Ski Mountaineering

Mt Whitney Ski Traverse

Apr 30 - May 3, 1997

Private Trip

The SMS Trans Sierra trip (Cirque Crest, 4/26-5/4/97) was canceled due to road damage at Cedar Grove. Thus, four SMS members, Steve Hessen, Duncan Livingston, Don Ralphs and myself, decided on an alternate backcountry tour following a section of John Moynier's Crest Tour. Depending on snow conditions we would either do a circumnavigation or a traverse of Mt. Whitney. Here is how it went:

On Tue night, 4/29, we left my car at Whitney Portal and carpooled up to the end of the Cottonwood road, which officially was still closed but cleared from snow for the fishing season. Wed, 4/30, we met up with Duncan who had driven down from Oregon. As we sorted out our gear Don discovered some essentials were missing. He rushed down to Lone Pine for a resupply which included a sumptuous breakfast he later admitted.

By 10:30 am we had a takeoff which involved an hour walk through sandy forest and slushy Horseshoe Meadow (10,000'). Then we skinned up to climb Cottonwood Pass (11,150') hoping to find more snow in the backcountry. Indeed there was plenty in the distance but on the nearby Pacific Crest Trail which we had to follow north, there was intermittent snow. With a full pack it was about equally tiring to constantly put the skis on and off as to walk and periodically sink into knee-deep holes on breakable crust. Above tree line there was finally continuous snow coverage.

The route to Rock Creek leads over many ridges. Above Chicken Spring Lake a ridge was corniced and required a detour. The weather was excellent and the scenery superb. Below us was the Big Whitney Meadows, far to the west were the white peaks of Mineral King and the Great Western Divide with puffy clouds, and in the north the Whitney Range with large lenticular clouds. The western slopes of Cirque Peak were covered with weathered foxtail pines. On the open slopes a cold wind was blowing. By 6 pm we spotted a flat meadow at the Southern entrance of Rock Creek which was ideal for our first campsite. We dined on a wind-sheltered dry place among trees while watching a beautiful sunset.

On Thur, 5/1, we got up when the sun reached our tents. The goal of the day was to ski to the Crabtree Lakes. After a leisurely start at 10 am we skied up the Rock Creek drainage. A steep 400' climb at Lake 10,800' got us to a ridge which connected above tree line to the broad valley of Rock Creek. After passing an impressive rock face near Primrose Lake we reached Skyblue Lake which had a scenic lunch spot next to the Miter (3900 m). The lakes were still covered but due to the warm weather and some ominous cracks we did not risk to ski across them. Heading toward Lake 3697 m we encountered a steep (40 deg) wall which some of us muscled up on skis, some on foot and the smarter ones avoided with a long detour. Now Crabtree Pass (3850 m) was in sight and we reached it by 5 pm. The impressive ridge line of Mt. McAdie was to the east, below us was Lake 3700 m, and far to the west lay our goal, the upper Crabtree Lake (3456 m). After a short downhill scramble on rocks we reached a steep snowfield which was skiable. We continued well above the Southern shore of Lake 3700 m. A long gentle valley lead us to the upper Crabtree Lake. Unfortunately, due to the late hour, we encountered breakable crust so that the downhill skiing took longer than expected. By 7 pm we found a scenic campsite overlooking the lake with a nearby waterfall and some trees. Steve arrived by sunset. After dinner we watched the comet Hale-Bopp and were amazed how long its tail was in the clear dark sky. At cometset we called it quits for day two.

Having made a resolution to get up earlier we had breakfast on Fri, 5/2, at 6:30 am. Our goal was to ski close to Guitar Lake where we would decide either on a ski ascent or a detour around Mt. Whitney. By 8:30 am we were skiing along the Crabtree Lakes and then ascended at tree line the northern ridge of Mt Hitchcock. Unfortunately, we climbed too high and encountered steep cliffs above Timberline Lake. After retracing part of the route we proceeded at the 3400 m contour toward the lower Hitchcock Lake (3450 m). We found a good lunch spot with view of the western slopes of the Whitney Range.

The circumnavigation via Wallace Lake, Tulainyo Lake and the Russell-Carillon saddle was ruled out as too long and possibly dry. Since we had to ski over the ridge we decided to spend the night on the summit.

The shortest ascent, east of Guitar Lake, required a steep ascent through narrow gullies filled with soft afternoon snow. It was considered too risky and strenuous with full packs. Thus, we took the conservative long route up the partially visible switchbacks to Trail Crest. This started with skinning up the lower portion, then hiking up steeper sections on breakable snow where even tall Duncan vanished to his hips. Frustrated, we chose some rock bands and scrambled straight up which was equivalent to a peak climb with full packs. After four hours of "earning our turns" we were at the crest. Although the terrain levels out the pace slowed down at 14,000' altitude. A cold wind was blowing and it got cloudy. Some tricky traverses near Mt. Muir required ice axes for safety. But little by little, we got closer to the summit with its inviting hut where we planned to spend the night. Finally, by sunset (8 pm), we stood on the summit of Mt. Whitney (14,494', 4416 m). Nobody was there, a rare sight for this tourist spot. The last climbers signed in a week earlier. We got quite worried about Steve who was far behind us and had to hike by starlight. But by 10 pm he safely arrived after a 14 hour day. We cooked, ate and slept in the hut which was a great shelter from the cold strong winds outside. Luckily, no thunderstorms were in sight.

On Sat, 5/3, we were in no rush since we had to wait for the snow to soften in order to enjoy the skiing down. From earlier experience, I had great hopes for a beautiful sunrise at high altitude, but unfortunately it was cloudy. Nevertheless, we enjoyed great views from the summit. Below the steep east face was frozen Iceberg Lake and the Mountaineers Route. To the west was a panorama of many familiar ranges and peaks. We even could make out the San Rafael Mtns beyond the cloudy San Joaquin Valley, and it reminded me of the distant views of Mt. Whitney from the Pinos-Abel traverse. The snow coverage was highly uneven. While the Russell-Carillon saddle was entirely dry, Mt. Hale and Young were covered to the summit. We had an early lunch on the wind-shaded side of the hut. A rosy finch joined and was so friendly that he ate out of the hand.

At noon we started our descent. On his stable randonnee gear Don made some turns on the crusty snow near the summit but most of the crest trail was not skiable. Due to the weekend we met some hikers climbing up, some wearing shorts and pretty rings in ears and nose. Finally, at Trail Crest (13,777'), there was a large steep (40 deg) slope with continuous snow all the way down to Consultation Lake (11,700'). Luckily, the wind-crusted snow had softened on the top but there were icy patches below and the skiing was tricky. Don had no problems with his heels down, I telemarked it on my stable fat boards (115 mm), and Duncan and Steve made a safe survival descent. Skiing this 1500+ foot, ungroomed black diamond run with full packs was an exhilarating but exhausting fun. Near Trail Camp (12,000') perfect spring snow started and we all had a great time. We stayed on north facing slopes on connected snow fields and we carved countless numbers of turns. Further down the suncups made the ride a bit bumpy. We could ski all the way down to Outpost Camp (10,300') where the snow turned intermittent.

After another hour hike on the Whitney trail we arrived at Whitney Portal (8,360') by about 7 pm. A car shuttle up the nearby Cottonwood Road got us back to the remaining cars. Then it was time to drive into town for a celebration dinner. Don decided for a late drive home, the rest of us carcamped in the Alabama Hills and drove home well rested on Sun, 5/4, morning. We were all pleased by our adventurous backcountry ski tour with a group of fine friends.

Reiner Stenzel

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