My goal of climbing the highest point in every state includes the Mount Whitney summit, the highest summit in the contiguous United States and the Sierra Nevada, with an elevation of 14,505 feet. In the summer it is a difficult and challenging hike or climb, depending on what route you take.
I found out that I would be in the Mount Whitney area in late January for work and decided I would make an attempt on the summit despite the heavy snow that covered the mountain. I had a month to get ready for it, to get into shape, give up beer and get all my gear in order.
The weather was one of the things that worried me the most. I only had a narrow three-day window to climb the mountain before I had to fly to Whistler, BC for work. Unfortunately, there was a large storm forecasted right on the heels of my climb. There was a chance I could get to the summit and back off before the storm hit, but it was going to be tight. I decided I was going to take the chance and make an attempt on the summit.
The morning started in the snowy ski resort of Mammoth at 3 AM. I put my pack and snowshoes into my rental SUV and drove 2 hours down to Lone Pine where I filled out a self-issued permit at the park warden’s gate. I then drove up to Lone Pine campground, and parked under the moonlight shadow of Mount Whitney. After calling my wife, and talking briefly with the kids, I strapped on my pack and began my long journey up the mountain.
It did not take long before I had to stop and dig out micro spikes from my pack in order to continue on the icy path. 4 miles latter I was stopping to put on my snowshoes to deal with the snow. I had arrived at Whitney Portal but it took me awhile to locate the actual trailhead for the main trail up the mountain.
For the first couple miles of the trail I made good time, but as soon as I got to the Mountaineers route the trail all but disappeared. From then on I had to use my map and compass to navigate my way up. Despite the snowshoes, almost every step I took was punching through the deep snow, sometimes up to my waist.
I only had one prolonged stop, which I used to eat lunch and melt snow for more water. By the ninth hour of hiking my muscles where nearly burned out, but I had made it to Outpost Camp at 12,000 feet. The weather by then had turned foul. The wind was howling down the mountain, spin drifts stinging my face with ice crystals. With no real shelter in sight, I backtracked down the mountain a little ways to a small clump of trees that I used as shelter as I set up my tent.
That night I has hammered hard by wind and snow. At 3AM I woke up with a choice. It was either going to be a push to the summit or I needed to turn back. Seeing how bad the weather was, and knowing that it was only going to get worse I elected to hike down. It was a tough choice that I questioned with every step down the mountain. Latter when I saw how bad the weather got in the mountains, I am glad I made the choice to turn back. The storm had come in early and with a fury.
This was my first failed summit and it is difficult to accept. I can’t get Mount Whitney out of my mind, and am eager to give it another attempt.
Justin McCormick grew up in the Yukon Territories in a cabin on Nisutlin Bay. Being surrounded by the majestic and harsh wilderness of the north, he developed a passion for canoeing, hiking, mountain climbing and skiing. He currently resides in Texas and is trying to impart his passion for the outdoors to his four children.