A prelude to a summer hike of Mt. Whitney

Mt. Whitney, December 25th, 1999.

Mt. Whitney, Winter, December 25th, 1999.

Prelude to Mt. Whitney

This page is dedicated to the memory of Glenn Maiden. On is 50th birthday, December 11th, 2000, Glenn made it to the summit of Mt. Whitney and then died in a fall in the area of the "99 switchbacks". May his tragic loss serve as a warning and a lesson to the living to never underestimate the natural world and the Sierra Nevada. Rest in peace, Glenn Maiden.

Mt. Whitney, 25 DEC 1999

It had been a very dry winter so far, so dry the Tioga Pass road was open. That was a very rare thing indeed. I decided to take advantage of the dry weather and the open pass and do a winter hike. Even though I had been all over the Sierra on nearly every major and minor trail, not to mention many cross-country routes, I had yet do the hike to the Mt. Whitney summit, and it was beginning to eat at me. I decided that it was time to have the summit of Mt. Whitney under my boots, and during the winter at that. I have done cold weather and snow hiking before and I thought I was prepared for it, so I did not think I would have much trouble doing a mostly dry trail to the summit of Mt. Whitney. I would bring along crampons and an ice axe, as well as some protection just in case. I had read on the Internet that, in the few days before my attempt, people had successfully completed the trek as a day-hike, and they reported the trail as dry. Well, if they could do it, then I could do it, or so I thought.
OK, I knew it would be cold, but I didn't think it would be….COLD!
So let me tell you about this little winter jaunt from the beginning.
I headed for Yosemite with an early start. It took me only three hours to get to the North entrance, and shortly afterwards I was on Tioga road. After a while, I started thinking, "Where's the snow?" When I got well above 7000 feet, I started to see snow in the shaded northern slopes and corners, sometimes as much as a foot, most of the time only inches. In all other areas there was no snow at all, and this was the condition all the way to and over Tioga pass. There was more traffic than I have ever seen on that road, and the road was occasionally covered with ice and snow in the shaded corners, making for dicey white knuckle driving. If this dry spell continued, the road would completely dry out.
I was playing "Beat the Daylight", so as I hit 395 south, I kept going until Bishop, where I got food and gas. The 395 highway is just about my favorite route, and as I drove I kept looking at the Sierra and marveling at the lack of snow. The snow was there, but only as an occasional dusting or trapped in cracks, gullies and sheltered hollows. If it had been spring, there was no snow to stop me or slow me down. There were other elements that could do that.
As I headed south of Bishop I began to go into new territory for me. I have been as far south as Glacier Lodge from 395, but that was it, so I was anxious to see the new sights. Very prominent was White Mountain, and if I knew then what I know now, I would of skipped Whitney and day-hiked White Mountain and bagged that 14,200+ foot peak.
The drive became more and more impressive and I enjoyed picking out those features I have only seen on maps. The vast Owens Valley, with its ever-changing scenery along 395, is overshadowed by the stark shades of brown of the foreboding mountains and peaks to the East, and the soaring jagged splendor of the granite teeth of the Sierra Crest to the West. As I approached Lone Pine, the Alabama Hills became obvious, along with the road cut to Whitney Portal. I also saw the impressive cut to Cottonwood Lakes. The mountains on both sides at this point became even more impressive, especially with the knowledge the peaks to the west were over 14,000 feet. Now, Mt. Whitney became obvious to me from all of my study of maps and pictures, and similarly impressive was the almost complete lack of snow anywhere. The Alabama Hills pleased me more than I thought they would: there are a variety of sights to see I never imagine existed. I marveled at a flat desert floor where in the middle of the expanse it looked like God had filled a city sized bucket of large boulders and dumped it neatly in the middle of that desert. And the aggregation of weird rock formations and strange collections of boulders was an invitation to stay and explore, but I had daylight to beat.

Mt. Whitney from Lone Pine.

Mt. Whitney from Lone Pine.

