Some things are so glorious they are worth doing more than once. For me, summiting Mt. Whitney turns out to be one of them, with a first summit in 2013 (chronicled in the prior post on this blog), and a second in 2014, at the end of my JMT thru-hike. Here are some photos from the Mt. Whitney hike I enjoyed earlier this week with three terrific hikers, Charlie, John and Chrissy.
In age, our group ranged from 30 to 70, and three of us are practicing members of the Church of Diamox, and we had the tingling fingers to prove it. We hiked in groups of two, which means John was the person I photographed most. I’ll add more photos of Charlie and Chrissy if someone in the group provides them to me.
We hiked from Whitney Portal to Consultation Lake on Sunday (July 12). Here is what sunrise looked like from Consultation Lake the next morning, looking east toward Owens Valley and the Inyo Mountains. [click on photos to see an enlarged version]
Consultation Lake (approx. 11,880 ft. elevation) is stunning, and provided us beautiful campsites with as close to a wilderness feeling as you can get so close to the Mt. Whitney Trail, just 0.2 miles from Trail Camp, which always looks like an overcrowded Tent City.
[For an amazing “gigapan” image of Consultation Lake, go here, click the “Snapshots” button, and then click on the thumbnails to zoom in to specific parts of the gigapixel panorama.]
The scene below was the backdrop for our summit day breakfast. In the shadows on the right, you can see John (in a yellow cap) cooking in our “kitchen.” (Or maybe I should put “cooking” in quotes, since our culinary endeavors were focused on boiling water.) John’s and Charlie’s tents are visible to the left of the kitchen.
At bottom center, between the little rock walls, you can see Charlie’s Quarter Dome tent.
From the switchbacks on the way up to Trail Crest, you can look across and see a tiny rectangle that is the roof of the Smithsonian Hut on the Whitney summit. (Or, after watching “The Good Wife,” the better phraseology might be: at a few points on the switchbacks, you can see a tiny rectangle that is the roof of the Smithsonian Hut, in my opinion.) I took this photo when I could see it (in my opinion), but my cellphone camera didn’t pick up that level of detail.
When I pointed out the rectangle to John (or perhaps it was when I pointed way, way above us and said, “Look! you can see Trail Crest and little tiny people standing there!”), he informed me that 100% of his focus was on the five feet immediately in front of him. Word!
Also, in true hiker fashion, I must include some reference to basic bodily functions in this post. Let me proudly proclaim that I put my ranger-issued wag bag to good use while on the barren switchbacks, and not a single person hiked past me during this process. Alas, I have no photo documenting this quasi-miracle.
To me, Keeler Needle (approx. 14,240 ft. elevation) is one of the most dramatic sites on the final 1.9 mile section of trail that starts at the junction of the Mt. Whitney Trail and the John Muir Trail, which comes up from the west. Here is John hiking past Keeler Needle. Rumors (started by me) that we tagged Keeler Needle and Mt. Muir on our way to the Whitney Summit are greatly exaggerated.
Once on the summit, Chrissy (at left) enjoyed a “horizontal” perspective of the easterly view toward Owens Valley, the Alabama Hills, and the White and Inyo Mountains on the far side of the valley. (The person at right is unknown to us, since her nap precluded any introductions.)
I enjoyed a slab o’ summit with views to the south behind me. Thanks to Avionne, a cool guy who leapfrogged with us on the switchbacks and final stretch of trail, for taking this photo.
And here’s the Smithsonian Hut, built in 1909; it was used relatively briefly for astronomical purposes, but just two clear nights allowed scientists to compare the spectrum of the moon, which they knew had no water, to that of Mars, resulting in this statement: “We are now in a position to issue the strongest statement that has ever been issued as to the existence of water vapor on Mars.” Read the interesting history of the hut here.
(Why do we have no group photo of the four of us on the summit or at the trailhead? Well, I guess we’re just not that kind of group.)
On the way back from the summit, we had a little more time (and less summit anxiety) to enjoy the phenomenal beauty around us, including this panorama toward the west, showing Guitar Lake (at right), the Hitchcock Lakes, and back toward Crabtree Meadow:
The last time I stood on the Whitney summit, it was the end of a JMT thru-hike, and I started from a campsite at one of the tarns just above Guitar Lake (see the two little blue tarns at the bottom of the photo). It was fun this year to look far down the trail and revisit those memories.
There were about three areas along the trail between Keeler Needle and the JMT junction that had snow — nothing that made us wish for our microspikes, but trekking poles were definitely the ticket. We encountered a woman on the far side of the third snowy area, almost paralyzed with fear. She could not cross the snow to descend, and she was almost out of water. John’s immmediate question was: “How did you get here???” because she obviously crossed all three snow sections to get there; yet, she was immobilized. My reaction was: we help this woman down the mountain, or Search and Rescue will be here. John and I helped her down, and got her to the water that was flowing on the switchbacks, but… People! Mt. Whitney is a serious mountain, with every kind of weather possible even in July. Hikers here just a few days before us experienced hail and snow. Don’t put yourself on this trail with no idea how to cross snow, how to use your trekking poles, how to manage your hydration, and dependent on the kindness of strangers.
A big treat for me: finally, after several failed attempts over the last few years, I got a photo of Sky Pilot (Polemonium eximium) that does it at least some justice. This spectacular plant is a California (and Sierra Nevada) endemic with a range limited to approx. 9,000-14,500 feet, so for me, it was pure delight to see this flower blooming so prolifically along the switchbacks and upper parts of the trail.
Going back down the switchbacks, we could see “home” – Consultation Lake – where our tents and bear canisters full of dinner were waiting for us.
The following morning, we enjoyed spectacular beauty around us as we descended. My cellphone photos don’t capture the incredible sight of Trailside Meadow (11,362 ft), but there is a great waterfall coming out of the rock high in the first photo below, with the water flowing through an area lush with grasses and wildflowers.
And of course, no Whitney photo album is complete without a marmot photo. I always greet them with a “Hello, you Sly Bastard” or “Hello, you Fat Bastard,” depending on relative fatness of the marmot. They are all smart, sneaky thieves. This one literally adopted six or seven different poses for us, waiting between camera clicks to strike the next pose.
Mirror Lake is another visual treat on the trail, shown below from two vantage points:
There are some lovely stream crossings that result in lush mini-gardens and provide ample opportunity to get water, so you can carry relatively little water for much of the trail. Here’s John at one of them:
And then, there is this real gem of a lake, just slightly off-trail: Lone Pine Lake (as seen from far above). You can camp under foxtail pines, and there’s a good chance you’ll be alone, since people generally stay on the main trail, focused on getting to the summit.
Charlie and Chrissy cross the most elaborate stream crossing, fashioned from many logs:
As we get closer to Whitney Portal (and the Whitney Portal Store’s hamburgers or french fries that have been foremost in everyone’s minds for awhile now), we pass by a profusion of what I think (and hope) is Sierra angelica (Angelica lineariloba), because it would be fitting to be able to accurately end this little photo journal with words as mellifluous as Sierra angelica.