Mt. Whitney

 

Hiking in the High Sierra

It’s a week prior to Labor Day weekend 2005. South Florida had just escaped a major blow from hurricane Katrina (unfortunately New Orleans and the central Gulf Coast were not so lucky). The air is still very hot and humid, with your daily dose of thunderstorms and heavy rain - it’s going to take another two months for that to change down here in South Florida. Getting away into some high & dry air would be nice; how about hiking in the High Sierra! Climbing Mt. Whitney has been on my wish list for a long time. This time of the year would be the best time for hiking, with weeks of sunshine and no cloud in the sky…

I realize that I still have an award ticket with Northwest Airlines from the tens of thousands of miles airtravel over the last 3 years. Better redeem that trip now before NWA is going bankrupt! I quickly check for connections and find a sequence of flights from Fort Lauderdale to Los Angeles. I take one day off to get a four day weekend and book the trip. Last minute preparations, packing the backpack… Let’s go West!

 

Saturday, September 3rd, 2005

Tannaz and the kids will spend their Labor Day weekend in Naples at a golf resort. They will drive with my car and – since it’s pretty much along their way – they drop me off at the Fort Lauderdale airport. My flight this morning is with code share partner Continental Airlines via Houston, almost a straight line en route to Los Angeles.

I have my big backpack and my Notebook case, plus my heavy hiking boots (even though it turns out that I won’t need or use those at all). The flights are smooth and on time. We arrive at LAX airport around 1:30pm local time. That gives me another couple of hours to get the rental car and drive up North towards the Owens Valley.

As there are no more cars in the midsize category at Enterprise Rental Cars, they offer me a free upgrade to a Chrysler Pacifica – not bad at $22/day! I throw my gear in the car and hop on the 405 San Diego freeway heading North. One must drive around the San Gabriel mountains to the West, which leads directly to Palmsdale and the Mojave Desert. Coming down to the city of Palmsdale city there is a scenic lookout point, time for a quick rest.

Water management is everything here in dry Southern California, and whoever lives close to a lake is a happy camper this time of the year. It’s funny to see all the watercraft and boats being towed behind SUVs and trucks through what is essentially a desert. A little while later I reach Mojave where highway 14 leads to the NorthEast towards the Owens Valley. One passes the Red Rock State Park and then cuts across the foothills to the West of California City. Endless straight-aways are stretching out to the horizon.

It always amazes me how in this day and age we can just hop on a plane to fly across the entire continent some 3000 miles and then drive a car some additional 200 miles through the desert to get to the High Sierra from South Florida within a few hours! Just a few decades ago without jet travel this approach trip would have been a big undertaking of several days, if not weeks!

Time is passed with a few snacks and sips from a water bottle while watching the occasional truck and looking at the unfolding scenery. I’m also getting used to the handling of the Pacifica while listening to the tunes of a few of my favorite CDs which I brought along for this purpose.

The drive takes about 3.5 hrs. At the Southern entrance of the Owens Valley is the dry lake bed of Owens lake. I also remember the turn-off of the highway which leads to Death Valley just about 50 miles to the East of here. Shortly thereafter I reach Lone Pine, my destination for tonight. The evening light is magic. One can see the mountain range of the High Sierra to the West, with the sun about to sink behind them and cast long shadows across the valley.

I stop at the local Ranger Station to obtain a wilderness permit for the next two days and enquire about the weather conditions. Well, no big surprise here, as the Yahoo weather page a few days ago already showed a cloud-less sky for the next 10 days! In fact, I would not see a single cloud until on the return flight on Tuesday several hundred miles to the East – major portions of the entire Western continent are under a high pressure system without any clouds.

Originally I had thought about continuing further North to Mammoth Lakes and then Yosemite National Park via Tioga Pass road. However I decide against that due to the late hour of the day and also due to the thick smoke of a forest fire blowing over the High Sierra further to the North. Why continue to drive further North if conditions are not as good as here?

Instead I drive up the local road leading up to Horseshoe Maedows for a scenic view of the Owens Valley and Lone Pine below. In doing so you pass the Alabama hills, a series of rock formations famous for serving as movie backdrop for many a Western movie over the last decades.

