...Mt. Whitney and Mama Nature...In the Blue Corner...Us...
Well, long story short, I spent Wednesday and Thursday as part of a 5-person permit to overnight Mt. Whitney. The rest of the group included Ed, Joe, Norm, and Sebastian. Norm and I had hiked Whitney on separate occasions, but it was new territory for the rest of the group. The plan was to hike to Trail Camp at 12000' Wednesday, spend the night there acclimating, then make an early (4am) push to the summit Thursday morning before breaking camp ahead of the thunderstorms and hiking back down the hill.
Being June, we obviously packed all sorts of cold-weather gear.
The weather forecast, while slightly ominous, wasn't too bad, and we arrived expecting variable and only partially heinous conditions. Little did we know...
The Big Dipper from the parking lot at Whitney Portal, el. 8360'
Massive granite wall at the Portal
After camping in the Eurovan Tuesday night, we awoke Wednesday morning to unusual cloud cover; the weather pattern had been clear mornings, midday thunderstorms, and then blustery to clearing in the evenings and overnight.
By 9am, already into some precipitation and at the base of the clouds, approx. 9000'
Before too long, some snowflakes visited us and the temperature dropped as we pressed higher.
Norm crossing the logs as snow develops in the higher elevations
Not too concerned by this forecast precipitation, we continued into the storm until the bout started with...FLASH...one-one-thous-...BANG!
Minutes before seeing lightning and hearing thunder a moment later
Still below treeline, we sought some shelter and decided to hunker down if there were any more strikes. Fortunately, that was an isolated incident, and we continued towards Trail Camp, ready to turn back to Outpost Camp (10360') if conditions worsened.
Sebastian, before the cold and wet set in
Looking up towards the peak, our only clear-ish view of the day
Joe wondering what the immediate future holds
Mirror Lake, besieged by storm
As we reached higher elevations, more and more old snow appeared on the trail, but the falling snow wasn't really sticking. Passing above 11000', however, it did start sticking, and the visibility dropped below 1/4 mile and stayed there. We reached Trail Camp at about 1:30pm in a howling blizzard. Round 2 of our Battle Royale included "selecting" a campsite, launching the tents as quickly as possible, and diving in.
Around 2pm, setting camp at 12000'
Expecting the storm to pass eventually that afternoon, we warmed up as best we could. However, our visions of a lazy afternoon acclimating at 12000', making side hikes, and hanging around outside gradually disappeared as evening came on and the storm angrily persisted.
Whiling the afternoon away
The snow, constantly sloughing of the tent walls, built up higher and higher, and the wind proved to be persistent. As the evening's light gave way to darkness, we hastily cooked dinner in the vestibule, and no one from either tent would get to socialize with the others until morning.
Cooking in the vestibule
The storm pretty much wailed on us all night, the snow pushing in against the tent walls until Ed and I were shoulder-to-shoulder. Finally, at about 4am, the storm cleared and the wind died, but the damage had been done.
Camp Thursday morning, after digging out
We were prepared for intermittent wintry conditions, from both hiking and camping perspectives. The foot (yes, foot) of snow we got overnight squashed any hopes of making a bid for the summit. Our gear simply was not up to the task, and pushing any higher would have been foolhardy. While the infamous 99 Switchbacks had been obvious even with poor visibility Wednesday afternoon, they were barely discernible with stellar visibility Thursday morning. And while the chute to looker's right of the switchbacks would have been easy work with crampons before the new snow, wind-loaded snow on top of an ice layer would have ensured some terrifying and likely lethal slides into the rocks below. What made the situation even more difficult is that the storm had cleared, leaving us with truly perfect summit weather.
Whitney with morning light
Sunrise delayed by clouds
Another sunrise shot
So while the current weather was exactly what we had hoped for Thursday morning, the intense storm the afternoon, evening, and night before precluded any plans we had, and that was the end of the story. So it turned out to be a lazy-ish morning around camp as we forlornly stared at the ridgeline and the deep blue sky above.
Ridgeline from Trail Crest (left) to Mt. Whitney (right)
Our motley crew
Oh yeah, and when I finally looked at the thermometer at about 7:30am, it had warmed up to 15ºF. Yep, 15.
We broke camp and headed downhill, chatting for a moment with the only other party that had spent the night at Trail Camp. No one made the summit Wednesday, and it was looking doubtful that anyone would summit Thursday unless they brought full winter mountaineering gear.
Tramping through the snow
We stopped to refill our water below Consultation Lake and a couple other times for snacks, but more or less got off the mountain as quickly as possible.
The stream below Consultation
Mirror Lake under better conditions
The trail on Thursday was a different monster altogether, with significant snow and ice over most sections above 10000'.
When we got back to Whitney Portal, the weather was still essentially perfect, but it soon clouded over and started to look stormy again, likely dashing summit (or even hiking) hopes for most permit-holders for the coming days.
While it was certainly a disappointment to miss the summit, we chose wisely to stay put with the weather that came in and with the gear we had. It turned into a high-altitude camping trip, and that's just fine, as getting everyone out safe and happy was worth far more than the forgotten summit hopes. We definitely took a few big hits from the weather, but to end our bout without a KO was a good thing. :)
EDIT: Here are some more photos, the first lot from Ed, the second lot from Norm.
Ed's boots vs. my runners...who chose right? (hint: Ed)
Hunkered down as the snow and wind pick up
A bit of exposure
Epic Photo of the Year Award...a June night's worth of snow
Making the trek out
Another view of our little overhang
Nice view of the goal
Norm and Joe
Into the storm we go
Approaching Trail Camp
Ed looking miserable and happy, all at the same time
Awesome shot in the morning
Norm after we've broken camp
Joe sharing his sentiments
Near the start of our journey out
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