Mt. Whitney had been on my radar for a long time. Since sixth grade when I learned it was the country’s high point excusing Alaska, I had a mind’s eye to climb Whitney but it never grabbed me like Rainier or Denali. I’d driven by the massif a couple time on 395 and again said I’d do it but enthusiasm was low.
I was watching some mountaineering documentaries one night and my youthful passions to climb big peaks instantly blotted out my other hobbies. I’d become an experienced hiker and backpacker but I’d lived in California for two years and still hadn’t pushed myself into mountaineering. I checked the spring weather on Whitney, went to REI and finally got myself my own ax and crampons. Until that point, the highest summit I’d reached was Mt. Mansfield’s at 4,393′. Whitney, a 22 mile round trip topping out at 14,496, was uncharted territory.
Whitney is known as one of the easiest 14’ers in California so I wasn’t out of my mind but a dozen hours after deciding I wanted to climb it, I was on the dark and clear 405 freeway, bound for the Inyo National Forest. Whitney lies very south on the Sierras and is a quick three hour drive from Los Angeles. In no time I was picking up my permit from the Mt. Whitney Ranger Station a couple miles south of Lone Pine.
The road to the Whitney Portal, lying at is eleven miles on the Whitney Portal Rd. At the portal there’s a campground, parking spaces and a charming rustic store that serves tasty food and cold beer. I strapped on my boots, weighed my pack at 31 lbs. and started up the trail. The trail begins with immediate switchbacks up rough, blinding white granite.
Within twenty minutes I crossed the first stream, a short, shallow rock hop where the Main Trail breaks off with the Mountaineers Route, the one John Muir established on his ascent. I was to use the main trail, the easiest and most frequented route to the top and continued uphill, tip toeing across the North Fork of the Lone Pine Creek, and into the John Muir Wilderness.
Lone Pine Lake was my first landmark at 2.7 miles. I dropped my pack and had some water by the lake, snapping a few pictures. I didn’t stop for long having planned to take my real break at Mirror Lake, a solid 4.3 miles into my 6 mile day. From Lone Pine Lake the trail became more scenic and more demanding, climbing blocky stone past 10,000’ as I entered the Whitney Zone. At 3.8 the trail meaders through Outpost Camp and I met a couple guys taking a break, a father and son type. They’d been at Death Valley and wanted to go from the lowest point to the highest. Outpost is a beautiful camp but is a longshot from the summit. Folks camping here are typically making a 3 day trip of Whitney. I said 'so long' and kept moving.
The trail passed fields of purple and orange shrubs still waiting to bloom, blonde grasses matted from melted snow and a bright copper river snaking through the middle. I crossed a long log foot bridge and climbed higher, reaching Mirror Lake, a dark emerald body with trout trimming into the shallows. I took off my boots and soaked my feet in the cold water. I ate walnuts and wrote some notes. I reflected on the relief I felt, the joy of being out of the city, away from work. I was in the mountains, exhausting myself for a sound cause.
Beyond Mirror Lake the trail climbed steeper and I crossed the snowline. The trail was clear with the exception of some shaded knolls but Trail Meadow, which runs parallel to the trail was filled in with snow and waterfalls bursting through vertical ice. I approached Consultation Lake and knew I was nearing Trail Camp, six miles from the trailhead at 12,000’.
At trail camp, the austerity of Mt. Whitney becomes ever present. The meadows of subtle spring life, the stands of trees, are all far below. Trail Camp is a moonscape of white rubble. In the maze of debris lie flat nooks, usually marked by cairns or stone wind blocks. There is a small tarn behind the camp so I picked a spot, set up camp and filtered water.
The two men I met at Outpost Camp got to trail camp a bit later and set up a ways away from me, out of sight. I was lying on a rock reading when the older gentleman, Rick, walked up to chat.
“Whatcha reading?” he asked.
“Oh just some philosophy,” I said.
“Oh yeah?” he asked, “Eastern, huh?”
“Yeah,” I said. “Krishnamutri, just started it.”
“We’re up here on a church trip, he and I” he said referring to the younger guy.
“Well it’s a beautiful place to worship. Who needs a church when you can be out here?” I said.
“Well it’s nice to have both, wouldn’t have either without God,” he said.
“Oh I don’t think these rocks mind either way,” I joked. “They’ve been here for billions of years.”
“Well I’m a strict creationist,” he said with a harmless chuckle. “There’s just too many gaps in the fossil record.”
He was going there. He was daintily pulling out all the stops to proselytize and I was taking the bait.
“Well, I mean just because we haven’t found every species doesn’t mean they never existed. Everything around us is a lesson in Earth Science.”
“No, no, it’s all in the bible and the fossil record doesn’t add up. Even Darwin, your old buddy Darwin, he’s a smart guy. Even he admitted that.”
I’ve debated religion before and had no desire to go down that rabbit hole at 12,000’ on the side of a mountain.
“We’ll have to agree to disagree.”
