A Wintertime Walk on Whitney

12/29/99 - 1/1/00

  Happy New Year!
Happy New Year 2000 from Cathy & Bob

With no snow in the Sierra forecast for New Years 2000, a backpack trip up Mt. Whitney seemed like the obvious thing to do. Sure, it would be cold and probably windy, but as long as we didn't get heavy snowfall, it would basically be a walk-up. And, there would be no permit quotas, how could we pass that up?

  Frozen waterfall from Outpost Camp
Frozen waterfall from Outpost Camp
It was me, Cathy, Jay, and Sandra, your basic double-date. The plan was to spend two days acclimatizing along the Whitney trail, and then carry our packs to the summit, camping there New Years eve.

  Sandra & Jay
Sandra & Jay, where we turned around (that's Whitney's summit in the upper-left haze)
We stayed the first night at Outpost Camp (10360'), a fine camp flanked by a frozen waterfall (picture at left), and the second night at the more exposed Trail Camp (12000'). The trail above Outpost and Mirror Lake was quite icy in places, with a couple of inches of very dry snow that would squeak underneath our boots.

We got up before sunrise on the 31st, the temperature a brisk 7 degrees F, heated up water for breakfast, and proceeded to break camp. The sun reached us at 9AM, and for a little while, we were stripped down to a single layer each of polypro and pile.

  Me south of Whitney
That's me just south of Whitney
The 1000' below Trail Crest (from 12600' to 13600') would be the steepest part of the climb, with switchbacks tightly ascending a 35 to 40 degree ramp. Some of this turned out to be worthy of careful attention (at one particular stretch near some metal railing, it was easy to imagine a slip on the icy trail resulting in a long ugly fall), but with care and an ice axe in hand, it was all pretty reasonable.

It soon clouded up, and it was probably around 10:30 and 13000' when we got our first snow flurries. It didn't seem like a big deal, so we pushed onward, up and over Trail Crest. From there, it's 2 miles of northward traverse along the Sierra crest, past Mt. Muir, to Whitney's summit.

As the clouds thickened and the breeze picked up, we added layers. The day's trek started to feel like less of a hike, and more like alpinism. Guitar Lake, and its neighbors west of the crest, lay frozen beneath us through the cloudy haze, and we negotiated the occasional snowdrifts on the exposed trail.

  Whitney summit ridge
Descending the Whitney summit ridge
By 1PM, we were well past Mt. Muir, and within a mile of our goal. We could see the rest of our route leading up to the summit, though with visibility getting worse and the snow now falling for real, with some new accumulation on the ground, the high ridge was starting to take on a different character.

We discussed our options. We could get to the summit within about an hour, which would leave us plenty of time before dark to prepare camp on the summit, but perhaps not enough time to then descend back to Trail Camp in daylight if that's what we decided to do. The concern was that if it continued to snow into the night, there might be so much fresh snow on the steep ramp below Trail Crest that the route would be difficult, hazardous, or both. We didn't actually think that this storm had enough of a punch to do that, but we didn't know that for sure.

  Trail Crest
Whitney Trail Crest, 13600', on New Years Eve
So we turned back. It continued to snow for the next hour or so (and then again a few hours later after dark), but the storm did clear, leaving us with beautiful orange sunlight against the fading haze.

At the turnaround point, we talked with one guy, a soloist, who was also concerned about the snow, but who decided to go for the summit anyway. He had summitted the previous day as a warm-up. Another fellow, also solo, had traveled from Onion Valley along the Muir Trail; we saw him descending from the summit with a full pack, saying that he too thought staying overnight was too risky with the possibility of fresh snow. Another couple with full packs turned back near Mt. Muir.

  Cathy Bianco descending at 13K
Cathy Bianco descending at 13K
On our way down, we also encountered a group of about 8 people, though they were so spread out they didn't look like a group. At least half of these folks looked poorly prepared, and I doubt that most of them reached the summit before sunset. Some trailside conversations... "I can't turn back, my tent is all the way back down at 10000'.", "How much further to the top??", "Good thing those guys up ahead brought plenty of alcohol." Then there was the guy wearing cotton cammo pants (yo dude, looks like you should have worn white instead). Oh well, I shouldn't be too harsh... after all, they most likely spent New Years on Whitney's summit, and we didn't.

We spent our New Years at Outpost camp, after a very tedious hike in the dark below Trail camp (we wanted to get all the way to Outpost since it would be more sheltered there, and also because there was a creek with some actual liquid water). We had soup, ate dinner, and Jay pulled out the obligatory mini bottle of champagne. Then we crawled into our sleeping bags to await the new year.

Saturday morning we hiked out. Dayhikers greeted us with the news that the world survived Y2K, and that, more importantly, restaurants were open and serving breakfast in Lone Pine. And from our table at PJ's, we could see Mt. Whitney, looking wonderful, surrounded by blue sky.

-Bob Akka, 1/4/00

  Wake up, it's midnight!
Wake up, it's midnight! Bob & Cathy 1/1/2000 on the Whitney Trail.

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