Saturday, April 30, 2011

Mount Whitney Through the Back Door

Most people who climb the Continental United States’ highest peak use the crowded Whitney Portal trail.  At 11 miles, it’s the shortest way to get to the summit and for this reason, 100 people per day vie for limited Forest Service permits to travel this route during the May through October climbing season.

When my husband, Matt, and I decided to head to Mount Whitney, we opted for a longer, more circuitous approach.  In so choosing, we experienced a quieter Sierra Nevada, saw remote and infrequently visited places, and immersed ourselves in the crystalline high altitude environment.  For five days and four nights, we moved, breathed, and slept at over 10,000’.

Our route started at Horseshoe Meadows, high above Lone Pine and US highway 395.  From here, we planned to ascend New Army Pass to Lower Soldier Lake, hike north to Crabtree Pass, then travel overland to Trail Crest.  We would summit Mount Whitney and then begin our descent via the backside of the mountain to Guitar Lake, and exit over Cottonwood Pass and Horseshoe Meadows.  It would be a total of 48 miles on foot.
Ascending New Army Pass

The path over New Army Pass climbed gently at first.  Red-barked pines grew out of rocky soil and gave way to scrub oak further up.  The trailhead was at 10,000’ and we had chosen to spend the two previous days in the glorious heat of Lone Pine (6,000’), sitting by the pool at the Frontier Motel lazily gathering supplies, instead of acclimatizing in the campground near the trailhead as our guidebook recommended.  Thus, on our first day of hiking we adjusted to the elevation on the fly by keeping our walking speed low, taking breaks every hour, drinking loads of water, and eating Clif bars with abandon.  We passed people coming and going and leap-frogged with a group of middle-aged men heading for a camp site below the Pass.  The trail was hard packed and wide from horse trains and the feet of hundreds of people over a hundred distant years.  One of the things Matt and I have come to love about the Sierras is the beautiful network of trails, carefully mapped, cleared, and (in some cases) chiseled out of rock over the last century by trail crews.  In Alaska, our outings are often intensive route finding exercises that require attention to detail and complete focus.  In the Sierras, we can relax our minds and let our feet follow paths of least resistance through the wilderness and out the other side.  Instead of focusing so intensely on where to place each foot and where the safest creek crossing is, we listen for exotic birds, feel the sun warm our skin, set an easy gait, and smell rich pine resin.

We climbed five hours that first day, ascending relentless switchbacks to the top of New Army Pass.  Up there, above treeline, the California heat bore down on us.  It was only 75 degrees, but between the exertion and the sun rebounding off salt and pepper boulders, the elevation felt like extra weight in my backpack.  Over the course of the next few days, we’d go much higher, but on this first day out, we were still acclimatizing to the thin air.  We plodded on to the top.
View east from New Army Pass

The pass thrilled me.  From there, Matt and I looked down upon the gentle valley and saw three azure lakes, tiny from this vantage point, which we’d passed on our way up.  Next to the first lake, camp sites stood out like footprints in snow, and we could see the party of four men unfurling their tents, dipping drinking water from the pebbly shore, making camp.  For a few breaths I wished we’d stopped back there.  But, then I looked west into the layers of Sierra Nevada under the clearest bluest sky in the world and was glad we had reached the top of something on our first day out.  I was surprised to find that it awed me in the same way that Alaska’s mountains do and was embarrassed by my arrogance.  I realized that I had believed nowhere could be as drop-dead gorgeous as Alaska.  That belief fell away from me as if it were a stone tumbling from the cliffs over which I stood.

We hiked another three miles, mostly downhill along silky streams, to Soldier Lake and slept deeply on its shore.  The next day, soon after the sun rose, we struck camp and took off on our overland leg, leaving the established trail behind.  Bushwhacking around the lake, we followed a barely detectable track to the far end, then clambered up a steep gully filled with native plants and withering flowers.  We emerged onto a high plateau where the route along the broad smooth stone surface was marked by cairns.  The way was easy to follow for quite some time, then became harder to discern as we made our way to the saddle called Crabtree Pass. 
Overland to Crabtree Pass

