Friday, June 29, 2012

Mt. Whitney 2012: Chapter 6: The Adventure

The adventure started when we left Vegas Sunday morning after spending the prior three days there for my friend's wedding, which was spectacular, and filled with a whole lot of good times. We left early, around 8am, and we got some stops in as the stores opened up beyond the strip. We stopped at Whole Foods and Target for a few last items, and then we were cruising into the desert by 11:30am. Immediately, the ride was completely different, we were driving across Death Valley, something I've never seen anything like. We followed the easy directions, and found ourselves pulling into Lone Pine a few hours later, where you immediately see the nicely set Eastern Sierra Interagency Visitor Center right beneath Mt. Whitney.

We met a lovely woman named Julie, who was extremely helpful in getting us squared away with the permit. She looked it up in the system, and confirmed everything for us without a hitch. We got our wag-bags and bear canister too (next time I'll bring my own, it was huge and much heavier than expected).  As we left, and on the left, you could see Mt. Whitney and the jagged peaks, I couldn't believe it. Then I noticed how the American Flag was just perfectly in the way, flying in front of them as we walked back to the car, what a country, what a sight, and what an adventure this was already.

We stopped at Elevation on Main Street, an outfitter in Lone Pine, to pick up freeze dried food and two gas canisters. Thankfully they had a decent mix of the freeze dried food we liked. Now we were off to Horseshoe Meadow Road. This mountain road climbs over 6,000 feet to Horseshoe Meadow from Lone Pine. To me, its views and drop-offs are far more dramatic than driving the Mt. Washington Auto Road, although the width of the road is double wide. There are signs for falling rocks everywhere, and then there were signs OF actual fallen rocks, right in the middle of the road!
Fallen rocks on Horseshoe Meadow Road
Would have loved to have seen a bear on this trip
We arrived at the end of Horseshoe Meadow road to find the two campgrounds, and Julie at the center informed us which one was the best to camp at (and lot to park at), which was Trail Pass/Cottonwood Pass. We pulled up, and read the bulletin, which said to claim one of the sites with your gear and return in 30 minutes to pay the fee in the envelope. We did just that, and chose site number 2, and returned and paid the $6 fee for the night. There were a few other cars in the lot, and a family camping about 100 yards from our chosen site. This wasn't bad. I generally don't like camping in a campground, but being here was much much different. Once the fee and site was chosen, we set up the Nemo Tenshi for our first night at 10,000 feet. This is one of the recommended places to camp at least one night in advance of going up Mt. Whitney. We also put all of our scented items in the bear lockers seen behind the tent, as required.
Nemo Tenshi 2P at Horseshoe Meadow
While doing some of these things, we started to notice some minor symptoms of altitude sickness. To us, this seemed like just differences, nothing major. We would notice dizziness after getting up from leaning over and already shortness of breath from simple tasks such as walking back and forth to the car several times situating gear, which would otherwise be normal for us in the northeast. It was very interesting to experience these minor effects. If you walk past the tent shown above, and down a slight grade, you will come to the massive and gorgeous open Horseshoe Meadow. This is just the type of place to spot a black bear. We walked down just after we set up the tent, and then we went down again around 7pm to cook dinner. We never saw anything, but just being there was incredibly intense. This was only the beginning.
Horseshoe Meadow - 10,000 ft.
Me and Bill in a whole new and different wilderness
After dinner, we sat around for a few minutes. A quick game of terrible hackysack got us winded and loose, but we were pretty tired and got ready for bed. We were pretty much out before the light of day was completely gone. We could just picture in our minds what the sun setting over Mt. Whitney looked like just a few miles away behind the tall mountains. Sleeping went pretty well; we got a good amount of sleep because we went to bed so early, but it wasn't perfect, and we could hear our hearts pounding in our ears until we did fall asleep.

We awoke the next morning, with alarms starting to chirp at us by 5am so we would not dilly dally, because the more we realized it, this was going to be tough and getting that approximately 9am planned start would be important. The ride down Horseshoe Meadow road that morning was beautiful. Literally, we were living on the edge, as we looked thousands of feet down to the desert floor.

