Sierra Trek to bag my sons first 14'rs
For many years now I've been a Boy Scout Leader in Scotts Valley, California and have enjoyed hiking with this group of young men and generous volunteers. Unfortunately, keeping outings simple so we can accommodate the youngest scouts has precluded taking extended trips. This year I decided to take my 13 year old son Daniel on and his first extended hike to climb his first 14'r.
Mt. Whitney was an obvious choice as it is simple and is the tall one. However, I'd been up Mt. Whitney more than a few times in my college days and I remembered what a zoo the Whitney Portal can be. I also remember loosing a good percentage of my group to the altitude effects. With this in mind and the difficulties of the lottery in place on the Whitney Portal entrance, I opted for a longer and more gradual climb up Symmes Creek to Shepherds Pass. This also offered up the chance for a real class 3 14'r with Mt. Tyndall sitting right at the top of the pass.
The impact of being dropped off in front of Mt. Williamson towering over the trailhead at Symmes Creek had the same effect on my son that I'd remembered when I first started hiking. "We're going up there?", he asked. Even mom had a apprehensive look on her face. One of my most vivid memories of hiking as a youngster was looking back at the end of the day and seeing how far we'd come. It didn't seem possible when we started in the morning. That sense of accomplishment has stayed with me to this day.
Day 1 - Sunday, Sept 4.
We begin our climb up Symmes Creek around 7:30am. We'd set a goal to try and reach the saddle between Symmes Creek and Shepherds Creek by noon. We made it in good time and had lunch at the crest. It was nice to have a little downhill for a while as a psychological break. We'd filled up at the 4th creek crossing on the way up but we were still running short of water. Temperature wasn't too bad in the 80's, but the climb from 5700ft to almost 9100ft with 6 days of supplies on our backs took a toll on our water bottles. Luckily, we were only another hour from the next stream crossing on the Shepherds Creek side.
We took a nice long shady break when we got to the creek. We ate a some Bagel n' Cheese sandwiches and topped off our bottles and made a start for Anvil Camp, our goal for the first day at a little over 10,000ft. We found a fantastic spot on the south side of the creek passing through camp. Everyone seemed to be camped on the north side. It took a little time to find a crossing, but it was well worth the wait. Peace and quiet with a view to the east was our reward. The weather was perfect with you typical night chill at this altitude and we considered leaving the tent packed, but we were surprised to find a few diligent mosquitoes still pestering hikers so we opted for some netting. I'd worked Daniel pretty hard this day to see how he'd fare and he did great. Once he was fed, he started sawing logs in the middle of a conversation.
Day 2 - Monday, Sept. 5
An easy day was planned to get to Shepherds Pass. We only needed to get to 11,800ft and the climb was more gradual with the exception of the headwall at the end of the valley where switchbacks take us up to the Pass.
Shepherds Pass Headwall
Again the weather was cooperating and there wasn't a white speck in the sky to be seen. Just the deep cobalt blue you get at this altitude. We'd missed most of the crowds as we didn't see anyone setting out from Anvil Camp. Guess they were all headed down. Upon reaching the pass we saw the first small lake off to our left (east) and were surprised to see at least 8 feet of snow piled up on the south rim. The reports of snow up here weren't exaggerated.
We started down to the marshes and found a nice campsite about 50ft up on the NW ridge of Mt. Tyndall. We had snow melt runoff flowing past us within 100ft in any direction. As an added plus we had a mound of boulders near us that turned out to be full of marmots. So we got to enjoy the critter show while we ate dinner. Sunset was spectacular as the steep ridge line of Kern Range, Western Divide, and Kaweah's all lit up in a orange display. Unfortunately, I got all the cooking duty this trip. Daniel had broken his arm two weeks before our trip and wasn't much use in the kitchen. He took care of some laundry, fetched water, and did his share of packing, so it wasn't too bad. Went to bed at dusk to get a good long day in to bag Mt. Tyndall tomorrow.
