What follows are three of our Mt. Whitney Experiences. In 1997 as wide eyed novice hikers we went to Mt. Whitney to hike for the first time. In 1999 with three years of experience and many miles on our boots we returned for another trip up the mountain. The other in 2003 was suppose to be a backpacking trip but the weather got in the way.
The first shows wide eyed exuberance, the second a more measured approach brought on by experience and the third trip was keeping was our philosophy of staying within your skill set and taking what the weather gives you.
The Pristine Experience
August 1, 1997
We had our permits, had made our plans and completed our training, it was finally time to go to the Marquis de Sade Memorial Playground, Mt. Whitney, for a little 22 mile walk in the fresh air and sunshine.
On the day prior to hiking the three of us, the hikers Leigh and Bill, that's me, and our designated worrier Celeste, Leigh's mother and my wife, left our home in southern California and headed out for Whitney Portal. We went a day earlier than the hike to try and get acclimated to the 8,300' elevation at the Portal before attempting the summit and realistically it is the only way to get an early enough start to complete the hike in a day.
However, there was a flaw in our plan; that being the use of our car as a tent. The reason for this insanity was Leigh's fear of becoming a Happy Meal for a bear. An offer to rent a tent and sleeping bags had been quickly turned down by Leigh. I gave in to my daughter because she had been such a good sport about all of our training and agreeing to do this hike in the first place. Although, if we ever decide to do Mt. Whitney again as a day hike, using a car as a tent will not be part of the program for me or Celeste; Leigh on the other hand is still non-committal to spending a night out with the bears.
After pitching the car, we decided to explore the Portal. What you discover other than the beauty of the place is that there is an air of excitement and anticipation, you can feel it everywhere you go, with the people you talk to, repeating their triumphs and failures of the day.
August 2, 1997
The morning of the hike started with a 4 A.M. wake up call, well, we were already up and really didn't sleep all that much due to the anticipation of what was to come. To make matters worse, Leigh was nauseous when she woke up and I had what felt like the start of a cold. Oh well, so much for a year's worth of planning and training.
The Trailhead to Lone Pine Lake Area Map
When we left the trailhead at 5:30 the temperature was in the low 40's. We both scaled back our expectations, mine was to make it to Lone Pine Lake and Leigh, the little optimist, was hoping to make it as far as Trail Camp. A 1/2 mile out we made the first of many water crossings at the North Fork of Lone Pine Creek. Beyond the creek the trail became a series of exposed switchbacks up through the chaparral. When looking back you could see the sun coming up over the Inyo Mountains, the Alabama Hills, and the expanse of the Owens Valley 5,000' below. Up ahead we could see fellow hikers making their way through the switchbacks. We took our first snack break of the day as the trail leveled out just short of Lone Pine Lake. We were surprised this section of the trail was so difficult, in retrospect, I'm sure it was because of the way we felt when we started hiking.
By the time we left Lone Pine Lake area Leigh's nausea had subsided, my cold symptoms had disappeared, and with new found energy we moved forward.
Lone Pine Lake to Mirror Lake Area Map
The trail worked its way around Lone Pine Lake to another series of switchbacks where a ranger checking permits stopped us. While our permits were being checked we struck up a conversation with a group of three sisters, who were doing the hike as a celebration of one of the sisters 49th birthday. As it turned out we would continue to meet up with them throughout the day. When the ranger was finished checking our permit we completed the switchbacks and entered Bighorn Park, the larger of the two meadows on the Whitney Trail. After the relatively flat hike through Bighorn Park the trail started to climb again, passing a waterfall to another series of switchbacks to Mirror Lake. We agreed the lake with Thor's Peak above it would have been a great place for a picnic but not on this day.
Mirror Lake to Trail Camp Area Map
Leaving Mirror Lake the trail climbed up to a rocky cirque in the shadows of Mt. Irvine. Looking back down and see all that we had left behind Bighorn Park, Lone Pine Lake and the Alabama Hills, a definite Kodak moment. This is where the tree line ends. We were now totally exposed to the sun and wind. The balance of the ascent would be on a punishing rocky trail. When we reached Trailside Meadow we took another short break before heading up to Trail Camp.
We arrived at Trail Camp at about 10, 6.3 miles and 3,640' of elevation gain in 4 1/2 hours. As planned, we had lunch here; however, we did not want for company. It seems the Trail Camp varmits think of your food as their food, Leigh had a dive bombing bird come after her sandwich and I had very well fed looking marmot that didn't like the idea of me eating without him sharing in the feast. After lunch and short rest, we decided we would go on to summit.
