Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Day 30: Conquering Mount Whitney... Part 2

The night was cold--much colder than anything else we had suffered on the trail thus far. Karolina woke up at about 3:00 in the morning and noticed a line of headlamps marching up from Guitar Lake.

"Are they hiking?!" she asked me, astonished. It was very unusual to see people hiking before sunrise, and it was 3:00 in the morning. Sunrise was hours away.

But I knew what was happening. They had Summit Fever. They wanted to reach the top of Mount Whitney to watch the sun rise.

Sunrise was coming....
"Not all of them will make it," I told Karolina. The climb from Guitar Lake to our location was steep and long, and some of them will underestimate the amount of time and effort it would take to get up here. "They'll miss the sunrise. Could you imagine, waking up at 3:00 to get up here in time to watch the sunrise, then not make the sunrise? I bet that's gotta be disappointing!"

I went back to sleep, and Karolina tried to, but she had Summit Fever, anxious and excited to finally be at the end of another journey. She also had trouble sleeping due to the extreme cold. For the first time on the hike, her sleeping bag wasn't quite keeping her warm enough. It looks like we found the limits of her bag. I was approaching the limits of my own sleeping bag as well. I wasn't cold  inside of my bag, but I certainly felt a constant chill.

The hikers from Guitar Lake started passing our campsite by around 4:30 in the morning, and this really set Karolina on edge. Hikers were passing us! She might miss the sunrise at the top! She couldn't sleep anyhow, was cold, and decided to start packing up camp in the darkness. I stayed in my sleeping bag saying that I needed light for photos, but she could go on without me. I'll catch up later.

Karolina hit the trail a little after 5:00. She filled up her bear canister with food, trash and other items she wouldn't need at the summit. It was 1.9 miles to the top, then 1.9 back to where we camped. No reason to carry extra gear or weight that wasn't necessary. Unlike the dumbass from the day before, though, Karolina wasn't going to let marmots raid her pack. The marmots couldn't get into the bear canister, and she hid it in a crevice between two rocks to discourage human troublemakers from getting into her stuff. Her pack and the rest of her gear she would take with her.

After Karolina left, I started getting itchy to go. It seemed wrong to let her summit by herself in the dark and I kind of felt like I had abandoned her. I wondered if she felt the same about me--did she feel like she had abandoned me? And I knew the top at the summit would be brutally cold. It didn't seem fair to make her wait at the top for me, freezing to death the whole time.

The summit of Mount Whitney is that flat area furthest away from the camera. You can kind of see the shelter at the top in this photo, but it's just a tiny blip. You'd never know it was a shelter from looking at this photo. Sunrise hasn't happened yet, but it's obviously close!

It was still quite dark out, but I started packing up camp anyhow. I shouldn't let Karolina get too far ahead of me. I skipped breakfast--it was just too darned cold to eat my usual morning cereal. I ate some snacks out of my bag for energy. I'd eat breakfast on the way back down when the sun was out and it might be a little warmer. I too left behind my bear canister filled with food and heavy items I wouldn't need at the summit, hidden in a crevice under a rock. Then I started hiking. Karolina had about a half hour head start on me, and I wondered if I could still reach the summit before sunrise. Probably not, but it wasn't impossible either.

I started hiking as fast as I could. Not so much to catch up with Karolina, but just to stay warm. It was cold! So cold, in fact, my water bottle was half frozen. I had on a couple of shirts to layer up, wore my fleece jacket and a windbreaker, and wore two buffs on my head, but I was still cold. I needed to hike quickly to stay warm.

By the time I started hiking, there was a hint of dawn approaching. Just barely a hint, but it was coming. Taking photos was difficult. I had to stop and set my camera on a rock to steady it, and the photos still came out slightly blurry. I had to take off a glove with each photo, and my hand would almost immediately turn numb.

As the hike progressed, the sky continued getting lighter and lighter. Sunrise was approaching and eventually it became clear that there was no way I'd make it to the top before sunrise. I wondered if Karolina had made it. She really had her heart on watching the sunrise from the top.

Mount Whitney loomed in the distance. I could see it, and the first morning sun started lighting it up. Sunrise had started. The light at the summit quickly dropped lower and lower down the mountain, reaching my location in just a few minutes.

And sunrise, at least! I didn't quite make it to the top in time for sunrise, but I rather liked the dramatic cliffs in the foreground which wouldn't have happened at the top, so just as well....

