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How to climb Mt. Whitney in a day February 27, 2015

Posted by Jenny in camping, hiking, memoir.
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Jenny and Helen, conquerors of Mt. Whitney.

Jenny and Helen, conquerors of Mt. Whitney, August 1997.

The best-known trail route to the summit of Whitney is via the Mount Whitney trail. Since this involves a total climb of 6,100 vertical feet and 22 miles round trip from Whitney Portal to the 14,496′ summit, most people do it as a two-day trip, camping at Trail Camp just below the infamous “99 switchbacks” section. After all, it’s worth taking some time to reach the highest point in the contiguous states.

But you can do it in a day. Three keys to success: be in decent shape, be acclimatized before you start the climb, and start before dawn.

One consideration is that it’s easier to get a “day-use” permit than an overnight permit. The demand for the overnight ones is so high that you may not have any luck with the Forest Service lottery.

This is an account of a trip taken in 1997. If you are interested only in Whitney, you can skip down through the photos. Six of us did a five-day backpack at high altitude in the area around Mt. Humphreys, west of Bishop. By the time we finished that, we were acclimatized. Four of the group went on to do the one-day Whitney climb. Of the four, two—Steve and Bob—climbed Mt. Muir instead of Whitney, since they had done Whitney before. At 14,018′, Muir is shorter but a more difficult climb than Whitney, as it involves scrambling with a steep dropoff. Its summit is located quite close to Whitney’s, so the four of us were able to stay together for most of the climb.

Our trip started with a flight into Vegas. We arrived late at night, picked up our rental cars, and stayed at a place called Circus, Circus. It had garish red and white stripes in the lobby. We departed early the next morning, saving the slots and the blackjack tables for the end of the trip.

One of the great things about approaching the eastern Sierras from this direction is that you get to drive through Death Valley, thereby experiencing the incredible geographic contrast of the lowest elevation in the US only a short distance from the highest in the 48 states.

Helen and Bob at Death Valley.

Helen and Bob at Death Valley.

Jenny at the Death Valley Museum, where a thermometer told us it was 124 degrees.

Jenny at the Death Valley Museum, where a thermometer told us it was 124 degrees.

The temperature was a lifetime record high for me. As soon as you stepped out of the air-conditioned car into the sun, you could sense the life-threatening dryness and heat. It felt as though the moisture was being sucked out of your body moment by moment. Then we made the long climb out of the valley, past Telescope Peak and over the crest of the California-Nevada divide. There we dropped into the Owens Valley.

We organized our gear at Bishop, dividing up food, and it was a good thing that we checked packs, because I discovered my backpacking stove had been confiscated by the airline—even though it had no fuel in it. So we had to buy another stove, as well as the fuel that we’d already planned on purchasing in Bishop. By the way, I had a big fight with the airline when the trip was over, because they should have informed us they’d removed the stove. I won the fight—they apologized and reimbursed me for the cost of the stove.

From Bishop, with the Sierras looming overhead—a solid granite wall—we headed up the road for the trailhead that led over Piute Pass into the Humphreys Basin.

We reach Piute Pass.

We reach Piute Pass.

Big, heavy packs.

Big, heavy packs.

We spent the first night at Desolation Lake. I believe this is looking back at the lake and its neighbors. Notice how incredibly blue the water is in all of these lakes.

Typical above-treeline scenery in the Sierras.

Typical above-treeline scenery in the Sierras.

The next day we climbed an unnamed peak, Point 12,801.

Bob and I climb up the boulderfields.

Bob and I climb up the boulderfields.

In case you are wondering, we left the big packs at the campsite, to which we returned that night.

Helen on the summit ridge. Mt. Humphreys in the background.

Helen on the summit ridge. Mt. Humphreys in the background.

Bob touches the actual summit. You couldn't really stand on it.

Bob touches the actual summit. You couldn’t really stand on it.

Happy mountaineers.

Happy mountaineers.

The next day we continued northward and then east, toward the Four Gables area. Unfortunately, my memory is fuzzy about the details of where we camped the following nights. There was a fishable lake (golden trout, I think) at the next campsite.

Bob and I with our fishing rods, which look like antennas in this photo.

