Monday, July 11, 2011

Day 43 (6/29) On Top of the Country

Today was the big day to summit Mt Whitney, the highest point in the continuous 48 states. I didn't really get nervous for the climb, despite the fact that we would gain over 4,000 feet of elevation, going well above anything I had ever experienced. Steamy, Positive ID and I would all be doing it together, so being in a group added some level of comfort.

Before we left though, Positive ID had a little run in with the bear box. These are metal lockers used to store food so bears can't get it. Well last night Steamy unlocked it, and after we put our stuff in, Positive ID was still finishing his meal. Since it was late, we took off for bed, and left him at the box. Somehow, he was unable to figure out how to lock it (there are two spring loaded metal clasps) so he jerry rigged it closed using a rock and tent stakes. We heard about this in the morning and we mercilessly made fun of him for being no smarter than a bear.

Once we finally stopped laughing we had to do a sizable creek crossing. As my ankle still hurts, I've been using my old shoes instead off the boots. While normally not a problem, I had expected to use these as stream shoes, and I didn't want to get then wet first thing in the morning. So barefoot was the choice, and I went across that 15 foot span as fast as possible. Nonetheless, the short time in there was enough to make my toes numb, probably because this is ice cold snow melt water. We all dried our feet on the other side, only to hit another crossing in about a mile. This one was much more painful for some reason, and it took quite awhile before I was walking normally again without babying my toes. We got to the Crabtree ranger station and dumped all our extra gear in the bear box. I wouldn't need my next 5 days of food, my tent, my sleeping bag, or some other stuff. So walking out my pack felt amazing. I almost couldn't even tell it was there. Essentially all I carried was my layers of clothes, extra socks, my ice axe, boots, and food for the day. This must be how those ultra-light hikers feel, and boy is it ever nice.

The first few miles were cake - the trail was clear, if a bit muddy, and it was a nice gentle slope. Then we hit Timberline Lake and things began to change. We would lose the trail briefly under snow only to find it again shortly. But then we came to a part where the snow didn't ever break, and we only had our maps and some faded footsteps to go by. We took a short break, and were greeted by one of the masters of this mountain, a marmot. These curious little guys are about the size of a beaver, and they are the kind of animal you automatically want to pet. We watched this one for awhile, and later had a group of five around us at one of the higher lakes. They were a fun distraction during the early ascent, and I'm glad I got a few nice photos of them.

Although the marmots provided sound fun, the best part was watching the scenery unfold around us. Once we climbed to Guitar Lake, the opposite side of the valley began to offer spectacular views of the rest of the mountains we would cross in a few days. We lost the trail again, but saw some switchbacks higher up the mountain, so we cut across snow and climbed up to get there. At this point the difficulty level changed for me. The trail became steeper, and you couldn't avoid the snow on the trail - you had to go across. The ice axe came out to provide stability. We climbed for hours, until finally we reached the trail junction where the trail down the other side meets up with ours. From here it was just 2 miles to the top. The altitude wasn't hurting me as much as I originally expected, but I was very clearly slowing down as a result of it. Then again, that wasn’t a bad thing as it allowed me to enjoy the views. It just kept becoming more spectacular. Sadly, the wind had really picked up, so I put on a layer and gloves, which prevented me from taking photos for the last two miles. We met a number of people coming down from the summit, returning to the Whitney Portal they had come up. One group gave us some excellent advice about the final snowfield; don't bother with the trail, just go straight up it and rejoin the trail up top. Excellent advice that made the final ascent much safer by cutting down on the time we spent on icy snow. When we hit the summit, we were the only ones there, and had it all to ourselves. After a victory yell the first order of business was to warm up out if the wind, so we huddled in the small hut built for exactly that purpose. We all figured they must have used a helicopter to get all the materials up, that is until we saw it was built in 1909. Impressive. After eating lunch and warming ourselves in the hut, we ventured outside for photos and to soak in the view. We could see back to Mt Langley, which we crossed two days ago, and then dozens of snow capped peaks to the north, our next challenge. As I took it all in, I realized I had never seen anything quite like it, and probably wouldn't again. What an experience. Its this kind of day that really make the trip for me.

Now, time for the return to the valley floor. Going down was great, except when we had to cross snow while descending. Then you take extra caution with each step, especially on the sun softened snow of the afternoon. As we descended ominous dark clouds gathered overhead, but fortunately didn't dump anything on us or make life miserable with a lightning storm (numerous signs warned of that danger). That was lucky, and we were sure glad we left the summit when we did. I was lagging the others by a bit due to my ankle, but they were kind enough to wait up every mile or so. When wet got off the switchbacks, it was back into miles of now soft snow. Every few steps my foot would punch through, rewarding me with a nice jolt to the knee, along with a shoe full of snow. Postholing as it is fondly called is one of the big problems you face walking on snow in the afternoon. Ah well, the last few miles down were a breeze and we made it back to the meadow and our gear right about 8pm. So much for this being an easy day. My legs were spent, and my lungs were recovering from the punishment of such thin air. But on the whole I felt great knowing I had just summited the tallest peak in the continental US. Come on PCT, beat that!

Miles Today: 17 ( side trip)
Trip Mileage: 766

Photos: Looking west from Mt. Whitney

 Photo: Sierras from Guitar Lake

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