Starting Early Was Key To A Fantastic Summit

I didn’t need my alarm to wake me up in time to be ready for our early morning ascent of Mt. Whitney.  The key remaining downside to needing to change my campsite location was that the only viable option at the time was close to the trail.  By around 1:00 am and within most every 30 minutes thereafter, I would awaken to the light of headlamps shining through my tarp, the sound of footsteps, and conversations (some quieter than others) from hikers who were off to an earlier start than me.  Fortunately, when I got out of my sleeping bag and tarp to begin getting ready to meet the rest of the group I discovered that it wasn’t as cold outside as I feared it would be.  By around 3:30 am we were on our way.

The hike up from Trail Camp to Trail Crest in the dark was among the best hiking experiences I’ve had.  While it was cold enough for me to really need my gloves, I was bundled up appropriately to feel comfortable.  The sky was now completely clear of clouds and wonderfully lit up by starlight.  However, without moonlight, it was very dark at ground level.  Initially, the dark blue of the sky was only discernible as blue when juxtaposed with the black forms of the mountains.  Aside from the subtle line delineating the black outline of the mountain tops meeting the dark blue sky; the only thing discernible from Trail Camp looking up or down the mountain was the light shining from the headlamps of hikers making their way upward.  Early on in our ascent of the 99 switchbacks we began crossing a stream of water back and forth as we made our way up the mountain.  For me, that was much better than dealing with ice and it made me hopeful our ascent might not require us to contend with an icy trail.  When the moon came out, it looked like an eclipse.  A tiny sliver of yellowish light shined out from the left edge of the moon (looking as if it were on fire) with the dark remainder of it easily distinguishable as a black circle against the dark blue sky.  We all stopped numerous times on the way up to admire it.

Soon after our first sighting of the moon, we started to see the light shining from headlamps that were coming down the mountain.  As hikers passed us, we learned that they turned back essentially due to it being dark with ice on the trail.  Although this wasn’t a good sign, other bits of information kept me hopeful it would work out for us.  For example, some hikers felt they couldn’t go forward because they didn’t have trekking poles which everyone in our group had.  Some hikers came down while others in their group continued up toward Mt. Whitney.  So, at least some people weren’t turning back.  This was now one set of switchbacks that I wanted to last a long time—at least until the sun was out to hopefully soften up the ice and help me easily see the ground before me.  Our timing was fantastic.  The sun began to rise just as we made the turn onto the last switchback.  Reaching Trail Crest shortly after sunrise was remarkable.  The grandeur of its expansive view was heightened by the previous hours of hiking in darkness (only being about ten minutes without using my headlamp) and most of the journey the day before looking up in anticipation of looking over the crest.

Trail Crest shortly after sunrise.

The journey from Trail Crest to the Mt. Whitney summit approach was stunningly scenic but also slow going.  The slowness was due to the presence of snow and ice on the narrow trail with a huge drop to the west side.  There wasn’t enough snow and ice to require crampons, but there was enough of it to require intense focus to not slip off the trail—at least at my skill level.  Fortunately, I experienced hiking in similarly icy trail conditions earlier in the year and learned what to look for having fallen a few times on far less hazardous terrain. To remain within my comfort zone, I needed to stop in order to take in the incredibly expansive view.  At times dazzled by the splendor; I would stop, take off my gloves, and snap a photo.

Kyle, David (mostly hidden), and Tim cautiously making our way forward near Trail Crest. Photo by Scott Turner

Early on, while the sun was still low to the east; the shadow cast by Mt. Muir, the rock towers, and Mt. Whitney emphasized the height of the mountain range in relation to the grand landscape to the west below—the direct light from the sun shinning on the ground when making contact with the Kaweah Peak Ridge and the Great Western Divide beyond.

Looking down at Hitchcock Lakes and Mt. Hitchcock with the sun shining on the Kaweah Peaks Ridge and the Great Western Divide beyond.

Looking east through one of the “windows.”

Still a bit cold (perhaps colder that the 32 degree reading on the thermometer at Trail Crest), and hiking in shadow made crossing the windows (gaps in the rock allowing fantastic views east) more intense as the brightness and warmth of the sun had an opening to break through.

