"Every great dream begins with a dreamer."During Spring 2007 I began planning a California mountaineering trip for early July that year. The original plan was to climb two peaks, Mount Whitney (California's, and the lower 48 States', highest point) and Boundary Peak (Nevada's highest point) with three mountaineering partners. At that time it seemed like an aggressive plan, hiking one major peak on Thursday and then another major peak only two days later, but I was confident in my hiking team's abilities. However, the plans began to change during the weeks leading up to the trip. First, one potential hiking partner was removed from the trip plans due to irreconcilable conflicts adversely affecting the team dynamic. Second, another potential team member, Dan, who was an U.S. Air Force pilot, had to back-out of the plans only a few days before the trip due to official government business that would require his availability at a moment's notice. Third, with the team suddenly a duo (my best friend Chris and I), the two of us decided to only attempt one major peak during the trip and then celebrate his birthday in Los Angeles during the days after that hike rather than attempt a second peak. Mount Whitney was the most popular of the hiking options we considered and I had already purchased the hiking permits for that trip, so it was an easy choice for us to make.
After I arrived at LAX on Wednesday morning, July 4, Chris took me back to his Los Angeles apartment to arrange our hiking supplies. My hiking gear was basically already packed, and, as usual, being a safety-supplies-are-more-important-than-pack-weight type of hiker, I had the heaviest backpack... approximately 30 lbs! Chris' backpack was probably only 10-15 lbs at most. While Chris was busy packing his supplies, it gave Chris' wife Mary & I a nice chance to socialize, as we had not seen each other since their wedding the prior December. Once Chris finished packing, at approximately noon, we began our trek towards Mount Whitney. There had been a dream of the opportunity to go to Mount Whitney for a while, and that dream was getting closer to becoming a reality.
"I think we dream so we don't have to be apart so long."We had planned to stop at Edwards U.S. Air Force Base while en route to Mount Whitney, to visit and have dinner with Dan and his wife Eleanor. Despite Dan backing out of mountaineering plans, he was still wanted at least a short visit with Chris and I. Friends ever since Eighth Grade, after which time Dan moved out of Washington state, our visits with each other seemed few and far between as the years passed. Yet, our collective friendship always remained strong. Chris, Dan, and I had wanted to hang out with each other as much as possible in the limited time that we had together those few days in early July 2007. Our friendships together were, and are, very important to us, moreso than any hike.
For both Chris and myself, entering Edwards AFB for the first time was an interesting experience. We entered the base from the town of Rosamond, but the actual gated entrance was still 14 miles away deep in the desert. As we left town, the first things that we noticed were two ravens standing on the desert sand. These ravens were HUGE; we wondered what they could be eating out there to become that large. The next thing that we noticed was that, for most of the drive to the gated entrance, we were driving along a vast dry-lakebed. And as we looked out into the distance we both thought that we could see water, but eventually determined that it was only a mirage. Finally, when we arrived at the gated entrance, we were greeted by two guards holding guns. Thankfully, Dan had already notified the gate personnel of our arrival, so we just had to provide ID and car registration and the entrance became mostly uneventful. I can only wonder how we would have fared if we had attempted to visit Dan and Eleanor on the base unannounced.
It was great to see Dan & Eleanor again. They did not live on-base when we saw them the previous year, but I actually liked their new on-base home more than the previous home. We sat down and socialized for a while, during which time Dan barbequed hamburgers & hot dogs while Eleanor prepared the rest of the dinner. Similarly to my wife, Eleanor is an attentive host and wonderful cook, which I really admire and appreciate. After dinner, we watched "Team America: World Police", because Chris had never seen it before. We all laughed quite a bit, and after the movie Dan & Eleanor recommended for us all to watch "Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby" during our next visit at their house. Sadly, after spending several hours with good friends, Chris & I knew we had to continue our journey towards Mount Whitney, as it was late in the afternoon and we were still several hours away from the trailhead.
