Monday, September 6, 2010

Mt. Whitney aka "Hallelujah!"

Sight for sore eyes!

No more numbers, no more statistics.

During last week's Mt. Whitney adventure, I realized that for me, hiking is not about calculations or measurements or stopwatches, mileage accumulated, altitude gained - it's about truly living in the moment.

And what a moment!

To begin...

Mt. Whitney burrowed her big granite self in my gut about a year and a half ago, thanks to a sudden devouring of mountaineering literature, courtesy the outdoorsy aisle at Portland's print utopia, Powell's Books. I convinced some friends to join in my growing Sierra fever, and after winning an overnight permit in the somewhat bureaucratic lottery process, I busied myself with physical and mental preparations - lots of mileage and elevation and presentations and message boards and books and gear and early morning runs.

Even so, it snuck up on me. With only days left until our departure, I frantically ransacked REI and Adventure 16, gathered up every stitch of SmartWool in my closet, and purchased an asinine amount of Swedish Fish. I packed, then re-packed, and then stared at it all for a good long while.

And then we hit the road.


As viewed from the Eastern Sierra Inter-Agency Center

Three expertly crafted mix CDs later, we rolled into the Eastern Sierra InterAgency Visitor's Center to the anthemic strains of "One Moment In Time." We belted along with the lesser Whitney, until we stumbled out of the car in a daze to stare incredulously at her more luminous sister, jutting out of a distant alpine scene across US 395. Gobsmacked, I ran to the edge of the parking lot, loaded up with camera in one hand, iPhone in the other, snapping away in awe.

The familiar sawtooth ridge was unmistakable. I can't believe we're really here.

After a quick stop inside to retrieve our permit, pack tags, and WAG bags, we shoved all of our food and scented items into our bear canisters to avoid being jumped by what the Whitney message boards described as some verrrrry hungry mama bears loitering around the campground we'd be staying at that evening. This is also when I began compiling a private mental list I referred to as Things I Hate, something I'd add to frequently in the final few hours of our trip. [#1 - BEARS EATING ME SO THAT THEY CAN THEN EAT MY FOOD]

Leaving the Visitor's Center, we breezed through tiny Lone Pine, and angled up Whitney Portal Road, the Hallelujah Chorus of Handel's "Messiah" blasting through my speakers, cheesy grins slapped across our faces. One hairpin turn and thirteen quick miles later, we found our campsite at the Whitney Portal Campground, and stared slack-jawed at our surroundings - fatty pine trees, house-sized boulders, cascading streams...and not one hungry bear in sight. Hello, paradise! Hello, nirvana!

Cautious, we shoved every single thing we brought into the bear locker, ran around in a fit of delirious photo-taking, then headed up the mile-long recreation trail to the Whitney Portal itself. The altitude (8000') left us a bit winded, but we slowly wound our way alongside the creek, shouting out things like "This place is so freaking gorgeous!!!" and "Oh my god, I can't believe we're really here!!!" every minute or so, enamored by the emerald swimming holes, never-ending waterfalls, and epic bouldering opportunities left and right.

Gorgeous granite

At some point, Casey said, "This place is a destination in and of itself," something we'd repeat too many times to count in the days to come. This is when I started to realize that despite what we heard to the contrary, the Main Mt. Whitney Trail might actually be...awesome.

To the casual reader, I suppose this sounds confusing - why wouldn't it be awesome? This is the Eastern Sierras, after all - it should be all Handel's Messiah and '80s pop anthems and foaming at the mouth...

Except that every single printed word, every online exchange, every oratory tale we internalized about the Main Mt. Whitney Trail (MMWT) was that it generally sucked: Hordes of hikers, knee-wrecking granite steps, general eau de piss, never-ending switchbacks, deranged marmots.

Maybe we were just lucky, but we found absolutely none of this to be true. In fact, quite the contrary...


Whitney Portal Store

In the morning, we padded over to the Whitney Portal Store and hungrily eyed the simple menu. I opted for an overflowing plate of egger/hashbrown, while the rest of our party took a chance on Pancake. Yes...Pancake. Singular.

When Pancake came out, he came loaded onto three plates to support his massive circumference. Still, the force of hunger was strong, and while I tucked into my own epic portion, they were taking fork and knife to theirs. Laura and Rebecca split Pancake, eventually leaving him in a crumbling mess spread across five plates. Casey began excavating the center of Pancake, but quickly capitulated to the fluffy behemoth. But Tim held his ground, methodically shoveling in forkful after forkful of Pancake, until his plate was clean and his face was bulging in pain. Tim won breakfast; a true hero among men.

After a brief recombobulation pit stop in Lone Pine and a goodbye to Pancake-stuffed, Yosemite-bound Tim, we rolled through the Alabama Hills and scampered around a bit on the incredible rock formations there (including yet another utterance of "This place is a destination in and of itself.") Then we began the slow 7000' climb up to Horseshoe Meadows...and SNOW.