The Infamous 96 Switchbacks Area Map
The only way to describe the 96 switchbacks to Trail Crest is brutal. Our last training hike was Cucamonga Peak in the San Gabriel Mountains, which climbs 1,200' in its last mile, so our confidence was very high as we started to traverse the switchbacks but it's one thing starting at 7,700' and quite another in the rarefied Sierra Nevada air of 12,000'. We were surprised to discover the availability of water on the switchbacks, everything we had read about the Mt. Whitney Trail said there are no reliable water sources above Trail Camp, they may not be reliable but they were there, at about 12,400' to 12,600'. It took us an hour and half to reach Trail Crest. As we crested the ridge at Trail Crest the view of Mt. Hitchcock and The Great Western Divide was truly spectacular.
Trail Crest to The Summit Area Map
The most difficult part of the hike was behind us. After completing the switchbacks we needed to take a short break to catch our breath and mentally prepare ourselves for our final push to the top. Leigh was feeling a little weak and complaining of puffiness but was quite vocal about going forward to the peak. The fierce wind and cold temperature forced us to cut our break short and move on.
The trail between Trail Crest and the Whitney summit offers more stunning views and sheer drop-offs, especially at the "windows" between Mt. Muir and the various needles, this area is not for the faint of heart or those with vertigo. Our biggest problem now were hikers returning from the summit, the trail is not wide enough to accommodate two way traffic, so we were stopping every couple of minutes to allow the descending hikers to pass. Although this part of the hike was not as steep as the switchbacks, we were now at 14,000'+ and every step required extra effort.
As we neared the summit the trail disappeared and we had to scramble the rest of the way. We ended up going through the only snowfield on the mountain. Once through the snowfield it was mostly boulder hopping the rest of the way. We looked up occasionally searching for the building at the summit; then like a mirage it appeared, and its appearance energized us for the last push. We reached the summit at 2:50, nine hours and twenty minutes after we started.
We made the summit much later than expected and now had 15 minutes to sign the peak register, renew our acquaintances with the sisters we had been running into all day along the trail, take pictures, eat, explore and rest up for the trip back. However, we didn't have the pleasure of using the highest outhouse in the continental United States, maybe the next time. We used this time to assess our condition; Leigh was now complaining of a headache and knee pain in addition to the puffiness (and had totally lost her appetite at this point, too) and I had a slight headache and my knees were throbbing; we were both very tired. We decided to rest an extra 20 minutes and leave by 3:25, we were certain we would not reach the trailhead in daylight. Thank God, we brought flashlights.
Now, Where's the Tram
Unfortunately, since this ain't Mt. San Jacinto and the Palm Springs Tram does not run at Mt. Whitney the only way down is the way you came. So, we started back down using the hikers ahead of us as a guide to the trail. Once we found the trail, the going was slow because of the trail's poor condition and Leigh's bouts with dizziness, especially in the area of the windows where the trail dropped off on both sides. We made it back to Trail Crest a little before 5.
The trail on the switchbacks was a vast improvement over the last section of trail so our pace quickened considerably. We started to pass people on the trail that had left the summit as we were arriving, including our friends. While going through Trail Camp we met up with a man waiting for a father and son who were thru-hiking the John Muir Trail from Yosemite and were due in today. You could feel his angst as we talked on our way down to Trailside Meadow, where we parted company. This is where we made our final rest stop of the day.
The thicker atmosphere of 11,000' and the warmer temperature were quite evident, as was Leigh's loss of appetite as she forced down a few crackers while I struggled to finish a Clif Bar. We were both looking forward to the timberline and the dirt trail that accompanied it. As we wound our way through cirque above Mirror Lake we parted company with our Mt. Whitney friends for the last time.
As we entered Outpost Camp, our hope was to make all the remaining water crossings without falling in, neither of us felt confident about accomplishing this because of the fatigue and weakness in our legs. We made it through Bighorn Park, down through the switchbacks to Lone Pine Lake and across Lone Pine Creek for the last time without getting wet. We were amazed we were still dry but there were still two more crossings.
It was now 7:30; we had about an hour of daylight left and 3 miles to go forget the Forest Service fairy tale about the trailhead being only 2.5 miles from Lone Pine Lake. After a while it felt like this section of trail would never end. We asked a group of people going up to Lone Pine Lake how much longer to the trailhead; their reply was they'd been hiking for 45 minutes. We were blown away by the revelation because we thought we only had another 10 to 15 minutes more to go tops. This was about the time we lost daylight and got the flashlight out. The loss of light caused us to slow our pace considerably but when we got to the last water crossings at the North Fork of Lone Pine Creek we knew it was just a matter of minutes to the trailhead. As we turned the last switchback we were a 1/4-mile from the finish line.
