Mount Whitney Climb (July 18-19, 2004)

(Click to view the photo album )

Basic Facts about the mountain

 

Location: On eastern edge of California's Sierra Nevada range and falls under the jurisdiction of the Inyo National Forest. Mt. Whitney is approximately 14,495 ft (4418m) high and is the highest peak in the lower 48 US States. It is obscured on the west by the high peaks of Sequoia National Park and is flanked by other 14-ers (colloquial term used to refer to mountain peaks that are higher than 14000 feet) on either side. Hence, it can only be viewed from the East when almost directly in front of it. It is accessible from the East from the town of Lone Pine, CA which is on the spectacularly beautiful Highway 395 which runs north-south between the Sierras on the West and the White Mountains-Death Valley to the East.

 

The astounding variety that is the State of California: The Coastal Redwood empire that dominates the northern coast, the stunningly beautiful scenery along the twisty Pacific Coast Highway, the distinctive coastal towns (Eureka, Stinson, Santa Cruz, Monterey, Cambria, San Luis Obispo, Malibu), the High Sierras, the Mojave Desert, the Volcanic region in the North, the southern tip of the Cascades with majestic Mount Shasta, the stark landscape that dots the entire eastern boundary with Nevada dominated by Hwy 395, the National Parks (Lassen, Yosemite, Sequoia, Kings Canyon, Death Valley, Joshua Tree), the cities of Los Angeles and San Francisco, Lake Tahoe, the Wine Counties of Napa and Sonoma and on and on. Despite being the most populous state in the US, there are plenty of wide open spaces that you can have all to yourself, our favorite being the aptly named Surprise Valley that is east of the Walker Range in the isolated north-east corner.

This Trip: The orange line in the map is the road route we used to get from the Bay Area to Lone Pine. Mt. Whitney is the red dot on the Eastern edge of Sequoia National Park (marked by the shaded dark green). The other shaded dark green areas marked are Death Valley to the right and Yosemite to the North. The light green patch that contains Yosemite and Sequoia National parks is the Sierra Nevada mountain range. And the shaded light green area to the right above Death Valley is the White Mountains area. 

 

 

 

Climbing skills required: Whitney is a straightforward hike requiring just the use of feet. It does not get a lot of precipitation and hence does not sport a blanket of year-round snow. Afternoon thunderstorms in summer are common and so pre-noon summits are encouraged. The most common route is the Whitney trail that begins at Whitney Portal (Elev. 8380 feet.) which can be reached through the Whitney Portal Road from Lone Pine, a 13-mile drive that climbs > 4000 feet

 

The Whitney Trail

 

Distance: 10.7 miles one way

Elevation Gain: 6129 feet

Average round-trip time: 16 hours

 

Click on the map below for a full resolution view with hotspots linking locations to photo album

The trail runs from top-right (TRAILHEAD) diagonally to bottom-left and then proceeds upwards along the thick red line. The blue boundary line marks the boundary of Whitney Zone (permit area).

 

Options

 

Day Hike: Many prefer to climb the entire 6129 feet and return to Portal in a day. One needs to be in excellent physical condition and be prepared to walk through irregular terrain in the dark for many hours. Day hikers need not worry about carrying tents or sleeping bags.

 

Multi-Day Hike: There are 2 campsites with water sources on the Trail. The first one is at Outpost Camp (3.8 miles from Portal) at 10,365 feet and the other one at Trail Camp (6 miles and 12,000 feet). Some even split the climb over 2 nights spent at each camp. This helps with the acclimatization to the rarer air at higher elevations. However the most popular option is to spend a night at Trail Camp, which roughly divides the ascent in two. This requires the hauling of a heavy load up 6 miles and 3600 feet.

 

Our Preparation

 

It is difficult to pinpoint when the idea of climbing Whitney entered our heads. We had visited Death Valley in December 2001 and had made a brief detour to Lone Pine to view the snow-dusted peak. I am positive that the thought of being on top of that peak never entered our heads at that time. We had no idea what it would even entail. Just viewing  it on a clear and cold winter day was good enough.

 

 Whitney is closest to dead center (Photo taken : Dec. 2001)

 

After completing the Inca Trail  in Peru in September 2003, the idea that we can actually derive much pleasure from high-altitude treks entered our heads. And Whitney was the most obvious choice because of its stature as the highest peak (link) in the 48 states and its proximity to our Bay Area home.

 

The Whitney trail is popular and the forest authorities limit trail use by requiring advance reservations. We had requested a July-August climbing date in early February and received a permit for entry on July 18 and a night's stay at Trail Camp. The countdown started then.

