Winter Tools and Hiking
These are the tools of stupidity or adventure. They are what you make them. Many people come to Mt. Whitney in May, June, early July, late September and October clueless about the conditions they are about to encounter and are thus unprepared for the trip they trained so hard to do. Others, come with brand new crampons but no ice axe...only trekking poles, but think this mountain will present no problems which they can't handle. Let us tell you, once there is snow and ice on this benign summer trail everything changes, especially above Trail Camp. However, with a bit of forethought this trip can be made a lot less dangerous than it is when these conditions exist.
What follows is from a hiker/backpacker prospective, not a mountaineer, and someone who had reservations about doing the Main Trail during these times even with 4 seasons of experience with ice axe and crampons before summiting in May 2007.
OBTW, if you are thinking about doing this, the first thing you should do buy is Freedom of the Hills, not the hardware. After the hardware purchases and a bit practice to familiarize yourself with how this stuff works and before you make some very stupid mistakes you should take a basic snow skills course, like those offered by Sierra Mountaineering International or Sierra Mountain Center in Bishop, CA. I severely sprained an ankle and ripped up a pair of perfectly good Gore-Tex pants making a very stupid mistake before taking a snow skills course.
Another benefit of this gear is the trails you avoid during the summer because of the crowds are now lonely walks, a couple of examples of this would be...the handful of people you will see at the top of Mt. Baldy instead of the dozens and the solitude you will find at Timber Mountain or Icehouse Saddle. It is a whole new beautiful world.
The learning curve for snowshoes from beginner to expert is about 5 minutes. You put'em on and walk...that's mostly it. However, you must learn there are limitations with snowshoes, such as, slopes or icy trails. The one thing you should concern yourself when purchasing or renting shoes is the float. The rule of thumb is one pound of body and gear weight per square inch of shoe. Therefore, an 8" x 25" pair of snowshoes will accommodate a person whose body and gear weight totals 200 pounds. You will need bigger shoes if you dealing with the Champagne powder of Utah instead of the Sierra Cement of California. The crampon attached to the snowshoe does not have the bite of a good pair of 10 or 12 point crampons.
The other essential snowshoeing gear are waterproof/breathable boots, wool socks, high gaiters, trekking poles with snow baskets and waterproof/breathable or soft shell pants.
If you are a SoCal, the Southfork Trailhead in the San Gorgonio Wilderness and Palm Spring Tramway are the premier snowshoeing areas in this region. We also like snowshoeing up the MMWT to Lone Pine Lake and beyond...this is a great way to introduce yourself to the Mt. Whitney area.
You are not a mountaineer and you won't, for the most part, be climbing on high angle slopes. Therefore, your axe should be longer than a mountaineer would use, the spike should be to the top of the ankle.
Once you get and axe make sure you take your copy of Freedom of the Hills and read about self belay, self arrest, the proper way to carry the axe, cutting steps, glissading, French Technique etc. before you head out to your local mountains to practice.
Rule No. 1...TREKKING POLES WILL NOT REPLACE AN ICE AXE
You cannot self belay, self arrest nor brake a glissade with trekking poles and there are a couple of people who could tell you just that if they were still alive to do so. Unfortunately, these people died while attempting glissades from Trail Crest in June 2003 and October 2005, respectively.
Do not buy 4 point/instep crampons!!!!!! They are next to useless. They will not give you enough purchase on the trail above Trail Camp or The Chute, which you might have to take if the trail blocked with snow at the Cables. You will be able travel much faster with 10 point crampons than people who are utilizing instep crampons.
Since you are hikers and will be utilizing lightweight to medium weight footwear, therefore, what you should be looking for are 10 point semi-rigid strap-on crampons. They maybe made of steel or aluminum, pick your poison. We like steel for durability and aluminum for lightness. If you only see yourself in these conditions a couple of days a year opt for lightness of aluminum.
These types of crampons work best on "crunch" or compacted snow but not so good on hard ice. Even if you go up the trail with ice axe and crampons on you are not invincible, there are still dangers if you don't know how to self belay or arrest.
Rule No. 2...DO NOT GLISSADE WITH YOUR CRAMPONS ON!!!!
Rule No. 3...PRACTICE SELF ARREST, SELF BELAY AND VARIOUS FORMS OF GLISSADING AND BE COMFORTABLE DOING THEM BEFORE GOING TO MT. WHITNEY
Rule No. 4...PRACTICE WHERE THERE IS PLENTY OF RUN OUT
Ok, you got all the basics down and want to progress beyond novice status before taking a snow skills course. This means going out when the temperature is below freezing and doing things that test and expand your skill set. Here some things to ponder before you head up the not so crowded trails...excepting the Icehouse Trailhead in San Antonio Canyon on a Saturday morning.
We will take upwards to 4 hats, that's right FOUR. Your baseball hat because when it is near freezing sunny with no breeze fleece will be just to stinking hot. Hat #2 a fleece or wool hat that will allow air to flow in and out. #3 a Windstopper hat for cold and breezy conditions and our 4th piece is a balaclava for the bitter windy cold.
