Fog/Rain/Cloud Shroud: Video Trip Report of Mt. Whitney Summit
One night at Cottonwood, base camp at Trail Camp, night hiking to summit and weather.
Here's the written word for those that fancy reading a story...
I was daydreaming, right before sleep, that a large pine branch would split and crash through my tent. That way I'd have an excuse--I wouldn't have to climb alone. No such luck. The sunrise at 5:30 a.m. at Cottonwood Lakes Trailhead Campground Sunday morning reminded me it was time to start on the Mt. Whitney Trail. Fear and wonder would have to wait.
It began 9 peaks ago with a highpointing obsession. Then entering the Whitney Lottery in the spring with tons of friends. And losing. And having to scramble days later to snatch up any dates that got released. I was able to procure a one-night permit without choice of the day. It was July 14. A Monday. And all the pals that said they would go? Busy. But that's the truth about climbing and anything you want to do: you simply can't rely on anyone else; if you want to do it, plan on completing every step alone.
Then more configuring. Find a flight from Ohio to LAX. Rent a car. A hotel for Saturday night in Lone Pine after a long day of travel. Get an acclimation plan. Gear, food, route, map and most important of all, conditioning. There are not too many alcoholic fat mountain climbers. I was around 185 pounds at 6'1. Over two months, I dropped 20 pounds and did a lot of the mind-numbing Forrest running along forgotten Ohio fields and farms. And no drinking. Wasn't quite sure what to do on the flight to LA.
After resting in Lone Pine Saturday night, it was off for acclimation hikes Sunday morning. Followed by making my way up to the Cottonwood campground.
There are many different approaches to acclimating for Mt. Whitney. Most just drive to the Portal parking lot and crash beside their vehicle. The Portal area is a rat race. The locals show their teeth. (Dear residents and rangers around Lone Pine: I'm sorry the mountain is overpopulated. I'm sorry it once got destroyed. But I didn't do it, and more importantly, it's not your mountain. You didn't build it, contribute at all to its existence and you did not pick where you were born. Do you ever take a vacation? I hope they spit in your food when you do.)
So my advice is heading to Cottonwood to get acclimated. It's 10,000 feet compared to the Portal's 8,300, and way less crowded. The drive up is amazing. At Cottowood, I proceeded to drink close to three gallons of water. That immediately cured my headache and the more I moved, the better I felt. (I was also yelled at by a Ranger for standing too far away from my fire at the campsite. I was 7 feet away. Seriously. Fascism in the forest. The last line in Kerouac's Big Sur is, "The woods are full of wardens.")
Monday, I was up early and grabbed breakfast in Lone Pine before starting in at the Portal around 9 a.m.
The 6.5 miles to Trail Camp (my base camp) was a lot like many of the elevated peaks I've traveled around New Mexico and Colorado--giant red pines, well-rounded massive boulders, mountain lakes and gushing streams. At Trail Camp it was all alpine and I was glad to be tree-less.
More waiting. 7 hours of killing time, watching the dots descend the 97 switchbacks that would await me at 3 a.m.
Two men in their 60s began a conversation with me.
"We're highpointers, only got four more to go," one man said.
"Cool, I just started highpointing myself. Only got nine. But I'm doing every peak east of the Mississippi in winter," I said.
"Really? Have fun doing Katahdin in Maine in the winter," he responded.
"Can't be much worse than the wind on Mt. Washington or the -15 degree night we spent on Mt. Marcy," I said.
"Well then, you'll be fine," he said.
"What do you have left?" I asked.
"Only really Denali, but not sure if we'll ever make it," he said.
"Whoa, so you've done, like Rainier and Hood?" I asked.
"Yep, did both in my 50s," he said.
Crawled into my two-pound tent around 7 p.m. and when my foot hit the side, I felt something hit me back. Freakin' marmot playing footsie with me. Again, the same horror and doubt in my mind. Not sure if I'd really get up and start alone, in the dark.
I fell asleep and was dreaming about walking on a skinny plank over a river and I heard someone's watching beeping on the other shore. I wanted them to turn it off so I could focus. It was my wristwatch. One dream over, one beginning.
Tuesday there wasn't supposed to be rain on the summit 'till around noon, but I planned for it anyway. Rocked the lightest hiking shoe ever by North Face--waterproof and steel plated. Then soccer socks I could pull up past my knees, pocketed shorts and my Patagonia windproof/waterproof shell bottom. On top, a quick-dry jersey, light fleece and Patagonia shell top. Packed hat, gloves, thicker fleece, water purifying tablets, GoPro, Band-Aids, trail map, food (the gel had almost frozen so it was like chewing hard caramel in the morning) and wore headlamp. Was in the low 40s when I started from Trail Camp and up the legendary 97 Switchbacks.
All my training leading up to this, I would always repeat, "The 97 Switchbacks," when I got tired. Switchback 27 was the last source of water. A little stream that you had to dig out the rocks around to access. Mostly dirt water flowed into my Nalgene. I don't like the weight and waiting associated with pumps and purifiers. I fill up on the go, drop in a germicidal tablet and continue to climb.
An hour in, around 4 a.m., I saw other headlamps below just starting to ascend. I was expecting more suffering. But the water pounding and fitness paid off, and I destroyed the switchbacks without rest. So great to see the Trail Crest sign.
Fog and very light rain accompanied me to just below the summit. But I couldn't see anything. Four feet in front of me, that's all. Where's the summit hut? The trail was gone. I ambled around a bit, then found rock walls where people had camped at the summit. Then heard voices. Followed them through the mist veil. Arrived at the top. Then the weather dramatically changed. Two guys, a woman and I were huddled in the summit hut. A storm had started out of nowhere. I said I was the hell gone from this mountain top. The men agreeded but the the lady wanted to wait it out. Wait what out? It would continue all day. The only way you die on Mt. Whitney is due to lightning. Everything I ever read and what the ranger at the permit station was most clear about was lightning. If there's rain of any kind at the summit, get off immediately.
So I ran down and back to Trail Crest. Again, no views into Sequoia National Park, no eye-bleeding stares into the vast horizon of the continental U.S.'s highest area. But accomplishment. And thoughts of Mt. Rainier.
Back at Trail Camp, the inside and outside of my tent were soaked. Marmots had chewed through a guy's tent yesterday and I read it's best to leave your tent open when you summit. Pouring down rain at base camp, adding a good 5 five pounds to my pack when everything was loaded up. 4 hours 55 minutes to complete the 9-mile summit bid. Then another 6.5 miles out to the Portal. 15.5 miles total on Tuesday, continuously hiking for 8 hours.
I'm done with base camp-- hauling a 30-pound pack for 13 miles is stupid. Would just do it all in a day if I had the choice again.
40 more peaks to go.
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