Mt. Whitney
California 14er
14,491 feet

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Mt. Whitney is the highest mountain in the lower 48 US states at 14,491' (4416m). Of note, it is only 76 miles from the lowest point in North America, Death Valley at 282' below sea level. Mount Elbert in Colorado is second highest at 14,440'. And of course, Alaska's Denali is the highest for the US at 20,320'. Whitney is one of the most climbed peak in North America given how close it is to Los Angeles and San Francisco with easy access and a class 1 trail to the top. There are many routes including world-class rock climbing.

As I close in on completing the Colorado 14ers, I set a new goal to climb all 13 (or 15 depending on your count) of the California 14ers. A friend had organized a Whitney climb before the lottery period and I jumped on the opportunity in mid April 2010. The Whitney Portal Store Message Board served as my primary research and network tool - a great group of people. After about a month, more than 20 people had expressed interest in joining in the late spring climb. We became known as the Board team.

There are two common trails to reach the summit of Whitney - the Mount Whitney Trail and The Mountaineers Route (MR). Both start at the same place, the Whitney Portal Store. The Whitney Trail is 11 miles long one-way, class 1, and is used by thousands each year. The MR is about 5 miles topping out at class 3. There is a limit of 100 hikers/60 overnight per day and requires a permit between May 1 and November 1. Going in April, I still needed a backcountry permit but was not subject to the quota or the lottery system to obtain a permit. Also, every person is required to use a wag bag for solid waste - this is included with your permit.

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click to enlargeI made the four hour drive from Los Angeles (sea level) to Lone Pine (3727') enjoying the high desert plains complete with cactus, the airplane graveyard, and several US Air Force Bases along the way. Lone Pine is a tiny town full of rich history. It served as home for many old western movies and today hosts film crews for television commercials and was the base for filming in the Alabama Hills for a Star Trek movie. Whitney and the Sierra Nevada Range stand proud to the West. Whitney was clearly the dominate peak even from 20 miles away.

I easily found the Whitney Portal Road in downtown Lone Pine and dropped into the local gear store to buy stove fuel since you cannot bring it on an airplane. The Whitney Portal Hostel was nearby as was the common meeting place, McDonalds. After some fuel and fast food, I headed up the road to see how far I could go before snow or rock fall closed it down. It only took a few miles when I saw several barriers blocking the road. Not wanting to add miles to my hike in, I maneuvered around the signs and soon was nodding to the front loader driver as he waved me by. I made it all the way to the overflow parking for the Whitney Portal store - the trail head for the Whitney Trail - yea!

As was to become common, I starting chatting with other climbers and soon was headed up the trail. However, I paused to weigh my pack on the community hanging scale - 52 pounds - ugh. Crampons, ice axe, heavy cold weather gear takes a toll. However, I did not take snowshoes - which was a good decision in the end. The weather forecast looked absolutely perfect for the next three days.

I wanted to take the Mountaineers Route and had read enough to know that this is not a trivial climb. One expert posted on his site:

I cannot say it more clearly than this: The MR in winter is a prime example of something that only experienced mountaineers, who are skilled in technical winter mountaineering, should undertake. You need both the background to know what to do and how to do it, and the breadth and depth of experience with ice ax, crampons, and snow and ice rope work, to be able to do it safely. You must have practiced self-arrests repetitively, and you need to have the maturity, wisdom, and foresight to back off or change your plan if the conditions or weather dictate. Most often the situation is not this severe, but you always need to be ready for it. Climbing the MR in summer will not prepare you, nor will winter hiking with the occasional use of crampons and ice ax under benign conditions.

To his point at least four people have died in the last several years on Whitney.

