Wednesday, September 9, 2009

The Whitney Quest - Day 2: Cottonwood Canyon & The Alabama Hills

August 25, 2009

Being on East Coast time, even being up as late as we were the night before, I rose early for the locals (but "on time" for me at home). After getting a quick shower, the others stirred and rose. We were now awake and ready for the day to begin. was still rather early locally and quite dark out. So what did we do? Walked across town and down to the Inter-Agency building in the dark, hitting a handful of geocaches by starlight (or streetlight when available) along the way!

None of the caches we did were remarkable, or anything to write home about. Mostly they were "cache-n-dash" type hides. If you knew the trick to the hide, they were easy to find. If you were uninitiated, they'd be more challenging. For us, even for those on the team who deny "doing the numbers", these were really "numbers" caches (i.e., caches that one does just to increase the find count #). Pretty much everyone "does the numbers" at some point in their caching career, whether they prefer unique puzzle or challenging adventure caches or not.

While we were out and about, I noticed not far from the hostel a McDonald's (note: Lone Pine is small; you can walk from end to end in about 20 minutes, so nothing is far from anything). Unlike most McD's this one 'blended in' with its surroundings, being a wooden (or wooden-sided) building with a cowboy scene on the side (photo left). Given that this is McDonald's, I'll let you draw your own interpretation of the cowboy scene...

After hitting a few caches and getting almost three miles of walking in, dawn began to brighten the morning sky. Dimly we could see the mountains to the west beginning to emerge from the dark. And we were getting hungry. Found ourselves a breakfast joint that was open, and with not a solitary customer other than us around, had the place to ourselves throughout breakfast. The two people we saw overseeing the establishment spoke little or no English, so getting butter for the toast and pancakes interesting study of what the waitress thought I was asking for (peanut butter, more jelly, etc - anything but actual butter!).

After this hearty breakfast we returned to our hostel room and got our hiking stuff for the day in order. Our goal today: an acclimatization hike up Cottonwood Canyon to Trail Pass (~11,000') and back down. An 11 mile round trip, half of what we would be doing tomorrow.

We piled back into the SUV, and sauntered in the opposite direction we walked earlier in the morning. The more immediate goal: finish doing the caches in town. I had lobbied that we do a virtual cache dedicated to the 27 people who died from an 8.3 earthquake that hit Lone Pine on March 26, 1988. I wanted to do this cache as a good friend of mine who had recently passed away had been working on an earthquake forecasting algorithm (and in the face of conventional geologic science, reported he was having a 90+% accuracy rate at forecasting earthquakes before he died; despite having this trend for several years running, geologists still said he was "just getting lucky").

After sweeping the rest of the caches in town, and at a nearby park just south of town, we refueled and started heading up to Cottonwood Canyon, stopping briefly to check out another virtual cache in the Alabama Hills area.

The virtual cache brought you to a plaque that described some of the history of the Alabama Hills. We would learn since the 1920s, hundreds of movies and tv shows, such as Gunga Din, How The West Was Won, Kyber Rifles, Bengal Lancers and High Sierra, along with The Lone Ranger and Bonanza, have been filmed right here, with the majestic Sierra Nevada for the background.

But the day was not getting any younger, and we still had our "acclimatization hike" to do up in Cottonwood Canyon. We got back on the road and headed south-southwest, to the obvious switchbacks that climbed up out of the valley, pausing a couple times to let the SUV's overheating engine time to cool down (it wasn't all that hot out, but we were climbing steeply quickly!). From the Alabama Hills to Cottonwood Canyon it would be a 22 mile drive, but take nearly an hour. Photo above left shows the road to the foothills and the switchbacks up out of the valley. Photo right is near the last of the switchbacks, looking back towards the Alabama Hills. The dark green clump of trees far right center is Lone Pine. In the far distance is up valley towards Tahoe. The haze from the fires in California this time of year.

