Note: This trip report is part of the TetonAT Trip Report Contest. Yu is now in the running to win a FREE pair of Black Diamond skis based on viewer response and the TetonAT panel of judges! Good luck Yu!!
East face of Mt. Whitney with the Mountaineer’s Route on the right.
I had eyed Mount Whitney for years, but my aversion to crowds and permits had kept me from attempting it during the summer climbing season. Its reputation for being a mob magnet for weekend mountaineers eager to step on “the highest point in the lower 48” is not without justification. Mount Whitney is the most frequently climbed peak in the Sierra Nevada, if not the U.S., according to the National Park Service. Each year more than 15,000 people attempt to top out on Whitney, 14,496 feet. It’s no easy physical feat to be sure, but with a 10.5-mile trail from parking lot to summit, it’s a non-technical climb that’s within reach of decently conditioned hikers. To thin the herd, the Forest Service employs a quota system from May to November, limiting the number of people on the trail to 60 overnight backpackers and 100 day-hikers. That’s a good thing. Imagine the traffic jam on the infamous 97 switchbacks without it. With so many other attractive mountains in the Sierra within easier reach of my San Francisco home, Whitney just never seemed worth the hassle. That was until, I learned about the backcountry skiing potential of the peak from Paul Richins Jr’s, “50 Classic Backcountry Ski and Snowboard Descents in California.” After talking to several more experienced backcountry skiers I became fixated on skiing down steep, lofty flanks.
That was in the winter of ’04. My level of skiing rocketed dramatically that year as I spend many powder days skiing with better skiers. I knew I’d be ready the next season. Throughout the winter of ’05, I tracked snow and weather conditions in the Eastern Sierra, looking for a decent weather window. In early March, it arrived. In classic weekend-warrior style, I loaded my Suby with gear and made a bee-line for Lone Pine – well, as much of a bee-line as one can make exiting the Bay Area on a Friday afternoon. Trapped in my car, it dawned on me that I had chosen perhaps the furthest destination in the state, at least during winter when most passes over the Sierra are buried in snow. I calculated that I could’ve driven up to Mount Rainier in the same amount of time. With alternating stops for gas and In-N-Out, it was early the next morning when I reached snowline on Whitney Portal Road, about two miles shy of the trailhead parking lot at just over 8,000 feet. Even more ecstatic that the nine-hour car ride was over was Mingus, my Chow Chow-Golden Retriever. An ever-ready mountaineering buddy with a powder hound’s love for snow, Mingus has been my faithful partner on many backcountry skiing adventures.
On The Trail
After snoozing for a few hours, I geared up and started skinning up the road in the dark. I put a headlamp around Mingus’ neck so I could keep track of him and call him back if he wandered off out of sight. My plan was simple: Go as high as I could, keeping a close eye on snow and weather conditions, play it safe, and enjoy the descent. Prior experience had taught me that so many factors can derail a 14er summit attempt that I was skeptical of success. It’s all a crap shoot when so much depends on weather and snow conditions. I didn’t want to fully commit to the summit, especially as I was solo. Hiking under a new moon, I saw the Sierra peaks ahead of me outlined by millions of stars in the sky. Once I cut over to the North Fork of Lone Pine Creek, where my route diverged from the standard Mount Whitney Trail, I habitually checked my GPS to make sure I was heading in the right direction. When the sun came up, the alpenglow on the snow uncovered two tents pitched on Lower Boy Scout Lake. I don’t think there is a weekend on Whitney where you won’t run into other climbers on this popular peak.
The first recorded ascent of Mount Whitney was claimed by three “fishermen” on August 18, 1873, just a few weeks before Clarence King, one of the pioneering mountaineers of the Sierra. In honor of the first ascent party, the residents of Owens Valley wanted to change the name of the mountain to “Fisherman’s Peak.” In fact, a bill was introduced into the state legislature to change the name. The governor vetoed the bill, keeping the original name “Mount Whitney,” after the leader of the California Geological Survey team, Josiah Whitney.
