OK, so the straight poop first, then y'all can read the fluff if you feel like it:
1) The main trail is dry essentially all the way to Trail Camp. There are a few patches of snow/ice that are easily avoided/stepped over/inconsequential, and by Saturday afternoon, most of it had turned to slush-n-mush with some larger puddles.
2) Last water for the moment is the inlet to and Trail Camp pond. We chose to tank up at Trailside Meadow and did not filter.
3) Snow was essentially covering the trail around Switcher #20 and higher. The inside of the trail was hard-pack and icy, and most flat-top rocks were a slip hazard.
4) The snow at the cables was firm-pack and offered good traction if you watched your step. Continued boot pack could change those conditions quickly. I have bundled all my pics of the cables here .
5) There is a good amount of ice heading down from Trail Crest towards the JMT junction. This was our turnaround, so I have no beta on the backside. Assuming snow and icy conditions that would warrant caution but do-able.
6) I carried crampons/ice axe for this trip, not truly knowing what conditions were to be. I could have donned the crampons on the upper 2/3 of the switchers during the descent, as there was enough snow. The axe was more for possibly cutting steps/through ice for water as needed. My basic rule is if you think you might have to use them, take them.
7) If I may (sort of) rant for a moment: this Saturday was a perfect example of what happens during this time of year: start of the day was gorgeous and clear, and within 30-40 minutes it disintegrated into a snowstorm. Now, it wasn't a gale, nor was it tremendously cold. But above Trail Camp, this is no longer just a 'hike'. From the change in conditions to the ice and snow that line the trail, care MUST be taken. If there is any question in your mind, stop and turn around. You are responsible for your own actions, and with the weather changes, help will be even slower in coming. Always be prepared for the worst-case scenario.
And now we return to our regularly scheduled programming:
Jack Northam (whtny_n1) started running up and down Whitney in 1996 (7??) and has since accummulated 74 ascents of our favorite peak, often performing the amazing "Double" of two ascents (usually from the Portal) in one day. When Doug Sr introduced me to Betsy last summer, we became fast friends, sharing our love of the outdoors with one another, talking rapid-fire about adventures in the back country and Betsy teaching me about some of the flora adorning the hills. Jack had made plans this past summer for his 75th ascent to take place during Betsy's birthday-wish weekend (happy belated, Bets!), Doug had recruited Doug Jr, Nick, and Cherida along for the ride, and I asked Mike to come along as well. When I arrived at the Portal Friday night, the group was already diminishing, with Doug Jr dropping out, and Cherida initially on the ropes. A call to Mike later found him not feeling well. I had a feeling we might be in for an adventure instead of a summit.
After crashing at the Hostel with Jack and Betsy Friday night, we drove back up to the Portal and met Doug Sr just before 0500. We hovered in the Store until 0520, waiting for Nick to arrive but finally headed for the Old Trail and were on our way. The spotlight of the half moon cast long shadows as we comfortably climbed past the John Muir Wilderness sign and up the lower switchers to the cascade below Lone Pine Lake. A warming sky and creeping sunrise altered the granite cliffs from liquid silver to copper as we scurried up the shortcut to Outpost Camp. A double-shot of alpenglow set the Crest ablaze above Bighorn Park, as the sun rose through a few layers of thin clouds to the southeast, and the moon slowly set behind Mt. Muir. A stiff breeze accompanied the dawn, making each of us shiver as we passed Mirror Lake and headed above treeline. After tanking up at Trailside Meadow, we reached Trail Camp as wispy clouds brushed the Crest, shadows dancing on the eastern faces. To the south through Arc Pass, we could see grey clouds building and approaching, and the wind seemed to strengthen as we approached the switchers. To the north above Russell, the clouds were now ripping over the crest, horsetail strands consolidating and growing dense and more pewter as we began the ascent.
Around the 20th switcher, snow began to cover the trail, and more was beginning to fall , sweeping south along the Crest towards us. We met a handful of people descending, but continued up in the swirling snow. It was not tremendously cold, and visibility was good right in front of us, so we regrouped behind the rocks just before Trail Crest to don another layer and grab a snack before turning the corner. From our nook we could see spindrift blasting through the gap and none of us looked forward to stepping into the gale. At last we scrambled down to the sign for pictures , and I walked a few feet further down the trail when I heard Betsy go "Whoops!" and turned back to see Doug and Jack each holding one of her arms and she on her bottom on the rocks and ice of the trail. Doug called out to me that we were turning back, foregoing what was sure to be a windy, cold, cloudy, and snowy few hours to the summit and back. So, with another front building and socking in the Crest, we began our trudge back down to Trail Camp. Jack and Betsy donned their YakTrax, while Doug and I simply walked on the snow, the fresh, dry layer creaking and crunching under our boots. Although the temps never dropped below 30 degrees, all of a sudden my fingertips began to go numb and searing pain led to me ripping off my gloves (with Doug's help) and making a fist to attempt to warm my blue fingers (Doug mashed my left hand between his as I willed my right hand warm deep in a woolen mit). Within two minutes the blood began to return, and Betsy turned to see tears in my eyes as the stinging pain lingered, then lessened. Yup, those gloves are going right back to REI when I get the chance. Around us the storm breathed in and out allowing intermittent views of the Portal below and across the Valley, then closing in so that we were carefully stepping on the edge of the abyss.
We found a sheltered cubby below Trail Camp to rest and eat, Jack and Betsy breaking out their stove and the treat of the day: a choice of chicken noodle soup or hot chocolate! We ate in shifts, with Jack making sure he didn't burn the water... Starting up again, Betsy led us down the slabs and rocks to Trailside Meadow, and we walked down the trail through the slush and mush. Well, they walked; I gimped since I had chosen to wear boots for the first time in months (I've been wearing trail runners since June) and apparently the boots I climbed Mt. LeConte in last June just don't fit me anymore. Outpost Camp was horrifically crowded so we dashed through as soon as possible, arriving back at the Store by 1700. Earlene had made us a huge pot of chicken soup, texas toast, and salad for dinner, into which we gratefully dove (after I had ripped the offending boots off my poor feet, of course!). Thanks so much to Doug, Jack, and Betsy for inviting me along for the ride!
A few quotes of the day:
"Nope, this is my first time up here." -- Doug to a backpacker after he had said he was going to stay at "Desolation Lake"
"Can you see the snow over there? I like to be able to see the snow." -- Doug to the guy coming down the switchers who told us it was snowing on the backside.
"Just the man I wanna talk to!" -- Some dude approaching Doug just below Trail Crest to complain that he didn't get his burger when he arrived after Last Call the night before.
A few moments from the day:
We warned Jack about picking up hitchhikers:
Looks like someone blew out the flame on Candlelight:
Doug managed to find the one waist-deep section at the cables:
Doug's Moment of Bliss:
Storm Break Shadows:
From the luckiest girl in the world: Climb Hard; Be Safe!
If you've been searching for the best source of information and stimulating discussion related to Spring/Summer/Fall backpacking, hiking and camping in the Sierra Nevada...look no further!
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Thank you for the detailed report! I really enjoy the pictures of the snow blowing into the mountains. Sounds like you were in great company and had an enjoyable adventure!
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Great pictures Moose. Also enjoyed the write-up. Being from the east coast don't get to hike Sierras much . I hiked the JMT in 2007 You mentioned the hostile is it in Lone Pine and if so where. Can you supply me with the address
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