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Well, as big mountains go, Mt. Whitney is not exactly impressive. Its summit--heck, the mountain itself--does not really stand out the way, say the Cascade Volcanos do. This is because Mt. Whitney's neighborhood is populated by a multitude of high peaks. With such distinguished neighbors, it's pretty difficult to make an impression. In fact, 13 of California's 15 "fourteeners" (i.e., peaks at least 14,000 foot high), including Mt. Whitney, are in a relatively small area south of the town of Bishop. One other fourteener, White Mountain (not part of the Sierra Nevada), is located just northeast of Bishop. Mt. Shasta, a few hundred miles north, is really the only outsider in this elite group. Unless approaching from the east, it's hard to make Whitney out as a separate mountain.
Nonetheless, at 14,495 feet, Mt. Whitney is the highest point in the contiguous United States, and that's reason enough for me and legions of peak-baggers to make the pilgrimage and pay it a visit.
Trying to climb Mt. Whitney during the peak summer months is an irritating undertaking--one must go through the highly annoying process of securing an overnight permit. I understand the rationale for all this--monitoring against overcrowding, security, fiscal considerations, etc. My choices were as follow: (1) to apply for a permit at 12:01 on March 1 three years before my planned trip (or something ridiculous like that), (2) to bypass the requirement by approaching from the west side of the park via the John Muir Trail, (3) to sneak in, or (4) to try in the offseason. I chose the last option.
A perfect opportunity presented itself in October 96, when my firm decided to be part of a corporate effort to do volunteer restoration work at Yosemite National Park. I decided to fit the Whitney climb in. The week we're supposed to do the volunteer work, I left a couple of days early for the long drive east through Yosemite and Tioga Pass and onto 395 South. From having done the Markleeville Death Ride and a couple of other Nevada cycling centuries, I knew that the drive south would be scenic. Set at an elevation of between 5,000-8,000 feet, the highway traverses what must be one of the most visually spectacular terrain in the world: the Nevada desert to your left, the Sierras to your right; passing, in succession, Mono Lake, Mammoth Mountains, the White Mountain Range, the fourteeners around Bishop and Inyo County--Highway 395 goes through high-country paradise.
I knew that I'm risking altitude sickness at the speed with which I intended to climb the mountain. My itinerary was as follows: (1) Thursday: from sea level to an overnight at 7,500 feet; (2) Friday: an early start and a quick ascent and descent, an hour's rest and then a drive back north to Yosemite Valley where my volunteer group was scheduled to meet that evening, and (3) Saturday and Sunday for actual volunteer work. It would have been nice to have an extra day to acclimate, but I was time-constrained; besides I had just set a PR at the Portland Marathon the weekend before, I felt ready...
Properly acclimated, the ascent of Whitney via the Mt. Whitney Trail doesn't require anything more than a good pair of boots and patience. From Whitney Portal, one gains approximately 6,000 feet over 10.5 miles.
(Right): A crisp autumn morning, Bighorn Park (almost 10,000 feet), just before Outpost Camp, 3.5 miles from Whitney Portal. The Whitney Trail is the busiest trail in the Sierra Nevada, so busy in fact that they installed compost toilets to minimize pollution from human waste. Eeewwww...
I slept on a campsite a quarter of a mile from the trailhead. There were already quite a few people on the trail, as evidenced by bobbing headlights further up. The first sections of the trail rises ever so gradually, in a frustrating series of gentle switchbacks. Is this a compromise for the tourists? It seemed to me that the number of switchbacks could have been reduced by half and the trail would still have been very manageable.
(Left): The east face of Mt. Muir, as seen from the Mt. Whitney Trail. (At 14,015 feet, Mt. Muir is a very tempting fourteener to "bag" on the way to the summit of Whitney. However, most people find the effort required to make the hour or so detour too much.) The trail veers left from the point where I took this photo, joins up with the John Muir Trail at 13,500 feet, and continues just below the summit of Mt. Muir on the west side. Mt. Whitney is to the right (out of camera range).
(Left): I was struck by the primary-colors configuration of these tents at Trail Camp (12,100 feet). Wise climbers spend an extra night in this area to acclimate better and to break up the ascent into more manageable chunks.
The next set of obstacles present themselves right above Trail Camp: the infamous 95 switchbacks and an altitude gain of over 1,000 feet. At this point I began to notice a lack of appetite, very odd considering that I have been going at a fairly steady clip for the past 4 hours. I grabbed a handful of M&M's and forcibly swallowed them. At least I can still feel thirst, so I just kept drinking...
It felt as if the mountain was
mocking me in throwing in the switchbacks where it did. In
retrospect, these switchbacks are the most compelling argument to
further acclimate at either Outpost Camp or at Trail Camp. That
familiar lightheaded, spaced-out feeling started to take hold of
me, and I can hear an inner voice warning me to be extra careful
because "they" (i.e., the rest of my brain cells) are
(Right): "Lake" as seen from the switchbacks, just above Trail Camp.
Still, I kept at it, although I was getting more and more exhausted and groggy. The slope did not let up. I could have sworn that there were at least 200 switchbacks...(continued next page)
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Three months after our back-breaking labor, nature decided to take matters into its own hands. Our work involved shoring up the banks of the Merced by planting willow (I think it was) saplings, soil redistribution, and mulch spreading. And wouldn't you know it? Later that December, one of the wettest California winters of the century not only overflowed the river's banks, it redirected the water's flow, buckled the roads, washed out campgrounds and closed the park to visitors for 3 months. Shows you who's the real boss, doesn't it?