It was cold at Horseshoe Meadows. Freezing. Frigid. We layered on every stitch and still wished for more. I began to fear our upcoming night at Trail Camp, even higher at 12,000'. Stamp collecting...becoming appealing. [THINGS I HATE #2 - SNOW WHEN I'M CAMPING]

With frozen fingers, we quickly set up camp in a rather uninspiring site located off of the main parking lot, got in a quick nibble, and then assessed the complete overabundance of food we'd hauled up the mountain - successfully parsing out our ten tons of grub turned out to be the biggest challenge of the entire trip, leading to some tense moments and fearful flashbacks to the Chilnualna Falls trip. Suffice to say, none of us suffered from starvation on this trip.

Wilford Brimley?!?!

A late afternoon stroll took us to a horse-filled pack station attended by a man who can only be described as Wilford Brimley in chaps, a meeting with a scampy little trail dog, and a stroll across a very un-meadowlike meadow leading to a surprise encounter with three very large, very ornery-seeming, very wild cows. Cows. COWS. [THINGS I HATE #3 - BEING TRAMPLED ON A MOUNTAIN BY A PACK OF RABID WILD COWS]

While Laura braved crossing the hoofed beasts to attain some nearby pass, the rest of us beat it back to the campsite, and after some dinner and unsuccessful fire-starting, we retreated to our tents to recharge for the next day's ascent.


I woke up intermittently throughout the night, a mixture of excitement and really having to pee. [THINGS I HATE #4 - PEEING OUTSIDE WHEN IT IS ANYWHERE BELOW 65 DEGREES OUT] When I finally slunk out of my sleeping bag, I scraped against ice on the inside of the tent, thought once more about stamp-collecting, and eased myself out into the cold.

After a slow-moving morning, we barreled back to Whitney Portal, scarfed down another delicious breakfast (minus Pancake; lesson had been learned), and finally hit the trail. Once we crossed the John Muir Wilderness boundary, it was all brand new. Right away, we started up a long series of lazy switchbacks, and the higher we climbed, the wider the vista spread out below us - the Inyo Mountains, the Owens Valley, Lone Pine, and Whitney Portal. We marveled at the excellent construction of the trail (mad props, trailbuilders!), gawked at the scenery, and enjoyed a leisurely pace.

It wasn't until we came to the Lone Pine Lake junction, though, that the grandness smacked us on the ass. We could glimpse a bit of sapphire-blue water through the trees, and while I went to find a lofty pee perch, my friends went to investigate. [THINGS I HATE #5 - PEEING ON MOUNTAINS] When I joined them, I almost collapsed - Lone Pine Lake is basically a completely still, flat, blue mirror hanging right on the edge of the mountain, giving it the appearance of an alpine infinity pool. After a few spastic laps across the shoreline, I collapsed with a Snickers bar and a very, very satisfied grin.

Lone Pine Lake

From here, the trail turns into permit-only territory, and let it be said that neither on the way to Lone Pine Lake, nor on the way from the lake towards Trail Camp did we see more than a handful of people. We had the mountain practically to ourselves, a feeling that's incredibly hard to describe. For the time being, it was our mountain. Or at least, it let us think that.

After a few more switchbacks, the trail took a dip down and dropped us into magical fairytale land - Bighorn Park, a place that barely registered in all of our pre-trip recon. But it was one of the most magnificent sights on the entire trail - a wide swath of fluorescent green wetland, flanked by granite sentinels all around.

View from Bighorn Park

Sailing on our alpine high, we crossed into Outpost Camp, which was nearly empty, nary a whiff of pee to be smelled. A waterfall cascaded down into one corner, a creek burbled along one side, and once again, we thought,"A worthy destination."

A billion calories and several dry socks later, we made our way up past Mirror Lake, and into the lunar territory above the tree line, scampering up granite slabs and steps, marveling at the High Sierra majesty looming in front of us. By the time we reached the thin sliver of Trailside Meadow, I was a bit fatigued and ready to set up camp, but the promise of sleeping in Whitney's shadow urged me on to Trail Camp, where we all collapsed on a sandy slab just south of tent city, with just enough energy to set up our windblown tents, load up several layers of clothing, and boil up some water.

Closing in on Consultation Lake & Trail Camp

It was here that I realized - I needed to go to the bathroom. By that, I mean - I needed to use the WAG bag. For the uninitiated, the WAG ("Waste alleviating and gelling" or "What?? Ahhh...gross!!!!!!") bag is a necessity on Mt. Whitney, due to the intense foot (and waste) traffic and the nature of the mountain itself - granite does not an in-ground toilet make.

We'd all hoped to escape using our WAG bags, but I knew my time had come. I stood and stared at my bag for a while, and then announced that I was going to find a comfortable spot. My trailmates stared incredulously - "You're going to go for it?" "We want a full report afterwards." "Good luck!"

Nervously, I gathered my supplies and headed toward a big hump of rock at the far side of camp, away from tents and people and water, shielded from the wind. I unwrapped the bag, spread it out on the ground, and stared at it. FOR A LONG TIME.

Shitting in a bag is not natural.


But I shat in a bag, coaxed into a vague state of relaxation by the incredibly gorgeous setting sun. In fact, it would have been incredibly picaresque...had I not been SHITTING INTO A BAG.

