Thursday, September 10, 2009

The Whitney Quest - Day 3, Part 1: Mt Whitney

August 26, 2009

12:30am. The alarm went off way too early. Ugh. Between the restless few hours of "sleep", allergies, and the moderately high altitude hike yesterday in Cottonwood, I could have stayed in bed for a few more hours. BUT...this was The Day. The time had finally come, after all these years, to do Mt Whitney. Sleeping in really wasn't much of an option.

I clawed my way out of bed and into the shower. Once I was back out, most of the rest of the team was up and moving. Jeff was energized and packing high-power energy shot drinks (above right). Flyingmoose (left) slept on as long as possible before he, too, got up. We packed all of our stuff (we weren't staying here another night, as we were Furnace Creek-bound after doing Whitney), loaded up the SUV, and away into the darkness we went.

One thing about where we were going. This place was an "active bear area". I.e., there likely would be bears wandering around in the woods next to, around, or near us. We planned to not leave any food items in the car, but carry everything with us (that which we were not going to carry we left in the common kitchen refrigerator of the hostel until our return).

A short while later we arrived at the parking lot at the end of Whitney Portal Road. While there were a fair number of vehicles all around, we managed to luck out and get a spot within 50' of the trailhead and bathrooms. One last privy visit we shouldered our packs and started up the trail. Blurry photo left (camera had issues focusing) of Jeff, Marty, Harold, and Dwight.

Before I continue, this is a breakdown (in miles and altitude) of the hike we were about to undertake:

The Trail to the Mt. Whitney Summit

0.0 miles: Trailhead (8,360 feet)
0.85 miles: Enter John Muir Wilderness (permit required beyond)
2.7 miles: Cross Lone Pine Creek. Shortly after crossing, trail forks to Lone Pine Lake on left, right continues towards summit. (9,980 feet)
3.8 miles: Outpost Camp with Thor Peak dominating the view. (10,360 feet)
4.3 miles: Mirror Lake (10,640 feet)
4.9 miles: 50 yards past Whitebark Stump, a dwarf whitebark pine is the last tree on trail
5.3 miles: Trailside Meadow (11,395 feet)
6.3 miles: Trail Camp, a good place to rest before the grueling 96 switchbacks to Trail Crest. (12,039 feet)
8.5 miles: Cross Trail Crest and enter Sequoia National Park. (13,777 feet)
9.0 miles: John Muir Trail joins from the west. Altitude sickness common. (13,480 feet )
9.3 miles: Cutoff to Mount Muir.
10.5 miles: Keeler Needle, just a short climb to the summit from here. (14,003 feet)
11.0 miles: Mt. Whitney summit. No water. Camping permitted. (14,495 feet)
(courtesy of Desert USA)

The altitude numbers in parenthesis indicate the altitude you are at at that particular point. So, we are starting our adventure at 8,360' above sea level. Better than 6,100' of gain awaited our legs and feet...

Very shortly into the trail (like, tens of feet), we came to a display area that included a scale that people could weigh their packs. We were loaded with daypacks, not intending on spending the night. Jeff's and my packs weighed in as the heaviest at 22 lbs each (mine was that heavy because I was carrying 2 liters of water, a liter of Gatorade, and my heavy-duty first aid kit). Everyone else was in the 12-18 lbs range.

The time was 2:30am. From there we set out into the chilly night. By the time dawn was to break, several of us would wish we had gloves, the air temperature was just cold enough.

For the next few miles, punctuated by periodic stops for snacks and water, darkness stayed with our every step. Up and up, onward and onward we trudged, following the trail markers and wondering what the terrain around us looked like. Over our left shoulder Venus shone brilliantly in the sky.

Finally somewhere around 11,000' or so the eastern sky began to lighten. Dawn was coming. We pressed onward.

A darkness turned to greyness, we could see we were now well out of the forest and in rocky terrain. The eastern sky went from a faint glow to an erupting yellow as the sun grew closer to the horizon. The stars overhead faded quickly, but Venus hung on for a long while. Photo right is looking East, Venus is the bright dot upper right, and the headlamps of Jeff, Snurt and RidgeSeeker are lower right.

Finally it was light enough for us to douse our headlamps and continue hiking by the growing light of day (photo left). Venus succumbed to the lightening sky and disappeared from view. The next thing we knew we were coming upon tents in the rocks - we were at the outer fringes of Trail Camp!

As the sun broke the crest of the horizon to illuminate the palisades that bounded Mt Whitney to the south (golden photo right), we stopped to resupply our water reserves, for once we got up into the 96 (or 97, or 99, or 103) Switchbacks (which were maybe quarter of a mile from Trail Camp) water sources would vanish. What we had would have to carry us for 7-8 miles round trip before we got back down and to a water source again.

