*Pre-Read Note: Unfortunately, due to poor connectivity, photos could not be uploaded in best quality to this post. We will load more pictures as soon as we are able to the ‘Photo Highlights’ page!
After approximately 15 days in the desert, we were ready to high-tail it to the alpine. Our next destination was California, specifically the High Sierras. Following Kolob Canyon in Zion, we packed up our home and drove five hours through…you guessed it…more desolate desert, including Death Valley National Park.
Death Valley’s stretch of highway spans roughly over 100 miles. Desolate it was, but not without its own way of beauty. Dark, towering peaks with fields of cracked soil below, the sky was hazy from the boiling air and wind. It was so hot there that illusionary lakes could be seen. It was a very barren, but beautifully dynamic place for being the lowest, hottest, and driest place in North America. We made one pit-stop at the Mesquite Sand Dunes. We were out of the car no longer than 15 minutes – long enough to snap a few photos before the wind picked up and a sand storm moved in. Quite a few camera-happy and without-water-tourists hiking the hot sands of the dunes were not so lucky to escape!
As we dropped out of the park, the High Sierras came into view. It was nearing early dusk, creating extraordinary lighting through the peaks and Sierra valley. We got excited and picked up the pace (as much as you can in the campervan) to Lone Pine, CA. Lone Pine is sort of a sleepy tourist town, but over 100 old-time and modern Western movies have been shot there. Photos of old-Western movie stars covered the walls of many restaurants and building-side murals. Even the old show, Bonanza, one I used to watch with my parents, was set here!
We grabbed some dinner and drove to ‘Movie Road’, which took us to an area called Alabama Hills (Alabama Hills is littered with climbing, bouldering and FREE camping!). The stars were starting to shine – the air was cool – and the silhouette of Mt. Whitney was in sight due-west. The dogs jumped out of the van, reinvigorated by the temperate air. Each of our dogs wear red nightlights that we turn on when they are scampering around in the dark. I turned Madi’s on, and the energetic Vizsla ran speedy figure eights throughout the brush, creating a hilarious light show for Eric and I. All of us slept well that night.
The next day was preparation day for our alpine feat. We had a one-day permit (which was all that was available to us at the time of booking) to climb Mt. Whitney (14,508ft), the highest 14,000ft peak in the lower 48. We knew a one day push would be long and hard, but we were psyched to do it! In prep for this adventure, we visited the ranger station to pick up our permit and ask about peak conditions (Whitney had gotten 8 inches of fresh snow about a week before we arrived…yikes). Lo and behold, we were able to claim a two night permit, which would end up being a God-send (you will understand why soon!). Then, we visited the local gear store (Elevations), picked up backcountry meals and supplies, organized personal gear, figured a boarding plan for the pups, and dialed in route details for the climb.
Our plan? Hike in late afternoon. Camp. Climb the technical East Buttress route (IV, 5.7, 11 pitches) of Whitney. Descend via the Mountaineer’s Route. Camp. Climb the Mithral Dihedral (IV, 5.10) on Mt. Russell. Hike Out.
That is, if everything went as planned. But, with alpine climbing one must be prepared for an ever-changing plan.
We packed up the trad gear, rope, ice axes, crampons, food, water, tent, and sleeping bags into our backpacks. With everything in our packs, our bags weighed roughly 50lbs – not bad, but certainly enough to make you feel the 3,700ft elevation gain over the three mile approach to Upper Boy Scout Lake. Upper Boy Scout Lake was a mile and another 1,000 + ft from the base of Mt. Whitney and our climb. We hiked up Tuesday, late afternoon, set up camp, made dinner, and settled in for a WINDY night of little sleep.
The alarm went off at 4:00 AM. Neither of us slept well, as with being at higher elevation and our tent sounding like it was going to blow away all night. When the alarm sounded, the wind was still howling. We had two options – get up, hike to the base and hope the wind dies down. Or, wait out the conditions in the tent for another hour. We opted to wait. The wind calmed slightly, and we decided we were clear to go. Two hours and all uphill later, we made it to the base of our climb. The Sierras are incredible. We were surrounded by such dramatic and rugged peaks, as well as pronounced, jagged spires. These sights are very different from the gentle Rocky Mountain scenes we are used to.
