Sierra Mountains - South Lake to North Lake - Mt Whitney - CA - September 2002

Trip theme: "Well Bill said" or "It never rains in the Sierras"

Part one of this trip involved a "6 day" loop from South Lake to North Lake. The route that we followed (which appears to be the standard route) goes over Bishop Pass, Muir Pass and Piute Pass. It is 53.8 miles long and has an elevation gain / loss of about 9,000 feet. I did this trip with several members of the Wilmington Trail Club (Anthony, Bill, Brad, Tom) and one non-member from Wisconsin (Warren). The trailhead is located on the eastern side of the Sierra mountains outside Bishop, CA. We flew out to California in three separate groups and then met up at the Bishop Creek Lodge on Saturday. The lodge caters mostly to fisherman but the cabins were nice enough and the place has its own bar / restaurant so it was hard to go wrong. We ate dinner at the lodge, drank a few beers at the bar and generally just relaxed from our cross country travel. Since we all came up from sea level, we had an acclimatization hike in the Bristlecone Pine forest planned for Sunday.

Sunday morning we all got up and found our way down to Bishop. We had to do the typical pre-trip stuff like pick up our permit, rent bear canisters, buy fuel and buy food. Anthony even went so far as to buy a new tent at Wilson's East Side Sports, an excellent outdoor store in Bishop. I think the motivation for the new tent must have been the looks on our faces when Anthony told us the tent he brought with him weighed 10 pounds. Warren also had trouble buying liquid fuel. It turns out there was some sort of recall on the fuel so Wilson's didn't have anything but canisters. The store across the street would sell fuel but only by the gallon. Fortunately Anthony had an extra canister stove so we loaded up on canisters. The next hurdle for the day was putting gas in the cars. There were two gas stations in town selling cheap gas, that were right next to each other, and we spent forever waiting in line to buy gas. Finally we were fully supplied and headed out towards the Bristlecone Pines. The Bristlecone Pines are in the White Mountains on the eastern side of the Sierras at around 10,000 ft. The oldest living thing on earth is a tree called Methuselah which is supposedly 4,700 years old. The road up is a typical winding mountain road out in the middle of nowhere. We were wondering if anybody else was going to be there because we didn't hardly pass any cars at all on the way on. On the way up is an excellent overlook that affords wide views of the eastern side of the Sierras. We got to the visitors center (and found all the cars) and ate the lunch we bought earlier in the morning. I picked up one of the self guided tour brochures (I love reading those things) and then we set out on the 4 mile loop through the Schulman Grove. This is a nice and easy hike with just enough hills so it was well suited for people like us who need to acclimate. The Bristlecone Pines are fairly interesting to look at. Apparently the short, squat, gnarly ones with exposed roots are the oldest trees. We had a good time trying to identify the old ones but they won't tell you which tree is Methuselah in order to protect it. I figure this must mean that the tree is real close to the trail. We "contemplated our surroundings" and identified at least 20 good candidates during the loop. I was also trying to read the tour brochure at every marked number along the trail but I kept missing them for some reason. At one point we were all looking for the next number and still walked right past it. After the hike we drove back into Bishop for dinner and a feast of carbo-loading pizza and beer.

