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Early season Mt. Whitney means climbing in the snow

May 12, 2009 | 11:45 am

Chris Badger at bottom of snowfield to Trail Crest.

Glissading down a 1000-foot snowfield is the reward for climbing Mt. Whitney in the first weeks of May. And it is sweet, flying down the steep bowl directly below Trail Crest on the seat of your winter climbing pants, ice crystals exploding in your face, and with nothing but an ice ax to check your speed.

But that’s the coming down. First, there’s the tallest peak in the Lower 48 to summit, and that is no cakewalk in the snow.

My friends Chris Badger and Kyle Mullarky and I left Whitney Portal around noon May 8, the lucky winners of permits on the second weekend of the 2009 season (permits are required May 1 to Nov. 1 and are drawn by lottery). We neglected to weigh our packs, but should have, as mine went 55 pounds and that’s way too much to carry through the snow. But we didn’t know that meant postholing through crusted re-freeze up to your crotch; when we left the Portal parking lot it was a glorious spring day. The snowmelt roared down Lone Pine River and kicked up the hot smell of Ponderosa pine sap and sweet streamside willows in bud.

The trail was dry and dusty as we made the initial set of steep switchbacks rising from 8,367 feet to Outpost Camp at 10,365 feet, a trip of about 3.5 miles, but already at about the two-mile mark, many of the turns were banked with snow. At one point, we lost the trail completely and bushwhacked, scrambling over exposed granite and small freshets to stay off the sun-softened ice.

Only five other campers overnighted with us at Outpost, on a gorgeous stretch of Sierra bog meadow that would be filled with humans in the summer but now rang with birdsong, peepers and bullfrogs.

The next morning, the trail disappeared as soon as we left the tree line above Mirror Lake. For the next two miles to Trail Camp at 12,093 feet, the route was marked mostly by old footprints crossing deep snowfields. Streams were audible draining beneath the snow, and punching through sometimes meant going up to your pack and not touching bottom. A skier came by making easy turns and thanked us for carrying a bulky bear canister, which felt more and more like a foolish extravagance with every step.

The day at Trail Camp, the base for summit attempts, was hot and spent fending off hungry marmots, but at night the bare rock was like sleeping on a block of ice; inside my sleeping bag, I had on every stitch of clothing including my ski jacket and pants and was still shivering much of the night. How did John Muir do it week after week? His namesake peak stood above us as a silent testimony to sheer endurance.

Chris and I left camp at 5 a.m. on May 10, with Kyle staying behind. The 99 switchbacks that ascend the knife ridge at Trail Crest were choked with ice and too dangerous to walk -- several other climbers told us that someone had fallen on them the day before. So in the first glow of daybreak, we kicked straight up the refrozen snowfield below the Trail Crest sign with crampons and ice axes. As we cleared 13,000 feet, we stopped every 10 steps to gasp, legs and lungs aflame, over and over, sweat pouring down in the blinding sunlight.

Altitude sickness was a real worry, and I had felt a rumbling in my gut that morning, but it subsided with the rhythm of kick and blow, kick and blow. The sky behind the peaks took on an intense opaque purple I’d never seen before. Two hours later, we were sitting at the Trail Crest sign eating breakfast at 13,753 feet, looking over the ridge to the west at Hitchcock Lakes and Sequoia National Park. There was not another soul in sight. Kyle told us that half of the approximately 12 other people camped there that night tried the snowfield after us and turned back.

The John Muir Trail that travels two miles along the crest was mostly dry, but some of the deep turns were corniced over with snow, which made for a couple of tricky passages over long drops falling away to the west. When we finally crossed the boulder-strewn dome to the summit, we felt elated and not a little befuddled. The thin air at 14,497 feet made even elementary speech feel garbled. The tiny stone shelter that stands at the top was so spare and blasted, as though only the sky was allowed to have color at that altitude.

The author on the summit, with Trail Camp far below on the left.

By 11 a.m., we were back at Trail Crest, looking down on that snowfield. Six hours later, we’d be at the van, boots soaked and shoulders aching. But first, we sat down in the softened snow, took a last look from the top of the world, dug our axes in, and hooted all the way to bottom in that long, glorious glissade.

For info, call Mt. Whitney Ranger District at (760) 876-6200 or contact the Inyo National Forest website here. Permit applications are accepted only by mail and only during the month of February, and cost $15 per person, nonrefundable.

-- Dean Kuipers

Top photo: Chris Badger at bottom of snowfield to Trail Crest. Bottom photo: The author on the summit, with Trail Camp far below on the left. Credit: Dean Kuipers