Bob and I with our fishing rods, which look like antennas in this photo.

We both caught something, and we had fish for dinner. I recall that our next campsite was plagued with mosquitoes—the only place we had trouble with bugs. Behind the Mosquito Campsite was a tall rubble-pile that we climbed just to get in a little more acclimatization.

Rubble leading up into a deep blue sky.

Rubble leading up into a deep blue sky.

The night after that we camped beside a lake. A breeze blew across the water, and we had no bugs. Bob had a running joke of trying for a “highest-altitude swim” record. This lake was above 12,000′, the highest place he’d ever taken a dip. The water was a bit cold, as you can tell from his expression in the picture below. Every night, it dropped below freezing—low-to-mid 20s—and then warmed up quickly as soon as the sun started shining. One big advantage to the Sierras: it never rains there in the summer. You don’t have the afternoon thunderstorms like you do in the Rockies.

Bob sets new personal record for "Highest altitude swim."

Bob sets new personal record for “Highest altitude swim.” I didn’t even think of going in the water myself. Brrr!

By this point on the trip we were getting sick of our camp food. There was a lot of bartering going on: “Anyone want to trade chocolate pudding for gorp?”

The last day of our trip, we descended a valley with rock formations that reminded me of Dr. Seuss drawings. I wish I could tell you the name of the valley. I studied maps—it might be somewhere in the Horton Lakes area—but couldn’t find anything that quite met the description.

Dr. Seuss rocks.

Dr. Seuss rocks.

We had a gigantic meal in Bishop and drove down to Lone Pine to stay in a motel. I recall that we learned that night that Princess Di had just been killed.

The alarm went off at 4:00, and we drove up to Whitney Portal, beginning the hike in the dark with headlamps.

Dawn on the lower Mount Whitney trail. These rocks reminded me of Maxfield Parrish rather than Dr. Seuss.

Dawn on the lower Mount Whitney trail. These rocks reminded me of Maxfield Parrish rather than Dr. Seuss.

 

A grouse stood on a rock to greet the dawn.

A grouse stood on a rock to greet the dawn.

We climbed through a forest of beautiful large trees before emerging into an area of lakes and meadows. In this section you enter the official Whitney Zone, and you may be checked to see that you have a permit.

 

Mirror Lake.

Mirror Lake.

We were all intent on eating and drinking enough to keep up our energy as we went along. Unfortunately, the large volumes of water we drank had an inconvenient but predictable outcome: we had to keep stopping to pee. Perhaps we were overdoing the water intake. As we got further above treeline, it became harder and harder to find an unobtrusive place to step off the trail. This was particularly a problem in the “99 switchbacks” section that takes you 1,700 vertical feet from Trail Camp to Trail Crest. Not a place with a lot of privacy!

"99 switchbacks" section. A large blubbery marmot gazes down at a couple of hikers.

“99 switchbacks” section. A large blubbery marmot gazes down at a couple of hikers.

I had thought all the switchbacks would be demoralizing, but I found the opposite to be the case. The switchbacks were often quite short, giving you a sense of progress as you rounded each corner and headed up the next stretch, and the trail was never very steep. Finally we topped out at Trail Crest (13,600′). This was higher than any point we’d reached on the backpack. We all felt about the same—we were working hard, but none of us felt sick or weak. The views from Trail Crest were tremendous.

View west from Trail Crest.

View west from Trail Crest.

I see that I didn’t take very many pictures in the next stretch—perhaps this was due to my being more affected by altitude than I realized. We dropped down slightly to reach the John Muir trail junction, then continued sidehilling along the steep west side of the ridge. It was along this section that Bob and Steve left us to make the climb up Mt. Muir.

Toward the summit, I felt a bit dizzy, but I still had a fair amount of energy. Helen and I pushed on, climbing to the nearly flat tableland of the summit, past the Summit House and to the plaque pictured in the top photo. Someone passing by did a nice job of framing the picture by putting the plaque at the bottom.

We looked over to Mt. Muir to see if we could spot two tiny figures climbing it. Sure enough, we saw them on the small, precipitous summit.

After resting, we headed back to meet the Muir conquerors and, just by chance, arrived at the meeting spot at almost the same time as the others. We were all proud of what we’d accomplished.

