Climbing Mt. Whitney

September 23, 2014

by Martha Carlin

I recently returned from a trip to California to climb Mt. Whitney with a group of climbing friends. As a resident of Colorado and regular hiker of 14ers, my only real concern with Mt. Whitney was the distance.   At 22 miles round trip from the trailhead, it is much longer than most 14ers in Colorado. We decided to counter that concern by packing in overnight camping gear and cutting the distance we would do in a single day by camping at a trail camp. My husband is a veteran gear guy/gadget head and he spent hours researching and talking to people so that we could ensure to carry the lightest packs. We originally expected to be carrying about 30-35 lbs. each but managed to whittle that down to just over 25 lbs. each including water. We had a super light tent and ultra-light pads and sleeping bags. We even limited the number of dense and heavy granola bars opting instead for loose granola and freeze-dried food which is much lighter. 

Our friends, on the other hand, had not researched, evaluated and culled their loads with several of the team ending up with packs that were closer to 40 lbs. each including water. That is quite a difference in load!

We set off on our journey after an early morning thunderstorm that took out the power at our hotel. This should have been an omen. Within an hour we started passing day hikers (those doing the round trip in a single day) on their way back down warning us of bad weather that turned them back. No worries, the forecast said the weather was clearing and we should expect sunshine or maybe an isolated shower. Never trust the forecast! We had intermittent rain showers and were pounded with hail off and on all day. This required us to stop quite frequently and find shelter when there was shelter to be had.

We eventually made it to the trail camp by early afternoon with just a tiny break in the rain to let us set up our tents. As hikers returning from the summit passed us they talked about how crazy the weather had been and that they should never have “been up there in that” – lightening was crazy, along with hail, rain and snow. We managed to cook something to eat just in time for a downpour that didn’t stop until the middle of the night. Our tiny light-weight tent wasn’t really designed for hanging out in hours on end. It was a long and crazy night.

My husband didn’t drink enough water, partly because of the weather and the tiny tent problem. He didn’t want to have to get up in the middle of the night and maneuver to get his shoes on and go outside to the bathroom. By morning he wasn’t feeling well from the altitude probably due to dehydration. He and 2 others from our party decided to head back down. Four of us carried on to attempt the summit despite the fact that the weather still looked dicey.   We made it another mile up the trail, about a half mile from the trail crest and 2.5 miles from the summit before meeting a hiker on his way down. The weather wasn’t clearing. There were dark clouds as far as the eye could see to the west from the crest and the wind was blowing 60 MPH. The snow was ankle deep and slippery, which required crampons. We hadn’t brought them for a mid-August summit. It seemed like unnecessary weight and wasn’t even recommended in the guidebooks. Temps at the top were well below freezing. This wasn’t to be our day.   We decided better to turn back now since we knew we couldn’t get to the summit.

On the way down we plotted our return. We might attempt it in a single day next time. We might camp at a lower camp on the mountain to avoid the weather challenges closer to the summit. We might go in the colder months and plan to take the crampons and an ice axe and glissade down parts of the trail. We will definitely go back and try again with a different plan of action. A common lesson of the mountains – you never know what Mother Nature will hand you. Be wise, don’t take chances, you can always try again.  

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