In September 2009, I decided to check out some winter mountaineering courses. Sierra Wilderness Seminars (SWS) had a couple of training courses that looked interesting, so I sent them a few emails. They eventually offered me a discount if I signed up for two courses, so I chose Whitney in March, and Shasta in April. Winter conditions last through the end of April on both mountains. SWS made it clear that summit attempts are dependent on weather and snow conditions. At this time of year, chances of summitting are 50% or less. If a storm moves in and there is no summit attempt, then SWS provides additional training lower on the mountain. This training can include avalanche beacon and probe methods, rope-team travel, and snow protection methods using pickets.
Here’s a day-by-day summary of our trip:
We drove as far as possible up Whitney Portal Road. Our parking spot was at around 7000 feet, so we had to ascend about 1400 vertical feet just to get to the trailhead. At the trailhead, we weighed our packs. My pack weighed 61 pounds, which was right around the average for the six of us. SWS provided breakfasts and dinners, but we were responsible for our own lunches and snacks. I brought at least 30 granola bars, some Ritz crackers, some Wheat Thins, and 8 packets of Power Gel.
The SWS guide instructed us to move at a slow, steady pace. He said that in mountaineering, “the tortoise often beats the hare”. There were a few fragile snow bridges to cross over the creek, but none of them collapsed and we managed to stay dry.
We reached Lower Boy Scout Lake (LBSL) at around 2:00 in the afternoon, and began setting up camp. Elevation was around 10300 feet. It had been sunny all day, but suddenly the wind picked up and it started snowing. After dinner, we went inside the tents to warm up.
This was a relatively easy day. We took our time eating breakfast, then took down the tents, and packed up. We snowshoed past Upper Boy Scout Lake, and headed in the direction of Iceberg Lake. At a large flat area we decided to set up camp. I’m not sure about the exact elevation, but it was somewhere around 11,800 feet.
After digging out a large platform for the tents, and building a snow wall around them (in case it got windy), we did some avalanche beacon and probe training. In addition, we made sure that crampons and harnesses fit securely, in preparation for our summit attempt the next day.
We woke up at 4:00 to prepare for the summit attempt. It took a while to eat breakfast and prepare gear, and we finally left camp at around 6:00. We reached Iceberg Lake (elevation around 12,800 feet) and switched from snowshoes to crampons. We also put on our harnesses and roped up, forming a 6-person rope team. After some snacks, we headed up the steep snow chute to the right of the peak. Progress was slow but steady, and eventually we reached the Notch at 14,000 feet. From there, we could see a large portion of Sequoia National Park to the west. It was very windy here, so we added layers, and prepared to ascend the steep chute to the summit.
The final 400 vertical feet to the peak was by far the most difficult section of the whole route, with a combination of snow, rocks, and ice. The SWS guide climbed up about 180 feet, set up an anchor, and belayed us from above. He didn’t have an ATC, so instead he tied a Munter hitch around a locking carabiner. We took turns climbing up to the belay station, along the way encountering some steep rocky sections while wearing crampons. After repeating this process a second time, we all reached the summit plateau. From there, it was an easy hike to the hut on the summit.
It was windy and cold on the peak, but not too bad for this time of year. After taking a long break, we headed back down. The SWS guide set up an anchor by slinging a cordalette over a large boulder. Then he lowered us one at a time, again using a Munter hitch. After repeating this process a second time, we all reached safer terrain around the Notch. Then we roped up again, forming a 6-person rope team, and headed down, which was much quicker than the descent. We returned to our camp by late afternoon, tired after a long summit day. Two members of our group had altitude-induced headaches, but nothing too severe.
We woke up at around 6:30, and began packing up for the descent. It was very windy, and at one point the wind almost blew one of the tents away, even though it still had some heavy objects in it. The descent back to the trailhead was pretty easy, and none of the snow bridges collapsed. We reached the cars before noon, and drove to the Pizza Factory in Lone Pine. Pizza and beer sure tasted good after several days of granola bars and other camp food.
Great trip report, Paul.
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