Sun, Aug 12, 2001
It had been a tough 8 days so far, and as rewarding and adventurous as I'd hoped beforehand. The low turnout for the hikes turned out to be a blessing, as there were almost no logistical worries, no lost parties (at least ones that didn't show up a few days later), no problems with the Forest Service, permits, or injuries. And the weather had been quite fine despite a few threatening hours or so. Though the highest of the 10 peaks, and requiring 6000ft+ of climbing, Mt. Whitney was expected to be the easiest of all, primarily because there was no cross-country travel required on the entire route - a walk-up. 22 miles round-trip to be sure, but still a walk-up.
I had worried about securing a permit for this hike, the only dayhike in the Sierra requiring one, and I had little idea how many people would actually want to join me in August when I had to send in for the permit in February. There are 150 day permits given out for any given day, and the maximum for any one group is 15. So I sent in my application for the full 15 permits, and had my friend Michael do the same for another set of 15 in case mine wasn't selected in the lottery. As it turned out both permits were granted, and for a total of $450 ($15 per person) I was controlling 20% of the day permits issued for this Sunday in August. As it got closer to August and interest from a lot of folks waned, it looked like we might have ten persons or so interested in climbing Whitney. Though small compared to my initial estimate, it would still be plenty more than had joined me on the previous peaks. A few days earlier I asked Michael via email to call the ranger office and release the 15 permits under his name. There was no way to recoup my $225, but at least some other hikers would have an opportunity to use them on a first-come basis.
I left the motel in Big Pine earlier than David or Toby, as I needed to pick up the permits from the Ranger Station in Lone Pine. Fortunately they have a system to allow late/early hour pickup when the station is closed. There was no way I could have picked up the permits the day before, and I wouldn't want to wait today until the office opens at 8a or so. I found the permits in the lock box without any trouble, and drove up to Whitney Portal so that I would be there at the designated 6a time to meet the other hikers. I noticed there was a tremendous amount of broken safety glass in the parking lot, undoubtedly from bear break-ins. There just seemed to be too much glass, and I wondered if the Forest Service didn't intentionally leave it there to emphasize the need to use bear boxes for food protection. I had a large ice chest with me in the front of my car (too big to fit in the trunk) that I didn't want to catch the attention of a bear or ranger, and I did my best to cover it up with a bunch of clothes and other debris I had with me in the car. In the parking lot I met John and Clem, two southern boys from South Carolina. They had originally planned to climb four or five of the peaks, then just Split and Whitney, and finally just Mt. Whitney. A long way to fly for this single peak, but I was glad they could make it on any terms.
I hung out at the trailhead with my handful of permits, waiting to see who else would show up. I expected my friend Monty and his brother to show up, as they had told me they'd be here for certain, but by 6:15a there was still no sign of them. John and Clem headed up at 6:20a, and I wished them well. I was pretty sure I'd see them again soon enough as they'd had no time to acclimatize and would be handicapped as a result. A gentlemen who looked to be about 50 approached me and asked if I had any extra permits. I told him that I did, and for $15 I'd be happy to give him one. That seemed to take him aback, and he asked why I would charge him. I explained that I had paid $15 for them, and that I was only asking the fair price. He was still taken aback, as he figured I paid $15 for the whole lot, but I explained further that by mail they cost $15 each. This still didn't satisfy him, and he said he could go down to the ranger station when they opened and pick one up for free. "Yes," I replied, "if there are any available, and if you want to drive back down to Lone Pine."
