The Whitney Challenge

I don’t prefer physical challenges. Yet the Mt. Whitney stood there a very special place. It’s the highest point in contiguous United States. Beyond that, it’s also one of few accessible through a trail. This makes it a huge difference comparing to, say the highest point in China – Everest, where professional mountaineering skill is essential plus huge bucks.

I’ve been tempting to summit this mountain for a while. So back in 2014 when planning a road trip in California, I decided to stop near the lone pine for a distant look on the mountain and get more detailed information. So here it is, a map from National Geography and a picture.

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The center is actually the line pine peak, Whitney is right under the flag pole

It wasn’t until I got home that I found out the image was the wrong target. And the Whitney of course is so far way. This gives you a glimpse on the length of trail, a whopping 22 miles round trip! I gradually realized this wasn’t an easy task. Each year, some people got injured along the way or worse, lost their lives here. The complication is partly due to the altitude sickness after exertion. Other times, lack of buddy to overlook each other when accident happens.

In 2016, I met Weichen, a post-doc and an avid amateur mountaineer here in Michigan. This was the perfect chance to accept this challenge. Another big push to me was so much was going on with my life that I just want to forget. In May this year we didn’t get the lottery for an overnight permit. A slot in late July was the only option for two people.

So began our training, I picked a staircase with elevator next to it. And every other day, we set off a 99 floors of simulated hike with weight. Then the next day ran for cardio. The gradual push made me comfortable with even more weights. Three days before we left for Whitney, we peaked at 11 kilometer.

We packed in all gears needed for the hike. For your reference, head light and sufficient battery is critical as you don’t want to get lost in the middle of night or fall off cliff! Trekking poles can be helpful crossing the creek and on the way down. Lastly, don’t forget to bring food, candy and water. On the website it suggests 3 liters per person per day and that really is the minimal. There is water supply along the way if you bring your filtration device. But if not, bring plenty water!

The Great Sand Dunes

Monument Valley

Navajo Mountain and Colorado-San Juan River Junction

Lake Powell, Page, Glen Canyon Dam, Horseshoe Bend and Antelope Canyon

Grand Canyon

At that time, flight to Las Vegas was the most affordable. We arrived the previous day at noon. After getting the car and filling ourselves full with buffet, we headed toward California through the Death Valley National Park.

Badwater Basin

 

Stovepipe Wells and Sunset

By the time we got to lone pine, it was already dark. We retrieved the permit from a small locker next to the visitor center. Then we immediately checked into motel just to get enough sleep for the hike next day.

Day use permit at Whitney

Sky was clear in high Sierra early next day. We left the motel at 3:30AM before dawn. There was 20 minutes’ drive from lone pine to the Whiney Portal. From there we started the actual hike at 4:15. Just after the third switchback, we encountered the first trouble at the north fork of lone pine creek. Water level was unusually high that made us to trek it through with bare foot. The standing rocks were mostly submerged.

Moon and Venus, looking back down the valley

The trail stayed on one side of mountain for the next half hour of hike until you hit the Lone Pine Lake. The first crossing has tree log bridges. After a while, we hit another submerged section without any bridge. For once more, we took off our boots to cross it.

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Me crossing the log bridge near Lone Pine lake

In the next hour, we saw the first sign of snow. The unusual heavy precipitation last winter at California has left so much snow to melt. And of course, the flooding alone the Whitney trail.

Daybreak above the Lone Pine Lake

Alone the route the trees recedes rapidly. After passing the outpost campground below the mirror lake, landscape transforms into barren rock faces. Occasionally, there’s patches of flower scatter between the melting snow.

The traverse is at the top of this huge snow patch

Then we encountered the first challenge. A part of trail completely covered in snow and we don’t have any ice climbing equipment as we didn’t expect this so late in the season. For each step forward, we made sure the trekking pole is deep solid in the snow and the other foot wasn’t slipping at all. I was scared since this was my first time attempting something so steep on ice.

The red arrow indicates the traverse covered in ice

At 10AM we finally arrived at the trail camp upstream of Consultation Lake. As we watched the huge massif and icy slope, chances of making to top at noon faded away in a flash. Altitude had already taken effect on my body when I saw my fingernails starts turning purple. We spent 15 minutes recovering ourselves with water and candy. Then we put on the sunscreen before march ahead to the endless 99-switchbacks that will quickly rise from 12,000 feet to trail crest at 13,600.

