I pulled into Whitney Portal at about noon. The morning was spent driving in from Bakersfield, getting my permit and buying a few last things I still needed. Looking at the mountain from Lone Pine, I felt apprehensive and those familiar self-doubts were nagging at me. At the ranger station I almost chickened out and asked for a Whitney Trail permit instead of the North Fork one …. but didn’t. I knew that climbing the Whitney Trail wouldn’t be a real test; the Mountaineers Route and a loop down the Whitney Trail, done solo, was something I could be proud of, and if I didn’t make it, at least I would have tried.
I had wanted to spend the night at Whitney Portal to sleep at 8,000 feet to get my body ready for what was to come but was too tired to finish the drive from Santa Clara. I spent the night in Bakersfield which meant that my body would go from elevation 0 to ~11,500 feet on this first day, something I knew would come at a cost.
The plan was to make it to Iceberg Lake, camp, head up the Mountaineers Route the next morning, then loop back down the Whitney Trail. I had enough food and fuel for another night at Tail Camp if need be.
In the parking lot, while putting on my boots and heaving my pack onto my back, my doubts immediately disappear. Starting up the trail with my 40 pound pack, I feel light and my pace is good. It’s been a while since I’ve been in the backcountry for something big and it feels great to be “out there”.
I hit the North Fork trail sign about 30 minutes after starting. For the last few minutes, my subconscious mind is nagging me about the Ebersbacher ledges, an exposed section one has to climb to get to Lower Boyscout Lake. I hit them about 30 minutes after the North Fork tail fork. They turn out to be very easy; a few short steps on a 5 or 6 foot wide ledge followed by easy and safe scrambling brings you to the top.
Roughly an hour later, I’m at Lower Boyscout Lake admiring the views. I’ve slowed down a whole a lot though and can’t hold the pace I could 2000 feet lower. I still feel strong, if not very winded all the time.
All done for the day
The next section is much harder for my physically. I’m really starting to feel the elevation and rests are more frequent and longer.I still need to climb 1000 feet before hitting Upper Boyscout Lake but at least the grade is easy and forgiving.
Then I screw up big. At the lake I lose the trail so I pull out my guidebook to understand what comes next. Its description leads me to believe that I need to go around the lake and up towards the headwall. I think that perhaps no one has been up here since the last snow fall and I’ll just need to break trail. I spend the next hour and a half in the massive talus field, scrambling in waist deep snow, praying that I don’t disappear in a hidden hole between the massive boulders. Finally, I make it back down to the lake and pull out my map (which I should have done instead of relying only on a description). My mistake is obvious and should have been avoided. I blame 10% of it on the AMS which I’m now feeling and 90% on the fact that I’m an idiot.
With the time and energy I just lost, I decide to stop for the night at Upper Boyscout Lake which sits at ~11,300′. Darkness is about an hour away so getting to Iceberg Lake (which sits at ~13,100′) tonight isn’t possible. Given how I feel, that’s probably a good thing.
I setup camp, prepare supper, watch a movie and hit the sack. Before going to bed I take a couple of Aspirin and measure my heart beat. It’s usually at ~50 but right now it’s ticking away at 90. Tomorrow will be a long day indeed.
It’s a full moon without a single cloud, so I sleep with my head out of the bivy waking up every few hours to admire and remind myself how lucky I am to be where I am.
The Mountaineers Route
I wake up at about 6 am after a restless night of waking up short of breath. I have a slight headache but don’t make much of it. An hour later, after a difficult breakfast I head out, but in the right direction this time. Iceberg Lake is the next objective and I figure that one hour should be enough to get me there. Ha! The folly and innocence of middle-age! I need two hours to get there, gaining over 2000′ in the process.
The trail is far from obvious and I lose it more than once. Even though I can’t see it, I know exactly where Iceberg Lake sits so I make sure to follow the line of least resistance towards it. This leads me inevitably to the ledgy cliffs towards the North. Even though not difficult, when climbing this type of terrain there is always a nagging fear that you’ll end up in a dead-end. Luckily I end up having to downclimb only once and find my way to the stunning clearing where Iceberg Lake sits which offers me the first clear view of the Mountaineers Route.
From my vantage point I see a half-dozen people in the gully. They are the size of baby ants which gives me a full perspective of how long the climb will be. I now know that it won’t be a technical challenge but will be physical and mental one; right now I’m feeling like shit, can hardly take 20 steps without stopping to rest and my headaches are worsening. Those 40 pounds on my back which felt fine yesterday are now feeling like 80.
