MT. WHITNEY WINTER ASCENT
Luba, Ed, Jose, Doug H., and Chris R. pose at the trailhead
Those are some heavy-looking packs!
Negotiating the Ebersbacher Ledges
Following the tracks towards Mt. Whitney
Nearing the summit
So close, they can smell it
Chris, Luba, and Jose on the summit... highest point in the lower 48 states!
The aiguilles (needle-like spires) and Mt. Whitney
A dramatic view of Mt. Whitney from farther down
The idea to climb the Mt. Whitney Mountaineers Route in late winter/early spring was hatched in late 2009 to help kick start another season of Sierra climbing and maintain the LVMC namesake. Our group included five veteran LVMC members: Ed Forkos, Luba Leef, Doug Hladky, Jose Witt and Chris Ransel. The plan was to hike the 2-2.25 miles from Whitney Portal (8350’) to Upper Boy Scout Lake (11,300’) on Friday, April 16th, summit Saturday, then hike out and drive home on Sunday. This was an aggressive plan that required good weather and ideal conditions to successfully summit. Our group was strong and the weather outlook looked good; everything seemed to be falling into place.
Our trip started in Lone Pine on the evening of April 15th. Doug, Jose and I arrived around 8:00 pm and quickly found dinner at the Pizza Factory. Ed and Luba arrived earlier that evening and had already eaten, moved into their hotel room, and collected beta from a local source. While Doug, Jose and I were carb loading at the pizza joint, Ed called to discuss some disheartening information he had received. He talked to the owner of the Whitney Portal Hostel who said the Whitney Portal Road was closed and that a commercial was being shot on the road with support from CHP. I had read postings about the road closure on the Portal Store message board but most people were saying that driving around the road closed sign was no big deal and no one was likely to stop you. The news of the commercial and CHP had us worried that we would not be able to get up the road at all or that we would have to hike an extra three miles just to get to the trailhead. Fortunately the hostel owner said that we had a good chance of getting around the film crew and the CHP if we headed up the road before 7:00 in the morning. So we decided to meet at 6:00 am and head up the road in hope of beating the film crew and the CHP. All was good again.
After dinner we headed to the Whitney Portal Hostel to get a good night sleep. When we arrived we had our chance to probe the hostel owner for extra beta. We got the same story about leaving early to beat the film crew but he also mentioned that there could be as many as one hundred people climbing the Mountaineers Route that Saturday. This was troublesome because the lower part of the gully is a very loose and if not snow covered can be a shooting gallery of rock fall. Too many people on a single route can kill the fun of a climb due to slow groups, pushy groups, inexperienced groups, and additional dangers from climber-triggered rock fall. We waffled a little bit and thought about doing some other peaks. After a couple of minutes we decided that we were only prepared for Whitney and that we would make a decision at the trailhead.
The next morning included an early rise and breakfast in the only place that was open at 5:30 am, McDonalds. After breakfast we met Luba and Ed behind the Whitney Restaurant and started our drive to Whitney Portal. The alpine start worked as there were no camera crews or CHP in site. The road closed sign was not much of a barrier so we were on our way to the Portal without any problems.
Whitney was visible from the road in the early morning light and it looked like the gully was full of snow. This was a good sign and things were looking up again. Then we arrived at the trailhead parking lot. There were 30 to 40 cars and a large amount of people preparing their gear for the climb. Several groups had already started up the trail so there was a good chance that we would be joined by one hundred people as we went for the summit on Saturday. At that point we figured we could at least get a good workout getting up to Upper Boy Scout Lake (UBSL) and then reassess our summit attempt later. As we started up the trail we were joined by 25 or so folks who had all linked up as one group through the Whitney Portal Store message board. They all thought we were part of their group so when we moved, they moved and when we stopped, so did they. This went on for a while until we took our first break in the lower part of the gully leading to Lower Boy Scout Lake (LBSL). We let them pass and then followed their lead up to the Ebersbacher Ledges. Fortunately they were a fast group and knew the route well so we did not see them again until we arrived at LBSL.
The rest of the day was relaxing with a little 3rd class scrambling to gain the Ebersbacher Ledges, a short snow section up to LBSL and then a steep snow slog to UBSL. The snow was firm and did not require snowshoes. This was good because we decided to leave them in the cars as was the consensus with all of the groups in the parking lot. We made camp in five hours and had plenty of daylight to prepare tent platforms, melt water, and enjoy the warm Sierra sun before climbing into the sleeping bags.