As we approached the base, another party of two was getting ready to start the same route. We knew we had about an hour to wait. The sun was shining, the wind was calm (for now)…so, we made no big deal of it. With the route being rated 5.7, too, we figured we would make quick work of the 11 pitches anyways. Oh boy.
We started up the rock. Even with some spicy sections of ice and snow covered rock, the first six pitches went smoothly with only one route-finding issue that set us back about 45 minutes. What was apparent, though, was that the wind had returned. Gale force winds, 50 mph + gusted the rock, pulling us off balance while we climbed. It was getting cold – very, very cold. By the fourth pitch, even with Eric lending me his jacket (gentleman), I was shaking uncontrollably. Both of our feet were already wet from climbing in snow, and climbing shoes are far from waterproof or insulated. Eric was concerned about my overpowering shivers. What was happening? Because my feet had gotten so cold, my body was working hard to send warm blood to my toes…leaving my core body to fend for itself. It did not take long for my body temperature to drop. Since we were close to halfway, I opted to push on, especially since Eric was not feeling the cold (yet). Then, at pitch seven, we got off route. For some unknown reason, we decided to follow a different route description than the one that had allowed us to perform perfectly to this point. However, we had researched the details of the entire mountain well enough to know what lay ahead. We were certain there was only easy terrain above us, no harder than 5.9. With one sketchy (and frankly, frightening) ice/snow covered, airy traverse and an additional pitch, we summited at about 5:00 PM. The route finding, conditions and my fierce fight with the cold, kept us running slow, and we needed to get down the mountain…we still had a long ways to go.
At this point, on summit, we both were shaking – neither of us could feel our feet. So, with a very quick summit snapshot, we put on our boots and crampons (essentially spikes you attach to your boots for traction). Ice axes in hand, we started our way down the Mountaineer’s Route, an 1,800 foot steep snow gully. The Mountaineer’s Route is where many folks will hike up and back down, of course, with boots, crampons and ice axe. We would much rather ski down something like this than hike down…it was a brutal, knee aching hour of constant downhill. The gully brought us to Iceberg Lake at 12,600 ft and an hour hike from our tent.
Fast forward that hour to our campsite…and our tent that was no longer there.
The gale force winds that we cursed all day and night had ripped our tent from its secured place and carried it away like a kite. We were already close to a 16 hour day, it was getting dark and the thought of hiking back to the car at this point was less than appealing. We decided to search for the tent no longer than 30 minutes. If it was not found, we would hike out. Luckily, though, we found it sitting 300ft below us in a brush patch. More importantly, our sleeping bags and pads were still in the tent. The tent was not functional, forcing us to an open-air bivy (sleeping outside) for the night. Normally, a bivy is fun and can be quite comfortable but – that wind. We examined what seemed like each and every boulder around Upper Boy Scout Lake for its wind-blocking qualities (Eric is now terrified of house shopping with me). We finally settled for the boulder with the white-picket fence and flower garden.
We jumped into our bags without eating dinner. We were exhausted and, oddly, we both slept incredibly well, despite the wind and no shelter. Around 3:00 AM, the wind finally calmed. I remember waking up and peaking my head out of my sleeping cocoon. The Milky Way smiled…and I smiled back.
The best part? I awoke again to the most beautiful sunrise. I poked Eric awake. Still wrapped up in our sleeping bags, we leaned our backs against our perfect boulder and watched the sun rise for over an hour. It was extraordinary and one of the many unforgettable moments of the trip.
Finally, we forced ourselves to pack up camp from this gorgeous venue. We loaded our packs and made the two hour hike back to the trailhead where we promptly ordered burgers and fries from the small concession at the parking lot.
We were tired, bloody and bruised from this epic of ours. We laugh at it, learn from it and cherish it, even with my tingly, frostbitten toes. We like to call this ‘Type 2’ fun…the type of fun and adventure that, while you are doing it, is rather miserable. But after? You are ready for more. Now on to Bishop and Yosemite…because we are ready for more.