Mt Whitney beckons in the early morning
Last year, Nancy, Janis, and I applied for Mt. Whitney hiking permits. Permits are issued by lottery only. You have to apply and mail the application by February and are notified in April if you "win". Unfortunately, last year we did not win, so this year we reapplied specifying we would be willing to accept any three days during July. Well, in April we were notified we won...over the 4th of July weekend. Timing was not all that great... my mind visioned masses of humanity and frozen snow fields. Never the less, we had our dates and started planing our trip. Permits are hard to get and we didn't want to reschedule for another time nor put our trip off for another year.
I drove into Lone Pine from Reno on the 4th of July, thankful Janis had made arrangements to spend the night in a hotel rather than camping. It was 95+ degrees so the AC was very welcome. Nancy, Janis and I headed out early on the morning of July 5 after spending the previous evening arranging our packs and trying to distribute the loads evenly between the three of us. The bear canisters are the biggest pain in the *&^% to pack and always present a challenge. I am the shortest one of the group and have the smallest pack but for some reason always end up with the most weight and the bear canister.
I will digress a little here and add that the three of us backpacked from May Lake in Yosemite NP to the Valley floor last year. We went over Clouds Rest and camped at the base of Half Dome and then climbed Half Dome and then on down to the Valley Floor to catch a shuttle back to our starting point on Tioga Pass. This was a two night trip which included about the same amount of gear as our Mt. Whitney trip. Two days later the three of us were car camping at the base of Boundry Peak (the highest peak in Nevada) and continued on to climb that peak . I add this only to show that the three of us aren't your typical "flat lander" novices heading out for an stroll on a mountain. We are pretty experienced backpackers and hikers and take our trips seriously.
Anyway, back to Mt. Whitney. July 5, we arrived at the trail head parking and to our amazement found a parking spot pretty close to the trail head. We loaded up our packs and headed out. At the Portal we weighed our packs. You guessed it, mine was about 5 lbs. heavier. So we shifted a little more gear to try and even things out. Janis and Nancy agreed to carry my crampons and tent stakes but I don't think that added up to 5 lbs. I guess I could have dumped some water but was reluctant to do so as it was already pretty warm. We took our first steps toward the summit by 8:00 A.M. on a beautiful clear morning. Our goal: to reach Trail Camp, about 6 miles and a 4000 ft. elevation gain, in time to set up camp and relax a little.
Starting out. Wow we sure look clean and fresh.
All a long I had been worried about my conditioning due to the nerve injury to my back in April. I hadn't been able to hike regularly and the hikes I had been able to do recently were not at high elevations. So when the first mile up the mountain seemed pretty calm, my spirits and confidence heightened considerably. The trail was well maintained and the accent mild, even though it was warm. There were lots of small stream crossings due to the snow melt and the wild flowers were blooming. The days had been getting warmer and the streams and water falls were pretty full. We leaped frogged along the trail with other adventurers, some planning to camp at Trail Camp; some at Out Post Camp; some getting a late start as day hikers. Yes, some people hike this all in a 24 hour period (its about 22 miles round trip) although, it's recommended that you start at 2 a.m. We later met some folks that started late in the afternoon and hiked in the dark to make the summit by sunrise. One group we continuously leaped frogged with included a father and son. The son, Grant,was 8 years old going on 9 soon. We later found out he had previously climbed Half Dome with his father. Wow!
Janis and Nancy crossing one of many streams
Water fall on the way to Out Post Camp
Our first stop for water and long rest was at Out Post Camp. Up to this point, the trip had been as expected: the trail footing good, the incline not too bad, and the altitude was not bothering us. With only a little more 2 1/2 miles to go, we felt we would make Trail Camp by 2:00. We filtered our water and enjoyed the rest period which included a view of a beautiful waterfall . We headed out for the final accent to Trail Camp well hydrated and rested.
