While the majority of South Side climbers head to Avalanche Gulch, the West Face offers a similarly difficult alternative. It’s a little bit longer of an approach, hence the less traffic. If you have two full days, and reasonable conditioning, it is a great option.
From the Sierra Club Hut you’ll climb/traverse along the lower ramparts of Casaval Ridge into Hidden Valley/Cascade Gulch. At an elevation of 9,200 feet there are lots of bivy site options. Keep in mind potential rock fall and snow slides when choosing a site. The climb from here is a straight shot up along the shallow West Face gulley. An alternate route ascends to the climber’s right of the West Face gulley following lower angle terrain up to about 11,000 feet through a short gap in the rocks onto the upper West Face gulley. The crux is the top of the West Face but can easily be passed on the climber’s right.
The best part of this route isn’t necessarily the ascent, but the return via ski, board, or glissade. The descent is spectacular in good conditions. The best time for this route is early to mid-season. The more snow the better. Running snow melt water can be found in lower Hidden Valley/Cascade Gulch by mid-season, but runs dry by late season.
The West Face via Hidden Valley (HV) is currently in poor shape for climbing. Currently the trail to hidden valley is dirt, and is unmarked. Follow the trail from Bunny Flat to Horse Camp. From there, head northwest from the cabin to pick up the user trail to HV. A caretaker is on duty at Horse Camp if you have any questions on where the trail starts. There is plenty of camping space in Hidden Valley. Anchor your tent well as HV is notorious for being very windy. There is occaisonal running snow melt water available in Hidden Valley in the afternoon hours, but don't count on it and that option will dwindle as the summer progresses. Water is available at Horse Camp. As with all other routes, elevation and time of day will dictate the kind of snow you'll find. Turn around and head down if thunder cells begin to build around the mountain. The top of the West Face is melted out and one may encounter rockfall this time of year on this route. Never climb into "white out" conditions as it is common for climbers to get disoriented and wander off of the wrong side of the mountain from upper elevations. Clouds and thunder activity compromise your safety. This route is a more remote option than Avalanche Gulch via Bunny Flat, and is more of a challenge to access. With the warm, summer like temperatures in store the snow will melt exposing bare ground on ridge tops. Winter worthy gear, winter camping, and winter mountaineering knowledge and skill are a must. An ice axe, crampons and helmet are mandatory, plus the knowledge to use them properly. Some sections like the top of the West Face are steep, and in firm snow conditions present the possibility of a long fall.
The West Face Route tops out near the bottom of Misery Hill, commonly referred to as the "Upper Mountain." During white out conditions it can be very difficult to find the descent route to the top of the West Face. This has caused numerous search and rescue incidents. It's very easy to wander off the WRONG side of the mountain. The Whitney Glacier and many other routes all converge near Misery Hill and the Summit Plateau. You may quickly find yourself in glaciered terrain which is not a good situation if you are not prepared. Pay attention, don't climb into a white out, know your route, and turn around before conditions worsen.
If you have more questions, give us a call or stop by the ranger station.