Spring Attempt Of Mt. Whitney

2 Jun 1997 - by Pat Ibbetson

After literally months of planning, my brother Ryan and I finally set off in good spirits for Whitney Portal, the scene of our last comedy two years prior. We had decided on a spring ascent again because school would be out and there would be no tourists, but mainly because we wanted to see the Great Western Divide before it shed its thick coat of white. Again we decided to day hike, figuring that the horrible snow of two years ago would be a distant memory.

The trip was flawed from the beginning, with the permit service in Big Pine screwing up royally. I had called for two day hike permits. According to the computer, we would be the only ones on the trail the whole day (which was the plan). I requested to pay by check and so they said that I would have to send it in with a written request, which I did. Two weeks before we were to tackle the infamous bowl to the north of the swithbacks, my request came back (sans check) with a letter denying my request because I already had a permit for that day. If I already had a permit, where was it? A few days later, my check arrived with a separate letter. At this point I was ready to call up my congressman, but I called them up instead. Sure enough they had me in the computer as having a permit, but they had no record of sending it to me. They were so boggled by what happened that they just sent me two day hike permits for free. It is definitely easier to order with a credit card, but if you must use a check, don't bother calling--just mail the request.

We arrived in Lone Pine ahead of schedule. We checked current conditions at the ranger station, then drove up to Whitney Portal. We stayed in the day hikers' campground, which was a waste of 6 bucks, because the freakin' site wasn't level. I could've found a flatter spot on the north ridge of Lone Pine Peak!

We both soon fell into a restless sleep after deciding to start at 5:30 instead of 3:30. We both were awake at 3 of course, but we both felt like crap so we went back to sleep until 5. After packing up camp which was a tedious if not down right excruciating experience, we got dressed and then hit the trail. The day's first light soon fell upon the trail, coming from behind the dramatically steep Inyos, which were then glowing a brilliant violet. Ryan charged ahead, carrying only his ice boots and water while I carried everything else. He made Lone Pine Lake in an hour. The countless switchbacks to the lake were brutal and I took at least another 30 minutes to get to the lake, while he rested watching the sun rise. My pack, which broke earlier on Williamson, was now killing me. I was day hiking with 35 pounds, all on my shoulders.

After my 30 minute rest and breakfast we trudged on, a little warmer as the sun had already begun its daily cooking of the desert. The bench holding Bighorn Park (once a lake in a hanging valley) was completely covered in snow, so Ryan changed shoes and then left in the dust again. This was his first real snow climb, but the 3/4 inch cleats and full length shank in his boots made child's play of the sticky snow while I slipped and slid, each step making me long for my crampons.

We paused at the meadow for some water and photos and then pressed on. At the western end of Outpost Camp we met some backpackers coming down from Trail Camp, none of whom had summited, which didn't bother me a bit. They warned of crappy snow above 12,000 which didn't surprise me, so we kept going. We encountered hardpack on the switchbacks to Mirror Lake, and again I fell behind Ryan who waited for me at the creek.

As we climbed up the ridge leading to the next meadow, we encountered another set of backpackers. They advised that we make trail crest by 10:00 a.m. or wait until tomorrow. As we were day hiking, we had no choice but to hurry the hell up. Well, Ryan did and I didn't. There was just no way I could do 4 miles per hour with that weight so early in the morning. When we reached the meadow, we hit good old fashion snow. Not hardpack leftover from the melt, but normal wintertime corn snow. Instead of following the trail, we headed south up onto some fairly good snow and then started climbing. Ryan again left me in the dust, his boots and enthusiasm clearly an advantage. We met up on a rock about 1/16 mile from Consultation Lake. We planned from the beginning to climb the bowl and leave the icy switchbacks to the suicidal, but the snow was getting so soft that we were at a below 2 mph pace and had more than a mile to Trail Crest left to go at 10:00 a.m. At that pace we wouldn't make it to the park boundary until at least 10:45, but we couldn't keep that pace.

We passed Trail Camp and then everything went to hell. Ryan's rigid boots were now more of a nuisance than an advantage because of the mixed sludge/talus we were on. My Vasque Alpines were right at home and I felt great. Whitney was out of the question as we were over an hour late (based on the backpackers' recommendation) and were post-holing like mad. Ryan decided to wait on a small bench. Two years ago he waited in the same area for me as I climbed the bowl and ascended Whitney and Muir getting mild altitude sickness in the process. I decided not to push it again by myself and so headed north to the west face of Wotan's Throne, which was completely free of snow. Wotan, Whitney, what's the difference? I followed the small stretches of exposed rock as much as possible but I eventually ran out of ramps and hit the snow. Bad Idea. I immediately began sinking knee deep, but my gaiters (which have been a problem in the past) kept me dry. I aimed for some outcrops poking through, hoping to speed things up, but I was traveling at a whopping .5 miles per hour, which meant Wotans was at least a 3 hour commitment. Luckily the last big bench before the bowl was snow free, so I took it north, resisting the urge to continue west up to Trail Crest.

As soon as I had neared the small tarns west of Wotan I hit snow again. The lure of the snow-free rock immediately before me was enough to keep me going, albeit at a snail's pace. Things were going ok, and then all of the sudden I post-holed, NECK deep! This was getting dangerous. I had to cut myself out of my little cave with my ice axe, being careful not to fall through again. I abandoned my plans and carefully made my way back to Ryan, who had fallen asleep under some rocks. The snow was getting worse exponentially. I put on my crampons, not to hold onto the snow but rather to the rock underneath, hoping to get some sort of traction.

We made our way back down slowly, as the snow was sapping all of our energy. Once on rock well-rested Ryan took off again. I kept up until we hit Mirror Lake, and I didn't see him until Outpost Camp. We made the wet crossing of the creek (where the trail actually is the stream bottom!) and then down the hardpack to Lone Pine Lake. I fell behind once on the trail. Ryan waited at the lake, but then took off again and I didn't see him again until I reached the car. I was so tired from the snow that I couldn't keep a decent pace down the trail. was past the walking stage, I was at the stair step stage, which took 1 hour and 30 minutes between Lone Pine Lake and the car. When I arrived, Ryan had been waiting for over 45 minutes.

The worst part of entire trip was not the fact that we didn't summit anything, but that someone had tried to break into my car. Although he was unsuccessful, my driver's side door lock is jammed, and I have to open the door from the inside! As usual, the trip back to Fresno was a drag, but we left knowing that we could indeed day hike Whitney in the spring given an early start.

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