 

The months preceding the hike were spent in acquiring gear: tent, sleeping bags, hiking poles, clothing etc. The weeks preceding the hike were spent in training hard on climbing machines, treadmills and jogging trails.

 

The drive out of the Bay Area on Friday afternoon was as bad as expected. Weather predictions for the weekend indicated hot conditions on the towns along Hwy 395 (Bishop, Big Pine, Independence, Lone Pine) with temperatures in the 90s even at the 4000 feet lower elevations. This increases the chances of afternoon thunderstorms and they were predicted for Saturday afternoon.

 

Once we got past Manteca, the traffic eased on Highway 120 and soon it became an enjoyable ride with noticeable improvements on the highway compared to previous trips to Yosemite. Having forgotten to bring the National Parks Annual pass with us, we decided to take the longer Sonora Pass route (Rte 108), as we had never been on that before. It is a beautiful stretch of road that climbs steadily past the towns of Sonora, Twain Harte, Confidence, Mi-Wuk Village, Long Barn, Strawberry, Pinecrest before ascending steeply on a curvy section to Sonora Pass at 9600 feet and then descending towards Hwy 395 at Sonora Junction.

 

It was dark by the time we were on Hwy 395 and we were denied the magnificent views of the Mono Lake area. We stopped at Bishop (Elevation 4200 feet) , large in comparison with other towns on Hwy 395 with a population of 3500, for the night.

 

After a decent night's sleep at this elevation, we reached Big Pine after a short drive south on Hwy 395.  Big Pine is the gateway to the Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest that can be reached by driving east on Rte. 168 (a.k.a Death Valley Road), which is also a means to cross over to Nevada. We turned left on White Mountain road and headed north towards Schulman Grove, climbing steadily all the way to 10,000 feet.

 

 

The Bristlecone Pines rank as the oldest trees in the world (California seems to have a monopoly on trees: the largest, the tallest and the oldest). In the White Mountains area, the pines grow on the white, rocky soil that gives the name to this mountain range. The white rock is Dolomite; a type of limestone created under the warm, shallow, inland sea that once covered this area. There are many trees in the Bristlecone pine forest of the White Mountains that exceed 4000 years of age, and are still growing. The Bristlecone Pine is easily identified from other pines as their needles are arranged all along the branches like a cat's tail. They have darker, shorter needles than their high-altitude neighbor, the limber pine.

 

Ancient Bristlecone Pine 

Our objective was to acclimatize to the high altitude through a moderate hike but conserving energy for the demands of the Whitney hike. The 4.5 mile long Methuselah Trail Loop was ideal for this purpose. If we had a few more days to spare we may have attempted to summit White Mountain Peak (Elevation14246 feet) from Patriarch Grove, which is accessible by a 12-mile dirt road beyond Schulman Grove.

 

Map of Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest

 

Towards the end of our practice hike, the storm clouds gathered above us and ominous thunder rumbled. To further help us with our acclimatization, we took 250mg of Diamox, twice a day on the days we climbed. We had used Diamox on the Inca Trail last year and felt that it benefited us. 

 

For the next couple of hours we seriously considered the idea of doing a day hike starting that night itself. Not having to carry all the weight was looking like the better option. We got back to our car and retraced back to Hwy 395 encountering hard showers on the way. We still had to collect our permits (after presenting our allotment letters at the Forest Ranger Station at Lone Pine) that afternoon, have our last hearty meal before heading off to camp at Whitney Portal. Throughout the drive to Lone Pine, we could see heavy black clouds pouring rain on the Sierras to our right. It was not a reassuring sight.

 

The young Forest Rangers were not optimistic about the weather for the next 2 days. We collected our permits, ate a Mexican meal and turned right onto Whitney Portal Road. And then, we knew that this was it. We were going to do it. Mt. Whitney was somewhere up there in the line of sight, but obscured by black clouds .

 

Looking towards Mount Whitney from Whitney Portal Road 

 

A sign announced that we were entering active bear area. We were already bear aware from our previous visits to Yosemite. Bear Resistant Canisters (BRC) are mandatory equipment in the area. No food is allowed inside tents and in cars left in the parking lots. We were soon climbing steadily and stopped for a view of the road leading back to Lone Pine and beyond.

 

Reaching Whitney Portal with a couple of daylight hours to spare, we familiarized ourselves with the area, checking out the parking lots, restrooms, the Trail Head (we even hiked a couple of hundred yards) and a few minutes at the store. Then we headed back down the road to the campground to our reserved spot and set up tent. By this time, we had abandoned our idea of the Day Hike and decided in favor of getting a long night's rest in the tent. The area around the tent was wet from the afternoon's rain. We spent an hour reading inside the car and when darkness set in, retired to our tents after packing off food in the bear locker which was a bit too close to our tent for comfort.