Somewhat satisfied, I returned to camp, my deposit quadruple-bagged, slung from my shoulder. I felt strangely proud, even more when my friends inquired about the WAG experience. I recounted my epic adventure, gave them the necessary precautions, then hid that damn bag under a rock far, far away from my tent. They say the double-bagging system prevents odor leaks, but "they" weren't with me somewhere around the 18-mile mark the next day.

Exhausted from my sojourn, I slept like a rock, on a rock, at 12,000'.


I woke up sometime in the late, late evening or early, early morning with a dull thud of a headache wrapped around my skull. Worried about needing to pee in the middle of the night, I stopped drinking water when we rolled into Trail Camp, a rookie mistake I'll never make again. I slammed ibuprofen, and curled up next to my Camelbak, slowly sipping until the dull thud transformed into a mild annoyance, and woke up at 3:15am ready to hit the trail.

Strangely, in those first few minutes of the pre-pre-pre-dawn morning, we were all moving fairly quickly - redressing, boiling water, sorting out our daypacks. For me, it was the excitement, the need to pee, and the magical tricks the nearly-full moon was executing across the range.

But then we crashed, and sluggishly choked down some oatmeal, sulking onto the trail in complete silence. But after a brief stop on the third or fourth switchback to remove a few unnecessary layers, we hit our stride. Laura suggested we turn off our headlamps, and so we did, guided quickly above Trail Camp by the light of the moon. We flicked on our lamps around a few icy spots (including the notorious cable section), and surprisingly quickly found ourselves on the homestretch of the infamous 99 switchbacks just as the dawn was breaking behind us. We stopped occasionally to watch the incredible alpenglow light show play out on Mt. Muir to our right, first a faint pink, then a deep salmon, and finally settling into an Oompa Loompa orange before the sun illuminated the sky - a visual experience I'll never forget.

Alpenglow rules!

When the sign for Trail Crest came into view, we practically bounded up to it. A few photos and a slightly demoralizing descent later, we were on the backside of the mountain, picking our way through a scramble of talus chunks, easily my least favorite part of the trail. Occasionally, I thought about what would happen if I fell straight down to Sequoia National Park below, but mostly I focused on counting the Windows (not bad at all, scaremongers!), and closing in on the backside of Keeler's Needle.

On the last mile to the summit, I realized that I would make it to the top. I slowly chugged along, wind-chapped, but thrilled, and finally saw Casey on the trail above me, working his way up the backside of the Whitney massif. I waved and he waited, and then we slowly picked our way up together.

Then the one thing the trip reports and speakers got right - the moment when you get just far enough up on the backside to see the Smithsonian Institute hut above you is a moment you'll never forget. Tears sprung into the corners of my eyes - in fact, they're threatening to well up there now as I write this. What an unforgettable, incredible, indelible moment. I couldn't believe it. I kind of still can't.

Summit hut, finally!

I slid my gloved hands across the rock walls of the hut as I walked past it, then found the summit plaque and laid down next to it. The only other people on the summit - 3 hikers we met at the start of our journey - were headed down, so it was just Casey and I for a few minutes, until Laura and Rebecca joined us. I had a a Titanic "king of the world" moment, and just laughed and laughed and laughed with joy. It was perfect.

I DID IT!!!!!!


The 11 miles back to Whitney Portal weren't my favorite in hiking history. The slight downhill on several talus sections was slightly heart-stopping, the 99 switchbacks seemed like 199, and the hard granite slabs and steps were a bit more jolting in reverse. [THINGS I HATE #7 - FALLING INTO THE ABYSS] [THINGS I HATE #8 - DOWNHILL] [THINGS I HATE #9 - CARRYING A BACKPACK] [THINGS I HATE #10 - CARRYING MY OWN SHIT IN A BAG] I felt fatigued, and the last few miles, nauseated, until I gave a sudden dry heave right at the John Muir Wilderness sign. And then we walked down and out, and right over to the Whitney Portal Store for one last epic meal.


In the week since returning from Whitney, I've relived every mile of trail, flipped through my photos more than a dozen times, and thought about how to process it all. I stood on top of the continental United States, something I dreamed of doing for a long time, something that almost seemed impossible to a girl who was afraid of the monkey bars as a kid.

I feel different, in a good way. It was a mental and physical challenge, spread well over a year in preparation. Whitney's been a part of my life all this time, and to finally have that communion on her rocky slopes and summit was undeniably triumphant. I think I truly understand that I really can do anything.


Summit dance


I have no idea why it's not showing the full photos - to view them in all of their glory:

What Would Ed Do?

I've said it before, I'll say it again - Ed would be proud. Damn proud.



  1. Brilliant. I'm so amazed by you, Shawnté. You are my hero. From now on, while I'm hiking, I'll be making decisions after asking myself, "What would Shawnté do?"

  2. Great post, Shawnté. I like the photo treatment. After seeing both yours and Modern Hiker's take on the trip, I may reconsider my Whitney veto. Aloha!

  3. What a well written post! I think you captured your trip very well :)

    Before my second time to Mt. Whitney I spent a few nights at Horsehow Meadows, it was cold then too (August).

  4. Enjoyable read, Shawnté! It sounds like an epic experience. After all, how many people really get to poop in a bag?