(UPDATE 1pm, Saturday from USFS PIO Nancy Upham)
Many people spent a harrowing night last night, temporarily stranded on the Mt. Whitney Trail after a late afternoon thunderstorm down-pour caused major flooding in the Mt. Whitney area. A number of hikers abandoned their gear in an attempt to ford the rising creeks to get down off the mountain, while Search and Rescue crews attempted to locate a person reportedy suffering from hypothermia. Due to unknown trail damage, high water, and Search and Rescue efforts, the Mt. Whitney Trail was closed at approximately 9:00 Friday night. Access roads were also temporarily closed and campers pulled out of Whitney Portal Campground as high water and mud ran through the campground.
According to District Ranger Margaret Wood, the main Mt. Whitney Trail is scheduled to re-open to hikers today at 1:00. The North Fork of Lone Pine Creek Trail will remain closed until high waters recede and trail damage is assessed. It could re-open as early as tomorrow, once it has been determined that the trail is safely passable. All access roads and Whitney Portal Campground are now open.
According to the Inyo County Sheriff’s Department, 21 people and two helicopters were involved in Search and Rescue efforts from Friday night through Saturday morning. Involved in the effort were the China Lake Mountain Rescue Team and their helicopter, Inyo County Search and Rescue, Inyo County Sheriff’s Department, and Inyo National Forest employees and their helicopter. This morning one person was airlifted from Mt. Whitney suffering from hypothermia, and Search and Rescue Teams contacted everyone on the trails, attempting to match up people with abandoned tents and gear to make sure that everyone was all right and capable of making it down the trail without assistance.
Inyo County Sheriff Bill Lutze was on scene thankful that everyone made it down off the mountain safely. “Under such adverse conditions, and with the large amount of water coming down the trail, we are very fortunate that there was only one hypothermic victim, and that there were no more injuries or fatalities,” he stated. “I appreciate the patience of the public while we conducted our Search and Rescue operations, making sure that everyone made it down safely.”
Weather forecasts call for more thunderstorms throughout the weekend. The Forest Service would like to remind hikers and backpackers to be aware of changing weather conditions and to be prepared with the right gear and equipment . Hikers should be aware of stream crossings and remember that waters can rise very quickly due to cloudbursts, especially when the rain is falling on snow that remains from the late winter. It is important to be prepared to spend the night in case high waters or a washed out trail preclude access back to the trailhead.
For information about the trails and conditions please call 760-876-6200, visit the Inyo National Forest website at www.fs.usda.gov/inyo , or stop in at one of the visitor centers.
UPDATE 10:50 am, Saturday:
Nancy Upham of the Forest Service confirmed again that the Inyo Search and Rescue did bring out one person from the Whitney Trail. That hiker was hypothermic. So far, they have found no one else who needs rescuing, but Upham said Search and Rescue continues to check the area. She said some people abandoned tents and gear in the midst of the horrendous downpour and flooding. She did say crews have found no new damage to the Mt. Whitney Trail. The Forest Service will wait for the Inyo County Sheriff to call of search teams before re-opening the Mt. Whitney Trail. Stay tuned for updates.
UPDATE: 8:40 am, Saturday:
The trail remains closed as assessment goes on. The Forest Service reports that the campground was expected to re-open at 9am. The road is open. A search and rescue effort to bring out one person with hypothermia was successful, and a group of day hikers did make it out and said they saw o one else in apparent need of evacuation.
The heavy rains caused waist-deep water at creek and trail crossings. Mostly very high water and some mud caused temporary closure of the campground.
Friday, what has been described as a huge cloudburst descended over Mt. Whitney. The deluge of rain mixed with snow still on the switchbacks sent a torrent of mud and water down the Whitney Trail and through the Whitney Portal Campground. The Forest Service said as of Friday night, the Mt Whitney Trail was closed until an assessment would determine when it might be safe to re-open it. Meanwhile, day hikers were reportedly stranded on the trail.
Public Information Officer Nancy Upham said that mud went through the campground causing its closure. She said Inyo County was able to re-open the road, but visitors did leave the campground and the Forest Service closed the Whitney Trail.
Upham said the Forest Service helicopter out of Independence was out on a search and rescue. She said details were sketchy Friday night, but Upham said 25 to 30 people were possibly stranded in the Trail Camp area, mostly day hikers not equipped to spend the night.
The Forest Service helicopter was expected to go up at daybreak Saturday. The Inyo Sheriff’s Department confirmed that Inyo Search and Rescue was headed up to the Whitney area Friday night.