Monthly Archive for June, 2012

The Sierra mountains were good to me

Along the US 395 the east face of the Sierra Nevada rises from the desert floor of the Owans Valley to 14,496 ft, Mount Whitney the highest peak in the contiguous 48 states.

Unlike Mount Shasta, Mount Rainer, and Mount Hood all clearly visible for miles in all directions, Mount Whitney can only be seen from a few select locations. From the north, south and west Whitney can not be seen from any road, from the east the peak can only be observed briefly along highway 395 by the town of lone pine.

To Summit Mt. Whitney for most requires advanced preparation. To climb this peak or even to hike on the trail you need a permit. These permits are in such high demand that the Inyo National Forest service has a lottery system every February where anyone who wants to climb the mountain during the year needs to enter and have their name pulled. On average 1/3 of lottery permit applications are rejected because of quotas filled.

On June 22, 2012 I walked into the Inyo National Forest Visitors Center without any permit with the intention to climb this magnificent peak on June 23, 2012. All permits have to be picked up the prior day to entering the Whitney Trail Zone. 3 day hike permits had not been picked up that day and luck had it I was able to get one of them.

My Journey to Mount Whitney was for the most part unplanned. I had only decided to climb this peak the prior week and had planned a solo ascent in a single day. What sparked this idea to climb Mount Whitney I can not completely tell you. I was looking to get out of the house this weekend, my wife wanted to have a girls weekend with her mom and friends.

As I contemplated my options, I sort of had a calling to the mountains. The idea came to me and I followed. Part of it could have been the current book I am reading called the Last Child of The Woods. A book about how our society is becoming so plugged into electronics that we are losing our connections to the natural world. How we spend countless hours on our computers, in front of our TV’s, playing games on our phones and tablets. We are becoming very productive multitasks while disconnecting ourselves from nature and from each other. A forth grader tells the author Richard Lov “I like to play indoors because that’s where all the electrical outlets are”.

I don’t think this is what Benjamin Franklin had in mind when discovering electricity and introducing it to the science world. I believe nature should be an integral part of all our lives and certainly I plan to stay connected with nature. I hope one day my daughter reads my writings, my stories of being in the woods and climbing peaks. I hope to lead by example so she too can enjoy the woods and nature like I have. I hope to one day climb this peak with her and my wife. With this story of Nature-Deficit Disorder freshly in my mind I would seek to climb the great Mount Whitney.

Since I would be climbing above 14000 ft it would be important for me to arrive to the Sierra Mountains two days prior to my climb to acclimate. On Thursday afternoon June 21, 2012 I drove up to the town of Lone Pine and headed up to Cottonwood pass just north of Mount Whitney Portal road at just above 10,000 ft elevation. This area provides access to Sequoia National Park and the Pacific Crest Trail. I spent the night at the trailhead parking lot enjoying conversation with a young group of 18-20 year olds who were spending 3 months backpacking to Canada via the Crest trail.


View of the sun rising over the pass the following day

I stopped at a pullout on the road down to take in the sights, cook a pot of coffee and enjoy my book in the tranquil surroundings. I spent a couple hours here.

After enjoying Cottonwood Pass I spent the morning at the Visitors Center waiting to see if I would be able to get a walk up permit to climb Whitney on Saturday. I chose to attempt to get a permit for the Mountaineering rout, which is one of the more difficult routs up to the top. At 11:10am I was granted a permit. With a smile on my face I called family to let them know my itinerary and to share the good news. I then headed up Whitney portal road to Mount Whitney Trailhead 7,851 ft where they have tent spots that hikers with permits can stay at for one night prior to breaking trail. Here I spent my day taking in the beautiful sights and fly-fishing by the river and at the Whitney Portal Pond where I caught my limit of trout, well actually well over my limit, many got thrown back.

View from Whitney Portal Road

A waterfall right above my fishing hole

“If fishing is like religion, then fly-fishing is high church. A trout is a moment of beauty known only to those who seek it.”

I have many loves and Fishing is one of them; it brings peace and harmony to my being, which I can then pass on to others

After a  relaxing day in nature I went to sleep at 7pm and woke before sunrise to prepare to break trail as the sun came up at 5am on June 23, 2012. In my pack I had enough food for the day plus some extra incase something went wrong, a jacket, warm hat and gloves, change of socks, first aid kit, water filter, a large bottle of water and my camera. Packed fairly light I hit the trail in anticipation and wonder of what this day would bring.

I started my rout on the main Mount Whitney trail for the first 1/2 mile or so. The main Mt. Whitney trail has an elevation gain of over 6,100 feet. It is an extremely popular trail well maintained. It follows the gentler main branch of Lone Pine Creek to its source, and then climbs by 99 switchbacks to the Sierra crest south of the summit. The trail then travels very close to the crest of the range until reaching the summit plateau. This longer “dogleg” route makes possible a standard hiking trail. This trail is 11 miles to the top, 22 miles round trip.

