Thursday, August 16, 2018

Mt. Whitney, California (State High Point #29), 7/30/2018

Mt. Whitney (14,508') from Cottonwood Pass via Pacific Crest, Siberian Pass, John Muir, and Mt. Whitney Trails, July 30, 2018

Mileage:  43 miles (five-day traverse)

Elevation gain: 7,300'

Trailheads: The hike begins at Horseshoe Meadow and ends at Whitney Portal.  

 -Horseshoe Meadow (to hike to Cottonwood Pass). In the center of Lone Pine, CA, (Route 395) take Whitney Portal Road (a right off Main Street if you are headed south) and follow for 3 miles.  Then turn left onto Horseshoe Meadow Road, following it to the end - about 20 miles. 

 -Whitney Portal: In the center of Lone Pine, CA, (Route 395) take Whitney Portal Road (a right off Main Street if you are headed south) following it to the end - about 12 miles.

Hiked with Becky, Sandy and Diane.  Becky invited us to join her in the Sierras for five days  - prior to beginning her fifth journey hiking the John Muir Trail (JMT).  The JMT is a 215 mile trail terminating on the summit of Mt. Whitney. This year Becky planned to do the trail in reverse.  She organized our itinerary based on establish camping by bear lockers and water sources.

Permits: Permits to camp in the wilderness and exit via Whitney Portal were secured in February - we got lucky.  We'd checked the website at 8 a.m. that day to find all permits were taken but tried the site again around 10:15 to find availability!  Two permits were needed for our group: "cross country exiting Mt Whitney" for us; and "cross country visiting Mt. Whitney" for Becky (who after summiting with us, left us at the Mt. Whitney/JMT junction to start her NOBO JMT hike).

Transportation: Trip out - Plane tickets to L.A., and from L.A. to Mammoth Lakes were purchased and bus tickets from Mammoth Lakes to Lone Pine were reserved. We flew into L.A. for a few days, then took an Alaska Airline flight to Mammoth Lakes where we stayed two nights to acclimate.  On the third day we took the bus from Mammoth Lakes to Lone Pine. "Captain Kurt" met us at the Lone Pine bus stop and drove us to the trailhead at Horsehoe Meadow to start our hike. 

Trip home -  After the hike Captain Kurt picked us up at the Whitney Portal Store and brought us to the Lone Pine Best Western where we retrieved our suitcases and spent the night.  The following day we didn't return to Mammoth Lakes to fly back to L.A.  Instead we opted for reliable ground transportation, purchasing bus tickets from Lone Pine to Lancaster where we picked up the train to L.A., then took the shuttle to LAX for late night flights home.  This plan avoided any risk of flight cancellations in Mammoth Lakes (which can occur and we didn't want to take the chance).

Lodging: We reserved a condo through Airbnb for our Mammoth Lakes stay, and the Lone Pine Best Western for the night we came off the trail.  If you have reservations at the LP Best Western, they'll hold your suitcases for $5.

Packing: Diane and Becky were experienced, but Sandy and I had never backpacked before.  The only time we'd camped in the outback was during our Joshua Tree trip (see trip report) and that was for one night. We bought lightweight Mariposa 60 backpacks and borrowed gear, packed appropriate food in our bear cans (BearVault 450), and chose the bare minimum for clothing. 

Day 1 - Start at Cottonwood Pass Trailhead 9,948': When the bus dropped us off in Lone Pine Captain Kurt was waiting. He drove us to the motel to drop off our suitcases, to the Eastern Sierra Interagency Visitor Center on the corner of Routes 395 and 136 to get our permits and our WAG bags, and then up to Horseshoe Meadow (the road climbs 6,000').

It all fit in my Mariposa pack (about 30 pounds).

Rain and thunder greeted us at the trailhead. It was lunchtime so we ate our deli sandwiches (last fresh food for five days), used the bathroom (last toilet for a few days) and headed up the switchbacks, climbing about 1100' to Cottonwood Pass and another 200' to Chicken Spring Lake.

We opted for cheap rain ponchos instead of rain covers for our packs and decided early on that wasn't a great idea.  They are cumbersome, not heavy enough to drape consistently, and we just plain didn't like them, though we all looked like cute Little Red Riding Hoods when we wore them. Next time I would purchase a pack cover and bring a rain coat. Fortunately we were blessed with dry days up until Whitney summit day and didn't have to wear them much.

Ponchos - cute but not all that functional for hiking.

We're on the Pacific Crest trail (blaze)!

The rain was subsiding when we got to Cottonwood Pass and we stripped off our ponchos, turned right and hiked the .6 or so miles to our destination for the night: Chicken Spring Lake (11,242').

The lake is gorgeous! There were several others camping here.  We set up camp, filtered water, made dinner and went to bed fairly early. Elevation gain today about 1,300'; distance about 5 miles.

Filtering our water (Becky's photo).