As we finished up Celeste was grilling the folks who finished about 20 seconds ahead us to our whereabouts and didn't see us till we hollered, "We're still alive!", when Celeste heard that she turned around saw us, grabbed Leigh and gave her the biggest hug of her life. It was 9:00, 15 1/2 hours from the time we started.
The following is the tale of our 1999 Mt. Whitney trip. This journal is done in diary style detailing everything we did to have a successful trip to Mt. Whitney. Our measure of success being getting everyone to realize their goals and getting back to the trailhead safely.
| 1/1 | 2/22 | 2/25
| 5/29 | 6/5 & 6 |
6/27 | 7/3 | 7/10
7/24 | 7/31 | 8/7 | 8/8 | 8/11 | 8/14 | 8/17 | 8/20 | 8/21 | 8/22
I called 1-800-280-CAMP and got our campsite reservation at Whitney Portal for August 20th through 22th. Now, we wait until late February to see if we can get hiking permits. Due to the government's infinite wisdom campsite permits are 240 days prior arrival and Whitney Zone permits are 180 days prior to entry.
I worked our training hike schedule up for this trip. We are going to have 10 hikes starting in late May continuing to week before we go. These hikes will range in distance from 5 miles to 16 miles with elevation gains from 600' to more the 4,600' with us reaching as many as eight summits, the highest being Mt. San Jacinto at 10,803'. Unlike our 1997 trip all these hikes will be optional for our hikers but recommended. [Top of 1999]
We have added another hiker, Leigh's friend Dominick. I don't think Dominick knows what he has gotten himself into. We are now 6. [Top of 1999]
We got our hiking permits today. It only took an hour of hitting redial on two phones, we called both the 888 and 760 numbers, the permitting procedures changed in 2000 to the current lottery system. Nice having two phone lines, eh.
With the acquisition of all the necessary permits we are set to begin our journey. The next step will be a series of ten training hikes spread over 12 weeks ending the week prior to going to Whitney.
For those interested or looking
for ideas for their own training hikes, our hikes will be as follows:
Rt. 38 to Fish Creek, San Bernardino N. F. - 5 miles RT
Rt. 18 to Bertha Peak, San Bernardino N. F. - 7 miles RT
Jenks Lake Rd. to Dry Lake, San Gorgonio Wilderness - 10 miles RT
Angeles Crest Hwy. To Mt. Williamson, Angeles N. F. - 5 miles RT
Mt. Badden-Powell Traverse - Angeles N. F. - 9 miles Total
Ice House Canyon to Cucamonga Peak - Cucamonga Wilderness - 12 mi. RT
Angeles Crest Hwy. to Mt. Islip - Angeles N. F. - 7 miles RT
Mt. Station to Mt. San Jacinto - Mt. S. J. State Wilderness - 12 miles RT
Angelus Oaks to San Bernardino Peak - S. G. Wilderness - 16 miles RT
Jenks Lake Rd. to South Fork Meadow - S. G. Wilderness - 8 miles RT
[Top of 1999]
Received the our permits from INFWRS along with a notice from the Inyo National Forest saying the trail will be under repair all season. This will make for an earlier than expected start time. [Top of 1999]
A lot has happened in the three months since the last our last journal entry. Leigh has a job which requires her to work on the weekends and in all likelihood will not allow her to get in the shape necessary shape for this trip. Dominick has bailed out for essentially the same reason. On the plus side our group of masochists has claimed another victim, Jay. Jay is an experience day hiker who has day hiked Half Dome and the Grand Canyon, so you would think he'd know better.
Our first scheduled training hike was today, Tom and Becky missed it because of family commitments and work. So, Jay, Celeste and myself went for a nice little 5 mile walk in the forest. The Santa Ana River trail is about as easy as they get with only a 300' elevation gain as you traverse the slopes of Grinnell Mountain to Fish Creek. Everyone is ready for something harder.
Also, I called U.S.F.S. National Recreation Reservation Service (1-800-280-CAMP) earlier this week to check when I was going to get the hard copy confirming our campsite reservations at Whitney Portal and was inform all you need is your confirmation number these days. I hope they told the managers of the campground about this. [Top of 1999]
6/5 & 6/99
Training Hikes Part Deux.
