time to adjust to the altitude. In addition Steve headed up one day early for even more time at altitude.

Initially we had a clear forecast but once again the weather shifted a few days before and we were looking at a clear Saturday and Sunday followed by high winds and precipitation Monday.

I wasn’t about to cancel again so we decided to accelerate our summiting by one day.

This did risk a bit more as far as altitude sickness. I would be flying home Friday night, driving out to the trailhead, sleeping for a few hours, climbing up to altitude, sleeping, then continuing up to 14,505’ with an extra heavy pack.

My flight back from Boise was on time which put me leaving Orange County at the usual 8 pm. Without Jen I was driving solo which hadn’t happened in quite a while. Sometime around 12 I pulled into Lone Pine only slightly drowsy.

Lone Pine is a small town in the eastern Sierra best known for being the access point for Whitney. It also has a conveniently located ranger station that works well for permit pickups.

This is the night drop box. It’s located outside the ranger station gate and if you reserve a wilderness permit ahead of time they leave it for you in the top box for pick up after hours. The lower wood box contains WAG bags for use in the Whitney Zone.

WAG bags are one of the special joys of the Whitney zone along with crowds and people leaving food out and attracting bears. Generally in the backcountry we dig catholes.  Solid waste is buried and we pack out the toilet paper. Whitney has so many folks that if everyone did that we’d be walking on solid waste. Instead they require everything be packed out.

Yea, lots of fun. (One of the rules of Whitney zone is don’t mess with the trash bag strapped on the outside of anyone’s pack.)

So after grabbing my permit (the WAG bags had all been taken by the time I arrived but I’d brought my own) it was 12:45 am when I reached the roadblock on the way to Whitney Portal.

Except for winter you can drive up to Whitney Portal at 8,500’, park, and starts the trail from there. However during the winter the road is closed due to snow, avalanche potential, and rock fall from the slopes above.

Instead you’re officially supposed to park 4 miles below at 6,500’ and walk up a long damn paved road.

Now note the drag track to the right of the sign. A number of folks were ignoring the closure and driving up at least to drop off gear. Being solo I didn’t want to leave my gear and also didn’t want to leave my vehicle behind a county road closure for three days. So, more gain for me!

I slept in the back of my Rav4 and woke up at 5 am and stumbled about. I took a quick run down the hill to the Lone Pine campground to make use of their facilities and eventually I left the car at 7:30 am.

Wide awake!

The road was perfectly passable with only one major obstruction. When I talked with Steve later he said they had actually blasted another rock Friday morning when he came up. The road would open officially in another few weeks.

I strolled up the road to the portal in about an hour moving at a comfortable pace. As I approached I had a beautiful view of Whitney in the background. It’s the triangular peak in the background to the right.

There was a bit of snow on the road near the portal though clearly the recent warm weather had made a significant dent.

I ran into a few other folks on the way up. Bathrooms were open and fully stocked so most of us took one last opportunity to rid ourselves of some weight.

This is the structure at the start of the trail. I have no idea what it’s supposed to be or what purpose it’s supposed to serve but I’m sure it was expensive to build.

The main Whitney trail and the Mountaineer’s Route (aka North Fork of Lone Pine Creek) start out along the same route and split a bit up the trail at a conveniently placed sign.

The trail was still mostly clear of snow for a ways past this sign. I started to wonder why I’d packed up the snowshoes.

A bit past there is this warning sign.

Freshly reminded of the dangers of the route and the necessity to pack out my poop I continued up.

Soon I saw my last patch of dirt and got on the snow proper.

This is the gully below Lower Boy Scout Lake.

It was HOT! Fortunately the snow was solid and there was still enough of it I could tromp straight up instead of needing to use the rock ledges that are required during the summer.

I arrived at Lower Boy Scout Lake around 11:30 am. This was where I’d arranged to meet Steve. As it turned out my timing was perfect as he was just descending from a morning climb of the nearby Thor Peak.

Sadly Lower Boy Scout was a mess. I could see abandoned trash and wag bags around the trees. I do not envy the rangers who come up there after the snow melts.

Lower Boy Scout is at 10k. In the original plan we were going to stay there Saturday night but with the weather forecast we wanted to summit the following day so we decided to move up.

Steve had slept out in a sheltered bivy so it was a simple matter to break camp.

As we were leaving we came across a young man looking rather distressed. He’d been feeling fine until he reached LBS as which point he’d suddenly puked and was complaining about a headache. The other two folks in his party (who happened to have the tent and all the rest of the gear) had continued up to the next lake. We said we’d track them down.

The next lake was Upper Boy Scout another 1000 ft up and seemed to be the popular destination for the weekend.

I was still feeling pretty good so after locating the ailing climbers party we decided to push a bit further to a flat area Steve eyed from the top of Thor.

It was located between UBS and Iceberg Lake right at the 12k mark. Not a bad amount of gain for the day.

Steve had a rather handy satellite phone he just needed to point at the right area of the sky to communicate with his girlfriend at home. A neat toy if you’re out solo quite a bit.

We had an awesome view up towards Whitney. From here we could see the east face which has two rock climbing routes and is very dramatic. Just 2,500’ to go.

We had a pleasant evening talking as we melted snow and ate dinner. We probably stayed up later than we should have all things considered.

We did have some rather dramatic clouds form out toward the Inyo’s but the weather where we were was mild.

I woke up sometime later to the sound of voices. I checked my watch and say it was 9:30 pm. The voices sounded…confused to say the least. I stuck my head out the door and saw headlamps coming down the boot trail leading up the mountain.

They were talking about disorientation and seemed to be staggering around a bit.