 

On my visit to the restroom before going to sleep, I was surprised by the barking of a dog attached to a group of people standing outside. I turned around and glimpsed the disappearing black form of a bear. For the remainder of the night, we heard odd thumping noises and did our best to ignore it. The excitement of the imminent ordeal kept us awake and I could not wait to get started. I had to make another restroom trip in the middle of the night and it was quite a challenge. The things a full bladder can make you do. The people in the neighbouring campsite confirmed those noises to be bear noises as evident from upturned chairs and garbage bins.

 

Sunday (July 18, 2004)

 

Daybreak finally and the task of packing the backpack began. The final moment to make all postponed decisions about what to leave in the car and what to take up the mountain. I quickly grabbed my book and MP3 player (what if one of us had to turn back or stay put at Trail Camp and did not want the other to abort the summit attempt? If you are not walking, you better have something to keep your mind occupied on the mountain).

 

The Whitney Portal Store has a well-earned reputation for serving pancakes that can feed large families. We momentarily forgot this as we ordered 2 pancakes. The woman behind the counter warned us about the size, so we halved it to one. And still could not finish half of it. A lone thin Oriental woman desperately looked around for someone to share her pancake with and only saw us struggling to finish our own.

 

9:15 a.m. and we are ready. It promised to be another hot day at the lower elevations and we were eager to get started before it got too hot. After posing at the Trailhead sign , we walked through the structure that begins the trail, showed our permits to the Ranger (he probably would not have bothered to ask us) and then weighed our packs on the spring balance (12 kgs/ 30 lbs each). And we were on our way. The anxious wait stopped. The walking began.

 

Trailhead to Lone Pine Lake

(0 miles/8360 feet - 2.5 miles/9850 feet)

 

The trail started off with a gradual climb through a wooded section on a series of switchbacks. Some of the trees had deep square etchings (trail markers) on them. After half a mile, the John Muir Wilderness sign appeared and soon we faced our first hurdle; the crossing of the North Fork of Lone Pine Creek. The water flow was heavy and the trail was under a foot of flowing water. Rocks were placed on the water to facilitate a dry crossing, but the rocks were either wet or had water flowing over them. The load on our backs forced us to make the crossing gingerly. We made it without wetting our shoes too badly.

 

Having practiced climbing 6 miles with a full backpack 2 weeks prior helped us immensely in dealing with the load. Neither of us was complaining about the load. At this point in time, our attention was drawn mainly to the sound of falling water from above, the looming sight of Mt. Irvine to our left with its gravelly texture and the ever receding sight of Owens Valley and the mountains beyond.

Looking back east towards Owens Valley and mountains beyond

 

Other water crossings followed, the most remarkable being one on a log bridge - actually a series of long logs placed over the water with a flattened top. The trail still remained in shade with plenty of trees. The wrist Altimeter kept me informed (and entertained) with frequent readings of altitude and temperature.

 

The first 2 hours passed quickly enough as we helped ourselves to the occasional sip of water from our camelbacks (plastic bags in our backpacks with a tube ending in a mouthpiece through which the contents can be siphoned into thirsty throats) and a trail mix bar or two. At 11:30 a.m. we came across the Lone Pine Lake sign that points to a slight detour off the main trail. Till this point, the trail is open to everyone. Beyond this, another sign informs that you need a permit to go farther. The clear blue sky is reflected in the lake and we took a 10-minute break to free our back and shoulders.

Lone Pine Lake to Mirror Lake

(2.5 miles/9850 feet - 4.0 miles/10,640 feet)

 

On resumption, we crossed into the "permit" area and continued climbing and were soon rewarded with a view of Lone Pine Lake and the vista beyond . The trail then flattened out for a long section by a large green field, Big Horn Park . Apart from the occasional Stellar's Jay or California Quail, there was not much life on the trail. We did not pass any hikers, but a few joggers and casual hikers (with no load on their backs) passed us. It was still too early to see descending hikers. The noise of water was a constant accompaniment with the occasional waterfall appearing . Mt. Irvine looked imposingly tall and barren. Clouds, not yet heavy with moisture, started to gather overhead, reminding us of the previous afternoon.

 

Soon, Big Horn Park merged with the eastern vista and this was pleasantly satisfactory as we could see our progress in what we can see below. The summit will not be visible for some time as we negotiate the initial stages. More tricky water crossings  kept us on our toes (literally). The hiking poles made a big difference.