Our summit plan was an alpine start with a 5:00 am wakeup and on the trail by 6:00 am. We missed our start by a little but we were ahead of the other 15 or so people who had also set up camp at UBSL. The route from UBSL to Iceberg Lake is beautiful as Crooks and Keeler Needles start to appear. Then, little by little the massive East face of Whitney opens up in front of you and the lower part of the Mountaineers Route becomes visible. Iceberg Lake (12,500’) offered a good rest stop to grab some food, hydrate, put on crampons, and watch other groups start up the steep lower gully of the Mountaineers Route.
The climb from Iceberg to the summit follows a 30-40 degree snow gully to a notch at 14,000’. From the notch, a short, but steep, 45-60 degree, snow slope and a little exposed 3rd class climbing leads to the summit plateau. We were fortunate to have very good snow conditions in both the lower and upper gullies. With the number of groups on the route ahead of us there was a well-broken trail from Iceberg to the notch and from the notch to the summit plateau. Ascending the lower gully to the notch took about 2.5 hours. The notch was starting to get busy with other climbers when we arrived and many groups were right behind us. Several groups were already climbing the upper gully with one group placing rock protection for the 3rd class rock section. We made the decision to start climbing as soon as the group placing protection started to bring up its second climber. This proved a good decision because a line of climbers formed on the route below as soon as we reached the summit plateau.
The summit (14,505’) was a short five-minute walk from the point where we exited the upper gully. We summited right at noon under a clear blue sky, no wind and a warm temperature. We made another important decision to limit our time on the summit so we did not get caught descending with the large group that was coming up behind us. After some quick summit photos, we began our descent, arriving at the upper gully exit point just as the last members of the large group reached the summit plateau. The descent of the upper gully was equally difficult physically as was the climb up. The snow was fairly deep and each step down required a plunge of the ice axe below the hip to provide a self belay so we could kick the next set of steps. The route was deteriorating and I was happy that we were not descending behind the large group. Later I learned that they set up rappels to descend the steep upper gully to the notch.
It is always a relief to have the most difficult parts of a climb behind you. Once we reached the notch we were at that point but still had 2700’ of steep, slushy snow between us and our camp at UBSL. The remainder of the day was a plunge-step festival as we descended the upper gully and traversed under the cliffs below Iceberg Lake. We reached camp around 3:00 pm for a respectable 8.5 hour summit day. Dinner soon followed and then more restless sleep before another early wake up and a quick 2.5 hour hike to the Whitney Portal.
We were lucky to have good weather, great spring snow conditions, and a fit group of climbers. The crazy amount of people on the route was the only drawback of the trip. Maybe in the future there will be a quota system for all but the deepest winter months. If you are looking for a quiet Alpine climb in the Sierra high country, Whitney in spring is not for you.
Henry, Jennifer, and Gordon on Mormon Peak
Our three vehicles as we stop to enjoy and photograph the scenery
The drive to the trailhead involved crossing a stream about a foot deep and 20 feet wide
The group heads up the slope with a dramatic unnamed peak in the background.
Jennifer approaches the summit.
Close-up of the desert tortoise in the middle of the road
Dramatic cliffs along Meadow Valley Wash
Six LVMC members summitted Mormon Peak on Saturday, May
8, 2010. We met at 5am in the dark at the Cannery and proceeded towards
the Mormon Mountains shortly after. Once in Meadow Valley Wash, Henry
and Gordon somehow ended up as the lead car on the two-track road and
stopped many times to photograph the spectacular desert blooms. The frequent
stops were to the delight of the attending botanist and the chagrin of
the more hard-core hikers in the following cars.
At the top, we ate our lunches, took many photos, and
enjoyed ourselves reading the dozen entries in the trail register at the
top. Of the two notebooks available, we must have selected the less-filled
one as only two LVMC groups had signed it prior to our group - once in
2004 and again in 2008.
The group arrived back at the vehicles unscathed late afternoon. On the trip out, we nearly ran over a desert tortoise patiently waiting for the rains to come and fill the tire track with water. After 15 minutes of picture taking (apparently desert tortoises make good posers because they think we can't see them if they don't move), Gordon gently removed the desert tortoise from the road. The caravan was held up yet again when a small desert mammal tried to race Henry and Gordon in front of their vehicle. Then, a few minutes later, we enciuntered a rattlesnake in the road. Henry boldly used a trekking pole to move the rattler off the edge of the road. The rattlesnake was not happy... it was rattling so loudly that we could hear it as we drove past with the windows rolled up!
Once on the main graded road, Henry and Gordon attempted to find an alternative driving route out of Meadow Valley Wash, only to be thwarted by the Union Pacific's locked gates. After several confusing mis-attempts, it was decided to go back the way we originally came and we were able to arrive back in Vegas after sunset. In the end, it was a lovely day and an incredible hike in one of our more remote mountain ranges.
Why did the tortoise cross the road?
Hold up... rattlesnake in the road!
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