Ascent to Mount Whitney-Trail Crest on 2013-08-18

Climber: Marit Chrislock-Lauterbach

Others in Party:Christine Soskins
Date:Sunday, August 18, 2013
Ascent Type:Unsuccessful - Turned Back
Point Reached:Mount Whitney - Trail Crest
    Elevation:13600 ft / 4145 m
    Remaining Elevation:898 ft / 273 m (100% left to go)

Ascent Trip Report

After reporting the rockslide on Lone Pine Peak at the LP Ranger Station, Christine and I checked the weather forecast for our 8/18/13 ascent of Whitney. The chances of Thunderstorms after 11 am had increased to 40%, and upon the Backcountry Ranger's advice, we decided to start our hike at 12:00 am.

Woke up at 11:30 pm for our hike. The nice thing - we expected to be finished by 9 or 10 am, so we didn't have to break camp before our hike. Had we started at our original time of 3 am, this would have been the case.

By 12:02 am we were hiking up the portal. We noticed 3 other parties assembling at the base, and quickly passed one hiker within the first 20 or so minutes up. We continued to see his headlamp for the duration of our hike until we turned.

At one point - maybe 1:30 or 2 am, we saw animal eyes - it didn't move when I banged my poles - but with the faint bit of moon light, we could see that it was a deer. Otherise, there were no animal encountes (thankfully).

Based on the trail map, we were hiking just under 3 mph (2.8 or so) and feeling strong. No stops along the way - just steady routfinding on an EASY trail with the headlamp. Passed trail camp around 3 am at 12000 feet and started working our way steadily up the 97 switchbacks. At approx 13,300 feet I noticed some VERY bright and big lightning across the Owens Valley. I had been watching the starlight during the hike - happy to see no clouds. Sometime around 3 am, things started to cloud up and it was hard (for me) to tell what sort of clouds they were. Temps were cool and I didn't think they were thunderheads or even cumulous clouds - but it was impossible to tell. We kept hiking - around 3:45 am, and at 13,300' we saw lighting. The temps were in the low 40s, upper 30s at this point and the wind picked up. Watched the lightning for a few minutes and decided to keep climbing up. WIthin the next 15 minutes, the tempo of lightning strikes unlike I've ever seen before picked up significantly, and even though we couldn't hear thunder - it was amazing to witness. Impossible to tell which direction it was moving in - so... at 4 am we made the call to turn around. We were at or just below Trail Crest (Christine's GPS read 13,600 feet elevation). It was 4 am. We could see headlamps of MANY parties below us and down at Trail Camp - I was just too concerned about the weather and didn't feel safe alone on the ridge. At one point, we saw what we thought was a headlamp towards the top of Whitney - possibly from the Mountaineers Route - but it was difficult to tell. By 4:50, we started encountering other parties climbing up the switchbacks and were nearly at the base of Trail Crest. We could still see lightning, but it didn't seem nearly as frequent as earlier. As we had already decided to turn around and had a permit for Sept 15, we decided to not wait or second guess our decision, and instead just head back to camp. We made it back to the Portal just shy of 8 am, in time for a massive pancake and a bit of regret (on my part). In the process we saw a beautiful sunrise, watched the clouds clear and dissapate, and figured it would have been lovely on the summit. Sigh. :/

The GOOD - Something felt unsafe (weather), and I didn't feel comfortable with how close the lightning appeared. It was impossible to track the storm and tell exactly which direction it was moving - so I did what I thoguht was best at the time, given what I knew. Also - we LISTENED to the ranger, even though we should have started later. We made excellent time (in the complete dark) to Trail Crest (4 hours) - and I felt great, even at that altitude. AWESOME training day and fun to be in the mountains, regardless. Have a permit for Sept 15 - so that's great. The mountain will always be there.

The BAD - Once we turned around we didn't decide to wait it out. We started too early and I didn't trust in our ability to hike fast and have a later start time. Didn't summit on a day that turned out to be beautiful & we could have made it down okay. Still second guessing - but that's life. I'm probably too freaked out about weather and uncontrollable factors. And I was probably still jumpy from the rockslide on Lone Pine Peak. And I didn't get to see the survey markers on the top. :)

Overall - good day, great workout, had a fun time with my hiking partner and learned from the experience. Listened to myself when something didn't feel right, made a call, and stuck with it. Even though its dissapointing, I still look at this as an overall very positive experience.
Summary Total Data
    Route:Mt Whitney Trail
    Trailhead:Whitney Portal  

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