Mount Whitney

November 3-6, 1999


random trip report

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Terrain etc.

Mt. Whitney lies on the north/south Pacific Crest ridge of the Sierra Nevada. To the west is Sequoia National Park, and to the east is a broad, steep 20-mile-long valley, at the bottom of which is the town of Lone Pine (about 4,000'). The trailhead, called 'Whitney Portal', is at 8,360'. From there, the valley's upward slope is interrupted by a few plateaus, most notably at Mirror Lake (10,640') and Trail Camp (12,039'). The tree line is about 11,000'.

The headwall of the valley is about 2 miles wide. The Pacific Crest Trail, which travels up the Sierras for hundreds of miles, goes along this ridge. The Mt. Whitney trail joins it at 'Trail Crest', a notch at 13,777'. Going north from there, there are several peaks: Mt. Muir (14,015'), two giant triangular 'needles', then Mt. Whitney.

The Mt. Whitney trail is very well-built and well-maintained. Rows of rocks mark it when it crosses an open area. It has rock steps in the steep parts. The switchbacks are delimited with low rock walls. Occasionally concrete is used. Thousands of tons of rock seem to have been moved in its construction.

The trail designers went to great lengths (pardon the pun) to keep the grade fairly shallow: there are stretchs of long shallow switchbacks, and you walk hundreds of horizontal yards to get 50' uphill. I'm sure there are good reasons for this, but it quickly becomes infuriating if you are in a hurry and don't mind steep grades.

Whitney is well-known for dangerous lightning on the summit, but the day we climbed it was cloudless, calm, and relatively warm.

Ascent



Mike at the trailhead. The white thing is an experimental headstrap, in the style of the Bantu and Jivaro.

We got up at 5:00 AM, gulped down some oatmeal and coffee, and drove to the Portal. In the pre-dawn light, the mountain peaks were like chalky ghosts. Another hiker was setting out as we arrived. We were on the trail at 6:00 AM. As the sun rose behind the White Mountains far to the east, the high peaks were illuminated first, and the intense gold light gradually worked its way down the valley's vast granite walls.

For the first couple of hours we worked hard, speeding up a dirt trail through pine forest. The trail crossed small streams, some of them frozen. Mike left the trail to take care of some personal business; afterwards, he used pine needles and a dollar bill, the only available paper. At about 8:00 AM we reached Outpost Camp (10,360'), a beautiful alpine meadow. A bit beyond that was Mirror Lake (10,640'). The trail was sketchy, and we followed it to the left, crossing the main stream, and quickly ended up off-trail, boulder-hopping in a steep field. This worried me - it used energy and time, and we had little margin. We traversed right, back towards the stream, trying to find the trail. Fortunately, we glimpsed the other hiker several hundred yards ahead, went towards him, and picked up the trail.

Mike examines some curious cubic-crystal rocks.

At 10:00 AM we arrived at Trail Camp (12,039'), a boulder-strewn field with some sandy clearings for tents. Nearby is a modern-looking structure with large solar panels. We passed a couple from S.F. who had camped at Mirror Lake (they didn't summit, since we didn't see them again). The woman told me that the structure was a solar-powered outhouse, and that it could be used to defecate but NOT to urinate. This struck me as improbable.

Trail Camp is at the base of the valley's final slope. The vertical face of Whitney loomed about 2,500 feet over us, but the task seemed doable: I boldly predicted we'd be on the top at noon.

This was not to be. The trail from Trail Camp to Trail Crest is a series of 96 switchbacks, and the effects of altitude started to kick in. I breathed deeply and fast, but there wasn't enough oxygen to go around. I became very aware of the parts of my body that wanted oxygen: leg muscles, brain, and viscera. I tried to economize everywhere: small slouching steps, superfluous muscles relaxed, and no brain activity except balancing and moving feet. The pace dropped from 2-3 MPH to less than 1 MPH.

At one point the trail was crossed by a water flow, and became solid ice for about 50'. Fortunately there was a metal cable hand-rail on that stretch.