As I headed towards the Portal, the first thing I noticed was even though it appeared I was only gaining scant altitude through the Alabama Hills, the laboring of my truck convinced me I was on a steep climb. As I gained the first leg of the Portal switchback, it was not much steeper than the climb to it from Lone Pine. Again I was surprised by the reality of what I only heretofore imagined. After rounding a scenic corner with an outstanding view of Owens Valley, I saw the intimate wooded glacial cut populated with…summer homes? The view up the Meysan Lakes valley was enough to put that destination on my list of things to do.

The view from Whitney Portal.

This is the view looking towards Lone Pine from Whitney Portal road.

It was simplicity itself reaching such a popular trailhead after such a short drive. I was able to park right next to the trailhead along with others who were there when I got there and still there when I left. Lone Pine Creek was a frothy marvelous cascade…frozen solid. Again, there was no snow to be seen anywhere, and for this part of the trip I only saw tiny patches hidden here and there. I was cool, but not yet cold, and I quickly got ready to hit the trail. When I departed I wore heavy gloves, my usual backpack garb, and a pile shirt. My pack though was about 55 pounds with all the extra gear.

I thought I was ready for anything.

My plan was to go as far as Lone Pine Lake, a mere 3 miles and 2000 foot gain away. Easy, right? The first thing I noticed was the altitude was hammering me. Mental note to myself: the next time I do this I will do it with more acclimation. And while I have been exercising with a heavy pack regularly, I was not in backpacking shape. Mental note to myself: don't attempt this hike until I are in full backpacking shape. None the less, I made good steady time. But not fast enough. I hit the trail after 3PM, and as I approached the lake it became colder and colder, and then very dark. Before it got dark I passed the North Fork Mountaineers Route, a rugged looking trail, and made note of the flowing water. Shortly, up the trail, after I stopped to put on a coat and get out my headlamp, I found that I was having trouble standing. I looked down and saw I was standing on solid ice! As I began to slip I dropped to my knees and laboriously scooted and crawled back to dryer trail. After a lung-heaving rest I put on my crampons, again shouldered my pack, and headed on. No sooner than I got started I heard voices and saw head-lamps coming towards me in the now total moon-less darkness. Two guys were making their way down from the summit, and they looked prepared for everything but ice as they were sliding down the slick ice. They informed me this ice section was the worst part of the trail, and it was dry all the way to the top of Whitney. I spiked on upward while they slid downward.
After the ice ended (but not before one of my crampons slipped off, complicating my journey), I removed the crampons, reassumed my load in the freezing cold and continued on. The trail was hard to follow at times, illuminated only by headlamp, and progress was slow. I came to a log stream crossing (which I tried to cross on ice, but I broke through), and crossed on the logs. I carefully moved on, checked my map again, and made sure I examined every tree for a junction sign. Eventually, to my relief, I found the junction and clumped coldly down to the lake. I think it was about 6 PM at that point, and after a short search for a suitably level spot on the sloping gruss and loose rock, I made camp as quickly as possible. The air was getting colder by the second, and while I still retained heat from my climb, I was getting cold even after putting on a second jacket. The fatigue poisons combined with my body clinching down against the cold were beginning to cause me cramps and the camping effort was taking my breath away. Everything, from zippers to tent, seemed to be fighting me, but eventually I got set up.
Not anxious to jump into the tent right away, I looked around a bit. The lake had a rim of thin ice, but it seemed I would have access to water. The sky was more incredible than I have ever seen it in all my years in the Sierra. I have never seen so many stars all at once. But the cold was creeping up on me and I was forced into the tent. It was a good thing I had a large late lunch, because I decided to forgo dinner. Instead I had a candy bar and some other candy. After a clothing change, I hunkered down into my sack. It was 7 PM.
And so began a long LONG night. Cold creeped up from the ground beneath me until much later I had warmed up the ground. Now I know why winter mountaineers bring two pads. My feet got cold despite the fact I was wearing full polypro long-johns, pile socks, pile booties, pile pants and shirt, and a pile hat. Eventually I stuffed both of my coats into my sleeping bag, and only then was I comfortably warm. My feet were never fully warm for very long. I tried to read, but the brand new batteries in the headlamp began to fail as they froze, and I had to put in my warm backup pair. This was not good. I used my small backup flashlight to read by to conserve my headlamp, but my gloved hands would get too cold and I would have to stop for a while to warm up. Eventually, I gave up, and turned off the light. It was maybe 9 PM at that point.
Eventually the long fitful night passed, helped along by a bright moon alleviating the total darkness. Morning came, but I did not leap up because of the oppressive cold. I decided to wait till the sun hit the tent. Meanwhile I discovered that the water had slipped out of my bag during the night and froze solid, along with my other bottle of water. This was not good either. By 9AM it had noticeably warmed up even though the sun had not reached the tent and I was going a bit nuts anyway. I opened the tent and looked at the temperature.
It was -10 degrees below zero. It may have been as low as much as -20 degrees or more during the night.
I put on all of my clothes and packed up. I went over to Lone Pine Lake and was shocked to see the lake was now completely frozen over to a depth of at least a foot. I bowled rocks across the lake to the other side. This meant I had no unfrozen water to drink or cook with. That was bad. Worse of all, despite my repeated massaging efforts to warm up my feet, my feet refused to warm up. Worse, there were large patches of pale skin on my toes and beneath my feet behind my toes, meaning circulation had stopped. That was really bad!
Now I had the prospect of moving on risking frostbite to my feet, with no unfrozen water, and it was clouding up. I would have to spend hours melting ice (while trying to keep it liquid) and working my feet, and then move even higher up on the mountain. This was not worth the risks: I decided to head back down the mountain.

