Mon, Aug 26, 2013
Back at the beginning of the year my cousin Don asked if I wanted to join his merry band of Whitney hikers at the end of August. His group consisted of some old school friends as well as close relatives, including several of his children, now young adults. Interested, I worked to get them to pick the Monday following the end of the Challenge to allow me to join in a convenient manner, well-acclimatized and just one additional day. They got the first choice of dates they had listed on the permit application, so I got my preference. We had met up the night before the hike in Lone Pine at the Pizza Factory to fuel up, get aquainted, and discuss particulars. There was no general concensus on a start time, with some preferring 3am, others 4am, myself later. Working backwards to ensure time for a burger at the Portal Store, we used the average time on the trail (Don had found this somewhere online) to come up with a 4am start. Anything earlier than this seemed like an unnecessary loss of sleep to me. Don's pals insisted on starting earlier, so in the end we agreed to start at different times.
It was shortly after 4a when the four of us started out. My brother Jim was still struggling with bowel issues and got left behind in the parking lot. Not exactly by intention - amid some initial confusion, he showed up a few minutes late to find that we'd already started and was not able to catch up. The phone messages he left weren't received until some time later when they would do little good. After his performance the previous day, I didn't think he had much chance of being more than a boat anchor anyway.
Nicole is Don's oldest, Kyle his youngest, and all three had spent months doing preparatory hikes and reading up on strategies for nutrition, gear selection and the like. They had also done well to spend several days in the Mammoth area ahead of time to acclimatize and consequently were prepared to have an enjoyable outing. Except perhaps for Don, but his troubles would come later. We spent the first couple hours plying the trail by headlamp and were well above Trail Meadow when the first rays of the new day reached us. Don had stopped at regular intervals to check his cellphone reception and make regular posts to Facebook. I get that this was a milestone event for him and his family, but the Facebooking was annoying. Despite my protests, his online world would be kept regularly informed of his progress. I'm not sure that having better and better cellphone coverage available in the Wilderness is a good thing. There were not as many folks on the trail as I had expected, but there were still plenty. There was no one at Outpost Camp as we passed by, but still a number of folks milling about Trail Camp when we arrived shortly after 7a. We waited 15 minutes to let Don catch up, now starting to fall behind (his self-portaits and uploads to Facebook required regular stops but not likely a major source of his delay). We stayed together again until the start of the switchbacks at which time I decided it would be more enjoyable to take a nap at Trail Crest rather than keep the slow pace. I went off ahead, reaching the crest by 8:50a. I found a nice area to nap in the sun while I waited for the others to arrive half an hour later. Don made a short stop to rest and eat something before we all continued at 9:30a.
Up to this time, Don had entertained the idea that he might also want to tag Mt. Muir to get two 14ers for the price of one. When we got to turnoff for Muir, Don's first comment was, "But there's no trail!" I figured that was the end of his chances to reach Muir. While the other three continued up the last few miles of trail, I turned off to tag Muir and the series of towers, aiguilles and needles along the way to Whitney. I had climbed a few of these in years past, but not most of them. It seemed a good opportunity to get in some extra scrambling. I had actually started just short of the "proper" turnoff for Muir and it quickly became stiff class 3 - I was no longer surprised by Don's comment. Perhaps if he had seen the standard, mostly class 2 route he might not have balked.
Reaching Muir's summit not long after 10a, I found an ammo box with several registers having many, many entries. I don't remember if I added my own signature, but it didn't seem like it would make much of an impact one way or the other. I next turned my attention to the two towers next in line to the north. I'd thought I could just scramble directly over to them, but found there was a notch between them and Muir and it was necessary to first return to the Whitney Trail. Upon climbing up to the two towers, I found First Tower to look exceedingly difficult. Secor mentions nothing about ascending it. Rather than dismiss it out of hand, I scrambled up to the base of it to be sure there wasn't an easyish way up, but found it looked harder than 5.easy - this one would need a rope and gear. I then went to S'brutal Tower next door which Secor says is class 1 from the trail. It was decidedly much harder, in fact I had difficulty finding a way I could manage solo. The easier option at first looked to be a dihedral on the SW side, but this looked to go near vertical and harder than I was comfortable with. I then tried to climb the edge just to the left of this, and thanks to some knobby holds, managed to find a way up, but it was very stiff class 3. The top is a tiny perch that could barely hold my person and because of my nervousness in getting back down, I stayed only a few seconds. I got back down without incident and breathed a sigh of relief - it was the end of any serious difficulties on the day. I can only guess that Secor hasn't investigated the summit himself and was simply assuming it was a trivial walk up like the remaining aiguilles and needles. There are more serious climbs up their east faces which was probably the more important consideration in Secor's guidebook.
