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

Rush hour on the Mt. Whitney chute, June 21, 2010

This. This.Is.The.Greatest.Day.Ever. Rude Boy said, two feet upslope from me. I took a deep breath, steadied my right hand on my planted ice axe, checked my feet, swept my eyes past his form and paused everything that had been going in my head for the last months, weeks, days, hours, minutes, and seconds. I shut down the machinery of everyday life, the narrative of what I had left behind, and what waited in front of me. I turned down the volume of the survival narrative that lurked beneath every step on the snowy, icy, chute that I was traversing, and looked up. The world was white in front of me, glistening and pure. Up above the snow, the jagged teeth of the skyline of the Sierras waited, eternally calm. Just beyond that the roof of the world rested, a perfect shade of cerulean blue. And, somewhere just beyond that roof lurked the warmth of the blazing sun, bathing my body in rays of light that were not much more than eight minutes old. Rude Boy was right. It was a great day; and I was lucky to be there; and this was one of the reasons I climbed, to experience these perfect slices of time. I took another deep breath, closed my eyes, and felt the planet come to a stop as I focused solely on the moment.

After a minute, the planet re-started, and I joked with Rude Boy about his comments, checked with Cash to make sure he was doing alright, and even made out the form of Pratt charging hard up the slope in our wake. Then, I carefully did what I had been doing for the last half hour – checked my points, and again began to traverse the up the melting ice to Trail Crest. After our quick meal, marmot experience, and conversation with new climbing friends, I had led Rude Boy and Cash up the remainder of the trail from Trail Camp - a distance of about ten feet. From that point on, the switchbacks, the main trail, and the mountainside were all covered with a substantial amount of ice and snow. As the message boards and Rangers had said, there was no trail after Trail Camp. It wasn’t a big deal, however, since we could follow the line of climbers trickling up the ice chute. From the start of the snowfield just outside Trail Camp, the going was passable in boots alone – there was enough of a trail, and it was easy enough to kick in to the snow.

At the start of the chute, the terrain turned steeper, and icier. The snow there had that persistent late spring suncupped/cheese grater look, and was iced over in patches, which were melting out in the mid-morning sun. As my entire group had crampons, we stopped at a convenient boulder, and strapped them on before proceeding any further. From that point on, we joined the line of climbers from Trail Camp attempting the climb. Fortunately, we were in great shape, still had plenty of energy, and warmed up by the six mile hike we had already completed. As such, we found ourselves passed slower and less well equipped groups, some of which turned around, and startled some of the other climbing teams with Rude Boy’s reggae karaoke hour. After a brutal uphill slog in the morning sun, we ended up at Trail Crest. The combination of the steep uphill – if not almost vertical climb through the snow and ice combined with the high altitude and serious sun exposure did leave us a little gassed for a couple minutes, so we stopped to eat an early lunch at Trail Crest.

Trail Crest, Sequoia National Park, Mt. Whitney Trail, June 21, 2010

While we waited, Pratt powered his way up the remaining distance, and joined us and another climbing team on the ridgeline. To the South, we could see the remnants of the actual trail peeking out of the snow, before snaking down to our rocky position. Down to the West, Sequoia National Park and Crabtree remained caught in the icy grip of winter – even though it was the first day of summer. After our brief break, we elected to gear down – and took off our crampons before proceeding along the ridgeline. The trail from Trail Crest was mostly clear of snow, and the few patches that remained along the route were easily traversable in boots.

As we approached the last final push up the backside of the summit, there was a snowfield that had not melted out, and had a single track of bootprints  leading up through its roughly knee high height. I briefly debated having the group put their crampons back on for this section, but after finding out that the snow was soft, and a minimal fall existed on the downhill side, we elected to traverse across by kicking in and utilizing our ice axes alone, which seemed to be the preferred method in any case. After that last snowfield, it was a straight – albeit uphill shot to the cabin, where Rude Boy, Pratt, and I joined the other climbers in celebrating. After a little bit, Cash joined us, and we took the requisite pictures and marked our names in the log. Although it was my seventh time on the summit, out of the ten times I had been, I still felt the euphoria of the others as we basked on the rocks.

Summit, Mt. Whitney, June 21, 2010

Sadly, my euphoria was short lived, as I could see a fair amount of clouds building over the mountains to the West. I waited about five minutes, and then gathered my team to turn them back down as a precautionary measure. As we came back down the backside, the skies turned from perfect blue to a dark grey, and the temperature dropped dramatically. Even worse, we ran into Tan a quarter mile out from the summit, and I had to turn him back around, based on the conditions, as I did not want him to get stuck at 14,500 feet in a storm.

By the time we reached the top of the chute, the sky was quite dark and foreboding, which made the descent a little more harrowing than it needed to be. At that point in the day, also, the chute had become quite slushy due to the warm conditions; which made either traversing or glissading equally tricky. Most of my team took the well plowed out and equally slick glissade, “ice luge” of death tunnel, which worked out, while I traversed my way down after taking a small wound on the ice in the early stages of glissading. Despite some close calls, everyone made it down, and by the time we reached Trail Camp, it had begun to snow lumpy icy chunks on us, which continued on until we dropped below 9500 feet. We made it back to the parking lot just before six thirty, and even though the group was tired, exhausted, and smelled, we had broad grins from the adventure that we had just experienced.