Never Save Anything for the Way Back (or: how we climbed Whitney in the Snow)

As I clipped my backpack on, I checked my phone one last time before turning it off for the weekend. Where we were going, there would be no reception.

There was a text message from my mom:

Mom: “Please use good judgment on Whitney …”
Me: “Will do. : ) “

That exchange would linger in the back of my mind for the next 36 hours.

Myself and five other intrepid wanderers were about to hike Mount Whitney. With an elevation of 14,505 feet, it’s the tallest mountain in the contiguous United States. Also, even though it’s May, it’s still winter up there. Only one in three hikers who attempt to summit Whitney in May are successful.

We took two days, opting to camp about half way up. As such, the first day was relatively easy; we hiked six miles to Trail Camp, situated 12,000 feet above sea level. That six miles was enough altitude for one of our party, and he decided he would not attempt the summit the next morning.

As it grew dark on the mountain side, we boiled water and ate our freeze-dried pasta, while observing the route we would take the next day to the summit. Off to the right, a couple of rocks broke loose from the mountain, causing a small rockslide down into the valley.

The sun sets on our camp. The snow on the left is the path we took.

Prior to leaving, we’d done our research. Per earlier, only about one out of three hikers who attempted the Whitney Summit in this season would reach the top. Those who didn’t make it would be rebuffed by snow, ice, thunderstorms, and altitude sickness. While licking our spoons clean, we talked with hikers who were descending. Many of them hadn’t successfully summited that day.

That night, I crawled out of my tent. It was close to midnight. The Milky Way dusted the moonless sky, lighting up the entire canyon. I just caught a shooting star out of the corner of my eye, and made a wish.

On summit day, the dawn broke clear into our canyon. This was good news, as it meant no storms, and we could make an attempt at the summit.

Sunrise on summit day.

We had two options: we could either climb the dreaded 96 Switchbacks – the traditional route – or take on The Chute – a massive snowfield with a vertical ascent of 1,800 feet.

After reviewing the stories from hikers who had attempted the summit yesterday, we decided we’d have better luck with The Chute. The switchbacks were icy – and few hikers who tried to take the switchbacks yesterday had summited.

As we strapped on our unfamiliar crampons, I wondered if we were “Using Good Judgement.” The Chute, blanketed with probably 40 inches of snow, was definitely the road-less-travelled. Most of us hadn’t worn crampons before, and the inch-long metal spikes on our boots felt more like weapons than hiking tools. I had also recently read an excellent article on on the dangers of human-induced avalanches and was wondering if we were going to be on the wrong end  -or the cause- of just such a phenomenon.

Climbing The Chute. I’m the one on the right.

Remember the angle of ascent here … we had to slide down this later.

I don’t know how long it took us to climb The Chute, but that’s because it was an adventure. As I climbed, I would jab my spike-laden toes into the snow, one step at a time, for twenty steps, then stop to catch my breath for ten seconds, and repeat. It was fun, but at points, it felt like the endless running scene from Monty Python. Despite how long the knight is running, he never seems to get closer to his destination…

Until, at last, I reached the crest. I took a few deep breaths of thin air to slow my pulse. After a moment, I looked around – and it was beautiful. We could see our camp far below, and two frozen lakes on the other side of the mountain. After a quick celebratory snack, we kept moving towards the summit.

The last two miles to the summit were very difficult. We inched along a tiny path, which was framed by a rock face on one side and a sheer vertical drop on the other. The path was no more than ten inches wide in some places, and was covered in ice or snow in most places. One false step would have sent one of us plummeting. I tried not to think about how I’d regain the path if I fell … part of my mind knew that I wouldn’t have made it back to the path. The rock face was just too steep to attempt a climb.

At one point, I was stopping for a rest with one of the girls in my party. She looked as exhausted as I felt. We were both struggling with the thin air – each step at altitude seemed as difficult as four at sea level. “I don’t know how I’m going to make it back down,” she said. I asked her if she had seen Gattaca, and she nodded. “I never saved anything for the swim back,” I quoted. She smiled.

A few minutes later, our team of five took the last few steps to the summit. Suddenly, everything seemed wonderful – no more altitude sickness, dehydration-induced nausea, or fatigue from sleeping on the ground the previous night – we had made it to the top.