Any concerns about coming to a spot where the ice and snow would cause me to turn back vanished when the path of the trail transitioned from being on the side of the mountain to on top of it.  The final trek up to the summit—as I described in an earlier post—was spectacular.

With the sun high in the sky and the temperature rising, the ice and snow on the trail began to soften and melt making it significantly easier to hike.  Requiring a little less focus to traverse than was the case on the ascent, I was freed up to take in more of the view and snap more photos.

View heading back along the trail towards Trail Crest.

The importance of starting early was underscored further for me on the way down the 99 switchbacks because the trek down was helped by having views unseen in the dark on the way up.  This provided a profoundly different experience.

View of some of the switchbacks heading back down to Trail Camp

As I headed down from Trail Camp, I knew the really intense and new experiences of this trip were behind me.  All that was left to do was retrace my steps of the day before under similar weather conditions.  I was a little anxious to get down the trail as I worried about how tired I would become still needing to make the long drive home.  Not having much sleep the previous two nights, I was more tired than I expected to be and the way down felt much longer than the way up—especially from Lone Pine Lake to the trailhead.  The ride home went faster than I expected because there was so much to reflect upon.  After my year and eight month journey training and getting my weight down, the trip somehow far exceeded my expectations.  By the time I made it home I was already thinking about going back.  Tired as I was, I couldn’t even wait until the next day to look at my photos.  I pulled the book Mt. Whitney: The Complete Trailhead-to-Summit Guide by Paul Richins off my book shelf and looked at other ways to get to Mt. Whitney.  I’ll definitely be going back!

Hail Storm Provides Some Drama

Our early afternoon arrival at Trail Camp corresponded with the appearance of dark storm clouds.  The pattern the ranger and Scott spoke of for past days was holding true on this day too.  Fortunately, off in the distance were mostly blue skies, so the part about the storm being short was likely to hold true as well.  There were numerous shelters already set up (or in the process of being set up).  Since the terrain was largely granite, there weren’t many places to stake out a tent.  We had to take what we could get.  I had a bit more of a challenge finding a workable spot because I use a two person shaped tarp and inner bug tentwhich has a much larger footprint than two person tents.  I only had a problem setting up one stake that I could only get three quarters of the way into the ground.  After adding a seemingly heavy enough rock to hold down the stake and pulling fairly hard at the connection, it appeared to be solidly in place.  A light rain started soon after I was done setting up and I got under cover to wait out the storm.

Trail Camp

Fortunately, the larger footprint of my tarp system gave me ample room to get things set up inside.  By the time I got myself settled and was laying down to rest I was feeling pretty good about things.  This being only my fifth backpacking trip, I was now dealing with my shelter in the rain for the first time.  For a first rain experience, I was lucky to be able to set up my tarp while the ground was still dry with rain expected to last only an hour or two.  It had been raining for about twenty minutes and my shelter was showing no signs of stress.  Thinking about the amazing scenery on the way up to Trail Camp, I fell asleep.

Thunder and lightning woke me up.  It clearly had gotten colder while I was sleeping.  The light rain had turned into a heavy hail storm with very gusty winds.  Pondering whether or not my tarp would hold didn’t last long.  The wind soon blew on the side of my tarp so hard it pulled the stake support (with rock weight on it) out of the ground and my trekking pole support came down on me.  Water was now getting in through the mesh side of my bug tent.  I quickly held the trekking pole support up to significantly slow down the flow of water getting in.  I couldn’t stop it altogether as I would need to be able to stake the tarp out beyond the bug tent to accomplish that.  Instead, the wind kept the tarp pressed high enough up against the bug tent to allow water to blow in through the mesh near the bottom.  Since I had taken off my hiking shoes to nap, my socks were now wet as was my right leg.  Trying to keep my things dry, I pushed them to the other side of the bug tent.  Now off my air mattress, placing my hand on the solid silicon nylon floor of my bug tent felt like I was pushing down on the top of a very cold water bed.  Though still mostly dry inside, I had a pool of water forming under the bug tent floor and me.  While trying to figure out if I would be better off going outside and re-staking (or similar) my tarp, the hail stopped.  In a few minutes I heard Scott outside asking if I was all right.  Thankfully, he re-staked that side of my tarp (as best as it could be done under the circumstances) which allowed me to get out and keep my stuff on the other side as dry as possible.

