A week after he’d begun his trek up Mount Whitney on what was planned to be a day-hike with three companions, the body of John “Bum” Lee, 68, of Redlands was recovered from the southwest slope of the mountain. Lee and his group had departed the Whitney Portal trailhead in the predawn hours of Monday July 18, with the intention of taking the less-traveled Mountaineer’s Route to the summit of Mount Whitney, which at an elevation of 14,505 feet is the highest mountain in the U.S. outside of Alaska.
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 is just under 12 miles in length roundtrip, compared to 21 miles for the out-and-back route on the main Mount Whitney Trail.
The Mountaineer’s Route is an unmaintained use trail. It departs the main Mount Whitney Trail about a mile from the trailhead and heads off-trail up the steep drainage of Lone Pine Creek’s north fork. The route consists of some steep sections that require scrambling and handholds, as well as ledges where if a fall occurred, it could be fatal. The elevation gain is 6,500 feet from trailhead to summit, or an average of nearly 1,200 feet per mile, which makes for a taxing ascent.
Apparently, John Lee and his party cleared the Ebersacher Ledges, where the level of difficulty increases and the route-finding becomes more challenging. As it got later in the day, they passed the three lakes along the route spaced at 1,000-foot intervals: Lower Boy Scout Lake, Upper Boy Scout Lake, and the aptly named Iceberg Lake (elevation 12,600 feet).
Falling behind in their plans of making the summit on that clear, cloudless day, the group was stopped by impending darkness near the Whitney-Russell Col. There, at an elevation of more than 13,000 feet and about a half-mile from the Whitney summit, the group spent the night.
At 6 a.m. the next day (Tuesday, July 19), Lee departed to scout the route. His companions later reported that from their perch on the saddle overlooking both sides of the Sierra Crest, they spotted Lee’s green Osprey backpack on a rocky outcropping.
The group waited several hours for Lee to return, then made the decision to leave the area. With the help of some experienced mountaineers, the remaining trio descended. They told searchers later that they were hoping Lee would rendezvous with them at their vehicle at the Whitney Portal trailhead.
The group returned to the trailhead at about 10 p.m. At some point thereafter, they reported their companion missing.
Lee was described as being of Asian descent; with black hair and brown eyes; five feet, three inches, in height; and weighing 128 pounds.
Initially, searchers were told that Lee was attempting to summit Whitney. A later report from one of the hikers in the party was that, in fact, Lee had been trying to find a safer route down the mountain to aid his friends.
An aerial search was initiated Wednesday, July 20. It wasn’t until Friday, July 22, at midday that Lee’s backpack was located on a ledge north of the Mountaineer’s Route, and search efforts were concentrated there.
On Sunday, July 24, six days after he had embarked on his fateful hike, Lee’s body was located at the base of Whitney’s southwest slope (12,500 feet elevation), just inside the boundary of Sequoia National Park. By then, nearly 100 people — including Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks, the Inyo County Sheriff’s Office, and search-and-rescue teams from as far away as the San Francisco Bay Area and San Diego; two search dogs from Yosemite National Park’s canine rescue team; and four helicopters — were involved in the aerial search.
The Tulare County Coroner’s Office determined that the cause of Lee’s death was blunt force trauma, which is consistent with a fall.