Our alarms went off at just after midnight and we rolled out of our tents and set off with lighter packs as it was a return trip and we left most things in our tents.
The first hour or so was up and down following Whitney Creek, before we eventually came out onto an expansive snow field. It was almost a full moon, so everything was lit up and I could walk just fine along the snow fields. It was beautiful and we could see head lamps of groups ahead of us, slowly making their way up the 1500m gain from camp. The snow field remained level but continually going up for a while until we got to a mostly frozen over guitar lake, where the snow field slopes down to the lake. It was fine, because it was early and the snow was mostly frozen solid, so I never felt like I was going to slip, but I did get my ice axe out just in case.
After a lot of climbing up, which is hard at altitude we made it to the switch backs. These were easy to walk along for a bit, but then the true switch backs started and the were all cover in snow and rock. The option was straight up in the snow. People had kicked in steps, but it really was over a 45+ degree angle of up using the spikes on our feet and ice axes to get leverage up. We had done the first 50ish metres up (150ft) and made it to a rock our cropping, when we heard a shout from above, then saw a rock the size of a small car go crashing down the mountain about 50m to our right. With it was red light and my first thought was crap has a hike just tumbled down with that huge rock. We soon discovered that the red light was sparks caused as the rock hit other rocks, not the head torch of a hiker. We all sat there wondering what to do next. Half, not wanting to give up but also aware of how easily we could have been 50m further over. After 5 minutes of sitting there we called it and started descending. The 50m we had come up was ok to descend, but did put me at the edge of my comfort level with climbing. I always find going down harder than going up.
Shortly after this first light started to come and the walk back along the snow fields was beautiful. We got back to camp at 7am. I made every one a cup of tea and then we took ourselves off to bed. I was cold in my tent even though the sun was up. So I went and laid in the sun for an hour. Finally, the sun hit my tent and I went back to sleep in there for another hour or two.
After lunchtime we all came out of our tents and sat around talking. People were starting to descend from Mt Whitney at this time. We chatted to two of them. Both seemed slightly shaken up and neither seemed glad that they had ascended. The first said even once at the ridge line it was still sketchy as there were giant mounds of snow along the switch back to climb over with a vertical drop to the side and that descending was hard as the snow was then too soft to safely kick into, so they had to use the rocks which were super lose. Referring to the area as a rock explosion. All the hikers had to take their time and make sure people were clear of being below them, so as to not set off rocks on to them. The second said he had been even closer to the falling rock (no one knows how it fell), about 30ft away and was so shaken up he was close to tears, but because they were a bit higher up the snow climb then us and didn’t want to descend the snow chute in the dark they kept going, but he said the rock tainted the rest of the time for him and he didn’t enjoy it. All that confirmed we made the right call. We are all disappointed we didn’t get to the top, but know that it was the wise choice. We are now thinking we might come back at the end of the trail, if there is time and try to climb it then. Once the snow has melted and there actually are switch backs to walk up.
We spent the rest of the day lounging around camp, playing taboo and eating before heading off for an early night.
Today I am thankful that no one was hurt by the falling rock and making wise decisions.