Mt. Whitney, Portal to Summit, June 21, 2010, Part One

Checking down group gear at the Portal, June 20, 2010

I could hear low, repeated murmurs just a few feet away from my body. And, as I rolled over, I could see odd shadowy forms passing over the fabric of my bivy sack again and again. I waited for a second to see if they were just lost, like the midnight arrivals at Campsite Six, or if something was actually going on that I needed to address. After listening to several more minutes of shuffling and muttering, I realized that if it wasn’t my group, I should at the very least, find out what was going on. Before I unzipped my bivy sack, I looked at my watch. 3:23 a.m. At least it’s close to when everyone has to be up, I thought grumpily. A second later, I had my body outside, and shivered in the cool morning air of the Sierras. As I pulled on my boots, I saw one of my group walking by; and demanded to know what he was doing. “I’m getting ready early”, he replied, to my astonishment. At that point, I realized that I had somehow lucked into a great group of guys to follow me up Whitney again, and that I’d better get up so that I could lead them properly.

The only problem about leading people properly is that at 3:23 a.m., is that one’s brain doesn’t work immediately. For a period of time, it seemed surreal to me that we were even on Whitney, because it had just seemed like a number of days since the last training hikes on San Jacinto and Iron Mountain, and a number of minutes since we had been at Mahogany Flat and Rodger’s Peak acclimatizing. For that matter, it seemed a lot like a dream that I was back to lead yet another group, or that I was back on the mountain for the tenth time. But as I watched my group scurry around the campsite, breaking down tents and checking down their gear, my adrenaline kicked in and woke me up. It was a cold summer solistice, and no one wanted to stand around long under the trees at the Portal. Unlike the groups that had come down the mountain the day before from seven o’clock on, my group was prepared for the morning chill in long pants and jackets. For the five weeks prior to the climb, I had been monitoring the conditions on Whitney, by speaking to friends of mine in the climbing community, and checking the internet for trail reports and mountain conditions. In this respect, the largest asset I had was the forums at the Whitney Portal Store (, which had always provided me with reliable information in the past.

Based on the information I had reviewed, I had repeatedly told my group that the climb was going to be grueling as there was still a substantial amount of snow and ice along the route, and that they were going to need ice axes and crampons. I had spent a great deal of time talking to them about the proper use of such equipment, and had even been able to give some people practical lessons on San Jacinto several weeks earlier. ( Additionally, I had talked to them about the dangers of hypothermia, heatstroke, exhaustion, sunstroke, altitude sickness, and had gone over routes, gear, and conditioning. Fortunately, they had soaked up my advice like sponges, which left me optimistic about our chances to summit. However, the best news I received about our summit bid had been the day before, when I had picked up our permits at the Eastern Sierra Interagency Visitor Center. The forecast called for little to no wind, sun, and highs in the low forties at the summit. It looked like we would have a great day for climbing.Sunrise, Summer Solstice, Mt. Whitney Main Trail, June 21, 2010

The night before, I had called one last meeting by the fire, and gone over some minor basics, before concluding by telling each of them that they had the potential to reach the summit if they had the mental fortitude to withstand the rigors of the climb. It wasn’t something I was just telling them; it was something I believed; placing aside the unpredictable and unquantifiable risks that could crop up on the climb. As I watched them making their final preparations, I felt even better about our chances, until people began to dawdle over breakfast. At that point it was time to lead, so, I exercised some gruff early morning persuasion, and soon had everyone standing at the foot of the trail at 4:20 a.m., in a slightly tired nervous state, hoping to reach the summit. I didn’t waste any words, but merely said, “let’s go”, and with that, we set out.