September 2012

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It’s now been about a full month since we tackled Mt. Whitney, so our trip report is a long time coming, but we needed a break and time to edit all the photos!

After 5 months, over 145 miles of hiking, and 42,000 feet of elevation gain in training, we finally got our chance to climb Mt. Whitney at the end of August.  Our plan was to split the 22 mile round trip, 6,600 feet of gain adventure into 3 days. We’d use the first day to climb up to Trail Camp, day 2 to summit and return to camp, and day 3 to hike back out to the trailhead and drive home.  A couple days before our trip we were able to get a last minute permit online allowing us to enter the Whitney Zone on Sunday, August 26th, our #1 preferred date. Getting the permit ahead of time was a huge relief, and Katharine was able to eliminate all the alternate itineraries depending on when we would get a permit.

As with many of our trips we left Friday night arriving at Horseshoe Meadows Campground near midnight.  This campground is a common acclimating campground for Mt. Whitney trekkers because it is above 10,000 feet, but it’s also the trailhead to other areas in the Sierras.  Being a staging area there isn’t a lot of late night campfires and kids running around, but instead it was completely dark and silent except for the occasional snore.  We were startled when there was a low growl from the truck next to us as we unpacked our tent in the dark, but it turned out just to be a snorring camper.  We are now a well oiled machine and can setup our camp in the dark and with little verbal communication.  Our gear is organized by time of use and is easily transported in bins to reduce trips back and forth to the car.  Within minutes we find ourselves turning out our headlamps and enjoying the silence of mother nature as we fall asleep.

The next day (Saturday) we took a short hike to help acclimate to the altitude and stretch our legs.  About 2.5 miles in we came to a clearing with a small stream perfect for wildlife.


We slowly walked along the tree line until we spotted a doe grazing in the meadow.  Nathan quickly dropped his pack and took cover behind a bush as if he was a covert operative sneaking up on his target.  After closer inspection two fawns wandered into the open.


All three sets of ears perked up as Nathan got closer and then they quickly turned and bounded across the meadow.  Besides the deer the short hike was uneventful, but a useful warm up hike.  We returned to camp and continued to go over the plan for the next day (Sunday)- our first Whitney day. We got everything organized and ready to pack our packs so that we could get an early start on Sunday.

The goal for the first day was to backpack 6.3 miles from Whitney Portal at (8,360 feet) to Trail Camp (12,000 feet).  The trail starts with a scale to weigh your pack; Katharine’s pack weighed in at 27 pounds and Nathan’s 38 pounds.

Whitney Portal, 8,360 feet, 0 Miles

The trail starts with switchbacks cutting through the granite and trees lining the mountains around Whitney Portal.  The dry dusty trail was broken up with the occasional stream, which weren’t too hard to cross this year.



After 2.8 miles we reached Lone Pine Lake at 9,960 feet.  It provided a nice place to rest, have a snack and check our progress for the day.


Lone Pine Lake doesn’t require a permit for day hiking since it is just outside the Whitney Zone, but overnight camping still does – it would be a nice place to camp and fish though.

Lone Pine Lake, 9,960 feet, 2.8 Miles

We then crossed into the Whitney Zone and soon reached a lush meadow just before Outpost camp. We had considered camping at Outpost because many people can sleep better at the lower altitude compared to Trail Camp (10,360′ vs. 12,000′), but given our good experience sleeping at the trailhead for White Mountain, we were pretty sure we’d be fine at Trail Camp, which would make our summiting day much shorter. So we took a short break to check out the waterfall, but quickly continued on.

Meadow near Outpost Camp

After 4.3 miles and 2,300′ of gain we came upon Mirror Lake (10,640′).  Since we only had about 2 miles left to Trail Camp, we took a longer break for lunch and rested our feet.  Finally we put our boots back on and continued the climb, which gave us great views of the lakes and valley below.

If you click to enlarge the photo below, you can see Lone Pine Lake in the center which is a dark blue and just to the left Mirror Lake which is more of a green color.

Lone Pine Lake, Mirror Lake, and the Owens Valley

Just above Mirror Lake we spotted 3 young, but large birds roosting in a tree.

If someone knows what kind of bird this is let us know.  It was the size of a full grown chicken.

The trees became more sparse around 11,000 feet and the trail became more rocky.  It became much more apparent as we got closer to trail camp that this place was not your average backpacking trip.  Also at this elevation we saw other backpackers starting to struggle with the altitude and slowing down quite a bit.

Soon we made it to Trailside Meadow (5.3 miles in, 11400′), which is a lush green area with a running stream in the midst of all the dry granite. It’s a beautiful place to take a rest or filter water.

Backpackers resting at Trailside Meadow, 11,395 feet, 5.3 Miles

The last push up to the camp definitely feels longer than it should, but the views of bright blue Consultation Lake distracted us from our burning legs and motivated us on.

Consultation Lake from the Mt. Whitney trail

When we reached Trail Camp we were feeling good.  The training was definitely paying off! We quickly found a spot out of the wind and started setting up our tent.  It was a little disappointing to see how much trash and toilet paper that could be found under any rock, but it wasn’t as bad as some make it out to be.  We were eagerly greeted by an opportunistic marmot, which was living in the rocks next to our tent.


Marmots are pretty cute and easy to photograph, but can be mischievous so you have to always be watching your food.

Once the sun set, the temperature dropped rapidly from the 60’s to the low 30’s.  Nathan took a couple photos of Mt. Whitney moonlit before we headed to bed.

Trail Camp, 12,000 feet, 6.3 Miles

The temperatures were below freezing, making sleeping on a granite slab a little bit uncomfortable, but totally worth it. Our anticipation for the next day kept us awake a little longer than we intended, but the tough hike up to Trail Camp had definitely tired us out, so that helped us fall asleep early enough to get some good rest for the summit attempt.



