People often ask me why I like backpacking so much. My answers range from the thoughtful (“I love being entirely self-sufficient, going off the grid, and exploring wilderness areas that few people get to see”) to the sarcastic (“because it feels so good when you take the pack off”). Whatever the reason, I answer nature’s call and leave the City of Good Living to embark on treks through remote areas in the Eastern Sierra. My latest expedition tackled the granddaddy in California: Mt. Whitney. At 14,505 feet, it is the tallest peak in the continental United States. Over 20,000 people attempt the summit every year, and my boyfriend, John, and I recently added our names to the list.
Most hikers start and end at Whitney Portal, west of Lone Pine along Highway 395 in California’s Owens Valley. Hikers using this trail from May 1–November 1 must apply for a permit via a lottery system as the park service has instituted trail quotas to control overuse. The Mt. Whitney trail is 22 miles round trip with over 6,000 feet of elevation gain. Rather than fight the hordes of hikers on that freeway (and avoid the lottery system), we elected to approach Mt. Whitney from the west side at the end of the John Muir Trail, allow plenty of time for acclimating, and see some beautiful terrain along the way.
DAY 1: ACCLIMATION CITY
We dropped our car at Whitney Portal and hired a shuttle to take us to the trailhead at Horseshoe Meadows (9,960 ft.). The driver, Paul, loaded our packs into the back of his ancient Toyota 4Runner and off we went. The first day’s hike took us to Long Lake – the second of four Cottonwood Lakes at 11,000 feet. Conventional wisdom recommends gaining a thousand feet of elevation per day to avoid altitude sickness. The highest elevation I had reached previously was 12,000 feet, and John had a mild headache, so we decided to take it easy the first day.
DAY 2: SALUTING THE FIRST FOURTEENER
Today’s hike took us past High Lake and up the switchbacks of New Army Pass (12,310 ft.). Looming ahead was Mt. Langley, a class II “fourteener” at 14,024 feet. Since we were in the neighborhood, we thought we would drop our packs and bag this peak. After a long, steep scramble we made it to the summit, signed our names in the register, and quickly headed down to escape the fierce winds that threatened to blow us off the top. Packs on our backs once more we continued on to Lower Soldier Lake (10,800 ft.) where we camped for the night after a bone-chilling dip.
DAY 3: BEAUTY AND THE BEAST
The only word to describe this day's hike is epic. We bushwhacked our way to Upper Soldier Lake and into jaw-droppingly beautiful Miter Basin, so named because the main peak resembles a bishop’s hat, or miter. I felt like I was walking into a painting with creeks, waterfalls, and peaks rising up on every side. We heard (but fortunately didn’t see) a pack of howling coyotes as we made our way through the basin toward Crabtree Pass. We lunched at Sky Blue Lake, well above tree line, as dark clouds gathered overhead. We followed cairns (trail markers) as if on a treasure hunt and somehow kept going in the right direction. The rain fell harder as we reached the top of Crabtree Pass (12,560 ft.), and we just had to get over the other side. There was only one problem: the narrow, rocky, slippery trail went straight down, so steeply that I couldn’t see the bottom. With 40 unwieldy pounds on my back, I felt like one slight lean in the wrong direction would launch me into an abyss. There was only one thing to do: put one foot in front of the other and gingerly pick our way down. After a dripping, harrowing eternity, we reached upper Crabtree Lake where a couple was hunkered down in their tent to escape the rain. The guy told us that underneath his tent site someone had scrawled in the sand: “I hate Crabtree pass.” My sentiments exactly. Since our goal was to escape civilization, we continued on to Middle Crabtree Lake and found a perfect campsite with a view of the peaks and lake. That night, as we lay on our backs gazing at the sky and feeling insignificant, we were treated to a dazzling display of stars, galaxies, and satellites.
DAY 4: THE SHIRE TO MORDOR
Today’s hike took us below tree line and through alpine meadows and ponderosa pine forests. After a steady diet of granite, it was a welcome sight. Our next stop was the Crabtree Ranger Station to find out about the possible Whitney trail closures that we had heard rumors about. According to Ranger Rob, crews were working on the east side of the trail, and hikers were subject to delays. At Crabtree we also picked up our “WAG bags” for disposal of all human waste. The Whitney Zone motto is “one person’s toilet is another person’s backyard.” Pack it out – no exceptions. We pushed ahead to Guitar Lake (11,400 ft.) where we would camp before making our grand ascent of Mt. Whitney the next day. Once again the rain took no mercy on us as we climbed through ever more barren and inhospitable terrain. The rain turned to hail and I swore I saw the eye of Sauron glaring down from Mt. Doom as we struggled to pitch our tent and escape the elements. At least 25 people were camped at Guitar Lake including Brad and Elliot from Southern California. They were halfway through a ten-day trek and looked like they could use a few more groceries. We had extra food that we were glad to unload, so they gratefully took it all and we banked some backpacker’s karma. That night the alpenglow cast a purple sheen on the lake right before lights out at 8:30pm.
DAY 5: TOP OF THE WORLD
We awoke at 4:15am and hurriedly donned headlamps and broke camp in the pre-dawn darkness. I could see the lights of hikers ahead of us bobbing along the switchbacks up the granite peaks to Trail Crest, about two hours and 2,200 feet of climbing ahead of us. We gladly dropped our packs at Trail Crest and continued the last 1.9 miles to the summit. The sun occasionally peeked through the high clouds, but the brisk air reminded us that 14,000-foot peaks make their own weather patterns. There is a stone hut at the summit built by the Smithsonian Institution in 1909 after a climber was killed by lightning in 1904. Ironically, it has a metal roof which makes it a lightning magnet and the absolute last place you would go to for shelter. Go figure. The view from the summit, however, was spectacular. I truly felt like I was on top of the world. We lingered long enough for photos and then hurried down because the weather looked like it might change for the worst at any moment. We grabbed our packs at Trail Crest and then waited for two hours until the trail maintenance crew took their lunch break. Ahead of us was an eight and a half-mile, 6,500-foot descent consisting of 99 switchbacks and rough, rocky terrain. At about switchback #12, it started to rain, and continued raining and gusting for the next three hours. The rain made the granite slick, so our downward progress was slow. I thought the trail would never end, but eventually we saw the roof of the Whitney Portal store peeking through the trees, and soon a cold beer was in my hands and a tired smile was on my face. Total numbers for the day: 15 miles, 3,300 feet up, 6,500 feet down, and 9 hours on the trail.
Every trip I take has its “serentripity” moments where unexpected delights occur that take your experience to another level. Backpacking has frequent moments of personal discomfort contrasted with profound beauty and serenity. The lows make you appreciate the highs that much more. This trip was no exception. It gave us a just-waning full moon that cast its eerily bright light every evening; night after night of infinitesimal heavens in ink black sky; bats doing aerial acrobatics at dusk as they chased bugs on the surface of Long Lake; and the deep satisfaction from pushing yourself to the limit and finding that you are stronger than you thought you were.
IF YOU GO
Inyo National Forest – Mt. Whitney trail information
Mt. Whitney permit lottery – opens February 1 for hikers starting and ending at Whitney Portal
East Side Sierra Shuttle – ask for Paul