Monday morning (Day 1) I got up a little early so that Bill, Warren and I could shuttle our cars around to North Lake. Having done that we drove back to the lodge, ate breakfast, and loaded up the car for the shuttle to South Lake. It took two trips to move us and our packs up to the trailhead. A little stretching, a bunch of picture taking, a quick fix on the GPS and we were ready to go. Anthony was so itching to go he had his pack on while we were still taking pictures. Bill had been having problems with his knee so he was not going to be able to make the loop with us, but he day hiked with us up to Bishop Pass. On the drive into Bishop on Saturday, we noticed what appeared to be a wild fire up in the mountains in the general vicinity of Bishop Pass. The rangers told us that it was a fire in the next valley over from Bishop Pass and that it shouldn't effect us. With that happy thought in mind we set out. It is a 6 mile hike from the trailhead to Bishop Pass. The first part of the trail is mostly in forest. We were initially passed by a group of guys doing the same trip we were and we passed a whole bunch of people going the other way. I was thinking that it was going to be pretty crowded at the campsites, but it turned out that we didn't have any trouble at all. After a little bit you start passing some lakes and some alpine meadows. There weren't very many flowers but the views were spectacular nonetheless. The water in the lakes was so unbelievably clear blue. The other interesting feature was how quickly the lakes increased in depth, I guess that's a feature of glacier carved lakes. We stopped and ate lunch by one of the lakes. I pulled out my pitas and the peanut butter that I had put into a plastic baggy. It was then that I discovered that the plastic baggy was not such a good idea for the peanut butter. While it didn't leak it was exceedingly difficult to get the peanut butter out without getting more on my hands than on the knife. Note: Turns out that Skippy makes single 1 oz. servings in a tube (Thanks Tom!) At any rate, right after lunch was the big push up Bishop Pass. It was time to find out how well acclimatized we were. The trees gave way to mostly rocks and  I felt pretty darn good going up the switchbacks with my "heavy as it was going to get the entire trip" backpack. A short distance prior to reaching the actual pass is an out cropping of rocks that affords an excellent view of the valley we had just hiked through. We stopped there to enjoy the views and let everyone catch up. We had a scouting report that suggested to us that we could readily climb Mt. Agassiz from Bishop Pass, in fact we passed a guy on the trail who claimed he had done it that day. I'm thinking this sounds like a good idea, so while we are waiting I pull out the topo map and study it. I look at the topo and it confirms what my eyes are telling me, there is no freakin' way anybody in their right mind is climbing this thing on a whim. It is about 1 mile and 2,000 vertical feet from where I am standing to the top and pretty much nothing but loose granite shale. A closer look at the map suggests that the last 1/2 mile is 1,500 vertical feet and that is mega steep! I'm sure given an entire day, and some padding for my butt when I wound up sliding down the shale, the summit could be had. But it was 2PM and we had no business fooling around with that thing. This was the farthest that Bill was going to go so we shook hands, thanked him for setting up the trip and headed for the actual pass. Bishop Pass is at 11,972 ft and is also the entrance to King's Canyon National Park so we stopped for the customary photo opportunity. From there we descended into Dusy Basin. Dusy Basin is a popular place for people to camp and we saw several groups of people camped around the nearest lake to the trail. "Bill said" that we should keep going until pretty close to the end of the basin, specifically we went until immediately after the last lake. We found an excellent established campsite along the right side of the trail about a hundred yards after the lake stopped and the stream started. I found a good spot and gratefully plunked my pack down for the day. I stood up a little too quickly after dropping my pack and got quite a head rush. The head rushes continued every time I stood up too fast so I soon learned to move a little slower on that first night. Tom, Anthony and I had set up our tents fairly close to one another and it looked like an advertisement for Sierra Designs as our tents were all the same model. Setting up the tent I had my first (and not last) experience with not being able to pound in the tent stakes. It's not that the ground was too hard, but rather there was almost always a rock about 3" underneath the dirt wherever I was driving in a tent stake. I managed to get most of the stakes in and used big heavy rocks for the rest. I learned one of several lessons about the bear canister that night. First, I should have spent more time trying to pack the canister sequentially by day instead of grouping same type items together. I wound up having to empty the whole thing to get out what I wanted the first night and then could barely get it all back in there. Second, it makes a great stool. Third, (and I really learned this on subsequent nights) the amount of crap inside of it never seems to actually go down. Fourth, despite the weight and the annoyance it sure was nice to not worry about my food whatsoever. Another oddity I discovered that night is that my stove / pot seem to have an issue at higher altitudes. Namely the pot would slide right off of the stove while boiling the water. I'm not sure what was going on but it seemed like a layer of water was somehow forming between the titanium pot and the steel bars on the top of the stove, and then the pot would float on top and then slide right off. So now I had to make sure the stove was precisely level in order to boil water, weird. We had a good night for stars. I saw a shooting star and a couple of satellites and called it a night.

