Climbing Mt. Whitney May 26-28

Posted June 1, 2006 - PermaLink
This last weekend I successfully summited Mt. Whitney, the tallest mountain in the lower 48 states. Our party consisted of 6 guys, only two of which I knew, but all were cool and many had previous mountaineering experience. We got to the trailhead on Friday night and spent the night at the camp near the parking lot.

Ready to hit the trail

We got up early Saturday morning and hit the trail with our 40+ pound packs loaded with winter clothing, sleeping bag, mattress, snow shoes, ice axe, crampons, bear canister and other necessary backpacking equipment. (I wish we Sherpas with us.) Within the first half mile my pack broke.

Fixing the pack hip belt

The buckle on the hip belt snapped and we had to rig up a pseudo belt using webbing and a carabineer. While this worked to keep the pack on my back, all the weight was now squarely on my shoulders instead of on my hips were it should be. Awesome.

About an hour into the hike we hit the snowline and decided to put on our crampons. The snow was hard and icy in some areas due to the wind and cooler than normal temps.

Above the snowline

It was cold and a pretty windy. Once in the snow the going was mixed from moderate to tough. At times we would hike 20 paces, rest for 20 seconds and then repeat the process. Every hour or so we would stop for about ten minutes and power down some food, usually power bars and trail mix. We were all really stoked to finally be on the mountain chasing a goal we had set for ourselves several months back.

Whitney in the distance

Months ago we had submitted our application for a permit to climb Whitney. A limited number of people are allowed to climb the mountain each year. You have to enter in a lottery to 'win' a chance at gettin a permit. You have a much better chance at obtaining a permit for the first months of the season (May and June) than the summer months of July and August. We of course had chosen to climb early because we wanted the winter mountaineering experience.

After 7 hours, 6.3 miles and some 4000 feet of elevation gain we had finally made it to our base camp.

Base camp

It was 2pm. We set up camp in windy conditions which made it a bit difficult to get the tents up. We also had trouble with the damn tent poles. One was longer than the other and it was nearly impossible in the wind to tell which part of the tent required the longer pole. It took us nearly a half-hour to get the damn tent up. And it was freezing cold. Once erected we all huddled inside for awhile to heat up before going back out to retrieve water from a nearby spring and make dinner.

Heating up

As we ate dinner it started snowing a bit. By 6:30pm we were all asleep. I don't think I have ever gone to sleep that early, perhaps for a nap, but never for the night.

The next day we got up around 5:45, ate breakfast, filled up our water bottles and reservoirs from the nearby spring and then began our ascent up to the summit. At the base of the climb we all practiced our self-arrest techniques to insure we were adequately prepared for a fall. At about 7:30 we began the long trudge up the couloir. Crampons and Ice Axes were very necessary although we did see a few guys in only hiking boots and trekking poles. They admitted not knowing how to using their trekking poles for self-arrest. We were worried about these guys, not only for their own safety but for ours as well. They were slightly ahead of us and at times they were directly above us as we traversed the trail. (Turns out that on the way down these guys saw a buddy of mine glissading and one of them attempted to do the same. He quickly was out of control and did a few summersaults. Lucky for him he slowed down in a run nout at the bottom just before the rocks. With a bit more speed this guy may gotten killed. He got lucky.)

Trudging up the couloir

It took a little over two hours to get to the ridge where we transitioned from the east side of the mountain to the west side. From there it was another 2.5 hours of traversing along the ridgeline to the summit.

West ridge traverse

After 5 hours and 4.7 miles all 6 of us had finally reached our goal - the top of Mt. Whitney (14,495'). I can't tell you what a cool feeling of accomplishment it is to have summited the peak. There were some seriously sketchy parts along the climb where a fall would surely have resulted in death. But that made it all the much sweeter to have successfully summited.

Bagged summit

After summiting and taking some pictures we headed back to camp to pack up and hike out. It took us about 3 hours to get back to camp and once packed took us another 3.5 hours to hike back out to the trailhead where we had parked. The snow was a bit slushy on the way out but we escaped without too much postholing. We got back to our cars just as it was getting dark.

After packing our sh!t in the cars we headed down the mountain to lone pine and stopped off for some pizza and beers at "We toss ‘em, their awesome." It was nice getting some real food again.

I am a bit sore still but nothing too major. The only real issue I have is a bum knee. Over the course of my summit push the off camber climbing took a toll on my left knee. Early in the year I had sustained a small injury to the knee when someone ran into me while snowboarding. Not sure if it is related but something tells me it is. I was able to make it to the summit and back out without much issue but was in some pain. One of the guys had Vicodin which helped for the hike out. Once I got back to the car my knee was completely f'd. It's a bit swollen and hard to move. Straightening it out causes a sharp shooting pain through my knee. Driving stick is awesome. Got an x-ray yesterday and no loose bone fragments or arthritis. Next on the list is an MRI. I may have torn some cartilage or something. There is an outside possibility I may need knee surgery. Hopefully not though. Either way I would not trade the trip for anything. It was an AWESOME experience, one I hope to repeat again on another mountain soon.