After a quick stop in Lone Pine for a couple of last normal drinks and snacks, we headed right up the Whitney Portal Road. The road was just as intense as Horseshoe Meadow Road, especially as we approached the portal area where we became surrounded and enclosed by the mountains.
Whitney Portal Road
Mt. Whitney from Whitney Portal Road
Whitney Portal Store area
At the parking lot, we started to pack our packs and performed the final pack check with my printed list. The bear canister really screwed things up; next time I'll bring my own lightweight one, but we managed. I carried the full canister of our food, and my brother carried the full Tenshi Tent, so with that, we were even with the extra weight as best we could, probably close to 50 pounds now, but we had everything we would need and more. With our bags now ready to go, we went over to the Portal Store to see what was in-store. Needing breakfast, we opted to share Combo #1 on the menu.
Whitney Portal Store - Breakfast Combo #1
This was more than enough to get us going, so after we filled our stomachs with this, there was no doubt we'd be using those wag-bags soon, unfortunately. We scoped out the patches and stuffed marmots that we'd buy later on from the store, and headed back to the car to get our packs. It took us a while to get going, but the slightly earlier start from the Meadow allowed us to go at slower pace getting situated rather than rushing, which I think is always important for a good start. As we departed from the car, I started the tracking on my Spot Messenger, and we were now on our way to Trail Camp, up the highest peak in the lower USA.
Mt. Whitney Trail sign 
Structure at the start of Mt. Whitney Trail
Entering the John Muir Wilderness
As we started up the trail, we realized it wasn't going to be easy. Right of the bat, we were each needing a break at certain intervals. Shortly after the Inyo Wilderness sign, we came to Lone Pine Lake. Although we didn't hike down the hill to the lake, it was beautiful from up above later. After Lone Pine Lake, we had one mile to Outpost Camp. In this section we saw the team of mules being led down the mountain by the Forest Rangers. We actually saw them starting up the trail when we were sitting there eating breakfast. My assumption is that they were bringing all of the supplies that the conservation volunteer crews were using when we came down on Tuesday, but I'm not sure. We made it to Outpost Camp, where the wag bag was put to use. It wasn't pleasant, and every once in a while for the rest of the trip, a nice whiff would come out of my lovely, but that's what you have to deal with to keep this place as beautiful and majestic as it is. Unfortunately still, a few piles of human crap were seen throughout the trip when traveling not far from the trail. (insert your own poop sound here). Ok, carry on...

As we were at Outpost Camp, a stream was ripping near by, and the water was ICE cold. A large waterfall was seen off to the left. Everything now, and even since Horseshoe Meadow, had been just so dramatic and beautiful, there's not much else to do to describe it. We had an energy bar at Outpost Camp, were there about 15 minutes total, and then we continued on up the trail.

After 240 feet of gain and a short .2mi, we arrived at and hiked alongside Mirror Lake, which comes into view through the last of the thick pine trees. The lake is a beautiful green color and is surrounded by a green meadow, with areas of shallow water both moving and not. After this sight, the trail switchbacks left and then right up an exposed rocky outcropping that more gradually ascends, taking you above Mirror Lake, where the trees are now gone, and the massive walls around us started to close in.
Mirror Lake from above on Mt. Whitney Trail
Our next stop along the trail (1 mile from Mirror Lake) was the incredible Trailside Meadow. We took another break here while we enjoyed the pleasure of purple alpine flowers, bright green grass, and remaining ice shelves melting into the ice cold stream alongside the meadow. And, I can't forget, this is where we first saw one of those storied marmots! We saw it, then it was gone, just like every other time we did! After this break, it was just one more mile to our destination for the evening, Trail Camp.
Trailside Meadow 
Abundant flowers
Chillin' in Trailside Meadow
Looking up from Trailside Meadow
We were pretty tired, so it still felt like a long distance from here, but with a friendly, "you're almost there" from hikers coming down, we found our curious selves walking into Trail Camp at 12,200 feet. It was a little different than I had expected, but I was pleasantly surprised at the layout of the tent sites and man-made rock walls forming such. There were tiered sections and various layouts, which means that if you do get there early (on certain days), there are decent sites to be had, and we found a nice one up on a tiered section up above the trail. Just before walking into Trail Camp, Consultation Lake is on the left.
Consultation Lake
Once we chose the site for our tent, we took another break before setting up the tent for the overnight stay. Thanks to Nemo Equipment and their Tenshi Mountaineering tent, we were camping in style at 12,200 feet. Although we could get this tent up and staked in about 3 minutes, we know for a fact that it took roughly 10 minutes total to have the entire tent set up including our pads and bags laid out inside. I have not camped in many tents, but the ventilation and condensation features on this single-walled tent performed exceptionally well, and all of its features were noticed. We experienced both gusts and constant wind during the day and night at Trail Camp, but the temperature was always regulated inside. At 3AM when we got out of the tent, I had no idea how cold it was outside!
Trail Camp in the afternoon sun
Nemo Tenshi 2P at Trail Camp - 12,000 ft.