I race the sunset to the top of the switch backs for some really scenic views down the valley. I don’t get to the top, instead I stop half-way up for some pictures. When I scramble up the embankment to get above the road I slip and cake my camera with fine dust – not good. Lone Pine is visible at the right edge of the picture below.

I still drive up to the highest switch-back about 3000 ft above the valley floor. Very close nearby is a hangglider take-off which got somewhat famous in the 80’s when they launched world-record setting long flights up North along the Owens Valley and then into Nevada. I drive up there and step out fo the car, looking down the take-off where the remnants of a wind-sock or two are flapping in the eveing wind. I wonder what it must have felt back then for those pilots at launch, their oxygen masks ready to use later during their flights at elevations well above the High Sierra, often reaching 16.000 ft or higher!

A few hours ago when I was approaching the temperature was well in the mid nineties, now the air cools down rapidely in the higher elevation of perhaps 7000 ft. Soon the temperature drops below 60F - it hasn’t been this cool in Florida since 4 months! I revel in the crisp, dry air with the characteristic smell of pine trees and some blossowing yellow bushes.

Before it gets too cold and dark I drive down again and decide to stay overnight at a Best Western motel in town. There will be plenty of time for my first day-hike tomorrow. So I have time for a nice dinner at Seasons, one of the few local restaurants. As usual, I already download and check the digital photos from the approach trip. May the good times last for the next three days!

 

Sunday, September 4th, 2005

The morning daws crystal-clear. The High Sierra gets the first morning sun and glows in an orange light which creates a stunning contrast that’s almost too much to handle for the optics of my digital camera. This photo shows Mt. Whitney to the right – with 14,494 ft the highest peak of the lower 48 states!

I have some breakfast at the motel and chat with other hikers and guides. The room I got in this motel certainly deserves the phrase “room with a view” as you can see from this self-timed picture taken from the roof of my rental car just outside the room.

Two more things I need to do: One is shopping for the next two days and the other is to rent a bear canister from the ranger station. While waiting for the foodstore to open at 8:30am I dispatch an email via the wireless Internet of the motel which I tap into while sitting in the car J

Then I drive up the Portal road to the campground and trailhead. With the morning sun the view is different from last night, but nevertheless quite spectacular. At one switch-back I pause for a few pictures and watch two mountain bikers slowly pedaling up the road rising above the haze of the valley.

Shortly after the road turns back due West it arrives at the so-called Whitney Portal. As if framed for that purpose, the summit of Mt. Whitney greets the arriving guest, still towering some 6500 ft above the road.

I register with a local camp ground for one night stay and park my car at one of the few remaining free spots. I stow all food in the special bear-resistant metal boxes available at each site. Every visitor is well instructed not to leave any food or other smelly items in the car – a photograph of a car with broken side window is convincing proof that bears will find a way inside your car if you leave food inside! Hikers also must carry a bear-proof food container if they want to stay overnight in the back country. I won’t need that as I plan to sleep in the car at the camp ground.

It is 10:30am when I leave the trail-head for a day-hike up the Mt. Whitney trail to explore the terrain and to acclimatize as much as possible.

It is hot and dry, plus with the high elevation one exhales a lot of moisture with every breath. So it is important to drink lots of water to not dehydrate.

It is a barren landscape up here, with some pine trees and a few meadows along the creek beds punctuating the otherwise dry and rocky surrounding. The occasional pine trees cast a welcome shadow along the path.

Obviously there are plenty of other hikers around – after all, this is the best time of the year for hiking the High Sierra, the weather is perfect and it is a 3-day weekend due to Labor Day. But there is so much space up here that the foot traffic is not a problem at all. In fact, I try to take advantage of other hikers by asking them to take a picture here and there…

As I continue to climb higher, the forest zone is cleared with the last trees making a stand at around 11.000 ft. When looking back down I can see the valley floor below as well as the mountain range to the East.

It is up here that I experience the first effects of high altitude, with increased heart rate and some shortage of breath, forcing me to go somewhat slower. At this point I am not concerned, as I expected this to happen. About ½ hr later I reach the Consultation Lake, which offers a beautiful backdrop for a scenic photograph.