Generally, we choose between a Calpilene 2 or 3 type zip top and a Polartec Micro Grid top, the former for above freezing, the latter below...YMMV. You don't want a top that makes you a fountain of perspiration thus really cold when you stop to change or take a break. No one I hike with utilizes long underwear for day use but most of our day trips are above 20° F. Over the last year, most of my friends and I have switched to Schoeller Dynamic Soft shell pants because they shed snow readily making unnecessary to put shell pants in most cases. All of my partners in this endeavor use Smartwool Socks...thickness depends on the individual.
Over the last year I've changed my insulation set up for the winter. Generally, its 3-season down jacket but when it is damn cold or moderately damn cold and the wind is at a howl it's a 2 lbs. + belay parka, soft shell hoody and maybe a Windstopper vest. The transition to soft shell started when I wore my soft shell gloves during a snowstorm while Tram Shoeing and to my surprise did not wet out, then came the pants and in 2007 the jacket. YMMW
I have gone away from hard shells for all but the nastiest of day hikes and think very hard before hauling them up the trail on winter backpacks. That is how much I am sold on soft shell technology. Each trip is different and a lot of the decisions are made at the trailhead. This is something you should do after a lot of research on before plunking down big bucks on something that may not work for you.
This stuff is heavy and voluminous, therefore, we utilize packs which will support these loads and take the volume. The minimum size pack for the winter day hikes is about 40L, the range within our group is between 40L and 60L and 80L to 110L for backpacking. Plus, the pack must have lash points for jackets, fangs, axes, trekking poles and snowshoes.
What other fun stuff to we bring?
We like to bring a gas canister stove for our winter day hikes and snowshoes because hot things do a body good when its ass is freezing off. We always get a, damn, I should have thought of that...don't think about a canister stove for backpacking, they just don't work.
What determines the what and when?
Conditions dictate everything. This is why we will usually have ice axe, crampons, snowshoes and trekking poles with us for winter trips. The basic rule here is put the proper gear on when start to get uncomfortable and make chance as conditions change.
Time and Distance
Don't plan on setting any land speed records. It is a day of constant changes, on and off with jackets, on with snowshoes, off with snowshoes, on with crampons, get the axe out and put the trekking poles away...you get the picture. If you are snowshoeing plan on doing about half the mileage you normally do or less. Cutting trail through powder is a beast...that's why I let my partners do it ;-).
When it is all said and done
You will be seeing a lot of cool and exciting things in the winter, you will see a lot less people and your wallet will be a lot lighter.
Glissading From Trail Crest
Glissading can be a fun but dangerous activity even when you have experience. You must know the conditions you are glissading into, and they maybe different than what they were when you passed that way earlier in the day.
Here are a checklist before you attempt to glissade from Trail Crest to the Base of the Sierra.
1. Did you hike up The Chute? Yes...continue, No...hike down the trail
2. Do you have ice axe to self arrest or self belay? Yes...continue, No...hike down the trail
3. Have you practiced extensively and/or taken a snow skills course and practiced these skills? Yes...continue...No...hike down the trail
4. Have you taken your crampons off? Yes...continue, No...take them off and continue
4. Is route you have chosen to glissade entirely in the sun? Yes...continue, No...find another suitable route or hike down the trail or The Chute
5. Is there enough run out at the bottom in case you really screw up? Yes...continue No...hike down the trail or The Chute
I'm sure there are a few more questions which need answering before you get on your butt and slide but this should get you thinking.
In 2003 and again in 2005 the same exact accident occurred on The Chute each time taking a life. Each time someone attempted to glissade from Trail Crest in the late afternoon through shadows and without and ice axe to self arrest, believe me, from my own stupidity on shorter less dangerous glissade I know this is a foolish thing to do. Both caught hard ice and lost control ending up dead on the rocks at the bottom. You have to be able to control you slide and you can't do it with trekking poles.
After the death of an El Cerrito man in October 2005, the forest service have posted..."People Die Here" posters at the Trailhead and at the entrance to the John Muir Wilderness. These posters are not longer around but it does not make the message any less true. The fact is one person will die here every year on average. Most of these deaths are self inflicted...sadly.
The above is purposely bare bones. It is our feeling you need knowledge and experience with these tools before heading up the trail with them. The only way you will gain that experience is with practice and lessons from a professional. It is very easy to get in over your head with this gear.
In early 2005, I watched two people slide by me on an icy high angle slope in Delker Canyon when they had a mishap practicing their ice axe and crampon technique. Both ended up going off a 4' embankment into an icy creek and were severely injured. It took San Bernardino and Los Angeles Co. SAR 4 hours to get these people heading towards hospitals, there was no cell service available to get a call out. If the slope wasn't a sheet of ice and there was enough run out this accident would not have occurred. In other words, these folks chose to practice in a place where both conditions and physical characteristic of the slope were ill suited to practice. Most of the good easily accessible practice places in SoCal are utilized by sledding children, unfortunately.
Forget about record time up the mountain. You will we be changing gear and clothing constantly as you work your way up the mountain. It is more important to have full contact with the ground beneath you than maintaining a 2 MPH pace.
Rule No. 5...DO NOT MAKE THE MAIN MT. WHITNEY YOUR FIRST TRIP UTILIZING ICE AXE AND CRAMPONS, IT JUST TOO DANGEROUS!!!
Rule No. 6...DO NOT GLISSADE DOWN WHAT YOU HAVE NOT CLIMBED UP!!!
BE CAREFUL, VERY CAREFUL WHEN YOU FIRST START USING THIS GEAR!!!
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