Tuesday morning (Day 2) we woke up to frost on the tent fly. A quick check of the thermometer said it was in the low 30's although it didn't really feel that cold because there was no wind whatsoever. We started down the trail on a beautiful morning. A short distance into it we started the descent into Le Conte Canyon. The views here were very spectacular as you could look 2,000 feet down into the valley and also see the 12,000 foot peaks immediately on the opposite side. We had a couple of good photo ops on the way down. A feature that I found interesting was the river that was flowing down into the canyon. In many places the river was not running in a bed but rather was just flowing across the shear granite walls. The river looked like the most incredible water slide imaginable. I don't think a slide was stretching it too far as it appeared like there was a considerable slime layer underneath the water. On the way down we passed a large group of NPS trail workers. I was idly wondering to myself if I would know anyone in the group and sure enough I ran into Cameron. A little background here, I did some trail maintenance in Big Bend NP in 2000 and got to know a variety of people that did trail work for the NPS. Several of them would winter in Big Bend and summer in Kings Canyon. Cameron was the fellow who was assigned to our trail crew the entire week and taught us a lot about trail maintenance and how to install a proper water bar. It was good to see that he was still living the life of a hardworking, underpaid trail worker. We got down to the bottom of the canyon and this is where we picked up the John Muir Trail. A notice on the ranger station sign described the latest on the wild fire which was that they were escorting hikers through at certain times during the day. We hadn't seen any smoke at all since we had left so I put the fire out of my mind as nothing I needed to be concerned about. Le Conte Canyon is very nice and affords some camping at Big Pete or Little Pete meadows. Both of the meadows were far too little distance for us so we filled up with some water at Big Pete meadow and continued our hike up the canyon. Our plan was to camp at the first lake on the right. As we hiked up the canyon I was convinced that it was just over the next hill probably about 10 times. At one point I looked around and we had a great view of the canyon from the other end and could see the entire length of where we had hiked today. The lake we planned to camp at was finally over one of those hills. There are established camp sites that are almost right on the trail on the east side of the lake. A closer inspection showed more established sites further off the trail but still on the east side and this is where we camped. I found a nice flat spot that was essentially on top of a giant rock. I managed to find a spot to drive in one tent stake and had to use rocks to secure the remainder. I really liked this camp site as it is right up against the lake with a great view. The only down side would be that there wasn't a great deal of cover and could get rough if the wind started to blow hard. Anthony had been cold the night before so he set upon building a wall of rocks all the way around his tent to block the wind. I went down to the stream to wash up and do a little laundry and discovered to my great dismay that I had worn a blister on one of my toes. I never get blisters! My sock must have bunched up or something because I had a big ugly blister in a very unusual location on the upper side of a toe on my right foot. I consulted with Brad a little on whether I should go the mole skin or duct tape route, he suggested I go with the mole skin. We did a little lounging around while Anthony did a little hiking around. I was still a little low on energy reserves so I stuck with the lounging by the lake. I spent some very interesting time watching the clouds, that had formed during the day, break up as the sun was setting. The wind blew a little at one point during the night, but all in all it was a very comfortable night.

Wednesday morning (Day 3) we woke up to numerous clouds in the sky. The weather seemed calm enough but starting the day with clouds in the mountains is not a good omen at all. I snapped a picture of our lake and off we went. The morning consisted of climbing from our campsite up to Muir Pass. This is an interesting section of trail that consists predominantly of rocks and high mountain lakes. It was a little difficult to tell ultimately which way the trail was going to lead us just by looking at the mountains, but frankly I was looking a lot harder at the clouds which were continuing to build even in the early morning. We stopped and talked to a fellow who was hiking the JMT in a pair of sneakers right before we got to the crest of the ridge. On top of Muir Pass is a rock hut built to shelter people in case of bad weather. We didn't really "need" shelter but it was really windy on the pass and it was a heck of a lot more comfortable in the hut than it was outside. I woofed down the remainder of my pita and peanut butter, signed the trail register, and we set out again. The hike down the other side of Muir Pass was pretty much more of the same except you could see much further in all directions. We stopped for a break after an hour or so and talked to a guy coming the other way. He had just decided that he was going to set up camp for the day and go over Muir Pass tomorrow, it was somewhere between 11AM and noon at the time. I was thinking that this sounded awful odd as there was very little shelter around, but he found a pretty good spot behind a rock and set up camp. It was about then that I took a hard look at the clouds and thought that maybe this guy new exactly what he was doing, it was going to storm real soon. We started down the trail again and I got it in my head that we could pick up the pace and maybe make it to some reasonable shelter before the storm hit. About 30 minutes later I took some quick looks behind me and saw the dark sheets in the sky coming fast. I dropped my pack and started throwing on rain gear as the hail started to fall heavily all around us. Fortunately the hail wasn't very big and didn't immediately turn to rain but it did come down pretty hard and melted when it hit your shell. Since there wasn't any lighting as of yet, we continued to hike down the trail through the hail. The clouds where really dark about now and the way that they were moving in and out of the mountain tops was a sight that I couldn't capture well with the pictures that I took. We talked to a young guy coming up the trail who told us that he read information at the McClure Meadows ranger station indicating that this was not an isolated storm but rather was the remnants of a hurricane. But "it never rains in the Sierras", oh well. We would later find out that our little piece of the Sierras was the only place that got the bad weather, but everyone we talked to the rest of the trip had a story to tell about wind, hail and cold. Our original intention was to camp at Evolution Lake somewhere, however about the time we got there we started to hear an appreciable amount of thunder and decided that we would be better off to keep going and get into the shelter of Evolution Valley. It had also started to constantly drizzle around this time as well. Down in the valley we found a campsite off the trail that appeared to be primarily used by the local pack services when hauling horses up to Muir Pass. We got a brief break in the drizzle so we could set up our tents but then it would drizzle on and off again the rest of the evening. Dinner consisted of Alpine Aire Sante Fe black beans and rice, a mistake. You would think that freeze dried food designed for backpacking would not tear up your intestinal track but that is precisely what this little bugger did. The worst part was that it didn't taste very good either. In fact we determined on this trip that Alpine Aire is not good food at all. Anyway, we watched the clouds for a long time and later in the evening it looked like they were going to break up. We saw pieces of blue sky and streaks of sunlight. I ran out into the meadow and faced west in order to catch some sunlight when it broke free. Only problem was I was facing east. Nevertheless the sun didn't break out so I could claim that the compass must be wrong. I woke up several times during the night. One time I would see clouds and another time I would see nothing but stars. A good sign I figured.

