Current Trail Conditions on the Mt. Whitney Trail, May 2012

Hikers consider the cables on Mt. Whitney, 05/28/12

Alright, just the facts about the Mt. Whitney trail today, I’ll get to my thoughts about the hike tomorrow.

Trail Conditions: The conditions are good for hiking. As I have said innumerable times in 2012, California has had a dry winter, and nowhere is this more evident than in the Sierra Nevada mountain range right now. This is the fourth consecutive year I’ve been on Whitney (2012-2009) around the same time (May to mid-June), and this is the least amount of snow and ice I’ve seen on the mountain in a long time. There is a dramatic drop off from the amount of snow that was present in 2011 and 2010 and I’d say that the amount of snow on Whitney and in the Sierras as a whole is more emblematic of early August than late May!

Yesterday, May 28, 2012, I hiked the Mt. Whitney trail from Whitney Portal to the summit. I got an early start, leaving the Portal at around 4:00 a.m. from the overnight hikers campground, and I was carrying the gear that I discussed in Thursday’s post. ( From the Portal, the trail is clear of snow, ice, and mostly all debris all the way through Trail Camp and up past the first section of switchbacks ascending Mt. Whitney. (There are some small deadfalls on and around the trail, but there are trail crews out and working on these areas, and these spots are nothing to be concerned about). From what I saw, I would say that the snowline is currently running at approximately 10,000 feet or higher, although some very very small patches of snow do exist between 9,000-10,000 feet. The standard creek crossings prior to Outpost Camp are flowing, but due to the dry winter, such crossings are low, and likely to subside within the next couple weeks.

The remaining snowfield on the chute, 05/28/12

Since there were no obstacles or other problems, I rolled through Trail Camp at around ~7:35 a.m. At that point, most of Trail Camp was stirring, and I took the opportunity to climb up the first section of switchbacks to where the snowfield from the Whitney “chute” stopped. My plan was to climb the chute as I had done in 2010/2011 in order to avoid six miles of hiking on the switchbacks. However, even though it was a cool morning (at that point it was around 30 degrees, with a steady 10-15mph cool breeze coming from the West, off the mountain), the snowfield next to the switchbacks was already fairly soft and sloppy. I traversed approximately fifteen feet into the snowfield to satisfy myself that the snow was indeed slushy, and not just melting by the edges; and I found that it was very sloppy, slushy, and the consistency of a slurpee pretty much throughout.

At this point, it was around 8:00 a.m., and I knew that it would only be getting warmer in the chute and on the snowfield with the sun shining directly on it for the next several hours. As I had no desire to repeat my experience of 2011, when my group and I slogged up the chute in molasses-like conditions, I elected to continue up the switchbacks. At that point, 8:00 a.m., there was a team of climbers leaving Trail Camp who had the gear to ascend the chute (ice axes and crampons) and elected to take the chute rather than hike the switchbacks with me. By the time I reached Trail Crest, I could see them only a quarter of the way up the chute; and they eventually elected to turn back to Trail Camp as they were exhausted from attempting to traverse the sloppy, slushy snow of the chute.

View from Trail Crest, 05/28/12

It’s also worth noting that there are many exposed rocks and boulders in the chute at this point in time, as well as other unseen hazards that are likely lurking underneath the surface.  While all of this discussion about the chute is likely academic, as the remainder of it will probably melt off within the next two weeks, I would not recommend that anyone attempt it at this point in time unless they are climbing it while it is still frozen – i.e., before 8:00 a.m. I did speak to one climber who summited yesterday who did take the chute – but he traversed it at 6:00 a.m., and walked back down the switchbacks. As far as I’m aware, he’s the only one who made the summit yesterday who did take the chute.

As for the switchbacks, the first third of them are completely snow and ice free and are in good condition. The place where snow and ice becomes an issue is at the cables. While the first section of the cables has snow against the mountain, they are passable. However, the last section of the cables and trail is blocked completely by a mass of ice (and some snow)(as pictured). Due to the steep drop off next to the cables, this is a bad spot for a large mass of ice and snow to be. At this point, there were a number of people surveying the situation, with most parties electing to turn around rather than risk a fall. There were a number of people (myself included), who elected to proceed around the cables as best as possible. Even though I had crampons and an ice axe, I decided not to use them at this point as I saw them as being of no benefit in that situation. Instead, I managed to lever myself around on the cables before proceeding up the trail. This seemed to be the popular approach to the problem; but obviously, judge the conditions and your skill level accordingly before attempting to pass. Again, I imagine this is an academic discussion, as this obstacle is melting out and should be completely passable within the next two weeks, I would think.

Final snowfield near Whitney summit, 05/28/12

The remainder of the switchbacks and Trail Crest were also mostly free of snow and ice. From Trail Crest to the summit, there are a couple of patches of ice and snow; and there was one problem area near the “windows”. This problem was a four foot by three foot block of compressed ice lying up against the mountain on a downhill section of trail. Directly past this area was a drop off of twenty to several hundred feet. At this point, even though it was a short distance – four feet, maximum, I elected to use my ice axe and crampons. The ice in this block was very solid. Once I was back on the trail, I cut steps in the ice for the three climbers behind me in order that they could safely continue their ascent. While I’m not sure if a fall from this spot would be immediately fatal, it certainly seemed more treacherous than the segment by the cables to me. I also think that this obstacle will remain on the trail for a longer period of time, given that it is solid ice in shadow at a high elevation. From the windows to the summit, there were a few sections of snow on the trail, and a last snowfield (also slushy in the mid-afternoon) that was thirty feet across.

The summit itself was nearly completely snow-free, and I summited at around 11:15 a.m.( Due to the wind, slushy chute, obstacles near the cables, and other standard mountaineering issues, there weren’t many people on the summit yesterday. I passed four people coming down on my ascent, and was joined on the summit by five other people. At the time of my descent (~12:00 p.m.), I passed four people who had a reasonable expectation of summiting, leaving the mountain with an unofficial summit total of 14 people, somewhat low considering there was a lack of snow on the trail. Nevertheless, it was a great hike, and I’d say that within two weeks, there will be no need to carry ice axes or crampons, as there will be no snowfields or other snow related obstacles.