Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Mt. Whitney's Revenge

Me, at the Trail Crest
A good epic should be written in heroic verse; barring that, it should at least begin in medias res. So let me begin this one as I slowly wend my way up Forester Pass. We have left the tree line long behind, and the group leaders have left me long behind. I am alone with my thoughts, which at this point are so fatigued they consist solely of concentrating on putting one foot in front of the other. A stranger overtakes me on the trail, his gear packed high on two donkeys. He quips as he walks by:

“I thought I was hauling ass up this mountain, then I looked around and realized I was hauling two!” 
Guy hauling asses.
(photo by Carl Ashcroft)

He chuckles at his own bon mot, then continues on his way.

At Forester Pass
A crowd is gathered at the top of the pass. As I draw near I can hear young voices shouting “Hammer, Hammer, Hammer.” I’m simultaneously irritated and grateful. I wearily wave my trekking pole and ease my pack off as I get to the top of the pass, nearly 13,200 feet above sea level. I feel like I’ve accomplished something, and even though it’s only Wednesday, it’s hard to remember back to Monday when this whole adventure began.

Monday, July 6. 

Jocularity at the trailhead,
unaware of what horrors await.
(photo by Carl Ashcroft)
We gathered at the church at 5 a.m., a motley group of noble, self-sacrificing men, and scruffy boys, including Carl Ashcroft (bishop of our congregation), his son Henry, 14, and nephew Sol, 15; Martin Tall and his son Christian, 14; Brandon Bryson and his son Canyon, 16; Erich Heston and his son Adam, 14; Cameron Penner, 17; our fearless leader John Aedo, Robert Fox, and me.

You might wonder how I came to join this group. For a few years I had been one of the leaders of the Young Men’s program at church, in charge of the 14 and 15 year-old boys, and had long been pushing a backpacking trip in the High Sierra as a perfect High Adventure activity (the summer adventure for the older Scouts). John Aedo, our Scout Committee Chairman, picked up the idea and ran with it, planning training hikes and dealing with logistics. So even though I was released from my Young Men’s calling late last year (in the LDS church one gets “called” to certain leadership positions, and eventually “released”) the plans for the this trip were already in motion and I didn’t want to be the instigator of something and then not follow through with it. So Reason 1 for why I was there was because I started it. Reason 2 was because I had long wanted to do an extended backcountry trip, but knew I would never undertake such a trip on my own. So even though I was theoretically there for the boys, I was really there for me.

But why Mt. Whitney? Surely there were closer, easier hikes to do? Again, I came up with the idea to do Whitney, partly for personal reasons. I had summited Whitney as a 12-year-old Boy Scout in 1979. Sick and miserable, I made it to the top mostly through the coaxing and cajoling of my Scoutmaster, the awesome Roger Gunson. On that trip we had camped two nights on the trail and summited on the third day. Years later, I attempted a single-day ascent of Whitney with my brother and uncle. On that trip I had allowed myself to get dehydrated, which, coupled with intense altitude sickness, prevented me from reaching the top. So I wanted another crack at it. I figured several days at altitude in the backcountry would help me acclimate. It did, but I hadn’t counted on the extreme exhaustion and wacky weather that would ultimately doom this latest attempt to summit the mountain. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Bear canisters. (photo by John Aedo)
We were on the road by 5:30. Some three hours later we pulled into the Oak Flat entrance of Yosemite National Park, where we had to stop and rent bear canisters. Back in the day, backpackers hung their food from trees to keep it away from bears, but that is not deemed sufficient these days, so hikers are required to pack all their food in these cylindrical canisters. (Side note: we neither saw nor heard from a single bear the entire time we were in the back country, but my back may never recover from the added weight of the bear can).

We continued through Yosemite, over Tioga Pass, onto Highway 395 and, after a brief stop for lunch in Bishop, down into Independence. Our hike was to start at Onion Valley, located some 12 miles to the west of Independence at an elevation of roughly 9,000 feet. We still had to get permits and “wag bags” (more on those later) in Lone Pine and leave two vehicles at Whitney Portal (our exit point), so with all the car shuttling and delays we didn’t actually begin our hike until after 5 p.m.