We still can't get a full line up, Leigh with her job commitments and Tom was in Taiwan on business, however, his wife Becky joined us for the first time. For our second hike we chose the Cougar Crest Trail to Bertha Peak in the Big Bear Lake area. If you are looking for solitude go elsewhere, however, if you are looking for coffee table book type vistas this is the place.
Becky has had a problem with blisters when hiking and this time was no exception. She got a nasty one about a 1/3 of the way up and by the time we made it to the jeep road to the peak she could not go on. Celeste chose to stay with her there while Jay and I went to the peak.
So, today was a mixed bag, success for some, disappointment and unfulfillment.
A note to those attempting to hike this trail. Once you gain the ridge and go east for about a 1/4 mile there is an unmarked trail junction. Take the southern most option which puts you on the south side of the mountain with views of the lake.
On Sunday, Jay, Celeste and I decided to out once again. This time to Mt. Islip in the Angeles. Celeste and I had hiked here a couple of time in 1997 but we forgot how truly beautiful this hike is. After summitting, Celeste did her Descents R Us routine, 3 1/2 miles to the trailhead in 1:15, with a pit stop at Little Jimmy Campground. We might not go up fast but we do descend with the best of them. [Top of 1999]
Again, it was less than our full line up. We had same group as last week, Jay, Celeste, Becky and myself on this our first major hike. We will have Tom back for Mt. Williamson in two weeks, Leigh on the other hand continues to have job commitments.
Our trip this week was to the San Gorgonio Wilderness' South Fork Trail; our destination being Dry Lake, 5.7 miles from the trailhead according to the NFS and 6.4 miles according to Harrison's Map.
This hike took us further and higher than we have gone so far and everyone did super. Becky and her new boots did much better than the week before and we all made to Dry Lake. However, we all had headaches, my feeling is they were caused by a mild case of AMS. Celeste and I had been to Dollar Lake before and enjoy the setting, however, we feel Dry Lake is the better of the two destinations with it's views of Mt. San Gorgonio and Mt. Jepson, simply an outstanding place to hike to.
At this point I feel, push come to shove, we could all make it as far as Trail Camp. [Top of 1999]
Hike #4 or where the hell is the peak anyhow?
First off, Leigh has officially dropped out of the hiking group and said she will take the position of "Designated Worrier" this year. Her jobs does not allow her the time to get in the proper shape for this trip.
We still did not have a full contingent of hikers this trip, Becky had to work but Tom back from Taiwan joined us for our trip up to Mt. Williamson in the Angeles. Although short in nature, 5 miles, the day was hot and breezeless and the trail exposed. We all went through a lot of water. Celeste had a problem in the beginning getting her blood glucose stabilized, she's a diabetic, but once stabilized she hiked strongly.
Now to where the hell is the peak. Celeste and I had hiked here before and read the Robinson trail guide, consulted the Harrison map and commented in the peak register the last time up. However, the register wasn't there when we got there, no biggie. After lunch the boys decided to go over to the next prominent bump on the north trending ridge and upon arrival we found the peak register. We rechecked the map, and this surely wasn't the peak, at least according to Tom Harrison Cartography and U.S. G.S.. Yo, Yo, Sierra Club, What up with that?
We had our first meeting group meeting after the hike concerning our future training hikes and Whitney. [Top of 1999]
Today's hike across a portion of the Pacific Crest Trail offered what was our most scenic trip to date and our most difficult. This trip started at Dawson Saddle and finished at Vincent Gulch, between these points we visited Mt. Throop, Mt. Burnham and Mt. Badden-Powell. The vistas stretched as far north as the High Sierra but the LA basin, as normal this time of year, was covered by marine layer all day.
This week we continued the trend of someone missing from our group. The missing were Becky because of work commitments and Celeste because she didn't want to wreck her knees on the extremely steep trace trails to and from the peaks.
Jay and I are totally amazed at Tom's aerobic capacity. He can go further and faster than anyone in this group. We always have to stop him so we can take a break and catch our breathe. His stamina will serve him well at Whitney.
Prior to this hike I was not looking forward to descending from Badden-Powell to Vincent Gulch (2,800' lower in 4 miles). I could feel my feet burning and my knees aching. However, this was the best 4 mile, high rate descent I have ever taken. The trail was a series of smooth, well engineered switchbacks, a true marvel, but my enthusiasm was tempered by the moronic idiots who cut the switchbacks throughout this portion of the trail causing the start of some serious erosion problems. [Top of 1999]
First off for all the SoCal's, I like Cucamonga Peak much more than Mt. Baldy. It has better views, you don't climb up a dirt or asphalt roads and there aren't 50 people at the top when you get there. Also, if you go to Icehouse Saddle and stop there you miss the absolute beauty of the trail to Cucamonga Saddle. End of the the editorial comment.
