Ascent of Mount Whitney on 2016-03-05

Climber: Dan Schneider

Others in Party:Damon Landau
Date:Saturday, March 5, 2016
Ascent Type:Successful Summit Attained
Peak:Mount Whitney
    Elevation:14498 ft / 4418 m

Ascent Trip Report

Climbed to Trail Camp on Friday through plenty of snow. No real tracks to follow due to storm the previous week and high winds in prior days. We did plenty post holing, even quite low on the trail. We saw only one other party on the mountain. This was between Mirror Lake and Trail camp, but that group turned around well before reaching Trail Camp. At camp, the wind had blown snow into large drifts, which meant no level spots to pitch a tent. We dug out a level platform and piled blocks of snow into a wind break around the tent. We settled in early on Friday to get a good night's sleep, but the wind blew wave after wave of snow over our windbreak all night, causing me to have to spend a significant amount of time during the night holding the walls of the tent out. By morning, the space between the wind break and tent was piled high with snow and the tent's footprint was clearly diminished. Neither of us slept more than a couple hours in total. We then got up and moving around 4:00 or 4:30. The cold weather made my headlamp batteries very weak, and as a result, we wasted a lot of time wandering around on the wrong slope while looking for the trail below the switchbacks in a light snow storm, heavy cloud cover (meaning conflicting positioning reports from my GPS) and total darkness. Once the first rays of light hit the area and we could make out the outlines of the peaks in the area, we quickly recognized our error and headed for the chute. We decided on this route based on a trip the previous November which showed that the switchbacks were impractical in the snow conditions we were in. On the back side of Trail Crest, the trail was quite snowy in most areas, completely bare in others, and covered with giant conical drifts in other areas requiring us to traverse well outside the area of the trail on our front points before rejoining the trail on the other side. We encountered 5 or 6 of these situations with varying levels of snow consolidation and exposure. We found (perhaps only coincidentally) that the ones which were on areas of trail running east and west with exposure to the north were the least consolidated and had the steepest angles. At any rate, these areas slowed our progress significantly as we made our way to the peak. We ended up summiting around 11:00 AM, taking a couple photos, and heading into the hut for a quick snack before making our way down. We had been in questionable weather all morning with heavy fog and high winds. We also knew that a heavy snow storm was coming fairly early in the afternoon, so we weren't wasting time at the peak. We had some relief from the weather at the summit, and the sun actually came out just in time for a couple of photos. As soon as we left the hut though, the snow started and the combination of that with the low clouds wind blown snow, we were in a very low visibility situation. We were able to follow our foot prints down to an area where the trail became well defined and we made good progress all the way back to trail crest where I removed my crampons to glissade down the chute. After the climb to the peak and back, both of us were very tired and the chute is very long. This meant that when the snow consistency changed on the way down or when the axe hit a hard spot in the snow or a chunk of ice I was unable to keep the axe in the snow, causing me to gain huge amounts of speed very quickly. At one point I took several tumbles and covered a lot of ground a lot quicker than I intended before self arresting and digging snow out of my shirt and coat. We then went back to camp, melted snow to refill our bottles, packed up, and got out of there as fast as we could manage in order to beat the storm. This included several extra miles because Whitney Portal road was closed well before the trail head. We ended up making it back to the car at about 9:00 PM, completely drenched and very tired and sore. If you go up there while the road is closed but the gate isn't locked, here's a pro tip: drive past the sign, put your packs in the food storage lockers at the trail head, drive back to the lot on the other side of the sign to avoid a ticket, then walk up the road or trail to retrieve your pack. It will cut several miles off of your trip where you have to carry a heavy winter pack.

My GPS track for this ascent has too many points to load into the site, but if you would like to use it for a trip of your own, please let me know and I'll send it to you.
Summary Total Data
    Route Conditions:
Road Hike, Maintained Trail, Unmaintained Trail, Open Country, Snow on Ground, Snow Climb
    Gear Used:
Ice Axe, Crampons, Ski Poles, Tent Camp
    Nights Spent:1 nights away from roads

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