Our first day’s hike was deliberately short. We figured hiking only two miles on the first day would help us acclimate and be ready for a more strenuous hike the next day. A light rain at the trailhead foreshadowed what was to come.

We made camp at Gibson Lake. The strategy laid out by Aedo was to cook and store our bear canisters away from camp, thus lessening the likelihood of a bear encounter. As we pitched tents and prepared dinner, we realized that Erich Heston, who had been struggling, still had not made it to camp. After 9 p.m., Heston finally came into camp, pitched his tent, and went right to bed. The altitude had affected him in a way he hadn’t expected. He hoped to be well enough to continue the next day.

Tuesday, July 7. 

Before setting out each day, the plan was to have a spiritual thought, a prayer, and a safety briefing from Aedo. Today, we were told, would be brutal. Two miles up to Kearsarge Pass (at 11,800 feet, a 1,400-foot gain in elevation over our campsite), then several miles downhill into Kings Canyon National Park, followed by a bit of uphill toward the end. Eight miles total.

Erich Heston still was not feeling good, and he made the decision to turn back. Aedo and Ashcroft, two of the strongest, fittest hikers, would leave their packs at Gibson Lake (guarded by Robert Fox) and escort him back to the trailhead, then the three of them (Aedo, Ashcroft and Fox) would catch up with us at our campsite.

“Brutal” was an understatement. I decided my best strategy was to go steady and slow. We rose slowly beyond Gibson Lake, looking down on glacier-cut valleys and crystal clear high country lakes and streams. Even the jaded teenagers were stunned at the beauty of what we saw. “Good job, Heavenly Father,” I heard one say.

Kearsarge Pass
It quickly became apparent that I would be bringing up the rear. Luckily there was usually someone who wanted or needed to hang back with me, so I was never really alone. But there was always a front group of stronger hikers who had to wait a long time for those of us at the rear to catch up. By the time we arrived they were champing at the bit to move forward. So as we finally came to the top of Kearsarge Pass, the front group was ready to move out, leaving me with Henry, Sol, and the Talls to rest a bit and then continue. For reasons best explained by Henry, he and Sol and I stayed at the pass for another 10 minutes or so after the Talls left.

So here’s where things get tricky. As we came down from the pass into a tree-studded valley, we came to a trail junction. I had misjudged the distance and thought it was a different junction and so took the wrong trail. I double and triple-checked the map and was sure we were headed the right way, so away we went. About a mile or so later I realized my mistake, but also realized that a) I didn’t want to go back to where we had strayed and b) if we stayed on our current course the trails would eventually merge and we would meet up with the others.

Cameron, carrying my pack
Soon, looking down below, we saw the other trail, skirting the edge of Bullfrog Lake, and saw the rest of our group relaxing, waiting for us. Before I could suggest just staying on our current path, certain young men who shall remain nameless started overland, down the steep mountain. So I started down with them. It was steep, but doable. I found out later, though, that from below our hillside looked almost vertical, and our downward slip-slide must have seemed suicidal. When the other group saw us they got a little alarmed. Canyon and Cameron started up to meet us, and insisted on taking my pack. Part of me was annoyed that these teenage punks thought I was so old and decrepit that I needed help with my pack. The other part of me secretly was glad to let them take it.

Martin with his prize
At Bullfrog Lake the group was finishing lunch, and Martin and Christian had started fishing. Christian has become an avid fisherman this year, and it’s impressive to see his enthusiasm. He and his father both caught some brook trout at Bullfrog Lake.

Christian demonstrates his gutting
technique to Canyon and Sol

Soon enough we started out again. Shortly after Bullfrog Lake the trail dropped and joined with the John Muir Trail. As we descended the trees became thicker and the ground cover more lush and green. We met another LDS group that was also headed to Whitney. They were from Minnesota: a father, two sons and a cousin. We would leapfrog with them the rest of the trip.

I managed to keep up with the group through most of the downhill portion, but eventually the trail started to climb again, and I started to feel tired, sick, and miserable. Much of that was psychological, I’m sure. The closer we got to our destination, the longer it seemed to take, and the heavier my pack seemed to feel. It didn’t help that my pack never quite fit me right.

