Monday, September 15, 2014

The Sunflower and Stargazers Hike Mount Whitney

Well...the Sunflower and the Stargazers teardrops stayed comfortably in the Lone Pine Campground while my husband, our Stargazers friends and I hiked up Mount Whitney. All summer we've been training to hike to the summit of the tallest peak in the contiguous U.S. and last weekend we made it to the top of the 14,508 foot peak after two days and 22 miles...and some very sore feet and knees.


Mount Whitney is about five hours south of us, near the entrance to Death Valley, California. We'd heard about people attempting the challenging hike in one day, but we all decided to do it in two days—spending a night just below the summit at 11,800 feet at Trail Camp to rest and acclimate to the high altitude. We made a mini vacation out of it and brought our teardrops as a basecamp to the foot of the Sierra Nevada in Lone Pine. Our last night before hitting the Whitney Trail was spent sitting around the fire, eating pasta and really appreciating our teardrop beds.



We hit the trail at about 9:00 the next morning with 30+ pound backpacks. Mount Whitney's trail is divided up into several sections. The first three miles are switchbacks straight up into the foothills of the John Muir Wilderness. The views are stunning and you hike through pine and aspens forests, near small creeks and alpine lakes and essentially over one mountain range before even seeing Mount Whitney and the Sierra Crest—towering in the distance like a granite castle. After the first backpack camp, Outpost Camp, the trail gets very steep and rocky— a giant boulder Stairmaster. These first six miles up to Trail Camp took us nearly six hours.



Once we got to Trail Camp (two hours earlier than we thought we would), we pitched our tents and grabbed some dinner. The Stargazers were in a small two-man tent, my husband brought his bivy and I have a 6x8 tarp. Every one of these various sleeping arrangements were awful—we really missed the teardrop beds! After filtering some water in the tiny lake at the camp, watching the sun go down and the stars light up, we all headed to bed for a fitful night sleep. Sleeping at altitude is considered difficult and I tossed and turned most of the night before finally getting about five hours of sleep.



We hit the trail again at first light. The alpenglow on the Sierra Crest above camp was worth the very early morning. However, the next part of the trail was the notorious 99 Switchbacks. Yes, there are 99 of them. These took us another two hours and we finally reached the Trail Crest section of the Trail where you can see into the Sequoia National Forest and south along the Sierra Nevada as it descends into the Mojave Desert. We were all doing pretty well with the altitude. At this point we had hit 13,000 feet with only slight headaches and slight difficulty breathing, but it was cold. Probably about 25 F with the wind chill. We actually met two guys coming back down who had to turn around two miles from the summit. They were from the Los Angeles area and this was their first 20+ mile hike. They had attempted it in one day, had not anticipated the altitude issues and the terrain, and realized it was too dangerous for them to proceed.




The Trail Crest (my favorite part of the trail) was steep, rocky and had some incredible views on both sides of the trail. We had to pick our way carefully across this section and it took another three hours to complete. The last portion of the trail to the summit, we were all very quiet and had to just will our feet and legs to keep moving. Once we saw the small, stone hut at the summit, it was a sight for sore eyes.



I was ecstatic to be at the top (with about 40 other people) and had a sudden burst of energy. I was not affected at all by the altitude, but after a quick snack, writing our names in the registry and taking some photos, my husband started to have trouble breathing and his hands were beginning to get numb. We decided to head down quickly. Well...quickly is not the right word. Getting back through the Trail Crest, down the 99 Switchbacks, packing up at Trail Camp and heading back down the trail took us another five hours. At the end of the hike down, my feet and knees were killing me and the last three miles took me nearly three hours as I limped down the mountain. Luckily, I have three wonderful campmates who went ahead to the restaurant at the trailhead to pre-order me a cheeseburger.


Getting back to the Lone Pine camp and the teardrops could not come soon enough. After a quick shower and a beer, I curled up in the fleece sheets of the Sunflower and slept for the next 10 hours.

Hikers and backpackers need permits to hike the tallest point in the Lower 48. These can be obtained from a lottery in February. Toilet business is taken care of in a WAG Bag provided by the permit office. Fun stuff...


Photos by Christina Nellemann, Harry Thomas and Brancy

10 comments:

  1. Thank you for sharing this dramatic story (and photos!) and congratulations on an extraordinary accomplishment. Those of us who have never attempted such an endeavor don't know anything about the rigors of a climb like this. Wow. You did it!

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    1. Thank you so much, ML. It was one of toughest physical things I've ever done..and I've done a few triathlons!

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  2. Congratulations on making the climb and thank you for sharing the experience!

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    1. I love your handle, Lid Lifter. Perfect. Thank you for your comment. Yep, that mountain should not be taken lightly.

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  3. Wow. I was thinking bucket list. A 14footer, State hight point,teardrop base camp, overnight climb...
    What, wag bag?

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    1. Yes. My friend was having nightmares about using the WAG Bag, but none of us needed to use them...thank Heaven. We now have them as souvenirs.

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  4. Seriously, what did you do to secure the teardrops when you were hiking?

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    1. We both have coupler locks that can be used alone on the teardrop or while it's hitched to the car. We lock all the doors and the hatch and we also let the camp host know what our plans are.

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  5. Congratulations, you did it!
    Love the photos & story.

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