Ascent of Mount Whitney on 2011-09-10

Climber: Matthew Gray

Others in Party:Lawrence Gray
David Gray
Michael Gray
Stephen Gray
Date:Saturday, September 10, 2011
Ascent Type:Successful Summit Attained
Peak:Mount Whitney
    Elevation:14498 ft / 4418 m

Ascent Trip Report

Mt. Whitney 2011

Some say, why climb the highest mountain? Why make this our goal? We all know about the 25 years leading up to this trip and how dad’s Sierra cup had been on top of Mt. Whitney when our Sierra cups had not. Somewhere towards the latter part of that 25 year period, I decided I wanted to climb all 50 state highpoints, Mt. Whitney obviously being one of the more notable ones. At 14,505 feet, an elevation gain of over 6100 feet, and a round trip hiking distance of 22 miles, it is regarded as the 5th – 8th most difficult highpoint depending on how much weight is given to hiking distance, technical skills required, and other considerations. Being California though, getting to the summit isn’t just a question of good weather and being in shape, you also have to cut through a bunch of red tape. Beginning with the lottery process and ‘ending’ with the WAG bag, it can be a messy ordeal.
We did five lottery submissions with a prioritized list of dates we had worked out together. We got four rejection letters and things were looking bleak until one night, I noticed my credit card had been charged $75 by the Inyo National Forest Service. We were in! I’m pretty sure it was the last date on our list, Sept 10th.
Due to vacation time availability, school schedules and other constraints, our plan was to get to the Whitney Portal Campground on Sept 8th, acclimate that evening and the following day, and bomb the entire mountain in an extreme day hike on the 10th.
The day before arriving in CA for Whitney 2011, Erin and I had finished hiking the top to bottom route of the Narrows in Zion National Park. It was awesome to be together for a day and a half in the beautiful southern Utah slot canyon. The hike (and in some areas, the swim) of a lifetime exceeded the major build-up and ravings of previous hikers. This write-up isn’t about the Narrows but it did give us additional preparation in long distance backpacking and no facilities bio-breaks.
Shortly after arriving in Burbank, CA, Step-hen and Big Sauce shuttled me to DeBell Country Club for a pre-Whitney round of golf. Before you go “Ooh, a country club, going all out” - it was called “DeBell” because there was ‘de’ bell you could ring near the clubhouse. It was a little warm (102F) but Zion’s was in the 100’s so I felt acclimated to that aspect already (Zion’s is less than an hour from St. George and I don’t think I’ve ever been in St. George during the day when it wasn’t over 100). In typical Step-hen fashion, I was equipped with the latest in golf club technology, three sizes of shoes to choose from, and a dozen balls. The round was a ton of fun – mostly because I got to hang with Big Sauce and Step-hen but also because of the extreme doglegs. My first two shots went out of bounds (new clubs excuse), giving me a 10 on the first hole. However, I started playing really well (for me anyway) and managed to shoot an estimated 88 (I had to skip 5 holes for a work call).
We then went to Step-henson’s Ranch where I got to meet ‘Anna-Ellie’ for the first time. She was such a pleasant little cutie. We got to read some pirate books, play Three Little Pigs (complete with stick and stone houses) and be amazed by Carterio’s vast knowledge of dinosaurs. Step-hen and Jonellie provided wonderful hospitality and treated us to an extravagant last meal. We also got an appreciation for all the time and effort Step-hen put in getting the food. There were a ton of things to think about and he somehow got it all ready in the busy days leading up to the trip.
Before turning in for the night, Smeagol and I busted out the chess sets he’d stashed in his luggage and played a few late night games of speed chess while Big Sauce crashed in his Big Agnes sleeping bag (he got less than 4 hours of sleep the night before).
The following day, we put all the food and gear together, loaded up the car and made the 4 hour drive straight into the desert. Along the way, we saw a few more lame CA cell phone towers – painted green and disguised to resemble palm trees. I fell asleep for part of it and woke up, hoping we’d lopped off a good chunk of the trip, only to realize I’d only been asleep for 15 minutes. As we got closer to Lone Pine, we identified several “false summits” only to round a bend and see a taller group of mountains behind it.