Tim showed up within a couple minutes of my exit from my tarp.  It was clear to all of us that I couldn’t stay where I was because my shelter was in a pool of water.  My wet feet and right leg were cold enough to get that freezing sensation I find very uncomfortable.  By the time I got everything ready to move, pretty much everything was now wet.  This was by far the toughest moment of my trip.  Being this cold early in the afternoon, I didn’t know if I could handle being cold and wet at night.  Being above 12,000 feet, would I be at genuine risk of getting hypothermia?  I really didn’t know.  What I felt with almost equally intense feelings was I didn’t want to stay there as I was and I didn’t want to end my trip.  As I thought about it, I didn’t think I could stay there as I was.  My inexperience dealing with bad weather in the mountains was getting the best of me.  I began exploring ending my trip—but my heart wasn’t into it.  I had checked in advance and found out the permit didn’t tether us together in terms of when returned to the trailhead.  Thankfully, if I left early, nobody else needed to.  My friends were willing to make big sacrifices for me to stay.  With more thunderstorms a possibility, Tim’s proposed sacrifice was the most extreme as he offered to give me his spot in his tarp and spend the night cowboy camping in his poncho.  He rationalized that he’d done it in the past on the JMT, and besides he was from Oregon.  I just didn’t like any of my friends’ proposals.  However, I wasn’t ready to go and I didn’t need to leave for at least an hour to make it down the trail before dark.  I walked with Tim across Trail Camp to his tarp to sort things out.  Along the way I noticed a lot of people packing up to leave.  I later learned lots of backpackers had similar bad luck as I did finding themselves soaked in a pool of water.  Some of them had left their stuff at Trail Camp while summiting Mt. Whitney and were planning to leave anyway.  However, many others cut their trip short.

Rainbow above the White Mountains east of Trail Camp

The sun broke through the clouds soon after I arrived at Tim and David’s campsite.  My feet and leg were no longer freezing and the clothes I was wearing had started to dry.  It was also windy.  I remembered my son telling me about a backpacking trip he had once that was tainted a little when all his clothes got wet.  I finally recalled that with his reminder I had decided to pack a change of clothes in a dry bag.  Thus, it didn’t matter that my pack was wet, I could get myself dry.  With the sun out and the wind blowing it became clear I had time to get my tarp, air mattress, and sleeping bag dry.  Problem solved, I left my stuff spread out at Tim and David’s site to dry and went out in search of a site without a pool of water for me.  It took a while (largely because I went for some serious overkill on the weighing down of the tarp stakes with rocks etc) but I got myself set up.  Along the way I noticed that a nice rainbow had formed which felt like an exclamation point on my decision to stay.  I don’t think I would have enjoyed that rainbow much if I was hiking down to my car.  Leaving some things out to dry some more in the wind, I went down to the tarn to filter four liters of water with my Steripen.  At the tarn I met a couple who got caught near the summit when the storm hit.  Being at higher elevation they had to deal with a snow storm with really scary lightening strikes occurring throughout their trek back down to Trail Camp.  It was clearly terrifying and something they never wanted to experience again.

View of tarn in front of Wotans Throne at Trail Camp

I finally made my way to join the others and have dinner.  I was tired and wasn’t emotionally ready to hear that they thought it would be a great idea to wake up and get started by 2:30 am to reach the summit.  This would allow us to easily make it back down to Trail Camp before the next day’s possible storm if the weather continued following the pattern of the last few days.  I already felt that the 4:30 am agreed upon start time was going to be a toughie for me.  I imagined how cold it might be.  With snow on the mountain, there would be a good possibility the trail could be icy near the top.  On a couple training hikes earlier in the year I had slipped and fallen on icy terrain.  I found nothing about the potential of icy terrain in the dark to be appealing.  For some reason (I’m guessing because I had the permit), the guys left the decision of start time up to me.  Summoning up my inner Vulcan side of Mr. Spock, I started asking more questions—especially of Tim who was the only one who had hiked the trail before.  Tim’s description of the terrain from Trail Crest to the summit (which turned out to be accurate) was not a place I’d want to trek in the dark—especially if the trail was icy.  However, thinking about the experience of hikers who got caught in the storm it made sense to try to get to Trail Crest by sunrise.  Still not confident about the potential for icy conditions, I agreed to a 3:30 am start time as long as someone else led the way while it was dark.

