Slow down. I chided Rude Boy as he shot up the first section of the main Mt. Whitney Trail. We had just left the Portal fifteen minutes before, and he was rumbling along at a champion four to five mile per hour pace. Initially, I had told the group that I would let one of the slower members lead the initial miles, but after thinking about the conditions, namely the snow at higher elevations, I had decided to either start the hike in the lead, or let one of the faster members lead out, in order to get through the easier sections of the trail. While I wanted a brisk pace, I didn’t want anyone to tire themselves out early in the day, which is why I kept telling Rude Boy to slow down. We had already outpaced two thirds of the group; I could see them strung out on the initial switchbacks above the Portal, their headlamps shining like low flying stars.
The initial section of the main Whitney Trail was dry, and aside from the two stream crossings, which were running a little high, we had no difficulties as we ascended. At approximately two miles in, we began to pass other single day climbers who had left before us, and at three miles, just outside of Outpost Camp, the first rays of the summer solstice had crested the mountains to the East (Check out the photo here: http://www.lastadventurer.com/last-adventurers-fieldnotes/2010/6/24/mt-whitney-portal-to-summit-june-21-2010-part-one.html). Just prior to the three mile marker (delineated by faded blue paint on a weathered rock), we had passed several large snow drifts, although none of them blocked the trail. At Outpost Camp, we stopped for a short breather, and allowed the rest of the group to catch up as we watched the multi-day climbers begin to stir. At this point, my group of six had fallen naturally into two groups of three. After applying sunscreen, and gulping some water and food, I had Rude Boy lead us out again.
From Outpost Camp, the switchbacks were clear and free of snow to Mirror Lake, which glistened in the early morning sun. Directly above Mirror Lake, patchy snow began to appear on the trail in drifts and icy clumps. I didn’t feel like complaining, as the trail had been easy to follow and find for that first four miles, up to approximately 9600-9700 feet. Just past Trailside Meadows, the trail completely vanished in a large drift of snow. I wasn’t overly concerned – I could see the well worn footsteps of many climbers through the snow, and could see a couple of groups just a bit above us approaching the rise before trail camp. Off to the South, I could also see a well worn path going up the snowfield to the drainage at Consultation Lake.
There were a number of hikers and climbers clustered around this first, actual impediment, some wearing sneakers, and some that were geared out like my group. As I watched them put on crampons, I wondered how soft the snow actually was on the slope. I unclipped my ice axe, and took a cautious step or two. It wasn’t packed solid, nor iced over. It was perfectly easy to kick steps in to, so I led my group out. It was probably overkill, having my ice axe out, as a potential fall would only have been about thirty feet on a slope that was not that steep. However, I didn’t see the need to be careless, and it was good for my group to get a little extra practical ice axe warm-up usage. As we kicked in up the slope, the remainder of the hikers and climbers clumped in and followed our steps.
From the saddle approaching Trail Camp, the snow thinned out, and we could see a number of dry spots in between the rocks, where the overnight climbers had pitched camp and were beginning to stir. We walked through Trail Camp, and reached the outer (Western) most boundary, which was covered again in snow. From there we could see a daisy chain of climbers heading up the snowfield facing the mountain, and into the chute. At that point, the main trail was almost totally covered, if not completely covered with snow and or ice. I could see that from that point on, the climb was going to be difficult, so I told Rude Boy and Cash to take an extended break to drink some water, eat some food, and prepare for the section of the climb that would determine whether we would summit or turn around empty handed.