Thursday morning (Day 4) we woke up to a partly cloudy sky again. Not good. Fortunately it had stopped raining over night and the sun was out and shinning. I took a picture of the now sunny meadow we camped next to and we were off down Evolution Valley. As we left I noticed that we had been camping underneath a sign that Anthony had been claiming for days was the international symbol for "no". "Concerned" we were violating some rule I vowed to ask the ranger. A couple of miles down the trail we came to the McClure Meadow ranger station where we talked to the ranger. We inquired about the rumors we had heard about a hurricane, but it turned out that he was not particularly well informed about the weather. We chit chatted for a little bit, I sampled his out house, and we got on our way. And as it turns out, Anthony's international symbol for "no" is actually a marker used to measure the snow depth in the same spot every time. I knew that Anthony couldn't have possibly been right because Bill hadn't said it. In any event, I actually found Evolution Valley to be the least interesting part of the entire trip. We were hiking in trees mostly and the occasional meadow was nothing to write home about. Eventually we got to our big stream crossing for the trip, Evolution Creek. The snowfall had been low the previous winter so the creek wasn't very high. However it was high enough that you couldn't just walk across either. Of course we used the standard hikers bravado and attempted to cross the river without taking our boots off. There wasn't an obvious way to do it so we all set off in different directions looking for the best place. I ended up bushwacking a little ways up stream where there was a low spot and a fallen tree. I got out in the middle of the creek and realized that I was going to have to make a moderate leap to get to the tree. 1, 2, 3  I jump for the tree, and I make it with a grunt. Only problem was I needed to reach down to keep my balance and in the process raked my hand across something. Of course the smallest little cut bled all over the place but continuing in the spirit of bravado I didn't pull out the first aid kit. Well we all successfully crossed the stream without taking our boots off, and nobody had wet feet, so a resounding success for our stream crossing. We stopped there for a snack and watched a few other people cross (getting their feet wet). Fairly quickly we reached the end of the valley and had another scenic waterfall to look at, not so big but picture worthy, and a good view down Goddard Canyon where we would be hiking the remainder of the day. On the way down we passed a couple of people coming up. After talking to them I remember thinking that clockwise was definitely the way to go on this trip. It seems like every really steep part of the trail had us going down it and every gradual section had us going up it. Perfect planning. Down at the bottom of the canyon is an intersection with another trail and a pretty ugly place to camp. We continued north on the JMT passing through a section of Aspens that were turning a bright yellow in anticipation of winter coming. Seeing as it was still summertime I was thinking that winter must come pretty early to this part of the world. A little ways further down the trail we came to a large metal bridge crossing over the Joaquin river and it was here that we sat down and ate lunch. When we sat down the weather was still reasonably nice, however the longer we sat there the darker the clouds got to the south / north and the more that the wind picked up. We talked with a few people that came by and watched the sky. By the time we were ready to go, the sky looked like it did 2 days prior. Ugly. We hiked for a bit down the trail and the wind really started to kick up and the rain started to fall. Warren and I stopped to don our Gortex again while the others kept on moving. I thought for sure that we were going to get really dumped on, but very suddenly the wind shifted from the south to the north and whatever weather was going to hit us bounced to the east away from us. Most of Goddard canyon was somewhat of a blur as I was watching the sky more than the trail, but I do recall some very interesting rock formations where the river had dug deep into the rock floor of the canyon. We strolled into our planned camping spot a little before 2PM. It was a short and downhill day and I was feeling strong as an ox after setting up camp. I was eyeballing several of the peaks around us and wondering which one I was going to climb. I finally settled on an unnamed knob north of where we were camping. The climb was a scramble over loose rocks and boulders. Not too demanding but the rocks were loose enough to where I was wondering what might happen if I started a landslide. Normally I wouldn't have thought about that but we had heard, and I think Anthony said he say, a landslide in the rocks a couple of days prior. On top of the knob where absolutely great views of both ends of Goddard canyon and the trail we were to take the next day towards Piute Pass. I spent a little time up there alone, snapped some pictures, and headed back. On the way back I found an incredibly flat and conceivably fantastic campsite. The strange thing was I couldn't find a trail that lead there, weird. Back in camp I extolled the virtues of the knob and convinced Anthony and Tom to give it a whirl. Meantime I went down by the stream and sat there for at least an hour contemplating the meaning of life. Warren had said that last year he had sat in the stream, but that wasn't going to happen this year as the air was cold and the water was positively frigid. Coming back into camp a solitary women stopped in to talk to us. She had been out hiking alone for a long time and several different trails and was currently hiking the JMT backwards. She stayed for well over an hour talking to us and eating Sardines with Anthony.  Eventually Tom gave her seemingly half of his food and she was on her way. The final excitement of the day was at sundown. The sky had cleared to the west and we were afforded some great alpen glow on Pavilion Dome to our northeast.

