As promised, I continue the narrative of this year’s trip to the Sierras and Mt. Whitney with my stay at the Whitney Portal Campground. As in past years, I camp for two nights to acclimate to the altitude and generally just to revel in my surroundings. The campground is at about 8,200′, 13 miles up Whitney Portal Road from the town of Lone Pine. Although Lone Pine sits at an elevation of 3,700′, it is a desert town, 1600 feet higher than Placerville, and in the summer is about 30 degrees hotter than the campground.
From my first trip in 1998, my favorite feature of the campground has been the creek that runs through the middle of it. I’ve soaked my legs in it and in what has become a yearly ritual, I dip my head in it, a sort of baptismal ablution to wash away the sins of civilization. This year, I shared camp with my old friend, Joe, and his girlfriend Denise, also both avid hikers. Unfortunately, their schedules wouldn’t allow a hike up Mt. Whitney on the Thursday of the trip. So while I trudged up the mountain trail, they drove home to the Bay Area. But during the two days and nights we camped, we savored each moment, ate like royalty, sat by the campfire and marveled at the stars.
August 7, 2012
Up at 2:00 am on a Thursday morning to start my ascent. In the darkness of pre-dawn, by the light of my headlamp, I break camp, ready my gear and make the one mile drive to the trailhead. Breakfast is simple, a banana, a peach, and energy bar and two packets of Gatorade G1, a carb/electrolyte/B-vitamin mixture that I’ve found to be an invaluable source of energy to fuel my body early. Since I’m accustomed to hiking alone on local trails (Mt. Tam, Desolation Wilderness, etc.), starting up Mt. Whitney solo doesn’t feel all that foreign or isolating. In fact, I’ll see many more fellow hikers on the trail than I typically see on a weekday on Mt. Tamalpais.
I’m on the trail at 3:10. Although it’s cold, I try to wear as few layers as possible, since I know I’ll be warm and sweating immediately upon starting. I begin with just my hiking shorts, and two thin synthetic layers on my torso. Unfortunately, since I’ll be hiking for three hours in the dark, photography is impossible. But, even in the dark there’s a unique beauty and magnificence to the experience. Early on the trail, a look to the east shows Lone Pine, still asleep in the valley below. The sky is a carpet of starlight and when I stop for sips of water or electrolytes, I turn off my headlamp to cut the glare and I’m treated to the occasional shooting star above, and the bobbing pinpricks of light below, the headlamps of other hikers coming up the mountain, looking like fireflies.
For those who don’t know me, I tried and failed the first five times up the mountain between 1998 and 2009. Finally, in 2010, days after my 50th birthday, I made it to the top and the moment I reached the summit was a transcendent, emotional moment for me. Last year (2011) I made it half way, not wanting to push a sprained ankle and surgically repaired hernia past their limits. This year, with full five months of uninterrupted training, I felt strong again and ready to tackle the 21.4 mile (round trip) hike. On my early attempts, I’d always struggle up the early sections of the trail. This year, I feel strong immediately and keep a good pace, even faster than in 2010. I pass the log bridge over Lone Pine Creek (2.5 miles up the trail) before 4:30.
I include the above image to show the bridge across the creek. As mentioned it’s about 2.5 miles up the trail as it nears the Lone Pine Lake spur. Last year (’11) with a much higher creek level, the bridge was washed out for several days because of a violent mid-summer thunderstorm. This forced hikers to wade through about a 50-yard crossing in frigid thigh-high water. It was one part of the adventure I could’ve done without. This year, the bridge was intact, and for this I was thankful. In 2010, the year of my successful attempt, I hiked with my good friend, Mike Gibbons, and we kept what I felt was a blistering pace up to Outpost Camp/Mirror Lake. This year I was able to keep an even faster pace, reaching the Mirror Lake in near darkness. It wasn’t until I got to the treeline that the horizon started to show some significant color.
