Spring on The Main Mt. Whitney Trail
On May 12, 2007 our group signed the Mt. Whitney Summit Register. This trip was literally years in the making. My partners and I had 4 years of ice axe and crampon experience, that is, SoCal crampons and ice axe experience. This means we used these tools a lot in 2004, 2005, 2006 but hardly at all in 2007.
This is the first year we really felt comfortable with the idea of going up the chute and working our way from Trail Crest to the summit. The following is to give an idea of how to plan and execute a trip with a bit of pucker factor.
The original idea behind this trip was a warm up to Mt. Shasta but not having enough people willing to share the driving and expenses got in the way of that idea so, this became our big adventure for 2007.
Since the winter in 2007 was non-existent we felt comfortable with an early to mid May weekend. Since May is not all that popular with the snowphobics, we knew permit availability would not be an issue; therefore, we did not make a reservation.
A couple of weeks prior to the trip, we started to peruse the Internet for MMWT trip reports and pictures. There was enough information to allow us to fine tune our gear and clothing list. After that, it was on to the National Weather Service for a forecast and California Water Resource Board's Cottonwood Lake Reporting Station for real time temperatures at 10,000'. Armed with all this information, we were properly geared and clothed for a trail which was clear of snow almost all the way to Trail Camp, temperatures in teens and had the right gear to go up a 1,000' on a 69% slope.
Day One (Thursday)...We left SoCal at about 5 PM with the idea of having dinner along the way and to spend the night somewhere between Portege Joe's and Whitney Portal depending on the temperature, we ended up at Whitney Portal because it was too warm to stay lower.
Day Two (Friday)...We were up early, pack up the stuff, head into town for breakfast...everyone wanted a Portal Store Pancake but it did not work out time wise, picked up ice so the beer would be ice cold upon our return and then it was over to the InterAgency Visitors Center to wash up and pick up our permits. Make sure you get enough ice for your beer so you don't end up with warm beer...this cannot be emphasized enough.
It was then back to Whitney Portal to finish packing and make last minute decisions on gear and clothing. We all brought more clothes and gear than we needed and made a lot of last minute decisions at the trailhead...per normal. Then it was up the trail at 10:30 AM, as planned.
After 10 years, it was still exciting heading up the MMWT, made even more exciting knowing we would not be seeing many folks because of the time of year and our Friday start.
Everyone talks about the 97 Switchbacks but the lower section of this trail is series of switchbacks that eventual get you to Lone Pine Creek and nearly 10,000'. It is the last series on this lower section that are the pain. It is totally exposed chaparral and it is always warm even when the temperatures are mild, like this day.
The trail now meanders around Lone Pine Lake until reaches the Bighorn Park switchbacks and the first meaningful snow on the trail but nothing to get excited about or bring any tools out of the pack. We decided it was in our best interest to eat lunch below the Outpost Camp Waterfall on Lone Pine Creek before last 2.5 miles and 1,600' of climbing to Trail Camp. We all added a quart of water for the most difficult part of the trip.
There were a few slushy climbs from Mirror Lake to the treeline but nothing to get really excited about. We were wondering if the trail would be clear above Trailside Meadow or would we have to go directly up the hill to Consultation Lake like we did in February. The trail had some slushy snow but this presented zero problems.
We pulled in Trail Camp 5 hours after we started up the trail and found one of the few dry campsites just beyond where the late unlamented Trail Camp Solar Latrine use to stand. We set up camp, then it was time for some adult beverages and our traditional Trader Joe's Torte.
When the sun went down it brought the cold and the howl. Therefore, it was time to attempt sleep...the wind and the elevation won, none of us slept much.
Day 3 (Saturday) - We got up with the sun, screwed around a bit and finally got started at 7:30. This was our first time taking the chute up so, we just followed the tracks of those who had gone before us. We started up early enough that snow supported our weight all the way to Trail Crest...this would have been absolutely no fun if we had postholed most of the way. From Trail Crest, we played off with the crampons and on with the crampons for the next couple hours until we reached the summit at 12:30 PM. We had the summit to ourselves for most of the next 45 minutes...with one day hiker coming up the MR who joined us for a bit.
Then it was back to Trail Crest for the 1,000' glissade. We move down off the shaded Crest to start our glissade run in the sun. What took an hour up took only 10 minutes down. After which, we postholed back to a trail, which led to the lower portion of the Switchbacks.
Day 4 (Sunday) - Time for the boring 6 mile trip back to the truck, ice cold beer, the evil chips, the evil torte and eventually a pizza at The Pizza Factory in Lone Pine.
Do yourself a big favor go the message boards; such as, Whitney Portal and Climber.org to get your current conditions reports. Per normal, we got bogus current conditions information from the folks at the Eastern Sierra InterAgency Visitors Center. They told us the trail was covered with snow and ice above Mirror Lake, it was clear until we reached Consultation Lake. If this were the only time it would not be worth mentioning, it has not been.
If you want a true wilderness experience on the MMWT do this trip mid-week in May or June or after the first big dump in the fall after it consolidates.
I did not bring a summit pack and was stuck using my 7 pound Gregory Palisades during our summit push, the top lid summit pack does not work with the type of clothing and gear you need in spring conditions. If I were to do this trip again I would bring my Gregory Z-30 day pack.
Our only advice is to only go as high as your skills will allow you to descend.
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