Now I didn't really care at all about the money. I was already in the hole over $300 and considered it part of the overall cost of this adventure. I would just as soon leave the unused permits in my car than let this guy have one, as he was really beginning to bug me. He thinks I'm some kind of scalper, and I think he's one ungrateful s.o.b. Before he let me be, he made sure to point out that they would just go to waste and I couldn't get my money back besides. "I know," I answered with a slight grin. A short while later David drove up and headed up the trail. Toby had decided to go home after our climb of Split the day before, so David would be hiking alone for the whole day. I waited around until 6:45a until deciding no one else was coming. I was eager to get going myself. Monty and his brother hadn't shown. I went back to the car, grabbed my fanny packs and permit, plus a spare one I brought for "just in case." Primarily it was in case this other guy decided I was serious and was going to leave the permits to rot, and offered to fork out the $15. I still couldn't believe he'd rather drive back down to Lone Pine. He didn't pop out again at the trailhead, and so off I went.
Shortly after starting off and climbing up less than a mile, I was greeted with a fleeting first view of Whitney (the Needles are in center, Whitney to the right). The peaks look to be a long, long way off. At the first two creeklet crossings there are signs placed by the Forest Service to help those looking for the Mountaineer's Route. The first is Carillon Creek and it leads up the wrong canyon. Note that the sign doesn't mention the Mountaineer's Route. The second sign at the North Fork of Lone Pine Creek simply lets you know that you've found the right creek, but unless you were specifically looking for the cross-country route, you wouldn't have any idea there is a use trail up this way. There are other signs along the way, letting you know when you've entered the John Muir Wilderness, and when you've entered the special day-use permit area known as the Whitney Zone. Note that this is past the turnoff for the Mountaineer's Route, so if you're inclined to dayhike the Mountaineer's Route to reach Whitney, you have no need for a permit.
Everything about this trail speaks of the volumes of hikers that pass this way. The creek crossings have swell log bridges, the trail is excellently groomed and marked, erosion minimized with elaborate granite walkways. And so it should be, as I expect my $300 investment ought to buy a few nice granite pavers somewhere along here. At 150 dayhikers a day, for say 100 days, the Forest Service pulls in $225,000 each year. While I'm sure they don't hit the limit each day, consider that the 100 days/year is a low estimate, and that doesn't include the overnight permits (which would presumeably pay for such exciting things as helicoptering out the human waste from the toilets at Trail Camp).
The trail gets more interesting as one reaches Mirror Lake, where there is a nice meadow here and a great view of Wotans Throne, an unusually fanciful name for a Sierra peak. Nearby is Thor Peak, and I was able to identify Mt. Muir high on the Whitney Ridge. I made excellent time cruising along at about 3mph, and I passed John and Clem as they made their way up. The altitude was affecting them, not too surprisingly, while I had the benefit of ten days acclimatization. This is undoubtedly the best way to enjoy this hike - no headaches, no shortness of breath, really quite enjoyable. Shortly before Trail Camp I heard someone above call out my name. A tall, lanky figure was 70 yards ahead on the trail. At first I couldn't figure out who it could be, then I realized it was Monty! It looks like he had made the hike after all. Catching up, we exchanged greetings and Monty introduced me to his brother, Martin. They had started much earlier, at 5a, but found that there was a ranger at Trail Camp checking for permits, which of course they didn't have. So they'd been here about an hour waiting for me to show up, while trying to stay out of view of the ranger ahead. Now, had I known they were going to start ahead of me, I would have been sure to carry extra permits with me - it just didn't occur to me that they actually had showed up to hike. With one spare in my pocket, we were still a permit short to get by the sentry, so we had to devise a plan. It wasn't much of a plan, really. See if we can get by with two permits, and failing that, beg for mercy.
We approached Trail Camp together, and as expected the ranger came over to greet us and ask to see our permits. We struck up a friendly-as-could-manage conversation, and Monty and I pulled out our permits while Martin sort of stood behind us, hoping two of three would suffice. From the permit it was clear that we were of a party of fifteen, but there's no requirement to travel together since everyone has their own copy. But after noting two, the ranger looked to Martin for his permit, and of course there was none. Before that awkward moment of silence that signalled guilt could develope, I spoke up and began to explain our small predicament. In fact there were only six of us out of the original fifteen, and I had no idea these guys had started ahead of me, I explained. After a few minutes of doing our best to appear to be good, honest Wilderness visitors, the ranger seemed somewhat convinced. He took down the number of the permit and said he'd have us accosted if he found more than six with this permit number. The concern might be that we could have sold permits to others below and, God forbid, allowed more than the maximum quota of dayhikers on the trail. Happily, he let us go, and we were off before he could find a reason to change his mind.
