Wednesday, June 30, 2010

The Weather

We had an unusual winter here in Northern California. We were pretty much on track for normal snow-pack in February and then it just didn't stop snowing in the mountains. Much of the Sierras ended up at 140% of normal and so much of it came late (April and even May) that by the beginning of June there was a lot of snow still in the mountains and, while it was melting, there was so much of it.

This is significant for the Whitney trail because above 12,000 feet, there's a very steep climb up to Trail Crest at 13,600 feet that normally consists of 99 switchbacks. When the switchbacks are buried under snow and ice, the whole complexity of the climb changes. No longer is it a hike on a trail, but it becomes a snowy climb straight up that requires stiff boots, crampons and ice axes, some skill at using those and a much more physically demanding day.  If you succeed in getting up, the descent is less physically demanding, but can be technically difficult to do safely.  In fact, one person died last year on Whitney on this descent.  They were glissading down (more on this later), lost control of their speed and hit some rocks.

As of early June, all I can do is read the reports from people coming back as to what it's like (there's a bulletin board online where many people post about their experiences). With about 10 days to go before our trip, I conclude that it's going to be snowy/icy and we need crampons and ice axes. I don't really want to buy them so I finally find a place in the east bay that rents them. I take our boots over there and talk to them about renting. They conclude that our hiking boots are not stiff enough for crampons. There's too much flex in the toes and crampons won't hold their grip and might not stay on. His recommendation is that we rent mountaineering boots that are made for crampons. They are very stiff and quite heavy and we've never worn them before. But, I finally make the decision that we have to be safe on the snow/ice, even if it means we might not make the summit. Unfortunately, the crampons and ice axes add another five pounds to our packs. Things are getting more and more difficult as the day nears. At this point, I'm thinking to myself and starting to help Kevin realize that we may only have a 50% chance of making it to the summit.

There's a well known saying about Whitney that any trip that you get back safely from is a good one because the mountain will always be there for some other day.  We may have to remember that if the snow conditions make the climb too risky for our lack of technical experience.

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