Whitney Mountaineer's Route (to 13,600 feet)

August 17, 2007

I wanted to try the Mountaineer's Route on Mount Whitney one more time this year.  I was planning a solo trip to Colorado while Kyoko and Kyle were in Japan, and thought to save a little driving time by stopping by Whitney on the way there.  I'd then spend the night in Bishop and drive to Colorado via some back roads I wouldn't normally take.  It would probably be longer from Bishop to Colorado than from home there, but overall I'd save some distance compared to doing a separate drive to Whitney.

I'd hiked part of the approach, the North Fork of Lone Pine Creek, twice before, once on my own and once with Kyoko and Kyle.  Neither had been real attempts to climb the mountaineers route, but the first in particular was an attempt to scout it out.  I'd gotten very bad altitude sickness that time.  Now after climbing Shasta a couple weeks before I felt like I'd be acclimatized.  It seemed I had a good shot at actually getting to the top; at the very least I wanted to get to Iceberg Lake this time and try the start of the route.  I figured I'd better arrive earlier this time, and so called to reserve a permit.  It sounded straightforward:  They would put it in the overnight box and gave me the combination.  If for some reason there was no permit there, I was to leave a note and I had the reservation number anyway so everything should be fine.

I left around 4am and got to the visitor center before 7am, but found the combination they gave me didn't work!  I'd even asked explicitly if it would be good on Friday, since I called Wednesday.  But no luck, and likely variations on it didn't work either.  Since it was locked I couldn't even leave a note.  But I figured I still had the reservation number, and the chances of anyone asking to see a permit on this trail were negligible anyway.  Indeed no one did.

I drove to the trailhead, which was quite crowded, found a spot in the overflow parking just down the road a little, and got started at 7:20am.  Later than I'd hoped for, but not too bad.  I was hoping to get back by around 5 or 6pm.  I still didn't have enough respect for the Mountaineer's Route, since the length is so short--a mere 9.4 miles roundtrip, supposedly!  But this is a tough hike.  I tried to avoid the mistakes I'd made last time.  I was acclimatized.  I carried very little weight, and dressed for warmer weather (and it was indeed warm).  I was going to carry 3-4 liters of water, but could hear the water flowing strong even from the parking lot and so just carried 2 liters.  Indeed for supposedly the lowest snowfall in the Sierras in recorded history, there was an amazing amount of water still flowing so late in the season.  Could it really have been that bad?

I'd fixed most of my old mistakes, but there are always new mistakes to be made....  This time I got too overconfident about finding my way through the canyon.  I'd done it before, and thought I mostly remembered how to go.  I still brought the guidebook along but hardly consulted it, and figured my sense of direction along with memory of what I'd done before would get me by.  I shouldn't have trusted either!  I made it to Lower Boy Scout Lake just fine--that part is easy to follow and I have it wired.  There are plenty of pictures of this segment in my previous reports, so here is just one of some surprising and beautiful wildflowers on the ledges between the Ebersbacher Ledges and the lake.

It took me about 1:15 to get to LBSL, so faster than my 1:40 time before.  I ran into my first person at the lake, a solo guy who was camping at the lake and just getting ready to start, so he was starting even later than me.  As I mentioned in my very first trip report of doing the Whitney trail, Whitney is somehow a very social place.  You don't just say hello to other people--for some reason you end up talking for a while.  In this case I wanted to eat some snacks at the lake so I talked a bit with this guy.  He asked me how long it took to to get up and was impressed with my time.  Of course he had a heavy pack, as I pointed out.  I asked him his time and he said he got lost trying to figure out the Ebersbacher ledges and wasted 45 minutes or an hour getting up that.  So he never told me his time.  He said he wasn't feeling well after the night and wasn't sure how far he'd go that day.  I didn't see him again.

Just like the first time, after LBSL everything started going wrong, but this time for a different reason:  I went the wrong way!  I'd forgotten that finding the way to Upper Boy Scout Lake is rather tricky, and you have to cross the stream a couple times.  I had this idea that you should stay "left", and so just stuck to that.  So when the trail got indistinct at one point I stuck left and followed what seemed to be a trail...indeed there were footprints and cairns and so forth at various points, and it was a trail, but it just wasn't the one I was supposed to be on....

After a while I guessed I was probably off-route.  Still it's impossible to really be lost there.  At worst I would get stuck at some point and have to turn back, and I figured it was still worthwhile to explore this route.  I love the Whitney area and want to spend a lot of time exploring there.  I expected I'd do the MR first and then explore after, but I figured why not explore now instead?

I ended up near the left wall of the canyon as you go up.  In one sense perhaps the trail was leading to Thor's Peak and I briefly thought of climbing that instead, but I didn't know anything about the difficulty of the route and didn't want to get myself into trouble.  I figured I'd try to get back on-route again. At one point I saw a couple guys on what was probably the correct route, going back, and they saw me too.  However there was no safe way to go directly down to them.  One guy tried to call out to me, but I couldn't hear him.  He gestured animatedly, apparently trying to tell me I needed to go back.  However I had no intention of going back yet.  I just watched him for a while, making no response, and then stopped watching him and continued on.  He gave up and went on himself.

