Sunday, April 29, 2012

Mt. Whitney via Snowy Main Trail

April 28, 2012: Work schedule and weather finally aligned for a spring climb in the Sierra Nevada and why not go for the highest peak; Mt. Whitney. 

I left Simi Valley for Lone Pine at 0730. Perfect drive, no issues and good views, well past Mojave there are good views. Arrived at the visitors center to pick up my non quota permit at 11:00 am and headed up to Whitney Portal. The view of the Sierra Crest from Whitney Portal Road is grand. Mt. Whitney, Mt. Langley, Lone Pine Peak (gets mistaken for Whitney by a lot of 395 motorists) and Mt. Williamson to name a few. I set up a quick camp at the backpackers campground and explored the Portal. There was a powerful wind storm that affected all of the Sierra Nevada on November 30, 2011 and this area was hit hard. A large tree fell right onto the site I used last Labor Day at the campground. Gave me the chills.  The crews have done a remarkable job of cutting and clearing the downed trees. While I was there, Doug Sr. (who owns and runs the Whitney Portal Store and Hostel) was pulling downed trees out of the trout pond with a truck. 

I decided to do a warm up/exploratory hike up the North Fork of Lone Pine Creek. I had been up it before, but it was pitch black and by headlamp, I wanted to see it during the daylight hours. I am attempting Mt. Russell as an overnight trip in June so this was an exploratory trip as well. Got started on the trail at 1330 and made good time to the Mountaineers Route cutoff. From there it is a steep uphill on the north side of the creek. Soon I crossed to the south of the creek then back across to the south. Progress up the canyon is blocked by thick willows and brush. To keep going one must climb the class three Ebersbacher Ledges. Being on the route before really did help. Though it was dark, I remembered the moves and route. Once past the ledges it is a easy walk up to Lower Boy Scout Lake. The views in all directions were great. I was last here Memorial Day weekend and what a difference. The snow is significantly less. The route to the upper lake is mostly rock now. I took some mental notes for my Mt. Russell climb and headed back to the Portal. I got there in time for a delicious burger and fries then hit the sack at 1930. 

After a restless tossing and turning night of mediocre sleep I was awake at 0330. Packed up camp, made breakfast and had last minute prep and checks. I was on the trail at 0430. I didn't see any other day hikers for some time, for the most part I was on my own for the first few hours. Perhaps the overnighters were on to something. The 2012 winter season is the sixth worst since records were kept according to the CDEC and evidence of that is all around. I didn't have to put on any snow gear until 11,000'. (Just last year the trail wasn't snow free until early July.) I strapped on the crampons and headed up towards Trail Camp. I felt good despite the restless night of rest and little acclamation. Once at Trail Camp I found out where all the people were hanging out. Trail Camp was a zoo, it looked like a mid July crowd. I could see the conga line of people heading up the slope to Trail Crest. Well, I had an objective, catch and pass as many as possible (this genius plan of mine would cost me later). I made good time up the 1700' slope, the line of people kicked in a nice boot path that was easy to follow. I made it from trail camp to trail crest in 1:30 and I was able to pass nine people. Good times so far. The view west from Trail Crest is one of the best there is, I am always impressed, it will never get old. I took off the crampons and walked across the soft snow to the JMT junction. I took a small break and had a snack. At this point I realized how little water I had consumed to this point. I continued up to the base of Mt. Muir and took another break. Why was I having to slow and stop so much? I continued on to the 14,000' level and abruptly stopped. I was feeling terrible. Headache, fatigue, thirsty. Wow, I was suffering the effects of Altitude Sickness. I took a longer break and tried to figure out how this was happening to me. Well, it had been seven months since I was at this altitude, I was not well rested, dehydrated and did not pace myself very well. I drank what was left of my water and tried to refill with snow, but that was not working out very well. From here to the summit I took it really slow. I would count out one hundred steps and rest. The headache was zapping my strength, Excedrin wasn't helping at all. I told myself I could continue as long as dizziness, nausea or light headed occurred or started. After what seemed like forever I arrived at the summit at 1245. I contacted my wife via the Spot Connect to tell her I was on the summit and safe. I took some photos and ate some lunch. Here was another mistake. I only brought candy bars and junk food. Snickers, Pop Tarts, left over Easter candy. Though tasty, it wasn't supplying lasting nourishment to fuel this grueling climb. Simple carbs weren't enough. The views were enough to make this seventeenth summit worth the effort. All those mountains to climb and Whitney looking over them all. To the north were a couple of fourteeners I am to climb this summer, Mt. Russell and Mt. Williamson.....hopefully.