Stopping at times to reconcile map and compass, we spider-walked up fields of cubed granite and teetering piles of rubble eroded from surrounding peaks.  The valley we passed through that day was immense, with spires rising 3,000’ above our path.  It was nearly clean of vegetation—just rough rock and brilliant pools of blue water where snow had melted.  The sun shone, but the temperatures were chillier than the day before, and wind washed over the rock surfaces.  Matt led the way up through the rock gardens.  I have wondered at times if he came from a line of mountain goats.  Ahead of me, he stepped casually from one stone pyre to the next, his arms swinging languidly at his sides, his heavy pack resting comfortably on his hips.  I knew his mind was engaged in the moment; he was in the so-called ‘zone’.  I, on the other hand, picked my way amongst the rocks, lunging, staggering at times to retain my balance.  Tired and grouchy, I reached Crabtree Pass, hoping to see a clear, defined path into the next valley and up the other side to where we should intersect the Whitney Portal trail.  But instead, the valley below us was like a massive vase.  Standing on the rim, I knew that if I were to allow myself to be dropped into this valley that I’d never be able to climb back out.  The sidewalls were all steep and no route could be seen out of it.  Matt and I took our packs off and sat down in the lee of a car-sized block, peeled and ate Clif bars, drank water, evaluated the situation.  Neither of us are people who are likely to turn around once we have come this far.  Matt will barrel ahead typically.  I’ll gripe and worry, but eventually follow.  Matt wandered down the saddle, and peered over into the valley.  We could both see the pearly lake below where we knew we’d eventually camp.  When he returned, he said he’d found a route that he thought we could follow to get down.

After reloading our packs, we set out for the last stretch of our hike that day.  I lowered myself down between huge boulders, gripping for handholds.  The slope was steep and footing poor.  With every footfall, my lug soled boot sent gravel skittering to the bottom of the valley.  Matt coaxed me down (he’d done this before) and held my arm for security.  It took a long time to get to the bottom of that grade and when we hit flat ground again, I was so tired I didn’t care that neither of us had any idea how we’d climb out the other side.  We’d have plenty of time to ponder that question from the comfort of our tent.

The stakes drove easily into the sandy soil and within fifteen minutes we had our tiny shelter pitched on a ledge above our unnamed lake at 11,000 feet.  After a dinner of hot rice and beans, sunflower seeds, and crumbled crackers followed by sweet pieces of oatmeal cookies, I laid back into my sleeping bag and turned over on my stomach to read the map.  In our nightly ritual of map reading, we took compass bearings, peered across the valley at the imposing scree slope, looked back at the map, and read pages torn from the guidebook describing a route that didn’t seem to resemble the one we were on.  We discussed our options for tomorrow:  skirt around the lake high or skirt around the lake low.  Either way, we still had to scale the featureless slope to acquire the ridge some 1,500’ above.  It didn’t look impossible, but it looked very challenging. 

Scree is the disintegrating body of a mountain.  In some cases, it seems as if the entire mountain is nothing but a huge heap of loose, shifting shards.  Walking down a scree slope can be almost fun, plunging heels deep into the turf one after another, but climbing or crossing such a slope is a torment.  With every step, the ground slips from underfoot sending little cascades of dirt and stone downward.  It is even more difficult to carry a heavy backpack across this surface because a pack pulls a hiker backwards naturally and when combined with shifting ground, is awkward indeed.

Boulder fields

In the morning, we set out around the lake’s shore and, when the spirit moved us, we headed up.  I experienced the scree on that slope as I always experienced it:  with alternating tides of determination and frustration.  At the top, relief joined me.  We had lowered ourselves into the vase of the Sierras and were now back on the rim again.  Even better, we were nearly back to a trail.  For a full ten minutes I felt elated at our progress—until I saw the precipitous descent required to meet the populated pathway below.  We could see the trail, hear voices of hikers below.  It wasn’t long, I told myself.  If successful, we could be there in fifteen minutes.  The trail was cut from a sheer rock face and below it, the mountain fell away steeply. I tried not to listen to a small voice in my head telling me that if I happened to lose my footing I would not stop falling until I was completely shredded.  Fortunately, the only shredding that took place on the way down was to my shorts as I tried to slide across the course granite surface.

At last, after a day and a half of cross-country travel, my boots hit the level, smooth trail.  Yesterday, we had only seen a single hiker somewhere at the base of the boulder fields.  Now, we were in the middle of traffic and to take a break, we had to locate a wide spot in the trail so as not to block oncoming hikers.  Below us, we could see at least ten people marching up the ninety-some switchbacks that cut up the mountain wall from Whitney Portal.  Some were on a mission to summit and then return to their camps before nightfall.  Others were day hiking, having started before daybreak by the light of headlamps.  There were young and old, men and women, family groups, pairs of college students, soloists, a backcountry ranger.  We rested for a while, watching them pass by on their way to the universal objective:  the highest point in the Continental United States.