Water fall near Out Post camp
The accent to Trail Camp turned out to be the hardest part of the trip (at least in my mind).We were now in the John Muir Wilderness. The trail became rocky, with tricky footing and very steep in places. It wouldn't have been so bad if I hadn't been carrying a 40# pack. The temperature seemed to rise along with the altitude. We had to stop more frequently to catch our breath and survey the trail to determine our footing. The scenery was spectacular! Flowers blooming; water running; huge partially snow covered peaks in the back ground. We were now starting to encounter snow fields that buried the trail and would have to detour over them. At this juncture, I was really liking my hiking poles. Fortunately, or unfortunately, there had been a bazillion people preceding us so the detours were easy to find.
Abundance of wild flowers along the way
As we trudged up the mountain we were now meeting day hikers and some back packers coming down from the summit. This gave us a chance to talk to them about the ice and snow conditions they encountered. We were concerned about the infamous cables on the 97 switch backs on the way to Trail Crest. The reports were encouraging. The snow was softening and if you left Trail Camp at the "right time" you wouldn't encounter to much ice and snow at the cables. No one could define "right time". Most agreed we would not need crampons. I had thrown mine in due to the consensus of the group we could somehow share them if need be. This was in lieu of renting them at $16.00 per day in Lone Pine. The trail seemed to get steeper and hotter as we trudged along. We kept a close eye on the GPS so we could gage our distance to Trail Camp. It seemed we were crawling along at a slow snails pace, which we were. We arrived at Trail Camp at 5:00 only to meet up with what seemed like gale force winds. This was something we had not prepared for at camp.
Trudging up the mountain at a snails pace
At this point we were all too tired to really scout out the camp area and find the perfect site that may offer some protection from the wind. Basically, we wanted to get the tents up and just crawl in them and collapse for the night, and not even think about fixing something to eat. However, we managed set up camp in the wind which was relentless, fixed dinner(fresh pasta with pesto, a luxury backpacking meal), and went to bed. ..early. The wind howled all night long. The tent fly flapped and the whole tent moved with the wind. Good thing I had extra stakes and guy string. I wondered if they would hold if I wasn't in it. The wind continued through out the night and was still blustering in the morning.
July 6. D- Day!We rose early, 5:00 A.M. to a spectacular sunrise. The sun made Mt. Whitney glow invitingly. We fixed breakfast in the wind and hoped the wind would not continue. Janis commented she slept OK because she had ear plugs! Who would have thought of bringing ear plugs?! Also, she had the most cosmetics we had to stuff in the bear canister at night. We had plans of being on the summit by noon and possibly returning to camp and packing up and heading back to Whitney Portal if the wind continued.
Early morning at the camp site
We headed out with our day packs about 7:00 A.M. (so nice not to have to carry 40#) to conquer the first 97 switch backs and the infamous cables on the way to the Trail Crest. The 97 switch back turned out to be a peace of cake. The section where the cables were located wasn't too bad. There was a group ahead of us and we watched them negotiate the snow and cables and they waited for us to make sure we made it OK. This was one of the groups we had leaped frogged with and I think they were surprised to see us up and out so early. They cheered us on.
Traversing the cables
Snow crossing near Trail Crest
Heading towards the summit
We reached Trail Crest, altitude of about 13,500 ft feeling pretty confident after conquering the dreaded cables, icy trails, and snow. To our dismay we now would trek to where the John Muir trail intersects the Mt Whitney trail with an elevation loss of about 500 ft. Yes, the down was nice but I wasn't looking forward to having to make up the elevation loss up and then continue on up to the top. When we started to make up the elevation loss, that's when the altitude started to effect me. I wasn't sure I was going to make it to the summit. We had several miles to go and I was stopping every few feet to catch my breath. Janis seemed to be flying ahead and Nancy wasn't too far ahead me.
I finally called "uncle" and told Nancy I need to rest and wasn't sure if I would make it to the top. If you have ever ran a marathon you are familiar with the term "hitting the wall". Well, I felt like I was hitting the dreaded "wall". I could see the final snow field we had to cross and it looked treacherous from the distance and seemed like miles away and, I didn't know if I had it in me to cross it. I kept thinking how I had gotten past the wall when running marathons ...one step at a time..so I continued on. It didn't get easier, but it didn't get any harder and I pressed on. All of the sudden we were at the final snow field and the crossing didn't seem so bad. So many hikers had been through it, it was trench like, and there really wasn't any way you could slip outside the trench and slide down the mountain, which was my fear from seeing it from a far. Hikers coming down commented we were almost there... sure.. where I have heard that before?! Well, they were right, and voila..we were there!!