Moments after we agreed on our start time it started to drizzle lightly.  We dispersed to our individual camp sites and by the time I made it to my tarp the rain stopped.  After finishing doing things like setting up my air mattress and changing into my dry clothes, I went outside my tarp and saw that the clouds had mostly gone.  I had a few things I left out hoping to dry in the night’s wind.  I got into my sleeping bag and thought about all the amazing things I saw that day, the drama I experienced due to the hail storm, the pending early morning start time, and then I fell asleep.  Soon I would learn that this kind of intensity is just a normal day in the Sierras—amazing!  To be continued …

Why I love hiking

I’m going through a few hundred photos I’ve taken of the Baldy Bowl trail over several different hikes for a future post.  Looking through them I started thinking about why I love hiking so much.  Essentially, I love hiking because it is a multi-dimensional undertaking.  Unlike working out in a gym where exercise is essentially the whole story, the exercise component to make it from one point to the next in hiking is just the beginning.  Weather plays an important role and can change significantly—even on a day hike.  Topography is seldom uniform for long and often provides mini-challenges in order to traverse.  Trail conditions may vary with the trail becoming more or less easy to follow.  Along the trail, changing views constantly provide differing perspectives from one point to the next. Personal exploration and discovery can become inherent aspects of hiking simply by going on different trails.  Creatures come and go making it important to at least learn about the ones that are dangerous to humans.  Most any long trek will pass through different vegetation that similarly requires some minimal knowledge of in order to avoid things like itchy rashes.  Fortunately however, most creatures and vegetation are harmless to humans and can simply be enjoyed.  With so many aspects to hiking, there are a seemingly endless number of opportunities to learn about the natural world that is available to hike through as well as the skills and gear required to do so.

Timing and the relationships between the different aspects of hiking offer another level of enjoyment.  Often, something catches my eye and I invest some time taking it in.  For example, last year while hiking down the Baldy Bowl Trail, I spotted a tree I liked and decided to photograph it.  It stood relatively alone in the landscape and offered an opportunity to photograph it in it’s entirely unobstructed as an object with a distant view beyond.

Trying to photograph it, I couldn’t get the exact view that caused me to notice it as the sun was getting in the way (polarized sun glasses making the glare significantly less than what the camera would deal with).  So, I got interested in the relationship between the sun and the tree.  I walked to a spot where the tree provided shade allowing me to take a photo with the tree “eclipsing” the view of the sun generating a dark silhouette against the bright blue sky.  Luckily small patches of clouds also happened to be in the sky adding some content to the view.  This is clearly a photo of the moment.  While the tree will most likely still be there for the rest of my life, it’s doubtful I’ll ever show up again at the right time to have this scene appear the same way.  Hiking always has delicious moments like this where nature is aligned in special ways waiting to be noticed.

After focusing on “eclipsing” the sun and capturing the tree in silhouette, I decided to pay attention to the color and height of the tree and how it looked when more colorfully set against the sky.

Later, I admired the weathering of the tree as well as its colors, texture, and imperfections (including what appear to be woodpecker holes).

Finally, I found myself leaning against the tree looking at the shadow it cast in the landscape.

While I certainly got some great exercise hiking to Mt. Baldy that day (losing some blubber in the process), it was the numerous delicious moments and overall spectacular beauty of nature that I remember.  It is being able to interact with nature viewing it at different scales from the smallest details to the grandest views that I truly cherish.  I find the multifaceted aspects of hiking to be wonderfully indulgent.  Nature beckons me to return to it in exciting ways that the “nose to the grindstone” gym experience never could.