Whitney 2K, Mt. Whitney California

Return of the Backpacking Home

Mount Whitney, 8/5/00 to 8/6/00, total miles = 22.  Members- Matt Otero, Ray Ebert, Rich Paragas, Sandee Holder.


This trip started with the four of us arriving at Lone Pine about 10PM Friday night after driving five hours from San Diego.

We had reserved a camp site at the Lone Pine campground and the campground host was there waiting for us when we showed up.  We set up our camp in the dark, and passed around some beer to relax before hitting the sack.

We awoke early, 5AM, to a wonderful sunrise shining on the spine of the Sierra to the east of us.  We packed up quickly, got our food distributed to the bear cans and headed up the road.  We decided earlier to have breakfast at Whitney Portal and this was a good decision.  We ordered the pancake sandwich that reportedly feeds between four and six.  It consists of TWO pancakes, some scrabbled eggs, and 5 pieces of bacon or sausage.  We couldn’t finish all of it!  The pancakes are about two feet in diameter and very tasty.

After eating our fill we loaded up our gear, tightened our bootlaces and headed up the trail.  This trail is a no non-sense trail.  It begins with an aggressive ascent rate, it only switch-backs when it needs to and can, and doesn’t let up for 11 miles, at the summit.

The trail begins in lodge pole pine forest and is a very nice and well-kept trail.  The trailhead starts at around 8,800 feet and despite this altitude it was quite warm.  The vegetation is already thinning and most of the trail is exposed to the sun.  We kept a pretty constant pace for several hours and decided to take a long break at mirror lake above outpost camp.  The lake provides a pleasant and relaxing place to rest.  We washed our feet, ate some power bars, and protected our food from the aggressive woodpeckers in the area.

After about an hour we packed up again and headed off for the most challenging portion of the day’s hike, the 2000 feet of elevation gain to trail camp, our day’s destination.  This section is challenging for several reasons.  It is above 10,000 feet, trail camp is nearly 12,000, and this section of trail becomes very rocky and exposed to the sun.  Our pace slowed considerably from this point on.  It took approximately two and a half hours to make the four miles to mirror lake, then another three hours to finish the last two miles to trail camp.  By this point we were above tree line and wouldn’t be near greenery until we returned to this altitude the next day.

This rocky section follows a peaceful creek up to trail camp and we spent a lot of time passing, and being passed, by the same several groups of people we were interspersed with on the trail.  This trail is quite crowded compared to other trails I’ve hiked on.  Even more crowded then the Grand Canyon.  But every one was friendly and seemed to enjoy sharing the trail with everyone else.  This is also the section we really began to come across the returning day hikers.  Seeing these people made me very glad I had chosen to spend the night at trail camp before attempting the summit.  Walking 22 miles and 13,000 feet of elevation gain and loss doesn’t sound like a pleasurable experience to me…

We got into the outskirts of trail camp and found a very pleasant camp just off the trail that had already been partly sheltered from the wind.  We set up camp and broke out the wine, while we cooked dinner.

The next morning, after a not very restful night, we woke up in anticipation of hitting the trail early.  None of us had slept well, primarily due to the altitude; we all had headaches and were not particularly hungry.  This headache, at least for me, would get worse all day and not completely leave until I was below 10,000 feet later in the afternoon.

We were on the trail by 8:00 and filled our bottles with water at the last lake before hitting the 99 switchbacks.  I didn’t count them so I’m relying on second hand information.  Sections of the trail are perennially under snow, which can make these sections a little treacherous early in the morning when it’s still icy.  We topped out at trail crest by 10:30 and had to take a breather, and try to choke down some food.  We met several groups here taking breaks and enjoyed several spirited conversations.  We even met some groups who were being guided up by professional guides, including one who had an exciting encounter with a bear at outpost camp.

Leaving trail crest the trail drops onto the west side of the mountain and into its shadow.  The temperature instantly dropped about 15 degrees and on came the fleece. The trail actually drops elevation for a bit and this is very disconcerting because we know we have to gain this elevation back and more.  The trail meanders a bit here providing some amazing views to the west and to the east through the “windows”.