Finally, we made it to Lone Pine and went to the ranger station to pick up the official signed permit. The situation reminded me a little of Seinfeld’s “Soup Nazi” because there was a definite series of actions required for success. The people were actually fairly nice but you didn’t want to push it or do something wrong to elicit a “No permit for you!” declaration. At one point, Smeagol came over and started putting in his two cents and I was nervous because we all know he can be a little black and white when just the right touch of Gray was required in this situation.
The permit we won in the lottery was only a day pass to enter the Whitney Zone. In the weeks leading up to the trip, Dad’s research suggested that camping further up the trail could provide better opportunities for acclimation and summit success. We were fortunate to be able to exchange our day pass for an overnight one.
At the ranger station, we got our summit paraphernalia, our WAG bags, a rented bear canister and located which of the peaks was actually Mt. Whitney. It turned out that Mt. Whitney doesn’t look like the highest peak because it was so far behind all of the summits that were nearer to Lone Pine.
After the ranger station, we loaded up on calories at the Alabama Hills Café and then drove up to the Whitney Portal Campground. It is a nice campground with a creek running right down the middle of it. The sites are packed together and each is equipped with a large bear-proof metal box for storing food.
After setting up camp, we decided to do a short hike through the Alabama Hills, which are an interesting conglomeration of granite boulders at the foothills of the Sierras. There are many named shapes within these hills but one of the most well-known is “The Arch”. It is about a mile off the road so we all thought our Keene’s would be sufficient for the short trek. About 100 yards in, we realized that we should have laced up the hiking boots. The terrain was desert with scrub, cactus and a dried-out crumbly sand-gravel and we all endured the rest of the hike with a constant grouping of pebbles in our sandals. About ¾ of a mile in, we saw a small opening in a rock up on the hills but thought it was too small to be the arch. Also, the guidebook we were using was one hill off in where it had marked the location of the arch. After scouring most of the nearby hills, we finally concluded that the hole we saw must be the arch and we went back to it. We got a few interesting pictures, including a shot of Mt. Whitney, framed by the arch itself.
Back at camp, we started cooking dinner and began our bug-house marathon. Though bug-house is a four-player variation of chess, “the bees” thought it was something that they should be involved in. As soon as our cooked foil dinners were opened, the bees invited themselves and all of their friends over for the feast. At one point, it was so bad that we ate part of our meal in the car. Eventually the bees went to bed and we enjoyed our meals in peace.
In bug-house, Step-hen and I started out strong against Smeagol and Big Sauce (Dad wasn’t there yet) but eventually the house of cards fell and we couldn’t buy a win. We were so engrossed in the games that we didn’t even notice Dad driving up, backing in and out of the cramped parking stall, and then standing behind us for a few minutes.
The next morning, our camp neighbors informed us that a black bear had been sniffing around the cars and dumpsters right next to our campsite. Fortunately, we didn’t get to know the bear personally. After breakfast, we strapped on our gear and headed up the path toward Meysan Lakes for a shakedown hike. We went up a relatively steep trail for about 2.5 miles to 9000 ft and stopped for a trail lunch. The hike gave us some really nice views of Lone Pine Peak and the surrounding area. We also had a chance to discuss some intricacies of the various hobbies we are currently involved in. It was a fun short hike that served to test out our gear and pacing.
After linner (3 pm dinner), we tried to clear the system since the lack of a single bathroom on the trial and the restriction against leaving anything behind meant the use of “WAGs”. I personally resolved to avoid going #2 for the next day and a half so I wouldn’t have to face the discomfort of a battlefield bathroom break. For anyone having such ambitions, I now say “let it go.” About 2/3 the way down the mountain and with my lower back killing for no explainable reason, I found I would have to face my fear. I located a peaceful spot overlooking a beautiful meadow and my back pain immediately went away.
