Winter Mt. Whitney 2013

To Summit or not To Summit – Musings of a Sierra Mountain Guide

As I put away the expedition gear from my recent trip and place the kit back on the racks in the garage, I find myself reflecting on the outcome of the trip I am returning from. Drying the tent out, I think about the locations we used for camps and add a little self critique as to if they could be improved on or not. Cleaning and putting the cooking equipment away reminds me to look into a new pump for that ten year old Primus stove that acted up a little on this last trip and may just be plum worn out.

Grabbing for the rope and rack, this time it is hard not to be a little dismayed. On this trip we didn’t get a chance to use the technical equipment; weather came in on us just hours before the wake up call for our attempt on the summit of Mt Whitney in winter. While we made a thoughtful decision that most of the members of the group were hoping to hear, not trying for the summit is still a bitter pill for me.

Having climbed and guided peaks on six continents, it is always fascinating to me how one can find a ready challenge in your own back yard. Climbing Mt Whitney during the winter months will always provide a challenge, but it is easy to forget that even with the best preparation, all you need is a sudden change in weather to throw a curve at you. Winds that make it hard to stand on your feet on flat ground prove especially troubling climbing a steep couloir with some 3 rd and 4th class rock. The added snowfall needs to be taken into consideration as well, as you don’t want to climb the mountain, only to find the avalanche conditions to have changed significantly on the slopes now below that must be crossed to return back to camp. These problems can appear as readily on peaks close to home as they may in the Andes or the Himalaya.

Without a doubt, proper planning and preparation are the key ingredients to a successful trip. As a guide, this is where I see most groups fail to achieve their goal. Perhaps they misjudged the difficulty of the route and couldn’t move fast enough, or maybe they climbed too high on the first day of their trip, rendering legs useless from the climb and heads hurting from the altitude. It all comes down to having a good plan and knowing what to bring. But in the end, the mountain still sets its terms, and no matter your level of  experience, you won’t know what exactly what to expect until you arrive. Examples of this happening to me flood to mind; a recent trip to New Zealand to climb Mt Cook that shut my partner and I down to the point of never setting foot on the mountain. Another trip to Ecuador that stymied us twice on peaks, when strong wind and snowfall made us wonder if a safe descent from the summit would be possible. Hasty retreat ensued in both instances, and we never questioned our decision having endured the torment of the weather for several hours before coming to it.

Back to Mt Whitney, it was a tough call we had to make that morning. The conditions were pretty bad; the gusting wind was carrying frozen droplets of moisture that pelted you in the face like little bb’s, and it certainly didn’t make sense to roust everyone for the climb when we were almost being blown from our feet just coming to the decision. Yet when you don’t try for the summit, you will always be left not knowing the outcome of the attempt, had one been made. Would we have turned back at Iceberg Lake having found it too difficult to keep our feet on the ground? Would the stinging snow in our faces been enough to turn us back?

Or would the weather have broken and the summit come cleanly into grasp? In the end the stormy clouds clung to the peak well into mid-afternoon, and reflecting with our team on the descent from high camp that day, most were concerned about simply leaving the tents that morning, no less enduring the weather on the more extreme terrain of the climb. Sometimes it is just better to turn back and appreciate the defeat, knowing simply it just wasn’t your day. While I sometimes struggle with the undesired outcome, I never bemoan the fact that I still have all my fingers and toes, and good decision-making has kept my partners and I from having a serious accident in the mountains. Besides, if every climb was guaranteed to be a success, what kind of adventure would that be?

Cheers and good hunting,
Jeff Witt

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