Monday, June 17, 2013

Single or Multi-Day Pros & Cons - Part 1: The Single Day Summit

When most people visualize their first Mt Whitney expedition, they see it as a multi-day backpacking trip.  Oak-handled ice axe in hand, outfitted in knickers and knee socks, they utter pithy phrases like, "Onward, Tenzing!" Or maybe that's just me.

Regardless, most Whitney-goers view the multi-day trip up the Main Trail as the easier mode of travel.  But is it?  Here's the $64,000 question:  Would I rather carry 30 (plus?) pounds up 6 miles and 4,000 vertical feet or carry 12 pounds up 10.8  miles and 6,000 vertical feet? 

Metric translation:  Do I want to carry 13 (plus?) kg up 9.7 km and 1,219 m or carry 5.5 kg up 17.4 km and 1,829 m?  

Might I suggest the latter might be easier?

Consider the single-day hike with its lighter loads and less time at altitude
Here now are the pros and cons for the single day attempt:

The Single-Day Main Trail Hike:

  • Pro:  More permit spaces available.  Single day quota is 100 per day on the Main Trail versus 60 for overnight permits.  Yes, single day trips up the Mountaineer's Route eat into this total but that's usually less than 10 per day.  So we're still looking at 30 extra slots every day.
  • Pro:  Sleep low, climb high.  No need to expose ourselves to high altitude any longer than necessary to do the job.  For many overnight-ers, the next step after attaining Trail Camp at 12,000 feet (3,658 m) is hiking back down after spending the whole night puking.  Visiting 12,000 feet is a hell of a lot different than staying at 12,000 feet.  Sleep comes easier at Whitney Portal's relatively low altitude of  8,000 feet (2,438 m).  If you're hell-bent on a multi-day trip, stay at the lower-altitude Outpost Camp instead.  Your digestive tract will thank you.
  • Pro:  Eating a victory burger at the Portal Store vs trying to eat another meal at altitude.  While descending on our last trip,  my stepdaughter Natalie announced, "I hope you realize we are eating at the Portal Store when we're done."  I had to admit the thought of Doug Thompson placing a big juicy burger in front of my mug had a lot of appeal. 

Dawn approaches just before Trail Camp

  • Con:  Must wake up at an ungodly hour to assure summiting before noon.  Last time we woke up at 2:00 am to hit the trail by 3:15 am.  Being off the summit around noon to miss the afternoon killer lightning/hail/sleet/snow storm requires an "alpine start."
  • Con:  No latitude for bad weather.  If our day is July 27 and the daily hail/sleet/snow storm arrives early, stays late, and packs electrical potential, we're done.  There are no mulligans for Mt Whitney day hikers.  We must submit ourselves to the permit process again by going back down to the Eastern Sierra Inter-Agency Center.  Regulations bar a second attempt during the next calendar day. So the earliest next attempt sits two days away provided permit space exists.
In the next post, I'll break down the multi-day summit attempt.

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