What a sight! The peak looks totally different when you are on top of it. We had had a great view of the front of the peak from our camp site, but the back side and peak are not as dramatic. We hopped around the top, took pictures, and congratulated each other on a job well done. We had endless views of the valley on one side and Sequoia National Park and the John Muir trail on the other. We were literally on top of the world.
Hut on top of summit. Enter in case of lightening.
Janis of course had been at the summit waiting for us for a while. The party that had encouraged at the cables sited us and were truly happy to see that we made it. We later saw little Grant (the 8 year old) and he made it to the summit. What an accomplishment for an 8 year old. Also, what an accomplishment for us senior ladies. We made it to the summit pretty close to noon, which was great. The camaraderie with strangers on the mountain is hard to explain. I guess everyone shares in the accomplishment.
The next step was to make it back down to Trail Camp and determine if we have enough stamina left to pack out. The trek down was really easy, of course, except for the area where we now had to make up a 500 foot elevation loss. The ice had melted and the snow packs were now slushy..even the area where the cables were located, now in the shade, was easy. We now had time to enjoy the scenery because we didn't have to watch our footing for ice patches. We we reached Trail Camp around 5:00, and thankfully, the wind had died down to a nice gentle breeze. None of us had it in us to pack up and head back down to Whitney Portal. We fixed a quick dinner and rested in anticipation of the fast trek down the hill in the morning.
Claudia and Nancy heading back to Whitney Portal
The nasty wind returned sometime around midnight, and again I didn't get much sleep. We were all up before the sun and fixed coffee and breakfast; packed up; and were on the trail by 7:00 A.M. At this time early hikers heading up to the summit were trekking past our camp site. Some had been hiking as early as 1:00 A.M.! The trek down to Whitney Portal was fast, except for the area I previously had had a hard time coming up. This time we had more small streams to cross due to the rapid snow melt and run off. There was a cool breeze, and there were more wild flowers out, which made the decent go by fast. We even had time to shed our packs and took a short side trip to Lone Pine Lake, which we had viewed from the top on several occasions. The water was way to cold to swim in...darn!
Lone Pine Lake
Field of flowers on our decent,
Near Whitney Portal (8000 ft) we saw this. Amazing.
We arrived at Whitney Portal in time to peruse the store and order giant hamburgers and french fries for lunch. While we were enjoying our burgers, the group that included the little boy, Grant, showed up. Grant seemed no worse for wear, and was anxious to play cards with his father. We learned that this was an eclectic group consisting of a 40 year old woman who was doing this as her 40 year celebration, a few cousins, all arranged by a church member. I gather they sort of knew one another, but not really, but now they had formed a strong bond, which such adventures do to its participants.
We returned to the hotel and luxuriated in hot showers and tackled unpacking our packs and sorting stuff. We contemplated dinner, but were to full from lunch. So, we did what normal woman due when they are not very hungry. We went to the grocery store and bought our reward....ice cream! Nothing better than ice cream for dinner. Nancy and Janis were to fly out of Las Vegas the next afternoon and needed to leave in the early morning for the 4 plus hour drive. I needed to leave early to get back to Reno in time to retrieve Sadie from the doggie hotel; unpack; do laundry; and prepare for the next saga.
I'll be jumping on a plane, early Saturday morning, July 11, to fly to Pittsburgh, PA to meet up with John and help him drive his rig back to California. His treatments are going well, but he does get tired and I am looking forward to joining him on another adventure and listening to his funny comments about the world. We will be taking a northern route to hopefully avoid the tornadoes and heat I encountered previously in Nebraska and Iowa on my way back to Reno earlier and see some sites along the way. There is some talk of retrieving one of his kayaks in Oregon and doing a float or two.
Check back in a few weeks for more pictures. Janis and Nancy took lots more pictures than I did and will be sharing them. And of course the pictures I took don't include me. As soon as I receive them I post some more.