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This weekend was one that I will never forget. After months of anticipation and planning, I headed north with several of my friends for my first attempt to summit Mt. Whitney, the tallest mountain in the lower 48 states with an elevation of 14,497 feet.
After driving up from Los Angeles Wednesday afternoon I turned off the 395 onto the Whitney Portal Road and had my first good glimpse of the ragged peaks rising into the sky. Truthfully my first thoughts as I drove up the winding road was that they looking menacing, and briefly a wave of unease for the upcoming trip rolled over me. Pushing that feeling aside, I focused on my excitement, and my hope to accomplish this daunting of a climb.
I reached the campground and met up with Jessica and Bryan, two of my group who were camping with me for the two days before the hike in hopes of gaining a bit of acclimatization since we all live at sea level. Those days were wonderful, peaceful and relaxing. Thursday morning we ate breakfast at the Portal Store, getting to experience the true wonder of the Portal Store Pancake…ours was so big it required two plates to hold, and was more than an inch thick, delicious, fluffy and tasty with a hint of cinnamon throughout. We walked around the portal, admiring the sheer beauty of the area, and enjoying everything but the mosquitos who wanted to make a meal of my neck (seriously.. at least 6 different bites on one area of my neck alone!). I wandered along the creekside trail through the campground, napped on a large log over the creek, read my book, played cards and just enjoyed being away from the hustle and bustle of LA life.
We had been warned that the bear activity in the area had been very high lately, and so took every precaution to stay safe, keeping all food and other items in the bear locker, especially after sundown. I was very nervous about the bears. Wednesday night a bear wandered through the campsite just below us, reminding us that the signs and warnings are there for a reason. We had been keeping well hydrated in hopes of helping avoid any possible altitude sickness on the hike, and while this is all good and well it resulted in the problem of having to use the restroom frequently. Wednesday, I discovered how disconcerting the 100 yard walk up the hill from our campsite to the porta-potties could be in the dark of the night as you briskly walk, constantly scanning the area for any sign of movement. It wasn’t until Thursday night however until I got the scare of my life.
Although I stopped drinking earlier in hopes of being able to sleep through the night, 3:00am rolled around and I found myself awake and needing to pee. Cautiously I walked up the road, keeping my headlight scanning from side to side praying the way was clear. I was about ten feet from the bathrooms when my sweeping light crossed back across the road and to a large tree in front of the fire road about six feet ahead of me. I almost continued my sweep back when I realized there were two shining specks next to the tree about chest height. Freezing in my step I realized I was looking into the eyes of a bear right in front of me. We looked at each other for a second and then it began to move towards me with enough speed that I wanted to run. Though my mind was a blur of frenzied thoughts I remembered that running is the last thing you should to do, and before I even realized I had made a decision I roared with a scream as loud and low and menacing as I could make it. The bear took its second step and quickly changed directions padding off away from me though a neighboring campsite and into the darkness. A group of campers (probably getting ready for an early AM start to their hike) just above where I was looked down and asked if I was okay. I managed to say yes and that it had run off. I stood absolutely rooted the spot unsure of if it was truly gone, or just lurking in the dark out of my sight. After what felt like hours of indecision I bolted into the bathroom and locked the door. From there I fell to pieces. I sat on the toilet breathing hard, and shortly began to shake violently and uncontrollably, breaking down into sobs and tears. I couldn’t stop it, even knowing that I was safe, that I had reacted properly and that the bear had reacted exactly as I had been told it would when confronted with a loud noise. I just couldn’t believe it, and didn’t want to think about the fact that soon I would have to leave the shelter of the bathroom building and walk back down the dark hill to my campsite. I don’t know how long I stayed in the bathroom, but eventually I calmed down enough to do my business then started to try and wrap my brain around leaving the restroom. This sent me into another fit as I realized I didn’t have the courage to walk back down the hill. More time passed and I eventually pulled myself off the floor where I had crouched and moved outside scanning for any movement. I took several deep breaths and went for it. There was no issue and soon I was zipping myself up in my tent (amazed at the sense of security those thin walls of mesh and nylon can provide). I lost control again with the feeling of relief at having come to no harm, before eventually being able to settle down. However I discovered that I could not sleep. Each time I closed my eyes, I saw the bear looking at me, and my mind took the situation into all the “what could have beens”. I pulled out my ipod and listened to my audiobook hoping I would drift off. I eventually dozed for about 30 minutes from 4:45-5:15 before just laying in my sleeping bag until I heard movement from others in my group. Then I knew it would be okay to start getting up and packing up camp for the hike.
