Sunday, June 13, 2010

Why it's hard to climb Mt. Whitney

We weren't surprised that there was snow on this 14,496-foot mountain in early June, but there's snow and then there's rotten snow. Rotten snow is the kind you sink into because it's soft and melting. That makes for slow going, what with stepping carefully and poking with your walking stick to see if the snow will hold your weight. And of course it also makes it harder to see the trail. This part of California got lots of snow this past winter, so there was more to contend with, and more to melt, swell creeks, and refreeze at night. We had to think a few minutes to plot a path across a creek just 20 minutes up the path: the water was stunningly clear, cold, and rushing downhill in a hurry.
Another factor is sheer height. As mountain trails go, this one is not forbiddingly steep, merely long; it becomes more doable under better conditions. We backpacked for five hours up to Outpost Camp, the lower campground (10,300 feet), where we had a tent back-window view of a snow-fed waterfall. The deciding factor, however, was that one of us got sick. When that happens in the wilderness, there's no running to the urgent care clinic. The first rule of safe mountaineering is know your limits, and there they were. Most people we encountered on the trail did not make the summit; most of them also looked to be in their 20s, with really strong legs. In a spirit of prudence and disappointment, we turned back. (The picture is a placeholder till I load ours.)