Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Hike // Mt. Whitney Main Trail, Inyo National Forest

mt whitney

Sunrise on Mount Whitney from The Chute

Hike Summary
Difficulty Strenuous
Distance 22.1 Miles
Popularity Very Popular
Peak Season Summer
Fees $15 Permit Lottery Fee

Day 2: The Chute

One of the climbers from Iowa I had met the previous day woke me up. "hey, you awake?". I felt god awful. The previous day had been a 12 hour slog from sunup to sunset through sloppy snow. I also had that familiar globe of pain around my head that felt like a big fuzzy helmet and which I knew to be a sign of Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS). So I took my time in responding. "uhh, yeah, just a second" I called out from deep inside my cozy sleeping bag. I rolled out of my tent in my underwear, chugged some water, and rested for a few minutes from all the exertion.

Shallow breathing while asleep can sometimes trigger acute mountain sickness (AMS) in the night, and I was very concerned exactly that's what had happened to me. I finally roused myself, and walked over to my new climbing partner and let him know I was going to start up later in the day. I didn't want to push it. The mountain would be there next year I told myself, no need to do anything stupid.

The camp was buzzing. Although I had not really talked to many other climbers the night before everyone seemed to be on the same page. Get up at the buttcrack of dawn and climb on rock solid snow. As the first groups started to leave - around 3:00 AM - I actually started to feel better. I had been lucky enough so far not to have to climb alone, but my headache had kept me out of action just long enough to fall behind. I watched the trail of headlamps walk off into the dark, only a faint outline of the peaks, lit by the moon could be seen. I finally set off half an hour after the rest of them on the hour long march towards The Chute.

the chute

Climbers headlamps behind me heading up to The Chute

I'd never hiked in crampons before so I wobbled around like a new born calf (with metal spikes on their feet) following the tracks of the other climbers up the mountain. I was surprised at how even after losing the fresh crampon tracks of the previous group I ended up time after time following them ahead. The air got very thin, very quickly and the chilly 30 degree morning was not helping. The cold cut right through my jacket and insulation layer. I focused on deep breaths, in through the nose, out through the mouth. Right foot, left foot, ice axe, right foot, left foot ice axe. I was in the rhythm of the climb. All thoughts drifted out of my head, and all I could do was smile. Still, moving inches seemed to take hours

mt irvine

Moon above Mt. Irvine before dawn.

The Chute

Two speedy climbers breezed past me right as I reached the bottom of The Chute. It really made me feel inadequate. I could no longer see the first group and suddenly feared I was falling way behind. I did not realize up to this point how comforting it was following the dim light of about 30 headlamps heading up the mountain. The sun was just beginning to rise over the Inyo Mountains in the east. A band of color was all that established the horizon. I peered over to the right and caught the silhouette of two climbers working their way up the Mountaineers Route far away on the other side of the summit. They were close.

The snow was great and if I had a clue what I was doing this would have been a glorious morning. My crampons dug in and gripped the snow slope perfectly until I'd wobble and slip. I kept marching on up to the base of the chute right as the sun rose. That sunrise on Mt. Whitney is perhaps one of the most glorious events I have witnessed. First the tips of the peaks were colored an orange pink, then the suncupped snow around me began to glow with the first rays of the sun. Long shadows only enhanced the drama of the morning. Eventually the whole world exploded with the warmest light.

mt muir

Sunrise on Mt. Muir

Sadly I was already exhausted and only dimly aware of how beautiful the world around me was as I continued to climb on and on, left foot, right foot, ixe axe. I took a brief rest at the bottom of a rocky moraine down the middle of the chute before marching on. I looked back several times, my elevation above flat ground was increasing and I began to get nervous as the slope began to climb to a steeper and steeper grade. Now my lungs were hurting more and more as the deep breaths of freezing cold, thin air were beginning to scorch my lungs causing my pain even on shallow breaths. My lungs fought back with a wheezy, flegmy cough. I thought to myself about the promises I made before this trip, that I would turn around if things got dicey. I continued on a few steps, and when another wave of concern hit me I took stock of my situation.

I was climbing on a slope I was not fully comfortable with, in icy conditions, a slip now would send my screaming to the bottom of the snow slope. At this point a fall probably wouldn't kill me, but I wouldn't be able to walk myself off the mountain. Additionally my lungs didn't sound good, and some signs red flags for AMS were there too, my fingers were starting to tingle inside my gloves. It was time to call it quits. I figured I could continue a bit longer, but there was no way I was making it to the top.