We had gone up quite a ways before we got to the portal that allowed us our first glimpse of Cottonwood Canyon (photo right). We still had a few miles to drive, and our hike would take us to the saddle right of center along the horizon, then circle around the mountain to the left and back down to the high valley and where we would park.

Soon enough we arrived at the parking area and trailhead. The place had plenty of cars, but it wasn't overly full, being midweek and all. We got out, geared ourselves up, did the photo thing, and got our butts on the trail.

The trailhead is at about 9,960' (give or take), and the Cottonwood Pass (our goal of this little acclimatization hike) is at 11,160' (or 11,180', depending on whom you reference; whichever, it is over 11,100'!), 5-6 miles away. Once there we would then traverse around the north side of Trail Peak (11,623') for a mile and a half on the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) to the Trail Pass (10,500'), then back down to Horseshoe Meadow and then to the parking lot again. A total trip of 11-12 miles, and would get us up to just over 11,000' to prep our bodies for The Climb tomorrow.

The trail started out flat, flat, sandy and flat, as we traversed along the north end of Horseshoe Meadow. Periodically we could see Trail Pass (and Trail Peak; photo upper right) and Cottonwood Pass (photo left) as we proceeded along. Trail Pass was obviously much more wooded than Cottonwood Pass. But then again, Cottonwood Pass was over 600' higher in elevation. :-)

We soon entered the lodgepole and foxtail pine forest, catching one final glimpse of Cottonwood Pass (photo right; our trail would take us next to the green meadow-like area in the center of this photo; see below for reverse view). The trail stayed very kind and pretty level, even as we were gently rising in altitude. But as soon as we left the Horseshoe Meadow, we began to climb up switchbacks (photo left) up the rocky slope. As we got about halfway up, we were afforded one final glimpse back of the Horseshoe Meadow (photo right). was all rock and pine trees.

When we started out, I was in the back of the pack. Partly because I was stopping entirely too often to take photos, and partly because the other guys were hiking faster than I. At some point, however, I think when we hit the switchbacks, I ended up passing them by quite a few minutes. Must have been from hiking up and down all the stairs in the new building at work where my office is...

I don't remember how many switchbacks we climbed up. There were quite a few. But they were gentle, the trail never steep, and the distance between the switchbacks was usually fairly lengthy.

Finally it was clear that the pass was ahead of me (photo left). Just one long final stretch of trail and I'd be there!

Once I arrived at the crest of the trail, I kicked back to relax on one of the weirdly-shaped and weathered boulders up there (photo right). For about a minute. Then my "what's over here" curiousity instincts kicked in, having never been up here before. I got up and actually start looking around, waiting for the rest of the group to arrive.

The view back down to Horseshoe Meadow was quite nice (photo left). It was a little humbling to understand that our ride was 5-6 miles "thataway", on the far side of the Meadow, somewhere below the tall mountain upper center. And we still had to traverse around to the right (from this view) behind Trail Peak, then end up somewhere in the middle of Horseshoe Meadow.

Behind me was the Big Whitney Meadow (photo right). Our journey today would only take us a very very short way into it, then turn left and follow the PCT. I'll have to come back another day to check out the Big Whitney Meadow.

I should make a side note here, throughout the afternoon we would occasionally hear jets flying high overhead. Most of the time I never saw them, but every once in a while I'd catch a glimpse. They were F-18s, out of the Naval Air Weapons Station, China Lake. It was Jeff who not only pointed them out to us, but could tell us where they were flying out of (being a pilot and all :-D ). He assured us that they were always flying in pairs, even if we only caught sight of one every once in a while. These jets would accompany our climb up Mt Whitney tomorrow for most of the day.

Before too long the rest of the guys caught up and we had a nice, relaxing lunch. But we didn't have ALL day, so gathered up our stuff and started out on the second half of our hike. Photo left is the view back up to Cottonwood Pass from the junction of the Cottonwood Pass trail and the PCT.

