October 16, 2011
Elevation, not drugs.
This weekend was my much anticipated attempt to summit the highest point the
lower 48, Mount Whitney. Originally 6, the group was cut to 4 a couple
months ago, and finally 3 when the one person backed out last minute.
That left me, Chase, and Chase's brother, Grant. On the previous
Wednesday and Thursday, Whitney got hit hard by a snowstorm, making our attempt
significantly more dubious than a summertime ascent.
The whole trip is 22 miles, with 6500' of elevation gain and 6500' to get back to the trailhead, starting at approximately 8000'. Besides our normal summer backpacking gear, we needed extra insulating layers, gloves, hat, long underwear, gaiters, crampons, and ice axes. This put my total pack weight with food/water probably around 35-37 pounds at the start of the trip.
Our itinerary had us in lone pine saturday afternoon to get a little acclimated and some last minute supply runs. We spend the night at around 6500' at a campsite just outside of Lone Pine, CA. Sunday morning we were planning to hike ~7-8 miles up to Trail Camp at 12,300'. Monday morning we would wake up before dawn to start our ascent up to 14,500' and another 4 miles trail distance. After summiting Monday, we would try to make it back to the car before night hit and the possibility of a slick, icy trail.
Sunday ended up going quite nicely. We got packed up by 7:30 and hit the trail by 8. The trail had residual snow on it starting at the trailhead. We made very good time to Lone Pine Lake and hit Outpost camp by about 10:30 AM. After Outpost Camp, we needed our crampons for a half-mile section of the trail, before we made it to Trail Camp. We set up our tent/sleeping bags, cut out a hole in the frozen lake near camp and filtered water for the night and next day. Sunday was the first summitable day since the storm ended Thursday, but of the 10 or so groups we talked to, only 1 managed to summit, so we still weren't sure we would make it to the top the next day.
That night was extremely cold. The forecast was for a low of 17 degrees, but it felt closer to 10 degrees and the wind was probably up to 30mph gusts. I would say overall we were prepared for the weather, but not over prepared by any means. None of the three of us got much sleep that night, as everyone was cold and uncomfortable from the altitude.
Up before sunrise, we hit the trail by 7 and were the second group up the switchback section just above Trail Camp. The switchbacks were the section where you decide whether to summit or not. You go up about 1500' in 2 miles through snow/ice in some very exposed sections. At some points a slip and fall would be deadly. Luckily, we didn't find too much trouble going up with crampons/axes. Without the extra traction, we probably would've turned back. We made good time up to the trail crest and made our last 2 mile push to the summit. The last mile was extremely tough. I was getting sick from the altitude (pounding headache, some nausea, exhausted), but we were so close turning back wasn't an option. Luckily, we hit the window where weather was good enough to summit.
The trip down was one of the tougher hikes I've ever done. After climbing 2K' in 4 miles, we had to go down 11 miles and drop 6500'. I won't dwell on the details, but I was in serious exhaustion mode by the time we got to the car, about an hour after sunset. The night ended taking off my boots, putting on my sandals, and going to get one the best tasting cheeseburgers of my life.