Trip report – Mount Whitney Main Trail, Nov 11, 2012. Eastern Sierra
Peak: Mount Whitney
Elevation: 14,497ft (or 14,508ft)
Where: Eastern Sierra, Sierra Nevada Mountains, California
Roundtrip Mileage: 22 miles
Elevation Gain: Roughly 6,600 feet.
Conditions: Cold, patchy snow, ice on trail.
I summited Mt. Whitney on Sunday, Nov 11th as a oneday hike from the trailhead on the Main Trail.
While I didn’t take many photos, I took a few select shots showing what conditions are like, hoping to give folks an idea of what the trail is like if they are heading up soon. So, below is less of a trip report, but more some thoughts for those going up over the next few days:
I arrived to Lone Pine Friday PM, secured a permit for Sat. Nov 11th, but after doing some recon, realized I should have brought warmer gear with me and also wanted to wait a day to give the storm a chance to settle down and blow through. After getting another permit and packing all my warm clothes, I targeted Sunday morning to start.
The pic above shows the remnants of the storm as it lost steam. Note Mount Whitney is the distant peak off to the right in the photo, just directly above the road as the road turns right. It is NOT the larger peak to the left, which is Lone Pine Peak (~12,944ft).
Shortly after sunrise above treeline just under Trail Camp; note small group of hikers in photo.
Temperature - The weather was warming after the 11th, but it was cold this past weekend when the storm and cold front moved in averaging 30 degrees below normal for the area. While my car was parked in Lone Pine (3,700ft), the water bottles froze in the back seat overnight. This would imply a low temp of low teens at best the Portal trailhead not correcting for windchill. Some simple math tells you it would be much colder higher up. This may not apply for the upcoming days when temps will be warmer, but I needed most layers I carried with me and added another warm layer on rest stops, hiking in four layers most of the way.
Approaching Trail Camp and the stunning cirque surrounding the southern part of the basin. Note hikers to the right in first photo.
Warm gloves and liners, Goggles, face/neck protection were also needed as were thermal liner/pants and a shell for the wind. Factor this all in as it adds weight to your pack. You will feel the cold on that early start. I started at 2:45AM and was waiting for sunrise every minute! In hindsight, given my pack weight and lack of any acclimatization, I should have started earlier.
The Sierra Crest in all its glory. The swithbacks are off to the left (south) here. Taken moving past High Camp (Trail Camp). Plenty of spots to camp here, but make sure your tent is solid and your water strategy is determined before you leave the trailhead. Bring extra clothes and food for those calories.
Water - Water was frozen at Trail Camp and most spots the mile before reaching TC; the last water available I recall was along the trail around Outpost Camp; I heard water running under snow and ice further up which might also be gotten if you can get through the ice. Keep in mind I didn't go looking for water, didn’t venture far off route to do so and assumed I'd need to carry it all, so I did. With some searching, you may find some higher up. Before I left, I was told the ice was too thick to chop through at TC - I didn't check this, however.
Taken from the Switchbacks, looking back down at Trail Camp. Note orange tent in right third of photo for scale (first photo), center of image (second photo).
Note lone hiker in middle of below pic. This would be the last time I saw another person heading up on the day. Not sure what became of any of them.
Given the lack of water, unless you have the time and desire to melt snow (as a dayhiker) and are carryinga stove to do so, you will need to carry most or all of your water. This will also add a lot of weight to your pack and consume valuable time. If you're camping overnight, then just melt snow at Trail Camp or if you are camping at Outpost, then water is close by. Snow was blown and drifted in spots, but no more and 6-12" deep in most spots at Trail Camp, with many locations for a tent. If you’re camping up there, make sure you have anchors, since your tent stakes won’t be of much help in frozen ground.
Typical snow covering on swtichbacks.
The Cables Section.
Traction - I used crampons and would advise anyone going up to bring them, as most of the switchbacks from the cables up are packed with snow and ice, with the dozen or so before the cables also snow covered but will less severe consequences in the event of a fall.
A nice view of the Crest. Whitney is off to the right here. This is an awesome place.
