Whitney et al
(if at first you don't succeed...)

13-17 Apr 2011 - by Steve Eckert

It took two trips to get Mt Whitney via the Mountaineer's Route, and each time I went a day earlier than Matt to get acclimatized. The first time I climbed Carillon and left in the face of a forecast for 50mph wind gusts (Matt went to the desert instead). The second time I climbed Thor as a warmup, then did Whitney with Matt the next day. I'm treating both trips as one because so much of the route was shared.

See the trailhead page for winter road closure and other useful information.
There are waypoints and a map at the bottom of this report.

Mt Carillon 13517

It had snowed recently, and the forecast was for deteriorating weather. Rather than just turn around and drive home I decided to pack in and see if I could squeeze one more day out of the clear skies. Breakfast and deciding to cancel used half the day so I didn't get going until almost noon. Walking up a paved road with a full pack is a drag. Many people had obviously driven around the Road Closed sign but the rangers said the County might ticket cars found up there. Who knows. Locals told me no one gets a ticket for shuttling packs but overnight parking gets you in trouble. I saw cars parked up high and I didn't see tickets. I hate it when the rules aren't really the rules. Except sometimes.

I packed for the long walk, but right before I started up two passenger cars came DOWN (having dropped off many passengers) and a pickup truck prepared to take those two drivers back up. I hitched a ride. The road had some rocks on it, but only one place where they had to drive on the shoulder. They dropped me off where snow blocked the road near the Whitney Portal Campground, shaving over 2 miles and 1000' of gain off the hike in. Nice! Wouldn't take my money but they have my gratitude.

The trail was mostly snow-covered near the Portal but dry by the big switchback. Soon after leaving the main trail at the North Fork of Lone Pine Creek (waypoint NFLPCK) I put on snowshoes after watching someone else posthole. No ledges in April! Just stomp up beside the creek, following a rut in the snow. A large guided group (over a dozen) was doing most of the trail-stomping, but private parties were also headed in. This week the trail crossed to the south side of the stream near 9k but I have no idea why since it was easier walking on the other side and the snow was more solid higher. Everyone seemed to be camping at Lower Boy Scout lake that day, moving to Iceberg Lake the next, and going for the summit on the third day as the weather started to turn. Our intended schedule was one day later but we had already cancelled the Whitney attempt. I was just out for a walk.

Lower Boy Scout was actually crowded, it was only 3pm, and I had already gotten acclimatized on Olancha. I continued up to Upper Boy Scout, arriving just after 4pm (shortly before the sun went behind the peaks). I had the entire cirque to myself, and there were dry rocks and dry sand to camp on (waypoint UPRBOY). Amazing. I slept like a log, glad that the ride had allowed me to get above 11k in just half a day.

Sunrise in the cirque containing Upper Boy Scout Lake
The wind started up pre-dawn the next morning. The forecast wasn't going to be wrong. I left camp at 7am on snowshoes because the snow wasn't solid enough to support crampons. Breakable crust over sugar confirmed that no real consolidation had happened at this altitude, but MSR Lightning Ascents with heel lifters are almost as good as crampons for frozen snow chutes.

I climbed up the chute all the way to the summit plateau, with a few diversions onto sand and boulders for rest stops and steep bits. Traversing toward the Russell-Carillon saddle would have been more efficient, but I followed the ridge to the summit. The wind was a persistent 15mph but it wasn't very cold and there were no clouds.

The register on Carillon (waypoint CARILM, 13517') showed no one had been there since last September. I lounged on top for over an hour, snug behind the windbreaking summit block, as the wind increased to about 25mph. This peak has good lounge chair rocks, and a great view of Russell hulking over Tulainyo Lake and of course Whitney. I returned via the sandy plateau, and glissaded 1200' down the chute (which was no longer frozen).

My route up Carillon, on a picture taken two weeks later
Whitney and Russell from Carillon

Several groups were now camped at Upper Boy Scout, planning to summit the next day, but I don't know if anyone made it. I know for sure that two groups I talked to turned back the next day in what they estimated were 40mph winds (probably higher on the ridges). I also met some experienced climbers who had turned back at the notch due to exhaustion and soft high angle snow on Mt Whitney's upper chute. Just not the right conditions! I packed up, picked up 3 mosquito bites walking down the road, got back to the car around 4pm, and arrived home before midnight.