I start up.
I need almost two hours to scale the ~1400′ that will bring me to the top of the gully. I chose the left hand side of the gully which offers me rock climbing instead of snow and ice. This also gives me the opportunity to use my upper body to make my way up, using my arms and back to pull myself up on the multiple ledges. The climb is varied: pure rock, slab, mentally draining crumbly sections and waist deep snow. Every step costs me and I stop every few seconds for a breather to bring my heart rate back down.
At ~14,000′ I finally hit the top of the gully, or “the notch”.
There are two routes once you hit the notch: A 3rd class that goes further right then left, and a 4th class that goes up the first gully. This section is the one I was fearing, but looking up at the 4th class section, I decide that it will be my route to the summit; after all it looks easy.
Even though I climbed it without incident, I can safely say I’ve made better decisions. The fact that I was so tired and carrying a 40 pound pack should have given me pause; I blame this 80% on the AMS and 20% on my being an idiot. I won’t even try to describe the route I took. I ended up in 5.easy territory, chimneying through a 15 foot section and crossing exposed ledges, at a certain point ending up on top of tower which had the benefit of giving me a view of where I needed to go. In the end, I popped out on the summit plateau with the cabin just a few hundred feet away from me.
At the cabin, I take my pack off, take a selfie, sign the register, sit in the shade and try to eat and drink a bit. The hard part is over with.
The Whitney Trail back down
Getting back to Whitney Portal is a ~17km hike and loses ~6000′ of elevation. I’ve already made the decision that I won’t stop to camp for another night, so I don’t spend much time on the summit.
WHAT A HIKE! By far the most beautiful trail I’ve been on which makes hauling my pack over the mountain like I did seem like the good decision. The 99 switchbacks which I wasn’t looking forward to because it sounds so awfully boring are a pleasure with stunning views on all sides. Down to Trail Camp, I stop every few hundred feet to take in the views. As I lose elevation, I start to feel better and my pace finally quickens.
I finish the day in the dark, needing about 6 hours to get down to Whitney Portal from the summit of Whitney.
The track logs
Note: The km/miles are off because my watch was set to take a reading every second which means that when I was stopped to rest it was measuring me as moving (GPS inaccuracy). I would have to apply some track smoothing to get a better representation of the hike … but don’t really want to bother.
- Day 1: You can see the clusterfuck I got myself into around Upper Boyscout Lake. http://www.strava.com/activities/217095243 or http://connect.garmin.com/modern/activity/629199614
- Day 2: The section inside the gully and on the 4th class section are very imprecise because my watch lost its GPS lock. http://www.strava.com/activities/217095329 or http://connect.garmin.com/modern/activity/629199764
For the gear junkies (which I am part of) out there, here’s what I had with me:
- OR Alpine Bivy: I HATE that there is only a zipper at the top instead of a full length one.
- Mountain Hardwear Lamina – Long (-30): Heavy, but warm and inexpensive.
- Big Agnes insulated Air Core mattress: I like my beauty sleep so prefer this to a foam mattress.
- Petzl Charlet ice axe: I didn’t end up needing it.
- Black Diamond Serac crampons: I didn’t need these either
- Camp helmet
- La Sportiva Trango Ext. Evo Light GTX: I love these boots. They are light, and great to climb with. Unfortunately, they aren’t that warm, but on this trip they were fine.
- Marmot softshell pants
- Goretex hardshell jacket
- Goretext pants
- Mountain Hardware Kelvinator down jacket
- Extra pair of socks, mid-layer fleece, gloves, mits, hat
- Fenix 2 watch
- Nexus 2 tablet : To watch a movie during the long evening alone
- Levin Solstar solar charger panel : To recharge my phone and watch during the night
- Food for two days : fruit bars, cliff shots, two dehydrated meals, instant oatmeal packs, etc
- MSR Superfly burner and medium-sized gas canister
- Titanium pot to boil water
- Two one liter nalgenes and water purifying tablets
- Aspirin, benadryl and cold medicine (you never know)
- Matches, map, compass, multi-tool
- Osprey Aether 85l pack
What I’d do differently:
- Bring gaiters; while scrambling in the deep snow, my feet got very wet because of snow penetrating from the top of the boot. This set the stage for a soggy next day. Thankfully I had a second pair of socks and foot warmers.
- An extra shirt; god dammit I stank on the second day.
- I’ll be getting a different type of water purifying system; the water tastes nasty with the tablets and I feel I wasn’t drinking as much as I should have because of it.