Back to the Summit: July 12-14, 2015

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]
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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.
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[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.
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At bottom center, between the little rock walls, you can see Charlie’s Quarter Dome tent.
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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.
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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.
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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.)
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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.
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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.
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(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:
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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.
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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.
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Going back down the switchbacks, we could see “home” – Consultation Lake – where our tents and bear canisters full of dinner were waiting for us.
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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.
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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.
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Mirror Lake is another visual treat on the trail, shown below from two vantage points:
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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:
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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.
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Charlie and Chrissy cross the most elaborate stream crossing, fashioned from many logs:
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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.
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Three Days on the Mt. Whitney Trail: Aug. 5-8, 2013

Sometimes, the best journeys aren’t way off the beaten track. When the weather gods are smiling on Mt. Whitney, it’s hard to think of a better use of three days than a hike along the much-traveled Mount Whitney Trail, at a pace slow enough to enjoy not just the storied summit, but the incredible diversity and beauty all along the way, from the trailhead at 8,446 ft. elevation to the summit at 14,505 ft. I joked that our goal was to set the record for the slowest summit ever, and while we apparently failed at that, we did take the time to savor many beautiful places along the trail.

The banner photo above is a view of Mt. Whitney from Whitney Portal Road, which boasts the only traffic light in the town of Lone Pine, on the Owens Valley floor. At its western end, the road delivers you to the Mt. Whitney trailhead. In keeping with our “slow hike” theme, however, we took a left turn from Whitney Portal Road on Sunday to go up the super steep and often guardrail-free road to Horseshoe Meadow, where we camped at 10,000 ft., to help acclimatize. Not a bad idea for people who live near sea level! We stopped first at the Interagency visitor center to pick up our permit, which we won in the March permit lottery, along with the much-dreaded “wag bags” issued to Mt. Whitney hikers for carrying out solid human waste.  Yikes!  Mandatory, and clearly needed on this much-visited mountain. We’ll say no more on this topic except to recommend the phenomenal NyloBarrier odor-proof bags.

Monday: Trailhead to Lone Pine Lake

Fueling-Up-Monday-am-at-the-Whitney-Portal-Store-600wOn Monday, we drove to the end of Whitney Portal Road, arriving just in time for late breakfast / early lunch at a true landmark:  The Whitney Portal Store. This is the place to fuel up on classic American grill food, get the latest info on weather forecast and trail conditions, and to chat with people who have just summited, or who have just completed 20+ days on the John Muir Trail.

My hiking partners Steve and Eric shared the huge breakfast plate. At age 12, Eric will likely be the youngest person on the trail on the days we are there (there is a 13 year old in another group), so he will gain something like rock-star status along the way. (But not to us, his hiking partners, who can smell his socks….)

Our plan: hit the trail on Monday after early lunch, and camp the first night at Lone Pine Lake, just off the main trail; hike on Tuesday to Consultation Lake, at just under 12,000 ft. elevation, for another night of acclimatization; summit attempt on Wednesday morning, then a final night on the trail at either Consultation Lake or farther down the trail, at Outpost Camp or Lone Pine Lake, hiking out on Thursday morning.

The trailhead (below) features a scale for weighing your pack. With the mandatory bear canister and food for 3 people for 7 meals, my pack is the “champ” at 30 lbs. Steve and Eric are at 27 and 19 lbs. respectively, so by percentage of body weight, Eric and I are the pack animals for this trip. You owe us, Steve!

The Mt. Whitney Trail begins here, steps from the Whitney Portal Store, at this wooden structure featuring a scale to weigh your pack, and informational posters, including one reminding you that “the summit is only halfway.”  When you’re standing here with summit fever, it’s useful to remember the old saying: “The summit is optional; the parking lot is mandatory.”

Our first-day goal is a modest one, hiking from the trailhead at 8446 ft. elevation to the Lone Pine Lake trail junction, at 10,056 feet, where we’ll go a short way off the main trail to spend the night at Lone Pine Lake, at 9852 ft.  Images from this first part of our hike:

Early on the trail, there are great views eastward, where the chocolate-colored Alabama Hills are in sight, along with the Owens Valley and Lone Pine, and beyond, the White Mountains.

Early on the trail, there are great views eastward, where the chocolate-colored Alabama Hills are in sight, along with the Owens Valley and Lone Pine. Across Owens Valley are the Inyo Mountains, which extend up to the southern end of the White Mountains, and are bordered by Death Valley National Monument to the east.

The hike along this part of the trail is in the Montane Zone, with white firs and Jeffrey pines, dominating/

The hike along this part of the trail is in the Montane Zone, with white firs and Jeffrey pines dominating, along with lodgepole pines, shrubs and other plants from the chaparral community, as well as plants that benefit from the wetter areas along the trail.

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The first of many water crossings. All were easy, and they provided great access to refreshingly cold drinking water, which we filtered with 2-oz. Sawyer Squeeze filters. The water crossings were graced with the beauty of vibrant communities of shrubs and plants that thrive in moist environments.