A short time later I reach the second camp at 12.000 ft, my goal for the day. I rest and chat with two guys from Sacramento. They spent the last night up here without tent and were miserably cold due to the chilling winds. Nevertheless the two summitted today and just came back from the top. From here you get a close-up view of the upper peaks of Mt. Whitney.

The walls towering above the camp are a playground for rock-climbers, albeit somewhat remote and reserved for the well-acclimated! I walk around a bit, scoping out the environment, getting water from a nearby spring and playing with some rocks, taking advantage of some other hikers as photographers again.

After spending perhaps 1 hr or so at this altitude I clearly feel its impact. I am thinking that even with a much earlier start in the morning, continuing up higher today would probably have been difficult due to the altitude. I am hoping that tomorrow will be better, although I know that adaption to high altitude does not work that fast…

On the way back down I rest at a grassy spot near Consultation Lake and snooze – a good way to get prepared for altitude is to sleep at high altitude; I just wish it would go faster. An hour later I continue my descent. The first tree along the trail invites another picture with the mellow light of warm afternoon sun.

The shadows of the High Sierra grow longer and create stark contrasts of light and dark. The small Lone Pine lake sits as an improbable blue mirror spot amidst the otherwise grey and green environment.

It is another 3 miles or about 1 hr from Lone Pine lake down to the trail-head. When I get there I first stop at the Portal store, a small convenience and souvenir shop. They even serve food, and naturally I am hungry and eager to get a good dinner prior to tomorrow’s ascent. Even though the store is open 8:00a-8:00p, their kitchen is only open until 6:30p. Unfortunately I get there at 6:33pm, 3 minutes late, so they already clean the kitchen – too bad! Nevertheless I buy some instant noodle soup and they also microwave a hot dog for me. Thus I get at least some hot food. And because I am quite hungry I eat a second round of soup and hot dog. Not exactly gourmet food, but then again when you’re hungry enough everything tastes good! I chat with some locals who summitted today – great stories all around.

I am quite tired after the 6 hr round-trip hike, the intense sun, dry air, high altitude and now the dinner. Also, the air cools off quickly as it gets dark around 8:00p. I pull out my long bike pants as well as the fleece. This is the most I will wear during the entire trip. When you are tired you feel the cold more strongly – besides I’m really not used to cold air anymore …

There is not much else for me to do other than to retire to my car. The backpack is ready for an early start tomorrow morning – so all I do is creep into my sleeping bag and try to get some sleep.

 

Monday, September 5th, 2005

It has been a night of tossing & turning. Even though the back seats of the Chrysler Pacifica fold down to create an almost flat surface, I continued to slip to one of the corners and tried unsuccessfully to find a real comfortable position to sleep. Every half hour or so I wake up to rearrange and find another position. At least I was not cold and the wind largely stayed outside except for the windows open just an inch or so to let some fresh air inside.

The alarm rings at 4:45am. There is no moon but the stars shine so bright that you can see them clearly even through the black-tainted windows. I am practically ready to go as soon as I get out of my sleeping bag. I just get most of my food from the nearby bear-resitant food-box, drive up another mile or so to the end of the road, park the car and get ready to leave.

A few hikers have left before me and are seen walking higher up with their respective head-lamps blinking through the light forest. I try to get into a good rhythm, taking it extra slow this morning due to the long ascent and high elevation awaiting me today. As soon as I get a bit higher the morning starts to dawn. It is exceptionally clear in the air this high, and there is a stunning display of colors, ranging from black to light blue and a touch of yellow, with the street lights of Lone Pine glowing in the dark valley below. While you get a glimpse of that mood from the picture below, it isn’t even close to the real thing! Our eyes adapt to the light conditions and have an infinitely better resolution than the 3 MegaPixel chip in my digital camera. Plus the sounds of rushing water and the smells of the pine forest all around all make for what cinematologists would call an “immersive experience”.

As always, I’m thinking what a great adventure when you start in the predawn hours of the day! 45 minutes later the morning sun paints warm, yellow colors on the surrounding rock faces.

I feel confident about the day, with an early start, plenty of daylight (13 hrs) and after the reconnaiscence day-hike yesterday. Again, there are plenty of other hikers up here, many of which can be seen packing up their tents as in this picture on the rock plateau below.

