Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Hiking to the roof of Continental USA

Labor Day - September 4th 2006

So the day had finally come. After several changes in the list of people signed up for doing the day hike to the tallest mountain in the continental USA; four of us, Pradeep (who just came from India, 2 weeks ago), CK, Srikanth & I were the final four going to attempt the Big One; hiking Mt Whitney to the top via the Mt. Whitney Trail.

The access to Whitney trailhead is from the town of Lone Pine on Hwy 395 in the eastern sierra region of California. We started from Bay Area at about 10:30 AM on Saturday Sep 2nd; after several hours of boring driving through US-101, Pacheco Pass & I-5 we hit the interesting highway US-178. Passing through the beautiful Kern Canyons and crossing over the Coso range, we reach the most beautiful highway in the US, I-395. The afternoon clouds were superb.

We were in no time at our motel - The Mt. Whitney Motel; had dinner at Pizza Factory. We packed the mini-refrigerator in the motel room with water & gatorade for the hike.

I met with another bay area group who were climbing their sixth time in six years. They gave me advice to go slow to help with elevation gain related issues like AMS.

We didn't want to take any chances when it came to acclimatization/AMS as according to NPS records only 33% of the people attempting make it all the way to the summit.
We were also advised of taking the aspirin to fight the elevation; I didn't want to take any chances so, I took the prescription for Diamox too. It has some side effects like more frequent urination, tingling in palm/feet; but it usually works so who cares if you have to take a leak couple times more.

I had also decided to take a smaller pack this time (compared to the Half Dome, where my Marmot pack almost killed my shoulders by the time I was down at Curry Village). I took my regular 2 liter hydration pack and bought another 3 liter water reservoir; I stuffed both of them it the pack; filling 3 ltr with water & 2 ltr with gatorade. With the food, medical supplies and the fluids my pack was ready to burst anytime but I decided to take the chance :) I was also carrying my small Galen Rowell-Photoflex hip pack for my camera.

We went to bed soon so we could catch the sunrise next morning and do some short practice hike at Horseshow meadow (elevation close to 10,000 ft) to acclimatize.
The sunrise was beautiful; I have previously witnessed the 'Alpenglow' seen at higher elevations so it was nothing new but it was anyways beautiful.

Alpenglow on Mt Whitney -

Mt Langley - another of California's 14er

After the sunrise we drove to Horseshoe meadows which is at ~9,500 ft and we hiked on the Cottonwood Pass trail to about 10,000 ft; we were all feeling ok in terms of breathing and no one felt the elevation. We came back to the town to have a good Mexican lunch and pick up our permits from the visitor center. CK decided to rest and the rest of us decided to go to Whitney Portal to checkout the store/trailhead.

CK brought puliodhare mix and rice; we bought some plain yogurt and had the best dinner. Before going to bed we updated our goals for the next day.
Pradeep was going to go up to Trail camp, shoot some nice vistas and then head back.
Srikanth, CK & I decided that if any bodily injury happens or we get AMS issues, we'll turn back else we are going all the way up. Yeah, another thing… if rain or thunder storms come we were turning back.

The hike to the Whitney summit via the main trail is 22 miles round trip. Whitney Portal trailhead is at around 8,300 ft and Summit is 14,497 ft, so the elevation gain is about 6200 ft. We went to sleep by 7:30-8 PM and planned to wake up at 12:30 in the night and start the hike by 2:30-3:00 early morning.

We all easily got up as the alarm sounded at 12:30; I don't think any of us got any decent sleep; other guys had slept in the afternoon, but I didn't - so it was going to be tough on me; long hike with not much sleep. Surprisingly, after the bath I was feeling quite fresh.
We all got ready, had Horlicks and couple of bread with jam for breakfast; and headed towards Whitney Portal.

CK was driving but I was nervous; not about his driving but whether I was up for the task of completing. Just last weekend I had problems on Henry Coe Park Hike to Mt. Sizer; I didn't complete it and now I was having some doubts about Whitney but didn't really say anything.

We reached to the portal soon; there were a few other groups getting ready. By now I had forgotten about those doubts and it was feeling like just another hike (although I can't remember any other hike I started at 3AM). We set off soon; covering ourselves in 3-4 layers of clothing. I ensured my Nikon D50 with 18-200 lens was with me & I didn't forget my poles (I did forget 'em on the Half Dome hike and had to resort to wooden stick on the way down).