   

We passed Outpost camp (identified only by a sign, a water crossing and a wooden building easily identified by smell as one of the two Solar toilets on the trail) without a break. There was no sign of tents or humanity at the camp. We continued past another series of switchbacks that rapidly took us upward.

 

By 1' o clock we arrived at Mirror Lake (no camping allowed) with its views of Thor Peak and distant needle peaks. From this point, the surroundings changed from shaded woods to granite rocks and open skies. The clouds kept gathering and darkening and one of us even reported a drop. The other stoutly denied this and we kept moving on. The last thing that you want to happen as you enter wide open spaces is a thunderstorm with all that granite around.

Mirror Lake to Trail Camp

(4.0 miles/10,640 feet - 6.0 miles/12,000 feet)

 

In retrospect, this was the toughest section of the whole trail, going and coming. The trail was rough and required careful steps to avoid any slippages especially with the weight on our backs which had still not broken our resolve. Soon Mirror Lake appeared below us and after climbing some more we could take in Big Horn Park and Lone Pine Lake in the same vista that includes Owens Valley and beyond.

 

We encountered descending hikers from here on. One of them narrated the story of the previous day’s thunderstorm that lasted 3 hours and scared away a companion who scooted all the way back home.  The appearance of raindrops could not be denied any longer as we hurriedly reached into our backpacks for our ponchos. The wind made it difficult to keep them in place and they barely covered our backpacks.

 

There were many hikers taking a break at Trailside Meadow (5.0 miles, no camping allowed here either) with the flowing water and ice nearby . Thankfully, the rain let up but the dark clouds remained. The trail and surroundings became totally rocky and looking back, we could only see rocks and the distant valley with no sign of any vegetation.

 Enroute Mirror Lake to Trail Camp

The appearance of a large lake, which could only be Consultation Lake, indicated that our place of rest  (for the day) was not far (refrain from a favorite Tull song  which always reassures during long runs). A few minutes later, we smelt/spotted the second Solar Toilet and a few tents beyond. We had arrived at Trail Camp. We looked for a spot with level ground and some wind cover to pitch our tent. It was 3 p.m. in the afternoon. The dark clouds and raindrops had magically disappeared leaving us to enjoy the remainder of a pleasant, sunny afternoon at 12,000 feet. Directly above us were the peaks of Mount Muir and Keeler Needles. Mt. Whitney was obscured by the mass of Wotan's Throne to our right. Our water renewal source was the lake next to Trail Camp. It is not safe to drink without treatment. We used iodine tablets.

 

Uppermost on our minds was to secure our tent to avoid the commonly heard situation where we would be exclaiming "Dude, Where is my Tent?" on our return from the summit. We had spent many hours exploring various ways of ensuring that our tent would be intact under strong winds. Most sources recommend the curious operation of "guying out" a tent. Much fruitless time was spent to find out what exactly this "guying out" was and does one have to be a guy to do it. We found only the bare minimum information from the internet and our tent manufacturer. Guying out a tent essentially involves securing the "fly" (the sheet that covers the tent from above) to the ground through any means (ropes and stakes or rocks). For first timers, we did extremely well in this venture.

 

Having decided well before commencing the trip not to carry stove and propane tank, we had to make do with cold food: bread, cheese, trail mix and power bars. These and everything that smelt like food (including toothpaste, sun-block etc.) had to be stowed in the Bear Resistant Canister (like the one below) that we had rented from Whitney Portal Store and carried with us all the way to Trail Camp.

 Bear Resistant Canister (operated by using a coin to turn the metal locks on the top) 

 

Night temperature dipped to the 40s (Fahrenheit) which was much better than anticipated. Our 20 degrees F rated sleeping bags kept us comfortably warm and we managed to get a good night's rest.

Monday (July 19, 2004)

 

Up at 6 am and with no provision for hot beverage, we began right away after filling our camelbacks with water. We left everything in our tent but water, snacks, map, headlight, poncho and camera. It was cold in the morning and expected to be colder at higher elevations. We dressed in layers to be able to deal with the cold and the heat.

 

  View of Mount Muir and Needles from Trail Camp

The 97 Switchbacks

(6.0 miles/12,000 feet – 8.2 miles/13,777 feet)

 

As soon as we were past the last tent, the switchbacks started and armed with accurate information (courtesy Wayne Pyle at Whitney Portal Message Board) about their individual length and elevation  we counted them off. During the early stages (till Switchback #23), there was a strong stream that flowed over the switchbacks. This is a seasonal stream and is not to be relied upon as a water source.

