Most of the anxiety about hiking the Main Mt. Whitney Trail centers on two areas, the Cables and "Windows". These two items are not even close to being the most dangerous thing you will encounter on the trail. The most dangerous thing to your health and well being on the Mt. Whitney Trail is...YOU!!
You make all the decisions starting with the when. Many think the Sierra is an extension of SoCal mountains, as in, if there ain't no snow on the south face of Mt. Baldy, there ain't snow anywhere in California. Let me assure you the Eastern Sierra can hold snow into August after a winter seeing above normal precipitation, July after a normal winter and into late June after a record setting dry winter. I don't know how many times we get questions about utilizing ice axe and crampons for the first time at Mt. Whitney. If your trip is May, June or the first half of July it makes a lot of sense to train with these tool before heading up to Mt. Whitney for the first time. Are you prepared for some minor exposure which starts just above Trailside Meadow? Are you prepared to go up a 69% slope? A better question might be, are you prepared come down that slope in the afternoon shade when it is hardening ice? Because the trail most likely will be closed by snow at the cables. Do you know how to self belay or self arrest? Do you know how to and when not to glissade from the Trail Crest? Do you know enough to take your crampons off before sliding down 1,000' vertical feet? My friends and I had a lot of experience with ice axe and crampons before we utilized them on this slope and because of it there was not a pucker moment all day. If you are seriously considering a trip this time of year buy yourself a copy of Freedom of the Hills, get your gear early, sensibly utilize it locally, go up to Whitney Portal for some snowshoeing or snow camping so, you can play on the lower slopes and; for God's sake take a basic snow skills course at either SMC or SMI.
The dangers change when the snow goes away and the monsoonal flow comes to Mt. Whitney. If you are a day hiker, you have to pick a starting time that will get you off the mountain by noon, now this isn't a hard fast rule but most storms come rolling in during the early afternoon. However, I have seen storms starting to develop at 4:30 AM and have been rained and crack boomed on before 8 AM. Where you can get yourself into trouble is at Trail Crest, which is usually the first place you can assess the weather. However, if Mt. Muir which was basking in sunlight when you started filtering water is no longer visible when you are finished, the odds are you have hiked as far as you are going to this day...that is, if you haven't caught summit fever. I have literally seen people running down New Army Pass with cotton shorts and a cotton t-shirt while being pelted with pea-sized hail...can you say ill-prepared, I know you can.
Any time you go up Mt. Whitney you must be outfitted for the worst conditions you expect to encounter, please check the NWS for the Lone Pine forecast before departing from your humble or not so humble abode. If you are a day hiker, you must plan your clothing so, if something happens up high you can survive a night out. Just because you are a tri-athlete in super-duper shape does not mean you are going to run up and down this mountain in a dozen hours. I have had friends who have done Mt. Whitney as a day hike in 30+ hours because one member of the group had severe case of mountain sickness which kept them on the mountain overnight. If you look at my gear lists, you will see I account for most things I am going to see on this mountain any month of the year. Backpackers have a much greater margins to overcome their stupidity. They are outfitted with their own shelter, sleeping bag and an insulation layer that will keep them warm at 12,000'...lot'sa redundancy. If the fireworks go off while they are below Trail Crest, they can retreat to Outpost Camp or Lone Pine Lake. To move forward into an electrical storm above the treeline would be an act of foolishness. Let conditions determine where you spend the night, not your plan or what is written on the permit. No one forces you to walk into a fireworks show.
As we move out of the summer and into the fall with and with it cold temperatures and the chance of significant snowfall. Kind of like May through June except for the most part snow doesn't melt or firm up to crunch. I have hiked up the trail many times in early November but only as far as Trail Camp, by design. There have been times when we could not go any further than Lone Pine Lake and there are times getting to the summit would have been no problem, if we brought the right gear or worked harder on our fitness level. My friends and I have made some mistakes going further than we should have based on the gear and have done a few really stupid things that didn't cost us anything and we turned around over minor things, like someone not feeling comfortable crossing the flat logs near Lone Pine Lake under heavy pack with snowshoes on...something we do now without a thought. It all goes back to one of my big rules never ascend higher than you can descend safely. An example of this, was one of our own stupid moves, there is a spot above Trailside Meadow where snow builds up and on an angle and there is a lot of exposure. We decided to go past this spot on our way to Trail Camp one rotten November day without axes or crampons. On the way back, there was more than bit of pucker. The biggest danger was not that spot but our failure to recognize it as being dangerous given our lack of winter gear.
The recognition of dangers associated your trip do not start at Whitney Portal, it starts at home. It starts when you are planning your trip, buying and borrowing gear, becoming familiar with Eastern Sierra and acquiring the necessary skills to do the trip you want to do. You can minimize risk by planning your trip for a time that best suits your skill level. In 1997, we felt early August was best. Our research indicated that the snow would be gone and the ambient temperature would be reasonable and we would have enough time to get into the proper shape to day hike to summit in one day. We barely made it and we broke our rule about being off the summit at noon...we were not even past Trail Crest at noon, and we took a headache (AMS) higher, which isn't the smartest thing you can do. In 2001, I would fulfill my desire to summit Mt. Whitney from west. I had sent 3 years acquiring 3 season backpacking gear for two people. At the last minute, this became a solo trip with heavy two person 3 season gear. But with gained experience, the most dangerous thing about this trip was ruining my back from too much pack weight. After this trip, the pack and the wallet got a lot lighter. One of the things I always regretted about our 1997 trip was not going to the Sierra prior to our initial trip up this mountain. It most likely would have made me cognizant of my propensity to be afflicted by AMS. Once known, this condition that can be a danger to you and your party can be medicated successfully. Every year we have tried to stretch the envelope when it comes to acquiring skills so that we can see more of the Sierra. We are just short of being seasoned citizens, therefore, we just do not dive into this helter-skelter. We take our time buying the gear...like snowshoes, developing those skills, recognizing we need more gear....crampons, to do what we want to do, recognizing our mistakes...not buying an ice axe, and learning from mistakes...glissading with crampons on, realizing not all skills can be self taught...taking a basic snow skills course and, when all is said and done, experience is biggest factor in minimizing the dangers you will encounter...taking five years of practical experience with ice axe and crampons before heading up Chute from Trail Camp to Trail Crest, advancing over an icy trail to summit and then back to Trail Crest for the 1,000' vertical glissade.
If you are new to all this and it seems overwhelming...it can be. Just take it one trip at time, try to learn showing new each trip and recognize your mistakes. As noted, throughout the text above, we have made and continue to make mistakes with planning, gear purchase and doing really stupid things, which could have caused serious injury. We have learned from those mistakes. Hopefully, you will not be as foolish as we have been.
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Date of Last Change: 12/7/07