The trail is not very steep but I think we had just started and were just getting warmed up. Very soon we were all panting and wanted to get rid of our jackets; we stopped and took off our jackets. Couple of groups were passing us. We seemed to be going quite slow.
Looking up we could see fireflies (basically hikers with headlamps) along the trail up to quite far. We were thinking we got quite late start. About an hour into the hike, we entered special Mount Whitney zone of John Muir Wilderness area where entry is allowed only for the permit holders. Although, there's no one there to stop you but I have heard random permit checks are done during the day on the main trail and one could be turned around and/or get fined if found in Mt. Whitney zone without permit.

About two hours and fifteen mins later we found ourselves at the Lone Pine Lake mark (about 2.8 miles from the trailhead). We're indeed going slow; of course we didn't want to go to the lake at such hour.

We wanted to get to Mirror Lake by sunrise so we started again soon and tried to fast pace ourselves a bit. We crossed Outpost camp (3.8 miles mark) soon and reached Mirror Lake (4.3 miles mark) just before the sunrise. We rested there for a while and then CK & Srikanth moved ahead. Pradeep & I stopped at Mirror Lake anticipating the alpenglow on the needles. We were not disappointed. We took several shots and spent good 20-30 minutes there.

Thor Peak just before sunrise

Alpenglow on the needles

I can't tell if the right most peak here is Whitney (someone more knowledgeable please let me know)

After enjoying the sunrise, we sped a bit and headed on the switchbacks towards Trail camp. No one talks about these switchbacks but they felt strenuous and never ending.
Next 2 miles we would take about an hour and half to reach Trail Camp (6.3 miles mark) at 12,235 ft elevation. CK & Srikanth were resting there and probably waiting for us as Pradeep was to turn back from here.

We rested there for a while, had some snack and then Pradeep decided he wanted to continue. It didn't seem a bad decision at the time but we got a bit worried as he was not really prepared for this. Srikanth & CK decided to move ahead to the infamous 99 switchbacks; I decided to stay with Pradeep and hike together.

The switchbacks looked daunting from the trail camp. We decided to take one step at a time; met another group there; they were already descending; the lady advised us to pick our rock and move to that & then pick another; sounded like a strategy. By the time Pradeep & I started, Srikanth radioed us he was already on 33rd switchback; counting them made easier it seems.

So, we started counting too. CK radioed there that he's starting to get some hips pain and was wondering if he should continue; he was nearing sb20 or so.
Pradeep and I were going pretty slow up on the switchbacks; we made a target of reaching the Trail Crest by 11:00 AM.

Looking towards Trail Camp from the switchbacks

Pradeep was going a bit slower as his back had started hurting; his backpack didn't have any waist belt; and his shoulders were feeling the pain. He started to slow down. Soon CK radioed that he's waiting for us at the switchback 47 near the cables. We soon reached the cables and there CK said he's turning back as his pain was becoming worse; and anyways he'd crossed 13,000 ft mark by now :)

While we were trying to convince CK, we saw a park ranger came by; he checked our permits. It seems that it's his part of job to daily climb the main trail although he doesn't go to summit everyday. He warned us of the forming clouds as there were warnings of thunder showers in the Sierra Nevada range. The darkening clouds were worrying me too.

Mt Whitney from the switchbacks

Pradeep asked me to move ahead as he'll be coming slow. The switchbacks were getting harder & harder to climb. When I was around 60th sb, Srikanth radioed that he'd just reached the trail crest.

I would stop every few minutes and ask how long more to everyone descending. Everyone will have a different answer - someone says just 30 minutes more; someone said you are almost half way there (yeah, right… I having been walking for last 2 hours); finally someone said you are just 5 more switchbacks away & it will take only 30 minutes.

Damn!!! That was all I could say.

As it turned out… the last 9/10 switchbacks are really long; but they do end. I finally finished it at 11:50AM in about 2 and half hours.

Finally….. Trail Crest (8.5 miles mark) at 13,600 ft.

After reaching the Trail Crest, one can see the Sequoia National Park on the other side; the view from there is just awesome and the feeling of finishing the switchbacks make it even better.

Mt Hitchcock and Hitchcock Lakes in the background

According to the Whitney guide I was following; the most difficult part of the hike was over. I rested at the trail crest for a while before descending on to the next half mile to meet John Muir Trail to the Summit. I started very enthusiastically to finish the next 2 miles in one hour and hoping to reach the summit by 1:00 PM; but I was in for a big surprise.

