|Mt Whitney - 14,500 feet|
When the alarm sounded at 3:00AM Dylan and I quietly put on our clothes, grabbed a few buttermilk bars, jumped in the car and drove the ¼ mile to the Whitney Portal trailhead at 8360 feet. We were not surprised by the amount of cars already in the parking lot since we had seen the lot when we visited the Portal store the previous afternoon. With three sets of headlights blinding me through the rear view mirror, I searched in vain for a parking spot close to the trailhead. Unable to find one, I U-turned and headed down the mountain until an opening was available.
Since our gear was already assembled in our packs, we quickly put on our boots in the calm, moonlit night while we gazed at the white granite walls glowing in the moonlight. With additional buttermilk bars in our hands we started up the trailhead a little after 3:30AM. I went through my mental checklist after a few minutes and realized I’d left the 10 pages of Mountaineers Route beta back in the car. With thoughts of making a wrong turn in the dark, I turned around and hustled back to the car while Dylan patiently waited.
After applying in vain the previous 3 or 4 years, I had finally scored a single day Whitney Zone permit for three people back in April. Unfortunately our third person let work get in the way of a good outing, so it was just Dylan and I heading up the more technically challenging route to Whitney’s summit. For those that don’t know, the Mountaineers Route is the steeper, shorter route to the summit that has a 400 foot section of class 3-4 scrambling right before topping out on the summit. This is compared to the 11 mile main trail that is known for its 97 switchbacks.
Once I re-joined Dylan with beta in hand, we set a quick pace with our headlights blazing. As the trail turned to the left we could see a dozen headlights shining on the trail ahead of us. Knowing that the Forest Service limits day use permits to 100 people (overnights are limited to 60) per day, we both were hoping that the headlamps would be taking the main trail. In a short while we came upon the North Fork of Lone Pine Creek and rather than cross it we turned right and headed up to the Mountaineers Route.
The “trail” had seen a bit of rain previously and was pretty washed out as it twisted and turned on its way up the slope. We eventually crossed the creek and tunneled through willows to emerge at the base of a large granite wall. At this point we lost the “trail” in the dark and stopped to look at the beta I had brought. Since I didn't have my reading glasses, I passed the route description to Dylan. The beta talked about a single pine tree that indicated the start of the ledges and seeing a lone tree above, we started up thinking that this was the Ebersbacher ledges. After fumbling around for five minutes without seeing an obvious route, we figured out we were a bit off trail. Just then a couple of climbers coming up behind us whistled to us, verifying that we were off route.
After down climbing and traversing to our right we eventually found the beaten path and got moving again. The path took us to the creek crossing again but this time at a waterfall. We stopped and looked at the beta again and verified the waterfall. OK – were going the right way now. Just past the waterfall, the Ebersbacher ledges started. Previous descriptions I had read on this section of the trail varied from terrifying to fun, so I didn't know what to expect at 4AM. I’d have to describe them as fun. The ledges varied in width from 2 to 4 feet and there were a few spots where you're required to scramble straight up to the next ledge section. I guess there might have been a bit of fear if we could see how far the drop off was.
After progressing through the ledges we quickly climbed up to Lower Boy Scout Lake as the sky lightened. From Lower Boy Scout Lake, we went through a section of willows and up some low angle slabs. At this point the sun peaked up over the Inyo Mountains causing the streams flowing over the slabs to glow gold. Beautiful! This fun slab section allowed us to bypass Upper Boy Scout Lake and the three tents we could see camped below the lake.
|On the way to Upper Boy Scout lake|
From Upper Boy Scout Lake the trail turns left and rises through boulders and scree. By this time the sun was up and shining on the large wall of broken white granite before us. For a bit we mistakenly thought this was Whitney, but soon realized that we had to go up and around this big wall of granite.
|Granite wall below Whitney|
I had previously climbed Whitney from the main trail back in 1987, but the views we had of the East face of Whitney and the Keeler Needle in the early morning light were nothing like I remembered from that trip 30 years ago. We were amazed by the sheer size! It was hard to put things in perspective due to the massive size of this mountain. We just looked at each other and could not stop smiling as we both kept saying how awesome things were at that moment.
|Getting close to the base of Whitney (over Dylan's head)|
Once around the granite wall, we came upon another set of ledges that led up to Iceberg Lake. The ledges had water running down them, so we stayed left, out of the water and scampered up these fun ledges to Iceberg Lake at 12,600 feet.
