Thursday, August 17, 2006
Mt. Whitney: Not a technical climb, but it's every bit an endurance test
Nineteenth-century naturalist John Muir christened California's Sierra Nevada the "Range of Light," and indeed it was, even at 3:30 in the morning.
|CHRIS PINCHBECK/AURORA/GETTY IMAGES|
|14,497-foot-high Mount Whitney in the morning.|
As we started up the trail by headlamp, the illumination of only a quarter-moon turned the pinnacle-spiked eastern wall of the Sierras into a radiant, golden rampart.
Mount Whitney, the high point on that vast wall, seemed aglow. Later, as the sun struck it, the mountain's black-speckled, pink and white granite and translucent quartz sent reflected light ricocheting off it as if from a trillion tiny mirrors.
It was a world apart from the often brooding, ice-mantled
summits of the Cascades, that chain of stand-alone Northwest volcanoes that contemporary mountaineer/author Fred Beckey called the "Range of Glaciers."
Anyone climbing the highest peaks in each of the three West Coast states will find another, bigger difference: unlike Washington and Oregon's highest, California's has no glaciers or crevasses, normally requires no mountaineering skills to get to the top and, in fact, has a trail all the way up.
But that can be deceptive.
It apparently fools many of the 23,000 people a year who set out to climb Mount Whitney, because only about one-third reach the 14,497-foot summit.
|NEIL MODIE \ P-I|
|It's break time at 12,000 feet for climbers, from left, Tim Egan, daughter Sophie Egan and Cammie Rudolf at a picturesque tarn beneath the granite pinnacles of the eastern Sierra crest.|
From the trailhead, it is 10.7 miles to the top, with 6,137 feet of elevation gain. Of the 21.4-mile round trip, nearly 10 miles are above 12,000 feet.
Under normal circumstances, the climb isn't hazardous, although the high elevation can bring on altitude sickness or even potentially deadly pulmonary or cerebral edema for someone not properly acclimatized. But it's really only a hike, albeit a long one, and not a mountaineering feat.
That makes the Whitney failure rate all the more humbling. After all, more than half the 9,000 or so climbers a year who attempt 14,411-foot Mount Rainier make it to the top, despite needing ice axes, crampons, carabiners, ropes and other mountaineering gear necessary to arrest a slide down steep glacial ice or climb out of a crevasse.
The same is true of glaciated, crevassed, 11,237-foot Mount Hood, the highest and most-climbed major peak in Oregon. Forest Service officials guess that more than half the 8,000 or so climbers who set out for that summit each year get there.
Still, you're apt to find more people on Whitney's nearly flat, bouldery summit than you would on the ice-covered, windswept tops of Rainier or Hood.
A lot of people go up Rainier or Hood for the bragging rights of having climbed the highest this or highest that. The same motive drives many in the hordes that attempt Mount Whitney: It's the highest point in the lower 48 states.
|Movin' on up: Sophie Egan, front, and Neil Modie pick their way through a rocky gully on the Mount Whitney Trail. From trailhead to the 14,497-foot summit, it's a 10.7-mile grunt with 6,137 feet of elevation gain.|
"It certainly ranks up there nationwide as one of the peaks people have on their life's list" to climb, said Nancy Upham, a spokeswoman for Inyo National Forest, which regulates climbing on Mount Whitney. The summit is in Sequoia National Park, but the main approach is in the national forest.
Combined, Rainier, Hood and Whitney make a West Coast summit trifecta, of sorts.
Brian Spitek, the lead Mount Whitney ranger for the Inyo forest, thinks a lot of people who try to climb Whitney underestimate it: "Someone will tell them he climbed Mount Whitney and said it was easy, and it's not. It's physically demanding.
"My guess is, most of the people (who attempt the climb) are Californians and they live at sea level, and they drive up here and try to do it in one day," he said.
Trying to do the climb in one day from sea level, or even from 3,700-foot Lone Pine, Calif., 13 miles from the trailhead, is to invite altitude sickness. Upham said that's probably what trips up most unsuccessful climbers.
To adjust to the oxygen-shy altitude, it's better to spend a night at the 8,360-foot trailhead at the Forest Service's enormous Whitney Portal campground, as we did, or to camp en route. Our party also day hiked to 10,200 feet and back the day before.
Another problem, Spitek said, is that Southern Californians, unlike Northwesterners, "aren't well versed in traveling on snow. Snow is really dynamic, and it might be really soft and slushy one time of day, and some other time of day it's frozen."
After our party of six Seattleites reached the summit on a mid-June afternoon and was heading back down -- descending a steep, 1,700-foot-high snowfield nearly three miles from the top -- the sun had dropped partway behind the Sierra crest. It quickly made the snow hard and treacherous on the shadowed half of the snowfield, though it remained mushy on the still-sunny half.
We encountered a Californian who was properly equipped, physically fit and had reached nearly the 14,000-foot level, less than two miles from the summit. But she said that was enough; no farther.
What stopped her was the prospect of a short traverse across a snow-buried section of trail chopped out of sheer, near-vertical rock along the Sierra crest. It looked scary but was negotiable enough for anyone equipped with an ice ax, as she was.