Looking at the top of the needles

Looking down to Upper Boy Scout lake from the side of the Third Needle

The next two miles were really long… may be longer than any other 2 miles I ever walked on a mountain; they just didn't want to finish; the trail was very rocky and one needs to be really careful where you put your feet. My trekking pole got stuck between the rocks and I almost slipped. Srikanth radioed that he just reached the summit; I told him that I could see the Summit Hut now and I shall be there in half hour. Later Srikanth told me he didn't want to disappoint me so he didn't tell, but it was not going to be half hour :)

John Muir Trail to the Summit

Mt Whitney (summit hut can be seen) and Keeler Needle from the west slope

The minutes seem to be just passing by and the summit was still far; now I was targeting to summit by 2:00 PM. Someone descending told me once I am pass those snow patch, it's pretty easy walk from there. The snow patch looked quite far and the rate at I was going 2 o'clock also looked like a far fetched goal. I didn't have any other option at this point; I just had to take one step at a time and be there.

Finally at about 2:05 PM, I reached the summit (11.o miles mark); saw Srikanth there; signed the register; took some photos; had some lunch(sandwiches we packed). It was a happy moment; at this point I said to myself, I am gonna do it better next time :)

A bird's eye view from 14,497 ft the top of Mt Whitney (shot using a fish eye lens; a very nice guy lent it to me without me even asking; you can tell he knew the best shots are from the fish eye at such heights)

Srikanth & I with the Summit Hut in the background (I don't know what happened to the door there; anyone knows?)

Looking Southeast (needles in the close background, Inyo range in the far)

Victorious on the top :)

My alti-meter watch showing the 14,497 ft reading

We spent until about 3PM before starting our descend. To our greatest surprise we saw Pradeep on John Muir trail proceeding towards the summit

He was too close to go back, now but the day was closing and it was sure that we'll be descending in the dark. We asked him to start descending soon and wished him good luck.

The descend was not very easy as I had thought; although it was a bit faster.

One of the Hitchcock lakes in different light

We met few guys who were backpacking in the region for couple of days and had just started descending

We filled some water from the stream on the switchbacks; we had water purifier & odor removing tablets; it worked like a charm and the water was as sweet as one would expect alpine water to be.

Soon we were down from the switchbacks.

As we started descending from the Trail Camp, Pradeep radioed us that he's reached Trail Crest. It was already 6 o'clock; we had 6.3 miles to descend, it was putting us at about 8:30-9PM at trailhead. Pradeep had 8.5 miles to descend; we were a bit worried about his radio & torch batteries. We told him we'll keep in touch every mile and we started descending.

The descent was taking longer than what we previously thought. We were just trying to reach Mirror Lake before HE puts the light out. The sun was going down faster than we were.
Sunset clouds over Thor Peak

Inyo range at Sunset

By the time we reached Mirror Lake it was already dark; we were continuously trying to radio Pradeep but couldn't reach him. We just hoped that he was alright.

We could now talk to CK who was waiting for us at the trailhead. I slipped again and my ankle started aching a bit this time. We slowed down and finally made it to the trailhead by 10. It was a long day after 22 miles, 19 hours and about 6,200 ft of elevation gain (and loss); it was great to be back - I was looking forward to the pizza in the motel room.

After having few slices of Pizza & Beer, Srikanth & CK went back to the portal to wait for Pradeep. He finally came down by 2:30 AM with help of two guys he met at the summit. He has an interesting story there but I will let him word it himself; I'll put a link here once he's published it.

Next day, before starting out back to home; we went back to portal store to buy our rightfully earned "I Climbed Mt Whitney" T-shirts :)

One last look at the Mt Whitney from Lone Pine; buh-bye Whitney.

More pictures from the hike here

I am going to be in the area again end of September to do some photo shoot in Bristlecone Pine Forests.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Wow! That sounds and looks like a very scary climb. I am happy you made. Great one!

8:08 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Nice read Durgi. Glad you made it.

1:51 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Am glad you are back!!! Apnay sukhi parivaar ko peechay chodkar mountain-yatra ke liye chal pade?

Truly very impressed. Congratulations on attempting and staying the course!

5:39 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Congrats on being at the top! Great read, thanks for sharing the experience.

9:49 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

congrats dost
sach boloon "tusi chaa gaye guru"
its really always give me such pleasent feelings to see you on the TOP and your this effort shows your basic instict to take challenges.
Ab jyada nahi bas Dost Lage raho

10:50 PM  

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