It is only 8:30am when I reach the level of Consultation Lake at an elevation not far short of 12.000 ft. Other hikers are marking the way up ahead.

Just before 9:00am I reach the spot where I had turned around yesterday. I had deposited a half-full bottle of gatorade, thinking that I wouldn’t have to carry it up today. Unfortunately it is gone! Probably not the bears, but hungry or rather thirsty campers! Anyway, there is a spring with fresh water nearby, so not to worry.

As I continue to climb higher the two lakes become visible. The trail reaches the first patches of snow. It is so dry up here that even at this elevation around 13.000 ft (4000 m) there is hardly any snow, much less any glaciers worth mentioning. The trail cuts through some moderately steep slabs of granite polished smooth by millenia of glacial activity, but that must have been a very long time ago.

It is brutally hot in the sun, but with a cold wind blowing down, so it alternates between uncomfortably hot and chillingly cold. In the shade the water on the trail is frozen ice so one has to occasionally watch the step.

Now I really start feeling the impact of the high altitude. Even though I walk very slowly on the gently sloped trail I am short of breath. I feel the onset of a severe head-ache. I rest frequently, but can’t really recover any strength. Suddenly the thought occurs to me that the summit – even though not much more than 1000 vertical ft above my current position - might well be beyond my reach today!

There is a long steep slope up to the saddle over which the trail crests to the West side of the ridge above. I am thinking I will just take it easy and slow and go up to the saddle for some nice views and pictures and see how it goes from there. If only I could get up to the saddle I would rest and enjoy the view towards the West.

Even though many others are also walking slowly, I seem to be the slowest of all, which is somewhat unusual L I also notice another strange thing: My heart-rate is low, only around 100-110 bpm, much lower than I would have expected. When climbing strongly my heart-rate would usually be around 120-140, perhaps going up to 160 bpm. I would have expected the shortage of oxygen in the muscles to be compensated by increased heart rate. But the muscles are not my problem today…

Rather suddenly there is also this bad feeling in my stomach which is rather unusual. I stop and sit down, but things aren’t getting better. In fact, shortly thereafter, my stomach is revolting and in several strong bouts I vomit all over the trail! The red gatorade and the undigested cereal bar come up. That is bad! This has NEVER happened to me in the mountains, even though I have been considerably higher than this, both in the French Alps on Mt. Blanc at almost 16.000 ft in 1984 as well as in the South American Andes at nearly 20.000 ft in 1993! To aggravate an already bad situation, without keeping fluids in your system you dehydrate more quickly and its literally all downhill from there!

I am understandbly alarmed about my condition. However I feel better after this episode and slowly continue a bit further – if only for a few minutes. I reach a high point of about 13.300 ft at which I take a self-timed picture.

The ridge to the East of the Owens Valley has already dropped below and the view is opening up all the way out to the East. The saddle is tantalizingly close and I desperately would like to have reached it on day as perfectly clear as today. I can already see other hikers at the top of the saddle – I judge it to be about 100m vertical or 300 ft higher than where I am now – a matter of 10 min in regular conditions.

But not for me today: I know that the ONLY remedy against altitude sickness is to get down to lower elevations, and get down fast – no rest or anything else will help. I still have vivid memories of my good child hood friend Kurt experiencing similar sickness and vomiting near the top of the Grossvenediger some 20 years ago. Apparently the body reacts to the shortage of oxygen with getting rid of anything in the stomach which might divert blood and oxygen away from the other vital organs and the brain. Back then Kurt pressed on and lived through an ordeal of complete exhaustion and misery all the way down. And he was lucky in many ways, partly because he could ski down without much effort which quickly brought him back to lower elevations.

Here I am already 1000 ft (300m) higher than the Grossvenediger summit and there is no quick skiing down to lower elevations. Suddenly it dawns on me that if I want to get down under my own power I have to turn around immediately. So without any further delay I start heading down. The dream of a summit view today from Mt. Whitney is over!