It also didn’t help that we overshot our target by a mile or two, turning our 8-mile hike into a 10 miler. By the time we made camp that night, on a high, grassy plateau, I was ready to throw in the towel. I convinced myself that come hell or high water I would turn around the next day and find my way back to Onion Valley. I reasoned that 12 miles of pain back to the trailhead was better than 30 miles of pain up and over Whitney. That night, as my body decompressed from the day’s efforts, I began to shiver uncontrollably. Dinner was unappetizing and I just wanted to crawl into my sleeping bag and die.

Wednesday, July 8. 

Aedo, Ashcroft and Fox made it into camp around 11:30 p.m. Tuesday night. When I woke up Wednesday morning and recognized how hard their day had been, I felt a little ashamed. Everyone can only do what they can do, but I realized that I was not the only one feeling overwhelmed and sick. Plus, that morning, I was feeling pretty good, but not good enough to choke down the dehydrated scrambled eggs I had brought for breakfast.

Our goal that day was to hike over Forester Pass, at 13,200 feet, then down to Tyndall Creek in Sequoia National Park. Like Kearsarge, Forester Pass was another long switchback-filled journey up above the tree line, through country studded by high alpine lakes, waterfalls, and streams. The view from Forester Pass was stunning. On the Sequoia side we looked straight down a steep cliff onto a golden landscape that would have reminded me of the high desert Owens Valley, if not for all the lakes and streams. After a total hike of around eight miles, we made camp at Tyndall Creek. Again, I felt cold and sick and might not have eaten at all, if John Aedo hadn’t taken it upon himself to bring some food to me in my tent.

Thursday, July 9. 

Our goal that day was Guitar Lake at the base of Mt. Whitney, about a 12-mile hike. We broke camp and got another late start, about 9 a.m. and made good time for the first three or four miles. Then it started hailing. Well, it was snow shaped like Dippin Dots. Do you call that snow or hail? At any rate, it was chunky and icy, but at least it wasn’t rain. But it fell fast and hard, and then would abruptly clear up and we would go from freezing cold to sunny and warm.

(Photo by John Aedo)
About midday we stopped for lunch at the edge of a creek. Soon the snow stopped and the sun came out and Aedo broke out his fishing pole. Interesting time to do some fly fishing, I thought, but as I watched he gently swished out his line and presented a fly on the stream surface, like a waiter serving a hungry patron a bowl of soup. Soon enough he landed a golden trout. It was small, but impressed me nonetheless. He had caught a couple goldens the day before at Tyndall, but I hadn’t seen them. Today was the first time I had ever seen a golden trout. It almost made me want to break out my pole as well.

Frequently as we hiked we came across other hikers who seemed unnaturally happy. We encountered one such gentleman a couple miles from Guitar Lake. He was an older man, perhaps early 60s, with a ruddy face, a full head of white hair, wearing shorts and sporting a northeastern accent. We were the first people he’d talked to in three days, and he was very chatty. One delightful bit of news he gave us was that we could count on good weather the next day. We didn’t know whether we could believe him, but it was good news. He wished us luck and cheerfully headed off, while I hefted my hip belt and vowed to soldier on.

Soon enough we crossed into the Whitney Zone, which had grave implications in the poop department.

A word about poop. Whitney is a very popular trail, and poop management has always been a problem. When I was a kid I remember a few scattered and poorly maintained outhouses along the eastern trail. But those outhouses are no more. Nowadays they expect campers to do their business in a “wagbag,” which contains some sort of NASA-developed substance called “Poo Powder” that supposedly deodorizes waste and turns it into a gel, which you then must pack out with you. This is exactly as gross as it sounds.

Understand, pooping in the wild can be a harrowing experience in the best of circumstances, especially if you are a citified soul with poorly-developed squatting muscles (pro tip: find a good steady rock to lean against). The tendency is to delay the action as long as possible. Add to that the nasty fact that the outdoor ethic already demanded that we keep and pack out our used toilet paper, now we were also being required to pack out our poop as well. Most disturbing.