The three of us stuck together for only a short time. I was on a small mission to hike up in good time, and Monty fell back in the first five minutes. Martin on the other hand, decided to keep up with me rather than stay with his brother. This gave me the chance to have a grand conversation with Martin, which I found thoroughly enjoyable. You see, Martin is an unusual individual. Besides being one of the few non-techies that I have hiked with, he leads an interesting, semi-nomadic life. He described himself as a self-employed travelling salesman, with plenty of time for hiking and outdoor adventure. This explained why he was in such good shape that he could keep up fairly well despite the lack of time to acclimatize. Even more interesting is that what Martin sells is tattoos, or rather the patterns to make them. He spends several months of the year designing the patterns, then travels around the country pitching them to any tattoo parlor he could get his foot in the door. I should have seen this coming, as Martin is covered in tattoos from nearly the neck down, but I was a little slow in making the connection. We discussed much of the business of selling tattoos and the incredibly fascinating people one meets in such a venture. Martin had been only recently married, to someone I imagined must be rather saintly in her patience and willingness to let her husband go off on such a career (she herself worked as an engineer back in Minnesota). Martin didn't make a lot of money doing this line of work, but that didn't seem to be the main motivation. He described how he spent most of his evenings camping, but if he made a good sale he would treat himself to a hot shower and a motel room for a night. Not quite living hand to foot, but not far off, either.
Much of this conversation went on as we climbed the 99 switchbacks, which went by fairly quickly. I'm not sure how many there are, but it seemed that was probably around the right number. Somewhere around number 75 or so, Martin gave in and had to fall back to a slower pace. He knew I was headed first to Mt. Muir, so it was likely I'd either catch up to him again before the Whitney summit or shortly afterwards. Within a few minutes I found myself behind a trail of about 15 hikers, who were rather kind in letting me pass. They were a group of Scottish trekkers who were hiking along in high spirits, more so than the usual band of folks we had passed along the way earlier. They looked to be in their twenties, a mix of the sexes, and thoroughly enjoying themselves on holiday. This is how I should have been spending my time during my twenties, I thought, rather than working so damn much!
At Trail Crest I took a break long enough to snap a few photos of the impressive views both east and west. It is somewhat of a small victory to attain this point, the entry into Sequoia National Park and reaching the Sierra crest at 13,500 feet. Yet there are still two miles to go to reach Mt. Whitney's summit, and most hikers slow down considerably along this stretch. There are a number of backpacks that are left near this point where the trail forks and heads down to the Kern Basin. Backpackers going either direction often drop their packs here to make the side trip to Mt. Whitney - no need to haul the whole pack those extra four miles.
Mt. Muir is little more than a bump along the main Whitney ridge that runs from the summit to Discovery Pinnacle, just south of Trail Crest. But because it reaches above the magic 14,000ft mark, it has been deemed fit to earn the title of mountain, and as a bonus being named for the most famous member and founder of the Sierra Club. There is no regular trail that leaves the maintained Whitney Trail to reach Mt. Muir's summit, only a few hundred yards away. I found a loose sandy area around the bend not far from Trail Crest, and from the evidence of prior traffic guessed it was the usual place to leave the trail. I headed up. I expected the rock to be somewhat loose here, as it had that look from below, but the climbing was quite nice. Just below the summit there is some interesting class 3 stuff, with one move across a slanting ledge the only really exposed spot. It was 10:15a when I reached the summit, 3 1/2 hours from Whitney Portal. There are two views from Mt. Muir that are unique, and cannot be had from Mt. Whitney. One is the view of Whitney's Southeast Face (although there is an even better view from Keeler Needle). The other is to the southeast where one can make out the thin, zigzagging thread of the 99 switchbacks as they make they're way up to Trail Crest. The trail looks quite impressive from this vantage point.