Steve took the photo below of Bob climbing the last pitch up to the summit. You can see why it is rated as Class 3 in the Yosemite System.

Bob approaches Mt. Muir summit.

Bob approaches Mt. Muir summit.

Now all we had to do was retrace our steps—all the way back. We certainly got into “Death March” mode by the time we returned to Whitney Portal, but only in the sense of plodding along without much conversation. None of us were really hurting, and we didn’t feel stiff or sore the next day. It had been a worthwhile adventure.

Steve and Bob on the tiny summit block of Muir.

Steve and Bob on the tiny summit block of Muir.

Charlie Klabunde February 14, 2015

Posted by Jenny in bushwhacking, grief, hiking, Smoky Mountains.
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A gloomy-looking lunch on Woolly Tops. Charlie enjoys his sandwich. And who is that strange-looking woman on the left? It's me!

A gloomy-looking lunch on Woolly Tops. Charlie is in the blue jacket. And who is that strange-looking woman on the left? It’s me! All photos here were taken by Al Watson.

Charlie died February 7 at the age of 83. He had been a member of the Smoky Mountains Hiking Club since 1965. He contributed to the club in countless ways, ranging from production of the newsletter and the handbook to organizing the club’s photo contests to maintaining a section of the Appalachian Trail. It is a huge loss for many people. Here is something I wrote on the “Go Smokies” internet forum, when someone reported his death on that site:

I heard the news earlier this afternoon, and this is devastating to me. As he became very ill late last fall, I shared some of my thoughts with fellow members of the Smoky Mountains Hiking Club, and I hope they will forgive me if I repeat some of these thoughts. I joined the club in 1983. I looked at Charlie as a mentor (I don’t know if he especially wanted a young woman putting him into that position, but he tolerated it.) As he led the way up many challenging off-trail places, like Cannon Creek for example, or my first trip up the Jumpoff from the bottom, I found his presence immensely comforting. Funny thing was, it was all the more comforting because he never tried to be gentle and accomodating. He was always true to himself, and he always just spoke his mind. Sometimes he could be impatient, sometimes amused, and people did occasionally perceive him as “prickly” and had problems with that. But I instinctively recognized his integrity, and that was much more valuable to me than any effortful politeness. What I truly marveled at was his approach to the subject of risk. Off-trail hiking always involves a certain amount of risk. And yet what I learned from him was that risk can be valuable, it can be an essential component of human experience. As I told the SMHC late last year, one of my favorite quotes from him was, in the face of some ridiculous obstacle, “You only have to go right up the middle.” On many hikes I followed right behind him—it probably annoyed him, actually—trusting that he would know the best way to go. I would pipe up with some comment like, “We must be near such-and-such stream junction,” and he would just look at me, shake his head sadly, and say, “No. We haven’t gone around the end of the ridge yet.” And somewhere nearby in the woods as we made our way along, I would see the familiar sight of him, always wearing the same style of plaid cotton shirts and khaki-type pants, and carrying his map sections in a zip-loc bag.

Andy Zenick and Matthew Kelleher in foreground, Charlie Klabunde to the right.

Still on Woolly Tops—the sun has come out, but we are rather damp! Andy Zenick and Matthew Kelleher in foreground, Charlie to the right, figuring out the best route down.

The photo below doesn’t show a lot of detail, but it reminds me of a neat little observation Charlie made: that on the lower section of Eagle Rocks Prong, all the moss had been scoured off the boulders—you can see that here.  Above a certain point, all the rocks had the normal mossy covering. A flash flood had hit the stream at precisely that point. I learned much from him along these lines.

Charlie sits astride a log on the scoured-out portion of Eagle Rocks Prong.

Charlie sits astride a log on the scoured-out portion of Eagle Rocks Prong.

Charlie gave me something that can never be taken away, and I celebrate that. He gave me an appreciation of detailed observation of the outdoors—the specifics of stream valleys and ridges. He also gave me, as I described above, an appreciation of the value of risk in human life. And whenever I venture off-trail, I think about Charlie.

Anakeesta slide February 4, 2015

Posted by Jenny in bushwhacking, hiking, Smoky Mountains.
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Clayton climbs up one of the steeper sections.