My watch read 2:00 p.m. and we still needed to summit, return here to Trail Crest to retrieve our packs which we’d leave, then descend nearly 2,500 feet of switchbacks down the backside of Mount Whitney before dark.  The route from Trail Crest to the summit is just under two and a half miles and almost everyone who stands on the summit travels this section.  It is a fabulous slice of alpine country.  There, at 14,000’ elevation, there is nothing but rock, yet, the puzzling ways in which the rocks collide, rise, and collapse onto each other create a viewscape that is as rich as those lush with forest and flower.  We followed the trail through stone temples and along sheer vertical walls.  We passed three peaks jutting east, pointing toward Nevada, their inverted faces supporting the entire western flank.  I should have been exhausted by then, with the lack of oxygen in the thin air, but without the weight of my pack I felt lightweight and exuberant. 
John Muir Trail to Whitney summit

The air was crystal clear and cold on the 14,494’ summit and a faint breeze washed my skin.  The sun, dependably, beamed down on us, and at that elevation felt remarkably close.  Huge plates of yellow rock wedged together to form a near-flat surface on Whitney’s peak and we stepped lightly across the slabs to locate the summit marker, take photographs, and exchange happy stories with the other climbers.  The sun was still high, but we knew we had to make our way to camp.

We trotted down the path to our packs, heaved them onto our backs, and continued down Whitney’s backside, losing in minutes elevation that took us hours to gain.  My feet started to hurt after 1,000’ of switchbacks.  My heels, then toes, then arches began aching.  We hurtled downward, boots pounding the trail, as shadows engulfed the mountains. 
Tent site above Guitar Lake

I love the view from inside the tent, bundled up and warm in my insulated jacket and down sleeping bag, sharing a hot dinner with Matt.  That night after summiting Whitney, we pitched our tent next to a pair of placid tarns.  Mount Whitney stood like a cathedral and a ring of jagged peaks surrounded us.  A quarter moon rose high and somewhere along the distant wall of the valley, we heard the mountains release a rock slide.  I consider that campsite the best of the trip because camping always feels the best when you deserve it the most.

On our third day, we woke to a sunshine filled basin.  We knew the route from here, along the wide open Pacific Crest Trail, would be straight forward and we struck out, content with accomplishing our primary goal of summiting Mount Whitney already.  The Pacific Crest Trail connects Mexico to Canada through California, Oregon, and Washington and for two days, we traveled a small section of it.  Clearly, the PCT was heavily used and we enjoyed meeting people regularly along its length.  We passed a pair of middle-aged women hiking and chatting, two trains of swaggering horses, a couple of family groups carrying heavy backpacks, a through-hiker.  At Rock Creek campground most sites were occupied, but we found a quiet spot within easy reach of the creek to replenish our water supply.
Horse train on the PCT

Our final day’s distance was fourteen miles.  It was too few miles to split into two full days, thus, in keeping with our typical MO, we powered it out in one.  Fourteen miles is a long distance for me, but the grades were relatively gentle and we covered ground quickly until we encountered the sand—four miles of sand.  Our packs were light by now with very little food left and only a day’s worth of water, but still, my feet sank into the fine gold sand and my pace slowed to a crawl.  At last, the ground firmed up and we soaked our feet in an ice cold lake at the top of Cottonwood Pass before making our final march back to the Horseshoe Meadows trailhead.

Dropping to Horseshoe Meadows from Cottonwood Pass

As evening closed on our fifth day in the Sierras, we strode down our last series of switchbacks, dropping quickly back into warm pine forests and grassy fields.  The last wildflowers of the year were brown around the edges and their leaves curled.  Early morning frosts were doing them in; fall was arriving in the Sierras.  Cows lazily grazed along the other side of the slope and they didn’t so much as raise their heads as we passed at a distance.  The air warmed noticeably as the ground leveled out at 10,000’ along a pristine stream.  An hour before dark, we arrived at our trailhead and dropped our packs.  Looking back behind us to the west and the north, the Sierras towered, glowing in the last of the sunlight and beaconed us back.  Soon, both us thought, very soon.

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