Monday, October 12, 2009

Mt Whitney - First Attempt

Mt Whitney (14,505 feet or 4,421 m - the highest peak in the mainland US) is the last mountain I climbed as part of my training before my departure to the South Pole.

The weekend of Oct 3, my friend and I made our attempt to scale the mountain. Unlike most people, we did not plan this trip for a long time (some planned a year ahead). We got our multiday hiking permits in August. The plan was to do backpacking style. We were going to backpack to the the Trail Camp and spend the night there and ascend to the summit the next day. We did exactly that. Our backpacks were quite heavy. Hers was about 30 lbs and mine was almost 40 cuz I volunteered to carry our tent and cooking stuffs. My friend had not been training as much so it made sense for me to carry more.

We started out from Los Angeles at 5:30am on Sunday (10/4) and drove to Whitney Portal where the trail head starts. The drive was about 4 hours and mostly smooth except for one almost-a-misery event.

As we we passing along the freeways, we found so many gas stations so we figured there was no need to worry about the half full (or empty) gas tank. Little did we know, as we entered the stretch of the desert land on highway CA 395, there was no gas station when the gas tank light was on. There was no sign saying that there would be no gas for the next so ad so miles, at least not that both of us could see.

We were pretty much driving very conservatively, turning off everything, no fan, radio, AC and put on neutral on downhill and even on one small uphill section. We were driving in such stressful mode and I was so ready to push our car should it stop running. The highway was empty too. It was Sunday morning in a desert land after all.

After more than 20 miles of driving on warning- light-on, we thought to ourselves that it was it, we could not last any longer and there was a blue sign with some sort of a structure standing alone on the left of the road in the distance.

Expecting for a disappointment (as we passed a few building structures earlier and they turned out to be ghost or abandoned farm house), we found a savior as the sign growing bigger with the word Mobil. This gotta be one of most happiest moments in our lives, at least mine. We pulled over and filled the tank as full as possible. It could have been a disaster if we didn't find this little station. It's interesting that this tiny place carried free postcards of its own. I guess a lot of people had been in similar situation. We collected the cards as our souvenir for the trip.

We reached to the Whitney Portal before 10 and prepared our hike. It was a beautiful day, quite cold, about mid 40's F (7C). We donned our backpacks and put away all extra food and scented items in a bear locker (turned out it was a trash bin I didn't realized later!). We started our hike at 10:50.

The hike was very nice as the weather was cool but sunny. I was impressed with my friend as she didn't train for this hike, at least not with heavy backpack. She set the pace for the hike and it was a pretty good pace.

As we winding our way up the mountain, we met a lot of people who were descending. All of them could not make it to the top due to pretty bad weather the night before and the wind gust at the top. Apparently the wind was so strong it went at 70 miles/hr. It would definitely blow people off the trail. This was not a good news for us. Another bad news was we were told there was no water at the Trail Camp where we were going to spend the night. The lake at the camp was frozen. Despite the news, we kept going because the sun has been out all morning and hoped some of the ice were melting.

After a long 5h 30 mins we finally reached to the camp site. Carrying heavy backpack on a 6 miles long hike was no easy task. Now time to pitch the tent and prepare dinner. My friend job was to get water and I build the tent. This was not my first time pitching this tent but did it in the cold (in 30s or 0C) is no fun nor easy.

With some small struggles with the poles, I managed to erect the tent, just in time my friend came back with water. It turned out she had to hack the ice to get water by the edge of the pond. Her filter didn't worked as the water would freeze inside the tube. So I told her to forget about the clean water. We just had to boil it to kill bacteria and or things. Both of us were pretty much freezing but I think she was colder as she dealt with water while I was fighting with the tent.

Finally we started our stove and begin to boil some precious water. The tiny portable stove didn't mean act as camp fire but traces of heatwave on top of the kettle helped our blood to circulate in our hands. By the time the water boiled and gave off some steam, we poured it into our freeze dried food packages for our dinner. Boiling water on a high altitude (the Trail camp is at 12000f or 3657m) in cold temperature did take forever. I managed to boil some more of the water that I myself got from the lake. By the time we finish our dinner, the sky pretty much dark and time to retreat in our tent.

That night was cold. I had 0 degree (-18C) sleeping bag and was in two layers of clothes. So did my friend. Actually she put more on, pretty all she had. We were both cold in our bags and could not sleep well. I started to develop headache, first symptoms of AMS. I was not sleeping the whole night until my alarm went off at 5am. We "woke" up and exchanged our idea for the day. Turned out she had headache too and was not able to sleep. So I decided stay in until 7 and would make up our mind whether we should ascend.

By 7, the sun was out completely. The air was crisp and cold but fresh. The headache did not go away as I had hope for. We both decided not to take the risk and push ourselves. So down was the way to go. We broke the tent and packed up. It took almost an hour before we could descend.

On the way down, the sun shined brilliantly. Such a beautiful day for hiking. I did have a little regret that I could not go further up, but that thought was quickly dismissed. There was only two of us, we had to go up or down together. The mountain is here to stay and there will always be another time.

Also while zigzag-ing our way down the mountain, I realized that my refilled lake water was full of algae and dirt I could not detect last night. What could one do but drink it while the untreated water off the stream was more susceptible with problem. At least I had extra protein and fibre in my drink :)

We got down to Portal shortly before noon and called it a hike.

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