Friday morning (Day 5) we woke up to very cloudy skies and cold. I started thinking immediately that if the weather worsened and we were exposed at our planned camp site, that it was likely we would hike out today. Right away we split from the JMT and headed up Piute trail. The trail parallels Piute creek and initially there are several excellent camp sites suitable for single tents. After that the trail turns left and starts heading up. The weather quickly turned very poor and it wasn't long before I was sweating bullets underneath my shell. We didn't really talk very much and I sensed that everyone was interested in making time. The further we went the darker the clouds seemed to get and the harder the wind blew. We got to Hutchinson meadow much quicker than I was expecting as we barely stopped for any breaks. We tried to break at in the meadow but we soon got too cold to stand still and had to press on. It was somewhere between here and the end of the meadow that the drizzle and occasional hail started. I was constantly adjusting my shell and my hat to try and find a comfortable temperature to hike at. On a scenic note, the Matthes glaciers are visible from the trail and are very interesting to look at. I noticed that everyone else had their cameras tucked away somewhere so I was trying to do my best to document the trail with pictures. In typical fashion the pictures just couldn't do justice to the combination of the scenery and the storm. As we left the meadow we saw some people occupying the camp site at Lower Golden Trout lake. Our plan was to continue a little further to Upper Golden Trout lake and camp along side of it. So we get to the point where we have to leave the trail and go cross country to get to the lake. After some discussion we decide to take a break first and eat. At this point the wind was really blowing hard and it was down right cold out, especially when you're covered in sweat from the elevation gain. I checked my thermometer and it was 45 F. As we ate the discussion revolved around what the heck we were going to do. Our options were pretty much: 1) We hike cross country to the lake, set up camp, and then hide in our tents the rest of the day; or 2) Hike out the remaining 7 miles to the cars at North lake. I was really very torn between wanting to spend the extra day we had planned out in the back country (albeit suffering somewhat) and erring on the side of caution and just getting the heck out of there. Still fresh in my mind was a very uncomfortable night that I spent in my tent in a brutal sand storm in Big Bend National Park. The conditions here were equally as bad but coupled with colder temperatures. It was 40F and dropping. If we had been mid-trip we obviously would have just hunkered down and ridden out the storm, but we were only 7 miles from our cars over Piute Pass. Ultimately I decided to cast my vote for hiking out. We took a vote and the 'ayes' had it, so we shouldered our packs and headed towards Piute Pass. The more we hiked the more I felt like we had made the right decision. The weather was not improving, but was getting worse. The hail hit harder and the wind blew louder. The scenery was absolutely spectacular in Humphrey's Basin. Very dark clouds were all around us and you could see sheets of hail falling far off over the treeless basin. I would have like to have had some time to explore around in the basin but our goal was the cars. Anthony spied a partially sheltered spot that we could camp at but the horse was smelling the hay in the barn at that point so we pressed on. Finally we got to Piute Pass and posed for some pictures. The wind and the hail made it exceptionally difficult to take pictures. If you look closely in any of our pictures you'll see the grimace on everyone's faces from getting pelted in the face by the hail. We were still holding out hope that the weather on the other side of the pass would be better and that we could find a camp site and still spend our last night on the trail. No such luck. Not only are there no decent camp sites between Piute Pass and North lake, but the weather was just as crummy on the east side as it was on the west side of the pass. On the way down we passed by a group of people with kids and grandparents. We suggested to them that they might want to consider trying to stay on this side of the pass instead of going over it and suffering. They headed up and we beat feet down the trail. Finally after 17 miles and 3,500 feet of elevation gain we rolled into the parking lot at North lake. The hail had stopped and there were breaks in the clouds on this side of the pass, but it was still pretty darn cold. We snapped a photo, loaded up the cars and headed for Bishop. As we rolled into Bishop I started to noticed that I was really hot. We stopped at a gas station to fill up the car and it was positively blazing outside. Turns out it was 80F in Bishop. We hurriedly stripped out of our warm clothes down to shorts and tee shirts and basked in the warmth. The rest of the day involved getting a hotel, grabbing a shower, and eating Mexican food. I ate some very pedestrian fish tacos, but the beer was great!

