Mt. Whitney, California (14,496')
July 25-26, 1997
My hiking partner, Brad, and I met at my house in Encino at 3:30pm and transferred his gear into my Subaru station wagon. We hit the highway at 3:47pm and headed north on the I-405 to I-5 and took Route 14 out into the Mojave Desert towards Lancaster. We stopped for gas in the small desert town of Mojave, and continued on until the 14 turned into Route 395 North towards Bishop (this highway parallels the California/Nevada border). At 6:40pm (69.4 mph average) we pulled into the Lone Pine visitor's center to ask about camping areas. Although we had our day hiking permits, we had not researched the camping opportunities in the area. We were told that there were several campgrounds in the area, but the ones closest to the trailhead would be full. We drove the 13 miles up to the trailhead and found that the ranger was correct, the topmost campgrounds were full, so we descended to another, lower campground to scout for a location for Brad to pitch his tent (I intended to sleep in the back of my station wagon). After looking around, we decided that it would probably be wiser to both camp in the car up at the Whitney Portal in the trailhead parking lot so that we might acclimate better at the higher elevation (8,361'). We checked the area out, finding the trailhead behind some large displays.
We figured that I could stretch out as planned in the back of the car, folding half of the back seat down and leave the other half up, so that Brad could recline in the passenger seat. It worked surprisingly well, and he swears that he was comfortable.
At 8:30pm we finally had all our gear prepared for our early departure. At about 9:00pm a very energetic group of Boy Scouts parked next to us and, among other things, kept shaking my car, waking us up. After three bumps, I asked one of the senior boys to ask his troops to please stop hitting my car. He said he was sorry and asked the guys to knock it off. About two minutes later we heard a metal-on-metal sound and felt a slight bump. I looked around without my glasses on, and could just barely see a flashlight on my hood. I got out of the car to find that a scout was sorting the contents of his back on the hood of my new car! My anger was apparent and the scouts soon left, but they really didn't seem like they cared one way or another. The highlight of my yelling at them was when "the sorter" said, "uh, sorry man, but I didn't realize there was anyone in the car, I wouldn't have done it if I'd known". His lack of caring was impenetrable even with my 30-second lecture of the value of personal property and what Boy Scouts were supposed to act like (I even recalled a few of the 12 things a Scout is supposed to be: courteous, kind, obident..blah, blah, blah). Knowing that my car would be left alone in the parking lot for 12+ hours the next day had me fearing retribution.
My watch alarm woke us at 2:30am. We left the car at 3:02am and began the 10.8 mile ascent of the tallest mountain in the non-Alaskan USA (14,496'). Since it wouldn't be light out for 2.5 hours, we wore headlamps to start our trip.
The first 1/2 mile went quickly and we soon enered the John Muir Wilderness (8,480'). At 2 miles, small springs run along the trail but I didn't see them because it was dark.
The trail switchback its way up the canyon towards the summit. After 1 hour and 9 minutes (and a small creek crossing), we reached Lone Pine Lake (2.4 miles, 9,645' or is it 9,420'?). The trail flattened out here and we enjoyed a quick hike (24 minutes) to Outpost Camp (3.8 miles, 10,365'). From there, the trail headed up again, into many switchbacks over large smooth rocks overlooking the ever-present water falls and creek that the trail followed. We lost the trail for a few minutes in the meadow before we came across a few tents.
At 4:54am we reached Mirror Lake (4.3 miles, 10,640'). By this time the sun had started to creep above the mountains to the east, but it wouldn't pop over the mountains until about 5:30am. With headlamps still lit, we pressed on through Trailside Meadows (5.0 miles, 11,395') to Trail Camp (6.2 miles, 12,000') and this is where we parted ways. Brad is a very strong hiker and although I'm no slow-poke, he excels at switchbacks up steep terrain.
He set a fast pace as I followed his lead up the first of 96 switchbacks to Trail Crest. This, for me, was the worse part of the climb. I counted only 92 switchbacks, but it seemed like ten times that. I had slowed to a turtle crawl by the top, it took me 2 hours and 13 minutes to go 3.2 miles, and I was feeling a little less coordinated then when I had begun the trek. There was a minor amount of snow and ice on a few parts of the switchbacks, primarily in the vicinity of the section with the cables.
As I reached the notch called Trail Crest (where the trail switched from the east side to the west side of the mountain at 8.2 miles, 13,000'), a guy sitting there asked (with concern) if I was doing alright. I must have looked dogged tired and I know that he had noticed me stumbling a little coming into his view. I told him the truth: I was feeling a little light-headed, I knew that my feet were a little off from what my eyes and brain were telling them to do, and that I had lost my appetite, but that I was feeling better now that I was off those darn switchbacks! I rested briefly and began the traverse over to the summit, 800 feet higher and 2.5 miles distant.
There was a small "Entering Sequoia National Park" sign and a reminder that dogs were not allowed (?).
