Winter Climbing Mt. Whitney, 2005 Style, Part 3

The Backpackers Camp at the Portal was mostly covered in large swaths of snow, and the parking lot was partially occluded. It was cold for May – very cold. We found the only snow free site in the campground, and made camp. I checked my gear for the next morning and we sat down to eat dinner. During dinner, my fiancé looked up at the mountain – and queried again how long the hike was. Upon re-learning that it was twenty-two miles, shook her head dismissively and asked why I would put my body through such torment. At the time, I was stymied for a correct answer.

At the early morning though, as I slipped into my clothes and boots, the answer hit me – it wasn’t particularly original – it was Hillary’s answer after all – “Because it’s there”; but it seemed very appropriate. Once I was dressed, I light my headlamp and started for the trail, passing two other groups of aspiring climbers also headed for the summit. The main trail receives the most complaints for the series of ninety-nine switchbacks that head to the ridgeline. Personally, I’ve always found the most difficult of portion of the trail to be the first four miles. It’s dark, I haven’t become used to the weight of my pack, thoughts of sleep are present, and the summit seems extraordinarily far away.

It was no different at the start this time, except this time I was hypersensitive to groups behind me. The bobbing motions of their headlamps did give the early ascent the look of a drive uphill. I had pole position, and after half an hour of hiking, had decided three things. First, the stars under the winter clearness were spectacularly brilliant. Second, despite the monotony of my footsteps, it had been a good decision to leave my iPod behind at the car; the crisp silence was eerily refreshing. Third, the snow obscured the trail a lot sooner than the two miles I had been lead to believe, because it was inconceivable that I had covered two miles – uphill – with a thirty pound backpack in thirty minutes. There was nothing left to do but get out the map and compass, strap on the crampons, and unhook my ice axe from my pack.

Midway through the first snowfield – or perhaps you could call it the only snowfield, as the rest of the ascent was covered in snow and ice, I looked back at the lights of my erstwhile companions on the mountain. It took me a second to realize what they were doing, because their lights were moving about in an erratic manner; but it quickly hit me when the lights began to recede from my view; they were heading back down. From that point on, I had no company but the crisp wind in my ears, and the solid crunching of ice beneath my crampons.

Despite what people may say about the trail, and my own opinions about it, at this point in the season, it was all moot – there was no trail, which is what had lead to my solitude; and what was going to be my challenge for the day. Over snow and ice I traveled, headed relentlessly uphill. As there was no trail, I made somewhat regular checks of my route with my map and compass. There was little risk of becoming lost, as I was familiar with the area, and after all – it was simple enough, as I was heading for the highest point. Nevertheless, it was still a good check on my skills, to keep me from inadvertently humiliating myself by getting lost. There were tracks throughout the snow heading in a variety of directions, and I definitely wasn’t going to follow blindly for any reason at all.