Mount Whitney (14,494 ft)
Pictures on the MITOC Gallery: http://mitoc.mit.edu/gallery/main.php?g2_itemId=20613
Mount Whitney – Via Mountaineer’s Route (Class 3)
We called this trip one of our 4 biathalons of the summer, involving as much biking as mountaineering. We didn’t have a car, but luckily a bus took us (and bikes) to the town of Lone Pine, (elevation 3500 ft) 13 miles from the trailhead (elevation 8300ft). With a 50-lb pack each and 5-speed, yard-sale bikes, we took off up the road.
Matthew started out with a prominent “Mount Whitney” sign hanging from his pack, hoping a friendly truck-driver would pass by and offer us a ride, but after a couple miles we both agreed that we couldn’t be that lazy to accept a ride, so we toughed it out for the whole 4000ft+ climb.
Now, the hardest part of getting up Mount Whitney must be figuring out how the permit system works and somehow getting one for the day you want to hike. Unfortunately, we couldn’t get a permit (there’s some lottery in February that we didn’t enter). However, I discovered a sort of loop-hole that if you climb the mountaineer’s route in a day, you don’t need a permit. This is not a trail, and the rangers who told me about it laughed at me, saying “no one does that in a day”. It’s a class 3 route marked intermittently with cairns and vague user-paths and can get pretty sketchy in places. Next year you’ll need a permit to do it in a day (the rangers have finally found the loop-hole), but that didn’t affect us.
We got to the trailhead on a Saturday afternoon and were greeted with hordes of tourists and a
campground with a fat $16-per-night fee. Staying two nights there would have cost 4 days food wages for us poor volunteers, so we instead snuck into the woods and found our own asphalt-free campsite.
We were pretty tired from all that biking, so we slept in til 4:30 the next morning and started our climb at 5. I was excited about the route, since we had encountered a few people the other day that had to turn back and warned us we would have trouble. The only problem we found at the beginning of the route was that there wasn’t enough sunlight. We had to zigzag up some steep ledges (called the Ebersbacher ledges) that were several inches wide in some places next to a 300ft drop, but that posed no difficulties.
After the ledges we skirted an alpine lake, scrambled over a talus field, and made it to Upper Boyscout lake in time for a water break. I was surprised to catch up to a group 5 Indian hikers trudging slowly up from the lake, obviously not aclimated and having a tough time. They said they had left that morning (that must have been a serious alpine start) and were planning on doing the route in a day. I gave them 1 in 10 odds of succeeding.
As it turned out, that was the only group of hikers we saw on the whole ascent, which really surprised me considering that hundreds of people take the main trail every day, especially on a weekend. We continued up perhaps another thousand feet until we reached Iceburg lake and our first good look at Whitney (it’s pretty deep in the Sierra range, hidden by a bunch of other peaks). From our view it was basically a vertical face with no obvious way up. By then we had started hearing “Off Belay!” about every 10 minutes and saw a group of rock climbers about 1/3 the way up on some class 5 route. Luckily, we knew there was a safer way.
To the right of the face there was a really steep couloir, half-covered in snow, but with decent handholds
in the rock. This was the place where we’d heard we might need helmets, in case careless climbers above us dislodged rocks in an area of scree, but since we beat everyone else to the couloir it would only be them worrying about our rocks. We ditched our hiking poles and ascended about a thousand feet, trying to stay on the rocks but eventually pushing through the soft snow.
At the top of the couloir we gazed west at the last stretch of the climb – a 500 ft snowfield traverse wrapping around to the summit. This was the place where one mountaineer died several years ago after slipping on the snow, and it was definitely a no-fall zone. Unfortunately, we didn’t have any ice axes (in hindsight MITOC would have been a good source for them), so we decided to climb some class 4 rocks instead to get around the snow/ice. Perhaps that wasn’t so wise, since the rocks were icy too, but it worked out.
By then it was about 9:30 in the morning and we were just about at the top. As usual we had about halved the ascent time predicted by my internet guide printout, and we were ready for an awesome view. We climbed up the last boulder and were met with a big cloud bank to the east and about 15 other hikers posing for pictures (Mount Washingtonesque for sure).
I thought we would be some of the first climbers up there, but in the summit register I counted at least 40 other names – and more people kept pouring in! (They must have camped about 2 miles from the top).
After taking the obligatory shirtless summit photos and 1.5 hours of relishing the fact that we were the
tallest objects in the lower 48 states, we finally headed down the main trail. (We found out that in our circumstances we could descend the 11-mile trail permitless since descending the mountaineer’s route was rather dangerous).
I noticed on the map that there happened to be another 14er (Mt. Muir) near the trail, so we decided we might as well bag it too. The rest of the descent was really easy – we boot-skied down snow when we could find it, and otherwise passed about 50 people also descending.
The next day we finally got our reward for the trip – 4,000ft+ vertical feet of descent over 13 miles of road by bike (see videos above). We didn’t even touch the pedals. It was the long-awaited “downhill stage of the Le Tour de Whitney.”