Mount Whitney Climb

In 1995, my friends and I decided to climb the 14,495 foot Mount Whitney. The mountain had a heavy snowpack from winter, so we knew snowshoes would be mandatory. We planned the climb for several weeks. We drove 500 miles from San Francisco across the California high mountain desert up route 295 listening to U2 singing about streets with no name as we gazed upon the Sierra Mountains. We ate a hearty dinner of buffalo burgers and huge steak fries at the Mount Whitney Restaurant in Lone Pine like it was our last supper before driving up the winding Whitney Portal. The three of us setup camp in the Whitney Portal Parking Lot Campground. It was a cold windy night at 10,000 feet.

We got up early the next day and began the hike up the Mountaineer’s Route. Initially, the snow was 2-3 feet deep. We climbed up a steep canyon. We had to climb over a series of huge boulders. You could hear the running water below us out of sight. There were deep hollow spots under the snow adjacent to the boulders caused by the creek. Half a mile up the canyon we crossed the creek. We climbed up onto a rock ledge marked with a big pine below a row of pines. This ledge led to the Ebersbacher Ledges, a series of ledges that allowed us to escape most of the canyon.  We crossed over a ridge at the top of the canyon and walked to Lower Boy Scout Lake for a needed break.

We continued up the steep hill. The snow was getting deeper, so we put our snowshoes on. Larry and Rob’s snowshoes had bear claws for climbing, while mine did not. The steep grade was tough going. I slipped several times. I was a little woozy from the altitude. One of my snowshoes popped off and I sunk into the snow up to my hips. I took my other snowshoe off and walked in the deep snow known as “post holing” up the hill. Post holing is exhausting, so it showed how the altitude was getting to me. I was dizzy the whole way. We saw signs of recent avalanches to the left and right of us.

We continued on to Upper Boy Scout Lake, it was frozen over and covered with snow. We climbed another steep ridge then rested. The altitude was killing me. We camped next to Iceberg Lake. We setup our tent and attempted to get my Whisper lite stove working. It would not start. While working on the stove our tent nearly blew off the mountain. We tried replacing stove parts, cleaning the jet, but nothing worked. So, it got colder as the sun went down and we all began to shiver.

I remembered my NOLS training. The National Outdoor Leadership School preached about having a backup plan. My backup plan consisted of a dehydrated four person graham cracker crusted peach cobbler.  We added water, ate the cobbler like starving men, and got in our sleeping bags. We got up early and ate a cold breakfast of oatmeal and power bars. I felt better, but the altitude was getting to Rob. Rob and I climbed Mount Shasta the previous year and I got altitude sickness so bad I could not sleep, so this trip we were switching roles. We hiked up into a gully leading to a notch in the Whitney North Ridge. We began climbing up a chute of snow and ice for the last 400 feet on the climb. We were using our crampons, ice axes, and helmets on the climb, but weren’t roped up as we should have been. We noticed evidence of several recent avalanches to the left and right of us.

The climb was getting sketchy as the ice got steeper and steeper. We started experiencing falling rock and ice from the morning sun melting everything. We could hear the snowpack making cracking and crunching melting sounds. We saw, heard and felt a nearby avalanche.  Several large pieces of ice began falling near us. A piece of ice the size of a Volkswagen Bus fell inches in front of us nearly taking us all down the chute to our deaths. We all froze, no one breathed. No one spoke.

We roped up and caught our breath. Talk was not needed as I observed my fellow climbers’ saucer-sized eyes. The conversation was short. We decided to make a hasty exit as the conditions were getting hazardous due to the sun melting everything. Once we got back to our camp, we saw a large avalanche above us. We decided to pack up and head down the mountain based on the avalanches and deteriorating conditions. We glissaded down the mountain using our ice axes for brakes as we slid down on your bottoms using our backpacks for ballast. We learned that he who climbs and runs away lives to climb another day.