Mingus at Iceberg Lake
Despite being tested by several steep sections, I was able to skin up all the way to Iceberg Lake (12,600 feet), where I left Mingus’ pannier filled with his food and water, along with some extra snacks and water for myself. From here, I put the skis on my back, crampons on my boots, and started up the Mountaineers Gully, an obvious couloir of snow leading up the right shoulder of Whitney. John Muir, who was a remarkably fit mountaineer in addition to being a poetic naturalist, first climbed Mount Whitney from the east via the Mountaineers Route, on October 21, 1873, two months after the first ascent. His take: “Well-seasoned limbs will enjoy the climb of 9,000 feet required for this direct route, but soft, succulent people should go the mule way.”
Mingus half way up the gully. You can see Whitney Portal Road in the picture,
8 miles away, the start and end of this long adventure.
Climbing the Gully
I don’t know about succulent, but I definitely don’t consider myself soft. I was ready to put my well-seasoned limbs to the test. Having kicked steps for endless hours on Shasta, Hood, Rainier and other mountains in the Sierra and the Cascades, I found my rhythm quickly, assisted by The White Stripes egging me on via my girlfriend’s iPod, which I managed to discreetly borrow for this affair. From Iceberg Lake, the Mountaineers Gully appeared deceivingly short, but it took several hours to climb. Once you reach the top of the gully and are thoroughly exhausted, you are just a few hundred feet from the summit. But take a minute or two here and really think about continuing on: the sketchiest section of the entire climb lies ahead. The difficulties involve a few easy fourth-class moves. But with telemark boots and crampons, as I was wearing, the challenge is greater and the consequences severe. A slip here would result in a 0-60 slide off a 100-plus foot cliff.
Yours truly on the summit pooper.
This was the last year they had a toilet at the summit,
as the following year they implemented a wag bag system to cut down costs.
As you enter the John Muir Wilderness on your way to the peak, the Inyo National Forest put up a sign a few years ago in big red letters, “PEOPLE DIE HERE.” Think of that sign on this section if you are feeling the altitude (especially if you were at sea level less than 24 hours prior), weary from fatigue, or the weather is deteriorating. A few days after my summit, a solo climber fell to his death when heavy weather moved in and he slid down the gully and off the precipice above the Mountaineers Route. Since Mingus is still an amateur mountaineer (soft and succulent?), I left him near the top of the gully, where he was more than willing to bunk down for a quick snooze. Going truly solo for the last couple hundred feet, I was greeted by the summit hut (built in 1909 by the Smithsonian Institute, after the first recorded death on Whitney in 1904), and the highest toilet in the lower 48. The day turned out perfect, winds were minimal, even at the summit. After snapping a few summit pics and squeezing some Gu down, I started back down.
The difference between mountaineering and ski mountaineering comes at the summit, where the fun ends for mountaineers, and starts for the skiers. I have to carry more gear and hike in heavy, clunky ski boots, but it’s all worth it when I’m carving buttery corn. After the long ascent, you strap on your skis, and in little over an hour of skiing, you can find yourself next to your car, looking up at the mountain that took 7 hours to climb, with a snow-cooled beer in hand.
Signs of a good harvest.
The Mountaineers Route was first skied by the late photographer Galen Rowell in 1974. A game but admittedly poor skier, Rowell used extra short skis to pick his way down the steeps. I had my normal-sized skis and found the gully in a typical sierra skiing condition, stable but soft. I quickly reached the gear I left at Iceberg Lake after a short warm up run down the gully, where I discovered crows had started devouring Mingus’ food. After waiting for Mingus to eat what was left, I packed his gear in my bag – he would be hard-pressed to keep up with me on the way down – and harvested beautiful early-spring corn snow for the rest of the descent.
I had to hike out a few miles back to the car as some of the snow had melted down to pavement. I enjoyed a PBR, took a quick nap, I pigged out in Bishop, soaked in some hot springs, and called it an early night at Twin Lakes, near Bridgeport. For an encore, I decided to head up Matterhorn Peak. I was sore, but as John Muir once said, “the mountains are calling and I must go.”