Mt. Whitney is the tallest mountain in the contiguous United States. It rises 14,508 feet out of the Californian desert near Death Valley, ironically the lowest point in North America. There are two routes to the summit on its east face. The Whitney Trail, which meanders 11 miles through switchbacks to climb the 6100 feet from the trailhead at the Whitney Portal to the summit. And the Mountaineer’s Route which starts at the same trailhead but climbs that same 6100 feet in under 4 miles. The Mountaineers route is rated Class 4, which basically means it is simple climbing with handholds necessary and significant exposure.
I have attempted the Mountaineer’s Route twice in April of different years. On one attempt I didn’t make it, and on the other I made the summit. On one attempt I brought a tent, winter sleeping bag, and inflatable sleeping pad and on the other I had none of those. On one attempt I planned a multi-day trip and on the other I planned to summit and descend on the same day. On both attempts I spent at least one night on the mountain. On one attempt my pack weighed in excess of 60 lbs and on the other it weighed less than 30 lbs. On both attempts I had the Ten Essentials.
Let’s take a quick look at the Ten Essentials:
- Sun Protection
- Insulation (Extra Clothing)
- First-Aid Supplies
- Repair kit and tools, including knife
- Nutrition (Extra food)
- Hydration (clean drinking water)
- Emergency Shelter
We’ll come back to these in a moment, but first a tale of both climbs. The first time we attempted the Mountaineer’s Route in April 2013, we brought the kitchen sink. The thought was to make a push up the mountain on day one and establish a high camp from which to make a summit attempt and then grab our gear on the way back down from the summit. This made perfect sense considering this is exactly the experience we had on Mount Rainier with Alpine Ascents. Bring your gear up to a high camp, spend the night high on the mountain, summit and come back and get your stuff. We had a four-season tent, a zero degree bag, and a bear canister (requirement for Mt. Whitney if you plan to spend the night). We had cooking gear, stove, gas, full length climbing rope, climbing harnesses, and plenty of anchors for snow, ice, and rock. We even brought an iPad to watch movies. Our packs were huge and heavy. Needless to say, the weight combined with the altitude (and conditioning, which I’ll discuss in a future post), made our rate of ascent very slow. So slow, in fact, that we only made it to Lower Boy Scout Lake on the first day. This is only about a quarter of the way up the mountain. (To be fair, we did drive from Las Vegas that morning and got a late start on the trail). We were absolutely exhausted. We setup camp, made dinner, and went to sleep. All night we heard the sounds of rock fall. They would echo throughout the canyon. I couldn’t help wonder if one of those rocks wouldn’t come crashing into our tent. The next day we started up the mountain for a summit push. We were exhausted and still carrying 45 lbs. Every few minutes we would hear the big bang and watch another rock careen down the slopes. Morning turned to afternoon and it began to get later and later. We didn’t want to have to down climb the highly exposed Class 4 section near the summit in the dark. Finally, just below Iceberg Lake, which is three quarters of the way, a basketball sized rock came within a few feet of hitting me. We turned around. We had failed but learned some valuable lessons and more importantly experienced the beauty of the Sierra Nevada.
The second attempt was in April 2015. We decided we were going to go light and fast to get to the summit. No tent, no sleeping bag, no sleeping pad. The bare minimum for sustainment, which is essentially, the Ten Essentials. The thought was that the faster we could move, the better our chances for success and the less time we exposed ourselves to the objective hazards on the mountain, which in 2013 had been rock fall. We did move fast. We made it to Lower Boy Scout Lake in a quarter of the time. I want to highlight this. By carrying half the weight, we moved 4x faster. We cruised up to Iceberg Lake or 75% of the way there easily. Slowing down for the more technical and dangerous 25% of the climb, we made the summit a little later than we wanted but still in good time. We had weather moving in and decided that we were going to take the Whitney Trail down. We only had two hours of daylight left and thought it would be easier and safer to move on an established trail with our headlamps than it would be to move on a highly exposed Class 3-4 route. In hindsight, this proved to be a mistake. The switchback slopes of the Whitney Trail had been getting sun all day and melting the surface layers of the snow. As darkness came the melt water froze making the slopes icy. At one particular spot, Amy’s crampon broke and she had to fix it with her multi-tool. We made it down to about 12,000 feet when we couldn’t find the trail again and decided to wait until morning. It was about 15 degrees and we had no tent or sleeping bag. What we did have though was emergency blankets and a 40 degree quilt. We put on all our clothes, got into the emergency blankets and covered up with the quilt. It was a long night but we stayed warm enough.
Lessons from these two climbs on the Ten Essentials? Less is better, but you must have the minimum. A lot of beginners make the mistake of bringing too much gear or too little gear on their adventures. I see way too many people carrying a store purchased bottle of water up Old Rag in Shenandoah National Park and not much else (sometimes nothing else). It’s not a particularly hard climb, but that is not enough water for one person over the 6-8 hours it takes them to go up and come back down. On the other hand, carry too much and the experience is either miserable or you can’t make it because you move too slow. The important thing is to understand the environment you are going into, the expected and potential conditions, the people you are climbing with, and then pack the minimum. For example, my pack will be different for a solo hike in the summer than if I’m taking my family up a mountain in the winter.
Revisiting the Ten Essentials:
- Navigation: Map and compass. Period. And know how to use it. Study the route before leaving your house. Know where you can exit. A GPS is optional but doesn’t replace a map and compass.
- Sun Protection: Sunscreen and lip balm.
- Insulation: Just because it is sunny and 65 degrees doesn’t mean it will be like that near the summit of any mountain. Even the low Appalachian mountains create their own weather and are generally 10-15 degrees cooler up high than below.
- Illumination: Today there is no reason to not have a headlamp with extra batteries. Should be in your bag for every hike.
- First Aid Supplies: Completely depends on who and how many are going. What all goes in the FA is a completely different topic.
- Fire: The ability to make a fire. Lighter, waterproof matches, or both.
- Repair Kit and Tools, Including Knife: Multi-tools are great. I always carry a small roll of duct tape and parachute cord as well.
- Nutrition: One of the trickiest of the ten. You want to carry food you are going to eat. A Ziploc bag full of GU or Cliff Bars although calorically capable of sustaining you is not going to appeal to most people on Day 2. However, you can also go way overboard on food.
- Hydration: Bring enough water to sustain you between water sources. Have filtration and/or iodine tablets. If you are in a completely frozen environment bring a stove to melt water.
- Emergency Shelter: I always carry my Emergency Blanket and my 40 degree quilt no matter the season or where I’m going. After all, they kept me warm enough in a high alpine environment in early spring. Collectively though they weight less than 1lb, take up very little space, and are water resistant.
All told, my Ten Essentials weigh less than 20lbs with water and nutrition (and sometimes my First Aid kit) weighing the most. On Whitney, the other 10 lbs I was carrying was a rope I cut to a minimal length, an alpine harness, crampons and an ice axe.
The lesson from both climbs is simple. Carry what you need. Make what you carry as light as possible. Plan ahead and prepare. Enjoy the adventure no matter what the outcome because that is why we go to the mountains!