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We saw many diverse plants along the way. The lupines (far right), (Inyo meadow lupine, Lupinus pratensis?), were among the tallest I’ve ever seen, waist-high right along the trail. The white flower (2nd from left) is probably Sierra angelica (Angelica lineariloba), 3-4 feet tall, in the Carrot family (Apiaceae). We also saw lots of Artemisia tridentata, manzanita, Indian paintbrush, and Scarlet penstemon.

A beautiful vista on the early part of the trail, with lush foliage, rushing water, and distant

A beautiful vista on the early part of the trail, with lush foliage, rushing water, and distant barren rock.

Eric leads the way

Eric leads the way on a long water crossing. Only one log was wobbly! There is some impressive trail building and maintenance work evident all along the trail, especially in light of the severe weather that plays havoc with trail conditions.

At the 2.8 mile

At just 2.8 miles along the trail, a short side trail took us to our first campsite, under the pines at Lone Pine Lake (elevation variously reported as 10,030 and 9852 ft.). There was only one other small group camping here, not visible to us from our site – but we loved them because they took all our leftover cous cous and vegetables dinner so we didn’t have to make room for it in our bear canister. You can day-hike to Lone Pine Lake without a permit, though you need a permit to camp, and it’s a spectacular destination if you’re in the area!

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We walked around this jewel of a lake, with great views back to Owens Valley from the far side. I apologize to Lone Pine Lake for not being able to do it justice with my photographs – it is far more beautiful than my images show.

Tuesday: Lone Pine Lake to Consultation Lake

Outpost Camp

Leaving our Lone Pine Lake camp on Tuesday morning, we quickly climbed to terrific views looking down on the lake and across the Owens Valley beyond. Soon, we reached Bighorn Park, an expansive marshy meadow with Outpost Camp at its west end. Lone Pine Creek meanders through the meadow, and a beautiful waterfall (to the right of the large tree, above) provides the music.

For those from

For those of us from Southern California, used to hiking in areas with minimal to no water, to have such an abundance of water all along the trail, in so many beautiful forms, felt luxurious indeed!

Mirror Lake

Mile 4.7 on the trail serves up the lovely Mirror Lake, a great place for picnicking, wading, or fishing.

Trees and rock ac

Across from Mirror Lake, some stalwart trees have survived for many years in a stark environment.

Mirror Lake from the trail

In short order, the trail asends to a great view back down to Mirror Lake.

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…and a little farther up the trail, we enjoyed a view of Mirror Lake, and all the way back to Owens Valley and the Inyo Mountains.

Trailside Meadow

Trailside Meadow, above tree line at 11,362 ft. elevation, was far more lush than I imagined it would be, and far larger. We sat on a cushy natural lawn right at this spot, next to the storybook babbling brook, for lunch. It was here that I saw two men passing by on the trail and experienced one of the great highlights of my hike….

Bob Rockwell

As we were eating lunch, I saw two men walking along the trail, and one of them was Bob Rockwell, known to me only from his internet presence until I jumped up to shake his hand and meet him in person. Bob has a long and storied relationship with Mt. Whitney. I asked him to tell Eric how many times he has summited Whitney, and the answer was 170. We figured out that he’s been climbing Whitney since before I was born, but that Eric is starting younger than Bob did. I enjoyed the opportunity to talk with Bob about many things, and his analysis of the current weather conditions was informative and reassuring. Thanks, Bob!

Consultation Lake

Consultation Lake (just shy of 12,000 ft. elevation) was our choice for camping the night before our summit attempt. We wanted to avoid the crowd at Trail Camp, and to be enough off-trail so that we wouldn’t be disturbed by hikers headed for the summit at all hours. The one group there when we arrived packed up and left, so we had this phenomenal lake all to ourselves for two nights.

rockfall

On Tuesday afternoon, from our campsites at Consultation Lake, we heard something we first thought was thunder, but we soon realized we were hearing falling rock. The dust cloud along the rock opposite the lake confirmed what we were hearing.

My Tarptent home

My one-person tent (the wonderful Tarptent Moment DW – thank you, Henry Shires, tent designer extraordinaire, and Dwight, generous gift-giver!) was a great home the night before our summit attempt — and how wonderful it was to come back, after summiting, to a tent that was already set up, ready to accommodate someone who wanted nothing more than to be horizontal as quickly as possible! Consultation Lake is often frozen over, but we saw it in a stunning array of colors, and enjoyed two calm nights here, with virtually no wind. The experience here is often considerably harsher, so we were very lucky.

Wednesday: Summit Day
With the sun up on Wednesday, it's time to get up and tackle the summit!

With the sun up on Wednesday, it’s time to get up and tackle the summit!
Filtering water on summit day

Just beyond our camp at Consultation Lake, we stopped to filter the water we’ll take on our summit attempt – 3 liters each. Big love for the 2 oz. Sawyer Squeeze filter!

switchbacks

Steve leads the way up the switchbacks above Trail Camp toward Trail Crest. These 97 switchbacks, which begin at mile 6.3 and 12,096 ft. elevation, and end at mile 8.1 and 13,428 ft. elevation,  are often bemoaned, but they seemed fine to us, with nice trail tread and great views all along the way. It was a little freaky seeing tiny people up on the crest, and not being able to see how they got there. We just took it on faith that if we kept walking, the trail would take us there, too.

looking back

Looking back from the switchbacks, we were rewarded with stellar views of Consultation Lake, Lone Pine Lake (deeper blue, in the far distance) and the Owens Valley. We also had beautiful views of other gem-like small lakes situated north of Trail Camp and Wotan’s Throne.  Do you see our tents on the southeast side of the lake? Me neither, but it was great to know my “home” was there, waiting for me, along with the heavy bear canister and a lot of other gear we got to leave behind on summit day.