The rout I chose to get a permit for was the Mountaineering rout. This heads up the direct route to the summit by the North Fork of Lone Pine Creek, as this is a very steep route used by mountaineers. This rout is not a trail and requires navigation skills and class 3-4 rock climbing. I had read that you could spend the whole day on this trail without seeing anyone, this was very appealing to me verses going up the main rout. So my plan was to climb this rout and then head down using the main trail allowing me to experience both.

With little preparation for this trip why would i take a more dangerous rout to the highest peak in the contiguous 48 states? For one I knew I was already in physical shape for a rout like this. I also believe there is a reward for taking the rout less traveled not only including the solitude it brings but also the challenges and adventures you stumble across. A great poet once said it very well;

“These mountains are full of the finest and most telling examples of Nature’s love; and though hard to travel, none are safer…. True, there are innumerable places where the careless step will be the last step; and a rock falling from the cliffs may crush without warning like lightning from the sky; but what then? Accidents in the mountains are less common than in the lowlands, and these mountain temples are decent, delightful, even divine, places to die in, compared with the doleful chambers of civilization. Few places in this world are more dangerous than home. Fear not, therefore to try the mountain-passes. They will kill care, save you from deadly apathy, set you free, and call forth every faculty into vigorous, enthusiastic action. Even the sick should try these so-called dangerous passes, because for every unfortunate they kill, they cure a thousand”.

One of the many rivers I crossed. This part of the Sierra’s is full of water that brings life to this world.

As you climb the river you reach a point where you feel like you can not go any further because of overgrown brush. It is here where I saw a group of 4 people, I would only see three others besides this group on the trail up this day. I asked if they knew where the rout continued and they told me to start climbing the granite wall on the right side and keep climbing, if I ever feel I need a rope I have gone the wrong direction.

I did as they said and arrived at the beautiful lower boyscout lake. The first place I’d take a break and have a snack.

From here you can start seeing Mount Whitney so I knew I needed to head towards her. Below is the line of travel. I did get a little off course here again but nothing to worry about. From where I was at you could see clearly the rout I should have taken and as I made my way back I came across the group of 4 again and started to hike with them and make conversion.

This group of mountaineers consisted of 2 guys and 2 girls. They were very experienced and all but one had been to the summit of Mt. Whitney several times. They were not experienced in a cocky sort of way you might expect from hard core mountaineers. They were a group of friends who all met each other in the Sierra’s at different points on different hikes. They now get together almost every weekend to climb a peak or spend the day rock climbing. Like me they love to be outside and enjoy nature. It turns out from here my summit would not be a solo adventure anymore as I decided to stay with them and climb the mountain together.

A view of the water running down the climb we just completed from Lower boyscout lake.

From here we would cross over a granite field to one of the more challenging climbs for me this day. This rock had water flowing out that was iced over. I was told in the winter this can be the most technical section. Once I got comfortable with my footing and hand holds in the rock I made it up safely and felt very accomplished.

Above this cliff you get to Iceberg Lake. Base camp for parties that do the hike multiple days and summit Mt. Whitney as well as Russell

At this point you can look up and see the next phase of this challenging climb.

Man could never build a temple like this, you have to journey to get here and the energy that holds up these mountains can be experienced through all your senses. Unlike human creations, nature does not steal time; it amplifies it.

Heading further up the mountain

Nature not only inspires creativity it also brings people together. All are equal in nature and as I climbed this mountain I felt close with this group, I started as a stranger to them seeking the same goal and as we climbed to reach it we became friends and part of the same group.

It is funny at this high altitude it seems you are surrounded by rock and then you look and see a beautiful bouquet of flower.

The final pitch, a stairway to the top.

The old Smithsonian Institution Shelter built on top of Mt. Whitney in 1909

What we climbed up.

Views from the top!

You can not stay at the summit forever, you have to come down. Really it is not about the Summit but the journey to get there and see from above what you can not see from below. For me the journey first started as an idea that sparked excitement inside of me, excitement that grew into reality as I packed my gear and drove to the mountains with nowhere booked to stay and no permit to climb. If you just go, life works itself out. I spent two nights camping in the high Sierra mountains in fairly primitive campsites, one day walking up and down riverbanks and around a pond with a fishing pole and another climbing the great Mount Whitney. Even if I did not get the permit to climb there would have been no disappointment, there would have been other trails for me to climb, stories to tell and people to meet. The streams, the woods and the beauty of the Sierra’s would have still been there for me. That is the great thing about the mountains. As for my new friends, we would walk proudly down the mountain together taking in sights that are too amazing to describe. We washed our faces in a natural riverbed towards the bottom, had a brief dinner and said our farewells. I do not know if I will ever see or hear from them again, I do hope one day though our lives will again cross paths and we will meet while climbing another mountain. That is the funny thing about friendship, you never know. It can last as brief as a day and leave you a memory for a lifetime.

Farewell,

Joseph