We toiled away, and at about 11:00 AM we reached the top of the ridge at Trail Crest (13,777'). We were rejuvenated by a stunning vista of Sequoia Park to the west. A string of Tibetan prayer flags fluttered next to the trail. Several hikers had left their packs. We took pictures and kept moving.

Trail Crest, looking Northwest into Sequoia


Looking North; the trail goes around left of rocks.


Looking Southwest


Looking Northwest again, with Mike

From here the trail (the Pacific Crest Trail) goes down a few hundred feet, and is carved out along the steep west side of the ridge, with a thousand-foot dropoff to the left. After a half mile, the trail forks: the branch to Whitney goes up and to the right. A sign warns of 'extreme danger' due to lightning, and advises retreat if the weather is bad.

On the ridge, looking back (South). The trail is in there somewhere.

By now we were near 14,000' and the altitude was really taking a toll. I constantly felt on the verge of blacking out. Each step was like falling forward, then catching myself. My stomach tightened up and threatened nausea. The solution, in all cases, was to slow down or stop, and breathe. However, we were still far from the peak, and time was passing, so I could only allow a moment of recovery.

The trail skirted the base of the two needles next to Whitney; the ridge is extremely narrow there, and the trail passes by the notch between the needles, affording a window back into the valley we had ascended. I left my pack by the trail at this point, and the absence of the 15 or so pounds felt wonderful.

At 12:00 we rounded the base of the 2nd needle, and were disheartened: ahead lay a long traverse followed by an imposingly high hill. At the very top of the hill, tiny in the distance, was the roof-line of the hut at the summit. We stopped to collect our thoughts. On one hand, daylight was well over half gone, we felt pretty bad, and the summit was at least an hour away. Turning back would be a very sensible thing to do. On the other hand, Whitney had been constantly in my thoughts for several months, and I didn't want it to keep haunting me. We had worked very hard to get where we were, and we had some strength left. If we could just make it to the top, then we could look any peak in the lower 48 and say: 'I've climbed higher than that'.

So my decision was clear: go for it! Mike reached the same conclusion. He requested a 5-minute lie-down before we continued. As we summoned our strength for the final push, an irritatingly fit and acclimatized German youth sped by us and had the audacity to offer us water.

Setting off with goal in sight, I got a feeble burst of energy. The traverse went quickly. The final hill was a mild boulder scramble; the trail became multi-branched and hard to follow (though possible, if you looked closely for cairns) but it didn't really matter: you just had to go up. Just ahead of my was the hiker we had seen leaving the parking lot. He was doubled over with dry heaves. I caught up to him and talked a bit - he was OK.

The summit is a broad and rounded. I signed the registry at the hut at 1:10 PM. The other hiker (Scott, from Alabama, currently working in San Diego) arrived, and Mike was there a few minutes later. We sat on the granite slabs at the peak, nibbled granola bars, battled some very aggressive rosy finches who wanted a handout, and timidly peered down the 2,500' drop-off to the east. We felt a bit euphoric; the harsh facts (3 hours of daylight left and 11 miles of gnarly mountain trail) hadn't sunk in yet. At 1:25 PM we left the summit.

Me in front of the registry (taken by Scott)


Looking south (along the ridge) from the summit


Mike looking straight down and East, from summit

Descent

The descent back to where I had left my pack was rapid, and I felt good. Lynne had loaned me her cell phone, and I got it out of the pack and called her at 1:45 PM. Miraculously the call went through - I think the notch offered a line of sight all the way to Lone Pine. I excitedly told her that we had reached the summit, and we talked for a few minutes (later she told me I sounded like a sloppy drunk calling from a bar).

The two needles, on the way down. I ran out of film here.

I hung up, changed my socks, drank water, and put on my pack. Mike and Scott had gone on ahead. The sun was getting low. Suddenly I felt tired, alone, and worried; this was the real turning point in the hike. I started walking. The uphill stretches were even more tiring than before, and my hamstrings were cramping slightly. I passed a sign saying 'Mt. Whitney 1.9 miles; Portal 8.7 miles'. 8.7 miles is a good day's hike.