Thor Pk 12306

Two weeks later, an earlier start from the car, and no ride in site. I brought running shoes for the pavement and carried leather boots. All the rocks had been cleared from the pavement, except two huge boulder groups. A street sweeper made two complete round trips brushing the last vestiges of sand from the pavement, making it all the more annoying that the authorities close a perfectly driveable road while wasting time cleaning lint.

Somewhere in the big switchback a pickup drove by with people in front and in the back, and offered to let me pile on. I did! But we didn't go very far because road crews were drilling blasting holes in large boulders and the driver wisely turned back. The road was clear all the way to the Portal overflow parking when I went in, and 3 days later it had melted all the way to the Portal trailhead where people were parked. Again, no tickets but I didn't want to risk being the one caught in a revenue-driven sweep.

I stashed my running shoes near the trailhead and put on my boots. Others with plastic boots pushed much higher in lighter shoes since the trail was now completely dry. The North Fork turnoff from the main Whitney Trail (waypoint NFLPCK) is well marked, with a secondary sign 100' yards from the main trail warning tourists that this is NOT the main trail. This time I followed more of the use trail since the snow was more melted, but lost it before 9k. No need for snowshoes! The snow had fully consolidated, but was thinning over the willows and the stream. Several people had dropped in past their waist judging from the holes.

Feeling the altitude (and the heat) this time I took a long lunch break at 9.5k. Ah, the joys of not being pressured to overachieve on the first day! This time no one else seemed to be stopping at Lower Boy Scout, where I was to meet Matt the next afternoon. Instead everyone was marching on to Upper Boy Scout Lake so once again I had the place to myself. I dug a trench for my bivy and lounged around waiting for my heart to slow down. Acclimatization fades quickly. I was camped 1000' lower than two weeks before, and not feeling as good.

The next morning I got a late start (730am) and headed up Thor at a moderate pace. It was a crampon climb down low but near the ridge the angle steepened and it was shaded so there was a bit of knee-deep floundering mixed rock-and-snow terrain. Once on the summit ridge northeast of the peak (waypoint THORNE, that big "flat" snowfield you see from the parking lot) I had to switch to snowshoes as the snow turned to soft corn.

Thor has the best 360-degree view of any peak in this area! (Whitney is in the middle and Lone Pine is on both edges of this panorama)

Thor (waypoint THORPK, 12306') gets climbed a lot more than Carillon according to the register. I scoped out Mountaineer's Route from the summit, which has a good view of the whole route, finding a flat spot with dry rocks around 12k where we ended up camping. I phoned home, read The Economist, dawdled, and got back to Lower Boy Scout Lake literally seconds after Matt came around the corner. He missed my 1000' glissade but heard me whooping. Talk about good timing.

Mt Whitney 14491

Since Matt felt fine after climbing 4000' with a pack, and was up for over 1000' more pain (read "gain"), we took a long break while I packed up and then headed uphill. We chose to put on snowshoes for the first time but probably didn't need them since we saw only a few postholes. It took a bit of convincing to get Matt to bypass Upper Boy Scout (11.3k) and continue around the corner to that flat spot I had scoped out (waypoint CMAMP12 at 12k), but we made it by around 4pm. This site had flat dry rocks, flat firm snow, stunning views of the Whitney ridge and sunset/moonrise over Thor, was closer to peak and less crowded, plus it had about an hour more evening sun. We liked it! Other spots were available from here to 12.2k (ILTRAV, another 1/3 mile west) but none were as good.

Sunset and Moonrise over Thor, from our 12k campsite

There were a few rogue gusts of wind overnight. We saw people descending with headlamps at 930pm, and we saw others ascending with headlamps at 430am the next morning. What a freeway! We got up around first light, but didn't get out of camp until after 630am. Camping close meant we didn't need a pre-dawn start so we left camp just after the sun hit us.

I'm not sure about the summer route, but in winter the trail sidehills (above ILTRAV) below what's inappropriately called the Waterfall Pitch (it had no water or ice) to a point due south of Iceberg Lake where it turns north and goes straight up for 100' or so (to waypoint ICEBRG). There were a few tents on the large flat snowfield between there and the lake, and some people camped there had not left camp when we walked by. The true "late starters" campsite!