We had a large moon the entire trip. 

Day 2 - hike to Rock Creek:  After breakfast we broke camp and headed to Rock Creek, via Siberian Pass. Today's long walk would take us down about 1,600' to an elevation of 9,650'.  

The Siberian Pass cutoff is well marked and we had a chance to check out one of the Soldier Lakes (just beyond the Army Pass trail junction).  There's camping at the lake and a bear locker.  The dry summer has taken its toll; the lake's shores receded and were mostly muddy.

Soldier Lake in the distance - smaller than usual I imagine.

By now we were feeling the effects of the altitude.  Although we pregamed with chlorophyll-oxygen supplements and took the prescribed doses of Diamox, we suffered from nausea, headaches, swollen sinuses, bloody noses and of course shortness of breath.  The Diamox made our fingers vibrate which was annoying.  Additionally we experienced some cognitive issues, simple processes and tasks became an effort.  We acclimated some during our stay in Mammoth Lakes but the generally recommended 1-3 days at a higher altitude didn't relieve our symptoms.

Water crossing required we remove our shoes.

As we descended toward Rock Creek we negotiated several water crossings, this one shown below is no big deal but the path which appears to go right after you cross actually goes left (there's a small cairn but no other marking).

Go hard left after this crossing.

By the time we reached the Rock Creek camp area we were ready to be done for the day.  There's a bear locker here and Becky stored some of her extra food while we set up camp, filtered water and made dinner. Another early to bed. Traveling with 30 pounds of weight on my back made everything ache: legs, back, shoulders. Lying down helped.   Elevation gain today about 600'; loss about 1,500'; distance just under 10 miles (if you include the sidetrip to Soldier Lake). 

The brook (left of photo) babbled all night.

Coffee by the water.....

Day 3 -  hike to Crabtree:  After breakfast we broke camp and headed to Crabtree (10,330') via Guyot Pass.  This would be a good climbing day; the trail is a combination of flat open woods (sandy, a bit boring) and switchbacks.

Switchbacks make for easy ascents and before long we were at Guyot Pass.

View from the Pass.

The pass is a large open area.

Becky talking to the ranger (they do check permits).

Descending the other side of Guyot Pass we hit the rocks.  Large cracked chunks of granite towered over us and small rollers threatened to take our feet out from under us.

Lots of rocks and switchbacks.

We took the cutoff at Crabtree Meadow and a mile later stood in a field with camping to our right and a beautiful brook to our left.

This is the nicest place we camped and we were finally on the John Muir Trail!  With tents up we headed down to filter our drinking water and clean up. Ice cold, Whitney Creek was a little uncomfortable but we were so dirty it just felt good. I washed my shorts while still wearing them.

As was the case with the other two camping areas, everything with a scent had to be secured in our BearVaults - sunscreen, toothpaste, all food.  Nothing can be left unattended; we watched a chipmunk disappear in the stretch pocket of my pack looking for food! 

Ranger's cabin

Perhaps the best part of Crabtree is its open air toilet.  Two short panels around the thing provide just a bit of privacy.  Your head sticks out - a sign to those approaching that it's occupied. The front of the toilet is wide open, facing the trees.

On the subject of toilet habits - these woods are open and busy; it's hard to find a private spot especially around the campsites.  When you want to go, you often can't; timing, digging the hole, squatting, covering - not what you're used to. For five days our world was all about finding water and finding a place to go do our business.  So, by the time day 3 came around, I was happy to sit there....with my head sticking out - not caring who saw me! 

Creature comforts - the toilet.

Another early night, back still hurting. Elevation gain today about 1,200'; distance about 9 miles. 

Day 4  - hike to the pond above Guitar Lake: That morning we took our time picking up our site.  We wanted our next campsite to be near water and as close to the Mt. Whitney trail as possible (making for less travel on summit day) so we chose an area with a small body of water just above Guitar Lake. Becky stayed their before and large rocks had been placed at the site to provide a "bench" and a "kitchen." The view of Guitar Lake is spectacular and it's only 4.7 miles from the Mt. Whitney summit.  

But we can't get there too soon.  High above tree line (11,680') it's hot and out in the open; best to get there late afternoon.  We opted to spend part of the day enjoying Timberline Lake.

Timberline Lake - lush and serene.

We arrived at the campsite mid-afternoon.  As promised, it's beautiful but rocky and open, not even a rock to hide behind to do your business (yes, still focused on that). Plenty of water though, nice views particularly as the sun started to set, and more than a few friendly marmots.

Guitar Lake below.
Among the rocks....

Our little lake.

Cute, but like the chipmunks, just after our food.

Devoid of trees from which to hang our water for filtering, Becky used poles and rocks, which did the job quite nicely.

"Waterbar" using a hiking pole/rocks to hang the water for filtering.

The haze is most likely from the wildfires.
Getting ready for the next day.