Day 3 - Tuesday, Sept.6
Learned an invaluable lesson this AM. Waking a very tired 13 year old at sunrise if extremely challenging. I was informed I'd be beaten with a stick if I didn't let him sleep! Not wanting to sustain such an injury this early in the trip I opted to concede and let him sleep while I went off and took sunrise pictures of the valley. Mt. Tyndall cast a very long shadow and we were in it so it didn't warm up very quickly. The smell of breakfast got Daniel out of his bag and looking alive again. Some quick oatmeal and honey and we were off.
We started up the NW ridge on Mt. Tyndall and then traversed left once we were at the height of the Williamson Bowl.
Tyndall's North Rib
This brought us around to the North Ridge which we climbed and avoided the big open slab of granite to our right as it offered too much exposure our our comfort level. The boulder ridge offered plenty of hand holds for a simple class 3 accent to the top. I was relieved that Daniel was not showing any signs of the altitude and I had to reign him in to keep a steady pace. The only real problem we encountered was the final section which would put us on the top.
We had a large gendarme in front of us with an obvious way up to the right, but that took us out over the granite slab and that was out of the question.
Cresting North Rib
Looking left and it only got worse. As we made it up to the wall, we found a small chimney with a solid set of footings that I could get Daniel through in a few moves. He got a little adrenaline pump on this section and claimed it was, "A little spooky". I was right under him, so he had a little more confidence. This popped us out on the top ridge only 200 meters west of the summit. It was a few boulder hops and we were on top looking down into the Williamson Bowl and signing the register. It looks like we'd followed a group from SPS/WCS in Los Angeles that had come up that weekend.
Tyndall Summit: Dan's 1st 14'r
We'd planned on descending the NW ridge of Mt. Tyndall directly back to camp, but seeing lake WL3645 below we opted to descend the south side of Mt. Tyndall and walk out around the lake and past Wright Lakes and swing north back to our campsite. We new that would put us back at camp around dinner and we were originally planning to get to Bighorn Plateau that evening to get a head start to Guitar Lake the following day. So we agreed that if we put in an extra long day we could make Guitar Lake it one push from Shepherds Pass. That all worked in theory, but I'd forgotten our early AM issues! We made it back to camp pretty well rung out grabbed a quick pizza dinner and hit the sack. I dried some Boboli pizza sauce in my dehydrator and used pita and pepperoni. It's a keeper!
Day 4 - Wednesday, Sept. 7
Our early AM start wasn't!! Waking up issues got us a late start at 9AM. While the trek down the valley is nice and easy we had a climb over Bighorn Plateau and then a drop into and back out of Wallace Creek before we made the turn east to Crabtree Meadows.
It's a good 12+ miles and we made Crabtree Meadows around dinner. Never passed another hiker. We did run into some trail maintenance folks at the Wallace Creek campsite. We didn't get to chat as we wanted to get to Guitar Lake. Day ran out for us just past the Crabtree Ranger station and we found a great campsite on pine needles tucked in the trees. Not the slightest breeze that night and the stars were out it force. I was looking forward to one of my favorite dinners, Tree Frog and Rattlesnake stew. Really just split pea soup and SPAM. It's heavy and meaty. Daniel liked the name, but not the pea part? We took turns identifying constellations until we dozed off.
Day 5 - Thursday, Sept, 8
Mt. Whitney day!! We were all psych'd up and ready to bag Mt. Whitney Mt. Muir today. Another late start! The walk up to Guitar Lake was stunning. I especially loved the walk past Timber Lake. The sun was positioned to give a beautiful back light on the lake. We'd later see the same thing on Guitar Lake that evening from up on Mt. Whitney. We'd expected to have a good workout climbing the switchbacks up the east side of Mt. Whitney. The 4 days of acclimatizing worked. Not a sign of altitude sickness and we were feeling very strong. Our packs had lightened and we made very good time. We finally started to see other hikers. Three groups passed us coming down and said it was crowded at the top. We noticed clouds forming over the Western Divide which we watched closely once we'd gotten high enough. The good news was the storm that was building was blowing north past Mt. Whitney, but we were clearly getting the edges of the storm as the winds pick up substantially in the afternoon and the wind chill was noticeable.