Some people had yaktraks and microspikes- I never used them so cannot comment on their usefulness, figuring this was one instance where I don't want to skimp on ounces. G-12s are probably overkill, but that's what I brought so I used them. Honestly they give me more comfort and confidence in walking on dicey terrain, which is what matters. Trekking poles also will help. I don't think an axe would be useful; I had mine, but it stayed my pack, as I didn't feel there enough snow to warrant its use and enable a self arrest in the event of a slide. Most of all, walk slowly on the icy parts of the trail, a lot of the ice is not evident.
Moving up higher on the switchbacks
Coverage higher up. This snow is packed and while it looks like an easy walk, is not easy without traction and the rocks to the right are not fun to walk on. No exposure here, but a slip/fall on the rocks would not be fun and can turn an ankle or crack your head. Not a good place or time for such an injury.
Note, unlike my recent snow climb in May, 2012 I did NOT use the chute to the right (west) of the switchbacks, but used the Switchbacks this time. There is not currently enough snow coverage on the chute to make it a viable/safe/good climb.
Snow pack right around Trail Crest
Just on the other side (west) of Trail Crest as you enter Sequoia National Park. Stunning visual moment here. Winds picked up a bit after reaching the crest.
Trail was clear up to about 10,000ft where small patches of snow and ice start appearing;
Above 10,000ft, ice and packed snow are on the trail in more spots. The higher you go, the more ice you will see. Some of this ice is under a thin coating of snow and you won't see it making falling probable (speaking from experience!) Walk carefully. For those of you who have not been on this trail, pay attention around the 11,000ft-11,500ft mark where the trail is tougher to follow in a few sections, particularly where it crosses rock rather than open soil/snow.
Trail conditions after Trail Crest and on the back side.
Most switchbacks are snow covered. While lower down you can get by with no traction, it can't hurt to use some, since you will want it anyway higher up anyway. Early or late in the day, these sections will be very firm or iced, so traction is nice to have here.
From Trail Crest, moving west to the back over the ups and downs thereafter as you enter the National Park, there is intermittent snow and ice, some of which you will want traction on.
After these junction spots to where the route finally gains the remaining elevation to the summit, there is patchy snow on the trail to the top but doable without traction here; this area is prone to get icier in cooler conditions. I would say traction is helpful until this point, after which you can take it off on the rockier spots for the last 1-1.5 miles to the top. Take care not to twist an ankle here on the slippery snow covered rocks.
Summit shot looking east: (I took this photo in May 2012 - I didn't actually take any other summit shots this time, except one of the register as I literally turned around and headed down)
Summit Register (note I put 11/12 rather than 11/11/12)..altitude must have gotten to me!
Creatures - I saw two deer lower down, but saw no bears, mountain lions or bigfoot. However, hiking in dark in the morning and evening, every rock seemed to be a crouched mountain lion and every stump looked like a bear.
Portal Road - I saw some small bowling ball sized rocks tumble down, which you should be mindful of when driving up. Road was otherwise clear with no ice or snow on it last week.
Closing thoughts - comparing this climb to my earlier summer/autumn day hike trips, or even the Spring snow climb this past May, this hike was brutal since I carried all my fluids (7L - yes I drink a lot), several more clothing layers, and winter gear, which made for a HEAVY pack to hike up +6,600ft over 22 miles with. Note: Gross TH-Summit difference is ~6,148ft, net gain is ~6,600ft.
It took my quite a bit longer to get up this mountain this time and it felt harder than my climb in May: see link below:
Click here for Spring Whitney climb
This was due in part to (i) much heavier pack (ii) tougher travel across icier conditions requiring slower movement and (iii) less acclimatization. There was less snow this time around than that in May, but that actually makes hiking tougher since you need to be more careful with foot placement.
Another odd thing, likely due to the cold, there was virtually no wildlife anywhere. I didn’t see a single squirrel, marmot or pika (the latter guys probably hibernating), and only a raven or two all day.
I saw seven other people ascending in the morning, though once around Trail Camp, they all disappeared and I never saw them again. I saw one other person summit, but nobody else that day, so they either turned around or had other plans.
Good luck if you are heading up!
Thumbnails for uploaded photos (click to open slideshow):