Climbing Mt. Whitney
14, 498 feet
October 1, 2010
Mt. Whitney is part of a giant batholith of granite which forms the eastern edge of the Sierra Nevada Range in California, and I have wanted to climb it for a very long time. Mt. Whitney is also the tallest peak in the 48 contiguous states. The Sierra Range, of which Mt. Whitney is a part, is formed by giant block faults generated by the tension associated with very active subduction of the continent beginning several hundred miles to the west, and it forms some of the most incredible scenery on earth. Mt Whitney was first climbed by a group of fishermen from the now vanished Owens Lake in 1873, and is named for the former head of the California Geologic Survey, Josiah Whitney (also a Harvard professor). The faulting in the area produces some wild displacements, such that the lowest point in the US, Badwater Basin in Death Valley, is only 80 miles away, and part of the same “horst and graben” phenomenon.
The access to Mt. Whitney is limited to 150 lucky souls per day, chosen by a lottery administered by the State of California. Access to the mountain is through the town of Lone Pine, about 250 miles from either LA or Las Vegas. The most popular trail is a relic of depression era construction projects, The Mt. Whitney Trail, which was completed in 1930, and was originally designed for use by horses and mules. The trailhead is at around 8,400 feet at the Whitney Portal, and is built through ingenious route planning and ample use of dynamite, to have a very gentle grade with over 200 switchbacks over its 11-mile route.
The official literature describes this as a three day hike, with a base camp established at Trail Camp (6.0 miles from the start and 12,000 feet elevation), followed by a one day assault on the peak, and finally by a descent on day three. Most people now do it in two days, with about 40% doing it as a very long day hike. We elected the two day option. About 65% of climbers fail to summit, most due to fatigue and altitude sickness.
My friends Gary and Jill Rogers had been applying to the lottery for the climb for several years, before we were finally chosen this year for an overnight hike September 29th and 30th. We were joined on this adventure by fellow Mainers, Jim and Tom Getchell, two brothers and Bowdoin graduates who have been tormented by the Rogers in one outdoors undertaking or another for many years. Last but not least we were joined by our soon to be retired friend Pete Volanakis. After many years of torturing Pete on lesser mountains in the East, this was my first chance to really torment him with high altitude.
Welcome to California
We planned to fly to LA from Boston, and drive to Lone Pine in a Suburban (suitably Californian we hoped) in time to register to climb the next day. I have read for the last several years about the fiscal train wreck that is California, and the turgidly fat bureaucrats that have run one of the greatest places on earth into the ground. I live in the state of New Hampshire, a place delightfully inexpert in taxing its citizens, and I was headed to California to see how the other half lives.
I was struck upon landing that the air conditioning in LAX was not working, and there were large standing fans everywhere. The problem had been going on for several days/weeks/months, and, overall, the scene reminded me of landing in Managua, Nicaragua in 1977. I found one employee of the County (pictured below and wearing his LA County ID) who decided to adopt the ancient and venerable Latin custom of taking a siesta to beat the heat of the day. The wonder is that he’s earning his pension all the while.
The drive to Lone Pine was uneventful, but noteworthy by the large number of half completed and abandoned condo projects beside the highway, and the relatively large number of potholes in the road. Potholes are the bane of road engineers around the world, but really only a recurring problem in areas with severe frost. Potholes can form from very heavy usage in other climates, but are always a clear sign of “deferred maintenance”. Clearly, the housing stock, roadways, and airport were all suffering from fiscal inanition.
Lone Pine – Movie Set to the World
Lone Pine, the departure point for Mt. Whitney, is a town of around 1,000 souls that is built on the former shores of Lake Owens, which was drained to provide water for the urban behemoth to the south. The town was famous as a movie set for films as diverse as High Sierra, Gunga Din, Charge of the Light Brigade, Kim; and the TV series the Lone Ranger and Roy Rogers. It is a one stoplight town, with a bunch of local businesses now focused on the climbing/hiking trade. The local Saloon is wonderful, filled with 60 years of mementos from the movie business, with an authentic dash of local ranching thrown in for good measure. It was authentic and charming, but the movie business went away a long time ago as people’s tastes changed to more urban themes and settings.
We arrived at Lone Pine and went directly to the new Visitor center for Mt. Whitney. The parking lot was being paved (it’s that new) and there were three employees directing the 8-9 cars to park beside the road. The building was large spacious and wonderful. Inside were a large number of dioramas of the local mountains, and 6-7 employees. One of these was working, (checking people in) providing an explanation of the seemingly endless rules and regulations, and passing out the WAG bags (Waste Alleviation and Gelling).
I must digress from Lone Pine for a moment to address one of these rules. The most vexatious and endlessly humorous rule in the Mt. Whitney Zone relates to human solid waste, which must be carried out in the WAG bags, presumably by the producer of the waste. These bags are actually a kit, including a large, open mouth, green plastic bag to contain the waste, containing a small amount of “magic” white powder which reduces decay and related expansion through gas production. Also included are a very small amount of toilet paper and a “Handi-wipe”. Finally, the receptacle bags and all of its contents are put into a green translucent zip-lock bag for handy transportation.
