Winter Climbing Mt. Whitney, 2005 Style, Part 2

Regardless of the complaints, I had never had a problem with the permit system. Perhaps that was because I had always applied for a day hike permit; permits which were notoriously easier to obtain, or I had applied in the “slow season” for my permits. As for the trail, the other arguments seemed a little bit like the “Chicken and the Egg”. There were too many people because of the trail, but since there had been too many people before the trail, the trail was needed. I had no problem with the trail, nor saw any reason to find fault with climbing the mountain in that manner. It was an eleven mile hike one way, twenty two miles round trip. The trail climbs from eight thousand feet to fourteen thousand, four hundred and ninety six feet – an elevation gain of over six thousand feet.

The first time I had climbed the mountain, it had been in the dead of summer with a friend, and it had been hot, dusty, and there had been a lot of other people. We completed the hike in a day. The second time I climbed the mountain, it had been May, and the vestiges of snow still lingered on the mountain, requiring me to use my ice axe and crampons at points. When I had come down, I had stated empathetically that I would never climb the mountain again. Both times I had found the trail much easier than a technical ascent, without a doubt, but still extremely challenging to accomplish in a day.

That was three years ago. If one enjoys mountaineering, it is like having a sickness. At times, the very idea of any sort of high-altitude excursion sounds appalling. At other times, it’s like a form of dementia, a constant idea that is impossible to get out of your head. For me, the sickness had gripped me for weeks on end. I wanted to see what Whitney was like during the winter, during a year in which California had received prodigious amounts of rain. I also wanted to test the “highway” theory, and climb the mountain on my own – because the last times I had, I was accompanied by the duty of work, and the expectations of friends.

Before one climbs Whitney, one retrieves their permit from the Forest Service station in Lone Pine. The Forest Service employees will describe all sorts of prohibitions for the Whitney Zone – namely, proper food storage, so as not to invite a bear incident, and proper waste disposal. Previously, the Forest Service had attempted to deal with human waste in a variety of methods – the conventional burying, and the use of composting pit toilets. The new – and by far superior method for dealing with human waste was to have the owner pack it out in plastic bags. While this method may seem abhorrent and unreasonable at first blush, upon second glance it is entirely reasonable – and prudent for them to adopt this new protocol. With thousands of hikers and climbers entering the Whitney Portal region, proper disposal of waste is a large environmental issue. It would be impossible for that much waste to biodegrade on its own, and would only serve as a blight on the land should it remain there. Packing one’s waste out is a common feature to climbers as well, who on multi-day big wall climbs utilize what is called euphemistically, a “poop tube”.

I had no problem with the baggies – what I wanted was information. In the summer, trail conditions are simple – dry and direct. In the winter, with snowfields and snowmelt, the conditions of the route are imperative items, as they will determine what gear that a climber or hiker carries with them. The caliber of information provided to me about the trail was vastly improved from the years past. However, they forgot to tell me that the road to the Portal was closed near the top. This led to some confusion when I arrived at the sign several hours later. After much dithering on my part, we bypassed the sign – like the other twenty or so cars in the lot, and parked.