I turned on my headlamp which lit my tent up like an orange beacon. That seemed to help them and they eventually made their way back along the trail towards UBS. I have no idea what they were doing that had them out that late at night but their conversation they were having about bucket lists they seemed to have come from the top.

Steve and I made a conscious decision to leave camp around dawn as opposed to an alpine start as we didn’t have much of an approach left.

This made for a more pleasant morning then usual though we did end up behind the main herd climbing the chute.

Iceberg Lake was at about 12,600’ and we found a few tents there with folks just starting as we went by. Personally I liked our camp better as we’d had sun later the previous evening not to mention no company.

It was damn warm. Both Steve and I shed our base layers as we were really sweating by now.

Now was the big chute from 12,600’ to 14,200’ that ends at the notch which was where the potentially dangerous part started.

I was admittedly feeling a little weaker than usual. I’d woken up with a slight headache that went away once I was climbing but I could feel the effects of being at altitude.

Others climbing with us were very obviously feeling the effects.

We had solid snow covered in boot tracks until right under the notch. There we decided it was better to leave the snow and climb up the rocks to the right for a bit.

That brought us to the crux of the climb. While climbing up the previous day I’d run into a number of folks who had gotten spooked and turned around there. Descriptions of conditions past there were mixed but generally not good.

From the notch there are two choices. You have what I called the “Oh shit traverse”

And you have the chute.

The traverse was icy and rather exposed but the chute didn’t look bad at all. We’d taken off the crampons for that last bit on rock and now had to put them back on to edge around the corner into the chute itself.

I watched as a three person rope team made a rather awkward attempt at climbing over the rocks directly before deciding it looked much better off to the left. The group coming up behind us watched what Steve and I did and decided the same thing.

Once past the rock back you’re back on snow that gets progressively steeper until there’s a short 50 degree section near the top.

There were tracks all over but the quality of the snow was pretty bad. The steps kept blowing out and yet in places the snow was icy enough I couldn’t get my axe in.

Popping over that brings you to the summit area.

Rather anti climactic but I’d already known that was the case.

There were a number of folks up there and Steve took the opportunity to phone home.

Obligatory summit shot. Back behind me you can make out Lone Pine about 10,000 ft below.

Interesting enough if you continue over the Inyos you come to Death Valley which has the lowest point in the US. I’ve heard of folks starting there, biking to Whitney, then hiking up to the top for a lowest to highest trip.

There are a few well known landmarks up top. The plaque.

The hut with a very busy summit register.

The dire lighting warnings are due to a group dying when they tried to take shelter in the hut during an electrical storm years ago.

Then it was time to head down. We decided to let the rope teams go first as we didn’t want to end up clothslined if they slipped. (They had some rather questionable belay and rope techniques)

Down is of course more nerve wracking than up and a surprising amount of work burying ones axe and kicking steps.

Again we watched one rope team go down an awkward section and I took us over on the rocks to the side.

Once to the notch and past the initial rocks we had a clear shot down to Iceberg Lake. Unfortunately the chute was now in the shade and had iced up. It wasn’t hard to walk down but it did make glissading all but impossible until the very bottom.

We did manage to get a bit of a glissade.

We’d been talking about what we wanted to do after coming down. I was all for staying an extra night up there and Steve was amenable so we’d been taking it extra slow stopping to chat with folks along the way back to camp. Even with that we made it back around 4 pm.

We still could have hiked out or moved camp down to 10k. Steve was more willing than I as he didn’t have a tent to set back up down there.

In the end we just took it easy for a few hours, made dinner, and melted more water.

That night was my second spent at 12k without much in the way of acclimation and it was somewhat less than pleasant. My pulse was pounding and my breathing was higher than usual which made for a long wearying night.

Also the wind picked up to the point where I was occasionally concerned my tent might blow away with me in it. My stakes held but it did send me rocking a number of times.

The next morning the wind hadn’t died down and there were clouds setting in on Whitney. Both Steve and I commented how glad we were to be heading out.

It looked slightly better in the downhill direction.

It took a concerted effort to pack up as the wind kept threatening to blow away our gear. And the less said about trying to use a WAG bag in high winds the better. (I just really hope that kitty litter stuff they put inside isn’t toxic and both Steve and I ended up wearing a bit due to gusts)

Steve was able to glissade part of the descent with a special glissade tarp he could strap on to save the butt of his pants from the icy snow. Even then it wore through the tarp before we were down.

Lower Boy Scout was where it warmed up enough I started to posthole. Granted I had an extra heavy pack on but post holing up past your waist is never pleasant.

Below LBS was the section I’d been dreading as climbing up on Saturday I’d had to climb through some brush and seen some holes in the slow with water running underneath.

It was rather unpleasant.

Steve did have one part where he ended up on a rather nasty looking snow bridge over the creek and had to back off gingerly.

It was a relief to get off the snow and back on normal trail.

The weather had warmed significantly with the bad stuff limited to up high. This had the unpleasant side effect of causing our relatively scentless frozen WAG bags to thaw. Ah, the stench of Whitney Zone…

Needless to say it was a relief to get back to the trailhead where there were bins to chuck the used bags.

The 4 miles down the road felt a lot longer than they did coming up. We ran into some folks in a truck who we’d climbed with up top and they gave us a ride the last ¼ mile or so which was nice.

We were out by lunch and made a beeline for the best food in Lone Pine, Whitney Café.

Veggies and a milkshake. All the important food groups.

And that was it for Whitney. The drive home was long and unfortunately I was passing through LA during Monday evening rush hour traffic.

It was nice not to have to fly back to Boise the following day. Instead I had a busy 4 day work week then drove back up to the Sierra the following Friday night for a snow checkoff and another snow climb.

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