In January, a buddy of mine and I decided to make an attempt at hiking Mount Whitney. Because he does not have any climbing or backpacking experience, we thought a single overnight attempt via the Mt Whitney Trail would be the best route to take rather than some of the more adventurous multi-night routes; however our mid-July selections for the Whitney Trail were not successful in the lottery.
After reading a few guidebooks, we came across an interesting route via the Meysan Lake Trail, which includes going up and over the pass between Mount LeConte and Mount Mallory. This was an ambitious route and one that did my buddy in upon reaching Meysan Lake. He took one look at the pass, the bottom two-thirds still covered in snow, and decided he could not make it up and over the pass. I was extremely disappointed because I at least wanted to try to go up and over the pass before admitting defeat; however, I promised my buddy’s wife I’d bring him home alive and in one piece. We spent one more night at Meysan Lake before turning around and heading home.
I was still stewing at the failure of the summit attempt and in mid-August, with a week of vacation scheduled for mid-September and a few day hiker permits still available, decided to obtain a day hiker’s permit. I obtained my permit for September 14, 2005.
DAY 1 – SUNDAY, SEPTEMBER 11, 2005
I set out from San Francisco, CA at 6:30 am on Sunday, September 11. Driving through Yosemite, I began thinking on my return trip, I’d make a trek up Half Dome. I also became quite irritated with the lack of, or actually the non-existence of, any radio stations playing football games on them. I thought I might be able to find one or two once I reached Lee Vining or Bishop. I was wrong, and with my CDs packed underneath my gear in the trunk was left searching the radio dial for anything that would come in.
I reached Lone Pine at approximately 1:15 and stopped at Lone Pine Sporting Goods to pick up a few last minute provisions, and to pick up my permit at the Ranger Station. After a nice lunch of pizza and root beer at The Pizza Factory, I drove up Whitney Portal Road to the family campground just short of the Whitney Portal Store and the trailhead., arriving at 2:15. The weather at Lone Pine and Whitney Portal was outstanding: not a cloud in the sky, not too hot and with just a slight breeze.
The last campsite available was the one right next to the “Campground Host”. I didn’t think too much about this; however in a couple of days would hate this fact. I did find it odd, that given it was the start of the week and in mid-September, when kids are supposed to be in school, there were no other campsites available and a large number of kids running around. After setting up camp, I did some walking around the area, including back to the Meysan Lake Trailhead, which two months earlier had been my nemesis. I saw a ranger standing near the trailhead of the Whitney Trail and decided to ask him, how far up, if at all the Whitney Trail I could go without a permit. He told me I could up to Lone Pine Lake without a permit. As I hiked back to camp using the Whitney Portal National Recreational Trail I decided I would use the Whitney Trail to Lone Pine Lake, rather than the Meysan Lake Trail as my “acclimatization” plan for Monday and Tuesday
At approximately, 5:30 I hiked back up the Whitney Portal Trail from my campsite to the Whitney Portal Store for dinner and to look around at the souvenirs I would undoubtedly purchase if I was successful in my summit attempt. After a dinner of a cheeseburger, french fries and an Anchor Steam I headed back to camp, where I hit my first snag: after removing my contact lenses I realized I had left my glasses sitting on the bathroom counter when I left home, which was not a problem at first; however, would cause me to change my plans for my return trip four days later.
At 6:30, I settled in for the night with a book and read for an hour or so, before calling it a night.
DAY 2 – MONDAY, SEPTEMBER 12, 2005
I woke up Monday morning at approximately 7:00 am and decided I wasn’t ready to get up just yet, and went back to sleep for another hour.
At 8:00 am I awoke for good and began preparing breakfast. Upon opening the bear-proof locker in the campsite I was distressed to find that the company propaganda alarm clock I received at “feel good” company function did not agree with either the altitude of Whitney Portal or the cold temperature of the September night at 7,700 ft. After a breakfast of oatmeal and tea, I packed up my pack with what I was planning on carrying to the summit and headed up the Whitney Trail for Lone Pine Lake.
