Part two of our 2006 California trip takes us from the bowels of Death Valley to the top of the country – 14,505 foot Mount Whitney. Once again, Jason Hughes is our narrator unless otherwise noted.
Taylor: If you want to climb Mount Whitney, then your voyage begins at the Eastern Sierra Interagency Visitor Center where we acquired the necessary wilderness passes. These passes are incredibly difficult to obtain, but they are necessary if your party wants to stay in the “Mount Whitney Zone” overnight. To get the passes you must first enter a lottery system. I put our five names into the lottery in October ’05. It wasn’t until March 18, 2006 that I received a letter from the Wilderness Permit Office, stating that we had secured August 2-4 on the mountain.
Our next stop was Lone Pine. In Lone Pine, we rented bear canisters for our food at a local supply store. I inquired about bear repellent, and was told that “unless you plan on exchanging punches with the bear, the bear spray was strictly for Europeans.” After consulting with the team, we decided we were all Americans and placed the repellent back on the shelf. We took our canisters and headed across the street for dinner at the Mount Whitney Restaurant.
After dinner in Lone Pine, we headed off toward the Mount Whitney Portal. The sun was setting now. We arrived after dark at the portal. It took us a while to locate the camping area, then a little longer to figure out that all of the camp sites were occupied. We started loading our packs for the hike, and then stored our remaining food in the local bear safe. It was decided that three people would sleep in the Commander, and two would sleep in the woods near the parking lot. Bryce, Taylor, and I opted for the vehicle, while Dane and Trey laid out sleeping bags. We loaded our gear back on top of the Commander so that the rear seats could be folded down. I recall more than one vehicle pulling into the parking lot as we were trying to get some sleep. These people were facing the same problem.
Morning came and we started to pile out of the Commander. Trey and Dane were still alive in the sleeping bags. We were going to wait until the Whitney Portal Store opened and check for camp fuel again. I saw this as my last chance to clean up, so I filled up a water jug and headed into the wooded area near the parking lot. I changed into some swimming shorts, doused myself in freezing water, and then lathered up with some soap. I had been swimming often in the Barton Springs pool in Austin, so it wasn’t too much of a shock, but still unpleasant. Dried off, put on some clean clothes, and then bought some souvenirs in the store. Everyone topped off their water supply. I had a 4 liter bladder I filled and was trying to attach to the outside of my already over weight backpack. I managed to punch a hole into my index finger with the D-ring on the bladder. Not fun. I dug out my first aid kit while my finger was bleeding profusely. Went down to the stream and soaked it in the freezing water for a bit. Great way to start the hike.
We started off on the trail up the mountain and within 5 minutes decided my load needed to be lightened. Bryce figured he could drop some weight too, so we headed back to the parking lot. I emptied the 4 liter bladder (over 8 lbs right there) and took out other miscellaneous junk from my pack. Bryce and I then headed back up the trail to catch up with the others.
It didn’t take us long to catch up. Bryce and I eventually pulled ahead, taking a break every 10 minutes or so. The incline was putting me to work. We arrived at Lone Pine Lake about three miles later and took a lunch break.
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(At Lone Pine Lake) We used the water filters and iodine tablets to top off everyone’s water supplies. Maybe an hour later, Bryce and I headed out towards Outpost Camp. I gave Taylor one of the two-way radios so we could stay in touch. It took us a few minutes to realize we were going the wrong way. We got back on track. More uphill hiking, until the trail leveled out in what I believe was Bighorn Park.
My head was banging. I assume this was due to fatigue and altitude. The Outpost Camp was just ahead. We found a log to sit on and debated whether we wanted to continue to Trail Camp 2.5 miles away, or stay here for the night. It was about 4:00 PM. Taylor and the other guys weren’t too far behind us. We eventually decided to wait for everybody, versus splitting up the group. We only had fuel for my stove and I was dead tired.
We set up tents and packed gear for the next day’s hike. Backpackers Pantry dehydrated food packets were on the menu this evening. After dinner, we set the bear canisters away from our tents and refilled our water supplies. There was a solar toilet not too far from the camp site, but it was taped off. The park wanted people to pack their crap (literally) out with them. There was also a fenced in area with a gate available. This provided one with a little privacy. Also taped off were several large garbage bins marked human waste. I won’t go into any further detail here.
