May is the start of prime hiking season on Mount Whitney, the tallest summit in the lower 48 states. Over the past decade — and especially during the coronavirus pandemic — the stunning mountain on the eastern side of the Sierra Nevada has seen an influx of visitors seeking the thrill of conquering the craggy peak.
But summiting a peak of 14,500 feet is an experience unlike any other hiking in California — a trek up “a real alpine mountain,” said Ryan Navales, the president of Inyo County Search and Rescue, a volunteer organization that handles rescues. Since November, three climbers have died on the mountain.
“It’s going to be a bad year,” Navales said.
Navales, who spoke with me even as a rescue was taking place, said he had seen an increase in people hiking Mount Whitney who “push beyond their capability and their experience.” Hikers may be reluctant to turn back after winning the lottery to hike during the prime season. Some seem to have no other exit plan than to call search and rescue, he said. “One guy asked for a ride to his car.”
My partner and I attempted a section of the Mount Whitney hike in February, from the Mount Whitney Portal to Lone Pine Lake. We’re pretty experienced winter hikers, and the trail was a moderate 6.5 miles.
Three-quarters of the way in, though, problems started to mount. The footsteps we were following in the snow took us far off what was marked on our GPS app. The wind picked up, blowing snow over our tracks and threatening our ability to easily backtrack.
Not only that, we were headed straight through a fresh, steep snowfield, and while we were well equipped — with enough food, plus layers and emergency blankets, to last us a night — we did not have safety gear in the event of an avalanche, an increasingly common cause of death among hikers.
It was getting late, and we were pushing our designated turnaround time. Finally, we reached the ridge, and were immediately blasted by the wind. That, combined with the altitude, made it hard to breathe, even with face masks on. We were cold, even with down puffies and wind-resistant shells.
We were so close, so we kept going. But the conditions kept getting worse, making us lose more time. Finally, a few hundred yards from the lake, our final destination, we decided to turn around.
On our way down, we passed hikers headed up. Several had little in the way of gear or even layers. They shrugged off our warnings about the worsening weather.
Everybody’s preparation and capability is different. But everybody I talked with stressed the importance of turning around before things get bad and being prepared to self-rescue whenever possible.
“You’re getting yourself in, you should be able to get yourself out,” Navales said. Say to yourself, “That mountain’s not going anywhere, but it’s going to kill me if I keep going.”
Here are some tips from Brian Spitek, a wilderness manager for Mt. Whitney Ranger District:
If you’re winter hiking, you should have crampons and ice axes, even if they never come out of your pack. “It can be beautiful here in January,” Spitek said. But you can also have storms that come with 100-mile-per-hour winds and whiteout conditions. “It can be really mild or really quite violent,” he said.
It’s not unusual for snow and ice to linger into June, and this week the Eastern Sierra got fresh snow. Spring hiking can be difficult because the footing can change based on elevation and time of day — what was slushy midday might be icy by the evening. “We’ve had fatalities at every time of the year,” Spitek said, “but it seems like a good fraction of the ones we’ve had at this time of the year in my tenure have been related to snow and ice.”
Common problems in the summer, Spitek said, involve altitude sickness and improper hydration, including imbalances. Some people will start hiking as early as midnight and “their sleep cycle is going to be messed up,” he said. And, he added, “Sometimes people are just having a bad day.”
No matter the time of year, make sure you have a good, up-to-date forecast, such as a point forecast from the National Weather Service.
William P. Davis is an assistant editor on The New York Times business desk, based in Los Angeles.
Where we’re traveling
Today’s tip comes from Richard Frank:
“I would nominate my adopted home of Pacific Grove, on the Monterey Peninsula and California’s Central Coast. It’s a go-back-in-time town of 15,000 residents, where seemingly every home is different and many are charming Victorians. Pacific Grove has a spectacular ocean coastline, with a public “Coastal Trail” that extends all the way along its town perimeter — between Pebble Beach and Monterey. It has a distinct middle-class vibe, good restaurants, friendly inhabitants and fabulous year-round weather. Pacific Grove also features abundant parks and wildlife sanctuaries for both Monarch butterflies and harbor seals. And the world-renowned Monterey Bay Aquarium straddles Pacific Grove’s border with the larger city of Monterey.”
Tell us about your favorite places to visit in California. Email your suggestions to CAtoday@nytimes.com. We’ll be sharing more in upcoming editions of the newsletter.
What questions do you have about California’s June primary election? Email us at CAToday@nytimes.com.
And before you go, some good news
One of the world’s largest community science events, the City Nature Challenge, concluded this week with some stunning results.
The challenge was originally dreamed up in 2016 by the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County and the California Academy of Sciences as a competition between Los Angeles and San Francisco.
People in each city take photos of plants and animals in their area, and the museums help identify the species to better understand each region’s biodiversity.
This year, more than 3,000 species were documented in the Bay Area, including a glow-in-the-dark scorpion, two urban coyotes strolling through Golden Gate Park and the remarkably well-camouflaged Blainville’s horned lizard.
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