"I've been to the summit twice before," she said, "but never with snow."
Spitek is a little mystified that snow should be a surprise.
"It's called the Sierra Nevada, which means snowy mountains," he said. "It's snowy."
It's much less so, however, in July and later, when the 1,700-foot-high snowfield we ascended becomes a steep trail with 97 switchbacks and even a cable railing along much of it.
August, though, is a big month for thunderstorms. That's when Whitney and neighboring pinnacles along the Sierra crest can turn into lightning rods. Ditto for people climbing them.
Mount Whitney isn't visible to the urban masses of Southern California as Mount Rainier is to Puget Sounders or Mount Hood to Portlanders. Those two peaks dominate their respective states' Western urban skylines.
Mount Whitney can be seen only from the dry, remote Owens Valley on the east side of the Sierras. The summit is the high point on a towering wall of granite Sierra fangs nearly 11,000 feet above Lone Pine on U.S. Route 395.
One thing these West Coast summits have in common is Muir, the Scottish-born naturalist who had an affinity for all three. He climbed Mount Rainier in 1888, spending a chilly night at 10,000 feet at what now is Camp Muir. He intended to climb Mount Hood the same year but was thwarted by illness.
Muir had climbed Mount Whitney alone in 1873, two months after three other men made the first ascent. Today it lies at the edge of the John Muir Wilderness and marks the southern terminus of the 211-mile-long John Muir Trail, which skirts neighboring Mount Muir on its way to the summit of Whitney.
By starting before dawn, Whitney can be climbed in one long day, eliminating the weight of tents, sleeping bags and stoves. But many climbers opt to take two or three days.
Because of the masses who want to do the climb, the Forest Service tightly restricts the number of climbing, hiking and overnight camping permits, which it issues by lottery. Along the Mount Whitney Trail, there are only two campsites, one at 3.5 miles and the other at 6 miles from Whitney Portal. Overnight permits can be hard to come by.
Our group opted for the one-day "death march." We started the trip by headlamp. The slowest members of our scattered party, myself included, also finished it by headlamp.
The route crosses to the west side of the eastern Sierras at 8.2 miles, displaying endless peaks and a lake-strewn granite basin to the west, and then traverses the crest for 2.5 miles to the summit, with stupendous views all the way.
At the top, near a stone hut built by the Smithsonian Institution in 1909 to shelter scientists, a bronze plate informs you that your elevation is 14,497.61 feet. More or less.
From this highest point in the contiguous United States, you're just 76 miles from Death Valley, the lowest point in North America. And nearly 11,000 feet directly below is the flat, arid Owens Valley.
Once you return to Whitney Portal, the most important of apres-mountaineering essentials are close at hand.
The funky Whitney Portal Store, a few yards from the trailhead, cooks up hefty, gut-bomb hamburgers and fries, sells beer and rents showers. And it purveys caps showing Mount Whitney on the front and proclaiming, "I climbed" on the back.
A MOUNTAIN TRIFECTA
(most popular route)
Mount Rainier -- 8,991 feet
Mount Hood -- 5,237
Mount Whitney -- 6,312 (including regaining elevation loss)
(round trip, most popular route)
Mount Rainier -- 16 miles on trail, snow, rock and glacier ice
Mount Hood -- 8 miles on trail, snow and glacier ice
Mount Whitney -- 21.4 miles, on trail and possible ice patches and snow
Mount Rainier -- Party size limited to 12. Climbing fee is $30 per person, per year. Fee for optional climbing reservation between May 1 and Sept. 30 is $20 per party. Forty percent of wilderness camping slots are held aside for walk-ins.
Mount Hood -- Party size limited to 12. Free, self-issued wilderness permits required.
Mount Whitney -- Party size limited to 15. Free wilderness permit required. From May 1 to Nov. 1, daily quota on Mount Whitney Trail is 60 overnight backpackers and 100 day hikers. Fee for reservations is $15 per person. Reservations are issued by lottery, which must be applied for during February. After the lottery, remaining quota space and unclaimed permits are allocated on first-come, first-served basis. Reservations are optional but advisable.
MAIN CLIMBING SEASON
Mount Rainier -- Mid-May to mid-August
Mount Hood -- Mid-April to mid-July
Mount Whitney -- July through September
Mount Rainier -- Crevasses, ice slopes, rockfall, altitude, unpredictable weather, cold
Mount Hood -- Crevasses, ice slopes, rockfall, sulfurous steam near summit
Mount Whitney -- Lightning, steep snow in early season, altitude
Mount Rainier -- Approximately 70 miles southeast of Seattle
Mount Hood -- Approximately 60 miles southeast of Portland
Mount Whitney -- 13 miles west of Lone Pine, Calif.; approximately 270 miles southeast of Reno, Nev.; 250 miles west of Las Vegas; and 230 miles northeast of Los Angeles
Mount Rainier (Mount Rainier National Park) -- www.nps.gov/mora/climb/climb.htm
Mount Hood (Mount Hood National Forest) -- www.fs.fed.us/r6/mthood/recreation/climbing/index.shtml