Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Climb Mt. Whitney: check

Let's back up a bit...

The third week of May marked the end of my sentence, err training, in Monterey. We did the whole graduation thing, the Parks Director pinned a shiny star on my jacket, I packed up and got the hell out. Holly and I rolled in to San Diego at about 11PM that night and collapsed on the bed. Done.

Earlier that week, Dan had flown a message on Facebook that his climbing partner for Whitney blew his knee out (chronic injury got worse) and he needed a fill-in or he'd be forced to stay home. Whitney permits are a little difficult to come by, I'd always wanted to do it (it was on the "Bucket List"), I had the time and the money. I ran it by Holly since it was the weekend after I just got home from 8 months in Monterey and she gave me the go-ahead: "Do it."

I sent Dan a message, spent WAY too much on gear and last Friday, I pulled into Lone Pine to meet up with him. I'd never done any mountaineering, but I'm pretty fit, I've done solo backpacking and used to rock climb pretty aggressively. Besides, it's just walking, right?

I met Dan in Lone Pine around noon and we hit the local grocery for last minute supplies. I followed him up to the trail head (Whitney Portal) and we did one last gear check before hitting the trail. 
At 8360 feet elevation, I could feel the altitude just walking around the parking lot. It would get MUCH worse.
We weighed our packs on the hanging scale at the trail head just for giggles: me 53 lbs, Dan 55 lbs. Yikes! Onward and upward; the trail started off fairly steep and got steeper from there. With the warm temps, we were both sweating under the load of our packs.
Plenty of high step-ups to negotiate; not easy carrying 30% more weight than your legs are used to.
Still, there were plenty of beautiful views to take our minds off the workload. I lost track of the number of times we stopped to take pictures or just take in the views.
The hiker in front is jut for perspective, that's not Dan. The trail traverses above the granite slab in the background and through the valley between the peaks. Whitney itself is just over the ridge above the hiker in the foreground. Yeah, a looonnng way up.
The granite cliffs flanking the valley provided an amazing backdrop for the hike in.
Dan and I turned out to both be John Muir fans. No choice but to stop and geek out a bit at the entrance to the John Muir Wilderness. It's also quite the symbolic entry into the back country. You're a long way from help back here.
With record snow fall this past Winter and Spring, the Sierra snow pack is about 160% of normal. It wasn't long before we began encountering significant snow fields. With the late start and the warm temps, the snow wasn't holding our weight and we began "post-holing", which slowed our progress considerably and took much more effort to get through than I had anticipated.
We were still having a good time at this point; we were enjoying the views and just happy to be out there. Dan's all smiles.
Amazing waterfall. Lots of water running in the streams and creeks makes for dramatic waterfalls.
Sweet view! Lone Pine Lake in the foreground with the Owens Valley below.
We pushed hard, but did not make it to our planned campsite, Trail Camp. Instead, we stopped at Mirror Lake (not supposed to camp there) due to the lack of open room at Outpost Camp just below us. With all the snow, finding a spot on actual dirt proved challenging. We persevered and found enough room. however. We pulled in late (5:30) and debated pushing up to Trail Camp, bu a group that summited that day advised against it saying trail camp was very cold and windy, miserable in fact. We took their advice and stayed put. It turned out to be good advice as the wind began gusting strongly and increased throughout the night and into the morning. We started out summit trip Saturday morning by climbing the snow/ice field in the middle of the photo. A trial by fire for me considering I've never used crampons or an ice axe before. Yikes!
Mirror Lake mostly frozen; our water source for the trip.
Saturday we headed for the summit. It turned out to be way harder than I thought it would be. The first snow field directly across from Mirror lake looked short enough, but it took us almost 50 minutes to climb it. I didn't know it, but I was in for a long day.
We eventually made it to where the trail side meadow should be, but it remains covered by several feet of snow and ice. Consultation Lake (below) is no different. Hard to believe it's almost June and there's still this much snow on everything.
The push up the snow chute up to the John Muir Trail junction and the ridge line was a nasty one. It's, by far, the hardest part of the trip and climbs about 1500 feet in a very short distance. Despite our fitness, it took us two hours to reach what is called "the notch" or "Trail Crest". I can only begin to describe the suffering; 20 steps, 20 breaths...repeat for 2 hours. The progress was frustratingly slow and the lack of available oxygen only made it worse. Half way up, Dan carved out a ledge in the snow for a seat. When I got to him , he got up and let me rest. My calves and feet burned like fire from climbing the steep slope in crampons. I silently thanked the REI Salesperson for recommending a boot with a stiff sole. I eventually gave up my precarious seat and went back to my task. Step, step...move the ice axe. Breathe, drink. Repeat.

At long last, Trail Crest!    
Here we paused long enough to remove our crampons and take in the views we worked so hard to attain. The pictures hardly do it justice and a panoramic video only hints at the beauty. Here's a pretty sweet 360 VR pano I found: 360 Pano
North West into Sequoia National Park. I think that's Crabtree Lakes in the foreground. Guitar Lake is just off the screen to the right, behind the point.
West into Sequoia National Park. Friggin' gorgeous!
Back down the valley we came up from. Consultation Lake just visible in the right foreground.
North towards Mt. Whitney. Not sure if it's the middle or far peak on the left. Still a ways off.