In the past the Park Service maintained long drop toilets along the trail and removed the contents once a year by helicopter. It was decided that: 1) helicopter flights disturbed the natural and quiet wonder of the mountain, 2) helicopter flights were too expensive, 3) long drop toilets made extra work for the Rangers, and, 4) people would suffer any amount of insult to climb the Hill, and the toilets were removed.
Here I must note four things: 1) the F15’s and related aircraft that call Edwards AFB home fill the skies with an endless cacophony on the mountain every day – banishing any quiet contemplation, 2) I, and many others would be willing to pay a little more for the luxury of a toilet in any form, 3) people on the mountain eat dehydrated food, and therefore packs on the way down (including poop) actually weigh more than on the way up, and 4) the conversations about this were both childish and hilarious, and it brought new meaning to the “walk of shame” noted in the Salmon River blog.
The visitors Center in Lone Pine had a wonderful and graphic video detailing the proper use of the WAG bags. The Lone Pine film business has come a long way down, all the way from Errol Flynn and John Wayne, to short subject instructional films about bagging poop. John Ford must be rolling in his grave.
Trail Camp is a long hike (6 miles) with a 50-60 pound pack, and we were all glad to spend the night at 12,000 feet and get a chance to acclimatize. Trail Camp is really a wide spot in the trail, beside a small un-named pond. The setting is a large glacial cirque, with a couple of small snowfields that are locally called glaciers. There are a couple of large glacial moraines from earlier, cooler periods. The mountains loom over the camp in large vertical cliffs. The setting is spectacular, and calls for a little rock climbing.
We had arrived early and gotten a premium tent site, about 50 feet back from the trail with some very comfortable rocks to sit on and watch the people go by. The feeling that I got was like sitting by the route of pilgrims going on the Camino de Santiago de Compostela. All ages, sizes, shapes and conditions, and each on a personal mission. A couple of their stories are worth retelling. Late in the evening, Gary was at the pond, filtering some water, when he noticed a shadow over him. He turned around to see an Indian (from India) guy standing over him holding a cup. Gary said, “Can I help you?” All the guy could do was hold out his cup and say, “Please”. Gary gave him some water, and heard out his story. His name was Philip, and he was part of a larger group that had started at 12:00 am that morning. He had no more food or water, and virtually no survival gear. He waited for his group until about dark, but they never showed up, so he headed down, telling us to tell the rest of his group that he had gone ahead. I asked how we would know them and he said, “They are Indians like me, not many of us up here you know.” I had my instructions and they were clear. We later did as we were told when they showed up after dark. We later learned that they didn’t get out until 12:00 am the next morning – that’s a very long time on that hill.
While Mt. Whitney has many rules and regulations, there is no one checking hikers as they start to hike, and no ranger station on the trail. The trail is not marked with paint, which would make it very dangerous in a storm. Undertaking these functions would require leaving the vital functions of hiker registration and parking seriously understaffed
The second story was about a bunch of old buddies in their 70’s, doing this hike as they had many times before. They were doing the three day version, showing good sense. It was a bunch of old friends hanging around, laughing and drinking champagne to celebrate. A great bunch of guys enjoying old friends and long life, after a full day on a beautiful mountain. We should all be so lucky.
Passage into Thin Air
We set out on the 5 mile climb for the summit around 5:45 AM in the dark. People had been climbing all morning, and over breakfast we watched their headlamps as they worked their way up the 97 switchbacks. The air was cool, the pace easy and we were about half way up to the Trail Crest at 13,777 feet when the sun rose bright and red in the East. “Red sky in morning, sailors take warning”, applies in the mountains as well, and I wanted to make sure that we got to the top before it got socked in, and we lost the view. I also did not want to have to climb down in freezing rain, as we had left our crampons in the car.
At the Trail Crest we saw the best sign of the trip, “No Pets or Firearms Beyond this Point”. Damn, and I brought my shotgun and bird dog all that way to do some hunting on the summit.
The view from the top was simply spectacular, and the hike down uneventful. The weather continued to deteriorate, and we hustled off the mountain to a major meal at a local cantina in Lone Pine.
In two days we saw only one ranger on the mountain, he must have drawn the short straw and did not get parking lot duty. Despite all of the regulations, the trail was strewn with toilet paper and many climbers were clearly unprepared for the hike. I can’t imagine the mess if we had actually had bad weather blow in on Philip and his hiking team.
I rate the hike 3.5 stars out of five. A large positive part of the rating comes from the camaraderie of our team, and the physical beauty of the place. The trail was well maintained, but poorly supervised and marked. I was worried about some of our fellow travelers, and the rangers were nowhere in sight. The camping areas were clean and well maintained, but the WAG bag requirement was off the charts complicated, gross and unnecessary. The mountain was spectacular, but remains a Californian playground (we were the only out-of-staters in the last two pages on the register on the summit). It would have been great if there had been a more challenging trail out of Trail Camp to the Crest, and running down the talus slope instead of the switchbacks would have been a lot of fun.
I’m really glad that I climbed Mt. Whitney, but given the choice, I’d climb Rainier as an alternative.