As our final training for Mt. Whitney we headed into the White Mountains, which are east of the Sierras, right across the Owens Valley from Mt. Whitney. Although it was a pretty long drive for just a weekend trip, it gave us a chance to get some real altitude experience. White Mountain Peak is at 14,246′ and is the third highest peak in CA, but since there essentially is a fire road leading to the top, the hike has a very gradual accent. Thus most people consider it one of the easiest 14-ers to summit (apparently even unicyclers have done it), but it’s still a 14 mile hike with 2800′ of gain and at such a high altitude it can be tough.

So once again we drove out Friday night after work and arrived quite late at Grandview Campground (8500′) and went straight to bed. For Saturday we just planned to hang around and acclimate, so we slept in and then started the slow drive to the trailhead (which would also be our campsite for the night) at 12,000′.

Driving through the White Mountains

The first thing we noticed when we got to the trailhead parking lot was all the flat tires… even a Jeep with off-roading tires had a flat! We were lucky and didn’t have any problems.

That’s going to be a pain to change after a 14 mile hike…

Soon after we arrived, it started raining so we just hung around and tried to take photos of the dramatic lighting without getting too wet.

Rain over the Sierras


We were hoping for clear skies to see the Perseids meteor shower since there is very little light pollution up there, but unfortunately the weather did not cooperate and it was cloudy all night, even raining quite a bit. We did get to enjoy a pretty nice sunrise though…


Since we didn’t stay up to see the stars, we were able to get an early start Sunday morning (for us – ate breakfast, packed up the tent, and on the trail before 7:30!) which was good because it’s better to get off the summit before afternoon thunderstorms hit. The hike up felt long, but considering we started at 12,000′, we made good time on the trail. We definitely appreciated the gradual slope though.


And along the way we saw tons of marmots which distracted us from the hiking (and slowed us down since Nathan had to photograph every single one!)


About 2 miles into the hike, we passed the UC Barcroft Research facility, where they study the effects of altitude on animals (like sheep and apparently they even tag squirrels for their studies!)

Check out the radio collar

The rest of the trail was pretty uneventful, just a gradual climb but with spectacular views across the Owens Valley, and then we finally got to see the peak.

White Mountain Peak

The final mile to the top was quite a bit steeper and felt tough at such high altitude, but we eventually made it to the peak just as a storm started making its way toward us. We took a few quick pictures and decided to head back down.

Storm brewing from the summit

The hike down was uneventful, but we did feel some drizzles and quick bit of hail as we hiked essentially between two storms.


After we made it to the car, we treated ourselves to a hot meal and started the drive back out. On our way we made a couple short side trips to see the groves of Bristlecone Pine Trees – the oldest living creatures in the world. Clearly an exciting stop for Katharine! Although the afternoon rain did sort of put a damper on things, so we didn’t spend as much time there, opting instead to drive home in time for dinner.


It was quite the weekend adventure for us, but more importantly gave us experience sleeping above 11,000′ and hiking above 14,000′. Luckily for us, we don’t seem to be too sensitive to the altitude, which gave us a lot of confidence heading into our Mt. Whitney trip!

Mt. San Gorgonio, 11,503 feet, is considered one of the ‘Big Three’ peaks in Southern California (the others being Mt. Baldy and Mt. San Jacinto) and was training hike #9 of 10 for us. We decided to do it as a 2 day backpack, following Modern Hiker‘s route via the South Fork Trail.

Since we did this trip back in July, the details are a little vague for us now. It was a pretty tough hike up to our campsite at Dry Lake (5.6 miles, 1800’ gain), but the trail was well made and there was some nice shade and streams to enjoy along the way.


The camping area near Dry Lake was reasonably crowded, but the view of the meadow beneath the mountain was worth it. We had some fun taking pictures in the evening light before dinner.


We made an early start the next morning because we had a tough climb to the summit (5.7 miles, 2000′ of gain) and then a long hike back to the car, bringing the total miles for the day to over 17 miles.

Nathan checking out the small wet section of Dry Lake in the morning

The hike to the summit involved a lot of switchbacks but a small memorial for the wreckage of a plane crash made for an interesting break spot.


Once we met up with the Sky High trail and got a glimpse of the Tarn (a bizarre looking valley) we knew we were getting close.


Soon we found ourselves above tree line and headed up the last 0.4 miles to the summit through the rocky terrain. Finally we reached the summit and took a much needed rest, taking in the amazing views.


After we were at the top for a little while, a large group of hikers started trickling in, apparently also training for Mt. Whitney, but as a day hike. The very crowded feel at the peak helped motivate us to head back down to camp to pack up. We got back down a little earlier than expected, leaving time for a short nap and much needed rest for our tired feet before hiking the last 5.7 miles out to the car. Overall it was a great training hike and definitely confirmed to us that doing Mt. Whitney as a 3 day backpacking trip would make it much more fun – hiking over 17 miles in a day was pretty tough and didn’t leave much time for taking photos!

After all the training and preparing and trip planning, we were pretty confident that we would be able to reach the summit of Mt. Whitney last weekend. And all of that training and planning absolutely paid off – we had an amazing three days in the high Sierra this week including a successful summit day on Monday. We definitely planned the itinerary completely within our abilities so that while the climb was still challenging at times, we were able to take our time and appreciate (and photograph) the amazing scenery around us. We will post a detailed trip report later, but here are a couple photos!

At the summit!

Sunrise at Trail Camp

This weekend we are headed to Big Sur for our last trip of the summer – a relaxing weekend enjoying the beautiful coastline and more luxurious accommodations. For us, that means a cabin instead of a tent and restaurant food instead of rehydrating a freeze dried meal!