Once safely back at the Trail Crest junction, Jody met us with, “Did you all make it?” Yup, was the resounding answer. (However, we all agreed that Jody still had made the better choice, and was the smart one out of all of us.) In our haste this morning we had neglected to eat heartily and apply appropriate sunscreen, thus we returned from the summit red faced and starving. Once at the trail junction I wedged myself into a “corner” far from the trail’s edge…exhausted and relieved I had made it back to relative “safety”. Thinking out loud, I said,”That was the most terrifying experience I have ever had!”. Trevor turned to me and started to laugh. “I was just thinking the same thing “, he said…and this is from a guy who rock climbs. We all knew that we weren’t done just yet. Paul had overheard from a mountaineering guy, who was climbing Whitney with his wife and 11 year old daughter, that the switchbacks were closed, and we would have to heel step or glissade (slide on our butts through the snow) to get to Trail Camp. The guy also said something about walking in the foot prints of the others who had gone down before us. This supposively wouldn’t be that “hard” as the snow had softened quite a bit from this morning. The prospect of post holing 1800 feet, however, did not seem inviting. We donned our packs and began another climb, of sorts (still wearing our micro spikes), over the crest and to where the 99 switchbacks were supposed to have started. We could make out a bit of the trail down to Trail Camp, but the vast majority of it was completely encased in snow. The only way down was via a steep snow chute (skiers would rate it at least a double black diamond run), which by the way was the only way to access Mt. Whitney for those coming from Whitney Portal. At this point I recall a conversation that Paul, Jody, Jan and I had with two young men, just 6 days prior. They were headed down from having successfully summited Whitney as we were doing our first acclimation hike to Lone Pine Lake from Whitney Portal. They were oozing joy and accomplishment. We asked them how they did. They replied that it was one of the most amazing and terrifying things they have ever done. We of course, asked why. They said that rather than walk down (which we assumed meant the switchbacks) they decided to glissade the 1800 feet. They said once they started they realized they had made a “big mistake” as they immediately started sliding down the chute “out of control”, and that it took them nearly 100 yards to be able to slow themselves down and come to a stop. They thought they were going to die, and were amazed that they hadn’t. They were glad they made it the rest of the way down safely. Their words rolled through my head and I wondered if anyone else recalled this conversation, as we sat on the “wide” lip of the snow chute.
We watched as Mountaineering guy and his family slid down the snow chute, ice axes in hand. We watched as another high stepped it down the chute. We weren’t gonna get any closer to the bottom standing there, and the switchbacks weren’t going to melt sufficiently in an hour, so one way or another we were going to have to step or slide (or combination thereof) down this snow filled, double black diamond, chute. Scout watched for a moment and literally jumped in feet first, heel stepping down the mountain’s face. Jan switched out of her hiking skirt and into a pair of FrogToggs for “warmth”, even though Mountain guy said he would “pay” to see her glissade in a skirt.
We did the best to “batten down the hatches” of loose items on our packs. Some fared better than others. I initially tried to heel step down, but found my feet kept sliding out from under me. Ironically once I stepped off the lip and started down, I was not scared at all. The snow was soft and forgiving, therefore I decided that if I was going to slide, I may as well glissade, and took off my micro spikes and shrunk my poles down. I gave Trevor, April and Jody a quick “tutorial” on how to hold and use your trekking poles like an ice axe to “slow” yourself down, and the admonition that above all do NOT dig your heels in to stop yourself or your heels may catch and launch you head over heels down the mountain. Trevor and April gave me a nod, like “here goes nothing” and started to glissade with a hoot and a holler. I am not completely sure if they were sounds of joy or terror. Jan, who was the most prepared, with an ice axe, and actual training, stayed seated on the wide lip of the chute. Jody had started to walk down and was doing okay until she lost her balance and began to slide and roll doing her best to “swim” uphill with a pole in each hand in a futile attempt to stop her uncontrolled descent. Soon it was just Jan and I. Not wanting to be the last one down the “hill”, off I pushed. There actually was no need to push, as gravity and a low coefficient of friction were co-pilots for my descent. I would have preferred a snow board or pair of skis, but in this case my butt would have to do. I slid for a good 50 yards before the build up of snow between my legs, and my pole tips, slowed me down to a stop. I needed to take inventory before I started again, as I watched an empty water bottle skip down the the steep slope ahead of me, and make sure that I wouldn’t lose anything else. I also needed to move over about 50 feet to my right if I were too miss the jagged rocks below. As I was doing this, Jody took another tumble. When she came to a stop, I asked her if she was okay. She was, but she had lost one of her microspikes that she had taken off and was holding in her hands. She was too far down to climb back up to get it, so she did her best to slide further down on her butt, which morphed into her leaning heavily on her side clinging onto her trekking poles for dear life. At this point I realized that there was no way I could, or was going to leave (my) SideKick alone, and did my best to coax her over to me before she reached the patch of rocks directly in her current path. Meanwhile Jan was still at the top, and April and the boys had made it to the “bottom” 1800 ft below (cutting off 2 miles of walking switchbacks…were there any to walk). The temporary silence on the mountain was quickly shattered as Jan could be heard screaming, “Oh shiiiiiiiiiiit”, whereupon I looked uphill to see her tumbling head over heels which then turned into something resembling a corkscrew, as she fought to grab a hold of the snow drenched mountain and slow her descent. I called to her to ‘self-arrest’ and dig in her ice axe, to which she cried “I can’t!