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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.

Sarek National Park—Conclusion September 8, 2014

Posted by Jenny in bushwhacking, camping, hiking, travel.
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This is the last picture I took on the trip.

This is the last picture I took on the trip.

Now I have bad news to share: my backup camera battery didn’t work.

Same brand, same size as my other battery. Fit into the camera fine… it was fully charged… but my camera gave me a message: “Battery cannot be used.”  I finally figured it out when I studied the fine print. My old battery was 3.6V 940mAh 3.4Wh. The one I purchased three years later was 3.6V 1100mAh 4.0Wh.

It was the morning of Day Seven. We stopped for a rest beside the Bierikjavvre lake. As we snacked and had some water, a group of 20 or so reindeer wandered over and paused to graze just a few yards away. This was the best viewing of reindeer we’d had on the whole trip! And of course that’s when my battery died. No problem! Insert backup…

Very sad.

 Bierikjavvre Lake.

Bierikjavvre Lake.

Friendly reindeer.

Friendly reindeer.

Days seven and eight featured travel over the longest distances of the trip. We proceeded northeast along a chain of lakes and crossed the boundary out of Sarek at a bridge, entering Stora Sjöfallets National Park. In the map below, you see a green boundary line and a place where we had to detour from our general heading to make use of a bridge.

The blue X's mark our route.

The blue X’s mark our route.  We went the length of the Pietsaure lake in boats.

It was as we approached the bridge that Christian gave us our test in navigation. The bridge was off in the distance, beyond big patches of marshy ground and several good-sized streams. In fact, I could not even see the bridge—I ‘d had my vision tested shortly before the trip and was due for a new pair of glasses. They’d been ordered but not arrived at the time I departed. So I was forced to just follow the others.

It was not a test in compass work but a test in judging the terrain and picking the best route. As it turned out, I think I could have found a good route even without seeing the bridge. It was a matter of picking up faint paths that led in that direction, and I am very experienced in spotting traces of human footprints.

We waded across wide, gravelly streams—these weren’t as difficult as some of the others—and crossed the churning Guhkesvagge River on the bridge. A water fowl was perched on a rock just below the bridge, waiting for a tasty fish to swim past. We walked another hour and reached our campsite for the night. I made a silly mistake when it came time to fetch some water for cooking, walking in the wrong direction for what seemed like a very long time until I came to a stream. There was another stream right on the other side of our campsite!

The next morning we had to cross a lot of boggy ground that was thick with scrubby willows. I was wearing shorts that day, and I began to realize long pants would given me better protection as we pushed through the scratchy     willows. The mucky ground was another problem. It  nearly sucked the boots off our feet! But pleasant conversation helped to take our minds off the conditions. That was the day that I had a long discussion about the Beatles with Ulf, who is very knowledgeable about music. At lunch I got into another fun conversation about “House of Cards” and “Breaking Bad, ” both of which are quite well known in Sweden.

We had a sharp deadline to meet that day. We needed to connect at 6:00 with Sami people who would take us in boats to their village, at the eastern end of the lake.  After lunch we crossed another stream, this one featuring a relaxed, slow current and a deep swimming hole. Several of the group took advantage of the swimming hole, diving into the refreshing water. It was sunniest, hottest day of the whole trip.

We crossed a high pass beside a distinctive conical mountain called Slugga and worked our way down to the lake, staying to the highest ground to avoid extensive bogs. It was here that friendly Bjorn presented me with an especially nice reindeer antler and insisted that I carry it on top of my pack.

The antler is proudly displayed in my living room.

The antler is proudly displayed in my living room.

We met the boatmen and had a chilly ride down the lake. By the time we  reached the far end, I was damp with the spray that came over the sides. But we had a warm supper waiting for us: a traditional Sami meal of smoked fish and potatoes. The fish was Arctic char, served whole. I noticed my tentmate Jarl, a lover of seafood, expertly dealing with the bones.

After dinner we had more walking to do, up over a pass. We stopped to camp in a meadow, where a gusty wind picked up as we were pitching our tents. But at any rate we all had excellent tent-pitching skills by now.

In the morning we had just a short walk down to the Saltaluoka mountain hostel operated by STF, the Swedish outdoor group. We took advantage of the showers and sauna and enjoyed a buffet lunch. Back in civilization!