I found the aluminum cylinder that holds the summit register, and retrieved it. The register was full for all practical purposes, though I found a small section of blank paper a few years back on which to add my own entry. Even the back of the register was utilized, and I noticed that Snow Nymph's entry was one of the last two, dating to October of 2000. A regular poster to a number of the Yahoo! Clubs, I've followed a number of her many adventures over the last few years. She had an impressive string of consecutive weekends spent in the mountains, spanning something like a year. During one of her outings she had posted some pictures from Mt. Muir, and it was her description of the interesting class 3 that got my attention back in 2000. And so I decided I had to climb Mt. Muir the next time I headed up to Mt. Whitney. Looking south I spied a whole host of peaks I had yet to visit, the last of the High Sierra in that direction. Far off was Olancha Peak, my adventure for the the next day. The intervening peaks of Langley, LeConte, and McAdie would provide inspiration for future climbs. To the west could be seen the Kaweah Ridge in the distance, the Hitchcock Lakes down below, and the Kern Canyon in the middle distance.
I stayed on the top but a few minutes before gathering up my stuff and heading back down. I chose to descend the same way I had climbed up, as I wasn't terribly comfortable I could climb off the north side easily enough. Back down at the trail I headed up towards Whitney. There were people strung out along the trail here, sometimes 20 or more visible. While they went at various speeds, each at his own pace, most were going rather slowly. The air gets quite thin up here! I caught up to Monty just below Keeler Needle, maybe half a mile from the summit. He was going along slowly but steadily, and had not caught back up to his brother who was probably at the summit by now. I left Monty after a few minutes and continued up. Shortly before the last climb, the trail breaks up into a myriad of use trails, and I found it impossible to find any particular one that could be considered the "maintained" one. This seems quite strange considering the amount of use this trail gets, and I wondered if I had just wandered off at a turn somewhere. Little matter, as this last part is just a huge pile of scree with some sand thrown in to slow you down a little.
It was 11:15a when I reached the shelter marking the summit of Mt. Whitney. As expected, there were a good many people up here, making for a party-like atmosphere. The Scottish team had carried a flag and stuffed animals with them to mark their summit bid, and in helping them take pictures of their group I must have gone through a dozen different cameras. They were certainly the most lively and entertaining bunch at the summit, and I didn't mind helping them out in the least. I found Martin here as well, having arrived about five minutes ahead of me. He was eating his lunch and watching one of the local marmots who had almost no fear of the humans intruding on their turf. The weather had continued to be fine the whole morning, and aside from some scattered clouds, the weather was about as nice as one could have asked for. I wandered around a little, taking in the views on all sides (east - southeast - south - west - northwest - northeast) while I ate the snacks I had brought with me. After almost half an hour of rest I began to grow antsy. Monty had not yet arrived at the summit. I still had a good deal of energy left, and was looking for something else to climb. Mt. McAdie to the south of Trail Crest had looked like a very difficult ridge, and I hadn't researched it at all to find out if that route was class 3 or less. Looking over at Mt. Russell a mile to the north, I began to consider the possibility of climbing that and returning via Whitney Col. It didn't take me long to decide to give it a shot, and I let Martin know my plans before bidding him goodbye.
I marched off towards Whitney's North Face, passing the famous Whitney outhouse which I hadn't seen the first time I was up here. It is located about 100 yards north of the summit house, and is exposed on three sides. A short rock wall provides the only modicum of privacy, which makes it a rather nervous outing for most of the folks who use it. In fact I was alerted to the outhouse's whereabouts by the shriek I heard as someone using it spotted me off to the unprotected east side, about 30 yards away. Embarrassed, I turned away, but I must confess at that distance, the views weren't much to write home about.