While this certainly hurts and dampens my spirit somewhat the important task at hand is to get down fast. A strong head-ache and fatigue sets in. I feel like in a race against time: If I stop and rest now, further deterioration due to the lack of oxygen will set in. So I will myself to continue, carefully watching my step so as to not trip or lose my already somewhat impared sense of balance. Every step down will bring ever so slight relief and denser air to breathe. Not far below Consultation Lake I have to vomit again. Somewhat embarrasing, but then I’m too tired and exhausted to care. That also reminds me of Kurt’s miserable state back then when he experienced similar problems.

The irony of this situation is that Kurt summitted Mt. Whitney also nearly 20 years ago after flying in to LAX, driving up the same day and hiking all the way the very next day without any acclimatization. Of course, he was 20 years younger than we are now, and perhaps living in Munich at 1700 ft (500m) is a slight advantage over living at sealevel, but then again it is widely reported that altitude sickness often strikes in unpredictable ways. For me on this day, going up more than 13.000 ft within less than 48 hours is just too much – my mission impossible!

It amazes me again and again how quickly conditions can change in the high mountains and how much your perception gets funneled around only how to bring relief for basic necessities – whether it’s relief from cold, thirst, hunger, or in this case, hypoxia. All the splendid surroundings, the view and all – it’s all irrelevant to me now. All I care about is to get down and find some rest as soon as I’m further down. I do so at the first meadows along the trail which is at about 11.500 ft.

I lay down on a soft cushion of grass next to a small creek of running water. It is like an oven without much wind and a relentlessly hot sun. After some 15 minutes I have to turn around so as to not get roasted on the side exposed to the sun – despite the frequently applied SPF 30 sunscreen.

All perception is like in a haze due to my oxygen-depleted state of mind. Quite amazing how much the O2 level of your brain determines your well-being and the perception of everything else around. It’s also well known that your brain, while perhaps at 2% of your body weight, consumes upwards of 20% of your body’s oxygen.

After ½ hour or so I feel rested enough to continue on down. Slowly at first, but then noticeably I recover. Below Lone Pine lake at about 9.000 ft the whole experience of misery is over almost as quickly as it set in. I also knew from literature that symptoms of altitude sickness recede as soon as you get down to lower elevations. It’s as if my brain and body switch back to normal mode now that oxygen is delivered again in sufficient quantities…

Of course mother nature is as stunning as every other day up here. I try to stop for a few shots, even though I admit that photography is not high on the priority list when you’re not feeling well. At one point I notice a barren tree I wanted to take a picture of the other day, but I’m already a few steps below. Should I go back? Well yes, I can’t be that tired. But it costs me an extra effort just to walk back up a few steps…

And then I decide to stop at Lone Pine Lake for another short rest. The setting is very scenic and beautiful. Some day-hiking folks are even sitting there in swim suits – but nobody goes into the water, which is way too cold to swim in it.

It takes another hour or so to descend to the trail head. When I step through the wooden structure which marks the beginning of the trail it is almost exactly 11 hours after I started in the pre-dawn hours. I am relieved that the descent is over and that my head-ache is gone.

But I’m also sad to have failed in the bid for the summit, after the flight across the continent and the drive across the desert, after the two hikes up the valley and then being stopped forcefully just short of the surround view from the saddle or the summit. I will have to come back another time for that one!

I retrieve some more food from the bear-resitant storage and start the drive back down. At the top of the switch-back I stop, drink some gatorade, eat some nuts and take in the view.

I drive down, return the bear-proof canister at the ranger station and refuel the car. With gas prices well above $3/gallon the fuel cost for this car-trip is about as expensive as the rental fee of $71 after tax. When I got to the United States some 9 years ago I remember pumping gas at 99 cents/gallon! And in the aftermath of hurricane Katrina gas prices spiked up to unseen levels. That does not seem to deter the local residents from their various trips over the Labor Day weekend though, which are all heading home tonight. The sun is sinking lower in the West, casting longer and longer shadows as I look East across Owens Lake towards the Death Valley area.