Theoretically, one wag bag is good for multiple uses, a datum we were not keen to put to the test.

So Aedo announced we had one last chance to do our business as God intended, and then it was into the Whitney Zone.

We camped Thursday night by the shores of Guitar Lake at the base of Whitney. The boys had picked out a prime spot for me to pitch my tent, which was nice. I vacillate between annoyance and delight at their tendency to coddle my vast age and decrepitude. Once again, it was cold, and I went into my nightly case of the shakes and shivers and sought refuge in my sleeping bag well before dark.

That evening a stranger came into our camp, a young woman whom we came to know as Lily from Pasadena. Somehow she had managed to get all of her gear soaking wet, and as night and sub-freezing temperatures approached she found herself in dire straits. She needed help, badly. Aedo and Brandon Bryson brought her tent into our camp and took charge of finding her dry clothes, getting her warm food and making makeshift hot water bottles to help her get warm. She stayed with us all night and hiked with us part of the next day. She was not really a believer in God, but was curious about this strange group she had encountered, and on the trail Bryson took the opportunity to tell her about the church. If she had not found help she could very well have died Thursday night as the temperature dipped below freezing. The fact that she found us would seem to be either remarkably good luck, or divine intervention. We choose to believe the latter. As they parted ways, Brandon told her that her Heavenly Father knows her and loves her and that it was no coincidence that she came into our camp.

Friday, July 10. 

Friday morning we awoke to a thick layer of frost covering every tent. Still, we felt remarkably chipper, but the cold and frost kept us from getting as early a start as we would have liked. We hit the trail by 9 a.m.

Christian and Martin hike up the west side of Whitney
from Guitar Lake
Once again, as with Kearsarge and Forester, we were faced with a daunting trail full of switchbacks up to a high mountain pass, this time with the added benefit of several inches of snow. But the morning was sunny and bright and as we climbed we could look out at mountain vistas extending to the western horizon. It was awesome and huge, and made each of us feel small. Small, but special, because very few people in this country are privileged to see that sight.

By noon we made it to the trail crest where the rest were waiting. The summit of Whitney was shrouded in fog, and it was significantly cooler at the trail crest than it had been earlier in the day. From here, it was another 1.9 miles to the summit.

Adam, who turned 14 on Friday, celebrates his birthday
on top of the world.
Robert Fox and I had already decided that not only would we not be going to the summit, we would probably hike the 8.7 miles to the trailhead instead of staying one more night on the trail. Fox had not been sleeping well (nor had I, come to think of it) and the fact that we had packed our gear away wet made camping another night an unpleasant prospect. At that point, though, the plan was for the rest of the group to spend one more night on the trail.

But the weather was looking ominous. While five of the group continued to the summit, Fox and I decided to head down, taking with us Cameron (who was feeling sick), Henry and Sol. Carl Ashcroft and John Aedo would follow shortly. When we left the trail crest and headed down the eastern side of the mountain we entered a world of fog and shadow, as if the mountain itself had physically decided to separate us from the sunshine.

The trail down from the crest is known as the 99 switchbacks, which snake down the side of the mountain, ending at the upper trail camp. As we headed down through some of the most breathtaking country this side of Heaven, it began to snow again, followed by bursts of hail. As we got lower, the hail/snow settled into a relentless rain. It soon became obvious that making the group camp in that weather (especially since our gear was already wet from the night before) would not really benefit anybody, so we decided to hike all the way out.

An 8.7 mile hike never seems to end, especially when your pack is ill-fitting and it’s raining. Amazingly, as soon as Cameron, Henry and Sol realized we would be hiking all the way down, they took off and we soon lost sight of them. They beat Robert and me to Whitney Portal by about an hour and a half. Robert and I continued to slog ahead, through bouts of rain, and finally emerged, wet and bedraggled, about 7:30.

There’s a store and grill at Whitney Portal that will sell you a burger and fries combo for $9.95. Never has an overpriced burger tasted so good. When the rest of the group emerged sometime after 9 p.m. we piled into the cars and headed out. A warm motel room awaited us in Bishop.

No comments: