| Mt. Whitney
Date Climbed: July 5, 2010 (single-day climb)
Route: Up Mountaineer's Route and down the standard Mt. Whitney Trail
Trailhead: Whitney Portal, just 20 minutes from Lone Pine, California
Total Elevation Gain: More than 6,300 feet (includes ups and downs on both routes)
Total Distance of Loop: Almost 18 miles
Times, for reference:
Start, Whitney Portal Trailhead, Mountaineer's Route: 4 a.m.
Lower Boy Scout Lake: 6 a.m.
Upper Boy Scout Lake: 7 a.m.
Iceberg Lake: 8 a.m.
Summit: 10:30 a.m.
Descent from Summit, standard Mt. Whitney Trail: 11 a.m.
Finish, Whitney Portal Trailhead: 4 p.m.
*Some images in this trip report will enlarge if you click on them.
I have never seen so many inexperienced, poorly conditioned, unprepared and inadequately equipped people on one mountain in my entire life. I'm not saying I'm the most experienced climber or that Mt. Whitney's standard, Class 1 trail is the most difficult, but the percentage of newbies that we came across was staggering.
As I've learned, Mt. Whitney's prestigious summit, which is the highest point in the United States excluding Alaska, attracts all sorts of people. Most of them didn't seem to treat the mountain with the respect that it deserves. They treated it more like a Disneyland attraction.
As one sign so eloquently warns: "Your mountaineering career does not begin on Mount Whitney. Learning about mountaineering starts elsewhere … Mount Whitney is not a useless exploit at the limit of lacking any respect … Visitors without proper skills, knowledge, equipment, and experience have died here."
Adding to the elusive and exclusive nature of the mountain's summit, you literally have to win a lottery to even get the opportunity to attempt it. Last year, Jen and I applied for an overnight permit but didn't "win" one, even though we submitted at least 15 open weekends.
We were luckier this year. After applying for a day pass (which has better odds) way back in February of this year, we "won" a permit for July 5.
At 3 a.m. we rolled out of bed in our cheap hotel room in the lonely town of Lone Pine, California. As I lifted myself from the sawdust-filled pillow, I immediately noticed a painful kink in my neck. I was hoping I could just shake it off, but it hurt so bad I couldn't turn or tilt my head to the right more than 10 degrees for the rest of the day. It wasn't a good way to start a tough climb.
People always talk about how mountain climbing requires a lot of physical strength and mental prowess, and I agree with that analysis, but I think it also requires the ability to endure a lot of pain and to perform at your best for a long period of time -- on just a few hours of sleep.
After wolfing down some Lunchables, a Starbucks Doubleshot, some Muscle Milk and a few swigs of a yogurt smoothie, we drove the 20 minutes to the Whitney Portal trailhead.
Knowing what I know about bears, and hearing it again from a Ranger the previous day, we made sure our car was completely devoid of any scents. We even threw out some of our toiletries and carried our toothbrushes with us on the trail. And even after all that, we still found a warning note on our windshield, post-climb, because we left a water bottle at the foot of the passenger seat. Apparently, bears have associated all sorts of bottles and coolers with food, so just the sight of them is enough incentive for them to rip the doors off cars.
By 4 a.m. we were on the trail. It was warm enough for shorts, a long sleeve and light gloves, which was a relief from the previous day, when temps reached 114 while driving through Death Valley.
Not far up the trail, I started to feel the weight of my 21-pound pack digging into my shoulders and I knew it was going to be a long day.
Based on all the trip reports, route descriptions and guide books we read (which were mostly vague and conflicting), our turn-off from the standard Mt. Whitney Trail was just before the second stream crossing. As a backup, I pre-loaded a GPX file of the Mountaineer's Route onto my GPS.
At the second stream (but third or fourth water crossing), we noticed a trail leading up the slope, sharp right, so we took it. Within a matter of minutes, our route was deviating wildly from the GPX file's route, but the trail was really obvious and easy to follow, so we continued along. We suspected that the trail had been updated recently, so the GPX file was probably out of date.