I was hurting for sure by this time. I was tired, had a headache, was pretty nauseated and could tell I was way low on cals...and then I ran out of water. With the closest water source at Consultation Lake and about 45 minutes before we even reached the summit, I knew I getting back would be very difficult to say the least. I don't think he knew it, but when I asked Dan how far to the summit, I was mentally deciding if it was time to bail on the summit and head for some water. Luckily, Dan had enough water to share some, but it would be close for us to make the summit and make it back to water. Moreover, it was getting late (12:45-ish) and we still had to hike all the way back to camp. With increasing wind speeds (65-75 mph gusts) and snow forecast, it was decision time. Spending the night on the ridge line or at Trail Camp would be ugly.

We needed to pick up the pace so Dan suggested we ditch our main packs. We put our crampons back on, I took a small summit pack with just some emergency supplies, Dan grabbed his camera and water bottle and we and went for it. Game on.

I could tell we were making better time with the lighter load. Finally, we hit the last snow field on the back side of the peak. Soon I heard Dan yell out: "There's the hut!". I looked up and there it was. The peak!
It was blowing HARD up on the peak, Dan went over to the summit register and we both signed it. He went about snapping photos and I plopped down on the lee side of the hut. I was smashed. Dan shared more of his water with me and I eventually realized I was on top of the highest point in 48 states. I set about taking my own photos.
Back down the valley toward Lone Pine. I didn't get closer to the edge because of the wind.
Muir Hut!
Sequoia National Park.

 Yeah, it's high. Still seems a bit surreal.

We spent about 30 mins on the summit, relaxing and taking pictures. We headed started the journey down at about 2 PM, 7 hours after leaving camp that morning. Most people had already summited and we knew we were close to the last people coming down. It occurred to me we, possibly, had no one behind us to help if we got in trouble. Kind of a sobering thought, really. We hiked back down to our packs, re-shouldered them and trekked back to the "notch". We took our crampons back off for the trip down the tough snow chute climb; this time, we'd make it down in 5 minutes; glissading! Imagine a snow slide with a 1000' vertical drop and you get the idea. Adult-sized fun! A fellow climber summed it up: " I wanna go again! That was fun, but it feels like Mr. Frosty just had his way with me." Quote of the trip.

Alas, the fun had to end. By now it was late in the day and the snow had softened considerably. As smashed as we were, post-holing was taking a huge toll on our bodies as was the dehydration. I'd walk/stumble as far as I could until I thought I was going to vomit and then take a break until the waves of nausea passed. Not fun. Add to that the 65-75 mph wind gusts and it made for extremely slow going. Dan won the "deepest post hole" award when he sank all the way to his groin in the snow. You get the idea.

Finally, we were close enough to Consultation Lake that Dan pushed ahead to see if he could find water for us. I could see him below me trying to figure out how to get through the ice and not break through and fall into the water. I caught up to him and plopped down on some rocks where he was looking at drinking from a snow melt pool when he spied a small snow melt waterfall nearby. He filled a bottle dropped the bleach in to treat it and we both sipped the cold, delicious liquid. Saved!

Again, time was not our friend and we had to press on before dark and before the snow blew in. After a final, tricky descent we made it back to camp and threw ourselves to the ground. Exhausted. I heard Dan moving about re-securing his tent that had blown over during the day, while I made some weak gatorade from the lake. Cold, tired and nauseated, I changed out wet clothes for dry and climbed into my sleeping bag to warm up. I fell asleep from the ordeal and awoke 30 mins later feeling much better. Dan had also fallen asleep without meaning to. We made dimmer and ,eventually, the gusty winds drove us into our beds. Unfortunately, a good night's rest was not in the card; Mother Nature had other plans for us.

HOWLING winds all night long. Several times I thought the nearby trees were about to fall on us or that my tent would rip apart from the winds. Around 1100, I heard it the unmistakable sound of snow falling on my tent. The winds were strong enough during the night to blow snow under my tent's rain fly and through the mesh of the inner tent. By morning, I had a small pile of snow inside my tent and a 1" snow drift against my tent. We both only slept about an hour at a time, but sleep we did. I awoke Sunday morning to clear skies, weakening wind gusts and fresh snow on the ground. Perfect!
Sunrise! Oh yeah!
Dan finally got up and I debated out loud if to make breakfast or not. Dan mentioned breakfast in town and I was hooked. Let's go. 

From the cold tamps the night before, the snow had hardened considerably, which made the trip down exponentially faster than the day before. Soon we were out of the worst of the snow and back onto dirt. Not before spying a few, last winter reminders. 
The scenery still amazes me.

We made it back to the trail head in a few, short hours, but not before one, last snow flurry to remind us who was really in charge. We packed up and hit the local cafe for breakfast. More disappointment: no pancakes after 11 and it was already noon. Dammit. Luckily, they serve breakfast all day; we chowed down.

After lunch we said our goodbyes and I hit the road. 

I'm stoked to check this one off my bucket list. People in the parking lot were mirroring the challenges we had faced: lots of soft snow, losing the route, emergency bivvy sack use and even shacking up with strangers while waiting out the weather. I'd love to go back in the Summer and see all the trees and plants green and the lakes  in the unfrozen state. 

Hope you enjoyed the story and the pics. The rest of the pics are here. There's just too many to show on the 'blog.   

“Climb the mountains and get their good tidings. Nature's peace will flow into you as sunshine flows into trees. The winds will blow their own freshness into you, and the storms their energy, while cares will drop off like autumn leaves.”
-John Muir