We made Trail Crest around 3:30pm in the afternoon. Much later than I would have liked. We new we had another 1 1/2 - 2 hours to make the summit so we'd be cutting it close. Daniel got a great lesson on preparation when a hiker came down in a T-shirt and shorts with no gear and shaking violently. He had a severe case of hypothermia. Luckily he was with some folks who were helping him down. Talking to folks we learned that a good number had been turned back from the summit because the wind chill was down below freezing.
I couldn't believe people had put in all the work and effort to be turned back because the couldn't be bothered with a few pounds of cold weather gear. Daniel thought they were idiots! A great lesson for a 13 year old. We were still carrying 20+ pounds to the summit just in case we needed to bivy somewhere. The weather was till looking OK and the wind direction was holding. We made the summit and took some pictures, signed the log and headed for lower ground.
Whitney Summit: Dan's 2nd 14'r
I'd entertained the idea of camping on the summit. I'd not done that before, but the look of the clouds in the West made me a little nervous. I'd seen weather go from perfect to hellish in half a day and wasn't going to risk it. All the lightning rods strapped to the summit lodge were clear evidence that it can be very dangerous on top during a storm. I'd wanted to bag Mt. Muir on the way out, but we'd already cut it too close making the summit, so we walked passed it by and headed down to the top of the 97 switchbacks.
Room with a View
We found a perfect two man bivy spot on a ledge with a nice 3ft boulder for protection on one side. Even though we were on the lee side of the mountain, the winds were still buffeting pretty good at times. We opted to skip dinner and just snacked and prepared for a cold night. We donned our thermals, extra socks and down jackets and hopped in our zero degree bags. Even with the wind were we're very toasty... until nature called at 2am! Being 40-something really sucks sometimes.
Day 6 - Friday, Sept. 9
We awoke before sunrise to the sounds of footsteps and panting as the throng of day hikers head up the mountain. Sunrise was truly one of the most spectacular I've ever seen. From our location you could see the summit hut and Keeler's Needle as well as a panorama over Lone Pine below. The whole valley was washed in a morning alpine glow. We really had a room with a view. Taking my morning GPS plot I noticed my altimeter had climbed that evening (The barometer was falling). Not surprising! I new we had weather in the area, but it was trending for the worse. We packed up quickly, as I suspected we'd have weather coming in over the peak from the west and would get suprised.
We saw far too many unequipped day hikers heading for the summit again. The sky was absolutely clear! Not even a wisp of cloud cover. We had a 3pm pickup this afternoon and we didn't want to have mom waiting in the car wondering if her family was dead in a valley somewhere. Mom worries! We made outpost camp by late morning. It was the zoo I'd remembered. Tents everywhere and rock walls partitioning campsites like condo's. So much for leave no trace. We tried to tell those who would listen to be careful as the barometer was dropping. Again, those who brought gear had also called and found out there was, indeed, a weather front coming in! We took a lunch break around Mirror Lake and it was about then we saw the clouds forming over Lone Pine. Within an hour we saw rain in the valley and we spent the last two hours of our hike walking out in a snow storm!!
Snow! - Exit to Portal
We passed a group of rangers heading up to save the twits that were up in that storm in T-shirts. My last view was looking back up at the peak and just seeing the bottom of the Whitney face and everything above buried in a white out. We walked off the trail at 2:58pm and our ride arrived at just after 3pm. We had just enough time to take a picture for some German hikers from Munich before we headed off for a big greasy burger and a milk shake.
I don't think this trip could have been more perfect. The weather held for us just until the end. We had enough weather to see just how severe the mountains can be without actually having to suffer a miserable night. And my son bagged two 14'rs 3 days. I couldn't be more proud.