Saturday morning was a lazy filler day for Tom and I, and a travel day for the rest of the group. We got up in the morning and laid our wet gear out to dry in the sun and eat a little breakfast at the buffet. I also availed myself of the washing machine in the hotel and washed out my clothes. Except for my shirts which I somehow screwed up and didn't put in the machine. After breakfast we checked out and drove to Independence to meet Bill. We found out from Bill that the poor weather we experienced was the ruminants of a hurricane that had hit Mexico and bounced up the coast. A small sliver of the storm had moved across California and went right over the top of us. What luck! We ate lunch at a diner in Independence and then went our separate ways. Tom and I drove to Lone Pine and found a hotel to stay in and then on to Whitney Portal to scout out the section of the Whitney trail that we would be doing in the dark. This turned out to be good idea to scout the first few miles of the trail. In the dark I had a good idea of our progress based on water crossings, and coming down in the afternoon it was nice to know exactly how much further it was to the parking lot. After scouting the trail we drove back to Lone Pine and hit the pizza joint across the street for a couple of calzones. The rest of the evening involved watching the night Richmond race.

Sunday morning we had nothing better to do so I suggested that we go with a plan I thought would be really cool. We drive to Death Valley and hit the lowest point in the country today and then hit the highest point (continental US) the next day. Conveniently, Lone Pine is the turn off to drive to Death Valley any way so it was easy for us to drive there and back. The drive over is fairly interesting as you drive through high desert, through a couple of Death Valley look alikes, and along some pretty fun windy roads. I wanted to take my standard photo at the entrance to the national park but I couldn't find the thing on the way in. Death Valley National Park turned out to be mostly deserted (good pun eh?). I was expecting to see more interesting stuff but the park really lived up to its name. There are some seemingly neat sand dunes that you can see from the side of the road but they are so far away that it was difficult to really appreciate them. So we moved to the park office where we paid our entrance fee and looked through the small museum. It was at the park office where I started to feel funny. I had read about people becoming 'intoxicated' from the oxygen rich air after coming down from high altitudes. So maybe it was all just in my head, but I swear I was feeling a little dizzy. Not dizzy like when up at altitude, but kind of a fuzzy dizzy if that makes any sense. We left the office and drove down to Badwater where the lowest point is. They have a parking lot and a sign marking the "lowest" spot at Badwater. It turns out though that the actual lowest spot, which is 3 feet lower, is actually a few miles out into the desert. We decided that the sign was more than good enough for us and snapped some pictures. The views from here were interesting to say the least. This wasn't desert like you think of with lots of sand. It was like a giant dried up lake bed. Flat as a pancake and featureless as far as you could see until it hit the mountains of the valley. We hopped back into the car and checked out the Devil's golf course (weird) and drove down this painted canyon road, but ultimately I wanted to get back up to altitude before we de-acclimatized. On the way out of the park I spied the national park sign and finally got a picture. We drove back to Lone Pine and spent the afternoon eating pizza and watching football in the same pizza joint from the day before. After dinner we drove up to Whitney portal to claim our camp site for the night. The site I had picked out on the Internet was conveniently located but terrible in that there wasn't a flat surface on it. We talked to the camp host and switched to a smaller flatter site across the road. We watched in amusement at the various people talking to the camp host and buying firewood while we attempted to arrange our stuff for the climb tomorrow and packing for the trip home. We went to bed early in anticipation of our 4AM start and had the pleasure of listening to a group of loud people that rolled in around midnight.