I reached Lone Pine Lake an hour and a half after starting, at 11:00, and forgetting the distance from the trailhead to Lone Pine Lake, immediately thought to myself, it better be three miles and not two to Lone Pine Lake, or my pace is too slow to reach the summit and be back before dark on Wednesday. The skies were blue, there was barely any wind, only a slight breeze, and the views from Lone Pine Lake were outstanding. I was the only one at the lake when I arrived; however, others soon followed. There were several squirrels running around trying to abscond with the hikers’ lunches or with orts left by hikers as they completed their lunch and headed back down the trail. After two hours at Lone Pine Lake, I packed my trash and headed back down the trail, reaching the trailhead in an hour at 2:00.
I spent some more time walking around the area, taking pictures of the stream which ran no more than 50 from my campsite and provided some nice background noise to aid falling asleep, and planning the itinerary for my summit attempt day, Wednesday. At 5:00 I hiked back up to Whitney Portal Store for dinner; however once getting there I decided to go back to camp and enjoy of the freeze dried meals I brought with me…”mmmm….freeze dried chicken and rice”.
I called it a night and crawled into my sleeping bag at 6:30.
DAY 3 – TUESDAY, SEPTEMBER 13, 2005
I awoke at 8:00 am and had another breakfast of oatmeal and tea. After breakfast I headed back up the Whitney Trail to Lone Pine Lake. I thought about changing plans and going up the Meysan Lake Trail; however, still burning from the failed July attempt at the summit, decided I wanted nothing to do with the Meysan Lake Trail. Today, I added a couple of liters of water to my pack to see if I’d rather carry in an extra couple of liters or refill at Trail Camp on my way back from the summit on Wednesday.
I reached the Lone Pine Lake about two hours after leaving camp, this may have been a little slower than the previous day; however, since the starting “timing points” weren’t the same, it was a little difficult for me to determine. I did decide not to carry the extra water with me, but to carry a couple of empty bottles to fill at Trail Camp if I was running short of water at that point, or to refill on the trip down from the summit. I spent about half an hour at Lone Pine Lake, eating a few snacks and lunch. There were far fewer people at the lake today than the day before.
At noon, I headed back down the trail. Unlike the day before, when I didn’t see anyone with a permit on his or her way up the trail, I ran into several people with permits. Most were hikers with yellow, or overnight hiker, permits, which should have given them plenty of time to reach their destination, be it Outpost Camp or Trail Camp, and set up camp before it was dark; however I did see one woman with a green, or day hiker permit, attached to her backpack. At first I didn’t think too much of this because I had attached my permit to my backpack when I picked it up at the ranger station, and figured she had done the same thing and that hers was for a different day; however, when I saw the date on her permit (9/13/05), I immediately thought three things:
1) She was delusional in thinking that starting as late as she did she could reach the summit and be back to the trailhead in 11 hours from where I saw her, since she had more than eight miles and more than 4,500 ft in elevation gain to the summit and an eleven mile return trip from the summit to the trailhead, she would be able to reach the summit and be back within her permitted time, or
2) Her ultimate destination was not the summit; however, she wanted to be able to hike within the Whitney Zone, or
3) She moves at speeds which rival Superman
I reached camp around 1:30 pm and did some miscellaneous things around camp before I headed back to the Whitney Portal Store for lunch: cheeseburger, fries and lemonade. The rest of the afternoon was spent at camp resting for the summit attempt the next day and reading.
At about 4:30, the first few clouds I’d seen since leaving Yosemite Valley on Sunday began to roll in and accumulate around the summit of Mt. Whitney and the nearby mountains. By 6:00, the clouds had increased and had begun to look a little more ominous. I began to think, “This ain’t going to be good for tomorrow.”
At 6:30 pm, with more clouds accumulating, I decided to crawl into bed and call it a night, setting my “human alarm clock” to 2:00 am since the alarm clock I brought broke and the Whitney Portal Store did not have any battery powered alarm clocks. Shortly after this time, I began to curse the fact that the only spot available was next to the Campground Host. At 7:00 pm, a noise that had not reared its head Sunday or Monday night began emanating from the Campground Host’s: the generator he uses power his many appliances in his RV came on and was quite loud. I laid there for several hours trying to fall asleep, every now and then thinking I was going to be denied my summit attempt because either my “human alarm clock” was going to malfunction, or that I was going to hit its “snooze button”. Sometime between 10:00 and 10:30 pm I finally fell asleep.