We took a boat across the lake to Kebnats, where we caught the bus back to Gallivare. How different everything seemed now. When I’d taken the bus coming in, as I’ve described, I was consumed by worry over being two hours late, not realizing that other people on the bus were part of my group. Now I had made fifteen new friends. Gradually we parted company. Inge, who lives in Ritsem, said goodbye when we got on our bus. Others went different ways at Gallivare. Still, a good number of us rode the same overnight train toward Stockholm. We shared a table in the dining car and enjoyed more conversation.

Once again, endless forests glided past the windows, and I listened to the peculiar sound made by the cables of the electric train. The journey of 16 hours seemed interminable at times, but I had a good book—Speak, Memory by Vladimir Nabokov, which I had read every evening in the tent for a short while until sleep overcame me. But I could not sleep in the train—I never sleep well unless I can stretch out, and the problem was compounded because the woman sitting next to me had unfortunately doused herself in strong perfume. Nevertheless, we finally arrived in Stockholm, and the last glimpse I had of any of my companions was of Jonas, running down the stairs at Stockholm Central.

I will describe Stockholm in my next post.

I will describe Stockholm in my next post.

 

Sarek National Park—Day Six September 3, 2014

Posted by Jenny in bushwhacking, camping, hiking, photography, travel.
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Finally! We get up into the talus fields and gullies!

Finally! We get up into the talus fields and gullies!

This was the different day of the hike—we were not trying to march a certain distance across the park, we were climbing to the top of a mountain. Its name is Låddebakte. I should say that I had a lot of trouble with names of places on this trip. There were Swedish versions of names and Sami (Lapp) versions. I would have thought that with Swedish being a simple Germanic language it would be easy at least in that version. That was not the case.

This mountain had a relatively easy name—just four syllables, compared with eight or nine syllables for some places—but here it was the vowel sound that got me.

When we talked about our goal that day, I kept hearing what sounded something like “Lodebakkte.” Then I looked at my map, and I could not find it. I saw something that looked like it should be pronounced “Lahdebakkte.” I didn’t realize that the letter å was pronounced like a short “o”  in English. You’d think I’d realize it was the same place.

The problem was, as is the case with many problems in life, a lack of focus. The name didn’t quite make sense to me, so I let it go off in a blur and didn’t figure out the problem or ask people about it. It wasn’t until I studied the map later that I figured it out.

By the way, the Sami people have a much more colorful way of describing places than the Europeans. We were very fortunate to have a Sami woman, Inge, in our group. She was a wonderful, good-natured person (also strong and agile!) who lived in the area (in Ritsem), and she had been given the gift of participation in this group trip by one of her sons. I noticed that she and Christian had a lot of conversations about place names. Although I do not understand Swedish, I could still figure that out. At one point I asked about place names. She told us that we were going toward “Idiot Mountain” and “The Mountain Where the Woman Killed her Child.” Hah! An honest description, no political correctness.

All right, enough about names. Now we climb the mountain.

We left our campsite and crossed four or five small streams, then climbed up into a narrow pass. The “normal route” in the valley climbed up to the valley of Snavvajavvre, and continued around the east end of a chain of lakes to descend into the famous Rapadalen valley at Skåkistugan. (You aren’t having any problem with these names, by any chance?)

We would climb over that narrow pass, descend into the outlet stream of this long narrow glacial lake, cross over, and climb the mountain—not on the “normal route.”

The red "X" marks our objective. We started from the easternmost of the blue "X"s, and returned to the same point.

The red “X” marks our objective. We started from the easternmost of the blue “X”s, and returned to the same point.

We got up high enough to see a lovely view of one of these classic “braided rivers.” If you have ever touched on the subject of geomorphology, you will understand that this is a standard feature of glacial landscapes. I am a lover of landscapes, and I had read about these places, but I had never been there before. It was wonderful.

I could look at this all day.

I could look at this all day.

We reached a very nice vantage point and looked toward the mountain we planned to climb. It was shrouded in cloud.

It looked iffy as to whether it would be worth going to the top.

It looked iffy as to whether it would be worth going to the top.

The place we stopped for a rest had a nice little monolith.

Perhaps the makers of Stonehenge placed this here.

Perhaps the makers of Stonehenge placed this here.

We passed big swathes of flowers as we proceeded through the valley.

Big swathes of color.

Big swathes of color.

For a nice contrast with the color and life of the valleys, we had the silent, powerful ice of the glaciers.

Two realms next to each other.

Two realms next to each other.

The weather was very unstable. That made it fun and interesting.

Beautiful!

Beautiful!

We saw a rainbow.

