Ski Mountaineering

Mt Whitney in a Day
Sep 2, 2019

Trip organizer: Isabel Stenzel-Byrnes

We thought "It can be done, it has been done, lets do it". This refers to a plan to climb Mt Whitney in a day. In one day it was not exactly our original plan. But it is nearly impossible to get an overnight wilderness permit. We all applied, but only one out of seven got a one-day permit. Luckily one group member got it, but only for a day hike. The hike is 22 miles round trip with 6,145' elevation change, which requires typically 15 hours or more. All plans depend on the weather and when a thunderstorm approaches you don't want to risk being on the summit of Whitney (14,505'). This is what we experienced.

Here is the background story. This trip climaxed Isa's many earlier adventures such as descending into the Grand Canyon, climbing peaks like Clouds Rest, hiking the Lost Coast, etc, but Whitney in a day would be the ultimate trip. The group consisted of 7 friends, two of whom have cystic fibrosis, lung and and heat-lung transplants. They know how to live every day to the fullest. Isabel invited her father, Opa Reiner, but this trip was pushing the limits even for a 79 year old mountaineer. Twenty years earlier it was no problem to hike and ski Mt Whitney. The team of seven were Isabel Stenzel-Byrnes, Mary Convento, Jessica Martens, Jennifer Schmidt, Kathleen Sheffer, Chase Murdock and Reiner Stenzel.

Two weeks before the trip some of us did practice hikes near Lake Tahoe (Mt Rose and Freel Peak on a weekend) and we acclimatized the day before the hike in Rock Creek. We also had reserved a campsite near Whitney Portal so that we could have an early start and late return on the day of the hike.

The evening before the hike we went to bed by 7pm to get enough sleep for the wake up call at 2:30am. By 3 am we started at the Whitney Portal trailhead (8,325'). Due to a new moon it was pitch black and we hiked by flashlight for 2-3 hours before the eastern sky turned red. At Mirror Lake (10,360') we had some kind of breakfast. Kathleen and Chase decided to stay and fish. The rest continued to ascend to Outpost Camp (12,040') where many tents and hikers were around since it was Labor Day weekend. Beyond the camping area the trail has 99 switchbacks ending at Trail Crest (13,650'). The air was getting thinner, the pace slowed down and the weather deteriorated. In the early morning we saw only tiny clouds, but these grew steadily and covered much of the sky by late morning. Near Trail Crest the first raindrops fell. Worse than that, thunder rumbled from time to time. Some people returned from climbing to the summit, saying that their hair stood up and corona discharges sizzled. They ran down from the open ridge as fast as possible. We decided to make it only up to Trail Crest, the highest pass in the United States (4,159m or 13,650'). There we took some pictures and put on our lightweight raingear and descended rapidly the 99 switchbacks again. Intermittently we had rain and hail, thunder and occasional rock falls. A cornice broke off and rumbled down which sounded like a thunder. We got wet and cold and moved without breaks to prevent hypothermia. The rocks were slippery and I took a backward fall on a smooth wet slab. The return appeared longer since the legs got more and more tired. After 15+ hours we were finally back at Whitney Portal in fading daylight. With great relief we drove back to our campsite and ate some hot food instead of powerbars. After this long day we had the best sleep ever.

We concluded that our decision to skip the summit ridge was absolutely correct since hiking on an exposed ridge in a thunderstorm could be suicidal. Always the weather has the final word in summiting a peak. The next day the weather repeated with even earlier thunderstorm clouds. Having a multiday wilderness permit does not guarantee to summit Whitney safely.

We returned to the Bay Area via Tioga Pass. On the way we stopped for lunch at Mono Lake, admiring the tufas in sunshine while dark clouds billowed over the High Sierra. It rained in Tuolumne Meadows, while it was hot summer weather in the golden Sierra foothills.

We enjoyed the beauty of the Eastern Sierras, the challenging climb, and the company of wonderful friends. Look at the pictures which tell more than a thousand words. Thanks to all the photographers for sharing your pictures.

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