Mt. Whitney – 2012: Down the Mountain and the trip home

November 8, 2012 – A long overdue concluding blogpost for this year’s Mt. Whitney trip in August. I was supposed to be in Lake Tahoe tonight, posting photos from a day hike, but the weather was iffy this morning (snow, hail, rain and lots of wind) so I drove home to the Bay Area. So at this moment, as I write, I’m at Peets in Alameda waiting for the 8:00 showing of Cloud Atlas at the theatre across the street, proudly wearing my SF Giants cap. I’ve come to the conclusion that the Giants win the World Series only in years that I make it to the top of Mt. Whitney.

Foreground: SF Giants hat (2010 & 2012 World Series Champions); Background: Mt. Whitney

My previous post had me smiling on the summit of Mt. Whitney (it was admittedly a very forced smile that, to the undiscerning eye, might have been mistaken for gastric distress). I was partial to an unsmiling, stoic self-portrait (below) that accompanied my ‘happy’ shot. I posted the serious image on Facebook and someone commented that I wasn’t smiling. My response: I’m internalizing my joy.

Smiling on the inside

I continue my adventure with the descent from the summit.                                  Thursday, August 9, 2012, 12:20 pm Mt. Whitney summit

While it’s a sublime feeling to reach the summit, I admit that I wasn’t feeling all that great and exuberant. It’s an exhausting day hike (21.4 miles, 6,200+’ of elevation gain) and at the time I re-donned my pack and camera for the trip down, I’d been on the mountain for more than nine hours. A good friend of mine, Ewa, who has also climbed Mt. Whitney several times, always comments how long the descent is. And I agree. I know it defies logic and the laws of physics, but somehow the Forest Service finds a way of adding miles to the trail while no one is looking.

View north from the summit

Shortly after starting my descent on wobbly legs, as I reached the northern-most part of the trail, I took this image of the view to the north along the Sierras. My progress back down the mountain was halting. For the first mile, the pleasure of having gravity on my side was offset by fatigue, the effects of the altitude, and the uneven footing. I had to stop periodically to rest, drink water and electrolytes. Just as during the ascent, I can only remind myself that one step at a time (that trite old saying again), I’ll eventually reach the bottom.

Guitar Lake, 1:30 p.m.

After the first mile of descent, the trail starts ascending again toward the pinnacles and the junction of the Mt. Whitney and John Muir Trails. It’s the most challenging part of the return trip. Ok, ‘The 99 Switchbacks of Torture and Pain’ will be a challenge too. But as I climb, I secretly wish that President Obama or someone in the Interior Department would install a tram or moving walkway. I mean the $99 I contributed to his campaign this year has to count for something, right?

Sky Pilot in bloom

Luckily, I have gathering storm clouds to take my mind off the climb. I’ve learned from previous trips to not take the weather lightly. In 2002, the cloudless blues skies of mid-morning turned violent just hours later and had me scrambling down the mountain, praying to various deities and crying for my mommy. In ’05 (my 3rd attempt), the skies again tried to rinse me off. The resulting storm took the lives of two St. Helena Boy Scouts, both hit by lightning, just miles away from where I hiked.

As I descend The Switchbacks, the skies finally start to open up. It begins lightly, at first, and I keep expecting it to become torrential. And I keep listening for thunder. For the most part, the weather gods are merciful and, except for a few moments of hail and hard rain less than half a mile from Trail Camp, I’m spared a drenching and the abject fear that accompanies a lightning storm.

Mixed clouds at Trail Camp (3:30 pm)

View of high ridge from Trail Camp

From Trail Camp, it’s a 6-mile hike down to the trailhead. Even as a downhill hike, exhaustion still has a grip on me and saps my creative urges. I take few photos on the way down the mountain. One of the few I do take is of this twisted pine before the sun drops below the western ridge.

I come off the trail at 7:00 and I’m back in the town of Lone Pine by 8:00. In past years, once I’ve checked into my motel (Comfort Inn) and showered the multi-day amalgam of dirt, sweat and sunscreen off my body, I’ve treated myself to a steak dinner at Seasons. This time, sad to admit, I’m too tired and instead eat a fast food burger (Carl’s Jr.) in my room and let my body melt into my mattress. I’m zonked out and drooling on my pillow by 9:30.

August 10, 2012

Up early for the drive back north along SR 395. With still a couple of days off, my plan calls for a drive to Lake Tahoe. North of Bishop to the Nevada border is one of my favorite stretches of highway in the state. From each of my truck’s windows, the views are stunning.

Along SR 395 near Mono Lake

Near Mono Lake

With my leg muscles, especially my calves, screaming at me, I stop periodically to stretch and take photos. The Mono Lake/Lee Vining area is one of my favorite spots to stop.

Mono Lake

Tufa formations at Mono Lake

North of Mono Lake, I reach the town of Bridgeport where I stop once again, this time to sample the highly recommended fare of Jolly Kone. Special thanks and acknowledgment to my cousin Terri, apparently a soft-serve connoisseur, who told me about this place. Not all ice cream is the same. Jolly Kone’s is transcendent.

The final length of California road takes me along the Walker River to Topaz Lake. By the time I reach the Nevada border, the hours of driving and the previous day’s ascent of Mt. Whitney has me tuckered out and I’m ready for a nap in my Tahoe motel room. I limit my stops, make my way over Kingsbury Grade and get to South Lake Tahoe by 4:30 p.m. Initially, I’d hoped to do a short Saturday hike before driving home, but when my strained calves barely allow me to climb the flight of stairs to my room at Park Tahoe Inn, I know my hiking for this trip is over.

Clouds over the Eastern Sierra

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About victorvolta

I am a freelance photographer/writer based in the San Francisco Bay Area. I grew up in the very suburban city of Santa Clara. Education: San Jose State University (class of '84) BA degree in Journalism with concentrations in Photojournalism and English. Favorite Foods: Ribeye steaks and Stan's Doughnuts (separate plates, usually). Favorite Drinks: Strong gourmet coffee and Trader Joe's Blood Orange Italian Soda (separate cups).
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2 Responses to Mt. Whitney – 2012: Down the Mountain and the trip home

  1. skyblueguy says:

    Impressive. Beautiful photos.

  2. Kyle Kuns says:

    Everyone I hiked with also found the trek down longer and more tiring than the one up.

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