Monday, September 30, 2013

Hiking Mount Whitney: Tallest Summit in The Lower 48 States

                                                                                                                           All photos by Ravell Call

For many American hikers, Mount Whitney is the Holy Grail -- probably the most-walked lofty mountain summit in the nation, with more than 40,000 people attempting to ascend the 14,497-foot peak each year.
(Mount Whitney may be 14,505-feet high, by more recent measurements,)
After obtaining day hiking permits six months in advance (required to hike this trail), a group from Utah hiked there in mid-summer.
On the second day outside Utah, the group visited the Western Hemisphere's low point to set up an unusual high elevation-low elevation adventure.
Early on the morning of July 19, the group arrived in Death Valley and visited Badwater, a setting reminiscent of the salt flats around the Great Salt Lake. That was the easy part -- stepping from an air-conditioned car to a spot that is 282 feet below sea level, and where the average high temperature is 115 degrees during July.
While enduring this windy furnace, Ravell Call's four children (ages 14-21) played a 15-minute game of soccer on the salt-encrusted plain.
After visiting nearby Golden Canyon, everyone was growing weary of Death Valley's blazing sun and didn't mind leaving. The day's high at the Death Valley Visitor Center was only 110 degrees. It was slightly higher at Badwater.
A 100-mile drive up and down two mountain ranges was required to reach the Owens Valley and spot Mount Whitney for the first time, near the town of Lone Pine.
Since the group planned to start the hike in the early-morning darkness the next day, they checked out the Whitney trailhead that afternoon. Then it was down to Mount Whitney Motel in Lone Pine for lodging and to the Mount Whitney Restaurant for dinner, though the five teenagers wanted to check out Carl's Jr. instead.
At 4:20 a.m. on July 20, the group was on the trail. Flashlights were needed for about 30 minutes before daylight arrived.
While the Internet proved a helpful source of Mount Whitney information, one booklet provided even greater detail. "How to Climb Mount Whitney in One Day," by Sharon Baker-Salony, which was loaded with photographs of the trail and valuable tips.
The first third of the 10.7-mile trail, which climbs 6,134 feet to the summit, is in the Inyo National Forest near Lone Pine Creek with several waterfalls and small bodies of water including Mirror Lake.

Granite rocks and pinnacles were everywhere, so this was a spectacular trail by any standards. There were also cliffs along the trail but nothing really threatening, given the width of the path.
The trail passed by two solar latrines and "Trail Camp" -- the main overnight camping spot -- before the group reached the 6.3-mile mark and the infamous "99" -- a series of almost 100 switchbacks that climb 1,738 feet in 2.5 miles.
Although there were no patches of snow to cross, insome other years, not all of the snow on the trail has melted by midsummer. There were only patches of ice along the 99 switchbacks.
Glimpses of the rock shelter atop Whitney provided encouragement for hikers, though the high altitude took its toll. Light-headedness and headaches were common.
A tip on the Internet suggested taking antacids in addition to pain-relievers; the suggestion proved beneficial.
The 99 switchbacks -- no one's sure who counted them all -- were the toughest part of the climb, but once conquered, the group hit "Trail Crest" at 13,800 feet. From there it's only 2.2 miles to the summit.

At 9:50 a.m. on Trail Crest, the Utahns encountered a frigid, howling wind, blowing from west to east. The breeze numbed faces in just a few minutes. Gloves and hoods proved to be necessities. Shorts are not a good idea for the second half of this hike.
At this point, the east side of Sequoia National Park was visible. The view was like looking out of an airplane.
The trail descended about 300 feet to connect with the John Muir trail. Stay to the north here.
Skies were clear on this particular day. We passed by signs warning of extreme lighting danger on this high, exposed piece of rock. Hikers have been struck and killed by lightning along the final miles of the Mount Whitney trail; many others have had to turn back because of storms.
The trail climbed again and passed "The Windows," three jigsaw cuts in the mountainside that add to the spectacular scenery. Then came the last half-mile to the summit.
At 11:30 a.m., just over seven hours after starting, the first part of the Utah group reached this pinnacle of North American hiking.
A summit register is posted outside the Whitney shelter. During the previous three days, no other Utahns had signed-in -- but there were comments by another 13-year-old boy who reached the top, plus some from an 85-year-old man from Iceland and a 76-year-old from Fresno, Calif.
Roger Arave of Layton, the youngest Utah hiker at 13, said the 99 switchbacks were indeed the toughest part of the trek. "I was tired and the altitude hurt," he said. He liked the view on the summit best, plus the walk down -- because it was so much easier than going up.
Zaccary Call, 14, Farmington, suffered the most from the altitude, experiencing nausea at the summit. "It was definitely altitude sickness," Call said. The retreat to a lower altitude relieved his distress.

Still, he enjoyed the hike, especially after taking a shortcut by sliding down some snow to the side of the 99 switchbacks to avoid walking them again. "It's fun to say you did it (Whitney)," Call said.
Brandon Call, 19, said the hike was almost as hard as climbing Gannett Peak in Wyoming. Toward the top of the hike, he wasn't sure any progress was being made. "It seemed liked we were almost there but never got there," he said.
The hike down required five hours and 30 minutes for the Utah group.
Was this 141/2-hour trek worth it? Yes. And everyone seemed to feel they'd consider doing it again in the future.
Although it seemed almost as hard as running a 26-mile marathon, the satisfaction of conquering such a high summit was a great ego builder.

(-Written by Lynn Arave and originally published in the Deseret News.)

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