The next morning as we packed up camp I relayed my night to the others in my group. Carlos asked, “You made the bloodcurdling scream last night? I heard that!” Yep that was me. They had all heard it. Since the trauma of the event had truly been mental, it was easier to move past and focus on the up coming hike. We packed up camp, ate breakfast and headed to the trail. There is a scale at the trailhead and it reported that my pack weighed 42 lbs…heavier than I anticipated, however with the cold weather clothing, rain gear and bear canister it made sense that I would be carrying more weight than what I was used to from past Grand Canyon trips and weekend excursions around the Angeles Mountains. With the sun shining, and barely a cloud in the sky we set off along the Mt. Whitney trail. Our destination was Trail Camp, six miles up the trail at 12,040 ft elevation, just a little over halfway to the summit. From there we planned to summit as a day hike on Saturday, returning to trail camp for the night then hiking down Sunday morning. I knew that we were headed up on a weekend where a summit might not be possible, as the forecast included 30% chance of rain and thunderstorms for Friday and Saturday, meaning that if we were going to summit, it would have to be early. As it turned out, that forecast was quite an underestimation.
We started hiking at 7:45, with the sun at our backs. I was amazed at the beauty of the trail, there were a variety of wildflowers all along the trail, adding splashes of color to the otherwise grey and green scene painted by the granite rocks and pines. The trail starts off as a sandy dirt path snaking its way up to a granite cliff face before traveling along and across into a large valley. We crossed the Lone Pine creek by easily stepping from stone to stone, and continued along the trail, over streams and up and up the mountain. Switchbacks allowed constant views back down the valley, and up to the sheer cliffs above. The views were stunning and immediately I was in love with this trail. The later start meant that we had some warm weather in the beginning, but after an hour or so of hiking, the higher elevation came into play and the weather began to cool. All in all the morning started perfectly. Keeping us entertained was Amy with her knowledge of the many varieties of wildflowers we were passing, and Jessica with printouts from her Whitney book. She would read about each upcoming section of the trail as we hiked along. Some clouds started forming as we hiked up. Shortly we progressed through the lower scrub forest into lush water-fed vegetation then out into expanses of rock with scattered trees. Crossing over a stretch of river made passable by flat topped logs we hiked up and into the official Whitney Zone. This zone marks the area where a special Mt. Whitney permit is required for all hikers and backpackers. Continuing on, we rounded a bend in the trail then hiked up and over a small ridge that gave way to Bighorn Park. This meadow was a sea of green in an otherwise grey world. Bordered on all sides by the sweeping peaks of the mountains, the trail ran along the side of the meadow next to a small creek. From here it was just a short hike up into Outpost Camp, little more than the halfway mark for day 1 at 3.8 miles in and 10,300 ft elevation. Taking a short snack break we enjoyed the cooler weather before loading back up and continuing up the mountain.