Once we arrived in Lone Pine, the town from which the Main Whitney Trail can be reached, we stopped at the Visitor Center to pick up our hiking permits from the Night Box. I had correspondence with the Wilderness Office three different times prior to the trip, including the prior afternoon, to confirm that our permits would be placed in the Night Box. Yes, there were permits in the Night Box, but none of them were ours. I had already been warned by other hikers that if a person gets caught hiking in the "Whitney Zone" without a designated permit, that person gets ticketed (fined). Planning in advance just in case such a bad scenario could occur, I had made multiple copies of the original registration confirmation document. That document is not a permit, but I decided we were going to use it as one. After all, it was not my fault the permit was not where it should have been, but I still wanted to show proof of the purchased permits and pick-up agreement.
In order for our one-day hike to have a chance at success, we were going to have to leave during pre-dawn hours, which meant that we couldn't wait around until the Visitor Center opened the next morning. I left one copy of the registration confirmation document in the Night Box, as well as one copy in another specialized box, each with a hand-written note specifying what had happened and what we planned to do. Then I made certain that Chris and I each had copies of the document, as well. I figured that this would help cover our bases in the event we get stopped by any rangers who might notice no official permits hanging from our backpacks while on the trail. After being delayed by the permit debacle, we drove up to the trailhead and parked for the evening.
During the next few hours, we ate carbohydrates, drank water, and re-organized our hiking gear. Because we only had a few hours to nap, we decided to not setup a tent. Chris had difficulty trying to sleep in the driver's seat, the restlessness of which also kept me awake (as I was in the passenger's seat), and this continued for a while. I eventually suggested for him to try sleeping in the backseat. That worked well, as we both fell asleep soon afterwards. Unfortunately, by this time it was midnight, and we would both wake up at 1:30 AM for a planned 2:00 AM start on the trail. When we woke up we were both very groggy, especially considering we were about to start a long mountain hike after only 1-1/2 hours of rest. The lack of sleep had the potential to turn the dream into a nightmare.
"If you can dream it, you can do it."Putting on headlamps, we began our hike at 2:15 AM on July 5. Within 5-10 minutes of our departure, while walking along the first tall hillside, we looked down and could see several other headlamps starting the trail below us. After one hour, we encountered the first major sight on the trail: a log bridge crossing Lone Pine Creek immediately before a cutoff to Lone Pine Lake. Reaching this trailpoint in an hour was impressive to us because it was 2.8 miles from the trailhead, meaning that we were moving at a great pace for an ascending hike. Our pace was especially surprising to us due to our limited sleep prior to the hike, but we thought it would be best to keep hiking rather than make many stops. We later figured out that we were so busy talking & moving non-stop that we didn't allow ourselves to have a chance to get even more drowsy during those early sections of the hike. And despite the darkness of the pre-dawn hours, the moon provided enough natural light so that only one other light source was needed; I used a headlamp while Chris followed closely behind without one.
After approximately 3.5 miles, at just over 10,000' elevation, we reached a point in the trail called Big Horn Sheep Park, which was a large meadow. From what we could initially see, it looked liked the perfect location to potentially see wildlife, but we did not encounter any there. Shortly after passing by the meadow, we rock-hopped over a stream to Outpost Camp, a wooded campground near a small waterfall. From the campground, the trail climbed up a hillside towards Mirror Lake. We didn't fully appreciate the lake pre-dawn, but we would later admire its majestic beauty during our descent. After passing by the lake, we ascended through several wooded switchbacks before the trail traversed through granite rocks. By this time, I wasn't wearing my headlamp anymore and we were moving at a less-aggressive pace than when we started.
We continued to hike through the granite rocks, eventually passing a small streamfed meadow, called Trail Meadows, before climbing up through more granite terrain. At just over 12,000' elevation, we reached Trail Camp, the main campground area for overnight tenting along the trail. The morning sun was fully seen, and we could see all of our surroundings. However, this also marked the location after which our hiking pace dramatically seemed to slow down, most likely from sleep deprivation.