DAY 4 (SUMMIT ATTEMPT DAY) – WEDNESDAY, SEPTEMBER 14, 2005
My “human alarm clock” woke me just before 2:00 am, and I began to get dressed. After spending about fifteen minutes arguing with my eyes and my contact lenses, I put on just about every layer I brought with me, grabbed my driver’s license, for identification purposes in case I went dead, and emerged from my tent. I retrieved my backpack from the bear-proof locker and set out towards the trailhead at 2:35 am with four and one-half liters of water and Gatorade. The clouds, which accumulated seven hours earlier were gone, and skies were as clear as freshly washed windows. The skies were illuminated with more stars than I think I’ve ever seen at one time since my days as a Boy Scout when we went camping. It’s amazing how many stars you can see when you leave the lights of the big city.
In retrospect, I should have driven my car to the trailhead; however, because my car had issues coming up the Whitney Portal Road on Sunday, I decided to hike to the trailhead via the Whitney Portal NRT. I had hiked up and back down this trail more times than I care to count the past three days, yet I spent about ten minutes trying to find the stupid trail. Upon finding the trail, I set out on my way, running into several small woodland creatures (not bears) on my way to the Whitney Trail trailhead. I reached the Whitney Trail trailhead alone and began the trek up the trail at 3:10 am (just after my intended start time of 3:00 and giving me just short of 21 hours to complete the round trip before overstaying my permit and facing the wrath of the NPS). I was a little surprised that I was the only one at the trailhead when I reached it, since the trail guides I had read and the ranger with whom I spoke on Sunday aid most people started about 3:00 am. I was also a little surprised there was no ranger checking permits; however, since you can go all the way to Lone Pine Lake without one, I thought I would see one on the trail just past Lone Pine Lake.
As I began my way up the trail and the switchbacks at the beginning of the Whitney Trail, I began to see the headlights of cars and trucks reach the trailhead as hikers arrived at the trailhead to park their cars and begin their hike. I also began to see the headlamps of hikers who had started before me. Perhaps it was because I had less than four hours sleep, or because it was 3:00 in the morning, I was moving much more slowly than I wanted, and in fact was passed by a couple of hikers. At 4:45 am, just short of where the Whitney Trail forks giving the hiker the option of heading to Lone Pine Lake or continuing towards the Whitney Zone and the summit, I was met by a “high pointer” who on this trip had already reached the summit of the high points I five states (Kansas, Idaho, Nevada and two others). He said the temperature was 15 degrees. I was thinking two things: 1) “It doesn’t feel that cold”, and 2) “I’m running a little behind schedule if I want to be out before dark”). I tried to keep up with him; however, I was “Slow Moving Sam” and he was “Fast Freddy”. Soon he was gone and I was on my own once again.
I continued on my way, alone and finally in the ambient light, passing Outpost Camp to Mirror Lake. At this point the trail met a somewhat rocky area and I hiked right past a switchback without realizing it. I hiked a little further until I reached a point where I knew I was off track, because the only way further was not Class 1, and the Whitney Trail is described as “Class 1” all the way to the top. I turned around and after a little while found the trail again. I came across a couple of hikers, the first ones I passed, who were on their way up.
Somewhere between Mirror Lake and Trailside Meadow I began to develop a slight headache. I decided I would hike through it, and that once I reached Trail Camp I would stop and take a couple of ibuprofen; however, about a half-mile before Trail Camp the pain reached a point where although too and I could no longer allow it to fester, if I didn’t want to endanger my attempt at the summit, and I stopped for an aspirin and refreshment break. Somewhat refreshed I restarted my trek towards Trail Camp (6.3 miles from the trail head and 4.7 miles from the summit) where I would stop for “lunch”.
I’m exactly sure what time I reached Trail Camp(12,039 ft); however, it was probably about 7:00 am, or just after. There was still plenty of snow on some of the mountainsides, which spend most of the day, or at least the hot afternoon, out of the snow. By now, I had gone through one-half liter of Gatorade, and one and a half liters of water, leaving me with 3 liters for the last 15.7 miles of the trip. I wasn’t too worried, because I thought I’d be able to refill at Trail Camp on my way down. That is until I saw the condition of the lake at Trail Camp. The lake at Trail Camp was like no other alpine lake I’d ever seen. At just over 12,000 feet above sea level, I expected a clean, pristine, vibrantly blue lake; however, it was a lake over grown with algae, both green and some color I’m not sure exists anywhere else in nature. This must be caused by the enormous amount of hikers using Trail Camp as an overnight stop for their summit attempts and camping in the area, leaving their garbage and “doing their business” in the vicinity of the lake. I reached the conclusion that water was not fit human consumption, even if run through a filter and treated with iodine tablets, and all I was carrying was iodine tablets. Now, I had to go a minimum of 4.7 miles and 2,450 ft in elevation to the summit and 7.2 miles from the summit to Outpost Camp and possibly all the way back to the trailhead with only two and a half liters of water.
