Nov 20, 2016

Late Season

I've been idle the past month, running and hiking around 50km per week and not traveling very far from home.  It's been a good respite letting my body and mind focus on different things.  This past weekend was my final weekend in that mode before the upcoming winter and I wanted a quiet and peaceful trip.  I drove up to the Southern Sierra hoping to reach the summit of Mt. Whitney via the Main Trail with a night camping at Trail Camp at 12K ft.  I've summit Whitney nine times but never have I camped on the way up the eastside so it was to be a different experience.
There was a death on the Mountaineers Route this past Tuesday and predictably I got the "you might not return" spiel from a ranger at the Eastern Sierra Visitor Center.  I started my 2-day backpack at 4pm at the desolate Whitney Portal.  I prefer the Mountaineers Route but not knowing the conditions as well as being alone I decided to stick to the easy and mindless trail.
After packing my (very) cold clothing in my pack I headed out on the main trail at 4pm and to a crisp 37 degrees.  There was hardly anyone out on the trail much to my delight and I hiked for 3.5 hours, 2.5 of which were in the dark.  The moon had not come up allowing the stars to show their brilliance on the hike up.  Unfortunately, thinking I was going to breathe some fresh mountain air on the way up, the air had a tinge of smokey smell to it much to my disappointment and at sundown could see the Owens Valley streaked with a thin layer of smoke.  I donned microspikes at 11K to navigate the hard snow and weaved my way up to Trail Camp which I saw 2 individuals camping for the night.  By this time the wind was constant with strong intermittent 60mph gusts.  I tried to find a protected spot but there was no hiding from the erratic winds.  It turns out my 3-season tent was not up for the challenge.  All night I tended to the tent, placing large rocks inside the corners of the tent while tying down the fly.  Even then the gusts would toy with the rocks and it made for a sleep deprived night.  I got up early, hid my tent and sleeping bag in some rocks and headed up.  Microspikes and all my (5) layers were adequate.  Strong easterly winds were piercing and although I don't know the exact temp my water froze in my bottle after a short time.  I would venture to guess it was single digits with wind chill.  My toes even in my more substantial Salomon X-Alp were getting painful and once I reached Trail Crest at 13600 ft the winds were even more ferocious.  It made me off balance as well and didn't make my feet any better.  After descending from Trail Crest to the west side of Whitney a short way, the gusts with debris stopped me cold a couple of times.  Knowing I had a 4.8 (2.4 to/from) miles of wind exposed trail to go before reaching the summit (and returning to the same spot) I didn't think I could have remotely enjoyed being blasted by the wind for the next 2-3 hours so I turned back.  The speed of the cloud cover moving over the Whitney Massif was alarming partway down so I figured it was a good decision, looking for any rationale.  Nonetheless, I enjoyed my quiet hike down back to the Portal.  I'll come back in the winter to attempt a summit bid via the MR route. 

(FYI, on the way back on Hwy 395 there was a massive smoke plume coming from the (way) southern Sierra near Olancha.)

Anyway here are some photos:

Smoke in the distance

Wind shaped clouds


Didn't stay here much longer.

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