After a nice, long break (in which we learned that the air temperature was below freezing - no wonder most of us were chilled, not having clothing for temps that chilly!), we got back to our feet and marched onward through a thinly populated tent-city, as the residents of said city roused themselves. At this point I was still doing okay pace-wise.

A short time later we hit The Switchbacks. Be it 96, 97, 99, or 100+. I'd seen different numbers quoted in different sites and books. The photo right is a view towards The Switchbacks, which are invisible, but climb the left-leaning ramp to the left center of the photo. Trail Crest is behind the notch where the upper right portion of the ramp meets the palisades, making those rock columns 1000'+ tall.

Now, I don't know how many there really are. I had my GPS on thinking I'd count them on the map later, but satellite signal bounce played havoc with that and my GPS-generated path map did not resemble reality. I was also thinking to manually count switchbacks as we went up, but after I hit the 20th one I started losing track. Partly because I was also gazing out at the views and vistas that surrounded us.

The other thing that distracted my attention early on in The Switchbacks was a helicopter that had flown into the area and circled around Trail Camp for a while before landing, taking off, flying away, coming back minutes later, circling around again, and landing elsewhere. I learned from two women who I was leap-frogging up the Switchbacks for a while that the afternoon before a young lady had fallen and twisted or broke her ankle while coming down from the Trail Crest. She made it to Trail Camp, but was unable to continue hiking out (another 6+ miles of rugged terrain). Several other groups of people who were camping at Trail Camp combined efforts to set her up for the night while the rest of her party went down for help. The helicopter was sent up late this morning to retrieve her. It was interesting to watch it fly around, but it did kinda break up the 'wilderness experience' a bit. But then again, before I learned what really had happened I thought something worse had occurred, necessitating the helicopter visit, so didn't worry about the whole 'wilderness experience' thing. In the last two photos left you can make out tents to the lower right, just right of the lake, in the rocks. To give you an idea of scale.

The photo left is looking up the direction of The Switchbacks from still well down on them. The Switchbacks thread their way steeply through the rock walls above. The photo right is of Jeff at the only set of railing (if that's what you want to call it) on The Switchbacks. And even some of those cables had been severed in places from large rockfall.

The photo left is a view of the Alabama Hills far, far below us and miles away (see previous log entry for when we were there). The photo right is a wider angle view of the same direction, but you can see the small lake by Trail Camp where we last filled up with water (said lake has no name that I am aware), and the somewhat larger Consultation Lake to the right. These both drain down along the Whitney Portal Trail.

Photo left is of the rock walls that rose formidably up from the scree field, towering 100-1000' or more tall. There are technical routes that go up these pillars and needles, but we didn't have any gear to be technical climbing. This was a foot-slogger trip. The two hikers in the foreground are the two ladies who were leap-frogging us as we climbed The Switchbacks.

The rest of the team surged onward while my pace slowed. As advertised, the Switchbacks were grueling. They basically climbed up for 1700' in just over a mile. And going from 12,000' to well over 13,000', the air gets thin pretty darn fast. Somewhere up there I passed the "8 Miles" marker rock (I would totally miss it on the hike back out). 'Only' 3 miles to go...

As I went up, some people passed me, going faster. I passed a couple people, going slower. And during the entire ascent maybe half a dozen people trickled down who had not completed the climb up to Whitney, but got to the Trail Crest (13,777') and turned around. Shortly after these individuals I started running into people coming down who had been to the summit for sunrise. Said it was absolutely spectacular up there. Hmmm. Next time...

Off to the far right I could see Mt Whitney. What I didn't realize I could also see, indicated by the yellow arrow in the photo lower right, is the Summit Hut of Mt Whitney. I saw it later on the way down when I looked back up.

Somewhere on the way up the Switchbacks I ended up passing Jeff and Snurt. But FlyingMoose and RidgeSeeker were well ahead of us. We all had radios, so I wasn't too worried about us getting out of touch (but we would later learn that Snurt's radio was not functioning properly).

Sidebar: in the beginning of the trip when we were all first meeting and introducing each other, telling each other outrrrrrageous tales of flight and fancy, I had relayed a story that a friend of a friend of mine and her husband, whenever either of them spot an attractive member of the opposite sex that they think their spouse would appreciate, call out "Squirrel!". They got this from the talking dog in the movie "Up!" (I've not seen the movie, but I saw the clip in the trailers; the dog is talking to one of the main characters, saying, "Hi there. My name is Dug. My master made me this collar so that I may talk - Squirrel! {pause} Hi there."). They don't point or anything, just say "squirrel", and let their spouse locate the noticed individual. Apparently she usually finds them for him, but every now and again he finds one for her. Anyway...