When I made my spot for “lunch” at Trail Camp I was in the vicinity of four guys who were day hikers as well: RJ, Jack, Ken and Murray. Since I was alone, I asked if it would be okay if I “squeezed my way” into their group and tried to keep up with them the rest of the way. They agreed and after rest for about ten or fifteen minutes longer, we made our push up the 99 switchbacks and towards Trail Crest. As I hiked up the 99 switchbacks, I was glad they were there for the trip up; however, thought how they would be bothersome on the way back down. Several places along the switchbacks the exposure was such that one did not want to make a wrong step or he might slide down the side of the mountain a few hundred feet or so. About halfway to the top, we came across some “guard rails” for about 200 feet, which were put in by the NPS to prevent someone from slipping on the ice, which still inhabited the trail, and sliding down the fairly exposed, side of the mountain. We finally finished the switchbacks and reached Trail Crest (13,600 ft) at 10:15 am where it was extremely windy.
After snapping a few pictures of the outstanding views and enjoying the feat of reaching Trail Crest we continued on our way. We descended down the trail for .5 miles to where it meets the John Muir Trail (13,420 ft) and began the push of the last 2 miles to summit.
The guidebook I read in preparation of the hike indicated the last two miles involved roughly one thousand feet of elevation gain over two miles, or roughly 500 ft elevation gain per mile, and called this gentle. This is a smaller per mile elevation gain than the first bit (Trailhead to Lone Pine Lake), and thought even with the higher elevation, it wouldn’t be too tough; however, the guidebook failed to mention the last two miles included a little more downhill travel and quite a bit of level traversing, making the actual uphill portions significantly steeper than anticipated.
At 12:20, I reached the summit and was immediately taken aback by the gorgeous views afforded the hikers of Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks to the west and north and the White Mountains to the east. I took several pictures, signed the summit book and sat down for lunch. I think past hikers ignored warnings not to feed the critters in the wilderness as there was a marmot running around who approached just about every hiker unafraid and in fact stole the lunch sacks of several hikers and just about any scrap of food left unattended.
After about forty-five minutes, RJ, Jack, Murray and I left the summit for the trip back to the trailhead. Murray and I were moving faster than RJ and Jack and we were separated before we reached Trail Crest. Murray kept in contact with RJ and Jack with his Nextel walkie-talkie phone, and we kept moving on down the trail.
Murray and I reached the trailhead at approximately 6:30 pm and were greeted by Ken, who moved faster than all of us, having reached the summit of not only Mt. Whitney, but also the subpeaks of Whitney above 14,000 ft and Mount Muir, and Murray’s wife. After one last picture at the trailhead, I said good-bye to Murray, his wife, and Ken as they headed back to meet the rest of their group, sans RJ and Jack, at their campsite.
At this time, I noticed I forgot to carry some cash, or my credit card with me to the summit, and could not stop at the Whitney Portal Store for a well-earned cold beer. I hiked back down the Whitney Portal NRT to my campsite with the intention of starting dinner before the last bit of light disappeared behind the mountains; however, I was greeted by my new neighbor and a another hiker from down the way who wanted to talk about the hike to the summit and ask questions because they both were going up the next day.
After speaking with them for a bit, I decided to skip dinner and crawl into my sleeping bag with a liter of water to drink and call it a night; however, first I removed my contact lens, losing one of them in the process, causing me to change my plans of driving to Nevada the morning to attempt Boundary Peak and Montgomery Peak. I also found it interesting that the loud generator in the Campground Host’s site remained silent all night long.
DAY 5 – THURSDAY, SEPTEMBER 15, 2005
I awoke at 7:30 am, packed up camp, and headed for the Whitney Portal Store for a nice hot shower, a giant breakfast and a slew of souvenirs. I left Whitney Portal just after 10:00 am and headed home after a truly exhilarating vacation.
As I reached the Highway 395 and Highway 6 split, I wished I hadn’t lost my contact lens, otherwise I would have driven towards Nevada and Boundary Peak…oh well, maybe next year.