Monday, May 29, 2006 Mt. Whitney--Day 1
I woke up and I could hardly wait for the sun to come up. I was so excited because I would begin my hike up Mount Whitney today. First things first, I had to eat breakfast, pack my backpack, and put all food items not going up the mountain in a bear-proof locker. I was thrilled to be on the trail around 8:30am! The first part of the trail is pretty easy—lots of switchbacks, and a few stream crossings. I remember crossing the North Fork of Lone Pine Creek, where the Mountaineer’s Route veers to the right. I eventually came upon Mr. Cho, a Korean American from San Diego. He is also an accountant like I am. He was hiking to Lone Pine Lake and then back down. He and I hiked together and took some pictures for each other along the way. After about two hours, we reached
Lone Pine Lake, at almost 10,000 feet in elevation. It was a nice view and we rested for a little while. Then I pumped some water for myself as well as for Mr. Cho.
I did most of my hiking with empty water bottles except for what I needed in the immediate time because my pack already weighed 42 pounds with only one of my three water bottles full. I knew that there were plenty of water sources along the way to Trail Camp anyway. I planned to tank up on more water once I got to Outpost Camp in another mile anyway. I shared my email address with Mr. Cho and then I left him to go back down while I continued uphill. Shortly beyond Lone Pine Lake, I got into the snow. I put my crampons on for better traction and followed the majority of the tracks in the snowfield which went to the left. As I kept climbing up this snowfield, I kept thinking I should be coming up to Outpost Camp, where I would get some more water. However, I saw no sign that I was nearing Outpost Camp even though I kept hoping it was around the corner. I was down to about 1 cup of water left in my water bottle and I was getting concerned. And then to my horror, I looked down and to the right and from my lofty position on the snowfield and saw Outpost Camp over 500 feet BELOW me! I had unknowingly taken the winter variation where you
skip Outpost Camp and take the Snowfield to the left! I kept listening, hoping to hear running water underneath the snow. I really did not want to give up the 500 feet of elevation I had gained above Outpost Camp just to get water, but I knew that I would have to do so if I did not find water soon. I also could have melted snow and boiled it for water, but that would also be a time-consuming process. I prayed that somehow I would find a water source soon. I decided to stop and eat lunch on a nice flat rock protruding from the snowfield. The pb&j sandwiches do not go down as quickly or easily at high altitude, where one tend to lose their appetite. The apple that I ate was really good, especially since it was juicy and I could use all the liquid I could get. I took in the scenery all around me. The sun shining against the light granite rocks made them appear a brilliant white. Beautiful! I could also see approximately where my destination for the day, Trail Camp was. The sun was so bright that I applied sunscreen to my face, arms, fingers, and neck several times each day that I hiked on this trip. I started putting one foot in front of the other, determined to press forward. And then suddenly, I saw it! No, I saw it AND I heard it!
Running water! Only about 300 feet from where I ate my lunch, I found some exposed running water near a large rock. This was the only area where the running water was not underneath 5 feet of snow! I quickly got to it and pumped my water bottles full of water. I drank at least one bottle right there on the spot and then refilled that bottle too. I prayed and thanked God for the blessing of running water at this most convenient spot allowing me to easily continue my hike to Trail Camp.
The rest of my slog up to Trail Camp was relatively uneventful now that I had plenty of water. As I passed by the frozen Consultation Lake, I saw a US Forest Ranger telemark skiing down the snowfield. I quickly got a picture of him tele-marking and he stopped and said hi and checked my wilderness permit. A few minutes later, I arrived at Trail Camp. There was one other hiker camping there; other than that, there was no signs of life up there. I felt like I was looking at some sort of weird moonscape! I was also concerned as to where I would find water up there at Trail Camp. As I said before, I REALLY did not want to perform the time-consuming task of melting snow if I could help it. I walked around Trail Camp, and greeted my fellow camper, Clem from Oahu, Hawaii. He had climbed Mount Baker, Mount Rainer and Mount Hood earlier on this trip to the US mainland. HE suggested that we partner up for our summit climb the following day. I agreed that partnering up would be a very good idea. I continued to look around Trail Camp for a nice campsite and a water source. I wandered above the closed solar toilets and found a nice
campsite with some dirt(good for tent stakes) and some protection from the wind. I then wandered up a rock ledge, lo and behold, I saw the frozen Trail Camp Pond! Yay! A Water source! I went up to the edge of the pond on a rock and checked to see how thick the
ice was. I was able to break through it with my ice axe easily. I ran back to Clem and told him about the campsite and the water source and he moved his already set-up tent next to mine in my campsite. It was relief to find a nice tent site and water source! We cooked up a supper and then retired to our tents by 6pm when the sun fell behind Mt. Muir and the crest of the mountains in front of us. However, it did not actually get dark until about 8:30pm. I slept somewhat restlessly although I did get a number of good hours of sleep. I am sure I was tired from carrying 42 pounds from the Portal at 8,300 feet to Trail Camp at 12,000 feet over 6 miles! I looked forward to carrying a light day pack on summit day.