Mike and Scott were resting where Mike had left his pack. Mike and I split a tuna sandwich. Scott went ahead; we didn't see him again. It was about 2:30 PM, and getting chilly. I put on my warm clothes (down parka, ski gloves, knit hat). I had polypropylene long underwear, but stuck with shorts, since my legs don't easily get cold.

From that point on, each segment of the trail seemed several times longer than it had on the ascent. On the east side of the ridge now, we were in shadow. We descended the 96 switchbacks down to Trail Camp. Crossing the icy stretch, I slid suddenly towards the edge; fortunately I was holding the guard-cable.

Mike glissaded down a long sand chute that bypassed numerous switchbacks and put him hundreds of yards ahead of me. In fact, on all the countless remaining switchbacks, Mike sought out steep short-cuts, greatly reducing distance and time at the expense of effort and risk. I did this a few times, but avoided it for two reasons: First, I was tired and uncoordinated, and I didn't want to slip and hurt myself. Second, I was concerned about damaging the trail. (There are signs banning 'cutting', and the trail makers discourage it by putting rock walls along the downhill edge. Mike was aware of this, and avoided damaging anything).

Mike waited for me at Trail Camp. The sun was going down. We discussed flashlights. Mike had forgotten to pack his; fortunately I had my mini-Magnalite. We also discussed the last-resort option, if we couldn't keep going, of building a fire and waiting out the night. From that point on we stayed close together (previously, one of us, usually Mike, went ahead a few hundred feet).

We descended past Trailside Meadow and down to Mirror Lake. It was approaching 5:00 PM. We passed the point where we rejoined the trail after getting lost on the way up. (Actually, given the extreme vascillations of the switchbacks, our off-trail route may have been preferable.) We reached Mirror Lake and saw where we had left the trail.

I was feeling increasingly sore and weary. Each downward step in the trail required a big leg effort; it's true that downhill can be harder than uphill. I had a headache (residue of altitude). I felt a queasiness that was worsened by tightening my hip belt; so I loosened it, and my shoulders began to ache from carrying the whole pack weight (it didn't help that my second water bottle was still 2/3 full; I was too tired to notice it or to drink).

We walked into the deep dusk; it's amazing how little light is needed to find your way. We passed the point where Mike had stopped earlier; he warned me not to pick up and paper money (a welcome glimmer of humor). Finally, near Lone Pine Lake, I turned on my flashlight. We found that if Mike walked a little in front of me, we both had enough light.

The last two miles seemed to take FOREVER. Zeno-like, each unit of distance seemed to take twice as long as the previous one. I ached everywhere, especially my shoulders. I had blisters on heels and toes. My brain was feverish and addled. When I stopped and leaned forward onto my walking stick, and my upper body seemed to weight a thousand pounds. I felt increasingly infantile, and wanted to cry. I wanted urgently to lie down and sleep.

There was no moon, and it was pitch black by this point. We could see another flashlight far behind us on the trail. There was a startling amount of traffic going the other way, i.e. up the hill. Several groups of 2-3, a couple of them with 2-way radios, perhaps rangers; they brusquely forced Mike off the stones by which he was crossing a creek. One macabre pair had no light at all and carried curved walking sticks that I imagined to be made of human bone.

I asked people going the other way how far it was to the trailhead, hoping that we were almost there, and each answer was horribly discouraging: 'a mile, maybe a mile and a half', 'no more than an hour'. We kept going and going. I could hear the roar of the stream at the bottom of the valley, where the car was, but the trail stayed maddeningly high. In the blackness below we occasionally glimpsed possible car lights. Finally the trail entered a lengthy series of switchbacks. It leveled off, and a large sign, warning of bears, loomed up in the flashlight beam. We looked around and realized that we had made it - the car was right there. It was 6:45 PM. We had been on the trail for almost 13 hours.

Sitting in the comfy car seats, with a cold root beer in hand, was luxurious Nirvana. Miraculously, energy began to flow back into my body, and my brain cleared up. In a few minutes we rolled out, back towards Lone Pine.

Copyright 2020 © David P. Anderson