Mt. Whitney Mount Whitney - North Fork Route

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I've been up Mt. Whitney numerous times, usually to lead someone up there to say they did it. In early June of 1978, for a bit more adventure, I climbed Mt. Whitney by myself by way of the North Fork of Lone Pine Creek. Over 20 years later I still get asked about this trip, so here it is. The pictures aren't real clear, even after some adjusting with Paint Shop Pro, as they were taken with 110 film and printed on matte finish paper. (Love the 70's! And no, I won't post pictures of my 1972 trip wearing striped bell bottoms.)

I left Whitney Portal about 5:30 in the evening right after driving up from Escondido after work. Being before wilderness permits, quotas, and the Internet, there wasn't a lot of published information. The Climber's Guide to the High Sierra said nothing about the ledges used today, so I bushwacked up the creek to Lower Boy Scout Lake and set up camp. There was someone camped on the other side of the lake. We waved to each other and I went to sleep.

The next morning I had a great view of Mt. Whitney - and the snow covered route I would have to climb to get there. The route goes up the snow covered draw on the left side of the picture, and then turns right over the hump shown. Fortunately, I had anticipated snow and ice and came prepared. Unfortunately, being the starving college student that I was, this consisted of a broomstick with a screwdriver blade pounded into one end and bound with nylon cord.

Mt. Whitney from Lower Boy Scout Lake
Upper Boy Scout Lake from Clyde Meadow

From Clyde Meadow I could see that Upper Boy Scout Lake was still frozen.

Behind me was a nice view down the canyon back to Lone Pine. I was walking on snow more often than not. I passed two tents, but they were empty, so I figured I'd see someone on top the mountain later.

  Looking back down to Lone Pine from Clyde Meadow

Ahead of me the moon led the way up a steep snowy climb to the mountain.






The climb up from Clyde Meadow

As I climbed, I had a great view of the east face of Whitney.

East Face of Whitney

75 degree slope below Iceberg Lake

In some places the route was too steep for intelligent people. Being young and invulnerable, I pressed on up a 75 degree slope which was covered with ice from a waterfall. If I stood upright and put my arms straight out they touched the ice. I took my heavy pack off and hauled it up behind me using parachute cord, the whole time thinking the cord would break and I'd have to climb back down after it.

The Mountaineer's Route

Finally arriving at Iceberg Lake, the Climber's Guide told me to "climb a long, deep gully to the right of the enormous east face...There is often ice in this stretch." No kidding! Either that, or vertical rock. Well, I went down to the lake - actually, walked out on a foot of ice over the lake - and tried to break the ice with my broomstick. The only thing that broke was the broomstick. Filling my canteens with snow and looking hard at the gully, I decided to do the only sensible thing: Head for the North Face.

I traversed up the snow slope to Whitney-Russell Saddle, using what was left of my broomstick for balance. A slide here would have put me back in - well, on - Iceberg Lake. Crossing over the crest of the Sierra, I worked my way up loose rock until the way got to steep, then traversed right a bit to another shallow gully, up, right, up, etc., sometimes climbing on my hands and knees, until I finally reached the summit plateau just below the restroom.

Whitney-Russell Saddle

Being around 2 or 3:00 on a Saturday, I was surprised to find absolutely no one on the summit, just this rosy finch.

There is an outhouse on top of Whitney. At the time it had four stone walls but no roof. I don't think it ever did have a roof. Sometime in the '90's three walls of the outhouse were destroyed by "vandals," leaving only the east wall to hide the toilet from the trail. Now, sitting on this throne, you have a fantastic view of the Great Western Divide - Probably the best view from a restroom anywhere. From the picture below, you can see that the Hitchcock Lakes are frozen solid.

Rosy finch near the restroom atop Mt. Whitney
Looking west from Mt. Whitney to the Great Western Divide

An hour or so after reaching the top, I heard voices. Walking over to the summit plaque, I saw four people just reaching the summit from one of the East Face routes. They were, in fact, the occupants of the tents I'd seen earlier. After a short chat, they headed back down the Mountaineer's Route. Around 4:30 a solo hiker arrived at the peak, day hiking from the main trail. I didn't think to ask him how the trail was, having hiked it six years back and finding it quite easy. Little did I know.

I thought about pitching my tent, but considering the shallow sand to hold my tent stakes, tight space in the rock wall shelters build to block the wind, and completely clear skies, I laid my sleeping bag on the ground and melted snow to cook my dinner and drink. Watching the sun drop behind the far western mountains, standing alone on the peak, was an eerie feeling.

Sunset atop Mt. Whitney

This picture shows the hut glowing the the remaining light. You can see the far door is open. This door is now locked to prevent entry, and the room is used to store maintenance supplies for the park service. Also notice that the lightning rods and ground system is not present. In the '90's, some people took shelter in a tin-roofed building with a steel stove pipe on top the highest mountain in thousands of miles in a lightning storm and guess what: Yep, lightning struck the building. One died and several others were seriously hurt. Now there's an ugly ground system, a floating wood floor in the one small room still open, and signs telling people that lightning strikes tall objects! If a storm threatens, get off the mountain.

Sunset at the Mt. Whitney summit building

After a restless sleep, probably from not being acclimated, I awoke to a clear sunny day. My water bottles were frozen, as were my boot laces. Jamming my feet into those boots, I stomped down the trail towards Trail Crest. The last quarter mile to the crest is a steep climb up, and as I approached I noticed a large object in the trail near the top. Getting closer, it looked like a body. Closer, I could see someone standing at the pass, and that the object was a sleeping bag. Stepping over one sleepy camper, I greeted another PCT thru-hiker who was nearly snow-blind from his long trek through the snow without sun glasses. I questioned why they spent the night on the trail at the pass when there was such a well-built trail heading down. The reply was, "What switchbacks?" and something about a chute. Looking over the top, I could see nothing but snow where the 97 switchbacks should have been. A chute, about 2 feet deep and the width of a pack frame, led straight down about a thousand feet. This was the answer to the lack of crowds on the peak.

After a longer chat, and a bit of breakfast, I debated walking or sliding, and opted for the path of least resistance. Walking over to the chute, I sat down and began to pick up speed. Using my boots for brakes, I did pretty well until, about half way down, my pack frame got stuck on a bump, and I was hanging from the shoulder straps by my elbows. Extricating myself, I continued down a bit slower, safely reaching the bottom, then stomping through the snow to Trail Camp for a long rest.

The rest of the trip was quite pleasant, stopping several times for naps in the sun, arriving at the Portal about noon. The snow blind hiker and I had lunch at the store, and I drove him and his pack - with difficulty, as I had a Triumph Spitfire at the time - down to Lone Pine to buy sunglasses.

Trail Crest from Trail Camp, with the 'chute' visible in the left hand gully

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