Leaving camp, we started up what we thought was the Whitney Trail. We walked through the campground along the creek for about a mile and reached… ...the start of the Whitney Trail! We should have realized this because we had heard about a store being at the trailhead but we hadn’t seen a store since Lone Pine. What’s one more uphill mile among 11 others? We weighed our packs at the new trailhead and continued our march. We met several people on their way down from the summit. The first few people were men in their 30s in pretty good shape. Each successive group we came across seemed a little slower and less fit than the previous one. The worst example was when we were all the way to Outpost Camp at 10,500 feet. Just before turning in, we saw a few stragglers stumble through camp, visibly exhausted from however far they had made it and with several miles to go before reaching the bottom. We were glad we decided not to do the extreme day hike.
We eventually reached Lone Pine Lake Campground and took a break to enjoy the scene. Finally, we hiked another relatively flat mile to Outpost Camp. There were a lot of people already there but we found a good spot, made dinner (fajitas without tortillas and a few other Mountain House meals), re-filled our water and went to bed. Breathing in the 10,500 foot air for the night was an important acclimation step.
We got up around 3:30am and hit the trail again around 4am. The stretch from Outpost Camp to Trail Camp was an unanticipated difficult section of trail. After reaching the summit, I felt like this was the hardest section of the trail. It covers about a third of the hiking time from Outpost Camp to the Summit and it is like climbing up a bunch of granite angled steps that seem to never end. I realized that granite is slightly magnetic (tiny granite pebbles kept sticking to a magnet I had on my camelpack) so you are basically walking for miles on very hard rock that is reinforced with iron. After a while, it grinds you down because it is so unforgiving. I think we were doing about 40 minute miles. Smeagol, Step-hen and Dad probably could have gone faster but the pace was plenty fast for me. Big Sauce was breathing about twice as hard as everyone else but he seemed to be slugging through amazingly well. I remember a couple of times after our breaks, he would start out again at a strong clip and I was thinking he was doing better than I was!
At about 11,500 feet, I started feeling the altitude with the classic slight headache in the lower back of my head and slight nausea. I remember thinking that I still had another 3000 feet to go and altitude effects don’t get any better as you go up. What had I done wrong in my preparation? I’d hiked through the Narrows earlier that week, we slept at slight elevation at Whitney Portal, we’d done a shakedown hike, and we’d slept at 10,500 feet at Outpost Camp. We were trying to squeeze the hike in over a weekend but how much acclimating did I need? Part of the problem was probably trying to have breakfast on the trail. There wasn’t really a better option since busting out cooking gear in the dark at 3:30am next to a bunch of other campers wasn’t really feasible. So, I kept sipping water continuously and trudged on. The modest pace and short breaks kept it from getting any worse and finally, after a nice break at Trail Camp (lying on my back!), I was feeling pretty good.
Next, we faced the 99 switchbacks that lead to Trail Crest. Looking up from Trail Camp, you can see a stream of headlamps all along the switchbacks since it was still dark at that point. Looking at how high above us some of the lights were, it felt like we had a long way to go. However, for me, the switchbacks turned out to be pretty easy. The path was a sloped trail with only a single granite step or two at the top of each switchback. It started to get light partway up but it also started to get colder. The ¼ inch of snow that had fallen the night before was still on the ground and I had to choose between frozen hands and using my trekking poles.
Getting to Trail Crest reminded me a lot of the Keyhole on Longs Peak. It is very windy until you get past the opening. The view opens up to several beautiful mountains in the Sequoia National Forest on the other side. The sunlight gives the mountains a sort of dull copper color that made me think of the mountains visible from the Keyhole. We got a good rest at Trail Crest and tried to shove down some food though none of us really had much of an appetite by then. With 2/3 of the hike complete, we could start to taste victory. We hiking around the back of the really jagged and pointy parts of Mt. Whitney that can been seen in every front facing picture of it. Everyone once in a while the view would open up between the spires and we would joke about how coming up one of the steeper slopes might have been easier.