Clayton climbs up one of the steeper sections.

My friend Clayton Carver and I ventured today up one of the slides that runs down from Anakeesta Ridge into Walker Camp Prong. He had been telling me that I needed to do this slide. And he was right. I hesitated when he suggested that for this week, as the Smokies heights have a fair amount of ice and snow right now. But I saw a forecast for temperatures in the mid-50s in Gatlinburg, and I figured we’d get at least in the 40s up there not far from Newfound Gap. We started late (11:00) to try to get the warmest temps. Well, there was still a lot of ice and snow! We started where Walker Camp Prong flows under the Newfound Gap Highway. It was very pretty, but a bit treacherous because of the thin coating of black ice on many rocks. Clayton did better than I did on this stretch (and, actually, on all of the hike), but we both found ourselves skidding on icy rocks.  But still, it was pretty.

Going up Walker Camp Prong.

Going up Walker Camp Prong.

The thing about Walker Camp Prong is that you pretty much have to stay in the stream. It is lined with walls of rhodo. Clayton had been up the lower part of the slide before, so he knew where to look for it. Like a lot of slides, the very bottom features a rather flat area with a lot of rubble.

Toward the bottom of the slide.

Toward the bottom of the slide.

From here on up, it was a great adventure that got harder and harder toward the top. This stretch wasn’t hard.

Clayton climbs the lower slide.

Clayton climbs the lower slide.

Log and icicles on lower slide.

Log and icicles on lower slide.

We reached the steep, smooth, slabby section shown in the top photo. I found this somewhat difficult. Clayton took the photo below.

You can barely make me out at the bottom---kind of a dark shape looking a bit helpless.

You can barely make me out at the bottom—kind of a dark shape looking a bit helpless.

After thinking I could bypass what Clayton did, I finally realized that his route was the best and I followed it.

Clayton waited patiently for me.

Clayton waited patiently for me.

This little section featured a different kind of difficulty than what we encountered toward the top. It was steep and pretty smooth, but solid. The problem toward the top was that all the rock was incredibly loose.

Water discolored by Anakeesta pyrites.

Water discolored by Anakeesta pyrites.

Looking down a snowy stretch.

Looking down a snowy stretch.

Above this point it got very, very steep.

Clayton took this nice photo as we made our way down.

Clayton took this nice photo as we made our way up.

I have to admit that I found this upper section quite difficult. The grain of the Anakeesta rock was all vertical (horizontal makes for much easier climbing), and it was incredibly loose. We had to test each handhold to make sure it wouldn’t just break off at the touch of a hand. Quite a few times I found myself in a place where I needed a good solid foothold for my next upward step, and I had trouble finding it. What made it even worse was that the myrtle, which I normally find fairly reliable as a handhold, was often dead and brittle and broke off in my hand. The whole place seemed crumbly and unreliable, which isn’t great when it is also very steep. So—no photos in this top stretch. I was too preoccupied. We topped out between 5750′ and 5800′, not far from Anakeesta Knob in elevation but a fair distance horizontally. In any case, our plan was to descend the ridge to the saddle just northeast of Point 5582, and then drop down from there. I had done this descent before on a trip with Chris Sass and Greg Harrell, starting from the Alum Cave Creek side of the ridge.

View from ridge where we topped out, toward the subsidiary ridges of LeConte.

View from ridge where we topped out, toward the subsidiary ridges of LeConte.

After a short break which featured my finger bleeding profusely (I had somehow skinned off a section of my forefinger on the sharp Anakeesta slabs), we started down the ridge.

Typical section of the crest of Anakeesta Ridge.

Typical section of the crest of Anakeesta Ridge.

We could see down to the Newfound Gap Highway (Hwy. 441).

You can make out the highway far below.

You can make out the highway far below.

We descended another open Anakeesta slide.

Clayton going down our descent slide.

Clayton going down our descent slide.

He also took this picture of me descending. At this time my legs were kind of fried from the ascent, and I was going down in crab-like fashion.

He also took this picture of me descending. At this time my legs were kind of fried from the ascent, and I was going down in crab-like fashion.

It was a great trip, very worthwhile despite the difficulties.

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