One Crappy Night on Whitney
One would think that climbing a mountain is a pretty straight forward affair: show up, put on a pack, and start the walk up – not so with Mount Whitney. A few years ago the US Forest Service started a permit system to limit the number of climbers and hikers that could use the Whitney area. It was done because all of the people ”enjoying” the mountain were trampling it flat, causing trail erosion, and there were piles and piles of shit that accumulated on the slopes every year, poisoning the lakes and streams and making the trek to the summit a smelly affair in the summer.
I tried for two years in a row to pull a permit to climb Mt. Whitney. I have lost in the drawing both years. Last year I accepted the defeat with grace and decided to climb anyway. If you have a three or four day window you can show up mid week and put your name in for a drawing at the Visitor’s Center in Lone Pine for permits that were not picked up that day. Don’t even think of trying it on a weekend in the middle of summer! The US forest Service limits the number of people on the trail to 160 per day. Last year Matt Brauning and I were twelve hours away from driving up to attempt a drawing when an early storm covered the area in three feet of snow and there were 100MPH winds measured on the summit ridges. Fearing the loss of toes would be the price for the summit; we retreated from our plans and spent the weekend climbing in Joshua Tree.
This year there was some schedule juggling as I was in and out of Germany and Brauning was flying all around the South Pacific. We finally agreed to climb on the weekend of the 16th of September, figuring that it would be one of the last weekends that the mountain would be free of snow and we hoped that most of the would-be climbers would have returned to school or work from their summer vacations. As the date neared, I had to pull it back a day as I had a commitment for Sunday night (the 17th) that I refused to break. Brauning agreed to leave early, but only if I drove the whole way and toted the stove and all the food – he bargains and haggles better than me. I agreed, we met at his place on a Thursday night, packed up my truck and headed north on US395.
As I mentioned above, the original plan was to climb Mt. Muir, Mt, Whitney, Mt. Russell, and Mt. Carrolton in one long traversing loop. The weather forecast that weekend called for an Artic front descending on the Northern and Eastern Sierra. That information coupled with a tight return schedule led us to delete the last two summits and making the trip an out and back affair instead the planned loop.
We arrived at the Visitor’s Center at 1:00AM, parked across from the locked gate, and slept in the back of the truck under the camper shell. We were the first ones in line for the same-day access lottery the next morning. Our number was six out of six and they took the first five. I had flashes of mugging another group and running up the mountain with their permit, but good judgment won out and I started begging the Visitor Center staff for just one more pass. After a bit of groveling we were told to come back for a second drawing at 10:45am that day. We spent the next two and a half hours fueling up on breakfast at a local greasy diner and packing all our gear for the trail. We had come way too far to let a little drawing stop us for bagging Mt. Whitney. We stayed really positive about pulling a permit and didn’t even think of what to do with the weekend if we were unsuccessful. There was no “Plan B.” We were going up and that was all there was to it. Our positive affirmations paid off when we drew the number two slot out of sixteen. After signing some papers, giving our personal information, and getting a ‘don’t feed the bears’/’carry your waste out’ lecture, we were off to the Portal and to start the day’s long walk.
The Mount Whitney Portal sits at 8,360 feet and we left the parking lot there at 1:30pm, ascending 6.3 miles and 3,680 vertical feet to Trail Camp at 12,040 feet. The wind blew hard and cold for most of the day. At one point we passed a couple on the trail above Outpost Camp. The guy was wearing a Utilikilt (imagine carpenter’s overalls and a Scottish kilt merged together, and sewn from 12 ounce cotton duct cloth). He raved about how it was just the thing to hike in. About ten minutes later the temperature made its first dip toward the freezing mark. I am willing to bet that dude put big-boy pants on right quick when that cold biting wind blew up his skirt and lashed his nether regions!
Just before Trail Camp the wind was blowing so hard that we both were blown around the trail. We fought for the last hundred yards of trail before we found an unoccupied tent site just in camp with a two-foot high rock wind break that helped shelter the tent very little. Unable to will ourselves to look for other sights, we staked the tent down, pilled rocks on the stakes so they wouldn’t pull out, tied the guy lines to boulders, stacked rocks on those, and crawled into the wind lashed tent to warm up, cook dinner, and relish being out of the bitter gale. We didn’t leave that purple nylon wedge for the next twelve hours. We cooked in it, ate in our sleeping bags, and I peed in a bottle instead of unzipping the tent-fly and stepping back out into the cold night and exposing my Willy to the elements. There MAY have been an incident where a dribble or two of pee landed in the hood of my bag… It is best forgotten as is the fact that I didn’t care and slept there anyway and we won’t be discussing it again.