If I was this exhausted and scared now - and only half way up - how was I ever going to make it to Trail Crest.


I cut some steps with my ice axe into the snow and sat down to take off my crampons. I found a nice run out and began to glissade. Lesson learned: don't glissade on hard snow, it does not go well. It does not go well at all. My axe would either grip in the snow so hard it jerked me to a sudden stop or it would skitter along the top failing to even slow me down. Twice it jumped out with such force it flipped me over on my back while trying to self arrest. The slick snow caused me to gain speed rapidly, with each drop my arms wore out more and more. I'm shocked I didn't tear a muscle on one of these hard stops.

the chute

Mt. Muir from my turnaround point on The Chute.

Finally I reached the bottom of the chute, marched over a few rocks and hauled back to camp. Several groups were waiting outside their tents and offered me grub and water. I told them my story and crawled back into my sleeping bag, ready for a nap, exhausted.

I woke up awhile later and checked in on Brooke and the other climber from Iowa, soon we were all chatting and enjoying the morning. Mid-morning Brooke decided she was feeling well enough to attack the mountain - in the slushy conditions she made it up to trail crest even without crampons but felt nervous on the ice near the Keeler Needle and turned back. While she was gone I watched Marmots in camp before finally departing around noon.

whitney marmot

Marmot near Trail Camp.

I was very sore all over from glissading that morning, but the mountain decided to add injury to injury as I worked my way down the sloppy snow. I must have fallen 50 times, alternating between slipping and falling flat on my butt and flopping over on my side under my heavy pack. Around 3pm I marched back into Portal having blazed down the mountain with absolute determination. I felt like a parade should be been waiting for me at the bottom. I changed outside my car and headed over to the Portal Store for perhaps the best meal of my life, a giant Veggie burger with a mound of greasy (but fresh) fries and a cold beer. It was my own kind of victory.

By 4pm, I was on the road, I nodded off a few times driving down 395, the scenery is beautiful but the road is hardly engaging. In Bishop I stopped and got an energy drink to keep me awake. My plan was to crash someplace outside Yosemite but soon enough I was on the Tioga Pass and blazing through Tuolumne Meadow. At Olmstead point I caught the sunset on Half Dome, rounding out a nearly perfect day. It was dark for the rest of the drive, but I wasn't even sleepy. I was just basking in the energy of a nice day in the mountains. Around 1am: 22 hours after I woke, I finally pulled up to the house. I threw on my 40 pound pack one more time, and stalked my way inside the door, collapsing in bed waiting for some epic delayed muscle soreness to kick in the next day.

Go back to Day 1: Whitney Portal to Trail Camp

Mt. Whitney Gear List

half dome


  1. Hope you make it next time Chris. Remember, the mountain will always be there.

    Next time, spend at least one more day acclimating before you go. It will be time well spent.

  2. The plan was actually to spend a couple days camping at Horseshoe Meadows, maybe even taking a crack at Mt. Langley, it just all kind of fell apart at the last minute.

  3. randall/ san diegoJuly 14, 2010 at 11:12 PM

    I have done Mt. Whitney twice before, and Mt. Langley. Didn't have a problem with those trips because had backpacked at least 30+ miles each time before summiting from the backside (Guitar Lake). However last year I tried straight up the front, 1 overnight @ Outpost Camp.

    Started experiencing altitude symptoms that night. By morning, so bad, I couldn't drink ANY fluids or eat anything (would'a puked). Made it to 14,000' before almost passing out. I might've made the top, but wouldn't have been able to make it down (alive). Had to turn around. 1st time I'd not completed a hike. :(

    I'm going back up Whitney this Sunday 7/18. If anyone reading this runs into me Sunday or Monday, I'll be the one with the renewed kick in his step. I just picked up some "Dexamethasone". Happy Trails. Yippie.

  4. Outpost camp looked tough logistically, it's at least 2 hours between Outpost and Trail Camp (at least it was in snow, I'm not sure how that shakes out on a nice dry trail).

    From trail it's a good 5 hours to the summit (again, these are snow times, I can't speak to times on a dry trail). If you're smushed against a deadline and trying to get in before dark that gives you a lot of incentive to push it hard and that's when the altitude will lay the hurt on you.