It was 8am when we stopped to shed a later at 13k where the route steepens. The bottom of the main chute for the Mountaineer's Route is not obvious on a map but it's perfectly clear when looking at the mountain. Head west up the obvious wide chute, which slowly narrows and steepens to the famous notch (waypoint WNOTCH) at just over 14k. The summit (waypoint WHITNM) is just over 14.5k, having been re-surveyed since the USGS maps were printed.

This main chute is in full sun all morning, but shaded in the afternoon. That means you get to climb in mush but it may freeze and keep you from glissading in the afternoon. Better to start earlier than we did, and be back to Iceberg Lake by noon, but we did find using old (read "frozen") boot tracks.

We moved from snow to rock on the right side of the chute before reaching the notch. Others were cramponing up talus, we took our crampons off and stayed out of the looser rock on the left. The wind was fierce at the notch, a stark contrast to the baking hot chute we had been climbing! We needed crampons to turn the corner from the notch south to the upper chute. There were a few tracks traversing further west before turning up, but the snow didn't look great and the runout was awful.

Steve below the main chute (left) and the upper chute including rock band (right)

Just around the corner there was a rock band with no snow. Most people clambered up with crampons still on, as we did, but on the way down we ditched our crampons for this section. With regular boots it's easy 3rd class on the climber's right (east) side of the upper chute to get around the rock band, then time for crampons again.

Some people roped for the entire rock band and upper chute, but I didn't see them setting protection so that just seemed like a suicide pact to me. We were carrying a short (80') static line but didn't ever get it out. It would have been barely enough to rap down over the rock band and/or the final cornice at the top, but really one should have a longer rope (if one ends up wanting to use it).

The upper chute was unconsolidated (never melted) windslab. We swung our axes to plant the picks only right near the rock band. There were some falling ice chunks kicked by other climbers, but the main problem was disorganized kicked steps which chewed up the slope. No specific trail, just a bunch of holes that may or may not fill with drifting crystals and/or crack out. Many people were re-using questionable ice axe shaft holes that weren't deep enough or were too worn to be secure. The windslab was sometimes too soft for a pick to be secure and sometimes too hard for the shaft to sink completely. It was not trivial, but neither was it unsafe. You just had to stay focused and think about each hold.

Perhaps the biggest risk was from the roped but unsecured climbers: If they fell, the rope would most likely spread out and wipe all lower climbers out of the chute. Fortunately there was only one climber that I saw fall, while descending, from the top position of 3 on the rope. He shot past the middle climber almost to the bottom climber before he managed to stop himself just before hitting the rope. I was mildly worried as they were climbing, but freaked out when they set up a completely wrong boot-axe belay on the summit cornice for their descent. I gave them a quick primer on doing it right, which drew a small crowd of people who apparently had read the book but never used it in the real world. The leader belayed the other two, then all 3 moved down while roped but not belayed. It was the leader who fell. Oops. No harm done, but maybe. Another climber told the story of a prior trip where someone had walked out of their plastic boot, which had fallen down the chute with crampon attached, leaving them on 40 degree snow in stocking feet. Not everyone here is qualified to be here.

The crux is at the summit cornice - here Matt is descending the choppy steps

The upper chute varied (given the snowpack we had) from just over 30 degrees near the rock band to a measured 48 degree slope at the top. There was a small cornice which had been worn down in one spot by previous climbers.

The summit plateau (which we reached about 1130am) was not crowded. This was a nice change from summer climbs, and we enjoyed talking to several groups up there. One fellow skied off the top with a parasail, but I missed the launch. Damn! How often can you see THAT above 14k? We were back down to the notch at 120pm, including delays waiting for other climbers on the route, and taking our time we were back in camp by 4pm. The only time we considered using the rope was going back down over the rock band, but taking off crampons was faster and safer.

We decided to risk the incoming weather and wait to hike out the next day. We were duly rewarded with gusty winds through dinner and all night. Some gusts were hard enough to dislodge anything lighter than a water bottle, but we were too lazy to build snow walls so we just waited for the tantrums to end and carried on.

