Monday, June 25, 2012

Mt. Whitney, August 2011, Part 1

One Perfect Day
On Which We Climb Mount Whitney

By John Tuma
Copyright 2012

One perfect day. That’s all we got during our eight-day trip to Sequoia National Park. Of course, there were other memorable moments—floods and fires, hydrological marvels to collect scarce drinking water, and the most perfect toilet seat anywhere—but the one day that had to be right was just right. One perfect day sandwiched between three days of poisonous fumes and three days of torrential rain.

Our prospects appeared dim on Wednesday afternoon, when we made our base camp on a rocky shelf beside Whitney Creek, just below Guitar Lake. Snow Toad and I were quarreling, Don was exhausted and suffering from a touch of altitude sickness, and Don’s son, Christopher, was just wondering what he had been thinking when he agreed to join a bunch of old guys on a long wilderness trek.

Smoky skies viewed from Timberline Lake.

“I’m parking myself right here,” announced Snow Toad, who had found a flat, sheltered spot behind a large boulder.

We were hiking off trail to find some decent camping, but instead found ourselves scrambling up a steep, rocky slope, with nothing but boulders and rocks and scree and a few tufts of some hardy grass growing on the flatter spots. The air was thick with smoke from a fire that was burning about 30 miles south, so thick that the mountains around us were shrouded from view and all we could see looking down the valley was a wretched, gray haze. Our eyes were watering from the smoke, our throats and lungs were raw.

I looked over Snow Toad’s site. “That’s kind of a crappy spot. And besides, there are no other spots for the rest of us.”

“Not my problem,” said Snow Toad, pulling the pieces of his tent out of his pack.

“Just hang on a moment, Snow Toad, while I scout around that corner over there.” I was really hoping that I wouldn’t have to pitch my tent on a little flat spot between a bunch of boulders, where I would spend the night rolling around uncomfortably trying to find a position that did not include a small rock pressing into my hip or between my shoulder blades.

“Fine. You go get in touch with your feminine side looking for just the ‘right’ spot. I ain’t moving.” Snow Toad pulled his bear bin out of his pack and set it on the ground.

From where we were, barren, rocky ground sloped gently down to Whitney Creek on one side, and a steep wooded slope climbed up to the top of a small knoll on the other. The wind was blowing cold up the canyon so it was cold down by the creek, but there was no place up in the trees to set up camp. I clambered up and down the lower reaches of the knoll, but found nothing. But about 200 yards to the east of Snow Toad’s boulder, the higher ground of the knoll wrapped around to the south, creating a natural break between the flat, open shelf along the creek and the higher ground around Guitar Lake. The breeze seemed to subside here, and there were a few very nice tent spots situated far enough from the creek to be legitimate. I returned to Snow Toad’s boulder.

“I found a much nicer spot. Good tent sites, good water access, little bit out of the wind, room for all of us.”

“I ain’t moving.” Snow Toad was sitting on his bear bin, his best obstinate expression on his face.

“Fine,” I said. “If you want to huddle behind your boulder out in the cold, swirling wind, shrouded by smoke and a sense of manly righteousness, you be my guest. I’ll take the nicer spot.” I picked up my pack and started back to the end of the shelf.

Don and Christopher had remained silent through all this, huddled behind a rock to stay out of the wind. Don was looking much better for having a bit of rest, and he and Christopher, who, like me, would have been left with a substandard tent site, quickly followed.

“All right. Fine,” Snow Toad growled. If you’re all moving, I guess I’ll move, too. But this spot better be better, or I’m coming right back.”

At that particular moment, I was sort of hoping that Snow Toad would hate the site I had found so that he’d go back to his god-forsaken boulder and stew in righteous misery. Fortunately, even though my mind was behaving in a juvenile way, my mouth had the good sense to remain closed. How often does that happen?

We set up camp in silence, each of us concentrating on getting the job done. Well, not quite in silence. Don and Christopher were sharing a tent and stove on this trip, so they were talking about pitching the tent, and getting water, and what to have for dinner. Snow Toad and I each had our own tent, our own stove, our own food, and our own simply grumpy demeanor, so we were working in silence.

Excellent camping.

The mood around camp improved as the afternoon wore on. The smoke started to blow off to the east and south, and the air quality was no longer toxic. By the time the sun started to set, the smoke had mostly disappeared, with just enough fine particulate in the air to make for a really nice sunset.

