Mt. Whitney P5K SPS / WSC / LVMC / PD

Thu, Sep 15, 1994
Etymology Story Photos / Slideshow Maps: 1 2 Profiles: 1 2
later climbed Sun, Aug 12, 2001


I had never done the hike to Mt. Whitney, and on my way through Piute Canyon I hatched a plan to climb it the following day [this was in the days before permits became necessary for Whitney dayhikes]. I left Mammoth Hot Springs and headed south again on US395. I stopped in Bishop at one of the fast food places there and purchased a few of the highest calorie burger items on the menu. This was way better than any campstove meal I had ever eaten. I decided to camp at Whitney Portal in the back of Terry's truck, which was neatly equipped for just this purpose. This would allow me to get an early start as well as to help maintain my excellent acclimatization. It was already dark when I reached the portal, and to little surprise I was greeted by a sign expressly forbidding sleeping vehicles. Tough. I would hide myself under the gear and other goods in the back and sleep there all the same.

I had planned to get a very early start, but was surprised to find the sun was already up when I awoke at 7a. I had hoped to be one of the first on the trail so that I could have much of it to myself, but had blown that a bit by oversleeping. Oh well. I ate a cold breakfast and packed up my fanny pack. Two water bottles (about a quart and a half), a jacket, hat, gloves, and camera were about all I took. I wasn't going to set any records, but I wanted to see just how quickly I could do this 22 miles and 6,200 vertical feet. My strategy was to walk the uphills, run the flats and downhills. One might think that this left little room for running on the way up, but I found there were a number of places with either flat of low angle rises that let me make swift progress. Having never been to the area before, and never researching it ahead of time, I had no familiarity with any of the features along the trail. I picked out Lone Pine Lake with the help of my 15' map, but that was about it. I couldn't tell if I could see Mt. Whitney from anywhere on the trail or pick out any of the peaks around me.

I passed quite a few people on my way up. When I walked I had a pace of about three miles an hour, pretty consistently. I didn't stop much, and was having a ball. After the previous two days of carrying a pack, the uphill seemed almost easy. When I got to Trail Camp there were myriads of campers buzzing about. I thought most of them would have hit the trail by now, but it seemed that at least half were still milling about around 9a when I passed through. The hi-tech solar toilet (what the solar panels on the roof did was unclear to me) was closed due to excessive use. That seemed rather funny to me.

When I reached Trail Crest at well over 13,000 feet, I was thrilled with the grand views of the Kaweahs and Great Western Divide, and the depths of the Kern Canyon. It would be another six years before I returned for a visit to this region, but the images I had been treated to stayed with me until then. I had thought it was a short distance from Trail Crest to the summit of Whitney, but was mistaken. It is still several miles off, and at 14,000 feet I was beginning to feel the altitude affect me by way of a mild headache. I reached the summit at 11a, three and half hours time from the trailhead. I stayed only 15 minutes, though. I had put on my jacket, gloves, and hat, but as my heart rate decreased after reaching the top, so my blood's ability to keep me sufficiently warm did likewise. Besides, the headache wasn't making things any better. I signed into the register after waiting my turn. There were probably three dozen people milling about the top in this cold air. They seemed in various flavors of awe. Awe at the sublime beauty. Awe at the frigid temperatures and stark surroundings. Awe at being at the highest point on the continental US. Awe at having reach the top. I shared many of these feelings, but believe I enjoyed the climb to the summit more so than actually being on top. I know I would have been disappointed if I hadn't made it the entire way. So I think reaching the top was similarly more important to me than being on top. Probably has a lot to do with why I rarely spend much time on a summit, even though I spend so much time trying to get there...

I headed down. The first couple hundred yards off the summit were the trickiest to negotiate, after that I was able to run/jog most of the way. I passed many more people on the way down than I had on the way up, to no great surprise. I was going much faster, and those on the way up much slower. Once past Trail Camp, I saw no more dayhikers on the way up, but there were a number of those loaded with backpacks heading up to camp and then climb Whitney the following day. I also passed a few backpackers who were heading back down, presumably having climbed Whitney the previous day. I'm sure there was an assortment of folks climbing through Trail Crest into the Kern River drainage, but they must have been highly outnumbered by the Whitney baggers. I reached Whitney Portal at 1p, five and half hours round trip. I stopped at the store to get something to drink (my water bottles had finally run out shortly before the end).

I drove up to Mammoth Hot Springs again for another soak, having first stopped in Bishop for another delicious fast food meal (they all taste pretty damn good after a hard day). I was slated to pick Terry and Eric up the following afternoon around 2p. I decided I might get a little more play time in if I did most of the driving tonight, so after I was done with my bath, I drove on through Tioga Pass down to Curry Village. For the second night in a row, I camped in the back of Terry's Truck in a designated "No Camping in Vehicles" location (this time the Curry Village parking lot).

Unlike the previous night when I slept quite well, it seemed I slept very little due to the constant coming and going outside of all kinds of vehicles. I kept imagining that the rangers were out there with flashlights peering into the cars, looking for renegade campers. Sometime in the middle of the night, it must have been around 2a, a van pulled up next to me and the whole family (there must have been three or four kids with the parents) got out and had what seemed like a picnic. They must have been out there for at least half an hour. I couldn't tell if they were late arriving guests to Curry Village, or like me, were just looking for a place to crash.

When I awoke in the morning I visited the Curry Village Store for some breakfast items and then went about the day's objective. I had read that in days gone by the indians had a path down Indian Canyon that they used for access between the Valley floor and the higher country around Tuolumne Meadows. The trail has long been abandoned, but I figured I ought to be able to find a class 3 route to the Valley's northern rim. Indian Canyon is located to the right of Yosemite Falls, behind the Ahwahnee Hotel. I parked in the lot there and headed up the rock, brush, and oak covered slopes behind the hotel.

It wasn't the pleasantest of climbs. There were flies all about that were a constant nuisance. The ground was covered in rotting leaves that made for slippery footing. I found myself on steeper and steeper ground until I was using the tree trunks for support to pull me up and keep me from sliding off a 20-foot ledge. It seems I had missed the canyon a bit, and was climbing the walls just to the east of the canyon. As things began to get dicey, I noticed it was 11a and time for me to return anyway. After I got down I perused the route again and found where I was climbing was leading to hopeless cliffs (given I had no gear and training for such things). [A few years later I gave it a second go by following right up the boulder field at the mouth of the canyon. The flies were still pestering me, but they left after I was a third of the way up, and found the route was indeed no worse than class 3. There were a few places where the rocks were slick from the late-season trickle that still flowed down, but with the aid of some helpful shrubbery I was able to surmount the most difficult obstacles. Once up on the rim, I hiked up to Yosemite Point and followed the Yosemite Falls Trail back to the Valley floor.]

It took much longer to get from Yosemite Valley to Florence Lake. What I thought would take two hours took four instead. When I arrived at the lake I didn't see the others, although I was two hours late picking them up. They showed up while I was checking out the store there (ice cream, yum!), having begun to worry that I might not show up at all. We had plenty of time to catch up on activities as we drove the six hours back to San Jose. I felt I had two vacations instead of one, and returned highly satisfied with the miles of fun I was able to enjoy.

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