After a half hour to rest and recuperate I headed for the long journey back to the Portal. As soon as I started the headache made itself known again. It would accompany me the entire way down unfortunately. I made my way back to Trail Crest in a very methodical pace, the headache was terrible and I was still low on water. What a pain in the arse. At Trail Camp I had a decision to make. Plunge step down the 1700' slope back to Trail Camp or Glissade. This slope has been the end of a few hikers time on this earth because of out of control glissading in un ideal conditions. The slope was in great shape going up and appeared to be so now. This slope loses the sunlight very early in the day and can turn into an ice rink in no time. I have successfully glissaded the slope in the past and after careful consideration decided to give it a go. Out came the ice axe and water proof clothing and off I went. The snow was actually too soft for a swift glissade but I managed good time down the slope. If I ever needed to slow down I just leaned back and let the snow sluff build up and stop me without the axe. Very safe condition. At Trail Camp I took a nice long break, got some water and another snack. Headache was still with me, I was hoping it would subside with the elevation loss, but it did not. From there it was retrace my steps back to dry trail at Mirror Lake. Problem was, the snow was softening up and postholing was a problem. After avoiding the land mines I made it back to nice dry trail and it was supposed to be smooth sailing to the truck, but......

A grouse is a chicken looking bird that loves to stalk and attack me on mountain trails. I had a run in with one on the Meysan Lake trail a couple of years ago. That one tried to scratch out my eyes and end me. I narrowly evaded doom. Back to now. I was at the 9300' level on the trail when I heard the eery call of the Grouse. It is a deep moan that echos throughout the forest. Right in front of me were two females. Grouse are fearless and are not impressed with humans. I clacked my poles together in hopes of scaring them away, that tactic works on Bears and Coyotes, but not Grouse. They are crazy, angry chickens. These two females were attacking each other and not me for the time being. I would normally try and give them a wide berth but I was in a section of trail with a drop off on the right and thick brush to the left, nowhere to go. They continued to fight each other right in the middle of the trail. I tried throwing rocks in their direction. That did nothing to them, they just looked over and made a terrible groaning noise. I decided to put on my sunglasses, got out my ice axe and ran right through them. I was worried they would take flight and scratch out my eyes. I know this must sound funny but I was truly scared of these terrible critters. Somehow I made it through the gauntlet to the other side. A normal wild bird would be terrified of a six foot human running at them with an ice axe, not these two, they didn't even budge as I ran by. That whole event took about ten minutes, mostly me trying to get them to move. I quickly moved away from the drama and quickly ran into the bid bad male Grouse. This thing had his feathers all ruffled up, his tail feathers looked like a Turkey and his neck feathers were brilliant yellow and orange and he was pissed. He made an even more disturbing sound. WTF. I wanted nothing to do with this crazy bastard so I cut some switchbacks hoping to get away from them but ran into two more. I went off trail some more to evade capture and certain death by crazy chicken. I must have come across a nesting site. Next time I will be better prepared, time to make friends with an El Pollo Loco chef who hikes. I made it back to my truck at 1830, cleaned up and headed for Subway. After dinner I drove all the way back to Simi Valley. I felt good after dinner and made it back safely. What a weekend. 

This trip was an eye opener for me. I made a lot of small mistakes that added up to cause my feelings of not so well being. I made a list below. I consider myself experienced but humble. Mt. Whitney taught me a valuable lesson today. Not only do you have to prepare and train for snow travel, self arrests, proper crampon use, emergency shelters, first aid, the list goes on and on, but you also have to take care of the smaller things such as diet, hydration, rest, pace. 

Restless Sleep At Altitude: Not much can be done about that, just need to be at elevation longer, can't always afford that luxury. 
Poor Trail Diet: (Candy Bars=Simple Unsustainable Carbs, No Complex Carbs). Need to balance out the candy with some sustainable energy sources. Peanut Butter, Pretzels, Honey, Nuts, Dried Fruit. 
Waiting For Warm/Burn Feeling To Put On Sunscreen: I admit it, I do not like sunscreen. Goes back to my fishing days, don't like the slimy goey feeling. But it is a necessity up high. I usually wait too long to apply it. I need to apply it much earlier in the day. 
Going Fast Up Trail Crest Slope: I made the critical mistake of racing up the slope to pass people. Instead of taking my time and resting along the way, I stormed up the most taxing section of the entire trail. 
Not Enough Pack Off Rest Breaks: There are two kinds of breaks, quick pack on breaks and pack off breaks. I needed to take more pack off breaks to not only rest, but to acclimate to the altitude. 
Not Enough Water, Waited Too Long To Hydrate, Damage Was Done: By the time I really needed the water, there wasnt a water source. I needed to fill up at Trail Camp. Needed to take the time to hydrate which I did not. 
Not a fan of the Grouse aka Angry Fearless Chicken :/

Here are some photos. All can be viewed here:!i=1819651925&k=zjn9fxv
First Morning Light

Alpine Glow

Looking Towards Trail Camp

Having Fun So Far

Following The Boot Track

Slope To Trail Crest

Looking Down From Slope

At Trail Crest

View West 

Mt. Brewer

View From The Windows

Mt. Hitchcock

View North 

Myself, Headache And All On Whitney For The 17th Time

Mt. Tyndall & Mt. Williamson

Mt. Randy Morgenson

Frozen Tarn Melting 

View East On Way Down 

Topo Map


  1. Great trip report, sir kat! Curious - do you feel the crampons are still necessary? We have a trip planned for May 25, and a few have never worn them before.

    1. OMG, amazing photographs! Thanks you for making us part of your awesome trip :)

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