Nice sunset.
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We had seen this same pattern the previous two nights, although the air quality was much worse on Wednesday than on either of the two previous days. Our first night (Monday) was spent in a grove of trees near the junction between the Pacific Crest Trail and the Siberian Pass Trail, about eight miles from the trailhead. Just below the grove of trees was a large meadow that straddled Siberian Pass Creek. The creek was barely a trickle that high up, but we were glad to have even that little bit of water. Fishing was out of the question. Don was suffering from altitude sickness, a condition that was made much worse by blowing up his air mattress. It takes a lot of breaths to fill an air mattress at 10,000 feet. The only good news in the whole sorry episode was that since he had blown up his mattress, Don had something soft to lie down on when he passed out. The smoke was not so thick that first evening, and it cleared out quickly as the sun went down and the breeze shifted from blowing uphill to blowing down as the night cooled off.

Tuesday night found us camped next to an even smaller trickle just north of Guyot Flat. Fishing was even more out of the question. In fact, we had to build a small dam to create a pool large enough to fill our water bottles. The dry conditions were surprising considering how much snow we received the previous winter, but I guess in an average snow year, this unnamed trickle would have been dry by the first week of August. On the plus side, the fact that Fickle Trickle did not flow reliably meant that our campsite was pristine, with lots of forest duff under the trees.

Map of the Whitney Adventure, 2011.

We did not reach that campsite on the second day until 4:00 in the afternoon, and the smoke was so thick that Mount Guyot, barely a mile to the south, was largely obscured. Despite the late hour, I sat down to make coffee as soon as my tent was set up. The view of the meadow from our campsite was pleasant, and the shrouded sky added to the sense of isolation created by the pristine campsite. Christopher joined me on the rock overlooking the meadow. I was pleased to have the company, and even more pleased that Christopher was starting to feel comfortable. The first day and half, his face was frozen in place, trying to mask the abject terror he must have been feeling about his decision to join his dad and two really old guys on an eight-day trip. You know that feeling, when you get yourself into something and all you can think is, “What the Hell was I thinking?!” I’m pretty sure that’s what was going through Christopher’s mind. Heck, I am one of the old guys, and that thought goes through my mind every time I get up in the morning and realize who I am traveling with.
__________________     __________________

As we watched the sunset fill the western sky on Wednesday night from our campsite below Guitar Lake, we could only hope that the next day would be clear. The sky had been clear on Wednesday morning, just like the previous two days. The smoke didn’t start to blow in until the sun warmed the air. So we could not feel confident that the smoke would not return Thursday afternoon when we were scaling the peak.

The last thing we wanted was to be like the young lady with the ring in her nose that we met on the trail from Crabtree to Guitar Lake. She was hiking the Pacific Crest Trail by herself, so we knew this young lady was made of much sterner stuff than we. How much sterner we were about to discover. She had climbed Mt. Whitney on Tuesday afternoon, but the smoke was so thick that there was no view. So, knowing that she wouldn’t have another chance to climb the peak, she spent the night by herself under an emergency blanket on the floor of the little cabin at the top of the mountain.

“Yeah, it was kind of cold and uncomfortable,” she admitted, “but the view this morning when the sun came up was totally worth it!” Her big, brown eyes were glowing so bright as she recalled the moment that the ring in her nose began to glow as well. The effect was at once captivating and creepy, and I can honestly say that if you can make the ring in your nose glow from your x-ray vision, you probably don’t have to worry too much about the rats and bugs and other creepy-crawlies that inhabit the floor of an empty mountain cabin.

Despite the uncertainty about the conditions the next day, or perhaps because of the uncertainty, we were a nervous and excited bunch as we honed our plans. Don and Christopher were methodically preparing their packs for the next morning, and Snow Toad was bouncing around, barely able to contain himself. I was wandering about, trying to figure out what I would need for the 10-mile hike to the summit and back, mulling over in my mind the plan that had been outlined by Don and Snow Toad.

“You want to get up at 4:00 in the morning?” I was incredulous. “How about 5:30?”

“Nope,” said Don, “we want to be hiking by 5:00.”

“Besides, you won’t be able to sleep!” Snow Toad hopped from one foot to the other, as if his hyperactivity could somehow make it morning now. “We’ll wake you at 4:00. This is going to be great!”