Tuesday, May 30 Mt. Whitney-Day 2
The day began with a cooooooold morning at 12,000 feet in altitude. I often have trouble mentally forcing myself to get out of my sleeping bag when it is really cold, but I forced myself to get moving since I had been dreaming of this day for the past couple of months. The sunrise was really beautiful. Once the sun came up, temperatures increased fairly quickly. Clem and I cooked our breakfasts and got packed up for our hike. Clem complained of a slight headache and but he decided he felt well enough to attempt the summit.
I looked at our route to the crest of the ridge and the main boot path up the snow chute went in a switchback pattern. I mentally divided the hike from Trail Camp to Trail Crest into seven sections. I have often found that this helps me track my progress and keep me motivated even when things get tough. I took the lead and set a nice slow but steady pace up the chute. After a short while, I had to stop a remove a layer of clothing because I was getting warm from climbing. Our hike up the switchbacking boot path in the chute went smoothly and after two and a
half hours we reached the notch in the ridge. Clem and I actually skipped Trail Crest by taking this notch. The
main boot track went this way, and I actually thought it was easier because you lose your elevation that you gain by going to Trail Crest anyway. The 10-15 feet of class 3 scrambling on the other side of the notch was not hard anyway.
What a view to the west I had once I clambered through the notch. It was simply awesome seeing the wilderness and endless peaks of Sequoia National Park. At this point, Clem and I removed our crampons as the trail was mostly snow-free for a half-mile stretch. It was amazing how nice the trail in this section was, given the rugged terrain(steep cliffs dropping to our left, steep granite walls on our right). Maybe this part seemed nice because it was going downhill for a little while. The trail started ascending using a couple of long switchbacks shortly after the junction with the John Muir Trail.
As Clem and I approached Mt. Muir, the terrain got steeper and more exposed, and the trail was snow-covered again. We stopped and put our crampons on again. I had visions of doing the 300-foot scramble up Mt. Muir and bagging that 14,000-foot peak as well, but I decided it was best for Clem and I to stick together. By this point, we were traversing some
steep snowfields. Clem was struggling a bit more with the high altitude than I was, so I knew I should watch out for him. At the same time, I felt reassured knowing that with him nearby, he would also be watching out for me! There was one steep snowfield section where the boot path went downhill. I thought this was the scariest section of our whole hike, and therefore I labeled it the “crux” of the
hike! We also saw a marmot up close in this section. We also passed the first of three “windows” at this point in our
hike. A window in the Sierra is simply a very steep saddle between granite spires where you can look through the notch towards the east even though the trail is on the western side of the ridge at this point.
After about 45 minutes of somewhat exposed snowfield traverses, the terrain became gentler. Clem and I could see the rather flat summit of Mount Whitney in the distance. It was around 11:30pm and Clem was moving much slower than I was and I was a bit concerned as to whether he would have time to make to summit. I knew that the snow chute between Trail Crest and Trail Camp lost its rays of sunlight between 4 and 4:30pm. I wanted to be there no later than 4pm. Since the terrain did not have much dangerous exposure anymore, Clem and I agreed that I would continue to the Mt. Whitney summit at my pace and then wait until around 1pm to come back down. I was surprised at how well I was moving at over 14,000 feet in elevation. I was having an easier time than I had the day before at 12,000 feet with a 42 pound pack! I arrived at the summit at 12:22pm. I
sat down on a rock at the eastern “head” of Mount Whitney overlooking the Mountaineers’ Route and Whitney Portal. It was a straight cliff drop for over 2,000 vertical feet from this point. What a view! This was a moment I had dreamed of for over two months! A perfect day! Light to nonexistent winds, bright sunshine, and comfortable temps with not a cloud in the sky! I ate my lunch from this magnificent viewpoint and then signed the summit register. I then took some pictures and to my horror ran out of film! Yes, Mount Whitney is that spectacular! Plan how much film you plan to use, then take double that when you hike Mount Whitney!
At 12:48pm, Clem reached the summit as well. I was really happy for him because I know it must have been a really struggle and taken a lot of willpower since he was having trouble with the altitude. Clem had a digital camera so he was able to take a seemingly unlimited number of photos. He even had made a poster that we held together for a self-portrait on the summit. Wow! What dedication!