Here's a picture, taken on the way back, of part of the route I went along.  I forget just how high up I was.  As you can see there were some streams of water to be avoided.  At one point I crossed one such stream, but the slab on the other side was too steep for me to feel comfortable on.  I descended the rocks that the stream was flowing down (fortunately enough dry footholds) but then couldn't go any further.  So I ended up traversing below the slab and then climbing up again when it was less steep, and staying up high.

Eventually I did find a way down to UBSL.  However I shouldn't have given up on this route so soon.  I think if I had continued it would have led more or less directly into the next area I needed to go through, and might have been a reasonably efficient path.  As it was I lost a good half hour or hour or more going this way, but it was very interesting and I'm glad I tried it out.  I made it back to the high point of my first trip in about 4:40, so despite the detour I was still a good 20 minutes faster than then.  But I was having no altitude problems this time and was going much faster.  Still according to the Supertopo guide you're supposed to be able to make it to Iceberg Lake in 3 hours, so this was still very poor time.

Mount Whitney and the needles to its left when you get up to them are an awesome sight which I never get tired of.

Whitney with the MR going up the sloped gully to its right.

Another picture of the East Face of Whitney.

I ran into another group of people at this point: two older guys, two younger guys (at least one being the son of an older guy) and one girlfriend of a younger guy.  I wasn't sure just how to get to Iceberg Lake at this point, and the older guys couldn't remember although they'd done it before.  The younger members went ahead and one guy found a route up some somewhat slippery ledges just left of a wet area.  He made it up easily without a pack, but they had big backpacks (they were to camp and Iceberg Lake and do the MR the next day) and were worried about going up with them.  So they thought they should descent a bit, traverse, and find an easier path further on.  Meanwhile I decided to try the ledges myself and found them fine with my smaller pack.  I think this is the route the Supertopo guide says to avoid, but I think if you feel comfortable it's faster and easier than the other route (which I descended for variety).

Here is a video of the final cliff leading to Iceberg Lake.

I made it to Iceberg Lake in just 30 minutes from my previous high point, so I was closer than I'd thought (although it could have taken 2 hours or more in the condition I was in that day).  Altogether it took 5:10 from the start, and I feel if I'd taken the right route I could have done it in 4 hours, but that's still a lot longer than the 3 you're supposed to do it in.  I guess I'm still not in nearly good enough shape.  That plus my awful route finding skills made me feel once again that I'm incompetent and should just give up mountaineering.  But somehow I can't resist continuing.

At Iceberg Lake I ran into a young couple who had camped overnight and had just climbed the MR that morning.  The guy gave me some very good advice, saying to stick to a gully left of the main gully, which had much more secure rock.  At the notch it was apparently still icy if you try to traverse, so one should just climb up the first gully there, and there was supposedly a sign planted with an arrow saying "easy 4th class" but he thought it was 3rd class and straightforward.  He said it took them 2 or 2.5 hours to go up, or something like that, and maybe 1.5 hours to go down.  I didn't think I could do it nearly as quickly, and it was getting late, so I decided to just go for 2 hours or so, until 2:30 or 2:40pm, and turn around.  Then I'd have plenty of time to get back before it got dark, although I did bring my headlamp just in case.

Here is a video taken at Iceberg Lake.

It was exciting to finally start the MR.  Below is a picture taken on the route.  The notch can be clearly seen.

Here is Iceberg Lake from the MR.

The MR itself was so-so.  All 2nd class, with a lot of loose rock.  Parts were okay and other parts a real pain.  It was slow going, and hard to judge my progress.  Eventually I ran into some people coming down who'd done the East Buttress, and others came later who'd done the East Face.  They were much faster at descending than I was.  I asked them how far I was from the summit, but the first guy didn't know.  The second thought it was still an hour from the notch.  It didn't look that far, but I know from experience that distances are usually a lot farther than they look.  So at about 2:05pm I decided I'd had enough and should come down.  There was no way I would even make it to the notch by 2:40pm, and the route above me looked loose and no fun at all.  I took a video at the high point, but one I took a little lower came out better so that's the one I've put up.  Here is a picture of the notch from the high point, though.

I had my GPS with me and so had the bright idea to turn it on so I could record how far I'd gotten.  However I stupidly forgot to set a waypoint!  But my GPS was smarter than me and still kept a track of the few second I had it turned on.  So I was able to input that (the point is set on the map at the top of this report; the remaining route is hand-drawn and very inaccurate) and find out I'd reached about 13,600 feet.  Still 900 feet and certainly over an hour from the top at my pace.  It was good I turned back.  But it made me regret a little that I'd wasted an hour coming via a suboptimal route.  If I hadn't I would have possibly made it to the top!  And in a way like Shasta I wanted to get this route over with so I wouldn't feel compelled to come back.  But unlike Shasta I will be back anyway, and often, to here as long as I live in LA.  So it's fine to wait until next year.