 

After climbing 30 minutes, we caught our first glimpse of Whitney summit  (on this trip). For the next 2 and half-hours, we were treated to the same rapidly expanding Eastern vista, which included Trail Camp and our tent getting smaller with each switchback. To our mild dismay, we seemed to make no dent in our ascent towards Whitney. Of course, this was due to the trail veering away from the mountain as it approached Trail Crest. The altimeter reassured us about our elevation gain even though our eyes did not.

 

We encountered some returning hikers (early birds) and one of them made heavy weather out of what lay ahead, warning us to keep some reserve energy for the return as it involved some climbing as well.

 

At the 46th switchback, we encountered the (in)famous cable section  that has a reputation for being dangerous on bad weather days. There was much water and the rocks were slippery, but it posed no serious threat. It would have been much tougher on the previous day after Saturday’s downpour.

 

After the long final switchback, the approach to Trail Crest was quite dramatic. Even without the wooden sign , there would be no mistaking it as the trail peaked at that point and started going down the other side of the ridge. Quite a moment. The appearance on the other side, of Mt. Hitchcock and the 2 lakes named after it underlined this milestone.

 

Trail Crest to JMT Junction

(8.2 miles/13,777 feet – 8.7 miles/13,480 feet)

 

This was the much-dreaded descent from Trail Crest to the junction with the John Muir Trail (coming from the west from the other Whitney Portal inside Sequoia National Park). It did not seem as threatening as warned. We’ll have to wait for the return ascent to find out. While the switchbacks were relatively easy to walk on, this section was much rockier but not as difficult as the section from Mirror Lake to Trail Camp.

 

JMT Junction to Summit

(8.7 miles/13,480 feet – 10.7 miles/14,494 feet)

 

With 2 miles to go, the trail started climbing again. The thorny peaks of Sequoia National Park marked the western horizon and the eponymously shaped Guitar Lake appeared directly below. And rising above it was the massive backside of Whitney. It was quite a thrill to see the needles from the back. The trail crossed the lower edges of these notches at the "windows" which offered a glimpse of the all too familiar eastern vista, but through a narrow gap. Much is made out of these sections as being intimidating to those with fear of heights. They seemed highly overrated and why would people with fear of heights climb mountains, anyway?

 

The backside of the Needles

We realized that this stretch would be particularly hard on day hikers due to the gain in elevation and the tired legs. Many have reported that they had to stop every few feet to catch breath and move on. Due to the agreeable weather, our gradual acclimatization and our Diamox dosage, we did not feel the effects of the high altitude. It was getting much colder and we were glad we had 3 layers of protective clothing on.

 

After a while we lost sight of the summit as we made steady progress towards it. The appearance of a snow trench of considerable length (> 50 feet) broke the monotony. This had turned around a few hikers on bad weather days. Our good luck with the weather continued and we crossed it with only a few minor slip-ups. Within minutes we are in line with the summit and it was just a question of how much higher the summit is. And then, without warning, the hut appeared before us and unbelievably we were a short walk away from the summit. After a quick celebration, we reached the summit.

The Summit

 

There were about 10-20 people in the vicinity. A few were busy taking pictures or posing for them. Everyone was in a great mood, naturally.

 

We spent 30 minutes on top taking in the 360 degree view and identifying various peaks and points on the valley below. This was also the moment to determine which points on the plains had a direct view of Whitney. If you couldn’t see it from here, you could not see Whitney from there.

 

   

Return

 

It took us 3 hours to get back to Trail Camp. We were quite relieved to see our intact tent as soon as we had crossed over the Trail Crest. After spending an hour snacking and packing our tent, we resumed our descent. As expected, the full load and the difficult section between Trail Camp and Mirror Lake slowed us quite a bit.

 

The switchbacks from Mirror Lake to Lone Pine Lake were seemingly endless and we wondered how we managed to climb with a full load just the previous day. The arrival of Lone Pine Lake was a welcome sight (only 2 more miles to go!). The last hour, crossing the creek and descending the switchbacks in the twilight was toughest on our minds. We could see the road and the parking lot but still had to walk a lot before reaching the Trail Head. Which we eventually did.

 

A sign on our car informed us that it is not advisable to even leave anything that looks like food in the car. It has to be visually clean and have no trace of any food smell. A short drive later, we are in the valley with darkness barely a whisker away. We stopped briefly for a glimpse of the peak (which we could not see on Saturday) and had to increase the exposure setting on our camera to capture it.

 

 

(Click to view the photo album )

 

Views of Trail from both sides

 Part I : From Portal to Trail Crest

 

 

Part II : The Other Side: Trail Crest to Summit. Note the trail coming from bottom-left is the John Muir trail coming from Sequoia National Park