Today was a day of contrasts, the highway like conditions of Icehouse Canyon and the solitude of Cucamonga Peak; Celeste struggle with her blood glucose to Icehouse Saddle and her strong hike thereafter.
We, Jay, Tom, Celeste and myself (Becky had to work), started early to avoid the heat and thundershowers predicated for the day. We avoided the later but even with a cloud cover it was still hot and breezeless, plus east coast like humidity made for an uncomfortable day. We all had over a gallon of water to drink, thank God for the cool water at Columbine Spring.
Everyone had a strong day including Celeste who felt she wouldn't make it as far as Icehouse Saddle because of her inability to stabilize her blood glucose. After the break at Icehouse Saddle she hiked as strongly as anyone. Tom, again, showed off his aerobic capacity by leaving Cucamonga Saddle the same time we did and getting to the peak a 1/2 hour before us, or so he says :-). [Top of 1999]
Today begins the last leg of our training hikes and for Celeste and I it was a bit of a let down after spending previous weekend in the Cottonwood Lakes Basin, just south of Mt. Whitney.
This week we hiked with the usual suspects, Jay, Tom, Celeste and myself. To me, everyone seemed a bit bored by it after our last hike to Cucamonga Peak. We had a bit of fun at Tom's expense giving him a 1958 USGS Crystal Lake map and having him get us to the top of Mt. Islip. Let's say there has been a few changes in the trails since then.
On the news front...
Becky has officially dropped out because of her job commitments but we are still hoping that she and Leigh will still be making the trip with us. Someone has to be the "Designated Worrier".
We have decided we are going up to the Eastern Sierra a day earlier than scheduled. Our plans are to stay in the hiker-in campsites at the Cottonwood Lakes Trailhead Thursday evening, hike to the first creek crossing in the morning then head over to Whitney Portal. [Top of 1999]
Another week of how many people does it take to fill a mountain peak and it does pay to take a cell phone with you.
Our second major hike was your basic walk in the park, I think everyone is in shape to do 12 miles plus now. It was our second consecutive week of enormous crowds on the peak which is to be expected at San Jacinto, one of the three so-called glamour peaks in SoCal. IMHO Mt. San Jacinto and Cucamonga Peak are the best peak hikes in SoCal for their outstanding 360 degree vistas.
Everyone did great this week. Celeste kept her blood glucose in a 50 point range and didn't experience lead legs/walking in quicksand feeling she had last week on a relatively easy hike to Mt. Islip.
Now to the cell phone...
I used to take my new toy with me into the mountains until I found out it would only work on ridgelines and the top of peaks. Plus, I didn't like the the reactions to my calls to the family that went something like... "We just climbed 8 zillion feet in 2 miles and are on the top of Mt. Whatever..." The response was usually, "That's nice, stop at Albertson's and bring something home for dinner." Well, this weekend it came in handy. Jay's van broke down on the freeway just west of Beaumont, you could see the middle of no where from there, and since Tom had his phone we were able to call AAA to get the van towed and our families so they wouldn't worry. The phone goes from now on but not in the pack. [Top of 1999]
Yes, the tortoise really did win the race.
Today was our big hike, Angelus Oaks to San Bernardino Peak, 16 miles and 4,689' of elevation gain. We picked this hike for a couple of reasons, the trail is well graded, it did not get a lot of use and it had a source to draw water from. Two out of three ain't bad, we ran into a group of 22 from the Sierra Club, so much for solitude or so it seemed at the time.
We generally hike our ascents slowly, usually about 1.5 MPH, which was the case today, so all these folks passed us by the time we stopped at Limber Pine Spring for water. After the last couple of weeks when there were untold millions at the peaks we had visited we were really looking forward to the solitude at our destination, this appeared to be impossible with all these people around. However, as we passed Washington Monument all the Sierra Clubber passed us on their way down. We ended up having the summit to ourselves for an hour and it was marvelous.
It is our opinion this hike, point to point, offers the most outstanding views and beauty we have seen in the SoCal mountains. It's great up to Manzanita Flats, a moderate hike for the weekend hiker, but it only gets better as you get higher.
On the news front...