Immediately after Trail Camp are the infamous, but appropriately named, "99 Switchbacks". Over a two-mile span and approximate 1600' elevation gain, 99 switchbacks lead the trail up & around a steep hillside. For Chris & I, each having gotten little sleep, it was the most brutal part of the route. The high elevation mixed with extreme drowsiness made for a tiresome combination, and we found ourselves stopping to take more short rests the higher the switchbacks went. Sitting on rocks during these breaks, we would occasionally find ourselves falling asleep if we remained inactive for too long. Not being able to see the top of the switchbacks for most of that section of the trail, we quickly became frustrated when every descending hiker gave us a different answer as to how much further the switchbacks continued.
As we approached the top of the switchbacks, descending hikers kept telling us how "easy" the rest of the hike would be for us. One hiker even said, "It's only a 900' elevation gain in a 2-3 mile span from Trail Crest (the top of the 99 Switchbacks) to the summit of Mount Whitney." What these people neglected to remind us, however, was that the trail actually descended after Trail Crest, then travelled alongside several peaks, before finally climbing up Mount Whitney's summit ridge. This final stretch of the trail considerably added to our sleepiness, and it seemed to go on forever, but by this stage we were determined to finish what we had started. One nice thing about this part of the trail was that we had awesome views of Sequoia National Park, of which we were just entering after Trail Crest.
After a lot of hiking and frequent rests, we finally reached the summit of Mount Whitney after 9-1/2 hours. It might not seem like the best time, but due to our drowsiness we were more than satisfied with it. Information that we had previously gathered about Mount Whitney said that the trail is 11 miles (one way), but both my GPS and another hiker's GPS said that the trail was closer to 13 miles. However, despite our sleepiness perhaps clouding our judgment, Chris & I agreed that it felt closer to 11 miles than 13 miles. This was my second State Highpoint (the first being Mount Rainier only one month earlier), and Chris' first State Highpoint. The dream had become a reality.
"The best way to make your dreams come true is to wake up."At the summit, there is a stone building with a large register (i.e. hiker's log) in front of it. I had Chris sign it first, followed by my signature. A short time later, Chris took a picture of the signed register, which is when we noticed that some hiker who arrived after us signed as "Don King, Sr.", but we did not see anyone with large skunk-colored hair. Only in America! Anyway, we opened the door to the hut and all that was inside was an 8' x 8' empty room with a wooden-planked floor. We took off our backpacks and immediately laid on the floor to rest. It seemed like we then fell asleep within seconds. After an hour or so, we awoke, ate some snacks, drank some water, and went outside to take some pictures. We even followed through with an idea of mine, where Chris & I each wore our Elvis wigs and glasses, and took a photo of one another. Fun and friendships... that's what it's all about.
Using the 11-mile (one-way) idea as a guide (but believing that the distance was longer), I told Chris that we should strive to get down the mountain within 5-1/2 hours, or approximately 2 MPH. Under normal non-drowsy circumstances, that goal would be no problem for either of us, but we knew we still had not rested enough to maintain a brisk pace. The goal was to get down the mountain by nightfall, which we determined would be earlier than usual because the sun would be setting behind the hills behind us as we would be descending. We maintained a steady pace and took few breaks, although we stopped a few extra times to chat with several hikers.
As we hiked through Outpost Camp, we were stopped by a ranger because he noticed that we did not have permits attached to our backpacks. But I explained about the permits not being in the Night Box as previously requested, as well as leaving copies of the reservation confirmation document (with a note) at the Visitor Center. I showed him a copy that I had with me, and although he had never heard of such a problem before he let us continue descending the trail without any further inquiry. When we finally reached the trailhead, the time-goal was met exactly as planned: 5-1/2 hours from the summit, which would have been sooner if not for several delays. We were both exhausted and cheerful at the same time.
It had been a very long hike and day. As nice as it felt to complete a summit hike of Mount Whitney, that accomplishment was not the best aspect of the trip. I learned the real dream was not that I reached the summit of Mount Whitney, it was that I had such a good friend to share the experience with.