Last week I was looking at the weather and avalanche conditions on Mt Shasta, hoping that I could get back up there to do some more climbing. Things weren’t looking good. On a whim, I decided to check out the conditions on Mt Whitney. I was supposed to climb down there with my friend Mikey earlier in March but we were shut down by weather, so maybe this weekend? Bingo! Saturday, April 14th looks perfect. I immediately sent out a few texts and the climb was on.
I hit the road from Napa, CA at 6:00 am and was in Lone Pine around 1:00 pm. Mikey was stopping at the ranger station to get the permits and wag bags, so I drove directly to the dirt parking lot at the base of the mountain to wait.
We knew Portal Road was going to be closed but there was only a sign blocking the way. Last time I climbed early in the spring there had been a locked gate across the road. We debated driving around the sign and up the mountain but decided against it. The extra hike was “good training” anyway. At around 4:00 pm on Friday the 13th, we started hiking up the road. We hadn’t walked more than 2 minutes when a man in an Inyo County truck came driving down the road. He stopped and told us we could drive much higher up the road if we wanted. No need to walk from the bottom. With his OK, we ran back to the van and drove up the mountain. About halfway up to the trailhead, we started to see a few vehicles parked on the side of the road, and then we ran into the locked gate. We parked on the side of the road with the others and continued hiking up the road, happy that we were able to drive up so much higher. It was still a 1.75 mile trek up the road to the trailhead, but we still saved a lot of time and energy.
We hiked up the Whitney Trail and then cut off at the North Fork Creek to continue up the Mountaineer’s Route. The hike was beautiful in the spring sunset light and went by very quickly. We reached Lower Boyscout Lake around 7:00 pm and took a quick breather while discussing whether we wanted to push on higher or bivy here. Agreeing that the snow was very soft and climbing this time of the day would be challenging and that it would be nice to chill and cook dinner while it was still light out, we decided to stop at this lake. We found a nice flat spot that was out of the wind and rolled out our bivy sacks for the night.
After a sleepless night, we started were up and boiling water at 3:30 am. Breakfast and packing up took about an hour and then we were on the go by 4:30 am. By the time the sun was starting to shine, we were up above Upper Boyscout Lake, working our way towards the giant granite pillars. When the terrain flattened out a little, we each found a nice rock to sit on and drop layers and apply sunscreen.
We made it up to Iceberg Lake without any issues. Once there, we again dropped more layers. The sun was now out in force and reflecting directly off the Mountaineer’s Route Couloir into our faces. I was a little chilly starting up from here in a t-shirt, but I knew I would be hot in a minute. I was right. By the time we were a couple hundred feet up the couloir, we were in full sun and it felt like it must have been 80 degrees. Radiant heat in the mountains can be intense!
I have never climbed Mt Whitney during permit season, so I don’t know first hand how crowded the mountain can get, but this weekend was the busiest I have seen it. While working our way up the couloir, I counted at least 12 other climbers. And, on the way down, I passed at least another 12. When I was here in April 4 years ago we had the mountain to ourselves. What a difference.
Once past the notch we turned left and climbed up the first snow shoot to the summit. There was a little easy mixed climbing over some rocks and then some steep snow. For the most part, the snow was firm enough that you could kick some pretty solid (although shallow) steps and make steady progress straight up to the summit.
The summit was amazing, as usual. We were the only two up there for out 20 min stay. I was going to boil some snow to top off my water bottle, but Mikey and I were both feeling a little tired and ready to drop a few thousand feet, so I decided to wait until we were back at Iceberg Lake. We walked over to the top of the mountaineer’s route just as three other guys were working their way up to the top. There was also another guided team at the notch, about to start their climb. The way down looked steep and uninviting, especially with other climbers in our path, so we decided to walk down a little and to the North Slope traverse for the descent.
The snow on the North Slope was hard. My crampons would stick, but I wasn’t punching through at all. Then, occasionally, I would hit a patch where there was some dry powdery snow on top of ice and my feet would start to slide. I knew that a slip here would be very hard to arrest and I would go sliding down the face and over some cliffs. This section objectively wasn’t that challenging, but it was getting into my head for some reason. I made sure I had solid foot placement before every move and kept going to get off that traverse as fast as possible. Although downclimbing our route of ascent looked tricky, I would rather do that than the traverse again.
The rest of the way off of the mountain was the standard slog. The snow was soft in the afternoon heat, causing lots of postholing. We made it all the way down and back to the van around 4:30 pm. 12 hours on our feet from Lower Boyscout Lake to the summit and all the way back down the portal road to the van.
Strava data from day 1: https://www.strava.com/activities/1509010805
Strava data from day 2: https://www.strava.com/activities/1509021717