Mt. Whitney and the Eastern Sierras
Up early for the 115-mile drive from June Lake to Lone Pine, I make a short detour to the amazing Schat’s Bakkery in Mammoth to pick up a box of doughnuts for me & Mike. I blindly stumbled on this place last year and was completely floored by how good the doughnuts (cinnamon twists, to be precise) were. It’s the closest I’ve ever found to the legendary Stan’s in Santa Clara.
I’ve always loved the drive along Highway 395 through the Eastern Sierras. The views of the mountains to the west of the road are always breathtaking. After passing Mammoth Lakes, the road takes me past Tom’s Place and then Sherwin Summit before the long descent to the town of Bishop. This descent starts in forest and ends in desert.
After meeting up with my friends, Mike and Mickey, in the town of Lone Pine, we drive to our campsite at the Whitney Portal Campground. This is my seventh trip up here and as always, pulling into camp and then seeing and hearing Lone Pine Creek fills me with an indescribable lightness. With this past year’s rainfall and snowpack in the Sierras, the flow in the creek is even more thunderous than in past years.
We camp for two days (Tues. & Wed.) at the portal. A friend of Mike’s, Darby, joins us from Vegas later on the first day and we hang out, cook, drink coffee and at night enjoy cigars by the campfire as we marvel at the stars in the still moonless sky. Just as at June Lake last night, I am again treated to the spectacle of shooting stars and an occasional satellite speeding overhead.
Unfortunately, Mike and Mickey have to drive back to Las Vegas late Wednesday night for work on Thursday, leaving Darby and I to hike up Mt. Whitney. We’re on the trail by 3 a.m. for the 22 mile attempt. I wasn’t feeling as strong as I’d hoped and Darby leaves me behind almost immediately. The month of training I lost due to surgery in May, I believe, came back to haunt me. Nevertheless, the morning was glorious. On the lower switchbacks, with the skies still dark except for the stars, when I’d stop to rest, I would turn off my headlamp to see the sky without the glare. More shooting stars appeared to the south and below I could see bobbing pinpricks of light scattered down the trail, each light belonging to a hiker on the trail, their way lit by their own lamps.
As the skies started to lighten in the 5 o’clock hour, the one thing I was praying for most was that my Nikon D200 would not short circuit on me like it did on last year’s trip. I think water leaked from the bite valve on my Camelback and somehow disabled my camera at sunrise. This year, my prayers were answered and I was able to take photos all the way to Trail Camp (12,000′), six miles up the trail.
Four miles into the hike, I found myself above the tree line and making my way to Trail Camp. After forcing down electrolytes, water and energy bars, I was able to get myself back on pace and feeling better. Unfortunately, I started to experience a disturbing problem with my right ankle. I had turned it Wednesday afternoon while walking around the camp site. It felt fine when I first rolled it, but now was alarmed that it was continually giving out on me, especially on some of the rockier parts of the trail. It wasn’t hurting, but it just felt weak. My concern is that if my ankle is acting this way on these lower parts of the trail, I’m worried how it will respond on the most difficult and dangerous spots between the Trail Crest and the summit. I decide to see how it feels when I get to Trail Camp, two miles ahead. If it feels better, I’ll try for the summit, if not, I’ll head back down.
As I mentioned, we had a lot of snow this past year, the most since the El Niño winter of 1998. Coincidentally, ’98 was the first year I attempted Mt. Whitney. The photo below shows the first significant snow patch I came across. It was probably at around 11,000′ as I neared Trailside Meadow. Given that the trail is well-traveled, it wasn’t difficult to find where to cross. In this case, I just had to follow the established boot tracks of others and step carefully. Even with the worn trail, snow is still snow and therefore, slippery. I’ve long found trekking poles invaluable, and they definitely helped here.
By no means am I an expert on the flora I encounter on my hikes. I’ve gotten much better with the help of guidebooks, Google, Wikipedia and other resources. Five years ago, I had a toddler’s vocabulary to describe my surroundings: “Flower! Tree! Bird! Pretty! Blue! Yellow! Ooooh! Caca!” Like I said, I’m better now, but I do welcome any corrections by my readers.
I reach Trail Camp at 7:30. I’m surprised that even though I’m not as strong as I was last year, and with stopping to take a good number of pictures, I’m only about 15 minutes slower than last year’s pace. However, my ankle has continued to buckle every time the trail slopes to the right or when my foot lands at an awkward angle. Rather than pushing myself hard up the mountain the rest of the day, I decide to rest for a while at Trail Camp and then enjoy a casual descent back to the trailhead. Unlike past years when the descent has felt akin to a death march, I’ll be able to stop, take photos and revel in my surroundings.
Facing east against a large boulder, shielded from the wind coming down the vast escarpment of the mountainside to the west, I sit and rest, and possibly even doze off for a few minutes as the sun warms my face. I eat a sandwich and drink my Cytomax. Before heading back down, I replenish my water bottles in the nearby lake, dropping iodine pills in each one.
A challenge to my flower identification ability: below is either a Drummond’s Cinquefoil or a member of the buttercup family. I found it along the trail near the Trailside meadow.
On the lower slopes around 9500′ I find one of my favorite wildflowers, the Sierra Angelica. I love the name, too. I don’t know if I’d name a daughter after it, but it’s an idea.
By deciding to descend early, I was able to finish my day on the mountain relatively early. By 2:00 I was in downtown Lone Pine drinking coffee at Espresso Parlor on Main Street. Had I not reached the summit in 2010, I would’ve been more upset at not reaching the summit on this year’s attempt. But then again, had I not reached the top last year, I probably would’ve been more inclined to go on with my bad ankle. I likely would’ve taken extra Aleves and taped the ligament. As I’ve learned on past trips, getting off the mountain safely to climb another day is always the main goal. The mountain will still be here next year, and if I decide that Kilimanjaro isn’t feasible, I might be here again, too.
Next: The drive back north along the Eastern Sierras and to Lake Tahoe