Tuesday, June 20, 2017

2017_06_20: A Mount Whitney Experience

Author:  Conor Collins


It all began in February when I was sitting in a coffee shop in Santa Barbara actively searching for a distraction from the day to day grind of college classes. I found myself on the recreation.gov webpage applying for a permit to summit a mountain I had only heard of once before. “Mount Whitney, the highest peak in the lower 48,” I thought to myself, that ought to give me some much-needed motivation to get outdoors. A few months passed and I found myself on the train heading to the Burbank airport, heading home for spring break. Around 6AM I get an email from the park service informing me I was one of the lucky 30% of applicants that managed to secure a Whitney Zone permit from the lottery. The preparations began.

My permit was originally for two people, myself and a friend of mine from high school, Joe. I decided I was willing to gamble on permit availability, and invited 3 friends from college to join us in the endeavor before my permit was confirmed. On April 1st, the day to claim your permit and make any modifications to group size, I found myself anxiously waiting, staying up until midnight to stake my claim. The time came, and I was successfully able to increase the group size of the group to 5 people, having only to change the date of our entry by one day, June 20th. The date was set.

We had 12 weeks between the time I claimed the permit and the date of the actual summit attempt. Over that time was spring quarter at UCSB, where I managed 18 units of engineering physics, organic chemistry, vector calculus, and research in a graduate chemistry lab. Thankfully my hiking companions were just as stoked as myself, which made the weekend hiking/ training excursions that much easier to bare despite the constant workload of college courses.

Around two weeks before the summit attempt I found myself checking the trip reports available on the “Whitney Zone” forum for hikers, where I realized this summit attempt wouldn’t simply be a “hike,” but rather a crampon, gator, and ice-axe requiring trek up insane snow fields and untamed conditions. The two weeks before the hike passed so quickly I can hardly remember what I even did during that time.

Two days before the scheduled day for our permit to summit, we drove from Santa Barbara to Lone Pine. We camped at the Horseshoe Meadows campground, about 20 miles outside of town, and at an elevation of 10,000ft. The thought was the use the high-altitude camp as a chance to gauge our readiness for the heights of Mount Whitney, a sort of acclimation to the high sierra. Thankfully the night went by without a hiccup- besides the massive mountain mosquitoes whom were attracted to our gas pool of carbon dioxide (thanks to our deep, sea-level breaths).

The following morning, we woke up to the sunrise at 4:30AM, before picking up our campsite and
heading down to lone pine for a nice breakfast around 8:00. After checking with the hostel, we were told we could check-in at noon, giving us a solid amount of time to explore the Alabama hills- a recreation area where many of the classic John Wayne western films were shot. Once noon rolled around we moved into our room for the next two days, put on some hiking gear, and headed for Whitney Portal. Our plan was to do the first two miles of the Whitney hike (the amount you’re allowed to do without having a permit) as a way to gauge difficulty,

as well as acquaint ourselves with the part of the trail we would be doing in the dark the day of the summit attempt. The first two miles are primarily switchbacks, with the occasional stream crossing. We reached the “Whitney Zone” the area were permits are required for further travel in, where we reached the first major snow patch along the route. Getting an idea of what’s ahead we took a break, went to Lone Pine lake (a lake just next to the trail at the 2-mile mark) and headed back to the hostel for a good night’s rest.

The following day came quickly, and lasted not much more than a few hours. We woke up, made sure our gear was in order, packed our bags, ate some foods high in carbohydrates, took a sleeping pill and were asleep by 3PM; the alarm set for 10:30PM that night. 10:30 came quickly. We assembled ourselves, climbed into the car, and drove to the portal- about 13 miles up the road. Arriving at 11:30, we were on the trail with our headlamps and trekking poles in no time. The first two miles went by with only a small interruption: a set of eyes reflecting our lights off in the distance. Being cautious, we approached slowly before I was able to make out the faint shape of a deer’s body. (The area has a high bear population, and thanks to the multiple warnings by rangers at the permit station, we weren’t about the take any risks.) In what seemed like a few minutes but was actually around two hours, we reached the two-mile mark, were we entered the Whitney Zone.