We all retired early, but as Snow Toad predicted, sleep was elusive. I must have drifted off eventually, because I was startled awake by Don’s announcement that it was 4:00 a.m. I am a bit hazy on the details, but a couple of things really stand out about that situation. The first is that 4:00 a.m. is really early. The second is that at 11,300 feet, 4:00 a.m. is really cold. I think Snow Toad slept in his clothes and would have started hiking at 4:01, but there was no way I was going anywhere without coffee and breakfast. So we all had breakfast and watched the procession of lights way in the distance along the ridge between Trail Crest and Whitney. By 5:00 a.m. my traveling companions were ready to go. By 5:10 Snow Toad was chewing gravel and spitting out sand. This did not help me concentrate my early-morning sensibilities. But by 5:20 I had my things sorted out, and by 5:30 we were on the trail.

The sun was just filtering into the eastern sky as we hoisted our packs and left camp. Christopher had gone on a scouting mission the previous afternoon, discovering a use trail that would take us up Whitney Creek to the outlet from Guitar Lake, and from there to the main trail. Finding the main trail would not have been a problem—we knew it was off to the north somewhere—but his discovery saved a good bit of trouble scrambling over the rocks in the dim morning light to get there.

Guitar Lake is on the western side of the monolithic escarpment that reaches its crest in Mt. Whitney, so there was no direct sun to warm us up on our climb up to Trail Junction. Normally hiking uphill would be enough, but our packs were light and the air was cold. Really cold. So cold that there were little patches of ice on the puddles along the trail. And it was late July! This actually makes for very productive hiking conditions. Too cold to stop, so you just keep going.

The trail to the junction with the Whitney trail is a marvel of trail building, climbing the dizzying heights one incremental switchback at a time. Of course, there are moments when it feels as though you are perched on the edge of the abyss—one false step and you are back at the bottom in an instant—but overall the trail is not particularly frightening. But it is up and up and up. From our camp (11,300 feet) to the junction (13,484) is about three miles and 2,200 feet of elevation, with half of the elevation gain in just the last half-mile. Yet, somehow, it is not a hard climb. 

Guitar Lake.

The view is spectacular, more so as you climb. Hitchcock Lakes reside in frigid blue splendor in the deep bowl between Mt. Hitchcock to the west and Discovery Pinnacle to the east, windswept and barren. The color of the light filtering over the ridge changes with each switchback, from the purple gloom of first light, to the bright red of sunrise, and then an ever-brightening rainbow of colors, as the sun climbs higher in the sky and you climb higher up the mountain. The Great Western Divide, on the western side of the Kern River, emerges slowly from the inky depths of night, morning light first coloring just the jagged white teeth of the mountain tops, and slowly flowing downhill to reveal the black-bearded slopes below the tree line. In the Whitney Creek Valley, the structure of the landscape is slowly revealed by the contoured shadows, the mountains alive with the motion of the sun, a daily dance that has been performed for eons. 

Excellent view.

Trail Junction is where east meets west and both paths join the high ridge trail that climbs to the top Mt. Whitney. Most of the traffic to the top of the mountain comes from Whitney Portal on the eastern side. Crazy people do the hike from Whitney Portal (8,365 feet elevation) to the top of Whitney (14,495 feet) and back in a day—22 miles round trip and over 6,000 feet up and 6,000 feet down. It is a brutal hike. More than two-thirds of the people who try to climb the mountain in a day do not make it. Our day was half that, plus we had been at elevation for several days before attempting the climb. It is a much more civilized way to do it.

There was very little traffic on the trail from Guitar Lake to Trail Junction. This was surprising since we were climbing the mountain at high season, and many of those who might have gone earlier in the year would have been deterred by the snow cover that had persisted in many places until mid July. I would have expected at least some of those folks to be trying to make up for lost time. But for whatever reason, we had the slope pretty much to ourselves, and that suited us just fine.

There were many surprises that day, but one of the most endearing was a beautiful little flower known as “Sky Pilot”, which only grows at very high elevations. It appears fragile, like it would blow away in the first big gust of wind, and yet it clings to the rocks with graceful ease, a reminder that life is extraordinary and robust, even if fragile. A ranger I spoke with later told me that in the early days of the Sierra Club, hikers would bring back a Sky Pilot to prove that they had climbed some tall peak, and that the practice actually threatened the species. Fortunately, that is no longer accepted practice, because the extinction of such a beautiful life would surely be a tragedy.

Sky Pilot.