View up to the peaks from our tent site
Although it would have been nice to have the energy for a short exploration excursion from Trail Camp (such as Wotan's Throne), it was just not possible and to keep on the task at hand, we spent our time just poking around, re-filling our water, and taking in the sights of Consultation Lake from the rocks just above our tent, which looked over the lake. It was the perfect place for Bill to set up his own throne using the wag-bag. For dinner, I had some Mountain House Beef Stew. We stuffed all of our food and scented items into the bear canister and set it aside the tent. We made some preparations of our summit packs so we wouldn't be doing everything in the dark in the morning. The sun was going down, and sunset was behind the mountain, so after enjoying the view of the pink-ish sky in that moment, it was between 8-9pm, it was time for bed.
Me and Bill after dinner and before getting to sleep
Just before 3AM, my alarm sounded, beginning a day that we will never forget. There was a steady breeze on the tent, and as we stepped outside, holy crap, it was cold. Mid to upper 30s, maybe? Probably. We were very excited and still fairly full from our 2 serving-sized dinners before going to bed, so instead of freeze-dried scrambled eggs, we opted for cereal bars, energy bars, and several ounces of water before vacating our shelter to re-fill our water. We used our Katadyn Hiker Pro filter for this trip, and we each would carry around 64oz of water from Trail Camp. For us, this amount was plentiful.

In the full dark of night, and while all others appeared to be sleeping still, me and Bill started up the infamous switchbacks. We were the very first to leave Trail Camp on this morning, we believed. The trail's footing is like a walk in the park for us, but the relentless switch-backing, vertical ascent, and difficulty from the altitude made it tough going from the start...again. We arrived at the cables section, where very limited snow remained. The only snow that remained was tucked nicely against the rock on the left of the path. There were no issues here, and just like that we were above the cables, pressing on, switch-backing up, turning left and turning right. A good way to sort of split the switchbacks up mentally is know that the cables are basically halfway, around 44 switchbacks from Trail Camp. No, I didn't count them, but on the way up, we often did 4-5 switchbacks and took a break.
Bill leads the traverse past the cables section in the dark
Sunrise was at about 5:30am, but well before than, the orange glow started to creep up upon the dark sky. Just as that was happening, Venus and Jupiter were glaring among the orange and dark blue sky, and just like that, they started to move more quickly up into the sky. Here we were above 13,000 feet witnessing Venus and Jupiter, followed by one of the most amazing sunrise experiences we might ever see. There are no further words to describe this sight. It would be just several hundred feet more until we reached Trail Crest at 13,700 feet.

As we looked ahead, not only could we see the Trail Crest sign, but also that orange alpenglow which struck the side of the mountain and seemed to brighten everything up, including our spirits. Having watched the alpenglow on the Whitney Cam on most mornings, being in the midst of this beautiful sight, in person, at this elevation, again simply took our breath away and made us speechless. Were we really here right now or still in our tent dreaming?

Trail Crest at sunrise - Mt. Whitney 

When we made it to the Trail Crest sign, the view opened up over the crest to Hitchcock Lakes and Crabtree Meadows and the Hitchcock Range, and it was as if we had just landed on an entirely different planet. Most of the surrounding mountains were now below us, and it was such a stunning view. The wind, nothing mattered as we started forward along the backside of the ridge crest. Here the trail descends for about 400 feet, and although the path is easy, the steep drop-offs are much more intense compared to any other areas on the trail, but significantly more beautiful, and hundreds of peaks were visible, and who knows how far we could see?