Other than the two hikers that whistled to us when we were off route and the three tents at Upper Boy Scout Lake, we hadn't seen or heard anyone else in the 4 hours it had taken us to reach Iceberg Lake. As we filtered water to fill our Camelbaks, we noticed four people moving slowly up the chute above us and three others gearing up from their camp. We quickly topped off our water, swallowed some energy bars, put on our climbing helmets and started up the chute behind the four men and in front of the other three.
|Route to the notch (with the four climbers about 1/4 way up)|
We quickly caught the four guys, and after some friendly conversation while they took a break, continued on up. If you stayed out of the middle of the chute, the rock wasn't too broken and good progress could be made. Dylan and I stayed left and had great handholds to compliment the ledges we used to move upward. At one point we passed below a guy and a gal roped up and going for the East Buttress - that looked like it'd be fun! They must have been the two that passed us before the ledges, since we no one else up here was moving too fast. Our next milestone was the “Notch”, a deep notch in Whitney’s North ridge. Right before reaching the Notch, another climber joined us for the last couple hundred feet and we all stopped to rest and chat before the “Final 400”.
|Dylan leading the way|
|Iceberg Lake (D Fadgen photo)|
|Still going up|
|Getting a bit winded at 13,500 feet|
|D Fadgen photo|
|At the "Notch" with Mt Russell in the background|
He took off first, while we rested, had a bit to eat and gawked at the Fishhook Arête and East Ridge of Mt Russell. We soon heard “ROCK!!!” from the climber and a cinder block sized piece of granite came tumbling down the chute we were to climb. We figured it was a good thing to keep gawking at the views for a bit and wait for him to finish. We waited a few more minutes before heading down to start the last bit of climbing.
|Looking up at the "Final 400"|
The first move on the final 400 is probably the toughest. You have a large step up and then a bit of a traverse to the left before there is a ledge large enough to stop on. Nothing difficult, just a bit spicy. In the shadows above us, the rocks were covered in a thin layer of ice from the last bit of melting snow. We just stayed left of this ice and continued scampering up the cold granite using the available ledges until we came to a ramp that took us back into the sunlight. Once in the sunlight it was a short climb to the last lip and there 100 yards away, was the famed stone building on the summit of Whitney at 14,508 feet.
We wandered over to the three others on the summit and after greeting them, asked where the crowds were. They figured it was still a little early still and we had to agree since it was only 9:45. After getting a summit photo and signing the register we headed over to a bivy spot to get out of the slight breeze and have lunch. The temperature was probably close to 50, but the breeze made it feel a bit chilly, so being behind a rock wall with the sunshine felt great.
We sat, ate and chatted for a while, occasionally looking back at the summit hut whenever we heard shouting. More and more people were gathering there. By the time we started down at 10:30, there must have been close to 20 people on the summit!
|Last look at the summit before heading down|
Rather than downclimb the Mountaineers Route, I figured we’d do a loop and descend the 11 mile long main trail. This trail traverses the West side of Whitney for 1.5 miles until it reaches a junction with the John Muir trail. It then continues for a short distance to Trail Crest before starting down the Southeast side of the mountain.
As we dropped off from the summit, Dylan expressed the wish to scramble up the Keeler Needle. Though I was feeling a bit tired at this point I agreed, so up we went again. Fifteen minutes later we were on top of this sheer point that dropped off what seemed like several thousand feet. Dylan traversed out to the very edge while I selected to stay back a few feet. The exposure was wild!
|Dylan on the Keeler Needle|
After getting back on the main trail our next objective was Mount Muir, another Sierra 14,000 foot peak. Being on the main trail was nice, but a pain. It seemed like every minute we came across one or two hikers heading up and we’d move over to allow them to pass. We were cruising across this relatively flat portion of the trail, moving over and talking to the other hikers and before we knew it we were within view of Trail Crest. We had completely blown by Mount Muir! We turned around and looked at the peak, but realized that we had about a ½ mile to retrace before we could start the scramble up. We were pretty tired at this point, so decided to continue on down rather than back track.
|A few of the 97 switchbacks|
Once at Trail Crest we had our first view of the famed “97 Switchbacks”. Coming over Trail Crest, the trail starts down a steep side of the mountain, but because it is a “trail” it continually switches back to reduce the steepness. We tried to keep count of every turn, but after 30 or so I lost interest and count. It was getting warm and we still had a long way (7 miles) to go to get back to the car.
After the excruciating experience of the switchbacks, we walked into Trail Camp, the usual camping spot for an overnight summit of Mt Whitney. Here there must have been 20 camps set up with a few people milling around.
We now put the pedal to the metal and with our heads down tried to do our best to just get down the mountain. Like I mentioned before, the scale of this place is huge. We could see Lone Pine Lake down below; it didn't look too far, but actually took a couple of hours to get too.
We eventually did finally reach the trailhead and car at 4:15PM.
Then it was back to Lone Pine for a shower at the Whitney Hostel (highly recommended) and some Chinese food!
Trailhead to summit: 6 hours
Summit to trailhead: 5:45
Distance travelled: somewhere between 15-16 miles
Elevation gained: 6132 feet
Maximum altitude - that depends. When I climbed in back in 1987 it was listed as 14,497 feet. The Whitney Portal mementos and our permits list 14,508 feet. Doing a Google search I see that it's supposed to be 14,500 feet. Anyway, its the highest point in the contiguous US!