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Mile 8.3 brought us to Trail Crest at 13,586 ft. elevation, the much-anticipated moment when we first see the west side of the Sierra Crest. The sign just ahead marks the entry into Sequoia National Park. We’re admiring the Hitchcock Lakes far below, and seemingly endless vistas of the Sierras. Steve and Eric are facing a section of the trail that goes downhill for a short but steep stretch after Trail Crest, which means that after summiting, and hiking back across huge piles of giant rock slabs, you have to hike uphill for a time. For Steve, this uphill stretch on the way out was the most brutal part of the hike.

first view of Guitar Lake

We soon reached our first view of Guitar Lake. I had really been looking forward to seeing this lake, so I loved this view. Once we hit about 13,750 ft. elevation, however, I was nauseated for the rest of the hike to the summit. Steve generously kept carrying our shared daypack, which we had been switching off every hour, for the rest of the way to the summit, and until we were beyond Trail Crest again, past that steep uphill stretch. Thank you, Steve!  Not one of the diverse nibbles in my snack pack appealed to me, but with a ginger chew from one stranger, and a Shot Blok from another, I was able to walk on despite the nausea. I can only imagine how I would have felt without all the time I invested in acclimatizing beforehand, including overnighting on Mt. Baldy. High altitude is a butt-kicker!

along the crest

As Elizabeth Wenk writes in One Best Hike: Mt. Whitney, “The last miles of the trail to the summit of Mt. Whitney traverse the slope just west of the crest, crossing talus fields and winding along jagged pinnacles.”  These were  truly Talus Fields of the Giants, so we were  often stepping up onto gargantuan rock slabs, or carefully stepping between them. Especially for those of us with shorter legs, it was quite the workout – kudos to the inventor of trekking poles! Along the trail in this section are “narrow notches, with jaw-dropping views straight down to the east” (Wenk), along with the infamous Windows with steep drop-offs on both sides of the trail. Eric was a little worried about these beforehand, and declared he was going to crawl through them, but once actually there, he strolled through them fearlessly.

Keeler Needle

Keeler Needle (left) and Crooks Peak (previously named Day Needle) are “two 14,000 foot points that are too indistinct from Mt. Whitney to be considered true peaks” (Wenk).  They are impressive nonetheless, with very vertical eastern faces (visible in the banner photo above), and  talus fields on their western slopes. Mt. Whitney is just around a westward bend in the trail – we’re almost there! (And for the sake of journalistic integrity, I should note that I actually took this photo on the way back from the summit, since I stashed my camera in the daypack for much of the “nausea section” of the trail.)

At last, the summit

At last, the summit, with other hikers coming up from the trail. We arrived at about 1:30 pm, having taken the “nausea section” slowly, but since the sky was mostly clear and Bob Rockwell’s weather analysis was good, we felt okay with our potential weather exposure in the afternoon on this exceptionally fine day.

summit plaque

A fellow hiker took our photo at the summit plaque.  Yes, the listed elevation is lower than today’s generally accepted 14,505.  We’re enjoying 360 degree knockout views – we may not be on top of the world, but we’re on top of the lower 48! We’re also very impressed with the two “human-built” features around us: the Smithsonian Hut, constructed in 1909, and the trail itself. The first version of the trail we hiked, from the eastern side, was constructed in 1903-04. This plaque commemorates the completion of the John Muir Trail and High Sierra Trail, begun in 1928 and completed in 1930. Along the crest, “our” trail and the JMT coincide.

Smit

A view of the 1909 Smithsonian Hut from the back, with views to the west and north.

from the edge

This is about as close to the edge of the summit as I was willing to go, with awesome views to the east and south. Precipitous drops!

summit register

We took great pleasure in signing the summit register, in a metal box at the Smithsonian Hut entry. Eric enjoyed “the best tasting peanut butter ever,” while I appreciated the more modest accomplishment of not barfing. After enjoying the summit for about 45 minutes, we headed down to friendlier altitudes and our camp at Consultation Lake.

Thursday: The Trailhead!

Perhaps someday I’ll add a second page with photos from our hike down from the summit, our last night at Consultation Lake (Wednesday night), and our beautiful hike back to the trailhead on Thursday morning. For now, I’ll end this trip report here, with a photo Steve took of me and Eric, happy to be back at the trailhead, with our post-hike meal, shower, and, perhaps most coveted of all, lip balm, all within reach. Huge thanks to my banjo-pickin’ friend Steve and the irrepressible and wonderful Eric for such a stellar hike. Eric, you may now tell people this was your first backpacking trip!

The End!

The End!

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