(original post 11/11/2013)
This week, I made a successful solo ascent of Mt Whitney, the highest mountain in the Continental U.S.
I arrived in Bakersfield late Nov 4th by jet plane and rented a car for the 3 hour drive to Lone Pine, CA. I took highway 178 through the canyon, which turned out to be a treacherous drive at night when you're tired. There are no rest stops or gas stations for about 60 miles, and it makes you wind through turn after turn of various radii. There are a few guard rails in select locations, but you can easily fall down a 60+ ft cliff coming off the narrow single lane road. It's a fun road, don't get me wrong, but it's clearly dangerous.
I didn't really have a plan for lodging, so I pulled into a rest stop off highway 395 and slept in the back of the car. Surprisingly, I slept like a baby.
The next morning I went to the Lone Pine ranger station to get the permit and other red tape taken care of. Because they limit the amount of climbers on the mountain at any given time, they employ a lottery system to determine who gets a permit and who doesn't. Fortunately, they suspend this limit on climbers in the winter months, because so few people are masochistic enough to do a winter ascent (LOL).
I hiked from the trailhead up to about 10,300 ft and set up camp. The views were awe inspiring and the sunset in Inyo County is always amazing. Temps dropped below freezing, but I stayed warm in my negative 30 degree sleeping bag. I slept about four hours that night.
Second day was an easy hike up to 12,000 feet and a new camp well above tree line. The exposure to the wind above tree line never goes unnoticed. I started getting mild acute hypoxia, but no signs of AMS (altitude mountain sickness). So far so good. Temps dropped further that night but I stayed plenty warm. However, because of my rapid acclimation schedule, I only got two hours of sleep. As a general rule, the faster you push your acclimation schedule, the more insomnia you have.
Third day was interesting. I ran out of water so I went looking for a suitable water source. According to my U.S. Geological Survey map, There was a stream of water above and below a lake right next to camp. It turns out that this information was useless, because everything was frozen solid. The streams, the lakes, even the waterfall was completely frozen (see pic below). So I grabbed my ice ax and walked across the frozen lake looking for signs of liquid water. About 10 feet out from shore, I dug a hole with my ice ax and was able to refill my water bottles. Success!
I was feeling pretty good about this until I headed back to camp. I had left my food in a bag that was open and the marmots had ransacked about half my food while I was out getting drinking water. Some of it was turned into empty packaging and some of it was just plain gone :-(
The next day was summit day. I set my alarm for 6:30 am and got about two hours of sleep again (and a very light sleep, at that). I strapped on my crampons and grabbed my ice ax and made my bid for the summit. I met two guys who were brothers on the trail. One lived in Montana, the other from Boston(?). We decided to stick together until we reached the summit. I guess it wasn't to be solo after all. After four hours of trudging through mixed snow and ice, we gained the summit. Two others were there that had come up the north side "mountaineer's route." The typical summit party/celebration ensued. The three of us had broken our personal records that day, and we each immortalized ourselves by signing the summit register.
Now comes the hard part. It was roughly 11 am when we summited. I hiked back down to 12K ft and quickly disassembled camp. I was back to hiking solo by this point and decided to head back to the car. After hiking many hours, the sky turned pitch black with almost no moonlight. I found myself spooked by the possibility of encountering bears on the trail in the dark, so I started singing to myself, as to alert wildlife of my presence. After about an hour of that, my voice started to strain, so I just started banging my ice ax on every rock I encountered on the trail. My method worked because I didn't get eaten by a bear, LOL.
I didn't get back to the trailhead until 7:35 pm. Which means I hiked for roughly 12 hours that day. I covered about 9,000 ft of elevation change over 16 miles, mostly with a full pack on. I ran out of quick carbs because of the marmots and I didn't feel like burning daylight by cooking a hot meal. So I was completely drained. Almost delirious, I decided the only proper thing to do was meet back up with the two blokes from the mountain in "downtown" Lone Pine for a beer.
That pretty much seals up the mountain climbing season for me. I did six mountain climbs this year with lots of friends involving four "fourteeners" and two state high points (NM and Utah) with an overall 83% success rate. I'm already cooking up big plans for next year. Thanks to everyone who supported me. To those who climbed with me this year, hopefully I'll see you again at a trailhead or big wall next year.