The clouds were ominous the next morning. The summit was enveloped shortly after sunrise, the desert had a variety of cloud shapes including batwings (shredded lenticulars) and black bands. Some parts of breaking camp required one person to hold onto stuff while the other secured it, but as we descended we walked out from under the clouds and the wind died down at lower elevations. We did get some minor snow flurries, and we saw no one going for the summit (still in the clouds), but all that wind faded away with a big salad and milkshake for lunch in Lone Pine. The hike out from 12k, including the road walk, took under 4 hours and I was home for a late dinner.

Map and Waypoints - see also Whitney Portal Trailhead


info Download the Waypoint+ data below as a GPX file for your GPS.

Datum,North America 1983,GRS 80,0,-1.6E-7,0,0,0
RouteName,1 ,BOY SCOUT
RoutePoint,D,PORTAL, 36.5870100260,-118.2396899462,04/15/2003,17:33:13,WHITNEY PORTAL TRAILHEAD 8300
RoutePoint,D,PORTSW, 36.5898714066,-118.2386910915,04/10/2009,19:18:12,PORTAL SWITCHBACK
RoutePoint,D,NOTNFK, 36.5892857313,-118.2425706387,03/27/2011,03:04:53,NOT THE NORTH FOR BUT MAY WORK BETTER
RoutePoint,D,NFLPCK, 36.5868173838,-118.2453179359,04/10/2009,19:17:53,NORTH FORK LONE PINE CREEK
RoutePoint,D,LEDGES, 36.5855931044,-118.2528504133,03/27/2011,03:11:41,CROSS AT 9500 TO EBERSBACHER LEDGES ON NORTH SIDE
RoutePoint,D,LOWBOY, 36.5844492912,-118.2595241070,04/10/2009,19:18:44,LOWER BOY SCOUT LK 10300
RoutePoint,D,CLYDEM, 36.5810033083,-118.2673668861,04/10/2009,19:20:36,CLYDE MDW FORK
RoutePoint,D,UPRBOY, 36.5816148520,-118.2712601423,01/06/2007,17:33:04,CAMPSITES NEAR UPPER BOY SCOUT 11300
RouteName,2 ,MT CARILLON
RoutePoint,D,UPRBOY, 36.5816148520,-118.2712601423,01/06/2007,17:33:04,CAMPSITES NEAR UPPER BOY SCOUT 11300
RoutePoint,D,CARLED, 36.5835700035,-118.2703200579,01/06/2007,17:33:04,LEDGES AT BASE OF CARILLON
RoutePoint,D,CARPLA, 36.5884995461,-118.2723927498,04/26/2011,20:01:11,CARILLON PLATEAU
RoutePoint,D,CARILM, 36.5922399759,-118.2777500153,09/02/2005,14:31:54,5_4 CARILLON MT 13517
RouteName,3 ,THOR PEAK
RoutePoint,D,LOWBOY, 36.5844492912,-118.2595241070,04/10/2009,19:18:44,LOWER BOY SCOUT LK 10300
RoutePoint,D,THORNE, 36.5795274973,-118.2590122223,04/14/2011,15:21:28,NORTHEAST RIDGE OF THOR
RoutePoint,D,THORPK, 36.5766199827,-118.2654500008,09/02/2005,14:31:54,4_8 THOR PEAK 12306
RouteName,4 ,MT WHITNEY
RoutePoint,D,UPRBOY, 36.5816148520,-118.2712601423,01/06/2007,17:33:04,CAMPSITES NEAR UPPER BOY SCOUT 11300
RoutePoint,D,CAMP12, 36.5783599615,-118.2737599611,01/06/2007,17:33:04,GOOD CAMPSITE 12000
RoutePoint,D,ILTRAV, 36.5780049562,-118.2798442841,01/06/2007,17:33:04,ICEBERG LK TRAVERSE
RoutePoint,D,ICEBRG, 36.5793700218,-118.2847299576,04/10/2009,19:19:51,EASY APPROACH TO ICEBERG LK 12600
RoutePoint,D,WNOTCH, 36.5795397758,-118.2937424183,03/27/2011,03:21:01,NOTCH ON NORTH RIDGE
RoutePoint,D,WHITNM, 36.5784800053,-118.2921799421,09/02/2005,14:31:54,4_7 WHITNEY MT 14491

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