Monday morning (Summit Day) 3AM. The alarm goes off and I am ready to go. We climb out of our tents into the moonless night (of course it was the New Moon that night). The headlamps go on and we pack up our gear into our bags so we don't have to do it after the climb. The stars were shinning brightly and it looked for all the world like we were going to have clear skies at the very least. After the car was loaded we hopped in and drove up to the trailhead and parked. We were not the only ones to start this early, in fact a number of cars were already there. We wouldn't have been there so early either except for the fact that we had to drive all the way back to LA that night after the climb. It was 4AM and we took pictures at the trailhead and set off into the crisp cool night. Climbing in the dark wasn't terribly difficult as the trail is pretty easy to follow. Still I had to stop a couple of times to make sure that I didn't miss a turn or something. We didn't encounter very many other people but every now and then we would catch a glimpse of a headlamp either far up ahead or behind us. The small pinpoints of light looked strange against the utter blackness of the trail. A few miles into the climb we were passed from behind, don't worry though cause I smoked those same guys further up the trail. Finally after 2 hours of fairly monotonous climbing the sun started to come up and we were rewarded with some good alpen glow on the eastern edge of the mountains. The sky was blue as can be and the sun was warming things up very nicely as we continued on up the trail. We strolled into the high camp at 12,000 feet and took a well deserved break. There was a fair amount of people there on a Monday morning, I can only imagine the zoo it must be on an August weekend. The weather at the high camp must be pretty lousy at times as all of the campsites had rock piles built up to shelter each tent spot from the wind. From talking with several people the weather there just the other night was beyond crummy. In fact we might two guys that spent the night in the Smithsonian Hut on top of Whitney when they got stuck in the bad weather up top. Having rested a bit, we set out again. The infamous 96 switchbacks start shortly after 12,000 feet so I woofed down a Clif Bar in anticipation. I don't know if it was the bar or the excitement of the switchbacks but I had a huge burst of energy and flat just started to fly up the switchbacks. I said "see you at the top" to Tom and took off. Full of energy the switchbacks weren't bad at all, of course a week of backpacking prior to tackling them didn't hurt one bit either. I passed a number of people on the switchbacks and finally got some clear sailing. The section with the cables was mostly ice free the 2nd week in September. I got up to Trail Crest and stopped for a break. Wow is the view amazing as you come over the crest! I looked behind for Tom but he was no where in sight. I talked with a guy coming the other way for a little bit, still no Tom, so I got up and kept going. The trail makes a hard right turn at this point and actually loses several hundred feet of precious altitude. You meander along the western side of the ridge ultimately heading towards Whitney. This is a neat section of the trail as you get to see the other side of the spines and can look through cracks in the rocks that drop down a couple thousand feet. There is a short section in this part of the trail that is advertised to be 'narrow' but it was 10 feet wide and no problem whatsoever. I really thought I was flying up the mountain until a couple of JMT through hikers blew past me without their packs on, just like "Bill said"! Finally I could see the Smithsonian hut off in the distance. It was about here at about 14,000 feet that I felt a little wobbly, not too bad but noticeable as I had to concentrate more on balance. And then, 5 hours and 50 minutes from the trailhead I was standing on the summit of Mt. Whitney at 14,496 feet. The views were great and the weather was absolutely perfect. Evidently the reward for suffering through the hurricane. The big entertainment at the top was the marmot and the birds begging for food. About 30 minutes later Tom showed up and we shared our success together at the top. The climb back down can be summarized in one word, long. We ran out of water and filled up in a stream about halfway. My feet and knees were complaining and even though I knew how much longer it would be to get back to the parking lot, it seemed like we would never get there. Thankfully at 4PM we hit the trailhead, 12 hours round trip for 22 miles and 6,000 feet. We had a celebratory beer at the general store, bought our "I climbed Mt Whitney" t-shirts and got ready to drive back to LA. Having done it, I think that the day hike is definitely the way to go. I don't see any advantage to humping all of your gear up the mountain to save a little time on summit day. There is no way I would have wanted to shoulder a heavy load after coming down from the top. In any event, the 4 hour drive back to LA was uneventful and I had enough adrenaline still going to not be sleepy until we hit the hotel.

All in all this was a fantastic trip and I highly recommend either the backpacking loop, Whitney or both.