Looking back down at the Consultation Lake (right) and the Trail Camp Pond (left)

The last switchback, traversing a 40 degree ice slope

Had I succumbed to the previous scary icy traverse, then I probably wouldn’t have to suffer this near heart stopping endeavor at 13500 feet. After the last switchback, we had to traverse two more continuous patches of melting snow just before the trail crest. OMG! A 500 meter 40 degree slope is waiting for your slip at any single step. I tried not looking down. But at every step, I have to just to make sure I secured my foot at the right place.

Exhausted at the trail crest

This little guy wants my food!

At 4100 meters, I started to feel the pain in my stomach. I know I was exhausted, so was my buddy. But there was no appetite to eat. The weird feeling of thin air here is taking a toll! I essentially forced the lunch into my mouth. With the projected timing, we will at most arrive after 2PM. We dropped some of our backup supplies at the John Muir Trail Junction and we pushed on.

The Hitchcock Lakes in the Sequoia National Park

The final 2 miles to the summit was a completely different experience. Here traversing across the west flank of peaks leading to Whitney, it was dry and hot unlike the icy north slope of the valley we trekked up. For this portion, we were left with a single bottle of water for both of us. So we had to preserve as much as we can.

A final few steps toward the victory!

Oh I forgot, we brought two cans of beer! Cheers!

Finally, we made it at 2:20PM. And cheers! We brought two cans of beer, but only for photography. I sip once cause I knew alcohol would make you dehydrate even quickly. So we just left the other can inside the hut. We log our name into history and then for some serious view!

The highest 360 panorama in contiguous United State

(click for 360 link)

I took a 360 panorama on the top of Whitney, with love. There was absolutely no time to shoot a time lapse. We headed down immediately.

The needles next to the last 2 miles up

Started our way down at 3PM

At the trail crest, I felt we probably would not make it to the top. Now I had a sensation of dying due to dehydration before reaching the trail crest. Half way down, we consumed the last drop of water. It was a race against time until we dehydrate or make it back to the trail junction. There we have 1 more liter for both of us.

Some of the trail section is dangerously close the cliff edge

But to get more water, we would have to make it back down to 12000 feet at the trail camp, where most campers were. So I still have to think about that icy traverse again. We saw some daring climbers slid down the icy slope. That was really a dangerous move given melting snow with low friction and exposed rocks.

As the trail camp got closer, the hope of surviving finally overtook the fear of death. We met someone alone the route who kindly gave us filtered water. The fresh melting ice water was cold, yet so refreshing! The sun already falls behind the massif. We would have to made it faster to get back to the Whitney Portal before it’s dark again.

We skid down the frozen ice of lone pine creek

To conserve time, we follow the fresh trace of others alone the ice on the lone pine creek. We stayed away from the rocks where cracks most often formed. But in the end, there’s a moment we had to get back on the trail when getting close to the snow line. Sunset happened by the time we got close to the Mirror Lake. We got back onto the trail, turned on our head lamps and continued down the mountain.

We followed the river on the way down. GPS record

The flooding was even worse after a day of melting snow washing down in torrent. But this time, we trekked right across the creek. The cold ice actually made a beneficial effect like pain killer to our heating and swelling ankle.

The milky way came out, for the first time I’ve ever seen in high Sierra. It was so clear. With the calm air at high altitude, those stars barely twinkled! I decided to sit down for a five minute rest, just enjoy the sound of nature from waterfalls, insects, birds and the starry nights through the gaps between those tall pine trees.

We finally got back to the portal. Both cellphones battery went dry. Buddy’s GPS watch also stopped recording between the Mirror Lake and the Lone Pine Lake. It was fulfilling feeling after such an achievement. 22miles/36km round trip in snow icy condition without proper gear. It was close to midnight when we checked into hotel. I took a shower and fell asleep immediately when I touched bed. My leg still hurt the second day. That morning, I finished three plates of breakfast while watching sun light shine on the Mt. Whitney.

Sun set behind the Sierra mountain range at Owen Lake

We left the lone pine before sunset. I really need to treat myself with star gazing. Next stop was the Dante’s View over watching the Badwater Basin of Death Valley.

Along the high way, shimmering lights filled the distant void of desert. I wondered, would I one day stand on the top of that peak again or I might never wish to challenge myself with some like this. But one thing was certain, I had just left my lingering love on the top. Good night, Mt. Whitney!

The Milky Way Arch over Badwater Basin

(Click for 360)

Written on Oct 15, 2017

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