Sunday, February 21, 2010

Hiking the Sierra – Part III – Mt. Whitney Weekend Continued


Eric and I woke up in our hotel room in Lone Pine at 4:00am.  The hike was going to be long, and unlike most other folks who might hike up to the lake at 11,000 feet one day, acclimate, and then summit the next, Eric and I were doing it all in one day.  That’s 22 miles of hiking including a gain of 6145 feet from Whitney Portal, which is at 8360 feet, to the summit, which rises to a height of 14,505 feet.  This would definitely be the biggest hike either of us had ever done.

We got some food in us, and then drove in the dark to Whitney Portal, which consists of a parking lot surrounded by trees and trails going out every which way.  The road up to Whitney Portal is also one of the steepest I’ve ever driven.  My Mustang, in the cool of the early morning, was already registering hot on its temperature gage ¾ of the way up the hill.  While driving up, the car is essentially pointed up to the sky.  It is very steep.

We got our backpacks out with plenty of snacks and water (no cans of tuna this time), and started walking up the train.  It is a long trail, let me tell you.  But there is a lot of beautiful forest along the way.  I remember a point, not even a two hours into it, that I looked from the trail we were on, through the forest, and up towards a large granite arm of a mountain above us and thinking that I could just sit there for the day and admire what God had put in front of us.

But we kept moving up and up.  There was a section that had hundreds of railroad ties as steps, which were placed on the trail to keep stability.  They became tiresome and it seemed they would never end.  At some time, maybe three hours into the hike, we got to the timberline. It was right about this time that the air became thin enough to start having to move more slowly.  The natural governor was that if one hiked too fast, one’s head would start to pound and an instant headache would come on.

As I said in an earlier post, Eric is somehow wired to be less sensitive to heights than I.  He’s threshold for getting lightheaded is set higher than mine.  I noticed this just after crossing the timberline.  He had to slow down for me just a little, and as we moved higher on the mountain, this difference became more exaggerated.  I think it’s his Norwegian genetics or something.

After another couple of hours, we made it to the lake.  They call this base camp for Mt. Whitney.  Many of the peaks in this area seem to have a lake bout at this height; 11,500 feet or so.  This is the location where “normal” people would camp the night before the summit in order to acclimatize themselves to the thin air.  And this makes a lot of difference.

Incidentally, the approach to Mt. Langley, which is next door, and which Eric and I peaked on another trip after Mt. Whitney, is almost identical to Mt. Whitney’s approach. 

Eric and I sat by the lake and had some lunch, all the while, watching a few hikers attempting a summit bid from the North side of the lake, which took much more scrambling than Eric and I were up to.  Sitting there, I also imagined a huge boulder breaking loose from the Whitney crest line and falling a few thousand feet into the lake.  What a splash that would have made!

After we were finished eating and resting, we started on our way again.  We passed through what could only be described as a cathedral of granite formations around us, much like a dry version of the Khumbu Icefall in the Himalayas, on our way to the infamous 100 hair pin turns that climb from the lake to the crest line.

Climbing up the hairpin train was absolutely tiring, and it was a little scary at times.  The trail is built into the side of a very steep rise; one that takes you a good 1500 feet in a short time.  And at least in the year we were climbing, there had been some slides, and parts of the trail were worn away.  The rangers had put in steel cables, which you held onto as you crossed these sections.  I tried not to think of the height.

We finally got to the top of the hairpins and onto the crest line. Now, I can tell you at this point, which is around 12,500 feet, the air is really thin.  Much thinner than I had ever experienced.  The crest line takes you in a Northerly direction, and is only slightly rising.  All the same, Eric and I had to walk at about the speed that one would walk on the moon.  Any faster and then head-throbs would persist. 

There was one point during this section where the trail gets very thin, and you can see down on both sides many thousands of feet.  The fall is particularly straight down on the right (Eastern) side.  The one saving grace is that one feels a little secure in that these looks down are placed between large granite rock walls, so one only feels exposed for a few seconds with each passing.  On the left is Kings Canyon, and on the right are sheer, dry rock and the lake below. 

It’s funny because I have somehow become more squeamish of heights, and the thought of passing these areas, or of the hairpin turns now makes me a little dizzy.  I’m not sure if I could do it again, though I think I could if it were in front of me.

The trail then gets to an area that broadens out to an area full of shale.  At this point, we were clearly working toward getting to the final summit bid.  In front of us lay a large, rounded hill, as if the top side of a dome, whose sides are sheared off.  Our goal was to make it to the sheared area, climb up through it, and onto the top of the dome.

This took a long time.  The air was now so thin.  We carefully made our way through the steep rock, with no clearly marked path of how to proceed.  At this point, I thought to myself that though up to now, there had been a somewhat maintained path, we were really on our own at this point and couldn’t allow ourselves to get hurt at 13,500 feet.

We emerged onto the dome, which was much bigger than it looked from afar, and again without any clear trail, we knew we needed to now head East on the dome, as if to move towards the Owens Valley.  This too took a long time.  Our heads throbbed and Eric and I each moved at differing paces.  Sometimes he would end up ahead, and sometimes I would pass him hiking through the shin-high brush with no trail under us.

After another half hour, we finally came into view of a cabin very near the summit.  The cabin houses a metal container about the size of a legal pad, where each person who summits is allowed to sign their name.  Eric and I did so, and then hiked the last 50 feet or so to the summit.  Eric made it before I did and was enjoying the view of the Owens Valley, and probably two other states.  I walked up and said to Eric, “I can’t believe I did this!”  I had tears in my eyes.  I was at the highest point in the contiguous United States, and it was an incredible view.  Not only how far we could see out, but to realized how high up we had climbed.  We were at 14,505 feet.


We stayed there for about a half hour.  The winds were picking up a little since it was now mid-afternoon.  What they say is true about mountain climbing.  To summit is only half of the trip.  There was another 11 miles of hiking in front of us to get back to Whitney Portal. 

So we left the summit, said our goodbyes to the cabin and started back down.  This too involved work, especially getting off of the dome down the steep, rocky grade.  But as we descended, our heads gradually throbbed less, the light grew darker, and we found ourselves in the dark for the last few miles to Whitney Portal with our flashlights and making loud noises to warn off any bears.

We also drove all the way back to the San Fernando Valley that day.  I had to be at work Monday.  I remember getting home around 11pm to my bed in Burbank, completely astonished that we had that same day hiked from Whitney Portal to the summit of Mt. Whitney and back down.  And I was tired!