The trail at 8,365 feet starts off well marked and well trodden. It gradually gains elevation through the pine trees and after 3/4 of a mile the trail splits at the North Fork of Lone Pine Creek into the main Mount Whitney Trail and the Mountaineer Route. Turning right, the trail gets a bit steeper but nothing serious. Once again, the trail crosses the creek and a choice is presented - take the Ebersbacher Ledges or lower through the willows by the creek. I choose the creek since I was now alone and didn't feel comfortable navigating the ledges at this point. Snow cover kept the willows at bay otherwise, the ledges would have been a much easier option.

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Boot and ski tracks showed the general route up the narrow valley. It was a steady elevation gain with some small post holing and interesting creek crossing over questionable snow bridges this warm spring day. I made good time while inspecting the ledges from below. I was glad I choose not to navigate them given the confusing nature and need for doubling back several times. More on this later. I crossed the creek one more time and arrived at Lower Boy Scout Lake (LBSL) at 10,300' in about 2.5 hours. The closer to Whitney, the more impressive the scenery became.

At this point I met Tony and Adam of the Board team. Since it was around 5:00 PM, I decided to camp and go higher the next morning. The lake was mostly frozen over but a small area of open water was welcomed. The night was uneventful and I left for Upper Boy Scout Lake (UBSL) with Tony at 7:00 AM. We wanted to give Mount Russell a go that day. I should have left earlier.

UBSL sits at 11,300' surrounded by high rock walls on two sides and the angled hillside to Russell to the East of UBSL. I pitched my tent and took off for Russell. Tony waited for Adam to arrive. There was no real trail with the snow cover, just a general direction covered with varying snow depths. The climb went well but was taking longer than I had hoped for. Cresting the top of the hill required multiple switchbacks then French stepping in my crampons on a 50 degree slope at the top. The view of Whitney was excellent and provided me a preview of tomorrow's main event.

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The next section was across a gentle rise towards the Russell/Carillon saddle. I arrived there around noon and considered my options. Whitney was my priority for this trip and I knew at this point, I would not be back down to camp from Russell's summit until late in the day. While the ridge was clear of snow and and well within my skills, I descended back to camp given the time frame.

Throughout the day, Whitney and the surrounding peaks of Thor and the Needles peaked into view. It instantly reminded me of the Towers de Paine in Patagonia. Amazingly rugged and towering, each peak had a singularity that begged a unique name but more to the point, to be climbed. Back at camp I ran into a climber who had returned from a Whitney attempt. He ominously said "Whitney kicked my ass today. I turned back at the notch because of all the loose snow in the Final 400."

I saw a group of 15 climbers snaking up the trail between the Scout Lakes while climbing towards Russell so I knew the main Board team was there. They were to camp at Girl Scout Lake, slightly above UBSL. Another good night at camp, I left UBSL at 6:00 AM to meet up with them. Along the way, I met Jim and Tom who had something like 100 summits of Whitney between them. Jim had climbed from parking lot to summit in 3.5 hours at age 44 a few years earlier!

We climbed directly to Iceberg Lake at 12,600' and waited for the rest of the team. The route was good, marked with tracks. It was not obvious but you need to stay high on the hillsides and crest to Iceberg lake without descending into a small valley.

This is one of the most impressive mountain setting I have seen in the US. Whitney dominates the Western view, and Russell to the North. The couloir, aka the Chute, on Whitney's right side up was obvious and called out. It was fully snow covered and looked steep. A few previous tracks remained.

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The team slowly gathered at a flat and smooth rock. I was eager to get going and quickly followed a few climbers who went ahead. At this point, I got into a steady rhythm of climbing the semi-steep couloir. The angles were manageable at no greater than 45 degrees. Step by step we moved higher towards the notch and the infamous Final 400: from 14,100' to 14,500' and the summit. However, the angle and increasing altitude took its toll on the team as it spread out and a few climbers called it a day. I arrived at the notch in about 1.5 hours climbing at my normal 1,000' an hour pace.

