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Day 1: Whitney Portal to Trail Camp
I woke up at 5am in a pretty bad mood - the group next to me was making no effort to be silent as they decamped. The sun just starting to peak over the dry Inyo Mountains to the east so I figured then was as good a time as any to get moving. I broke down my tent as quickly as I could, anxious to get on the trail then downed a cup of oatmeal in about 30 second (along with a cup of coffee in another 45 seconds) and made my way over to the scale by the trailhead. My pack came in at 42 pounds. Heavier than I expected. I quickly shed as much superfluous equipment as I could getting down to just the "essentials". So long tripod, so long shutter release cable, so long bowls. The pack still weighted in at 40lbs.
After the friend I initially expected to hike with bailed a couple days before my climb I decided to go the hike alone, so I was carrying all my own gear. The day before I had met another hiker, also there alone, on a road trip from Boston, Massachusetts - we had agreed to hike together but didn't know each other well enough to start splitting up gear. She turned out to be delightful and in hind sight I wish I had been more trusting. Lesson learned.
Brooke, the hiker from Boston met me by the scales and we started up the trail. We both felt fresh and rested so we powered up the dusty switchbacks at the start of the trail. After just 10 or 15 minutes we had views of Lone Pine Canyon surrounded by the steep granite cliffs of the Sierras to provide consistent motivation to keep climbing. It was June 5th and 105 degrees in Bishop the day before, there was still lots of snow in the mountains from a big wet winter which was melting fast. So when we hit the crossing of the north fork of Lone Pine Creek it was very swollen - not badly enough to present a serious obstacle though.
As the sun continued to rise; the day was rapidly heating up. About two miles in we started to really slow down. In all it took us 2 1/2 hours to ascend the lower switchbacks and reach Lone Pine Lake - already feeling like we had gotten in a solid day's hike - when really we had just gotten started.
Lone Pine Lake
Near Lone Pine Lake we hit snow - and our first of many navigation issues. We missed a right turn shortly after the lake and followed boot prints up a small chute to the left of the trail. Fortunately we noticed some hikers making their way down to our right and realized our mistake before we had gone far. The trail was considerably nicer here - although we exchanged the nice views for trees and shade. As we crossed the snow, we continued to periodically lose and then re-find the trail over the next hour or so before hitting some snow-free switchbacks.
Just a few more steps brought us to Bighorn Park, a sub-alpine meadow which this early in the season was basically a marsh with a massive granite wall towering almost a thousand feet above it. Unbelievably Bighorn Park is only 3.5 miles from the start of the trail, yet it had taken us almost 4 1/2 hours to reach. Exhausted from constant climbing we rested at Outpost Camp on the other side of the meadow and proceeded to destroy our lunches. I scarfed down a packet of tuna and drank a full water bottle (I had downed about 4 full bottles up to this point). While we were stopped some climbers from Iowa passed us and quickly moved on after a friendly chat. We also met some climbers from San Diego on their way down who advised us of grim conditions on the trail ahead. Sloppy snow, and and no more trail to follow not far ahead. During our break I took the chance to take off my boots for a bit and dry my socks, a decision that most likely saved my day. My boots breathed poorly even without gaiters and were totally pruned from trapped moisture.
After almost an hour-long lunch and some serious de-pruining we started back up the trail towards yet more switchbacks. Within only twenty minutes though we arrived at Mirror Lake and caught our first good look at Mt. Whitney between the crumbling granite of Thor Peak and Wotan's Throne. We passed more hikers on their way down who informed us the famous 99 Switchbacks were impassable and that the alternate snow route up The Chute was the way to the top now.
Just above Mirror Lake (a mere 4.0 miles from Whitney Portal) we finally lost the trail all together. Brooke found a great route up to Trailside Meadow - which in the soft snow - was pretty easily ascended with just trekking poles and boots. Feeling like a "real climber" I reached the top and triumphantly took a huge stride onto flat ground only to post hole into the snow up to my waist. I fumbled trying to roll out and get back on solid ground. I felt very much like a rat caught in a trap. I eventually learned kneeling forward (almost as if walking) is the best way to get out. By the end of the trip I was a pro at avoiding, and getting out of post-holing.
Pretty soon we hit the tree line. We took cover under the shade of the last tree taller than us (although just barley) and rested for awhile before continuing up a very long snow slope to Trail Camp. The temperature was a broiling 80 degrees at this point, with the sloppy snow reflecting back even more light. I slipped several times on the slow march up before eventually donning my crampons. Now at about 12,000ft we both slowed almost to a crawl.
We had been downing water like crazy but we both had heavy packs and were exhausted from hard climbing through crummy snow. On top of that, Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS) we starting to kick on for both of us. I was convinced trail camp had to be close, but we both has pounding, altitude induced headaches. Even worse, Brooke was reporting some difficulty breathing and she was not sure she could continue on. We walked about 10 steps, and rested for 5 minutes, before repeating the process for over an hour until I spotted a frozen Consultation Lake. A sure sign that camp had to be close by. Despite her symptoms Brooke carried on and in 20 minutes or so we reached Trail Camp. We were totally gassed.
I labored in to camp just as the sun descended below Mt. Muir sending an amazing "V" shaped ray of light out above the peak, almost as if the mountains were heralding my arrival. I was too tired to care at all though - I was focused on slinging off all 42 pounds of my stupid backpack. Our friends from Iowa greeted us at camp and were kind enough to find me a place to camp next to their tent. We all ended up squishing our tents pretty close together as real estate not covered in snow was not easily found at Trail Camp. Brooke straggled into camp a few minutes behind me and prepared to establish her camp only to find she had left her tent poles in the car. Suffering and tired she took a few Advil and curled up in her sleeping bag between our two tents, draped her tent over her for wind protection and called it a day. She could not have been awake more than 5 minutes in camp.
I stayed up and chatted with the guys from Iowa and learned one of them had not brought crampons and was suffering from altitude sickness as well. The other Iowa climber and I agreed we would wake at dawn and go up together since our partners were both under the weather. The idea behind the early wake up was to hit the snow on The Chute nice and hard so it would be a relatively easy march up to trail crest and then on to the summit.
I choked down what I could of a pesto salmon backpackers meal. The odor of the pesto and the salmon eventually became revolting to me especially as my appetite began to fade. Even after stuffing it in my trash bag I could smell it the entire next day. After my meal, I scrambled over some rocks to the nearest water source, filtered water and crawled into my tent. Unlike the first night I had no trouble getting to sleep. I woke up only once, peered out of my tent into a moonless night sky lit up bright with billions of stars. I didn't stay up to stargaze though - the real test was still ahead!