The last section of trial leading up to the summit gets very vague.  We spent a lot of time searching for the trail.  It was here that I made the comment “When you climb a mountain, there should be some climbing involved.”  We abandoned the trail and just made our way up and around the boulders as best we could.  This section became very challenging, not technically but aerobically.  Stepping up onto two and three-foot tall boulders above 14,000 feet became very tiresome and had us breathing in and out on every step.  Needless to say all conversation ceased at this point!

The area one walks through from trail camp up is very desolate and unless you like deserts or moonscapes it probably isn’t very aesthetically pleasing.  Enjoying both of these environments I found this area rather interesting and pleasurable to view.  I was in Yosemite a week later and the contrast is amazing in the pictures from the two trips, but at the time I really didn’t notice the drabness of the scene.  This brings up an interesting issue that I didn’t really notice until coming off the mountain.  It appears that I was operating at some reduced mental capacity while at altitude.  I knew I was breathing hard, that my lips would tingle, and that any motion from a resting position would instantly cause my heard to swirl, that I had altitude induced headache and nausea.  But it didn’t dawn on me at the time how much the altitude was affecting my thought process.  Many things are a blur in my mind now, my memories are not as clear as other trips I’ve been on.  For one thing, I only took two or three pictures on the summit of the highest mountain in the contiguous United States.  A week later, before seeing my Whitney pictures, I was on the summit of Half Dome in Yosemite and took over half a role of film.

We approached the apex of the summit as a group and made our way through the other 30ish people already there and found a rock near the eastern lip, and its associated 2000’ drop off, of the mountain to enjoy our time and lunch on the summit.  We ate, chatted, and took a few pictures while we were there.  As we were eating, up came a group of three from the eastern buttress route up the mountain, including an 11-year-old boy.  We took in the sights in all directions, signed the summit log and visited with others for about an hour.  It was then time to head down.

Although descending is almost always easier aerobically then ascending, it is almost proportionally more difficult on the joints.  Our plan was to leave the summit around noon to return to trail camp around 2:00 then finish the trip with a three-hour run to the trailhead.  This plan almost worked!  We did arrive at trail crest at 1:00 ready to hustle down to trail camp.  As we arrived at trail crest a trail maintenance crewman was coming up the trail with some less than good news.  The trail would be closed until 3:00 for trail maintenance work.  We were stuck at 13,500 feet with no shade for two hours and my head was pounding!  Since we were the first group to be stopped the crewman asked us to tell everyone else coming down the trail that it was closed and to please not go further before 3:00.  Well, this didn’t make us very popular, and many people just ignored us and kept on going, only to be stopped by the pick axes, shovels, and jack hammers of the trail crew.  After enduring two hours of head pounding UV absorption we headed down the trail only to be stopped once again by what I called the “mighty Queue…” We were now at the back of a line of people who had ignored our instructions, and some were becoming down right belligerent.  We were the once who’d been waiting for the full two hours and THEY were pissed by having to wait.  One obnoxious lady even threw a rock down towards the work crew and jawed incessantly about needing to get home.  (Mental note to self:  The world is full of assholes and there’s not much I can do about it…)

Once the trail was opened this mass of bodies moved down the trail as one, like a giant inchworm.  The pace was too much for some and they usually graciously stepped aside.  Sometimes they continued to trip over their own two feet for what seemed like an eternity before we were able to make precarious passes on the wet and snow covered switch backs.  What took two and one half hours to go up took 45 minutes to come down.  We were moving!

Back at trail camp we packed up camp and made ready to finish the day by walking the last six miles out with our backpacks on.  What a shock to the system this was after doing the summit run with just a daypack.  We made adjustments quickly and after filling up with water we were once again off to the races.  It took another two and a half hours of knee jarring descent to make it back to the trailhead and when we did we were four hikers who were just worked!  I won’t say we were at the end of our ropes physically, but its frayed end was certainly visible…

We decided to skip showers, changed clothes, did some quick shopping and quaffed a couple of beers while we reminisced about the last two days.  Within minutes of getting to the car, we were all starting to feel better and the day was already being remembered as “not as tough” as the experiencing of it.  Strange how the mind works…

I thoroughly enjoyed this trip.  It is challenging and inspiring and was different enough from other trips I’ve done to make it quite interesting.  I am looking forward to doing it again next year.