Jay has backed out of our little walk citing getting behind at work and not being able to take the time off. So, we are down to three hikers and back to leaving of Friday the 20th because of Tom's not getting back from the east coast until Thursday afternoon. [Top of 1999]
Tom, Celeste and I had our Pre-Whitney Meeting today and discussed everything from clothing, food, shelter and our concerns for safety during our trip. Most things have been finalized but we left some wiggle room for changes once we get to Whitney Portal in 12 days. [Top of 1999]
Jay is back in and everyone is happy about it. His work load has become manageable to the point he can go on the 19th.
We, also, changed the training hike this weekend to Sugarloaf Mountain to avoid the boredom we all felt going to Islip after Cucamonga Peak. [Top of 1999]
Be careful what you wish for you may get it.
Originally we were going to do Jenks Lake Rd. to South Fork Meadow in The San Gorgonio Wilderness but the three of us, Jay, Celeste and myself; Tom is in Chicago on business, had little desire to do this hike because we had already did this as a part of our hike to Dry Lake. So, we decided we do Sugarloaf. Anyone who has hiked in The San Gorgonio Wilderness knows Sugarloaf as the most dominant peak to the north of the Wilderness on the Big Bear Divide and it's a spectacular looking peak from afar, however, it isn't from ground level.
The trip to Sugarloaf is talus, talus and more talus from about the 9,100' level to the peak which make for slow going and a bad day for the feet, ankles and knees. The views from the trail are at time fabulous at times but the peak is so broad and forested you don't have clear view of anything. The two redeeming factors of this trip, there were only two other people on the peak; that's an average of 1 the last two weeks, and we basically had the trail to ourselves most of the day.
Thus ends our training hikes. Everyone is ready and should be able to make it as far as Trail Crest without any problems, as for the summit, we'll see in a week. [Top of 1999]
Called INFWRS and returned four un-utilized permit so others would have the opportunity to hike Mt. Whitney. [Top of 1999]
Left for Mt. Whitney. The Explorer was loaded to the top with gear, food and clothing. We stopped in Lone Pine, PJ's, for a very good lunch and proceeded to the Portal.
We had campsite #39, this site is the furthest you can get from the trailhead of any campsite. We got the reservation for this site on the first day they came available but no one at 1-800-280-CAMP was able to tell us where the site was located after telling them we wanted to be a close to the trailhead as possible and on the creek. One out of two, ain't bad. This semi-secluded site grew on us after a while.
We explored the Portal and the starts of the Whitney Trail and noticed the signage improvements at the Trail and the renovations at the Whitney Portal Store. The Forest Service and the folks at the Whitney Portal Store get high marks for the improvements, good going guys!
No one had much of appetite for freeze dried food so we ate at the Whitney Portal Store. After dinner we decided to go bed early, notice no mention of the word sleep, in anticipation of the 3 AM wake up call. [Top of 1999]
The day started at 3 AM. Well, that was the time everyone exited their tents. We were all up most of the night in anticipation of our day on the mountain. We ate and made final preparations with our gear and took off for the trailhead, late of course. We scheduled ourselves to leave at 4 but an hour isn't enough time to get ready and I should have known it. So, after a couple of pictures at the trailhead in the dark we took off up the trail at 4:45, way behind the crowds we later found out.
The trip up to Lone Pine Lake was uneventful and quick, for us at least. We made the dead log near Lone Pine Creek just after 6. From there it was over the river, through the woods and up the canyon headwall to Bighorn Park, Outpost Camp and the infamous solar latrine. After a couple of pictures by the waterfall it was time for our first extended steep climb of the day, up through the treeline to Trailside Meadow and an 8:30 lunch.
Trailside Meadow is the last touch of green on the trail and is about the midway point of the trip. It is also the last reliable place to conveniently filter flowing water, I prefer a flowing source of water to a standing source. We had our permits checked while we lunched. This is where we started to get behind our revised schedule, primarily because there was too much water to filter and only one filter.
The day itself was cool and windy and none of us got more than a layer of clothing off all day. On the climb up to Consultation Lake the wind blew my hat off and down the canyon, if someone finds a brand new blue Penn State hat its return would be appreciated...LOL. We reached the Consultation Lake area about a half hour earlier than Leigh and I did in 1997. We had an extended stay at Trail Camp because Celeste and Jay were starting to feel every bit of the 12,000' of elevation level plus we spoke to a couple on people who had been up to the switchbacks to get information about water and construction delays, in fact the switchbacks had been shut down for an hour because of blasting just prior to us entering the area.