“Yeah that’s totally cool,” he said, cool guying me. “We’ll just be down here, we should climb together in the morning.”
“Great,” I thought. “Sounds good,” I said and he bumbled away.
I cooked dinner and hung out in my tent as the wind picked up and the sky darkened, asleep by 9:00 for a 4:00am start.
I didn’t sleep well as the wind shook my tent at elevation. I had a nagging headache as well from the altitude. Around midnight the younger kid came up to my tent.
“Hey Ted,” he said. “We’re going down, Rick has altitude sickness.”
I wished him good luck. Must’ve been part of God’s plan.
At 4:00 my alarm went off. I’d been laying awake, waiting for it to chime for nearly an hour and hopped up to lace my boots. I had a small summit pack ready with food, water, first aid, crampons and ax. I threw on my headlamp and made my way through the boulders in the dark.
The way most ascend the 2.2 miles from Trail Camp to Trail Crest at 13,600’ is by climbing 99 switchbacks on a ridge to the looker’s left of the face above camp. In the first week of May the face and trail were snowed in and the snow offers an even better route, a direct ascent up a wide, steep chute. I made it past the rocks of trail camp and was onto the chute in minutes. Even at 4:00am the snow was soft and crampons were overkill. There was only two other lights on the mountain, one far to the left whom I suspected was going for the switchbacks who eventually turned around and one overhead that I was gaining on.
He waiting for me as I approached. “Hey, what’s your name?” he asked.
“Ted,” I said, “and you?”
We began hiking together and within five minutes of chatting we connected that his best friend was Nat Lewis, my English Department chair at Saint Michael’s College. St. Michael’s is in Vermont, Jeff was from Minnesota and it was a remarkable connection to make on the side of a California peak at 4:30 in the morning.
Jeff had just retired, and today was his fiftieth birthday. He’d been on the road hiking and exploring for the past month and had a few weeks left on his victory lap. We talked about hikes he’d done in Vermont, funny stories about Nat. I talked about what brought me to California, cycling, climbing and so forth. Alone, in the dark, he was a great companion. He was a strong guy too and we challenged each other up the chute to Trail Crest as the sun began to rise. I admired his excitement to bang around the west by himself, ticking off goals he’d waited years to achieve. We reached the top of the chute and took a short break at Trail Crest.
From here, we passed into Sequoia National Park and could see much of it spread out before us. Guitar Lake was obvious with its namesake shape. We could see the route many take when climbing from the John Muir Trail. The landscape at 13,600 was craggy and jagged like the lair of a fantasy villain. The sun was bright by now and the spires of granite and snow consolidated around them glowed. We were less than 1000’ from the summit and pressed on for the final 2.8 miles. The grade is low and relaxed from this point as the trail weaves through fields of boulders along the traverse. It's a quick offshoot to tag another 14'er, the class 3 Mt. Muir from the crest. With heaving breaths we agreed to skip it. The thinness of air was evident but not disabling. Lack of appetite and a mild sensory haze were the worst it got but I still wasn't ambitious enough for Muir. We marched on and could soon see the stone hut on the summit.
By 10:00am we were at the top. We checked out the hut and I wished Jeff a happy birthday. I was happy to have run into him. He had a small banner noting the mountain, date and elevation and we took turns holding it for pictures. The wind was whipping and I shivered on the exposed peak. We started back down sooner than later.
Back at trail crest we tried our best to glissade down the steep shoot. I found it best to run/ski down, twisting my blisters into the heels of my boots painfully as I slid. I left Jeff to break down my camp and we agreed to meet up shortly below Trail Camp.
The six miles back to the trailhead were quick but we both complained there was a lot more trail than we had remembered coming up.
“What did you do to train for this?” Jeff asked.
I was sheepish. I didn’t train at all, I just Googled it two nights earlier and did it. I said I trained on my bike and backpack regularly. I felt like I had to say something to be taken seriously but hell, we’d both just climbed the same mountain. I just didn’t want to say I drink beer and ride bikes to the beach with my wife. I was inspired though, to climb more mountains, to take rock climbing classes, to learn my ropes and someday be a real alpinist.
We hurried down the trail and stumbled upon a sooty grouse on a casual stroll. We followed behind him, quietly admiring the exotic bird, guessing what species he may be. Down off the inhospitable reaches of Whitney, it was nice to see life again in such impressive form.
Soon after, we were back at the trailhead. Jeff bought me a beer and we sat outside the Portal Store blissfully. We’d chatted non-stop for most of the day and were pleased to sit in grinning silence. We’d gotten to know each other well enough during the day that there was no need to fill gaps with chatter. We were too tired to anyhow. Jeff was off to Yosemite, I was headed back to LA. I said I had to beat 405 traffic and a dude relaxing near us said he’d already given up that fight. He kicked up his feet and said he’d wait for night.
We’d all climbed for something else. I wanted a start, Jeff was celebrating a finish, the stranger was content where he was. But we all sat there satisfied with the same feeling of being in the mountains.