The Kern River Valley opened up to my left, some 10,000 feet below. It was truly worth the entire hike just to see that from the Trail Crest. As I wound my way around rock pinnacles and past windows to the east, Keeler's Needle got closer. I had originally wanted to attempt Mt. Muir (14,015') if I was going strong on the way back down, but I knew I'd have to save that for another trip. Those two minor peaks were the most spectacular thing to me. From the east they appear to be fingers or needles to the south of Whitney, but from the west side Keeler's Needle is wedge-shaped and covered with large rocks. I've read that a person can scramble to the top of Mt. Muir in about a half an hour, but I wasn't ready to do that this time. At 1.9 miles from the summit, the trail splits when it meets the John Muir Trail (8,.7 miles, 13,480'), the "high road" heads to the summit, the "low road" is the John Muir Trail which descends to the valley below. I later learned that Brad had missed this sign and descended for about 10 minutes before he realized his mistake.
I reached the summit approach at about 9:50am, just as Brad was coming down from 40 minutes on top. He said he was very cold and couldn't wait any longer. I gave him our SPF45 sun block and offered the car keys to him, but he figured that since I was a much faster downhiller than him, I'd catch up with him on the trail down. The approach to the summit had a little snow on it (I talked to a guy in early June and he had reported a lot of snow on the trail), but I reached the rocky top at 10:16am, 7 hours and 14 minutes after I had begun. The rock hut provided 10 minutes of rest where I talked to some 20-year-old technical climbers who had scaled the east face the day before. I also talked to some other hikers as we all took each other's obligatory summit photos (see photo). As I began my decent, a ranger asked to see my permit, I told him that my hiking partner had it & that he probably just saw it on his was up. The Ranger seemed ok with that answer and I kept going. Frank, a 48-year-old hiker was in a hurry to get down to meet his 18-year-old daughter at the parking lot. Apparently, she had aborted her summit bid a few hours before reaching the top, succumbing to altitude sickness. Frank and I jogged most of the way back to Trail Crest (2.5 miles, 13,714') in 55 minutes. I rested here and ate part of a nectarine before hitting the switchbacks to Trail Camp. Sixty two minutes later, I entered the long & narrow trail Camp at 12,000 feet. I rested here for 10 minutes before continuing towards Mirror Lake. This is where my strength began to fade significantly, it took me an hour to get down what had taken me only 1 hour 23 minutes to get up. Just above Mirror Lake I ran into the second Ranger. He asked to see my permit so I explained to him that Brad had it & had left me at the top. He looked me up on a three page list he carried and we talked for a while about hiking, working for the Park Service, the Boy Scouts from last night and other stuff. He was checking almost everyone who walked by for permits. I unzipped the legs from my pants because it was getting hot at the lower elevations.
At the bottom of the rock, 4.2 miles from the parking lot, was Mirror Lake and a whole bunch of people resting. Most of them were arranging their packs or having a snack and one pair of men were taking pictures. I said hi to them and mentioned that there was a ranger only a few hundred feet ahead on the trail. The man with the camera stopped and asked how I got by him. I told him I was coming down the mountain and that I had a partial photocopy of my permit. He asked if he could have it, explaining that he and his partner were hiking here on their way to Mammoth tomorrow. He was dressed in bluejeans, a sweater and not at all looking like he should have even made it in this far. He asked if I could get them through, then asked which way the Ranger was headed. When I said "up" he looked relieved, but when I mentioned the ranger who had checked my permit on the summit, he looked bummed. I told him I was running late and left.
Ten minutes later I cruised through Outpost Camp and talked to a sweet grandmotherly woman who told Brad (on his way through) that she'd climbed Whitney 22 times! We chatted for a minute and then I was off. She called me back and said "there's an old man just below us on the trail. Please don't talk to him, he loves to talk and I'm tired of waiting for him". I said "ok". I decided to jog past the man, but when I approached and waved, he asked if I was a ranger and something else, I quickly (but politely) just said "no, I'm not" and kept going. I kind of felt bad, but the woman told me not to talk to him.
Somehow, I missed the lake and came upon a few people travelling in a group of four. They were moving slow and I asked to pass, they were friendly and stepped aside. Below them I came across a man in his fifties carrying a big pack. I said "hi" and walked past. Five minutes later he comes running down the trail past me then slowed down and said hi. He explained that he was right by Keeler's Needle when he came upon a man who was violently vomiting from altitude sickness. He agreed to give up his summit bid to carry the guy's daypack down (this daypack must have weighed 40 pounds!). He told me that he'd attempted Whitney three times only to fail due to helping some sick person out each time! He didn't seem bitter or anything, just amazed that people would attempt Whitney with a 40 pound daypack. He said he'd try again some other time. He'd left an hour later than I did that morning, and stopped about 40 minutes short of the summit, so I estimated that we were about the same strength hiker. He rested as I hustled down the last mile or so.
The parking lot came into view but it seemed to take forever to descend to it's elevation. Finally at 3:36pm, I was back at the car. Brad had been down about an hour and cleaned up a little. We immediately headed to Lone Pine for some food. We tried to go to the "Seasons" restaurant, then the AAA-rated Steak house, but both were closed until 5:00pm. We walked across the street to "Mt. Whitney Restaurant" where the side of the building claims the best burgers in town. We were taken by surprise as we got out of the car - it must have been 100 degrees down in the lowlands! The food was good, the service was, well, present.
We got some gas on the way out of Lone Pine and traced our route 200 miles back to Encino, arriving at 8:00pm, three hours after we left.