We made it!

We descended a bit to find a spot out of the wind and eat our lunches. It was about 1pm.

The feeling of invincibility wore off too quickly. Those two miles we’d just done to the summit? Suddenly, it became clear exactly how dangerous those sheer cliffs were, and how far of a drop it was to the valley floor just to our right. We were exhausted … and much more likely to make a mistake now than we had been an hour ago. Now, there was no motivation to get to the top – we’d already done that. Now we just had to get home. And it was a long, hard trek ahead of us.

When we reached the ridge at the top of The Chute, it was time for the next challenge – glissading down to camp. Glissading is basically sliding down snow on your butt, using an ice axe as a brake. I’d definitely never done it before, and all I knew about it was from a cautionary article I’d read several years ago about how dangerous it was and how many deaths were attributed to glissading each year.

I looked over the edge, down the snowfield we’d climbed up just a few hours earlier. It somehow seemed a lot steeper from this angle.

But – one of our party had trekked 350 kilometers across the North Pole, glissading parts of it along the way. Surely his expertise would be sufficient to get us down the mountain. In our tired minds, this made sense.

I ignored the “Good Judgement” voice in my head and stuck my butt firmly in the snow. A slight scoot forward, and …

Nothing happened. I was just a few inches further down the mountain. Another scoot, and … still nothing. I gave myself one more good shove …

And I was off! There was a luge-like trail from an earlier glissader, and I followed the snow-channel down. As chunks of white powder tumbled around me, little snowballs crunched down the snowfield. It was like the really big slide at a playground … but for adults, and with incredible scenery.

Glissading! I’m the one on the right.

It took far less time to make it down the snowfield than it did to climb it earlier in the day. The bottom of the slope was still a mile from the campsite; we bouldered through a rocky path get there. We later learned that the rocky path was just about where the rockslide had crumbled the day before. When I found that out, I wondered what other dangerous we had cavalierly been ignorant to.

We reached our campsite around 4pm – much later than we anticipated. Fatigued, dehydrated, and mostly delirious, we packed up camp and made our way down the mountain, finishing the full trek just about a half hour after darkness and descended.

Those last six miles were brutal. Everyone was digging deep, and suffering much more than any of us would let on. We hadn’t saved anything for the way back.

All in all, it was an amazing trip. I wouldn’t call what we did “hiking,” per se – it was much more of a “backpacking” or a “mountaineering” expedition. It was very technical, and very little of it was trekking on easy trails. It was my first time hiking in the snow, using crampons, and glissading, and my second time on an overnight backpacking trip.

Make no mistake: this was a hard hike. We absolutely needed all the snow gear we brought. This was the wrong season to do it, and it probably would have been easier to do it in one day rather than two – less gear to carry. I was shivering in my sleeping bag the entire night – while wearing every piece of clothing I had brought.

There was also a subtle difference between this climb and any of the adventure running I’ve done. While Whitney was similarly challenging altitude-wise to the Inca Trail Marathon, this trip was much more of a team-based. Only I could get myself to the top of the mountain, but we had to work together to make sure we all made it safely. We were looking out for each other, looking for signs of dehydration or altitude sickness. We had crampon experts, glissading experts, water purification experts … everyone had something to bring, and everyone had to rely on someone else for help with something at one point or another.

I’m learning there are adventures out there that don’t necessarily involve running … and they’re just as fun, and just as challenging.

Next stop: Everest?

Top of the world.

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22 thoughts on “Never Save Anything for the Way Back (or: how we climbed Whitney in the Snow)

  1. PLEASE don’t ever glissade with crampons on! One of the spikes can get caught in the snow, causing you to lose control of the glissade. If you check Accidents in North American Mountaineering, you’ll see that a few people die this way every year.

    Beyond that, though, glissading isn’t terribly dangerous if you take proper care. A lot of people have a blanket fear of it, but it’s a lot of fun. Kind of like down-hill skiing. It’s a really really really good idea to practice self-arrest with the ice axe.

    But this advice is a bit late, huh?

    I’d definitely say your summit bid and success was mountaineering and not hiking.

  2. Glissading sounds more fun than hiking down the switchbacks. Even in summer those last miles down to Whitney Portal are brutal. Nice that you had good weather. Great to see how people go up the chute.

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