You may need to click to enlarge the image and see the rainbow.

You may need to click to enlarge the image and see the rainbow.

The mountain was basically a rubble heap of broken rock. I was more comfortable with this sort of difficulty than with the stream crossings, though it ended up being pretty tough. Some of the rocks were strangely slimy, so you had to pick your way pretty carefully.

Our summit is the high point along the distant ridge, not a dramatic Matterhorn-type mountain.

Our summit is the high point along the distant ridge, not a dramatic Matterhorn-type mountain.

We stopped for lunch close to the gully you see in the top photo. I had brought my full backpack, stove, and fuel. I had known before we started that we’d have a one-day trip to the top of a mountain, so I had brought along a lightweight daypack. But on the morning of our outing, I learned that a few people would need to bring stoves, so that we could join together for our customary hot soup. For some reason I felt unable to leave the heavy carrying to others, so I brought my pack and my stove. I cursed myself for doing that as we climbed the steep talus fields.

Christian had a pattern of moving the group along fairly quickly but also stopping frequently for rest breaks. My personal preference would have been to move more slowly and stop less frequently. This is simply because I get chilled quickly when we stop, have to put on a layer, and then take it off again when we get moving. Other people don’t drop and fall so quickly in temperature as I do, so this is a personal quirk. But I was so happy to be in  this group that this slight discomfort meant very little to me.

After our lunch break of the usual hot soup, Wasa bread, and anonymous paste spread on the crackers, we proceeded indomitably again toward the summit. We would conquer this mountain!

The reason Christian thought it important for us to come here was to see down into the famous Rapadalen valley, described as one of the most beautiful valleys in Europe. In fact, I think it can’t really be compared to European valleys, only to Arctic valleys. It has little in common even with valleys of the Alps, having been shaped by the intensive, violent movements of giant glaciers.

We finally reached the western lip of the mountain, where we could see down into this incredible valley.

 

It's like a kind of fluid script that the rivers are writing in the valley.

It’s like a kind of fluid script that the rivers are writing in the valley.

We reached the summit cairn. Hurray!

We have conquered the mountain!

We have conquered the mountain!

The Rapadalen is really beyond description.

The Rapadalen is really beyond description.

I looked downriver toward a mountain that looked like a giant fortress.

Guardian of the river valley.

Guardian of the river valley.

The landscape was so complicated, so intricate, I could have gazed at it forever.

River, lake, peaks.

River, lake, peaks.  Shadows.

No fear of heights!

No fear of heights!

Our descent of the mountain turned out to be quite long and difficult. Christian had said we would go by way of the most frequently used ridge route, but some of us—about half of the group, including me—saw what looked like an easier route off to the side and went down that way. We didn’t clearly communicate with each other about what we were doing, and I don’t think it was anyone’s fault. I found myself scrambling down an endless talus field that had a lot of slippery rock, and I became very tired. Yet I think the way our part of the group went actually turned out easier than the way the other half went. I moved at a slow pace, and every now and then Ulf, who was moving at about the same pace, said, “Let’s rest for a while.” At first I continued on without stopping but after doing this for a bit I recognized his wisdom.

I had a sudden fear of getting separated from the rest of my half-group as I went down, and I called out, “We need to stay together!” I think they already understood that, and a couple of guys asked me if I would like them to help me with “my luggage.” Their command of English was nearly perfect, but I had to laugh at this slightly odd usage of the word “luggage.” To them it meant my backpack with its stove and so on, but to me it means a suitcase that you would carry through the airport. I pictured myself rolling a suitcase through this steep talus field, and the humor of that helped me to get down to the lake at the bottom.

You see the endless talus field in the foreground. There was no moment that wasn't effortful!

You see the endless talus field in the foreground. No moment wasn’t effortful!

Finally we got down to the lake, and there we finally managed to connect with the other half of our group. They had descended via a very difficult route. I don’t remember exactly, but I think it was around 8:00 in the evening before we connected. I tried to ease the experience for my companions by telling them about times I have been caught out after dark on hikes. In this place north of the Arctic Circle, the sun would dip below the horizon, but it would never get really dark.

Once the two halves of the group reconnected, we still had quite a long and challenging walk back to the campsite. I was, I would have to say, exhausted by the time we got back. I didn’t even bother trying to rockhop the small streams at the end—I just trudged my way through. But it was very much worth it.

Low angle of light where we waited for the rest of the group.

Low angle of light where we waited for the rest of the group.