Throughout the night we could hear hikers walking through the camp site, on their way to the summit. Without a camping permit, which took months to obtain, your only option was to hike all the way to the top and back in one long day. I think we got up around 5:30am. With just my daypack, it seemed like I was already carrying too much weight. I recall Bryce and me pulling ahead again. At some point Trey decided to head back to camp. The trail incline wasn’t getting any easier. The terrain seemed to be getting rough. I kept thinking there was no way I would have made it through here with all my gear yesterday.
We eventually made it to Trail Camp, approximately three miles from Outpost Camp, where we could see several tents set up. You could smell another solar toilet just a few meters off the trail. We waited for Taylor and Dane to catch up then refilled our water again. We noticed several marmots in this area. May have been better off that we didn’t camp at this site.
Marmots. We saw a few of these guys popping out over the rocks. In doing a little research I found that they are of the genus Marmota in the rodent family Sciuridae with squirrels. Wikipedia says: The name marmot comes from French marmotte, from Old French marmotan, marmontaine, from Old Franco-Provençal, from Low Latin mures montani “mountain mouse”, from Latin mures monti, from Classical Latin mures alpini “Alps mouse”. Thay didn’t bother us, and we didn’t bother them.
This small lake near Trail Camp is the last water source on the way up. We filled up here in assembly line fashion. Bryce pumped and Jason held the container. As each filled, Dane would get the container and as he held it, I would add the proper quantity of Iodine tablets.
After Outpost Camp we ventured into the infamous 97 Switchbacks – plus or minus a few. I had no intention of counting them. Basically, this is a section of the trail that switches back and forth close to a hundred times, with an unpleasant incline the entire way up. I couldn’t really see the trail from below, but looking down you could see the trail winding back and forth. After what seemed like forever, we made it out of the switchbacks.
This is where the scenery kicks in. We passed through several sections of narrow trail, where one wrong step could really ruin your day. From here on my memory is spotty. Once we made it to the section where the John Muir trail meets up with trail we were on, Bryce and I decided to break for lunch. I think this was around 2:00 PM. We found some large rocks to sit on, and then dug out some MREs. We used the hydrogen packet heaters to warm things up. An old man stopped for a rest. His pace looked slower than mine. He mentioned this was his second time up. We talked a little longer, but I don’t remember the conversation. He eventually moved on. Below us, on the John Muir trail, we could see where someone had set up camp. The campers were returning to their site and noticed a marmot was rummaging through their gear. One guy threw a rock at the marmot and I believe he made contact. I told Bryce I needed a nap, so we passed out for about 20 minutes or so. I think Taylor and Dane caught up with us at this point. We decided to make that spot a water cache, and lightened our load a bit. This section of trail switched back several times, overlooking the Hitchcock Lakes, far below.
Taylor: As we crossed through the switchbacks and over the trail crest, my head began to pond like a drum, and Dane’s stomach was tossing and turning with every bend in the trail. Retreating didn’t seem like an option this close to the summit, but I’m sure we were both thinking about it. Many breaks were taken between the trail crest and the summit.
We could see the peak far in the distance, with an old shelter on top. I believe the shelter was constructed in 1908. We eventually came across a snow bank. The incline was something crazy like 45 degrees, but you could see where other people had crossed. We were so close now. Past the snow bank the trail terrain wasn’t difficult, but still had the relentless incline. Bryce pulled ahead while I took several breaks. I eventually walked passed the lightening shelter, and made it to the top of Mount Whitney.
Taylor: While this snowy trail may seem like a simple pathway, let me assure you that it was in no way an effortless pass. For me and my ceaseless fear of heights, this was the second scariest moment on the trip (I’ll get to the scariest later). What the above photo doesn’t show is that one slip here earns you a one-way ticket to the bottom of the western side of the mountain – the quickest route to Sequoia National Park.
14,000 ft. – Bryce (left) and Jason (right) at “the windows” alongside Keeler Needle.