Mark standing in the parking lot of the beef jerky place on Hwy 395. I wasn't expecting it to be high desert. Mark at the entrance to the Inyo National Forest.
The group at an overlook on the way to the Bristlecone Pines. This was our acclimatization hike. Mark in the Bristlecone Pine forest
This one is the 4,700 year old Methuselah for sure! The view from South Lake looking up towards Bishop Pass.
The group at South Lake right before we started. 9,820 ft. One of the lakes on the way up to Bishop Pass. I think this is Long Lake
Bishop Pass. We're almost there Mark at Bishop Pass looking back down the way we came.
Tom, Warren, Mark and Brad at Bishop Pass - 11,972 ft. This is also the entrance to Kings Canyon National Park. Hiking down the trail into Dusy Basin.
Day #1 campsite - 10,700 ft. Rocks would be a recurring theme at our campsites. Mark overlooking the drop into Le Conte canyon
Taking a break on the way down into the canyon. Warren, Brad, Tom and Mark overlooking the river where it ran down a granite face
Down in Le Conte canyon looking up towards the route to Muir Pass (not visible). Mark at the end of Day #2 looking back the way we came. Ducy basin (from where we came) is in the upper left of the picture.
Day #2 campsite - 10,800 ft. My tent was pretty much on a big rock.. Morning is here. We go up and left. Next stop Muir Pass.
Looking back down the way we came. This is almost to Muir Pass Mark at the hut on Muir Pass. 11,955 ft.
Heading down from Muir Pass looking at McDermand and Wanda Lakes. Are those storm clouds? Yikes those were storm clouds. After getting pummeled by hail we cruise past Sapphire Lake.
Mark overlooking Evolution Valley. Day #3 campsite - 9,600 ft. It pretty much rained all night so this was the meadow the next morning.
Crossing Evolution Creek. This was the only "real" stream crossing. Tom, Brad, Anthony and Warren looking over a falls on the way down out of Evolution Valley.
Mark overlooking Goddard Canyon. Aspens changing colors in Goddard Canyon.
Mark relaxing on a bridge over the Joaquin River. Mark on the summit of an unnamed knob by our campsite on Day 4. 8,400 ft.
From the top of the knob, this is looking up Piute Canyon at our route. Day #4 campsite - 8,050 ft. I was finally able to drive in some tent stakes.
Alpenglow on Pavilion Dome. Anthony leading the way. "Bill said to go this way"
Heading up past Hutchinson Meadow. The dark clouds have returned. This was in the late morning. Mark looking back down Piute Canyon
Anthony leading the way up Humphrey's Basin. The weather was really getting bad now. The group right after we decided to hike out instead of enduring the hail, 40F weather, and 30 mph winds. Looks like everyone is happy with the decision.
Mark in Humphrey's Basin. I was thinking that pizza and beer sounded better than hanging out in my sleeping bag the remainder of the day. Looking up towards Piute Pass.
The weather continues to get worse behind us Looking back towards Summit Lake. Those are sheets of hail falling in the background.
Mark on Piute Pass - 11,423 ft. The wind was howling and the hail was pelting me in the face as this picture was taken. Looking down the canyon towards North Lake (not visible). The weather did not noticeably improve once we crossed the pass.
The group back at our cars at North lake. Mark at the entrance to Death Valley.
Why exactly did we come to Death Valley? Mark on the "summit" of Death Valley (-280 ft) in Death Valley National Park (California) on 9/8/02. This is the lowest point in California, the United States, North America and the Western Hemisphere.
Mt. Whitney from the Whitney Portal road Mark at the Mt Whitney trailhead at 4AM.
Mark overlooking the Alpenglow at sunrise on the Mt Whitney trail. Looking at Mt Whitney from Trail camp at about 12,000 ft. Mt Whitney is the last peak on the right (I think)
Tom on the infamous 96 switchbacks. This is the last I saw of him until the summit The cables on the switchbacks.
Finally the switchbacks are about over. I go through that notch straight ahead. Mark at Trail Crest - 13,600 ft This is also the entrance to Sequoia National Park.
The Smithsonian hut on top of Mt Whitney. Mark on the summit of Mt. Whitney (14,496 ft) in  Sequoia National Park (California) on 9/9/02. A 6,000 foot elevation gain from the trailhead. This is the highest point in California and in the continental United States.
Mark and Tom on the summit of Mt Whitney. Mark at Trail Crest on the way down. This is looking down the trail.
Mark back at the trailhead after 22 miles and 6,000 feet. I felt pretty good all things considered.  


South Lake to North Lake Trail Map - Bishop Pass, Muir Pass, Piute Pass - This map is available full size from Tom Harrison Maps as an excellent shaded-relief topo map

Mt Whitney Trail Topo Map - They sell this map at the Whitney ranger station but quite frankly this scanned version was more than good enough to follow the trail.


Back to the hiking page

 Back to the home page