A little ways above Mirror lake, right around 11:00am, we encountered the first sign of inclement weather. Looking back down at the lake I noticed that the calm surface from earlier had been replaced by hundreds of tiny circles…rain drops hitting the lake. We came to a granite outcropping and paused to admire the view as the rain reached us. Suddenly the rain started to sting and we quickly realized it was hailing! Sheltering against a side of the rocks we waited out the short hailstorm before continuing up the trail. The clouds provided nice cover, keeping the sun out of our eyes, but we knew that having them around was a bad sign and we kept gazing up to see if any more showers were coming. As we hiked up along the granite rocks, we noticed the sky at the tops of the mountain getting darker…not a good sign. We paused at one point on the trail when a rock slide on the far side of the valley caught our attention. We watched large boulders and rocks cascade down the mountain, then tumble across a snow field. Not long after that we reached Trailside Meadow (11,395 elevation and 1 mile before Trail camp). This meadow spreads on either side of a stream winding its way down the mountain. It was lush with plants and many wildflowers, their vibrant colors standing out against the grey rocks and sky surrounding us. After the meadow the trail turns up for a few switchbacks and continues into the canyon/valley towards trail camp. We made it another couple hundred feet up before the lightning started. Looking up into a saddle to the left of the direction we were heading I watched two crackling streaks of lightning fork down. The thunder that followed about four seconds later was incredible, echoing through the air like cannon fire. Pausing as another wave of rain and hail hit we sat for about 30 minutes watching the storm roll through, enjoying the lightning and thunder display and discussing our next move. Should we try to reach trail camp and hunker down for the night, hoping this would pass and we would still be able to attempt the summit the following morning, or did the current storm and completely grey sky look more lasting? Should we hike back down to Outpost Camp and stay the night there? As the hail stopped and the rain slackened we decided we would continue up the mountain a bit more since we were so close to trail camp, lunch and the end to our day. At this point we were less than 3/4 of a mile from trail camp, however after about 5 minutes of setting out from where we had paused to watch the lightning Jessica noticed her hair crackle. Reaching up she remarked that she thought there was static electricity in her hair. She looked up and told Bryan to look at me. Apparently all my little wisps of hair that won’t stay in my pony tail were standing on end. This could not be a good sign and we decided that it was time to leave.
We picked up Amy and Carlos who were still at the rocky overhang where we watched the lightning. After some discussion on whether to camp in the grassy area above the trailside meadow or return to Outpost Camp, we decided with the rain, hail and amount of thunder and lightning it would be safer to return to Outpost Camp and stay the night there. After about an hour of hiking we reached outpost camp. We were soaked (though happily my rain shell was doing its job and underneath my shirts were good and dry). Since we had decided to not try and eat lunch in the rain and lightning we were all very hungry, and plopped down in a dry patch of dirt under a large tree to eat lunch. It was around 2:40pm. While we ate, we talked about what we should do. At the time it seemed best to stay at outpost camp, get our tents set up and get dry and warm and stay in our sleeping bags. So we set up camp trying to find the best spots that would stay as dry as possible if the rain continued heavily. While we set up tents, the rain continued on in a steady flow, luckily no hail this time. We got our tents set up, were finishing eating and chatting as we noticed the temperature quickly dropping… all of the sudden I could see my breath. The rain got heavier for a while then slackened some, never stopping. As we sat there eating we realized that Outpost camp was starting to fill with water. Thin ribbons of water were spreading all around us, covering most of the ground as the water flowed down the slope towards the meadow below. With the cold temperatures and unceasing rain we changed our minds. It was time to get completely off the mountain. We packed up the tents hastily. Next we changed into whatever dry clothes we had (I was still dry underneath so just added my vest for warmth), gathered the rest of our gear and set out again, after an hour break at Outpost Camp.
Immediately we could see the effect that the few hours of rain had on the trails. The stepping stones in the river crossing immediately leaving camp were nearly all submerged, and as we hiked up out of that area there was a good two inches of water rushing down the trail we were hiking up. I said a little thank you to the universe that i was wearing waterproof hiking boots as we splashed through the new “trail rivers”. Once we started down the other side we had water streaming down all around us. At times the trail was nearly unusable as it was so flooded with the streaming water that we could not see where we were stepping. Turns on the switchbacks had become little waterfalls that required careful slow movements to navigate in order to maintain footing and not slip off the trail with a loose rock. So much for my joy of waterproof boots… one of those first switchback waterfalls had my boots fully submerged and my pants completely soaked which then soaked my socks which seeped water down inside my boots. Shortly after leaving Outpost Camp we came up on a group of day hikers also trying to escape the storm. This group ended up pretty much sticking with us the rest of the way down. I felt bad for them, as they were definitely not prepared for the intensity of the storm that hit us, with one guy in shorts a t-shirt, long sleeved sweater and ball cap and a woman in hiking pants, with a windbreaker that looked like it had completely soaked through as she was shivering often. There were several times we had to scramble around sections of trail that were cascading water so strongly we were unsure if it would be safe. Thunder roared around us immediately after bolts of lightning would flash across the sky. At times the thunder was so loud it sounded like the earth was breaking open right around us.