After this little rest we started up the (many expletives deleted) switchbacks. We topped off the water supplies where the water flowed over the trail, no guide book states there is water above Trail Camp but it was there in the Summer'97 and '99 both of which followed relatively dry winters, on the lower section of this portion of the trail. As we wound our way through these switchbacks they started to seem never ending. After 2 1/2 hours we reached Trail Crest, it was now 1:15. Celeste was blown away by the views from Trail Crest out onto the Kern Plateau and beyond.
This was decision time, and the decision had to be made quickly because if we didn't leave for the peak soon we would miss the opportunity to make it to the summit because we had set 3:30 as our latest turn around time. Both Jay and Celeste decided this was it. Jay was feeling the effects of of altitude sickness and Celeste knew that even if she was able to summit it would take too long to do so and had major concerns about whether she would have enough energy to get back down. In retrospective, Jay and Celeste made the right decision to head back. Tom and I literally took off toward the peak.
What a lot of people don't realize is the trail from Trail Crest to the peak descends significantly on three separate occasions. After hiking 8 1/2 miles the last thing you want to do is give up elevation you have already gained but that is exactly what you do as you leave Trail Crest, 300' in a 1/4 mile to be exact. The other thing is a lot of people don't realize there are at least four occasions where you are exposed on both sides of the trail, these areas are called "Windows", although the length of these areas are relatively short if you are afraid of heights or if it is extremely windy these areas may cause you to think a little bit before continuing your journey across the west side. With that said, Tom and I crossed the back side in about 1:40 and made the peak at about 3 PM.
We ate, took some pictures, signed the register, prepared for our return and rested for the following 1/2 hour and left a little after 3:30. At this point I started to get a bit nauseous because -doh- I didn't drink anywhere near enough water on the way up from Trail Camp. The queasiness subsided during our descend on the switchbacks.
The rest of the descent was your typical taxing on your joints and feet Whitney descent, you can't wait to get back to the tree line and dirt trails at Mirror Lake. Darkness hit as we descended the switchbacks into the Lone Pine Lake area just after 8. After dodging the rocks in the middle of the trail for an hour and half we were back at Whitney Portal where Celeste and Jay met us, at about the the same spot Celeste met Leigh and I in '97. I couldn't help it, I repeated what Leigh said in 1997, "We're still alive!!". Celeste reveled in her, albeit short, role as "Designated Worrier", again.
The excitement of the day didn't end at the trailhead we still had to drive back to our campsite. Normally this isn't a big deal but just before we got to our campsite we saw a good size bear looking for a meal in an Explorer on Whitney Portal Rd. The bear saw us and high tailed it into the main section of the Family Campground which was above where our site was located. I think everyone was so tired they really didn't care about this bear coming to visit us, all we wanted to do was sleep. [Top of 1999]
The next morning we decided no one was in the mood for oatmeal so we took off for the Whitney Portal Store for breakfast. Let's say the Claim Jumper has nothing on these folks on portion size. I had a "pancake", an extra large pizza should be so big. Everyone else's meal was huge and there was something left over on everyone's plate.
After buying the Official Mt. Whitney Stuff at the store and taking a couple of pictures around the Portal we took off back to our campsite to get ready to depart for SoCal. However, we stopped at the Explorer the bear was pawing around the previous night and discovered he had broken into it and had himself a nice meal of beef jerky and something we couldn't recognize.
After parking at our campsite our neighbors informed us a bear went through our campsite while we were gone but all the food was put away, so, Boo-Boo split without a meal. This was one bit of excitement we were all glad we missed out on. [Top of 1999]
Random Thoughts, Observations and Opinions
There are too many clueless ill-prepared people on this mountain. An example of this was at Trail Crest in 1999 when a woman asked Celeste, "Which way is the peak?". This qualifies as our "Stupid Whitney Story of the Year".
After doing this hike with and without trekking poles there is no question about the benefit of these poles. I was fresher at the top and at the end.
Another couple of pieces of gear I wouldn't go up on the mountain without are a headlight (even without trekking poles) and a Marmot DriClime Windshirt, the best piece of clothing I own.
Traveling in the dark in the morning is easier than doing it at night when you are beat to...
Plan on having breakfast at the Whitney Portal Store the morning after your climb. You won't be disappointed.
There is nothing like the first trip up. Savor every awe struck minute, even the switchbacks ;-).
Take a lot of film. We took over 80 pictures in 1999 and added to those we took in 1997 we still do not have all the pictures we want.