The drive back to Los Angeles is about 200 miles or 3.5 hours long. It is a beautiful drive. For example, around sunset after 7:00pm I pass the area of Mojave with hundreds of wind generators on top of the hills to the North-West. The narrow silhouette of the moon just a few days after new moon stands directly over those wind mills against an incredibly clear yellow-blue evening sky. Then later as the road drops a few thousand feet down from the plateau through the Red Rocks State Park the city lights of Palisade are visible across some 30-50 miles of clear Mojave desert air against the black of the night. I feel as if on a final approach from an airplane. Reducing all impressions of a trip like this to just the view from the summit would be somewhat one-dimensional indeed!

As I get closer to Los Angeles I am pondering where to stay overnight. Given that I didn’t shower in two days after all the dust, heat and sweat of the trail I certainly need a shower prior to sitting in the airplane all day tomorrow. Once I get close to Los Angeles on the 405 San Diego freeway I start looking for motels along the exits. I finally find a Motel 6 on one of those exits and check in for a cheap, but clean room and shower. I skip on dinner at a restaurant, partly because I was snacking along the way and don’t feel hungry any more, partly because it is already 10:00pm and I need to get up very early one more time.

 

Tuesday, September 6th, 2005

The alarm rings at 5:30am so that I don’t get into L.A. rush hour on this regular day of work. Without any problems I get to the Enterprise Rental Car terminal and return the Pacifica. Within 15 minutes a shuttle bus brings me to the LAX airport.

I start writing this trip report and actually have free wireless Internet access courtesy to a free service of the Canada Air VIP launch J Soon the flight is boarding and I need to pack away my stuff. We take off on time over the sandy beaches of the Pacific Ocean – no wonder they call this Long Beach!

The flight continues West for a few minutes and I start to wonder why we are heading out over the Pacific Ocean. After a sweeping turn we climb out directly over LAX and start heading NorthEast – after all it’s NorthWest (J) Airlines and we’re heading to Minneapolis (and then via Detroit back to Fort Lauderdale).

The view is great from this vantage point. One can see the entire L.A. basin framed by the Pacific in the West and the San Gabriel mountains to the North. The haze isn’t bad at all, given that Los Angeles suffered from very bad smog some decades ago. But the view gets better once we climb higher directly above the San Gabriel mountains. To the North I can see the High Sierra across a clear sky some 150+ miles to the North. The view ranges from the Edwards airforce base to the East across the Mojave desert all the way to the clearly visible North-South gap of the Owens Valley – what a view!

Again, the digital picture pales compared to the real thing. For a long time I am practically glued to the window, searching out familiar land-marks below in the sky cloudless for several hundred miles. We also fly straight over Las Vegas, and sitting on the left side of the airplane I can later see parts of the Bryce Canyon in Arizona going by below. Folks sitting on the right side of the plane probably could see the Grand Canyon quite well…

We are approaching Minneapolis around 2:00pm local time, then continuing on over Lake Michigan on to Detroit and finally fly back at night down to Fort Lauderdale. The flight path is certainly somewhat of a detour, but such are the idiosyncracies of award travel. The flight touches both the Mexican border between Houston and Los Angeles near El Paso as well as the Canadian border near Detroit. I also fly over both the Atlantic as well as the Pacific Ocean and the Great Lakes. There were numerous big cities en route, including New Orleans, Palm Springs, Las Vegas, and Cleveland by night in addition to all the stops Fort LauderdaleHoustonLos AngelesMinneapolisDetroitFort Lauderdale.

Some 7000 miles of flight, 600 miles of driving, all for 48 hours of hiking in the High Sierra! It’s the sum of all these impressions, the sunrises and sunsets, the high and dry air, the smells and sounds of mother nature, all of this combined makes a trip like this so unforgettable. To be sure: A panorama photo shot from the highest point of the lower 48 on a clear day like this Labor Day would have been a coveted element in my collection! But as Ed Viesturs says: Getting to the summit is optional, getting back down safely is mandatory. Ed knows for sure, as he recently (May 2005) became the first American alpinist to do so on all fourteen 8000m peaks. Another amazing thought of the power and importance of acclimatization: I got altitude sickness at an elevation more than 3000 ft lower than Everest base camp (16.000 ft) where people go back down to recover during their expeditions!

The one question I mull over most on the long flights back home is this: When will I come back with enough time to acclimatize and then make it all the way to the top of Mt. Whitney?