As we headed down the trail, I heard a call (Nature) from just up the hill. The other guys didn't hear anything and kept on trucking. By the time I got back to the trail, they were l-o-n-g gone. Well, even mapless, I figured I couldn't get too lost here. I knew where the Horseshoe Meadow was, and where we were parked. I could navigate there by any means necessary if I ever lost the trail.

As I hiked onward, I came across a number of interesting things: a grove of dead pines (below left), more than a few huge leaning trees (below center), and always these extremely twisted trees (below right). I've seen trees like this for many years in the mountains. I still have yet to understand how they get so twisted up.

Eventually I got to Poison Meadow (photo left; no, I don't know why it's called Poison Meadow), and soon after that I caught up to Jeff and Dwight. We hiked onward together, but I was growing pretty fatigued and they soon out-distanced me. I just plodded ahead, one foot in front of the other. The view in front of me (photo right) unchanging, the Horseshoe Meadow off to my left through breaks in the trees.

After a while I caught up to the group. They were taking a break at the Trail Pass/PCT/Mulkey Trail junction. I plopped down but after a couple minutes they rose to start heading onward, fully rested. Ugggh. This didn't bode well for me for tomorrow. I climbed to my feet and plodded onward, still slower than the rest (I also think they were catching exit fever, enabling them to go faster).

Eventually we got down the 600' descent to the broad and sandy Horseshoe Meadow (photo left). And halfway across the meadow we came upon a group of horse riders heading in for a one or two night overnighter trip. (photo right). That's one way of traveling so as to not carry all your gear on your back!

From here it was still about a mile, maybe a shade less, to get back to the parking lot. We still had one water hazard to cross (photo left) in the blazing sun before we could get back to the wooded shade and the Cottonwood Trail (after which it was less than half a mile to the SUV; but given how I was feeling, that was one lonnng half mile!).

Tired, exhausted, I made it back to the SUV. The other four guys had already shed their packs and changed their shoes/socks and were ready to roll. It took me a few minutes to catch up, but then we departed.

On the way out we noticed that the local rock removal crews hadn't finished their work yet. It was just before 2p.

From my vantage point in the SUV on the drive back down the switchbacked Horseshoe Meadow Road, at this hour in the afternoon, the valley below had a distinctive red coloring in places (photo left). We also saw down in the plains periodic dust devils, some of them quite tall (but barely showed up on the photos; there are actually two just right of center in this photo).

As we were closing in on Whitney Portal Road, and since it was "only" mid-afternoon (i.e., we had time to kill), we decided to stop and tag two more caches in the Alabama Hills. We piled out to start looking for the first cache, but my attention was drawn to the rocks. My hands started itching, and I was wishing I had my harness and shoes (and a rope). Photo right of Jeff and Dwight passing by one of the rock formations here, in search of the cache.

As I tore my attentions from the rocks to help with the cache search, one of the guys said, "Hey, what's that up on the rock?" I immediately trotted over to where he was. Sure 'nuff, it was a bolt! And a rap station up top. These rocks WERE an established climbing area! I wanted to climb up...but restrained myself. This will have to wait for another time...

We quickly found the two caches, and a plaque describing this particular area as being where the movie Gunga Din was filmed (photos left and right below).

After collecting the two caches, we jaunted back to town, and off to the ranger station to check in. Where we were given a rude surprise that almost ended the trip right then and there!

Seems we had to check in with the rangers by 11AM the day before the hike, not just check in with them at any time the day before the hike! If there had been a line of people waiting for no-shows during the check-in time, our permit would have been given to another party, and we would have been SOL, and out of our registration fees. We got lucky. Lesson learned. When doing Whitney, DON'T plan anything else the morning before!

With our permit in hand, we headed back to town to grab some grub (photo left, view of Pizza Factory from the hostel room; photo right is of the Mt Whitney hostel from the Pizza Factory), do some more last-minute shopping (which, for me, included picking up a climbing guide to the Alabama Hills; yep, I'll be back!), then repack for the hike up Whitney. We would be getting up around midnight-thirty. Going to bed early sounded like a good option.

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