The North Face of Whitney doesn't simply drop off, and being large and broad, it is hard to get a good view of it from above. I angled to the northwest (left), and climbed down several hundred yards over some large talus and boulders where I then got a pretty good view of the whole route over to Mt. Russell. Russell's South Slope didn't look bad at all, mostly a huge pile of scree. I knew it to be class 2 with a short class 3 section at the top which I didn't expect to be too bad. What bothered me the most was Whitney's North Face, which I had expected to be similarly class 2. But from my vantage point it looked much tougher. There were a number of snow patches, not all of which I could safely navigate around. I had no idea what condition the snow was in, but had to consider that it might be hard and icy. And much of the rock around it looked like some steep granite slopes, with water weeping from the mountainside all over the place. I had no axe or even hiking boots with me, as I had chosen to climb in tennis shoes, and I was now regretting that decision. I stood there for some time contemplating whether to go down or not. I really wanted to, but the safety factor seemed too low. I decided to leave Russell for another day.
Rather than climb back up to Whitney's summit, I contoured right around the west slopes, eventually rejoining the trail on the southwest side. I soon had an excellent view of the two needles that lie on the Whitney ridge just south of the summit. The closest (and highest) is called Keeler Needle, the second is now Crooks Peak, but used to be Day Needle. Keeler and Day were assistants to Samuel Langley (for whom Mt. Langley is named), who led a scientific expedition to Mt. Whitney's summit in 1880. Though both needles were named at the same time, only Keeler made it to the maps, and Day Needle was renamed in the 1990's for Hilda Crook, who hiked up Mt. Whitney every year from her mid-60s to her early 90s. Both needles rise above 14,000 feet, though neither is currently considered in the list of 15 California 14ers. I have little doubt however, that the bar will be raised soon in attempts to break the 14er speed record, when someone will climb these extra two summits along the way. Just as in the Colorado record, once someone adds a new peak to the list, those that follow feel compelled to climb all the points attained by the predecessor. Though I had no intention of breaking any speed climbing record, adding the two needles seemed a nice pair of feathers to add to the cap, even if they were only class 1-2 to reach.
Accordingly, I left the Whitney trail below Keeler Needle, and headed to the summit, reaching it at 12:20p. It had taken all of 15 minutes to climb it. The summit is wildly exposed as it sticks out over the east face, and gave me pause to consider what damage a small quake could do right now. Should the little ledge I was perched on collapse, I'd fall almost a thousand feet without touching much of anything on the way down. The view of Whitney's Southeast Face was fantastic from this vantage point, and as I studied the sheer face I marvelled that climbers could make their way up through various routes that have been done there. It was even easier getting to Crooks Peak as I descended to the saddle between the two and climbed the west slope, all in 20 minutes. The summit of Crooks is even more exposed than Keelers, as the high point is surrounded on three sides by sharp drops, and only narrowly connected to the West Slope. There is nothing difficult at all about reaching the highpoint, other than the nerve one needs to muster to place his faith in the rock that it will not suddenly crash down from underneath. I was nervous the whole time I sat there, which amounted to maybe half a minute. But there was no way I could relax and not think about what seemed such little support under me.
There are other needles that dot the ridge south of Crooks Peak (and north of Mt. Muir, though today none of those have official names. They are all less significant, but will no doubt attain official names someday as the list of unnamed peaks and peaklets in the Sierra grows ever smaller. But rather than climb those all now on my way back, I was getting a bit tired of all the talus, and decided to wait until they get their official names before bagging them. After all, that has always been my arbitrary criteria for peak-bagging - if it has a name, climb it. :)
Back on the Whitney Trail, I headed for Trail Crest, and who should I run into in the next few minutes but John and Clem. They were resting on a couple of rocks alongside the trail, taking their time to get to the summit. It was 1p now, and they were pretty spent due to the lack of acclimatization, but looked like they'd make it given enough time. This was the first I'd spent more than a few minutes talking to the pair, and they began to tell climbing yarns with a little prompting. One of them had peeled 60 feet just as he had gotten his hands to the top of one climb, and the other had caught the fall on video from below. They found it quite hilarious to talk about it after the fact, but it had been a great source of fear and embarassment at the time. I spent thirty minutes with them before it was time to move on again, they towards the summit, myself downward. At the trail junction, there were several packs adorned with balloons, possibly for a celebration commemorating a group of friends completion of the JMT. I confess I'm not sure what the reason though, as I didn't stop long enough to enquire.