I missed the sunrise at the top, but that was okay. I didn't have my heart set on it like everyone else around me seemed to. And, as it turned out, there were quite a few dramatic viewpoints along the way with steep mountain cliffs outlining the sunrise that were absolutely jaw-dropping and beautiful. It suddenly occurred to me that this section of the trail might actually be prettier for sunrises than the actual summit--a thought that had never even crossed my mind before!

I finally arrived at the summit about 20 minutes after sunrise had started. I poked my head into the hut at the top looking for Karolina thinking she might be in there trying to stay warm. She wasn't, but it was definitely crowded with a dozen other people trying to stay warm. They moved over to make room for me, but I waved them off saying that I was just looking for someone, but that they certainly all looked cozy in there!

Then I headed to the actual high point of the mountain--the highest piece of land anywhere in the contiguous United States at 14,505 feet above sea level. Nobody on land in these 48 states was higher than me right now. Nobody.

I found Karolina nearby, tucked into her sleeping bag and leaning against a boulder and watching the sun rise.

I sat down next to her. "Congratulations!" I told her. "You did it! You conquered the John Muir Trail!"

I asked Karolina if she had made it up in time to watch the sunrise. She had, then she showed me photos on her camera to prove it. We watched the sunrise for a bit before Karolina got up and packed her sleeping bag back into her pack and we started walking around the summit for photos and videos. We took a lot of photos and videos.

I had a special task to perform. I brought my water bottles with me. The one-liter bottle I carried was by now empty of water. I had finished that water off the night before while making dinner. I opened up the bottle and captured some fresh, Mount Whitney air. We all know that air pressure can crush containers as it descends in elevation, but I wanted to see what a nearly 15,000 foot drop in elevation would do to the container. I've never tried such an extreme air pressure test before.

I opened this water bottle at the summit of Mount Whitney, 14,510 feet or so above sea level. (The mountain is only 14,505 feet above sea level, but I opened it up near my head about five feet above the ground level. So... 14,510 feet!)

For those who might not realize it, Mount Whitney--the highest point in the contiguous United States at 14,505 feet above sea level--is less than a hundred miles away from Badwater Basin, Death Valley--the lowest point in the United States at 282 feet below sea level. Karolina and I thought it would be fun to go from the highest point today to the lowest point tomorrow--a difference of 14,787 feet. And I was curious what nearly 15,000 feet of air pressure could do to my water bottle.

So we took a lot of photos, as well as a bunch of videos for possible use in our upcoming music video, freezing to death the entire time. The sun was out and quickly warming the air, but it was still cold. It would take awhile to warm up to comfortable temperatures.

And then Karolina brought out a fake mustache which she applied to her upper lip. One of our first days on the hike, I had joked that by the time she reached the end of the trail, she'll have grown some hair on her chest. Figuratively, of course, not literally. She thought this was funny and got the idea to put on a fake mustache when she reached Mount Whitney. This was the last thing she had purchased at a craft store just before we left Bishop. She wanted to show that she "grew hair on her chest," but wanted to "grow" it somewhere she could actually show people--on her face!

So she applied the oversized, ridiculous handlebar mustache to her lip, and then we took a bunch more photos of that.

Karolina grows some hair on her lip!

When we finished with the photos, it was time to head back down. We stopped at our old campsite to retrieve our bear canisters--completely unmolested by marmots and people. We ate breakfast and brushed our teeth. The whole time, Karolina kept the mustache on. She intended to hike all the way back to the trailhead about 10 miles from the summit while wearing it. She certainly got a lot of strange looks from people passing in the other direction! But she'd explain: "I just finished the John Muir Trail and grew some hair on my chest." They all thought it was hilarious and brilliant.

At the Mount Whitney Trail junction was a long line of abandoned backpacks, which sent me into another mini rage about wilderness ethics. What is wrong with these people?! I wanted to throw all their packs over the side of the mountain. I didn't, but it was awfully tempting. Hey, the packs were abandoned. Anything could happen to an abandoned pack.... I hoped a ranger would show up soon and issue every one of them tickets. They'd make a fortune!

A lot of hikers left their packs completely unattended while summiting Mount Whitney. Irresponsible idiots! (That bear canister I'm okay with--animals can't get into that. The rest of the gear--irresponsible!)
And--no surprise--Mr. Marmot was back to poke through all those packs. People--don't leave your packs unattended for hours at a time in the wilderness. Animals will get into them!
We split off from the John Muir Trail, now hiking to Whitney Portal--the nearest trailhead another 8 or so miles away.

The trail soon went down a section of trail called the "99 switchbacks" because it goes down a steep section in 99 continuous switchbacks. It's a dramatic trail, to be sure! Karolina was happy she didn't have to go up it. Karolina seemed amazed that a lot of people were day-hiking Mount Whitney. Round-trip--it was about 20 miles for them, and included this steep series of switchbacks. It's not an easy day-hike!