On the far side of the canyon we saw rock slide after rock slide, as the torrents of rain water dislodged large boulders that crashed down the cliff faces, nearly as loud as the thunder. We were lucky, whether its because the side that has the trail is more wooded, or less steep, I don’t know, but we only encountered one small rock slide across the trail. As we rounded a turn in the trail we came across a section that had water rushing down the side of the mountain, splashing onto the trail and then rushing along it. Bryan and Carlos and our day-hiking friends were up ahead past it, warning us to be careful as there were loose rocks in the river that used to be our trail. Amy was crossing slowly we she heard a noise and looked up to see a rush of small rocks, dirt and debris being carried down with the flow of the water. Yelling out she ran forward and Jessica and I ran back, and the rocks bounced across the trail in between us. Waiting and watching as the debris flow ebbed and we started cautiously across. About half way I looked up to see more rocks coming down and told Jessica to just go and go fast. I glanced back up to see a baseball sized rock bouncing right towards me. Turning quickly and ducking I avoided potential disaster as the rock struck my pack. After that I hauled ass through the rushing section, safely clearing it and continuing down the trail.
Just after exiting the “Whitney Zone” we came across a stream crossing that had merely required cautiously stepping from stone to stone this morning. Now it gave us pause as it looked like a raging river. There was a large snow patch with boulders on the upper edge of this stream that we could climb over to reach a section of the stream lower down that looked narrower. However the thought of all the rock slides gave us pause. It would be safer to try and cross where the trail was supposed to be and get out of that open area rather than spend the additional time scrambling over rocks and risking a slide coming down on us. Slowly our group edged into the water. It was mid-calf to knee deep the majority of the way with one section that came up to my mid thigh. The flow was not as bad as we had feared and shortly everyone was safely across and moving down the trail. Next we came to the log crossing. Again, this morning it had merely been a balancing act to walk along the logs like you would a balance beam. The stream here had several points that were a good three-four feet deep, so poles were somewhat useless. As we came up to this crossing now, I was thankful to see that all the logs were still there. This crossing, luckily, was not as swollen as many of the others. The first log had actually rolled over, so we had to carefully step along the rounded bottom, but at least it was there. Two of the six logs were floating on the water and teetered as we put weight on them sinking them back down onto their supports just below the waterline. Again we all made it across safely.
From here we started moving out of that main canyon and the trail dried up some. The rain had slackened, and while I could see the debris littered across the trail from earlier rain, there was very little water now and it was quicker going. Many of the switchback areas still had some streaming water along the turns, but for the most part it was feeling lighter and easier than what we had experienced higher up. I paused to remove a large rock from my shoe, then continued down, passing Lone Pine Lake and the John Muir Wilderness sign. I was feeling good knowing that we now had one mile to go before returning to the Portal and being off the mountain. Unfortunately, I had forgotten one key aspect of the trail. Lone Pine Creek (North Fork? Not sure), that first main water crossing that we had so easily stepped across this morning. As I rounded a corner of the trail I came across a group of people, much more than the 5 of us and our 3 day hikers. Everyone was watching the torrents of water that were gushing across the trail. I saw Jessica and Bryan about a quarter of the way across, slowly picking a path through the water. The water was almost up to their knees, and they hadn’t reached the scary looking part, a section where a large boulder had been this morning that was now covered with a flood of water surging and spraying across the submerged trail and down the mountain. About halfway across and almost to this section they gave up. The water was moving to fast and the footing was not stable enough. With our large packs it was not safe to risk crossing. None of the day hikers felt comfortable attempting the crossing and we started figuring out other plans. Shortly thereafter a young man came pelting down the trail. He paused at the river, we warned him on crossing it, but in his frenzy all he said was that his dad was dying of hypothermia and he had to go. Hastily he dashed across the first half and plunged into the surging section at the end where it was easily hip deep. He slipped but managed to grab a boulder and regain his footing. After that he was up, out of the water and tearing down the mountain.