…I don’t have it!” It took me a little while to register what she had said, and then it became apparent that ice axe, while it held firm, had ripped out of her hands, and she had slid right past it. Not wanting to kick step back up to retrieve the axe, she reset her poles, put her micro spikes back on, and did her best to “walk” down the remaining portion of the chute. At this point I was still waiting for Jody to shimmy over towards me. My legs, feet, butt and gloves were now soaking wet. I felt like I was taking an ice bath of sorts. I did my best to be encouraging to Jody as I felt the beginning of frost nip on my finger tips, upon which my directions and encouragement toward her became more terse and direct. She responded by another near uncontrollable slide which thankfully came to a stop inches from the rocks, wherein she lost all her remaining water bottles, and her sit pad. After that, I figured frost nip is survivable but yelling at your friend to essentially “suck it up” and slide to the bottom may result in unfavorable results. I sat in the snow and watched as she inched her way down at a speed she felt “comfortable” with. Once she was nearly down to the bottom, I let loose and started my glissade. Everything was going well until I found myself in another person’s glissade track and it felt like I switched into “warp speed”. Soon the last of my water bottles were gone and I was sliding much faster than I was comfortable. Eventually I was able to slow myself down and come to a stop, and move myself out of the glissade track. While doing so another guy slid up next to me and asked, “How do you use your poles to slow down?” I looked over at him and he had two long curvy poles that I thought were downhill ski racing poles (the type that wrap around your body). They seemed like an odd thing to be using, and then I realized that they were in fact trekking poles, that were now misshapen. I showed him how I held my poles and used them like I was steering a canoe. He looked at my poles and then his and said, “Hmm, I guess I should have shortened them before I started, it’s a little too late now”. I told him he may get his best results by digging in with his handles, so he flipped them around and continued to slide down the rest of the chute. By this time everyone in our group had made it to the bottom and were heel stepping across another snow field, the last mile to Trail Camp. Paul and Trevor, however, waited at the bottom for me…and Jody. When Jody finally reached the bottom, she was more than slightly disheveled. She had had a “yard sale”. Her pack was on cock-eyed, as was her hat and glasses. Both poles were broken and dangling from her wrists. Her water bottles were gone. She no longer had her sit pad, and was now without both micro spikes. She had literally left a debris field in her wake whilst sliding on the edge of complete chaos down the first snow slope she has ever been on. I had completely forgotten that while she has snow shoed, she has never skied or snowboarded, and has little to no experience with snow. Considering that, I’d say she did pretty darn good.
While her methodology of getting down the chute wasn’t pretty, she was alive and unharmed, so she had that going for her. It was everything she could do to stay upright now. Paul gave her his micro spikes and trekking poles so she could more easily walk the final mile to camp…or at least off the snow field. When we finally got to the ice/snow free switchbacks that start just past Trail Camp, the trail literally contained a raging river. It was late in the day and the snow melt was seeking the easiest path, which in this case was the trail. We were already wet and cold, so what’s another 10 minutes of walking in icy cold water. Down we stomped to camp. I tried to keep my feet “dry”, but at that point Jody didn’t care and just wanted to get her pack off and take a seat for a while. Originally we mistakenly thought we would be able to march all the way down to Whitney Portal for beer and Pizza. NOT! It was all we could do to set up our tents, get out of our wet clothes and boil water to re-hydrate our meals. We had been up since 330 in the morning. Hiked 10 miles on a rocky trail filled with snow and ice. Gained over 4,000 feet in elevation. Summitted the tallest Mountain in the lower 48. Glissaded down over 1800 feet, and not one of us got injured. While we had enough daylight, it would have been foolish (as if what we had already done wasn’t foolish enough) to try and make the remaining 7.6 or so miles to Whitney Portal considering how gassed we all were. Trevor wanted to rally, but we had no real trouble talking him into setting up camp.
Besides we haven’t had the opportunity to use our WAG Bags yet. We wondered where the origin of the term, “Wag Bag” came from. I assumed they are called Wag Bags, based on the fact you use a bag to pick up dog poop. The “wag” is a reference to a dog. Or maybe it because when you tie a used bag to a pack ( I’m pretty sure this is something you don’t want inside your pack), it “wags” back and forth as you walk down the trail. Jan of course discovered the real origin of the name, it being a military acronym (the military loves their acronyms) for Waste Alleviation and Gelling. The Forest Service issues Wag Bags with your Whitney permit. Some people use them in keeping with the LNT (Leave No Trace) principles. Others completely ignore it and dig cat holes or “hold it” till they get down to Whitney Portal. I can only imagine how “shitty” Trail Camp would be if this method of solid waste collection was not employed. Being good citizens, and in keeping with our sense of adventure, most all of us broke out our Wag Bags and made a “deposit”…or two, careful not to make over three, as apparently they are only rated for three uses. Luckily we did not have push the ratings envelope. It, along with each others’s recollection of the day’s events were this evening’s topics of conversation. Laughter and giddiness prevailed, as we were punch drunk with exhaustion, and shear joy that we miraculously were all alive. We had all decided that it was good that we took the “long route”, for if we had come up via Whitney Portal and saw that we would have had to kick step up 1800 feet to get to the Trail Crest Junction,and another 2 miles from there to the summit, we would have turned around and gone home. This day was nothing that we expected or envisioned, nor was it something that we would/could ever forget.