At this point I’m nearing the treeline between 10,500 & 11,000′ with still a mile and a half to go before Trail Camp. It’s also at this point in 2010 that my Nikon short-circuited, a crushing feeling that almost had me in tears. Luckily, Mike had an iPhone4, with a decent camera and video capabilities. It took decent images, but I still felt as though I never had the opportunity to capture the images I wanted to. This year with a functioning camera, I finally had that chance.
Shortly after 6:00 the sun crests the horizon and the granite is awash in golden alpenglow.
The six o’clock hour takes me along steep granite shelves until I meet up again with Lone Pine Creek as it flows through an area called Trailside Meadow. In past years the creek banks were full of wildflower blooms, especially Alpine Shooting Stars and Red Heather. This year the flowers bloomed early and I didn’t see very many. Even with a working camera, however, I’m careful to limit my stops along the way. As I’ve become an avid hiker over the past few years, I’ve learned that although my stops for photos are seemingly benign, they stall my progress and momentum more than I think. My plan is to try to limit picture taking on the way up, and then if I have energy on the way down the mountain, I can go crazy with the shutter. That’s my plan anyways.
I reach Trail Camp and the six-mile mark just before 7:00 and spend about 20 minutes replenishing and treating my water from a nearby tarn and then forcing down some calories. I continue east up the escarpment and begin the long trek up ‘The Switchbacks’, a 2-mile long series of 99 switchbacks that take hikers from Trail Camp (12,000′) up to Trail Crest (13,700′)
My early momentum and fast pace of earlier is blunted as I make my way up the switchbacks towards Trail Crest. Clouds are starting to form, especially to the southwest. I’ve learned the hard way that even the smallest accumulations of clouds could possibly portend thunderstorms later. Ok, no clouds in the photo below, but trust me, they’re out there!
I reach Trail Crest at just past 9:00. It’s kind of like a mini-Continental Divide. Once there, I’m afforded magnificent views of Sequoia National Park, the Kaweahs, and an endless string of mountains and lakes to the north.
At Trail Crest, I rest for a few minutes, force down more sandwich and put on some warmer clothes: wool cap, gloves, and my zip-on pant legs. With the trail now exposed to the wind from the west, the temperature drops significantly, but not as cold as in past years. After about a ten minute stop, I continue north.
The photo above shows Hitchcock Lake (l), Guitar Lake (r), Sequoia and the view north.
My struggle up the mountain continues, but with the summit about a mile and a half away, I know I’ll eventually make it. Trite as it sounds, I just keep putting one foot in front of the other. I also stop to rest and catch my breath with increasing frequency, drink my water and electrolytes and enjoy having a working camera. But above all, I relish being up here on the mountain, experiencing heaven at every turn.
As I squeeze between a couple of granite outcroppings, the view opens and I can finally see Mt. Whitney. I admit it doesn’t look impressive from this angle, but I instantly felt my pulse quicken at this view. On this photo, Mt. Whitney is the brown rise furthest from the camera. The two needles (Keeler & Crooks Peak) are in front of it. You can also see the trail at far right. This is typical of the terrain between Trail Crest and the summit. This is why I love my hiking poles.
It’s now just past 11:00 and I’ve been hiking for almost eight hours. I’m less than a mile from the top, probably at around the 14,000′ level.
At this point, like most of the other day hikers heading to the summit, I’m stopping every couple of minutes to catch my breath. My system is that I’ll count off about 50 steps, then rest for an interval of about 12 – 15 breaths.
At 11:45, I take this photo from below the Smithsonian Hut at the summit (14,496′). Moments later, I’ve reached my goal and sign my name in the register for the second time. It takes me several minutes to recover and to finally do a bit of celebrating. It’s an exhausting endeavor and it’s a bit daunting knowing I now have to hike back down. But the views are unparalleled. I’m now standing at the highest point in the lower 48 states.
This post has gone on a bit long, so I’ll end here and finish this year’s Mt. Whitney post with my next entry: The climb down & the drive home