Reporting from Whitney Portal, Calif. — Dicey.
That's the word Doug Thompson used to describe the strenuous 11-mile hike to the summit of Mt. Whitney in October, a month of unpredictable weather that can make the first step up the trailhead near Thompson's rustic convenience store the start of a death trap.
About 25,000 people ascend the 14,494-foot mountain each year, and "while a lot of them are physically strong, they don't always have much experience or the proper gear," he said. "A year ago this very week, we had a fatal accident up here."
So far this year, five people have died on Mt. Whitney, and an untold number of hikers have suffered minor injuries, U.S. Forest Service officials said. Earlier this week, more than 75 searchers combed the mountain area for separate groups of climbers marooned for several days after day trips under clear blue skies turned into howling, snowy ordeals.
Three of those climbers — Phillip Michael Abraham, 34; Stevan James Filips, 43; and Dale Clymens, 45; all of Omaha — were plucked off the mountain by helicopter Thursday. The group had taken refuge in a rock hut for three days. Only one of them carried a sleeping bag, according to hikers who crossed their paths during the week.
Two others — Sina Sadeghi Baghsorkhin, 27, and his father, Abdolreza Sadeghi, 56 — walked out of the wilderness area uninjured about 1 a.m. Friday, about 50 miles away from their planned exit point.
"Both of those trips were ill-conceived and put rescuers in jeopardy," said K. C. Wylie, director of the Eastern Sierra Inter-Agency Visitor Center in Lone Pine. "We had weather forecasts indicating that there were storms moving in. On Tuesday, the forecast for the Mt. Whitney summit called for a high of 25 degrees and a low of 15 degrees."
"I'll never understand why people put themselves at risk like that," she added.
Jeffrey Doty, 43, of Beaumont, Calif., said he met the three Omaha hikers at daybreak Monday at an elevation of about 11,500 feet.
He was sympathetic toward the climbers. "People make mistakes," he said. "At the time we met, there were patches of blue in the sky. They made a judgment call to continue. I turned around and headed back because I didn't feel safe."
While cooking cheeseburgers and keeping a wary eye on the deteriorating weather outside his store, Thompson said, "These rescue efforts happen every year, especially around this time of year."
During the transition from fall to winter, storms frequently gather on the western side of the mountain's crest, then roar over the top with biting 60 mph winds, whiteout conditions and sub-zero temperatures, Thompson said. It is not uncommon for even experienced hikers to slip on rocks frozen over with ice as clear as glass, or to get lost in heavy snowfall, or have a heart attack on the trail with a vertical ascent of more than one mile.
Thompson said he warned the Sadeghis and some of their companions Tuesday against attempting to reach the summit.
"I was in the back of the store grilling hamburgers when I overheard them talking about going up the mountain" he recalled. "I walked out of the kitchen and said, 'Hey, we've got some snow up there and more storms on the way.' … I even showed them a map on my computer screen showing a bunch of storms heading this way at more than 40 mph," he said.
"One of them said, 'That's impossible.' Another walked outside, looked up at the mountain and said, 'I'm going up anyway.' So off they went with light gear and the assumption that they could get to the summit in one day. You give folks information, but what they do with it is their business."
The U.S. Forest Service allows a maximum 100 day hikers and 60 overnight hikers to tackle the mountain each day. Applicants sometimes wait as long as three weeks to obtain a permit.
On Friday, only six day hikers and 18 overnighters were believed to be on the mountain. Thompson figured many people with permits were scared away by the weather and reports of rescue operations.
The hikers stopped at the trailhead outside Thompson's store to tighten the straps of their backpacks and check their gear before setting out. Among them were Will Nelson, 32, a Contra Costa County city planner, and his friend, Louis Rivezzo, 38, a merchandise manager from San Francisco.
"We heard about what happened to the missing hikers a few days ago," Rivezzo said. "I'd be lying if I said it didn't bother me. But if bad weather comes, we'll hunker down until it blows over."
Then there was a cheery trio of hikers — Laura Peters, 40, a saleswoman from Irvine; Doug Daily, 47, an engineer; and Jim Noonan, 43, owner of the Four Brix Winery in Simi Valley — who planned to spend the evening at a base camp at about 12,000 feet and head up to the summit Sunday morning.