It took me 1:15 to get down, so my descending time is still pathetic.  I was a good half hour or hour slower from that point than the other guys were.  I keep trying to improve my descending skills but I haven't noticed much progress.  Very depressing.

One cool thing about this hike was that there was a lot of rockfall on Pinnacle Ridge, which was safely far away at the opposite end of the canyon, but close enough that we could hear (if not really see) the rockfall well.  I wanted to take some video of this but could never tell just when the bursts of rockfall would occur.  They were impressive when they did.  Below is a picture.  The active area seemed to be where the whitish rocks (in the middle) on the ground are, so maybe that's a good indication of where recent rockfall is and areas to avoid.

On the way back I wanted to follow the optimal route and get back much faster.  I remembered that last time I'd forgotten to cross the stream at one point but ran into a hiker who recalled you needed to cross, and so followed him back on a path that was not the best but still worked.  So this time I was going to be more careful and try to cross at the right point.  Sure enough at some point the trail became indistinct and I figured that was a good place to cross.  However it turned out I crossed much too early, and went into the middle of Clyde Meadows, which is filled with plants that one guidebook calls willows and water birch.  Navigation in this canyon would be a lot easier without them, and much of challenge is finding a good route through this area.  Before I had bypassed it entirely by staying high along the wall, but now I was stuck in the middle of it.

It thought I would reach a trail running through, but I was wrong.  After thrashing around for a while I realized I was deep in the middle of the willows and in a lot of trouble.  I basically could not advance in any direction and it would be difficult to get back to where I'd come from.  I had to watch out because most of what looked like clearings through the willows were actually little streams that I didn't want to be walking in.  I was worried I would get in so deep I couldn't see anymore, and the thought occurred to me that if anything happened no one would even be able to find my body.

Eventually I found my way to a boulder that I could climb up and get a sense of where I was.  It didn't look good.  I figured my best best was actually to head further up, away from the streams lower down, and make it back to my original route along the canyon walls, which I'd come up on and thus remembered somewhat!  Even getting up to there was quite an adventure.  I recall sinking into a small unexpected stream at one point and getting my shoes soaked.  My first thought was that I'd wanted to wash them anyway in the laundry so here I was getting them cleaned instantly for free!  (However they were still filthy by the end of the hike, so I guess you get what you pay for.)  At one point I suddenly became extremely thirsty--somehow thrashing through the willows made my throat dry.  Fortunately there was plenty of water around, so even though I'd run out I could refill my water bottle in some stream coming down from the cliffs above.  Very tasty water.  I ended up drinking a lot from that point, even though I wasn't thirsty.  I think my throat was just dry.  So I would just pee it all out, once I got back on the trail.  I would just drink and pee, over and over again, and the pee was crystal clear.  It was a little alarming, like my body had gone haywire.  Also I wasn't hungry at all, even though I should have eaten a lot more that day.  But there were no bad effects, and I felt strong enough and fine otherwise.

I made it back to the trail by the canyon wall eventually, and then the long (and still not clear at points) descent back to LBSL.  Here is a picture taken at  6:30pm, and still a long way from Lower Boy Scout Lake.

I made it back to the lake at 6:50, and really wanted to get at least past the Ebersbacher Ledges before it got dark--if possible even to the trailhead.  I wasn't sure just when sunset was.  It turns out sunset was at 7:41pm and civil twilight at 8:08pm.  In any case I could see fine going down, and as I almost never hike at evening twilight this was an interesting and enjoyable experience.  I decided to try to do everything without using my headlamp, and even though the hike ended at 8:22 my eyes had adjusted to the dark enough to follow the trail.  I just had to be careful not to trip on rocks.  I was able to get my food out of the bear box thanks to a car's headlamps nearby, and was able to get back to my own car in just the ambient light.  So even if I didn't have my headlamp I would have made it back, but it was very close and soon after it got pitch black.

My time down from Iceberg Lake was just over 5 hours and clearly I wasted about 2 hours (the backpackers told me they could descend in 3 hours even with heavy packs) on my detour, which unlike the way up was not much fun.  I'll have to be much more careful this time.  But still it was an interesting experience, and each time I do this hike and screw up I feel like I've learned the area a little more.  And it's a wonderful area, well worth exploring.  I'll certainly be back, and maybe this time finally make it to the summit.

Videos (limited time only)


Roundtrip distance: 8 miles?
Elevation gain: 5300 feet (8300 feet to 13,600 feet)
Time up: 6:45 (7:20am to 2:05pm)
Time down: 6:17 (2:05pm to 8:22pm)
Total Time: 13:02

Detailed Times

Location Time
Trailhead 7:20
North Fork sign 7:35
Waterfall before ledges 8:02
Lower Boy Scout Lake 8:35
leave Lower Boy Scout Lake 8:45
Upper Boy Scout Lake 10:30
leave Upper Boy Scout Lake 10:45
first trip high point 12:00
Iceberg Lake 12:30
start MR 12:37
high point 2:05
Iceberg Lake 3:20
first trip high point 3:55
Upper Boy Scout Lake 4:55
Lower Boy Scout Lake 6:50
North Fork sign 8:04
Trailhead 8:22