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Mount Whitney. No sweat.
Climbing the highest point in the lower 48.
The climb up Mt. Whitney via the eastern trailhead, Whitney Portal, is so popular that the U.S. Forest Service has put limits on the number of people. Those who wish to climb from Whitney Portal have to do some advanced planning and apply for a permit. I made reservations for the climb in February and the Forest Service responded soon after, allowing me an overnight permit on the weekend of August 18-19, 2007. That would give me roughly 48 hours to climb the highest elevation in North America between Mount Fairweather (15,300) on the Canadian-Alaskan border and Mexicos' Popo, at 17,887 feet. Mount Whitney is 14,494 feet tall depending upon which triangulation you read. Atlases often list it is as 14,491, and one measurement has it at 14,501'. The National Park's summit plaque measures it as 14,496.8'. Its summit is the high point of an abrupt fault-block that is being forced upward while the graben drops 11,000 precipitous feet below, to the east. Along with some of the volcanoes in the US northwest, such as Shasta and Rainer, it is the highest vertical extreme in the lower forty-eight states. Whitney and the Sierras are composed of granitic subtypes called grandiorite and syenite, the latter named after the rock where Moses smashed the tablets. Granite and its subtypes are classfied as intrusive igneous, or plutonic, rocks. They are formed by slow cooling magma deep below the earth's surface. When the overlaying rock gradually is eroded the granite is exposed. It's much more weather resistant than rocks such as sandstone and limestone, hence many mountain ranges are granitic in composition. It is also a light rock, relatively speaking, and this combination of light and tough contributes to its overpresence in rarified air.
Climbing Whitney from the east trailhead, known as Whitney Portal (8,367'), is more of a stiff hike than a climb. Don't let this fool you. It's a 22 mile round trip walk with a notoriously steep section that includes 99 switchbacks. After the switchbacks you reach Trailcrest (13,600') where there is exposure on a ridge above treeline that gives you zero cover in the event of a lightning storm or foul-weather. While not too steep at this point the elevations are above 13,600 feet and any incline is hard on the lungs. This walk takes conditioning and some time to acclimate to the elevations. I drove from sea level (coastal California) and made it that same afternoon to Outpost camp (pictured above). This lack of time to acclimate to higher elevations left me breathing heavily the first night.
My trip started early on Saturday, August 18, 2007. I left San Diego at around 6 am and reached the Interagency Visitor Center outside of Lone Pine, California by 1100 am. There I picked up my hiking permit. In order to hike Mount Whitney from the Portal during the season of May to October, you need to apply for a permit during the February lottery. Only 100 hikers are allowed per day and it's a very popular hike. After picking up my permit I headed towards Whitney Portal, still another 4,500 feet above the Owens Valley and Alabama Hills. Named by a band of Confederate soldiers during the Civil War, the granite hills are more famous for the countless movies that have been filmed here. The road to Whitney Portal is stunning with incredible views of Whitney but today there was a thick haze heavily scented of burning forest. Once I arrived at the Portal I found crowds of weekend campers and tourists. There is no restriction in numbers at the Portal. I originally planned to camp at Portal and hike very early the next morning, but there was no camping space available. There was no parking either. Eventually I found a spot on the road's side where overflow parking is allowed. I packed up my provisions, picked up the required bear canister at the Portal store, and was on the trail by 1:00 pm. My goal for the day was Outpost Camp. The trail quickly opened up with remarkable views of the U-shaped canyon and Owens Valley to the east. I couldn't believe how dry it was, however. I shouldn't have been surprised, after all this part of California is desert at lower elevations. I thought dry air like this was a fast road to dehydration, but the opposite proved to be true for me. I sweated less, and seemed not to crave water as much. This was the opposite of what I experienced in the Japan Alps the previous summer, where the humidity levels left me drenched in sweat and drinking water to no end. There was no sweat while hiking Whitney. Well, maybe a little but the dry air quickly sucked it up. A wet body trying to cool itself loses heat quickly and the body risks dehydration if those fluids aren't replaced at the same rate of loss. Outpost Camp is an ideal place for camping and I pitched my tent under well-spaced pine trees. It was not yet 4 pm but I was tired and wanted to sleep. I rolled around restlessly from side to side denied valuable sleep that I would need. I also noticed I was breathing heavily trying to suck in much-needed oxygen at two miles above sea level. That was a bad omen. As night descended the stars overhead were unbelievable but I still couldn't fall sleep. I planned to start my hike at 2 a.m. and time was running out. At 1 a.m. I heard a hiking party go through the campground. During the summer there are hikers crawling up and down this mountain 24/7. Some start from Portal at midnight to make the ascent and descent in one day. I had an overnight permit which allowed a bit more time.
Finally I fell asleep after 1 and awoke at 2 a.m., panicked about my trail tardiness. At 3 a.m. I started out with low confidence. I had little quality sleep in the last two nights and I was still sucking air to catch my breath. Nevertheless, the downtime at Outpost Camp proved to be valuable for acclimating. I rationed my water to one cup every 45 minutes as I only had a gallon and half. I was told there was water, and there was, but I failed to realize it had to be treated by filter or purifed by tablets, of which I had neither. My immediate goal was Trailside Camp, at 12,000', at the base of the 99 switchbacks. My headlamp led the way and I had little trouble following the well-beaten trail. I met a party coming down at about 4 a.m., but until I reached Trailside Camp around 5:30 a.m., there was no one. Just before sun up I reached the swtichbacks and I could make out hikers ascending the tortuous turns with their headlamps. My confidence was growing and I thought the summit was possbile if I could get to the top of the swtichbacks, known as Trailcrest. Slow and steady was the key. I would walk a couple hundred paces and then stop for a breather. By this time the sun was coming up and it illuminated the cirque with deep tawny glows of orange, then yellow. The face of Mount Muir was spectacular in the warm light. I reached Trailcrest just before 7:30 a.m. and the view into Sequoia National Park was unbeatable. Trailcrest also marks the boundary between the John Muir Wilderness, which is administered by the U.S. Forest Service, and Sequoia National Park, a jewel in the National Park system. The summit is in the Park.
At Trailcrest the wind coming over the ridge was chilling despite the sunshine. I had made it this far, the worst was over, and I just had to bear the wind chill along this final two miles to the summit. The elevation added another challenge. The final summit cone allowed me to make no more than 10 steps without stopping to catch my breath. An occasional hiker made haste towards the top but for the most part others maintained snail-like paces that mirrored my own. At one point, stopping to catch my breath, a fellow hiker told me the elevation was 13,980' based on his watch-reading. Only 500 vertical feet to go, I thought. Just before 0930 I saw the shelter as I slogged up the final stretch. That was it, excitement carried me to the top where I took the obligatory photos and joined twenty some other hikers relaxing at the top. I stood on the summit rocks where the benchmark was engraved by the USGS and knew whatever the real height of this mountain the added five plus feet from my body's frame put my head over the 14,500 mark. The last time I had stood at these elevations was twenty-one years earlier while hiking a Colorado fourteener. I wasn't in the best of shape but I was much smarter about hiking than I had been. It was downhill from here. Eleven miles of downhill. Eventually I made it back to Whitney Portal just before 4 p.m. and made it home to San Diego by 1030 p.m. all in span of 36 hours.
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