It was, by far, the worst night of my life ever spent in a tent. The temperature dropped to below twenty degrees Fahrenheit, water in the one of the high lakes near camp and its supply/outlet stream froze. We had sustained fifty MPH winds with gusts over sixty. The tent held - mostly, but it beat on us. Our tent was a three season (sans winter…) model so dust and microscopic bits of marmot poop swirled around us all night. It blew in under the fly and there was a thick layer of the gritty mix on everything when the wind stopped sometime after 2:00am. I decided right then and there that I was buying a new four season tent and that I would never subject myself to such torture again! After maybe two hours of sleep Brauning and I pushed for the summit at 7:30am and were on top at 11:30am.
On the trail up there are ninety-nine switchbacks leading to the Trail Crest. On one of these turns we met an older guy with a huge pack who was coming down. He had just finished the entire John Muir trail – walking from Yosemite to Whitney in twenty five days – solo! He was sixty-seven years old and we held him in awe, talking about how that ol’ boy was proof that one is only as old as they say they feel for the whole way to the top of the mountain. I want to be that guy when I am sixty-seven years old! Just a note: I made Brauning dry-heave on the trail up. He wouldn't walk behind me for the rest of the trip. Every one has to have a super power and mine is methane.
We somehow missed the small rock and the scramble trail for Mt. Muir from Trail Crest. It would have meant some back tracking to reach Muir by the time we discovered we had gone too far. After our miserable night, it was no huge loss and by no means anything that would darken the mood of the trip. We talked about MAYBE hitting it on the way back and headed up the trail towards Whitney.
The weather at the summit that day was perfect: very little wind, moderate temperatures, clear blue skies, and a warm sun shinning on us. After being there for just a minute, Brauning started emptying a small Ziploc bag from his pack - looking worried and somewhat crazed - nature was calling & calling LOUDLY. I gave him my waste disposal bag (they give them to you at the trailhead because you have to pack out ALL waste & he left his at camp that morning) and he took care of business in a stacked-rock shelter near the summit hut. He packed away his huge full plastic bag of filth and we sat down to have some coffee and hot cocoa on the summit. It is a little something we do at the tops of peaks that is a nod to the civilized British climbers of the past and a way for us to show the mountain that not only did we make it up its slopes, but that we have enough left in us to enjoy a little life on the summit. For about an hour Brauning and I were the highest two people in the lower 48 states (airplanes don't count) drinking cocoa, laughing, and planning our next walk among the mountains.
Just below the summit, as we headed down to thicker air, we met a guy with an enormous pack and oak tree legs coming up. He said it was full of party favors because he and his friends were going to celebrate his seventieth birthday on Whitney. We stood there with mouths open. The gentleman didn’t look a second over fifty and was the lead climber in his group of maybe fifteen. He added to this by saying this birthday was for his doctor. The man had experienced HAPE (High Altitude Pulmonary Edema) four years earlier and his doctor had told him that he would never be able to go back to altitude. As we walked away shaking our heads with wonder and admiration he asked us to tell his friends to, “Hurry the Hell up, there was partying to do.” Sure enough, on the trail down we passed his “slow” friends that both confirmed his age and story. Screw 40 or 67, I want to be that guy when I am seventy!
The rest of the trip down was uneventful and we made good time after deciding to skip Mt. Muir for the second time that day. Brauning was single and on the hunt for members of the opposite sex that are pleasing to his eye and share common interests with him. There were a few ladies coming and going on the trail as we descended that he tried to chat up with very little success – leading him to remark, “It is hard to be a player when you are carrying a bag of poo.” The man is a poet!
There was beer and pizza in Lone Pine after getting off the mountain. After a five hour drive, I walked in the door at home, scrubbed the three day crust off in the shower, and passed out with little beads of clean water still rolling off of me. It was a great weekend all and all and both Brauning and I got to knock a mountain off our tic-list, share some laughs, take in amazing scenery, and had the opportunity to successfully climb the tallest mountain in the continental US – not bad for two ol’ boys that live at the beach and wear flip-flops most of the time!
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