A couple weeks prior to our successful ascent of Mt. Whitney, the composition of our group was unforeseeable. Of the numerous friends and family that indicated an interest in going over the year and eight months I trained (which was largely about generating the side effect of losing lots of weight), only Tim was still thinking about it. With about two weeks to go it was looking like I was the only one going. All of us that went had never met at least one person in the final group which made it hard to predict how we would relate to one another. I’ve been friends with Tim for over a decade. A couple years ago he solo hiked the John Muir Trail and was very helpful getting me ready. I met Scott (who turned out to have a lot of great ideas) on an incredibly windy day at the summit of Mt. Baldy. We kept in touch as he also has a blog which I enjoy reading, but I didn’t know him well. Dave is a friend of Tim’s who I had never met, but turned out to be a great addition to our group. So, our collective bond was not as much between one another as it was a common desire to summit Mt. Whitney.
Scott arrived before the rest of us had departed from my house and he was able to do some hiking along the Meysan Lakes Trail and the Alabama Hills to acclimatize before meeting us at our camp site at Whitney Portal. The rest of us needed to pick up the permit and wag bags in Lone Pine where we learned that there had been thunderstorms starting in the early afternoon for the past week and more were expected in the coming days. With this information, and Scott’s experience hiking earlier that day; we decided to get an early (for me) start the next morning so that we would be guaranteed to arrive at Trail Camp before the storm hit. This was the first of a few key decisions we made where logic overrode my initial emotional resistance.
Surprisingly, I got up before my alarm and had no problem getting ready on schedule. The trail starts out easy with a more gradual incline than I had anticipated. However, the terrain already hints at the grandeur that is to come with the presence of mountains with steep rock faces and long views. Early on trees are a major portion of the landscape—even when looking far up the mountain. We stopped at Lone Pine Lake to snack and replenish our water supply. Arriving at this small lake (which is easy to walk around), I was initially moved by how intimate it felt. The view back is blocked by trees, steep mountains enclose the views north and south, and the view east is mostly sky not showing what lies beyond. However, walking around the lake yields expansive views. About halfway to the east rim, the view up includes the tip of Mt. Muir. From the east rim, the view opens downward to the Owens Valley and beyond to the White Mountains. Not yet into the Whitney Zone, this would have made a wonderful campsite to acclimate the night before. I was a little jealous of the campers that were there.
My favorite area on the trail along the way to Mirror Lake is Bighorn Park. Still below tree line, this area provides an incredible change in scenery. This rare large clearing with green living ground cover yields a vibrant contrast with the granite walls that surround. Lone Pine Creek gently flows along the edge of the trail—which has now flattened making it super easy to traverse. At first bounded by the massive granite walls of Thor Peak, the trek through the park is long enough that the views change along the way opening up to provide a distant glimpse of Muir Peak beyond. A short distance up the trail is Outpost Camp. Mirror Lake is close by and is the last place with a sense of destination along the trail before getting above tree line. Over the course of close to four short miles there were two beautiful lakes, tall trees, a gorgeous park, a couple small waterfalls seen in the distance, a creek that needed to be crossed a couple times and also meandered in and out of view constantly along the way, and massive granite walls creating relatively intimate spots and then opening up to grand vistas beyond.
Above tree line, granite becomes the dominant feature along the trail. Going forward, the sky is now the main competing feature that provides contrast with the barren granite landscape. Shade created by clouds softens the starkness of the granite. The varied forms of the massive mountain walls and the spaces between them provide a sculptural landscape of tremendous proportions. There are two marvelously beautiful places along this portion of the trail that are wonderful destinations to break up the essentially monochromatic granite landscape.
The first is the long and narrow Trailside Meadow with Lone Pine Creek running through it. It is refreshing to walk by the flowing water and vibrant green vegetation. The second is Consultation Lake partially enclosed by Mt McAdie and Mt. Irvine.
Going forward, the approach to Trail Camp provides a spectacular view of Mt. Muir. We already experienced a lot of varied landscapes with numerous wonderful places to stop in less than seven miles. As we made it to Trail Camp, the clouds had gotten darker. Hail was coming. To be continued …