Finally, we rounded a corner and could see the summit. The people way ahead of us on the trail looked like tiny ants but at least by that point we could see exactly how far we had to go. Eventually, we did a short “snow traverse”, crossed the 14,255 mark (the highest I’d ever been on land prior to that), and hit the summit at around 10am.
We were very happy to make it but didn’t feel like doing anything to celebrate. It was very cold and windy. The summit was covered in clouds so we didn’t have much of a view. Just taking our hands out of our pockets to snap pictures with a cold metal camera was a chore. We got a shot of everyone with their Sierra cups, Smeagol was nice enough to snap a few pictures of me and my summit trinkets, Step-hen managed to borrow a cell phone and get a text off to Jonellie indicating our successful ascent and we each put our names in the registry but that was about it. My hands were so cold when I signed the registry that I didn’t even recognize my own handwriting.
Heading down was a lot easier and a lot faster. Everyone kind of went at their own pace and our group got spread out quite a bit. I was dreading the Trail Camp to Outpost Camp section but it flew by. Lower back pain gone, we packed up camp and determined that Step-hen and I would get to the bottom, pack up camp, and bring the cars back to the real start of the trail so we could at least lop off the last mile. It was raining on the way down but we were done! I felt stronger with every stride and flew past a bunch of hikers. Step-hen claims I put him in a tough spot near Lone Pine Lake when we came upon some slow moving descenders. I was bunched up behind them for several hundred yards but they wouldn’t make way. Finally, the trail opened up to a sandy area and I made a wide arc around them. I passed in front of them with plenty of room but apparently Step-hen was behind me and trying the same thing. He met the slow group right where the path got narrow again and had to cut them off. It took just over an hour to cover the last 4 miles.
At the bottom, we dumped our WAGs (6 WAGs for 5 hikers and Step-hen didn’t even use one) and had a big burger and fries at the Whitney Portal Store. Dad read somewhere that you consume about 6000 calories on the hike. Even if the meal was 1500 calories, we were still a little short. It got us by until we could get our next 1500 calories from a couple deep dish pizzas at Pizza Hut in Ridgecrest.
After a good night’s sleep, we were feeling pretty good. Big Sauce and Step-hen parted ways with the rest of us so Big Sauce could catch his flight at LAX. Dad, Smeagol and I had breakfast and then headed off to Death Valley on our way to Las Vegas. The Death Valley National Park brochure was actually quite well-done. We joked about how some aspiring writer was given a lackluster assignment of writing the copy for the Death Valley brochure and decided to make it their breakthrough masterpiece.
Death Valley is a desert but they’ve managed to make a whole National Park out of it with such enticing landmarks as Artist’s palette (surveying the landscape, we could guess which colors were in the palette without making the 3 mile loop) and Devil’s Golf Course (fairways so rough, only the devil could hit off of them). The brochure talked about how it was formed and we learned that the same process that created the lowest point in the U.S. (Badwater) also created Mt. Whitney. Huge blocks of the earth had tilted and slid next to each other creating mountain ranges on one end and desert valleys on the other. We had just enough time to visit Badwater at 282 feet below sea level and completed our peak to trough goal in a little over 24 hours.
This write-up turned out to be a lengthy travelogue but it captures my recollection of some of the highlights of what we did. There were hundreds of engaging mini conversations and fun moments of all being together that will have to be left to others or a future exegesis (or additional tome) on the matter. It was an awesome and successful trip. We were blessed with good weather, safe hiking and travel and everything working out perfectly. I have always been grateful to have such a close family and I was grateful that all the menfolk were able to get away for a few days through the support of the womenfolk back home.

Summary Total Data
    Route Conditions:
Maintained Trail
    Gear Used:
Tent Camp

This page has been served 1390 times since 2005-01-15.

Copyright © 1987-2018 by All Rights Reserved. Questions/Comments/Corrections? See the Contact Page Terms of Service