The notch is a fairly flat area that was not snow covered at this point and served as a good spot for a break. The Final 400 is often spoken of with some reverence given it is 400 feet of steep climbing with a short section of class 3 rock that requires a big move. While the actually climbing is not that difficult the price of a mistake can be fatal. The Final empties into a 1000'+ drop. If you loose your purchase and cannot quickly self arrest, trouble is below.

I started up the Final clearing the rock obstacle. Some climbers felt this was the crux of the climb having a bit of difficulty with crampons on rock. Next was a steep snow climb. A snowstorm only three days earlier had left about 8 inches of loose snow followed by several warm sunny days. This was good in that we could kick steps in thus provided a staircase to the summit. The final 50' feet was the steepest and gave me pause about the decent. It is important to note that if conditions had been icy or extremely hard packed snow, this section would have significantly increased in difficulty.

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Once on top, it was a bit of a shock to see the large rock hut built by the Smithsonian Institution in 1909. They used it as an observatory then. The summit is huge, similar to Longs Peak in Colorado. I made my way to the Southeast corner and found the geological survey marks and the summit sign.The views of the snow covered Sierra were breathtaking. I could easily see Lone Pine and our route far below. It had taken a bit under two hours to reach the summit from Iceberg Lake.

But as they say, the summit is only halfway. The down climb of the Final 400, was perhaps the most difficult part of Whitney's MR. One of the Board had brought a rope for rappelling and discussions on the board suggested bring rappelling gear if you were uncomfortable descending steep snow slopes. The other alternative is to take a class 3 rock climb down on the east side. This looked straightforward with a few large moves albeit with the associated risks that fall fall would be problematic on the steep Final

At this point there were about 30 people on the summit from various parties. I was impressed how everyone worked together, some choosing to down climb, others to rappel and thus set up the anchors. I choose to downclimb.

The first step feels like you are taking your life into your hands - or feet. It is maybe an 65 degree slope at this point and even though we had tracked it up fairly well, we down climbed facing in plunging our ice axe as far as possible with every single step down. It took about half an hour to reach the notch.

Once there it was free sailing, quite literally, back to Iceberg Lake. I walked the first section then had a ton of fun glissading the last 600 feet or so. I took a small detour over to the ridge line about UBSL to call . For some reason, AT&T did not reach the summit but did 1500' lower. A quick chat confirmed my SPOT tracks that all was well.

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Back at UBSL, I felt great. I was pleased to have made the summit and new friends. I made dinner and considered my plan to return to Russell the next day. However, fate prevailed and two things changed my plan. First, I ran out of fuel and then I accidentally touched my red hot titanium Snow Peak cook pot when it fell over giving me 2nd degree burns on my finger tips. Knowing that a climb of Russell's exposed 3rd class ridge line might require full use of hand holds, I went to bed that night planning on an easy hike out the next morning.

With my fingers still tingling, I broke camp that morning and caught up with some of my fellow climbers. We took the Ebersbacher Ledges this time. While not difficult, I did think the route finding was tad confusing and appreciated by new friend's directions. The only part that was "interesting" was a small section of maybe 50' along a narrow crack. Literally, you walk along a 3 inch crack with a 100' smooth wall below. Interesting with a 50lb pack on your back.

I found Mount Whitney everything it was advertised. The Mountaineers Route is challenging and satisfying for climbers of almost every level but clearly requires experience especially for a winter climb. The area is simply beautiful and awe inspiring. This is what mountains should look like. I imagine it would be quite different without the snow and was glad I was there to see the high Sierras covered with the white stuff.

It was similar to the more difficult Colorado 14ers like Capital or Pyramid or even Longs Peak in the winter. However, like all serious climbs it takes experience, skills and the right partners to minimize the risks. While I had never met any of the other climbers, I thoroughly enjoyed climbing with them. They were gracious, friendly and helpful for my first time to climb in California. If they ever want to do a Colorado 14er, just call. I highly recommend Whitney no matter what route you take. It is a solid feeling of satisfaction to stand on the highest in the Lower 48.

Climb On!