All thoughts were on the next day when we would tackle Mt. Whitney. We arranged everything for a quick up and out and went to bed excited and nervous. Elevation gain today about 1,200'; distance about 4 miles.

Day 5 - Mt. Whitney summit and camping on Mt. Whitney trail: Up around 5 a.m. too nervous to eat we pocketed breakfast, picked up camp and headed toward the peak (Becky's tent stayed put as she would camp here a second night).

It was a morning of ascending switchbacks, breathing heavy from exertion and thin air ...stopping, continuing.

View of Guitar Lake and the campsite.

I started earlier than the others, my pack feeling heavier as the path steepened.  There are more than a few places on this section of trail in need of repair.  A crumbling path perched precariously above a long steep slide changed my mind about hiking ahead. I waited for Sandy for company.  

Sandy on the trail.

As we gained altitude our campsite fell away. It took just under two hours to get to the junction of the Mt. Whitney Trail. Here we waited for Becky and Diane.

Backpackers leave their heavier gear at this junction, opting to do the 1.9 miles to the Whitney summit with less weight. We sorted ours (double tying the compactor bag in case of rain) and left it there for our return.

The "shelf" where everyone entrusts their gear to marmots.

Coming up the trail

Making my way on the narrow path.

The trail hugs the side of the mountain.  Of course the views are amazing, but the footing in several spots harrowing enough to demand 100% concentration.  There's one section in particular where there's a drop off so fierce they'd never be able to recover you!  We all took this part slowly, no room for people coming the other way.

One of Whitney's "windows."

Finally the trail turns in and heads up to the summit. The path is very rocky but now situated on solid ground without those OMG drop offs. I relaxed a bit but the sky was clouding up so I took note of several natural rock shelters nearby, just in case I got caught in one of Mt. Whitney's famous thunderstorms.

About the same time each of the five days on the trail we'd hear military planes flying - too high up to see. As I ascended I heard them again - this time I could see two planes flying close together, possibly a refueling exercise.  I imagine the planes are from nearby Edwards Airforce base. 

The summit hut in sight, I picked up my pace. After 5 days and 30+ miles of ups and downs, this was the icing on the cake!  My legs were tired, I was hungry but instead of resting and eating,  I got my summit photo and signed the register. BTW - the hut building is half empty room, half ranger office.  It's got a metal roof, no chance of being a shelter in a storm and it smelled horrible!

Made it!

Spectacular views on this high point.

Sandy arrived, then Becky and Diane and after a quick photo (sky was growing ominous) we headed down.

Down was as fast as we could safely go and it started to rain just as I hit the junction.  After transferring my heavier gear back into my pack and trying to keep everything dry by wrapping it all in the poncho I was pretty tired and starting to feel it in my legs.

Here comes the weather!

Everyone got down to the junction safely and after an emotional farewell to Becky (who now officially started her fifth round of hiking the JMT), we ascended to Trail Crest, then descended the many switchbacks toward Whitney Portal.

It wasn't our intent to hike out that day. The plan was to camp at Lone Pine Lake, below treeline, then hike the remaining 3 miles out the next day. 

But we were beat.  We were low on water and filtered some halfway down the switchbacks. The cables on the way down were no big deal but there is one iffy spot, you know the kind with rock slanted toward the cliff, that I needed talking through.  I was tired and didn't trust my legs.

We passed on tenting at Trail Camp (too rocky, too high) and with the help of the my Guthooks app found a nice campsite just below Trailside Meadow. (Note: now in the Whitney Zone, any "business" we had to do was not to be buried but put in the WAG bag and carried out.)

What was left of us wearily set up camp, barely ate and crawled into bed. Elevation gain today about 3,000', distance about 10 miles. 

Trailside Meadow.

Our last campsite.

The next morning we witnessed the most fantastic sunrise, the Sierra's last gift to us.

Mirror Lake.

We picked up, headed down and got to the Whitney Portal Store in time for lunch. Distance about 5 miles.

Lone Pine Lake in the way distance (our original camping plan).

After a nice hot fresh lunch, Kurt picked us up and brought us to the Best Western.  What a great trip!  

If you're not interested in doing the 22 mile-in-one-day trip to Mt. Whitney and have the time, this is a wonderful option. Can't wait to go back!

Gear BIG successes:  

 - Thermarest NeoAir X-Lite sleeping pad
 - Thermarest NeoAir pump (to blow up the pad each night)
 - Charging brick
 - Sawyer mini 
 - Deuce of Spades shovel (lightweight and functional)
 - Wright socks
 - Cheesy couscous
 - CLIF Blocks caffeine chews

GEAR fails:  

 - Rain poncho (as a rain coat and pack cover)
 - Handmade bottle holders, when the bottle was full it tended to slide out of the loop.
 - Solar phone charger (only worked once)
 - Down pillow (slippery, kept flying out from under my head)
 - Cracker and peanut butter packs (great food, crushed in bear can)