Taylor: These photos show Dane at his worst. It wasn’t until Dane saw these images that he realized how bloated his belly was while climbing – illustrating the level of sickness he was suffering at that moment. That’s Keeler Needle in the image below.
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The old man I had talked to earlier was sitting next to the shelter. We congratulated each other. I could feel the UV burning up my legs. Shorts were a bad choice. I figured it was too late for sun block now. A few minutes later, a couple climbed over the east face of the mountain (see photo below at right). No trail here, they had used ropes and climbing gear for that route.
There was a huge guest book next to the shelter. We signed it then snapped some more photos. I could see Taylor and Dane off in the distance. The altitude had been giving Dane a tough time, but he made it. At around 4:30 PM we headed down the mountain. The couple we had met earlier was going to take our route down, so they followed us. Bryce seemed to be sprinting ahead, determined to make it back before sunset. We were traveling maybe three times as fast down than our speed up the mountain. Past the snow bank, we retrieved our cached water. We passed the treacherous drop-offs, back down the 97 switchbacks, and past Trail Camp. By now the sun was gone. Maybe a mile or so from Outpost Camp, we needed to break out the flashlights. I had been talking trash to Bryce that morning, joking that he could save a few ounces by leaving his headlamp. I’m glad he didn’t.
We finally made it to Outpost Camp at around 9:30 PM. The climbing couple continued on. The trail was fairly easy to follow from here, so they should have been ok. We checked on Trey in his tent. I couldn’t reach Taylor on the radio. Bryce pulled out a can of Dinty Moore stew and I fired up my camp stove. I could see little mice coming out of the wood work – one near the spot where I spilled some food on the ground. Another appeared on my stove after I had turned it off. I definitely needed to clean my gear before bed. Taylor and Dane made it back around 11:30 PM – everyone still alive. I believe I read somewhere that the day hike takes anywhere between 10-14 hours. That’s from Whitney portal, to the top of the mountain, and back down. It took me approx. 16 hours, and that’s cutting out almost six miles of hiking. So much for being in shape. That mountain kicked my but.
Taylor: We woke up at Outpost Camp on our last day on Mount Whitney. I rolled over in my sleeping bag, cracked a hole in my tent’s door, and snapped this photo of the day’s first sunlight spilling onto Thor’s Peak (see above).
Jason: We agreed we didn’t need to wake up at any specific time that morning. A few people grabbed a bite to eat, and then we broke camp. With all of my gear strapped to me, I felt ready to roll. With the exception of a few sections of trail, it was all downhill. I kept repeating that to myself – It’s all downhill. What took us nearly seven hours to cover uphill (four miles), we knocked out in approx. two hours downhill.
Back at the portal, I noticed the scale used to weigh your gear. I think at one time the park calculated your level of safety on the mountain using the weight of your gear. At 58 lbs total, I guess I was pretty safe. If I ever return, I’d like to shave it down to 40 lbs. There were several people taking surveys from hikers coming off the mountain, so we all participated. Bryce and I took showers at the visitor center, and everyone bought lunch.
Taylor: Under the vigilant surveillance of these ravenous bluebirds (below), we devour lunch outside the Whitney Portal Store. We also took some downtime to pour over maps of California. We were contemplating which route to take from our current location to Sequoia National Park: (1) north through Yosemite, over steady inclines and slow roads or (2) south around the corner of the Inyo National Forrest, via mostly level interstate. In the end, considering the Jeep Commander’s poor performance in lesser mountains, we opted for the flatter course.
Once again, the Commander failed us. We stopped here for two reasons. Firstly, we had just driven down from Whitney Portal to the foothills – a steady and damaging downhill and loss of several thousand feet. The truck’s brakes were smoking up and needed… well, a brake. Also, our luggage was coming undone again, and one bag slid off the top and was dangling at the window. This break was fortunate though in that it allowed us one last glimpse, and photo opportunity, of the mountain. (see photo below)
We strapped our gear back on top of the Commander, then headed back to Lone Pine to return the bear canisters. Our next stop was the Days Inn, in Visalia, CA.