All too quickly it was time for us to leave this magical place! I was also moving a lot fast on the way DOWN the mountain too! I did not want to hike those steep snowfield traverses near Mt. Muir alone, nor did I want Clem to hike that stuff alone so I would get several hundred feet ahead and then I would rest. WE repeated this process many times on the traverse back to the notch near Trail Crest. We eventually reached the notch just before Trail Crest just before 4pm. Just in time! I was a bit nervous about glissading because I was not sure how soft the snow was. It seemed like there was a thin crust and then plenty of soft snow underneath. Would the crust break during a glissade? I hiked the first two boot step switchbacks of the chute with crampons on. Then I felt like I would be comfortable glissading the rest of the way down. There was plenty of run-out at the bottom anyway. I took off my crampons and then got into a sitting glissade position. I did a test slide of a couple feet. I quickly realized that I would not be going fast at all! With my ice axe in position, I was able to perfectly control my slide down the chute! It was great and I loved it! The lower part of the chute is diagonal so I had to plunge step down that portion combined with a few short standing glissades. Only about 20 minutes after reaching the top of the notch near Trail Crest, I found myself back in Trail Camp, where the first thing I did was go to the pond and pump some water. As I finished pumping water, Clem came into camp about 10 minutes later, having also glissaded the section of the chute that I had.
I sat on the sun-warmed rocks of Trail Camp and silently contemplated my climb of Mount Whitney. I thanked the Lord for keeping Clem and I safe especially in the exposed snowfield traverses near Mt. Muir, and for giving us the strength to reach the top. Life’s goals are sometimes like climbing a high mountain. It looks like it is way too high to ever reach the top, but with God’s help you just take one step at a time, focusing on goals that are reachable in the short-term.
As the sun went behind the crest of the ridge around 6pm, Clem and I once again retired to our warm sleeping bags by 6pm. However, I had a problem, I could not sleep. I am sure I had some adrenaline running from the high drama of the climb, but I also think sleeping at the 12,000-foot altitude and the hard surface of the mattress in my tent affected me. I guess I like the comforts of sleeping in a cushy bed at home or in a motel. I was just wide awake and could not sleep. I kept checking my watch to see what time it was, hoping that morning would soon come. But each time I checked my watch it would only be about half an hour later that the last time I checked. What misery! I broke the sleepless monotony by opening the door of my tent and looking at the stars. What a beautiful sight! The stars all appears so much more vivid in the dry high-altitude air! I could see the milky way galaxy extending from one end of the sky to the other. I could see the Big Dipper and also the North Start by following a line from the dipper to the star. Finally I could see all the myriad of other stars whose names I do not know. I thought about how God promised to make Abraham’s descendents like the stars—without number. I thought about how God asked Job questions about certain constellations in the heavens. Eventually I got cold and got back in my tent and tried in vain to get some sleep. I dreamed of the “real food” I was going to eat the next day when I finally got back to civilization. I would order a Mexican pizza, and Crunchwrap Supreme, and a 7-layer burrito at Taco Bell. Now I know how the people on the TV show “Survivor” must feel.
Wednesday, May 31, Mt. Whitney-Day 3
Finally, the sun came up and my sleepless night was over. You know, a lack of sleep does some rather bad things to a person’s mood. I would compare myself to a grizzly bear rudely awaken from hibernation on Wednesday morning, May31, except that I had not been awakened—I was already awake! I eagerly cooked breakfast-couscous early in the morning. I was sick of eating couscous, which I had eaten 4 times in the past few days!
I left Clem to come down the relatively safe route from Trail Camp on his own. I just wanted desperately to get out of there and get back to civilization! While it took me around seven hours to get to Trail Camp, I did the return hike in less than 3 hours! I just plodded, putting one foot in front of the other, occasionally muttering under my breath! It is amazing what a lack of sleep does to one’s mood! I got down to Whitney Portal around 10am and paid $3.00 to return to civilization by taking a nice hot shower!
After that, I continued my scenic drive to Bishop, California where I ate the most tasty meal I have ever had at Taco Bell(see my dream above). I had intended to drive to the Queen Canyon Mine trailhead for Boundary Peak, Nevada from here, but I could not bear the thought of camping another night so I instead drove to the Davison Street Guest house in Mammoth Lakes, a lovely and affordable hostel that I had stayed at years ago when I skied several days at Mammoth Mountain. I went in and took an afternoon nap. I even got to watch a basketball game between Miami and Detroit that evening before retiring to a nice restful night in a comfortable bed.
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