August 25, 2011

Hike Report: Mt. Whitney Trail

I set out on the hike with two goals, which were:  #1 - Enjoy myself and be renewed by spending some time hiking in the Sierras.  #2 - Reach the top of Mt. Whitney.  Having hiked to the top of Mt. Whitney before, goal #1 was much more important to me than goal #2.

It takes an average of 16 hours to hike from the trailhead to the top of Mt. Whitney and return.  Some folks take longer.  The group I was with began hiking at 4:15 a.m. last Friday morning.  It was dark, but dozens of eager hikers, along with a few bears, were at the trailhead, the hikers making sure their water bottles were full and their flashlights working, and the bears waiting for one of the hikers to set down their pack and turn away for a moment.  A moment is all the bear needs to sneak in, grab the pack full of food, and take off.

As we started hiking, we were surprised to realize that the openness of the forest and the nearly-full moon made the flashlights almost unnecessary.  What an amazing experience it was, to hike by moonlight, hearing the sounds of distant falling water.  It was warmer than we expected; the long sleeves quickly came off and we hiked in short sleeves, even though we were at 9,000 feet elevation in the darkness before dawn.  (It was warmer in the pre-dawn darkness at 9,000 feet than it would be in the middle of the afternoon at the top of Mt. Whitney, which is just over 14,500 feet).

A few weeks earlier, strong storms had sent a flash flood down the slopes of Mt. Whitney, washing away parts of the trail, and scattering the pieces of what one of my companions called the lincoln-log bridge.  The day before our hike, we saw notices at the ranger station warning that due to the recent storms, hikers on the Mt. Whitney trail should expect to get their feet wet.  However, when we came to it, the pieces of the bridge were back in place, and at no point did our feet get wet.

Slowly, the sun began to rise above the Owens Valley to the east.  We emerged from the forest above the treeline, but the high mountain peaks kept the sun from reaching us until we were quite a way up the mountain.  We passed Lone Pine Lake, Outpost Camp, and the trail became rockier and the plants fewer.  Eventually we arrived at Consultation Lake, which is over 11,000 feet in elevation.

Consultation Lake.  Definitely a place where you want sunblock. 
I was feeling really good, and thankful to be hiking the bare, rocky slopes before the sun's rays became too intense. Leaving Consultation Lake, we continued upward.  A small stream flowed down the canyon below the trail, emerging from a number of small snow fields.  The steps (and they really were steps, carved into the rock slope) became more difficult as the oxygen levels decreased even further.  I began to feel slightly lightheaded, but continued on to the small lake next to Trail Camp at 12,000 feet.

Here, I was thankful to sit and rest for a few minutes.  Breathing, I noticed, was becoming difficult.  Sitting for a few minutes did not stop the lightheadedness.  My body wasn't excessively tired from what I had done so far, but the altitude was getting to me.

From Trail Camp, the trail rises steeply through a series of switchbacks, the most grueling part of the hike.  The sun beats down on you here, and there are no trees to offer you relief.  Just rocks and snow.  At the top of the switchbacks, the trail skirts along a ridge for some distance before arriving at the peak itself.

I didn't make it to the ridge.  I started toward the switchbacks, but the lightheadedness remained.  I quickly realized that as I climbed higher and higher, it would only get worse.  It was clear to me that I would only be able to achieve one of my goals.  Since I had previously decided which of the goals was more important to me, the decision really wasn't that difficult.  For just a moment, I was sad that I would not be standing upon the summit of Mt. Whitney on this day, but I took comfort in knowing that I would achieve my #1 goal, and I immediately felt comfortable and happy with my decision.

Had I not set my priorities before beginning the hike, I probably would have continued on with those in my group who did eventually make it to the top.  I congratulate them on their achievement.  I know that if I had gone with them, I would not have enjoyed it, and would not have achieved what I set out to accomplish on this trip.

So I and one other in our group headed back down the mountain.  Instead of a 21 mile hike with 6,000 feet of elevation gain, ours was a 13 mile hike with 4,000 feet elevation gain.  Good enough for one day, I figure.  On the way down we looked at the flowers, took pictures, and even saw a deer.  We got back down to the trailhead picnic area in time to soak our feet in the stream and enjoy a soda while sitting on the store patio beneath towering pine and fir trees.

And we waited, for the rest of our group to return, which they did at 7:30.  Then we drove down to Lone Pine, ate pizza, went to a hotel, and slept.

The view from the Owens Valley, just outside of the town of Lone Pine, the day before our hike.  Mt. Whitney is in the center of this photo, shaded by the clouds.  Lone Pine Peak, to the left, appears taller, but that's because it's closer.

1 comment:

Steve Shepard said...

Thanks Danny for sharing this. I have hiked to the top 3 different times (twice starting at, and returning to, Consultation Lake) but never have I reached the top without some degree of altitude sickness.