With our headlamps guiding our way, we pushed on up the steep trail without too much trouble. And as I mentioned, the trail was pretty easy to follow.
After crossing a stream and getting sprayed by a nearby waterfall, the trail funneled us to the base of the Ebersbacher Ledges. And when the trail ended abruptly between the churning creek to our left and a big wall of rock to our right, we made a right U-turn onto the ledge.
I've read and heard a lot about the infamous Ebersbacher Ledges, but I didn't find them very intimidating. Even in the dark. And in the few spots where they were a little exposed, the rock was solid and the climbing was easy (disclaimer: This is just my opinion and it's coming from someone who's comfortable on exposed, class 3 rock).
As the sun rose behind us, the beauty of the area gradually unfolded before us.
And then the alpenglow began to illuminate the rock faces.
Approaching Upper Boy Scout Lake:
Upper Boy Scout Lake (campers near the shore, lower-right):
Pushing on … and pushing up:
After crossing a few patches of snow and a Class 2 block of rock, we made it to Iceberg Lake.
A look up at our next objective (Class 3 bypass is the snow/rock on the left):
We opted for the snow, but the deep sun cups were an impediment to our progress.
Working our way up the snow:
Finally, about halfway up the couloir, or maybe two-thirds up, we hit dry rock.
The gully became a little nasty toward the top, but we've climbed much worse in Colorado. Still, we were extra careful not to kick rocks down on the group of climbers below us.
When we finally made it to the notch, I shot this overlapping, six-photo pan (the Class 3 route starts at the bottom-center and goes up abruptly to the left):
The first move is rather tricky (see SusanJoyPaul's trip report, where she lifts her leg to her ear). Jen made it up with just a little trouble. I'm not so acrobatic, so I traversed around to easier rock.
Beyond that first hop up, we discovered a glorious, Class 3 playland of rock to ascend. Nothing too difficult. Nothing too easy. Just a magical section of sticky and solid rock that was loads of fun (BTW, most sources say that this section, from the notch to the summit, is about 400 feet of vertical, but I thought it was more like 200 to 300 feet, at most.)
Here's a three-photo pan I took (the dark-looking rock in the middle was coated in black ice):
At about 10:30 a.m. we made the summit, under perfect skies and calm winds.
FINALLY! Decent weather on a mountain! What a novelty for us!
Honestly, it felt really good to gain such a tough summit. And we both felt great … and we had a lot of energy left to burn. The views weren't too shabby, either.
Iceberg Lake from the summit (three-photo vertical pan):
After chatting with some friendly people on the summit for about a half hour, we began our long descent down the standard Mt. Whitney trail.
I knew we had 11 miles left to go, but it was still a hard number to wrap my mind around.
Meanwhile, the views continued to blow us away.
While working our way down the trail, I noticed a guy hunched over, with body language that screamed altitude sickness. And just as we approached him (and his friend, who was standing nearby), he puked up at least a pint of dark red-brown sludge.
Knowing how far we were from civilization, and realizing how serious of a situation they were in, I stopped.
With sludge still dripping from his mouth, the guy said, "I don't think I should go on any farther." Smart guy, I thought to myself, because he was still at least a mile or two from the summit and almost 10 miles from civilization.
But then his friend said, "I just puked too, and now I feel much better." Not a smart guy, I thought to myself, because while puking may make you feel better temporarily, it makes you dehydrated, and dehydration leads to more altitude sickness.
Normally I don't impose in situations like this, but my conscience wouldn't allow me to just walk on by in this case. So I warned them about dehydration. The puker's friend immediately took a sip of water, but I don't think he planned to turn around.
I've seen a lot of unprepared people on Colorado peaks, but I've never seen someone so bad off, and so far from a trailhead. I thought it was just a fluke encounter, but as we continued down the trail, we kept coming across one climbing zombie after another, with glassy eyes and painful looks on their faces. Some didn't even respond to us when we said hello to them.
