A weekend whip up Whitney
Starting from Stanford on Friday 2 June, our round trip to the summit of Mount Whitney took the three of us 38 hours, travelling 800 miles, climbing from sea level to 14,500ft and showed us practically all of the diversity of geography ad urban life that - if not this coutry - then California has to offer.
We - Joost, Renaud and I - had been kicking ourselves that we hadn't managed to get round to doing Whitney before this weekend. Now, with only two weeks left as students together at the Stanford GSB, we were left with only one shot at the highest summit in the contiguous United States. As such, we had no pretenses about complicating our trip by opting for the more technical Mountaineers Route - we wanted to maximise our chances of success. Nevertheless, with the inevitable lack of planning due to overpacked end-of-year schedules, we were left with only day passes for the park and so our summit attempt would have to be made in one long day.
We kicked off our trip in pretty typical fashion - getting approximately half an hour into the car ride before realising that we were short of some equipment: fuel for our stove and a bear canister to keep the hungry hairballs from munching our lunch. A few quick phone calls and several google searches later and we had located a camping store conveniently located just off the 580 highway which takes drivers from the Bay Area towards Yosemite. Sweet.
After several stops for fuel, food and to aid the bloodflow, we eventually rolled in to the Whitney portal at around 1.30am. All of us were very tired so we swfitly erected our abode - a two-person Mountain Hardwear tent - in which the three of us would spend about 3 hours fitfully sleepng.
At 5am we rose and we were relatively pleased to be on the Whitney Trail by around 6am. The Whitney Trail starts off rising gently from 8,360ft. It is a well trod path that switchbacks up the Northern valley side, passing through woodland and crossing several creeks. Even at 6am, the morning was mildly warm and the forecast was to get hotter. However, as with all mountains, Mother Nature can turn her nasty side to you at any time so we took appropriately warm clothing.
We happily made good progress early on in the day, passing several groups on the path towards Outpost Camp. The hike so far had been relatively stress-free, with the good weather, accommodating temperatures and gentle incline. Above Outpost Camp, though, we were faced with the first proper snow of the ascent. While we were relatively confident of ascending this, question marks remained about what lay ahead.
As it turned out, from this point (a little over 10,000ft) until around 13,500ft, the journey remained almost completely on snow. And we hadn't brought gaters - bad idea. While most of the hike was on firm-ish snow, there were a few steep sections on which our boots punched through the surface almost every step and made the hike much harder going. In particular, there is a steep section rising 1,700ft above Trail Camp that is particularly taxing without winter weather equipment. Hence, by the time we reached the gentle traverse to the summit at 13,500ft, not only had the thinner air started to affect us but we had also been tired by the taxing spring snow conditions. To add to the exhaustion, our feet were also completely soaked to the bone by this point - unpleasant to say the least!
Despite this, we were buoyed by the nearing summit - now only 2.5 miles away and less than 1,000 vertical feet above us. The traverse from the top of the steep pitch above Trail Camp is mostly a simple path, although there are a couple of pretty severe couloirs across which one needs to cross. These can actually be pretty dangerous at this time of year when they are still covered in snow. However, we managed to negotiate them OK (I had one minor slip but managed to catch myself) and ploughed on toward the summit.
As the summit neared, fatigue began to set in and our pace slowed noticeably. Stops became more regular; footfall more intermittent. However, after 7 hours and 40 minutes of arduous hiking, we eventually reached the summit at 1.40pm. The day was gorgeous, the views fantastic. We stayed at the summit for over half an hour absorbing the skyline and resting our legs on the summit rock.
The long trek back down was arduous. We had been beaten by the very strong sun all day with no respite and a lack of sufficient water supplies above 11,000ft had left us feeling dehydrated. We all had extremely wet feet which were giving us grief in a multiitude of ways - cold, blisters and generally weighing down what already felt like very heavy hiking boots. We took many stops to refill our bottles and rest our legs. Eventually we made it down to the portal at just after 7pm - almost exactly 5 hours after leaving the summit.
It was a wonderful day. The 13 hour round trip from the portal to the summit and back, while strenuous, was certainly worth every minute of the 17 hours driving taken to get there and back. We kept on repeating the question: "Why on earth has it taken us this long to do this?"
Inertia to the norm is a powerful thing, but I'm sure glad we managed to break it this past weekend.