The various routes to Mount Whitney are busy places in the summertime. But climbers ascend the highest mountain in the contiguous U.S. even when there’s snow on the ground.
Spring is a popular time to summit the massif, especially before May 1, because entry into the Mount Whitney Zone can be accomplished without a permit, which can be hard to come by as it is doled out via lottery.
The Mountaineer’s Route turned deadly once again on Friday, April 21. A solo climber, Ramiro Leon of Morro Bay, reportedly fell while on what is known as the Final 400, which is between the mountain’s summit plateau (14,500 feet) and the “Notch” (14,150 feet), the most technical section of the route where ascending climbers traverse from the east to the west side of the mountain and enter Sequoia National Park.
According to some climbers who met him on the route, Leon had left Whitney Portal about 8 a.m. and intended to summit Whitney and return that same day. According to an online climbers’ forum, Leon was descending from the summit plateau when he fell.
It’s possible that he had stopped and taken his backpack off in the Final 400 stretch because when he fell he was separated from his backpack and, perhaps, his ice axe because he didn’t self-arrest. A group of climbers below heard what they described as “a commotion,” and Leon’s backpack struck one of them in the head. It was about 4 p.m. when these climbers could descend to Iceberg Lake to receive cell phone service and make a 911 call.
It was too late in the day for rescuers to mobilize an aerial search. Leon’s body was located at about 1 p.m. on Saturday, April 22, and retrieved via a CHP helicopter.
The Mount Whitney Mountaineer’s Route is a steep, straight shot from Whitney Portal to the mountain’s summit, pioneered by none other than John Muir himself. It is a nontechnical approach (unless it is snowbound) and just under 12 miles in length roundtrip, compared to 21 miles for the out-and-back route on the main Mount Whitney Trail.
This year, the snow will linger longer as the pack is more than the Sierra has experienced in six years and could be the most of all times, since such measurements began at least. Equipment needs increase during these snowy ventures – crampons, ice axe, helmet, snowshoes, ropes – but in a way, the climb can be simplified by walking straight up a snow-filled couloir rather than back and forth via switchbacks and walking in snow is preferable to the climbing the vertical talus and scree terrain in the summer. Coming down can be a thrill too with glissades of a thousand feet or more being accomplished within minutes.
These snowy spring outings come with risks, however, due to the ever-shifting conditions during the course of the day. What may have been a hard, icy surface in the morning shade could be waist-deep postholing in the melting snow in the afternoon. What was a frozen creek crossing could be a weakened snow bridge within mere hours. And what looks like sheer granite could really be a film of rock-solid ice.