One guy asked us how far it was to the summit. In an attempt to give him the best beta possible, we told him we left the summit an hour earlier, but that we hike pretty fast (and we were going down), so it would probably take him more than an hour to the top. He responded rudely by saying, "That's not possible; it's less than that to the top." Nice guy, I thought.
Here's a pan I took … Trail Crest is behind the hump … red arrows indicate the trail:
Junction of the John Muir Trail (drops lower-right) and the Whitney Trail (goes around the bend):
After making it over Trail Crest, which required some annoying elevation gain, we considered taking the snow chute down to bypass many switchbacks. But the snow was already soft and wet, and I figured postholing might become an issue farther down. Not to mention, the snow would've made us soaked, and with at least six or seven miles left to hike out, it wouldn't have been fun with wet pants.
So we continued down the never-ending switchbacks.
Pan with Jen lower-left and Whitney upper-right; I think the pointy peak up top is Mt. Muir:
The snaking switchbacks from hell really did go on forever. Here's a photo of just one short section of switchbacks (hiker in red):
When we got to the infamous cables section, where metal posts and cables assist hikers across a slab of rock, we had to wait for some hikers who were meticulously making their way across the short section of tramped-down and unexposed snow. When the lead hiker made it up to me, he said, "Man, I probably should've put on my crampons for that section." I thought he was just kidding, and I almost added to what I thought was a joke, but then I realized he was serious. I guess everyone has a different comfort zone.
Here's a photo of the 20-foot snow section at the cables (crampons really aren't necessary):
The rest of the cables section looked like this (not nearly as scary as people make it out to be):
Pan taken at the bottom of the "99 switchbacks":
As we continued to descend the trail, the scenery was amazingly beautiful. High, craggy peaks and half-frozen lakes seemed to be everywhere.
And as we descended down shelves and valleys, our surroundings became greener and wetter.
Three-photo pan of some trees towering over Jen at one switchback:
Waterfalls were also omnipresent:
The area was so colorful -- everything from rich rust to forest green to gunmetal grey. It was hard to fully appreciate it all, though, as we were becoming more and more tired.
The switchbacks picked up again, and they never ceased.
That is, until we finally made it back to the Portal at 4 p.m.
Thank god for the Portal Store, which is just yards away from the trailhead. This is where we gulped down bottles of water, Gatorade and Diet Coke, and inhaled a cheeseburger and fries.
I would've had some beers, too, but I thought I was going to have to drive back to Vegas that evening.
Just as the pain started to evaporate from our bodies, a family approached us with questions about the climb.
"We'd like to climb Whitney. Which route should we take?" they asked. "What clothes or stuff do we need?"
I did my best to answer their questions, even though I knew they had no idea what they were getting themselves into, and I just tried to beat the 22 MILES round-trip into their heads. Though I don't think they grasped the concept of just how far 22 miles really is.
Instead of driving back to Vegas that night, like we had originally planned, we decided it wasn't in the cards. So we booked a room at a hotel in Lone Pine, drank a pitcher of beer, and then crashed hard.
The next morning we drove back to Vegas to catch our flight back to Denver.
On the drive out from Lone Pine, I shot this photo (arrow points to Whitney):
Eager to make it back to the land of better beer, I pushed our rental car to 100 miles per hour on a few empty stretches in the desert. It was kind of exciting, but one can only get so excited while driving an Impala, and it still felt like we were only going 50.
Here's a shot of the entrance to Death Valley, just outside of Beatty:
After an extraordinarily turbulent flight into Denver, we encountered more puking people -- funny enough.
While waiting in my aisle seat for passengers to deplane, a young girl stood in the aisle right next to me with a plastic bag pressed against her face. Her father tried to console her while urging the people in front of them to move out of the way.
Unfortunately, time ran out, and the poor little girl began puking into the bag, just inches away from my head.
"This is the second time someone's puked next to me in as many days," I whispered to Jen.
I survived the puking girl, but then we walked right by a woman in the airport who was puking into a Chips Ahoy cookie bag.
I felt like I was back on the mountain.
Thumbnails for uploaded photos (click to open slideshow):