From here, we proceeded down to the junction with the John Muir Trail, where it is 1.9 more miles to go to reach the summit of Mt. Whitney, and in about 15 minutes, we got a first glimpse of our destination.

Looking at the summit directly for the first time
From here, we passed the windows. On the rest of the ascent, we put a lot of attention to just one foot in front of the other, breathe, and keep going - and take a break. We crossed one remaining snow patch that crossed the trail.

Once we got to the last section looking up to the summit shelter, the excitement and emotion really started to build. It was pretty overwhelming to experience the moments just before we reached the summit. All of the hiking we've done no doubt prepared us for this challenge, because it wasn't easy. Next thing I knew I was walking past the summit building where there was one hiker standing there, and he was waiting for the a hiker that was coming up right behind us, so around 9am, there were four people on the summit, including us.

You can hear my breathing and sniffling in the wind in the video below. It took us 6 hours to reach the summit from Trail Camp. Normally that distance is not a problem for us to cover, but clearly the altitude, at least noticeably, slowed us on this journey. When we reached the top, we stood higher than anything else in the lower United States for several minutes. We had done everything as planned to reach the summit successfully, and now we were there enjoying the summit.


It was an amazing feeling to stand on the summit of Mt. Whitney. Lots of hard work and planning, and experience gained paid off. It was special to share it with my brother. I've seen the views from many many mountains in the Northeast, reached 4000 foot peaks over 200 times, but there is no words to describe what the view was like above 14,000 feet. We shared words of amazement on the summit, asking each other how could we really be here? This was the most incredible thing that either of us had seen...

After about a half hour on the summit, we started to head down. On the descent, we were much less affected by the altitude, therefore we had an opportunity to further enjoy almost all of the beautiful sights once again. We took much better photos, especially of the windows and down to the lakes and Trail Camp from high up. We had to stop at Trail Camp to break down our tent and repack all of our gear. We spent an hour at Trail Camp then, and we arrived back at Whitney Portal around 5:30pm. It was a tough descent, but hiking down Mt. Washington in full packs in pouring rain helped us prepare for that, it felt the same, and was no doubt tough on the knees and legs.

Trail Camp from the switchbacks 
Nemo Tenshi 2P at Trail Camp after the descent
Trailside Meadow 
Waterfall near Outpost Camp 
Mt. Whitney Accomplished
We were elated but exhausted when we reached the end of the trail. We didn't feel like driving back to Vegas, so after a couple of tries elsewhere, we got a motel room at the Dow Villa Motel. Directly across the street and outside of our window was Mt. Whitney. I woke up the next morning to watch the sunrise on Mt. Whitney one more time. The hotel was clean, the staff set us up in no time, and we really got a great night sleep. There was wi-fi, so we were catching up with family and friends to share our success, which was great. The next day on the way back to Vegas, we spent the entire morning and afternoon touring Death Valley. We stopped at Badwater Basin and had gone from the highest point in the lower United States all of the way to the lowest at 282 feet below sea level. I was amazed by our tour of Death Valley, and will also be sharing that with you in a later post.
Badwater Basin - lowest spot in North America
Thank you so much to everyone who shared a comment with me, followed us, advised us, and/or congratulated us. Thank you again to Blake at Nemo Equipment for the Tenshi 2P Mountaineering Tent used on our adventure. Sharing my adventure with everyone and engaging you brings an added element of excitement and adventure for me, and it was all of that and more on this incredible adventure. It was the hike of a lifetime....and until next time...

Hike Stats
Trails: Mt. Whitney Trail, John Muir Trail
Distance: 22 miles [Day 1: 6 mi. to Trail Camp; Day 2: 16 mi. (5mi. to the summit, and 11 down to Portal)]
Elevation Gain: 6,137 ft
Book Time: Approximately 31 hours from Portal to Portal with overnight at Trail Camp, not including Horseshoe Meadow

If you have any questions about my hike to Mt. Whitney, feel free to leave a comment or contact me by e-mail or on my Facebook Page. I welcome your questions, and intend for this trip report and planning journal to help others planning to hike Mt. Whitney for many years to come.