The Switchbacks finally ended with a long, straight-ish gentle rise in the trail that brought me over to the Trail Crest (sign photo left). I collapsed for a much needed rest, snack and drink. I've come 8.5 miles so far. Only 2.5 miles left to go...

Suddenly my radio crackled.

"Red Five, this is Red Squirrel Leader, over. Red Five, this is Red Squirrel Leader, over."

It took me a moment to 1) recognize that it was Jeff's voice, and 2) to understand he was probably talking to me. Puzzled, I responded.

"...Red Five here."

"Red Five, you have four squirrels inbound your location. I repeat, four squirrels inbound your location. Over."

"Uh, roger."

30 seconds later four athletic 20-something girls came sauntering up the trail from behind me, chatting away, not even winded. They stopped at Trail Crest and asked if I would take some photos for them. While doing so, I asked where they were from to not be so out of breath and how long it took them to hike up.

"From Tahoe! We live at altitude. We left the car just a few hours ago. This is her first time doing any mountains."

The indicated member of their group wasn't out of breath either. It was now 9:20am (we had just left Trail Camp at 6:50am - {gasp!}{wheeze!}). Oh, to be acclimatized to altitude!

Giggling, the girls trotted onward shortly after Jeff and Snurt got to the Trail Crest sign and thumped down to rest.

"Well?" Jeff asked.

Sitting against a rock with my head back, eyes closed, I replied, "Yeah. I'm too damned tired to appreciate anything right now."

A couple of F-18s roared high overhead. They would periodically accompany us most of the day. Photo left and right show one of the F-18s I managed to snap a photo of just before it flew behind a rock wall. I never saw his wingman.

Finally I decided to get up and start moving again. I figured I'd be slower than Jeff and Snurt at this point, that they'd catch up to me. Still 2.5 miles left to go. Don't think about it, don't think about it...

The first real views around the corner were of this massive curtain-rippled wall rising high over two alpine lakes known as the Hitchcock Lakes. The 13,000'+ mountain towering over the lakes is known as Mt Hitchcock.

At some point I caught up to FlyingMoose and RidgeSeeker. Then they were ahead. Then they were behind. Then Jeff and Snurt passed me. Then they were behind. It's kinda all a blur, the 2 miles from Trail Crest. I was walking on, pausing to breath, and looking to the magnificent sights to the west. Of which there was plenty to drink in. Photo left shows the trail as it rides near the edge of a long drop. Mt Whitney itself is just up from center. If you see an small, flat, elongated dark object at the summit of Mt Whitney, that would be the summit hut. The photo right is of FlyingMoose taking a momentary break to look down at the Hitchcock Lakes.

Photo left is looking just north of Mt Hitchcock at Timber Lake (just above the treeline; more visible in the photo right) just above 11,000'. The mountains beyond are part of the heart of the Sierra Nevada.

The trail for the most part back here stayed relatively flat, with an occasional switchback or two up, or an occasional rising traverse. But mostly flat for a good long ways. Which was nice, but...on the flip side, it meant the closer I got to Mt Whitney, the steeper the final trail would become...

All the while looking and hiking, the landscape around me looked barren. But then I would look down and every now and again I'd come across a patch of alpine wildflowers. Some yellow, some white, some purple.

Finally we had under a half mile to go. Jeff had found the first patch of snow we would cross and decided to take the opportunity to wing a snowball at Snurt and I. His first one nailed me in the head. "I forgot to tell you, I play catch with my boy all the time!" he said, as a second one came flying my way. That one I dodged then scurried past him while he was taking aim at Snurt.

Jeff , Snurt and I marched loosely together and eventually caught up to FlyingMoose and RidgeSeeker. We took a small break, then I decided to keep going, figuring that they would overtake me shortly. Particularly FlyingMoose and RidgeSeeker, who were marching hard and fast.

Photo left is looking up the direction of the summit, still some 400-500' vertical feet to go. Fortunately we did not have to walk over all these rocks. There was a nice, obvious trail to continue following to the top.

But, as things turned out, we were a lot closer to the summit than I thought. The boys must have taken a longer break than I thought they were going to, as I arrived a good 20 or 25 minutes before they arrived.

Not that I had the summit to myself! Not by a long shot. There were some 30-odd people clustered up here.

The two ladies who I had been leap-frogging on The Switchbacks showed up. I hadn't seen them since I left the Trail Crest. We chatted a bit. They graciously took a photo of me on the summit (ophoto left, me with my MESSENGER mission patch), and I returned the favor for them.

Now where was the rest of my team??


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