Current Conditions, Mount Whitney Trail, September 2014

Mount Whitney Trail, Dawn, September 21, 2014

Mount Whitney is one of the most iconic spots, and one of the most sought after peaks in the mountaineering community. At 14,508 feet (and growing), it is the tallest peak in the continental forty-eight states. It is also a mountain that I personally have a great deal of familiarity with: since 1998, I have climbed it yearly, except for 1999. After each yearly climb, I also make a yearly vow in which I always state that I will "never return" and "never do that again", and yet, each year, I find myself on one of the mountains many slopes. I'll briefly discuss why I return below; but in terms of the trail, there is not much that I can say about it at this point that I haven't already said. If you're here looking for a guide on how to climb the mountain on the Whitney Portal Trail, I suggest you check out this article that I wrote last year here. In this post, I'm mainly going to briefly cover current conditions on the trail, and feature the shots I took during my summit climb on September 21, 2014.

Trail Crest, Mount Whitney, September 21, 2014

Trail Report: As of September 21, 2014, the Whitney Portal Trail was in good condition after the standard hard summer of use. Despite one of the worst droughts in California history, seasonal sources such as Lone Pine Creek are still flowing (though at low volume), and water remains available at the standard spots such as Mirror Lake and Consultation Lake (by Trail Camp). A series of thunderstorms and rainstorms passed through the area the week and night before my climb; and roughly 1/4 to 1/2 inch of snow was left on a majority of the Sierras above 12,000 feet. Although it was cold - around 35 degrees or lower from 12,000 feet on up, I imagine that a majority of the snowfall will melt off before winter arrives.

Summit, Mount Whitney, September 21, 2014

Trip Report: Despite the early evening thunderstorms, I was able to get an alpine start with my climbing partner, David Wherry at 2:00 a.m. As the trail was in excellent shape, and David is insanely fast, we covered a great deal of distance during the first hour, ending up slightly beyond Outpost Camp (3.4 miles from the trailhead). At that point, I "decided" that discretion was the better part of valor, and let David continue on by himself (which he would have done anyhow, as he is just that fast). From Mirror Lake, I made normal, steady progress to Trail Camp (11,000 feet, 5.6 miles from trailhead), where a wintery mix (sleet/rain/snow) was still falling from the lingering clouds surrounding the peak. As a fair amount of clearing was occurring despite the precipitation, I decided that it was safe to head on; and headed up the switchbacks.

On the switchbacks, I found the other member of our climbing team, Paulina Dao making steady progress, and after hiking with her for a while, continued on to Trail Crest. I arrived at Trail Crest just in time to see the sun rising; and I can honestly say that the sight I beheld at that point was one of the most stunning I've seen on the trail - or anywhere. After marveling at the sunrise, I continued on to the summit (2.4 miles from Trail Crest). The snow that had fallen was not a factor; but as always, fatigue at 14,000+ feet is. I found myself literally .25 miles from the summit debating about whether to turn around - after all, I had been there many times before. Fortunately for me, at that point David showed up on his descent, and provided me with the words of motivation that I needed to hear: "Dude - it's ten minutes away!". After listening to his sage advice, I powered up the remaining slope to find myself once again among the clouds. The descent from the summit was uneventful; except for the stunning scenery that existed on that day. 

Tips: Although Mount Whitney is a California summit; and although the state is experiencing a record drought, it is fall, and winter conditions are starting to arrive on the mountain. Although 1/4 to 1/2 inch of snow is nothing to worry about as a general rule, parties planning on climbing the mountain from this point on should be prepared for colder conditions entering fall and winter. In terms of timing for the current weather pattern, David and I timed it perfectly, arriving on the summit in a period of clear skies from 8:15-9:00 a.m. before the daily thunderstorms began to build again at around 10:30-11:00 a.m. 

Mount Whitney Summit, September 21, 2014

Musings: I am often asked why I climb mountains; or in this case, why I continue to climb Mount Whitney. While I always have a complicated long-winded answer consisting of in part, "Because it's there", this climb exemplified for me many of the reasons that I do climb. As I ascended to Trail Crest on Sunday, the air was perfectly still. All I could hear was the crunch of my boot on rock; snow; ice; and the muffled thump-thump-thump of my heart. But while the air was silent, the sky spoke for itself. Across the totality of my vision, the planet sung and spoke with beauty. Wisps of clouds swirled on unseen high elevation currents while light from the sun shimmered, sparkled, and painted each and every ancient rock it could uncover. 

I have climbed Mount Whitney many, many times. I have been lucky to be on the mountain on perfect bluebird skies on fields of perfect white ice. I have been unlucky enough to be on the mountain in 60 mile-per-hour sustained winds. And while I have seen many beautiful things; I have never seen the mountain look as perfect as it did yesterday. At times like that, no words can describe what my (or any climbers) eyes saw. Simply put, for me, such moments like that are moments of utter clarity, when the world stops, and everything makes perfect sense. For me, in part, I felt grateful to have the best partner in the world, my fiance, my son, and my family; and I felt mindful that although the world is a difficult place at times, it is still a place that is full of magic and wonder; and a place that is meant to be explored. I hope the pictures do it justice for those of you who couldn't be there with me; and as always #preservethegood.