Looking up the Lone Pine Creek Drainage.

Looking up the Lone Pine drainage, the frozen creek can be seen on the left, and the summits of Whitney and Muir can be seen on the right near the lowpoint of the skyline.

I slowly began to make my way back, frequently stopping to massage my painfully cold feet. The iced over trail section was just as much a chore due to the fact my left crampon fell off twice, and I was forced into the willows to bypass the ice. I spiked my wind-pants, giving them a new hole, and I had to crawl the last section of ice to the dry trail. After that progress was swift, and when I reached a sunlit section of trail, I unloaded, sat in my chair, and worked my feet until they were totally warmed up. When I got my boots back on (full leather heavy mountaineers' boots), my feet were painful but warm and dry.
Further down I came to the North Fork crossing/trail, and thankfully had my fill of cold water. Not long after that I was back at my truck, and my feet had fully recovered, or so I thought. My ministrations and retreat allowed me to avoid serious frostbite. In addition, it was then Noon, and it was much colder than the day before at 3PM.

A frozen solid waterfall!

See the frothy waterfall cascading down the bed of Lone Pine Creek...only nothing is flowing because it is FROZEN SOLID! Yes, all of that water is really solid ice! A cascade as frozen as this photograph.

After this adventure the day got much more pleasant, ending in Reno, but that is another story. Later in the following spring as I began to hike in the new season, I would find out I had not completely escaped unscathed. On the pad of my right foot behind my toes I had suffered enough frostbite to lose the feeling in a small area, enough to be annoying. Perhaps it will recover a bit in the future, I don't know. My right thumb has never completely recovered from a nip of frostbite, but it is very tolerable. Time will tell.

I was ready for the cold, but not sustained sub-zero temperatures. If I ever do anything like this again, I will have to do things differently. This is what I learned:
1) I will have to find ways to keep my feet warm.
2) I will have to find ways to keep my water liquid, mainly by sleeping with it.
3) Two sleeping pads are needed.
4) Due to the weight and dangers of cold, a partner is needed to share the load.
5) I was not really physically ready. I could do this, but the effort was great.
6) Acclimation is needed before doing this trip in the winter.
7) I need to do some further study of cold weather mountain travel.
7) This trip would be best done from Cottonwood Lakes, or at least from the West side…in the summer.

Which is subject of the rest of this feature.

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