I returned to the trail once again before making my way up to the next pinnacle, called Aiguille Junior. It was a simple class 2-3 affair that took less than five minutes. The sun-damaged remains of a plastic tub were splintered about the summit along with a few unreadable pages. There is a good view of the two towers and Mt. Muir to the south. Looking north, there is another deep notch to the next series of pinnacles with Mt. Whitney in the background. Back down I went to the trail, across the notch, then up to Aguille du Paquoir. The summit was unexceptional, much like the previous one, though it did sport a rusty tobacco tin in way of a register. The paper inside was faded and unreadable. I tucked it back under the summit cairn and went once more down to the trail. This yo-yo thing was starting to get to me. The next pinnacle in line is Aiguille Extra, even less interesting than the previous two as it has barely any prominence to the higher points further north along the crest. Finding nothing of much interest at the summit, I looked to the next points in line - Third Needle, Crooks Peak, and Keeler Needle, though none of these were needle-like at all from the west side. Third Needle in particular looked extremely weak as a point of interest, and it wasn't obvous where among three or four competing points the "highpoint" might be found. I punted on it and instead returned to the trail, having already visited the last two points (Crooks Peak and Keeler Needle) previously.
I met up again with the Brunnetts a few minutes below Whitney's broad summit. They were just starting their return. I told them I'd run up and tag the summit and meet them shortly my way back. At the summit just after noon, I joined the small crowd of about 20 folks milling about the summit rocks. For fun I photographed the large collection of benchmarks I found in various locations, six all told. Two were USGS, three were US Coast and Geodetic Survey, one from the California Division of Roads. I shortcutted the descent where the trail makes a large loop off to the west, getting back to the trail ahead of the others who had stopped to chat with Don's friends who had arrived near the summit. Not knowing for sure if they were ahead or behind, I continued down the trail, realizing in about 15 minutes that they must be behind me. I wanted to pay a visit to Wotans Throne, so continued down at a good clip, hoping I might yet meet up with them when I got back from this last summit.
Wotans Throne rises to the north above Trail Camp, disconnected from the subsidiary ridge descending from Whitney at Third Needle and called Pinnacle Ridge. I descended most of the switchbacks below Trail Crest, nearly reaching Trail Camp before striking off cross-country across a boulder field. It was interesting to find a stretch of old trail running through the rocks. Rockfall evidently closed this section some years ago and it was rerouted further south. I was a bit worried that I might have to battle the boulders for the whole stretch to Wotans Throne, but was happy to find this wasn't the case. Once I reached the small creek that feeds down into Trail Camp, I found slabs and easier going around the west side of the peak to the broad saddle on the NW side. It looked like there might be some interesting class 3 routes on the west and southwest sides that I passed by, but without having done my homework ahead of time, I opted for the more sure class 2 route coming up from the northwest. It was 2:20p by the time I reached the summit. The oldest paper in the register dated only to 2005. A newer booklet that had been left later was mostly full. The views take in the surrounding terrain east of the crest, not all that expansive since it is one of the lower summits in the area. The descent back to Trail Camp was quick, taking only 30 minutes.
As I was about to rejoin the trail I heard a voice above me and spotted Nicole and Kyle. They had arrived some 20 minutes earlier without Dad in tow. They had left him at Trail Crest partly to see how quickly they could descend to Trail Camp, but mostly because Don was going slowly. While we rested in the sunshine, Kyle wondered out loud how it would be to take a dip in the nearby lake. I began encouraging him, arguing that he'd regret it if he didn't do it. He was skeptical, wondering why I wouldn't do the same. I told him I'd done similarly many times and didn't feel I needed another sampling. Once reassured he would suffer no lasting harm, he hesitated at the water's edge for a good while before finally taking the plunge. Meanwhile, the wait for Don continued, nearly an hour before he arrived. We could see him making his way down ever so slowly 30 minutes before he arrived, but his pace seemed glacial. Others were passing him regularly and when he finally pulled in he looked very tired. He didn't have any of the usual symptoms of altitude sickness so I asked him how much he had had to drink so far today. "About a quart," he replied. The weather had been cool, especially in the morning, and there had seemed little need to drink. I had drank about two quarts myself and knew I was somewhat dehydrated so I told Don that was probably his problem. "Oh," was about all he managed to say, but he immediately started drinking water. After he rested some we made sure he had more water and continued ahead of him. Later his sister would hear us recount the story and was appalled that we had left him in his condition. I'd seen plenty of worn folks coming off Whitney and other high places to know that folks generally improve as they descend, but to Don's sister it was the same as abandoning him atop Everest.
With such a long break, Nicole and Kyle were full of energy and began jogging their way down the trail. I tried to keep pace behind them, complaining of being the old guy. On and off we jogged for much of the remaining distance. When we neared the crossing of the North Fork creek I called ahead to stop them and show them the old trail that leads more quickly down to the campground and the Portal Store. Kyle was the first to actually give up on the jogging as Nicole resumed her pace out in the lead. Finally, not long after 5:30p, we had returned to the TH where we had started more than 13 hours earlier. We found Laura playing fry cook at the Portal Store along with Jim who recounted his own day of misadventure. The burgers and fries tasted particularly good. We were back less than an hour before Don returned. Over a large plate of fries he described his miraculous recovery once he drank more water and had even taken to jogging the last three miles back. His three friends did not have the same reserves of energy and would not get off the trail until nearly 11p.
The next morning I started back for San Jose under a beautiful morning sky with lingering clouds and a sunlit Lone Pine Peak. Sad memories from the Sierra Challenge accident were still strong in my mind, but the mountains were looking as beautiful and inviting as they ever have. The Challenge would return again the next year, of that much I was already certain...
For more information see these SummitPost pages: Mt. Muir - Mt. Whitney - Wotans Throne
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