At the entrance we noticed a small, single, headlamp coming off the mountain as we were taking a short break and strapping on our crampons. We decided to wait to learn more about the trail
conditions, and ask why he was coming off the mountain at such a strange time (around 1:30 in the morning). The lone traveler got to us eventually, wearing only shorts and a t-shirt, along with a smaller than expected pack, which is pretty unusual given the mountain conditions and chilly night-time temperature. We questioned him once he arrived, and he shared some pretty disconcerting news about the level and swiftness of the creeks to come. His explanation for the strangely-timed descent down from the mountain was due to his own error, mainly traveling alone, and secondly because he slipped into a creek and soaked his gear after unknowingly veering from the trail. With that advice and some good wishes, we continued our journey up the slopes of Whitney- 15 miles to go.

Shortly after entering the Whitney Zone we came across the first creek crossing the guy mentioned, it was shallow- nothing standard gortex hiking boots couldn’t manage, and we continued on. About a mile later we came across a roaring creek. Trump would most likely use words such as “Very loud. Incredibly loud, the loudest” to describe it. We quickly noticed that this creek (river) would be too large to simply cross. As a result, Joe and I hoisted a large rock and placed it with a little luck in the middle of the river to create the vital missing stepping stone. One by one we made our way across, using our gators to deflect any water that managed to run up the boot. Everyone made it over without so much as getting their feet wet.

At that point, we entered the first “base camp” of Mount Whitney- Outpost Camp. We decided to stop there and grab a quick bite to eat before continuing forward. Just after leaving the camp we encountered the conditions that the solo hiker mentioned earlier, an impassible river crossing. I knew something had to be wrong because I probably spent more hours doing research for this trip then I did studying for the classes in my spring quarter, so I pulled out my GPS with the route I had pre-programmed into it. Sure enough, we made the same mistake he did, we were off course. I took twenty paces to the right, and we were back on the trail.

After no time at all, the trees had disappeared, and the snow fields became the entirety of the dark horizon. One step at a time we carefully placed our crampons into the sub-par snow slope as we inched our way up the remaining 5 miles to the summit. Around 4:20am some faint light from the morning sun began to show on the mountainside. Around 5:30, the time we reached the final basecamp before the summit push, the sun was casting a magnificent glow on the granite walls that surround Whitney. 

At around 12,000 feet in elevation, a few of us were beginning to notice the low levels of oxygen. Thanks to Abby, we each had another pill of Diamox, as well as corticosteroid designed for combating the side effects of AMS. What lay ahead of us was the most intimidating portion of the summit attempt. Called “the chute,” (a portion of the hike up Mount Whitney normally traversed by the “99 switchbacks” a 1,500-foot snow wall that appeared to be nearly vertical loomed just off in the distance.

After collecting ourselves at Trail Camp we decided to break the chute into four parts; we stopped for a breather at the end of each quarter. Surprisingly, I don’t remember much from the ascent of that thing, besides knowing that if I dropped anything, a phone, a pole, myself, anything, it would never be recovered. Thankfully nothing of that nature happened.

At the top of the chute we reached Trail Crest, the point of the trail where you reach the top of the ridge-line that feeds into the Whitney summit. It also is the point where the Whitney trail joins with the John Muir trail. The vista at trail crest was totally incredible. You have a near 360-degree view of the eastern sierra range, as well as a complete view of the western back-country looking into Sequoia National Park. We had 2 miles to go to the summit.

The final two miles were snow-free, but almost entirely above 14,000 feet. Again, my memory is
faded, but the vista was incredible all the way to the summit. I felt like an entirety but following a small rock scramble the summit, and the little shelter at the top, were within an arms’ reach.

We had made it to the summit of the highest peak in the contiguous United States. The views were unlike anything I had ever seen before. Although not as defiant as Mount Rainier stands above the Puget Sound, Mount Whitney lends no doubt that it is far superior to any neighboring peak.

After spending some time “relaxing” at 14,508 feet, we realized we had enough cell service to make phone calls. I managed to call my dad and update him on our success. It was an incredible moment; something I will never forget. After some celebratory photos, we headed back- having only completed half the hike at that point.

The descent was fairly uneventful, with the exception of the glissade down the chute. Something that took up over two hours to ascend, we managed to descend in around ten minutes. Nerve racking? Yes. Would I do it again? Absolutely. After the chute, my mind went into autopilot, having only one goal of reaching the car and taking a warm shower. A juicy cheeseburger was on my mind as well.

Besides the incredible experience- something totally unforgettable, I wouldn’t have been possible without the incredible group of people that accompanied me. Abby, Sydney, Ezra, and Joe - you guys incredible. 

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