When I reached Trail Crest I decided to climb the small nubbin to the south that has been named "Discovery Pinnacle." The climbing to the top is not very hard, but moderately interesting, as the summit is composed of some enormous blocks propped up against each other. Here I took another hard look at McAdie about a mile to the south, but I had to admit that I no longer had the energy nor the desire for more climbing. I scrambled down the east side over some steep and loose terrain until I intersected the Whitney Trail about 150 yards or so below the ridge. Heading down the 99 switchbacks, I soon spotted Monty ahead of me. I tried to sneak up on him without him seeing me first, but before I could reach him he had spotted me as he glanced up after making a turn at the switchback. It was 2:30p now, and we walked on together until we reached Martin who had been resting at the bottom of the switchbacks. The three of us then continued together all the way back to the trailhead. I got to learn a lot more about Martin during the next three hours, as his life story held a great deal of fascination for me. I felt like I was getting the personal version of Ray Bradbury's The Illustrated Man. The pace was slow, but the stories enjoyable, so on we went the rest of the way. Not surprising, we saw almost no one heading up as we were on our way down. I found it rather comical, however, when we passed the same gentleman who'd pestered me for a free permit earlier in the morning. Apparently he had driven down to the Lone Pine Ranger Station to get his permit, and as all the permits were already spoken for, he was obliged to wait until 10a so that he could take the permit from one of the no-shows. Seems the earliest he could have gotten a start then was about 11a, and when we passed him at 3p, the odds of him actually making the summit seemed remote. All to save a lousy $15 I thought, as I chuckled to myself.
Back at Whitney Portal at 5:50p, we went to the store to enjoy some celebration beers. Here we found a rather strange pricing strategy that didn't seem appropriate. We each selected a beer, only to be informed by the cashier (trying to be nice, no doubt) that the price of three single beers ($3 and change each) exceeded the price of a six pack ($9 and change). In the interest of making wise investment choices, we naturally returned to buy an entire six pack (mix and match allowed!), so that we would each consume two beers for our victory toast. Now two beers isn't all that much, but considering that most of the hikers returning are both exhausted and dehydrated, two beers could do quite a bit. I was feeling rather toasty (or toasted?) when we were done, and the drive back down the windy road from Whitney Portal seemed no small challenge. I wondered how many accidents may have occurred along this road as a result of the beer pricing strategy at the Whitney Portal Store. Fortunately I was able to negotiate it successfully, and I returned to Lone Pine. Monty and his brother were heading back tonight, as were the others. Even David, who had followed me since the beginning nine days earlier, decided to forgo the tenth peak on the following day. So I took a room by myself, and after checking in, went to join Monty and Martin for dinner at a local establishment before they headed back up US395. John, Clem, and David I never saw again, though found later that all had made it to the summit. I had been surprised that I didn't find David anywhere along the trail on my return, but we surmised that I was probably on one of the Needles when David was making his way back, finishing well ahead of the three of us. Monty and Martin had not even had the chance to meet David, and so probably did not recognize him when he undoubtedly passed them on the way up and down. Seven of nine summits so far, one more to go!
For more information see these SummitPost pages: Mt. Muir - Mt. Whitney - Keeler Needle - Crooks Peak - Discovery Pinnacle
This page last updated: Mon Nov 10 11:41:48 2008
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