Along the way, we passed a wall of icicles, where we took a bunch more photos.

A wall of icicles!

As we descended in elevation and the morning progressed, the trail warmed up considerably and our many layers of clothing started coming off.

The rest of the hike down was uneventful. I joked with the hikers coming in the opposite direction, "Don't do it! It's not worth it! Go back while you still can!!!! Save yourself!" The usual antics. =)

After six miles or so, Karolina's mustache started falling off and eventually she gave up trying to keep it on, hiking the last hour or two without it.

As we neared Whitney Portal, I tried pulling out my phone to see if I got cell phone reception. Lone Pine was clearly visible ahead--my cell phone had a straight shot from here to Lone Pine. If I didn't get service, the only reason would be because it was too far away.

I did get service, though, and gave my mom a call. I had arranged to have her pick us up today, but exactly where we planned to meet was left open since we weren't sure who would make it into town first. If she was already in Lone Pine, I'd ask for her to drive up to the Whitney Portal trailhead and pick us up. If not, Karolina and I would try to hitch a ride down into town and meet her there.

Mom was already in the area, though, and I told her we were probably 15 or 20 minutes from the trailhead. Come pick us up! =)

We arrived at the trailhead, but I didn't see my mom. Maybe she hadn't arrived yet, and we started walking up to the small store near the trailhead.

I thought I heard a very faint, "Ryan!" I looked around, sure it was my mom calling me, but I didn't see her anywhere. Karolina hadn't heard anyone calling my name, though. We continued up to the store where I took a couple of photos. Karolina went in to look around, but I told her that I swear I heard my name being called and that I wanted to do a quick walk through the parking lot just in case my mom was around there somewhere.

And I found my mom a couple of minutes later, walking up towards us. That was her I had heard calling us. She also expected me to be with Karolina. "What did you do with Karolina?" she asked--almost like she suspected Karolina was dead and covered with rocks on Mount Whitney.

My mom picks us up at the Whitney Portal trailhead.

"She's just looking around the general store.... You know, girl stuff. *rolling eyes* Can't help but shop." =)

I threw my pack in the truck then walked back up to the store to get Karolina. We loaded up and started driving out of the parking lot when we spotted a hiker trying to hitch a ride down the mountain. It would be a bit crowded, but we could make room for him.

We pulled over and he joined our merry group on the way back to Lone Pine. He too had just finished the John Muir Trail. He had parked his car in Line Pine just before starting his hike so already had a car in town. He just needed to reach his car. No problem! We dropped him off by his car.

Then we headed back to the hostel that Karolina and I had stayed in when we resupplied over Kearsarge Pass. We were already familiar with the layout of the town having been here less than a week before.

The hostel also sold rooms to groups, and with three of us, we decided to get a private room for the night. It was only $15 more than if we got individual beds in the bunk rooms, but we'd all be together and have our own room. It was worth the extra $15.

For dinner, we stopped at a taco truck that other hikers had told us was great. I ordered the nachos, which were absolutely awful including badly burnt chips. The service was extraordinarily slow as well. It took close to a half hour before all of our food was ready. It's a food truck! It's not supposed to take a half hour to get your food! None of us were happy with the service.

We also spent the evening doing laundry and taking showers, but Karolina and I certainly needed those tasks done.

And then we were done. The John Muir Trail was finished. We could see Mount Whitney from Lone Pine. Karolina seemed full of pride, pointing at the top and saying, "Yep, I watched the sun rise from up there this morning."

Our adventure wasn't quite done, though.... Badwater Basin, the lowest point in the contiguous United States, was less than a hundred miles away. Mom volunteered to drive us out there tomorrow.... it would make a nice extra credit assignment after our summit of Mount Whitney today. =)

So stay tuned... next time, we'll be visiting Death Valley!

Sunrise over the hut at the top of Mount Whitney.

Karolina and I, at the top of the world! And trying very hard to stay warm....
Karolina took this photo of me through the window in the shelter.
Karolina signs the Mount Whitney register.

Mount Whitney is the flattish peak on the right side of this photo.
The 99 switchbacks is an infamous section of this trail--but fortunately, Karolina and I would only have to go down it, not up!

Karolina was sad to leave the trail. We would not be coming back when we got off the trail this time... =(
Whitney Portal Store
My water bottle--after descending 6,140 feet from the summit of Mount Whitney. It's definitely a little thinner than it was at the top! But there's still a whole lot of elevation to go down....

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