Saturday, July 30, 2005

Climbing Mt. Whitney

Since I last wrote, I've completed two semesters of school, gotten a job, made lots of friends, and been on a couple of vacations. One of those vacations was a trip last week to California for our Summer 2005 climb of Mt. Whitney, sponsored by BerkleyBar.

Mt. Whitney, standing at 14,497 ft., is the tallest mountain in the continental United States. It's about 200 miles north of Los Angeles, on the border of Kings Canyon and Sequoia National Parks.

I went to Whitney with my roommate Hyrum. He's a fairly avid hiker, and a few weeks after I moved in, he asked if I wanted to climb Whitney with him in the summer. It sounded like a lot of fun to me, so I agreed and he applied for the permit. Only 150 permits are issued per day, so not everyone who applies gets a permit. However, we were lucky and were assigned 21 July 2005.

To prepare for the hike, I bought some new boots, a headlamp, and a few other things. I also trained physically. In the three weeks before the hike, I went up to the Y four times. I started from my apartment (near 800 N 100 W in Provo), biked to the Y trailhead, hiked up to the top left corner of the Y, and then ran down and biked home. It's a fun, but strenuous climb that takes about an hour, round trip.

We left Provo at 5 a.m. on Wednesday, 20 July, and arrived in Lone Pine, California at 2 p.m. after an uneventful drive on U.S. Highway 6 across the Nevada desert. We drove through Humboldt National Forest without seeing a single tree except the handful that were planted at a "rest stop" in the middle of nowhere. The rest stop consisted of a gravel lot, a barbed wire fence, a trash can, and a couple of porta-potties. Nice.

We spent the rest of Wednesday getting a camp site at Whitney Portal, mailing some post cards, setting up camp, and reading. We were in bed by 8 p.m., but didn't fall asleep for a while because of the heat. It was over 100 degrees Farenheit in Lone Pine, and probably 80 degrees at our camp site.

We got up at 3 a.m. and were on the trail by 4 a.m. on Thursday. We wanted to get an early start to avoid being on the ridge line when the afternoon thunder storms hit. We made good time most of the day, passing a few people who had started at 2 a.m. The views were incredible. The trail follows streams for quite a while, so we got to see lots of flowers and plant life. There are a few lakes and meadows at pretty high elevations, which surprised me. It's cool to finish climbing a pretty steep section of the mountain and then find yourself in a beautiful mountain meadow with a gurgling stream flowing through the middle and majestic mountains on both sides.

About seven miles into the hike we reached Trail Camp, where many people who do the hike in more than one day stay for the night. Trail Camp is in a large, flat-bottomed bowl, but after that are 99 (or so) switchbacks that lead up to Trail Crest, where you can see over the ridge into the next valley. Trail Camp is at about 12,000 ft., and by that point we could feel the effects of the thinner air. Neither of us got altitude sickness (thankfully!), but we took things a bit slower and rested a bit more. One really cool thing about the switchbacks is that there is a spring that runs straight down them, so we walked through water on each switchback. There were a few places where the water flowed under the rocks and would emerge a few turns higher up.

We reached Trail Crest at about 10 a.m. and stopped for lunch (raspberry sweet rolls—yum!). There was a man resting there who must have been in his 60's who has climbed Whitney 107 times! He climbed the mountain for the first time in the 1950's with some friends because they heard that there was going to be a nuclear test and they wanted to see it. Sure enough, they were up there at the right time and saw a mushroom cloud off in the distance.

After lunch we hit the trail again. The final two hours were a lot of work. We were at higher elevation, so we weren't quite as quick, and the trail was more up-and-down because we were on the ridge. Every step down was a step that we'd have to take back up again. We kept a close eye on the weather while we were on the ridge. It's very exposed, and there's no where to go if lightning strikes. Luckily, the weather stayed away while we were up there.

We summitted at 11:48 a.m., exactly 7 hours and 48 minutes after we had started on the trail. The view from the top is pretty incredible. We saw a number of mountain lakes, valleys, sheer cliffs, and, of course, the surrounding Sierras. The weather at the top was pleasant, probably about 60 degrees, with a light breeze. We rested up there for a while and talked to some of the other hikers while enjoying delicious and nutritious BerkleyBars.

The bad thing about hiking 11 miles up to the summit was that we had to hike 11 miles down to the trailhead. Of course, it's easier to go down than up, but it's still a lot of work. We left the summit at 12:30 p.m. We were glad when we finally reached Trail Crest, because that meant no more up-and-down.

The last five miles about killed me. My feet hurt, my legs were tired, and we could see the road, but it didn't seem to get any closer. A thunderstorm hit when we were two or three miles from the trailhead. We didn't get too wet, but we were certainly glad that we weren't on the ridge then. We waited under a tree for a few minutes while pelting hail fell from the sky.

We reached the trailhead at 6:36 p.m., for a round-trip time of 14:36. We hobbled over to the bear boxes, loaded our stuff into the car, and headed back down to Lone Pine. I had a nice, fatty, chicken bacon swiss burger for dinner. We stayed at a Super 8 in Bishop for the night and then headed home early the next morning. We had planned to wake up at 5 a.m., but we didn't get up until 6:30. We were tired.

The trip to Whitney was a lot of fun. The climb itself was one of the more demanding things (physically) that I've done in my life, but it felt great to be on top. If I did it again, I'd probably stay at Trail Camp for the night and do the hike in two or three days. The views were beautiful, from the springs and streams to the snow masses to the ubiquitous little blue flowers to the breathtaking vistas on the summit.

All of the images in the post are copyright 2005 Hyrum Wright.

Word of the day: spelunking

the practice of exploring caves. I got stuck in a cave the last time I went spelunking.