The air was very cold at Trail Junction, and all four of us stopped to put on more clothing. From the junction, it is only 1.9 miles to the top of Mt. Whitney, and we all set off in high spirits. Snow Toad, in fact, was positively giddy—if I had wanted to run, he would have wanted to run just a little bit faster. Don had kept up a good pace climbing to the junction, but the cold air and the altitude were starting to take their toll. Christopher would have been prepared to outrun both Snow Toad and me, but with his dad suffering from the altitude, he wanted to hang back with his dad.

The trek from Trail Junction to the top of Whitney may be only 1.9 miles, but is a long 1.9 miles. We finally started to encounter some traffic on the trail, and there are numerous spots along the way where single file is the only option. The trail trends mostly up, but there are also plenty of places where one has to climb down to climb back up. Snow Toad and I were hiking together when we came to what is probably the spookiest spot along the trail, a narrow bridge with a near-vertical chute of slick granite on the east side, and a 65 degree slope of scree and talus on the other. The bridge was not more than 20 feet long, and easily 4 feet wide at its narrowest point, but it was still a bit unnerving, especially because the breeze was quite brisk blowing through the gap. Until now, we had the benefit of a solid wall on one side, which did nothing to prevent tumbling to our doom on the other, but it was a psychological comfort and also meant that there was no frigid wind tearing at our clothing and messing with our balance.

On the trail to Trail Junction.

The trail follows a northerly direction for most of its length, but hangs a left to the west at Keeler Needle, and then a sharp right back east about a quarter mile later. It was in this section between Keeler Needle and the sharp right that we encountered the last bit of snow on the trail. The drift was only 100 yards long, perhaps not even that, but it was a real bottleneck with one-way traffic through the well-worn groove over most of its length. This whole section of trail was in bright sun, but the air was still cold and the snow was icy. Snow Toad and I had to wait while a party of four cleared the snowfield, and once we had started, the snowfield was ours and everybody else just waited patiently for their turn. There were no written rules, that I know of, yet the snow crossing was orderly, and no one seemed to be too troubled about the inconvenience.

With less than a quarter of a mile to go, I was determined to ignore the pounding in my head, but each step was a labored effort. We were at about 14,000 feet, and finally I told Snow Toad that I had to stop and take some ibuprofen before continuing. Snow Toad stopped briefly, looked at me, and said, “I can’t stop. I gotta go. I’m just so excited that I think I might burst…” He had been bouncing from one foot to the other, just like the night before, and without waiting for a response, he turned back around and ran the last quarter of a mile to the top.

That last quarter mile was really tough. My head still hurt, and there was no speed slow enough to avoid the pounding in my temples. I must have looked distressed, too. But assistance often comes in unexpected ways. I had climbed on a rock to let two hikers pass. The first one said, “You’re almost there!” Her smile was encouraging. Her hiking partner added, “You can see the smokestack on the cabin from here.” He was pointing up the hill. And that was all I needed. I was within 100 vertical feet of the top, and I was going to get there, even if I had to crawl. My head still hurt, but all that mattered was making the summit.

This was the culmination of six months of talking, three months of planning, two weeks of shopping, and one unspoken decision that we had each independently reached while driving to the trailhead. Our original plan was to hike cross-country through Miter Basin to get to the mountain, and if we summited, cool, but the trip was really about getting there. But as the trip grew closer, Mt. Whitney became the objective. I decided that if the other guys wanted to do the cross-country trip, that would be okay, but I was going to hoof it to the mountain. When I told Snow Toad of this, he said that he had decided the same thing, and so too had Don. 

Top of the mountain, the world beneath our feet.

The cabin at the top of Whitney is a curiosity. I knew there was a cabin, I’d even seen pictures, but still its presence seemed an oddity. The cabin was larger than I expected, a testament to the enduring popularity of the destination. The cabin was completed in 1909 with funding from the Smithsonian Institution, just five years after the completion of the first trail to the summit. The current trail took two years to build and was completed in September 1930. So the summit of Mt. Whitney has been a place of regular activity for a long time. It is not wilderness, even though it is a wilderness destination, but it is still very cool.

There were seven people at the summit when I arrived, and one of them was Snow Toad. Don and Christopher arrived about ten minutes after me. It was 9:30 in the morning. By then, two of the other folks had left, and a short time later, so did the other four. For 15 minutes that morning, we had the entire summit to ourselves, and every other one of the 320 million Americans who live in the lower 48 states (as well as everyone in Hawaii and almost all of those living in Alaska) “are beneath the bottom of my boots,” as Snow Toad put it.