Just a reminder, the trip back from the peak includes three separate climbs on the west side of the mountain. The last being 300' over a 1/2 mile. To me, this is the hardest part of the trip.
If conditions or your condition don't allow you to make an attempt at the peak remember the mountain will be there next year, I know that is hard to believe ;-).
The tortoise does win the race. This is a hike to be savored, for a lot of people this is a once in a lifetime experience, don't have hiker's regret by racing up and down this mountain.
It is my feeling your training should include extensive time up high, in SoCal that means about 8,000'. It pays benefits on hike day.
Use a familar hike for your last training hike so you don't have any surprises like torturous talus filled trail which can wreck your feet and knees a week before your big day.
[Top of 1999] [The Very Top]
Between April 2003 to Feburary 2004 we have traveled the Main Mt. Whitney Trail in the snow three times, all outside the quota period. To say it is a different experience is an understandment. Any of you who have traveled this trail more than once know the luster of the first experience fades as you start to notice the wear and tear, trash and the hordes of people. Let's face it, it's not a wilderness experience in any sense of the word, very much an Icehouse Canyon north for those familiar with this Mt. Baldy area trailhead. However, with a coating of snow things change for the better. There will be very few people on the trail, our last trip in Feburary 2004 we saw no one during a whole weekend of snowshoeing in the area; no trash visible and the eroded trail is covered with a white blanket.
These trips take a bit of planning and some extra gear or you will limit the distances you can travel. During these trips we have traveled anywhere for 1.5 to 6.3 miles up the trail, the length of the trips was limited by gear we had and conditions. Never go further than your skills, gear and knowledge will allow you to go safely. The margin of error narrows the further we get away from a warm sunny August afternoon.
So, what extra gear and clothing do you need for these trips? On the clothing side not much more than you'd take up this trail in the summer, except you are going to have to duplicate 3 or 4 items for safety's sake. Gear, on the other hand, is another story completely. You may need snowshoes, crampons and an ice axe, a stove and titanium pot while not needed will give you the ability to have a warm meal at lunch or some hot chocolate.
Oh, your trip may start a bit further down Whitney Portal Road than it does during the summer. We have gotten to the Portal in November, March and April; and as far as the Meysan Lake Trailhead in February and March but you should be prepared to hoof it from parking area below where the road turns north and a sign announces the road is closed, this is the most ignored sign in North America. To go further up Whitney Portal Rd. you have to have chains with you and knowledge of the current weather forecast. Just because you have 4 wheel drive does not mean you won't get stuck, we've made it up to the Portal without utilizing chains and as far as the Meysan Lake Trailhead parking with chains...you just have to be prepared for changing conditions.
We've never planned to summit during this period, although we might give it a go again in a November in the future. We have gone as far as Trail Camp in marginal conditions with a bit of snow on the trail, postholing in the drifts as we approached Trail Camp, utilizing nothing more than some of the extra clothes we carried. This trip started at the Portal. Our last outing we started at the Meysan Lake Parking area and traveled to a creek crossing near Lone Pine Lake, where some idiot in our group proceeded to fall in the creek (there were two of us and it wasn't my partner).
A caveat to the newbie hiker. This more than likely will not be for you, I know I wouldn't have done this in 1996 with the stuff I owned. However, if you are geared up and have a bit of winter gear you can go up the trail a bit and have a great weekend party down at Lone Pine Campground with friends and family, just don't forget the firewood.
Remember there is more to this area than the main trail. We have taken short trips up the Meysan Lake Trail but there are some dicey spots if don't have crampons and ice axe along with your snowshoes. It truly is a beautiful trip but you will need some winter route finding skills or local knowledge to figure out where the trail is until you head up canyon. There is also, the National Recreation Trail from Lone Pine Campground to Whitney Portal. This becomes a very streneous trip with snowshoes.
See the backpacking page for a very good trail description of the Main Mt. Whitney Trail.
We have gone up the trail twice in 2003 outside the quota period, in April and November and once in February 2004. The advantage of a November trip is there might not be any snow on the mountain so all you have to deal with is some cold weather...If you go when there is winter like conditions, snow, ice and cold, make sure you build in some redundancy into your gear and bring enough clothing to keep you warm when you stop to eat. We will usually bring extra gloves, hats and socks; our heaviest jacket, a Nalgene bottle of water just in case the Platypus freezes and extra food, you burn up a lot more calories in the cold...If you own a canister type stove bring it along for either some soup or hot chocolate...If you have a hydration system blow water back into the reservior to help prevent freezing in the feed tube.
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Date of Last Change: 4/14/06