We were stuck. After watching him slip, with no pack or even backpack, that crossing was not something I was going to attempt. We came down to the decision of waiting to see if anyone came, or hiking back up the trail to find somewhere we might be able to set up out tents and just get through the night. It was around 5:30 now and the sun was sinking behind the mountain taking the light and leaving colder temperatures behind. We pulled out cell phones and surprisingly had service, managing to get ahold of the police to let them know there was a large group of people stuck, just above the portal. We were so close it was difficult to think about having to stay the night, and we could look down the slope and see where the portal area should be, however with no knowledge of the terrain off the trail we did not want to risk trying to find our own way down the steep slope. We were there about twenty minutes when I saw a guy in a yellow slicker picking his way below us off the trail. My first thought was, “well there goes someone braver or crazier than we are” and “I sure hope he saw us and lets the folks at the portal know we’re stuck here.” Then a few seconds later I realized he was coming up, not down. Elated we greeted him and he told us there was a trail right there. The ORIGINAL Mt. Whitney trail from 1909 met up with the new Mt. Whitney trail just feet above where we were grouped together (seriously…what are the odds). Jessica asked if he was a ranger, to which he replied, “no, I’m a fry cook!” He asked about the man with hypothermia, who we told him was not with our group of people. After quickly trotting down the main trail to see the swollen stream crossing, he brought the rest of the group that was still down there back up and started leading us down the old trail. After a switchback or two he explained that the trail, which was still well defined though very narrow, looked just like that the rest of the way down, there was very little water on it and we would be completely fine as long as we didn’t cut the switchbacks. He needed to get farther up the mountain to try and find the man with hypothermia. I said I felt comfortable continuing on, leading the way and he hopped back up the trail, then onto a large boulder, scrambling up it and back to the main trail. His name was Miles. From here on out it was easy, just trekking down the narrow trail, thinking how awesome it was that I got to hike on the original trail created in 1909. Within minutes we spilling out of the forest and onto the road just above the Portal Store. Chilled to the bone (though my core was still good and dry… (LOVE my REI Taku Jacket!) we checked with the store to make sure the road out was safe. We were told, yes, it should be clear, but there had been many rock falls so drive cautiously. I got back to my car and pulled open my pack. While the front two pockets were soaked through the main inner compartment had remained fairly dry. In addition, I pack all my clothes in ziplock bags (thanks for that tip Dad!) so that I can squeeze all the air out of them and pack them down smaller. This meant that all my spare clothes were still perfectly dry. I pulled off my soaking pants and damp long sleeved shirt (only the sleeves were wet), putting on a pair of nice warm thermal pants and long sleeved shirt. The dry clothes felt so wonderful. After that I piled all my gear in my car, and we took off down the mountain. As soon as we were in the clear we pulled off to the side of the road at a view point to marvel at the large double rainbow that was spread across the sky, a perfect ending to a very adventuresome day.
In total I estimate that we hiked around 11 miles, and up to an elevation of approximately 11,500 ft. We were actually hiking for about 7 hours, with a total trail time being about 10 hours, 15 minutes. It was a trip that I will never forget, and while nerve wrecking at times, and downright scary at others, one that was exciting and overall fun. I was hiking with a strong group of people that were not only prepared, but smart and all able to handle stress and pressure well allowing us to make good decisions and keep moving. We all had good spirits throughout the day, and while I hope to never encounter mountain conditions like that again, I would not trade my experience and the adventure we had for anything. I read online that the man with hypothermia was brought down safely and many people were walking out this morning having safely weathered the storm over night. I believe the trail re-opened this afternoon, though with more storms in the forecast for this weekend, people are warned to use caution about trying to hike it. I had my first taste of Whitney yesterday, and while she surely kicked my butt I know I’ll be back and one day I will stand on the top of that mountain.