Every year, I like to take a trip up to Mt. Whitney, either to climb the mountain, or to hike around the general region, as it is stunning. This year, I had to make my trip a little earlier than usual due to a combination of factors; but also to get in some ice axe and crampon practice for my upcoming climb of Mt. Rainier, which my climbing and podcast partner, Matt Mills and I will be climbing the first week of May. If you’ve ever read my blog, you know that I always have additional commentary about things that I think about while hiking, which I’ll reserve for tomorrow; but for today, just the facts regarding trail conditions as of Sunday, April 8, 2013.
Trail Conditions: The road up to Whitney Portal is almost completely clear of all obstacles. There were some small rocks/boulders in the middle of the road; and there were some fresh rocks that fell onto the road during the day; but overall, the road is currently in excellent shape for this time of year. I didn’t get the early alpine start that I had originally planned, but I did get on the trail slightly before 6:00 a.m. At that point, it was around ~35 degrees at the portal, with intermittent wind gusts that were around 20-25mph.
As I headed up, I noticed that the trail is clear from the Portal to just before Lone Pine Lake. While there are drifts of snow in places before that point, the trail is exposed, and easy to follow. Both the creek crossings – Carillon Creek and the North Fork of Lone Pine Creek are flowing; but are not flowing high at this point, and are very easy to cross. Based on my observations and my altimeter, I’d say that what snow there is at the lower elevations is patchy coverage that starts around 8,800 feet, and it is melting fast during the day, and re-freezing at night. Other than a few drifts here and a few drifts there, there’s not really much for me to say about these lower sections, as they are in good shape.
Just past the trail junction for Lone Pine Lake, the snow goes from patchy coverage to what I would call 75%-100% coverage. From the junction, there is a snowfield that is present heading up the slope toward Outpost Camp. Enough people have passed through this area that the trail is readily apparent; although there are some “false” trails that head off to other areas at this point. However, once you enter the meadow that Outpost Camp is located in, the coverage drops substantially and there are plenty of spots to camp. It was at this point that I encountered the only two people I would see all day, who were just waking up. I spoke to them for about five minutes; but unfortunately didn’t get any great information out of them, other than that they had tried the Mountaineers Route the day before, and said that it was “too sketchy”. Unfortunately, they were very reticent to share any other details than that with me about the route, including the particulars of why it was “sketchy”, so rather than risk unknown problems, I elected to keep heading up the main trail.
From Outpost Camp, the switchbacks heading up to Mirror Lake are partially covered with snow, but the trail is mostly exposed. Again, enough people have headed up through this area that the trail is readily apparent. At the base of Mirror Lake, the trail is completely obscured, but there is a clear path through the snow past the lake. When I passed through, the lake was completely frozen; but in the afternoon, it had partially unfrozen. From Mirror Lake, the trail is harder to find; and I basically blazed my own way up toward the top of the granite block. As far as I could see, this seemed to be the stopping point for 99% of most day hikers, and a good portion of climbers not familiar with the area. From the granite block/treeline area toward Trailside Meadows, there was near total coverage of solid snow/ice. So, for anyone keeping track at home, I would say that if you are wondering where the real snow/ice is an obstacle, I would say exactly at treeline – between 9,500 – 9,600 feet. While there was snow before that as I noted, it was nothing that really slowed or hindered my progress. From this point, to Trailside Meadows, I was able to follow the “trail” based on a couple of markers; and my knowledge of the area. While there were not too many tracks, I left a clear set heading up.
At Trailside Meadows, I elected to head pretty much directly up the drainage toward Trail Camp; and while I did follow some of the trail, overall it was more expedient for me just to head over the snow/ice in this area as it was very solid in the early morning. It is worth noting that I wished that I had brought snowshoes, which I did not have, as they would have definitely helped my pace in the early going, and been a huge asset on my descent in the afternoon. Atop the drainage, I was able to pick up the trail heading into Trail Camp; and had some great views of the fully frozen Consultation Lake. As far as I could tell, there were no tracks heading through Trail Camp, so, unless it snowed Sunday night, mine are basically the sole set heading up toward the switchbacks. While there are some spots that a tent could be pitched in Trail Camp, overall, the snow coverage was pretty good.
Once past Trail Camp, I could see that while portions of the switchbacks are slightly exposed, the overall trail is still impassable due to the snow and ice that remains. Based on this, I elected to head up the chute next to the switchbacks, which I have done many times before. Slightly past Trail Camp, I put on my crampons, and was using my ice axe, which I would say are absolute necessities if you are attempting this traverse within the next six weeks. It was at this point, when I was heading up the chute that the lack of an alpine start came back to bite me in the butt. Despite the intermittent 25-35mph wind gusts coming from the West, the direct mid-morning sun on the chute made it an absolutely brutal slog. I made it approximately 75% of the way up the chute; and I imagine that had I not had to make it back to the Portal by a certain time, I could have made it to Trail Crest; but, I would strongly suggest that if you are attempting to summit via this route anytime soon, that you get an alpine start to avoid this problem.
At that point, due to my time constraints, I elected to turn back around, and was able to glissade part of the way back down the chute in uneven snow conditions; some slushy; some solid. I made good time back to Trail Camp; but from Trail Camp to about Lone Pine Lake, I was stuck in bad snow conditions, where I was postholing step after step. Again, this is where a pair of snowshoes would have really helped me out. Due to the soft snow, and frequent postholing, it took me a fair amount of time to cover this short distance that is not technically challenging or dangerous. While this portion of the climb was a little frustrating, it was a great hike/climb under mostly perfect conditions for this time of year. I was surprised to see so few people on the mountain; but this is something that I am sure will change quickly.
Summary of Conditions: patchy snow from 8800 feet on up; mostly total coverage from 9600 feet on up. Snow is solid in most places during the early morning, turning into soft/slushy bad conditions in the mid to late afternoon. I expect there will probably be one late season storm that rolls through, but overall, the melting season has begun, and the trail is starting to clear for what will no doubt be another busy summer!