October 1 Whitney Portal Tent Campground: For Hikers Only!
I was on the road at 4am today and I reached the Visitors Center south of Lone Pine at 12:30 this afternoon. Not bad time. Of course I’ve never made that specific drive before and much of it was on two lane curvy roads. Thank the universe for Dramamine! And the sweet, smart man who picked it up for me. I took two tablets last night before I went to bed and it worked wonders today. I had a lot of anxiety about getting a permit for much of the drive; that and the weather. I ended up getting a permit for a day hike; 22 miles and a little over 6,000 feet in gain. I was planning on camping overnight in the Mt. Whitney Zone, but since weather will be coming in I decided to do the whole hike in one day. Oh boy. I plan on getting up in the middle of the night to start hiking. There are supposed to be snow showers with periods of sun tomorrow. I should be fine. I am prepared with clothing and snacks and I’ll bring my stove, cook pot and sleeping bag for emergency purposes. I usually don’t “what if” with gear but since my bag will be super light, and the possibility of unpredictable weather, I feel alright with that decision. Also the idea of making some hot coco on the summit is enticing.
October 2 Lone Pine
12:30 am came pretty fast especially considering I could not fall asleep until 10pm or so. Ugh. I woke minutes before my alarm was supposed to go off and soon I was packing up my tent and walking my gear over to the car. There was a bear box next to the car and I got my bear can put to make breakfast. I quickly heated up some water for oatmeal and packed up my pack. I decided against the sleeping bag to save on weight and compromised by taking my stove and cook pot with an image of me sitting on the summit making hot coco.
It was 1:15am when I took a selfie next to the Mt. Whitney Trail sign. I slurped down a Gu packet and was off. I could see the headlamps of some hikers coming down the trail. As I passed them they seemed tired. I wondered what I would feel like on my way down.
Soon I caught up to some other hikers heading up who also left early. I chatted with a man from Beijing and it was fun to talk about that city for a bit. His group stopped for a break and I kept going.
The clouds started to move in and the moon ducked in and out of them. I could see the muted, dark shapes of massive slabs of rock all around me. I could no longer hear the hikers behind me, and once I had been hiking for about an hour and a half I was completely alone in the dark and it was silent. I reached a plateau of sorts and turned off my headlamp for a few minutes. I felt so completely removed from my life that it did not even cross my mind. I was just another mammal in the woods. I was nameless. I was a cougar walking in the dark trying to catch the light of the moon.
I reached the first camping area allowed in the Whitney Zone. There were a number of dark tents on both sides of the trail. I tried to be quiet and held my trekking poles in my hand as I passed.
I began climbing again and for the next two hours I followed a distant headlamp up the mountain.
I took a break finally and filled my water bottles as I ate a ProBar. As soon as I unwrapped the bar a mouse darted out from under a rock and sat down right in front of me, looking up at me. I was delighted and rewarded this brave being with a crumb of ProBar. I know, it’s not good to feed wild animals but this little creature was no stranger to human food. It quickly ate the crumb and ran back under it’s rock. Well done little one. I started to recite my favorite poem To A Mouse but stopped myself when I realized that this mouse was not “cowran” or “tim’rous” but a right assertive little mouse. Everyone evolves.
I got to the second camp and this time the tents were glowing with headlamps. I kept going, and looked up, up, way up to see a couple of headlamps. Wow, I thought. That is very far up.
And I kept going, after another small break.
This was right around the time it started snowing. And then the wind picked up. Up and up I went following the switchbacks, some of which were carved into the side of the mountain with dynamite.
The snow came and went and soon I was at the top of the ridgeline. Dawn broke and I took photos. I felt like I was crawling on the spine of some kind of ancient, avuncular being from another dimension. Or another time. The earth is alive, very alive, and when I am high enough, remote enough, alone enough, the essence of this life manifests itself in my imagination. That’s as real as life gets.
As these thoughts crossed my
mind I left the Mt. Whitney Trail and joined up with the John Muir Trail. I was now on the summit ridge, about 800 feel below and two miles from the summit. More photos. Dark, dark clouds rolled in and the snow came back with the wind. I remembered the sign at the trail junction. It said something to the effect of, if you see dark clouds, hear thunder, lightning, snow, ice, turn around now. I continued on for a bit and saw another hiker in front of me. He was stopped. I approached him and he asked if I was going to continue on. I said yes, and he nodded and kept going. I realized that when I said yes, it came out kind of muffled and I realized my face was frozen. After a bit longer, I stopped again and felt something on the back of my neck. I thought, what the heck is that? Then I heard a humming, kind of like power lines. Awwww, dang. I looked up and saw dark clouds. And that was when I turned around.
I’m not fearful of much in the backcountry but lightning is another story. And since I had no way of knowing what weather would roll in next, and that getting off this mountain was a time consuming process, I did not want to gamble.
I encountered a number of hikers during the course of my return hike, some going the same direction as me who had also turned around. The hikers going up asked me about conditions and I told them. Everyone has a different threshold as to their safety.
I took my time hiking down and stopped often to watch the clouds and sit in the sun when it appeared. The snow had turned into occasional rain which I was ok with. I had borrowed Keith’s rain jacket and I’m so glad I did. It kept me warm and dry and my wool base layers were dry. My Smartwool PhD running tights performed admirably, per usual. I remember glissading down Forester Pass on the PCT wearing these babies and although they got wet, I was warm and felt dry. Same as today. By the time I got to my car they were completely dry.
As I neared m car it dawned on me that this day was probably one of the best days ever hiking. Very few days come close to the scenery, the cool hikers I met, the conditions, my good decision making.
Decision making. This one is important for me. For so many years I failed miserably at decision making. Of course I was active in my addictions and alcoholism so making solid decisions was not a reality for me. When I got sober and learned how to make good decisions for myself, with the help of some stellar professionals, my confidence bloomed and that was right around the time I got serious about hiking and backpacking.
And everything changed for me.
It continues to change.
I made the decision to turn around and so was ok with it. I wasn’t so invested in the summit that I was ready to sacrifice my decision making skills to achieve it. This is quite a revelation for me and I am not surprised that it happened on trail.
I drove down to Lone Pine and got a motel room with a free breakfast. That is a must for me. I went out and got a burger. Back to the room for a shower. I talked to Keith and my mom and around 7pm I crashed hard until 6:30am. After breakfast I hit the road, looking longingly at Whitney but also knowing that I’ll be back.
I stopped off at Travertine Hot Springs outside of Bridgeport for a quick soak; it felt good to be in hot springs. Everything felt good even though I was very sore.
And then the next thing I knew I was home. What a grand day out.