The air temperature could not have been more than 40 degrees, but the bright sun chased the cold away, and there was no wind to speak of. It was glorious! The skies were clear, the view uninterrupted in every direction. We could see a bit of residual smoke in the Owens Valley, and on the far western horizon, beyond Kaweah Peaks, a few wispy clouds were taking up residence. Neither the smoke nor the clouds were much to blemish the spectacle from the summit, and I suspect we were all relieved to know that we would not have to huddle under an emergency blanket in the cabin overnight to get our chance to see the view. I cannot speak authoritatively for the other guys, but I know I don’t have x-ray vision, and would have had to worry about the creepy-crawlies on the floor of a mountain cabin.

Our timing could not have been better. We hit a small seam, a gap between the early-morning crazies, and the late-morning throngs of people who had started from either Whitney Portal or Trail Camp on the eastern side. As we gathered our gear, they started to filter in, a few here, a few there, but it was clear that the summit was going to be one big high-altitude rave for the rest of the day.

We encountered no fewer than 150 people who were hiking from Trail Junction to the summit as we were hiking down. They came in a variety of shapes and sizes, some well provisioned, others not, a few looking like they were having fun, about a third of them looking rather sick from the altitude and the exertion. Some of the hikers were friendly, some all business, some a bit of both. At one point all four of us were hiking together, and we all stepped aside (to the uphill side, of course) to let a man and a woman pass. He raised his hand in thanks, but didn’t even break stride. The woman who was trailing behind saw this as a chance to stop for a moment.

“How much farther? Lie to me if it’s more than a quarter mile. I hate hiking uphill.”

“It’s about a quarter mile,” said Snow Toad. “Maybe a long quarter mile.”

“That’s what I figured,” she grunted. “I don’t know how he talked me into this. I hate hiking uphill. But I’m gonna kick his ass going downhill. I always kick his ass going downhill.”

The man, who had stopped about 20 yards up the trail, shouted, “Shut up, woman. Hike!”

The woman snorted in disgust, but she started hiking again. “Don’t you tell me to shut up. You ain’t gonna get any tonight. I’m gonna kick your ass going down, and you ain’t gonna get any.”

“You always say that,” replied the man. “Now let’s go.”

“Yeah, but I mean it this time…” As they hiked away we could hear them continue to jabber back and forth. This had been going on for a long time, probably years.

“Let’s go,” said Don with a smile. “I’m gonna kick your asses going down.”

“No news there,” I said. “Everybody kicks my ass going down.”

As we were approaching Trail Junction, we ran across a guy who was climbing the peak with his 10-year-old daughter. We had met these same folks three days earlier as we were hiking in at Cottonwood Pass. They had spent the night at Chicken Spring Lake, which is just west of the pass, to start getting acclimated. Their plan was to hike out, spend Monday night at the Cottonwood Pass trailhead, spend the next night at Whitney Portal, the following night at Trail Camp, and then climb the peak on Thursday. This seemed a mighty ambitious agenda for a 10-year old girl, but the dad didn’t appear overly concerned with making the summit. If they made it, great, if not, they would have a good time anyway.

Both of them appeared comfortable and happy to be hiking, with no ill effects of the altitude, and no grumbling about the hardship. The time was getting on toward 11:00 in the morning, or just about as late as you would want to be making the ascent with another mile and a half to go. Small, puffy white clouds were starting to form in the western sky, and the top of Mt. Whitney (or anywhere along the ridge trail) is not a place to be in an afternoon thunderstorm. So the closer we got to Trail Junction, the more harried and uncomfortable the oncoming hikers appeared. Whether they got a late start or were just not quite up to the task I can’t say, but the easygoing dad and the happy 10-year-old daughter stood out in sharp contrast to the late tide of the sick and the disgruntled.

On the hike down.

We reached Trail Junction just shy of 11:30 a.m., and left behind the eastern hordes as we headed back to our camp along Whitney Creek. The sun was now high in the sky, the landscape transformed by the bright light of day. Even now, traffic on the trail was scarce, but as we neared Guitar Lake, the crowds I had been expecting finally materialized. There were big groups and small groups, and every flat—or sort of flat—space, no matter how small, sported a brightly colored tent of one size or another, several of them two stories tall. The whole lake was a rabbit warren of people, crammed into every available spot. So it was with a sense of profound relief that the four of us rolled into our own campsite, a vast site that might very well be confused for wilderness given the lack of noisy neighbors and views uninterrupted by a small city of tents. It was 2:00 in the afternoon.

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