Inyo National Forest
Sequoia National ParkI was the ripe old age of 14 in 1991, so my first trip up to Mount Whitney was not my own plan or execution. Instead, it was part of the intermediate backpacking unit at Camp Mountain Meadows. Or at least slightly higher than beginner. It may well have been my third backpacking trip ever and the previous one did not go entirely to plan. The first one was when I was 9. This one also did not go as planned, but in two ways inconsequential to getting to the goal. First, permits had not been reserved for our group, so the original plan to go in at Onion Valley and proceed south had to be scrapped when walk-in permits could not be obtained for a group the size of a Girl Scout Camp unit. Instead, we camped out at the Cottonwood Lakes backpacker camp at the trailhead (which I remember being quite crowded) and Klikitat got up at 4AM to sit next to the ranger station to be first in line when they opened. I think she said the second person in line came at 6AM. We got our permits.
In case the suspense is causing stress, the other way in which the trip did not go as planned is that we packed fresh vegetables for the first two nights. Unfortunately, broccoli will not last to the second night and will take the rest of the vegetables with it. We had to carry spoiled vegetables with us for the rest of the trip because Leave No Trace does not allow one to bury that. I include this because one more person learned this the hard way on my trip up Mount Williamson. He did eat it, but it was not a pleasant experience. It does not even have to be very hot. My cheese did not even sweat tucked in under my basic blue mat while the broccoli next to it fermented.
|The map for Cottonwood Lakes to Whitney Portal via New Army Pass and Mount Whitney. Click it and zoom it and it will make a lot more sense.|
On the map, our rough route is marked in purple and camps are dark blue dots. I do not remember where we camped in the middle, just the first, penultimate, and last nights. I tried to extrapolate the middle, but came up with two spots. That makes five nights for a five day trip. But the route is correct.
Day 1: We climbed. The climb was not memorable, at least not yet. We got to one of the lakes along the way. I am fairly sure we did not get up to one of the higher lakes and I have memories of more complications on the map than can be seen now. Memories are so convoluted. Seems to me we managed some route finding difficulties around one lake. Considering trails go everywhere up there, that is both silly and possible. We were expecting some soggy bits up ahead when we stopped.
|One of the Cottonwood Lakes, quite possibly #3, scanned from my small set of photographs from the trip.|
This is when we got out our fresh vegetables and found them inedible. Our setup for cooking had us all paired off sharing a canister stove and #10 can to cook in. This was before cans started being lined with things. We cooked one pot between the two of us and shared out of it. The dinner that night was supposed to be like the night before: Top Raman and lots of vegetables. I do not recall what we ended up eating instead nor being hungry at any point. Truth is, I had to learn to be hungry while backpacking and I had not done so yet.
I am pretty sure we were bear bagging it most of the trip. Of course, rocks do not tie well onto the ends of ropes, so we would use something that could. A boot. We are probably lucky we did not get any stuck in trees in our efforts to hang food bags up high. (Rocks do tuck nicely into bags which in turn tie nicely to the ends of ropes for those who do not want to risk losing a boot.) Of course, no trees in the area were suitable, so we would have found a compromise tree that worked for us for that night.
Sleeping arrangements are another thing I cannot quite remember. At camp, we slept out on mats on the ground. When rain threatened, I believe we collected in the dinning room. For the trip, we must have had tents which we probably shared between ourselves.
Day 2: We climbed again. We passed Long Lake and High Lake and were aiming for a little lake on the other side of New Army Pass for lunch. We did not make it even to the top of the pass before we stopped and ate. It was long and hot, so hot it colored my memory and I remember the rocks being dark although they clearly are not. It was quite a big pass for our little legs and we were carrying about 1/4-1/3 of our body weight as was considered normal in those days. We weighed our packs before heading out, full of food and water. Mine was 45 pounds. I never wanted my pack to be that heavy ever again.
|Klikitat had a new fangled internal frame pack with stays custom bent to fit her back. It looked too hot the way it rested on her back. The rest of us are hauling external frames.|
|Far up on New Army Pass and looking back at the Cottonwood Lakes and the higher ones.|
We did get up it, though. It says 12310 on the map, but I would have told you it said 12800 feet on the sign at the top. I have a terrible memory for numbers, though. Oh, and I sunburned my eyeballs. Apparently this is a thing you can do. It had not occurred to me that it was. I probably did not even have sunglasses. It was more like pink eye than when I actually had pink eye. This itched like crazy. From this comes my general resolve to wear sunglasses over 12k even though I still hate the things.
|One of the lakes along Rock Creek.|
We continued down the other side. It looked so much easier than the side we went up. We got to wherever it was we were planning to get to that night in spite of the long time to get up the pass. Probably somewhere somewhere short of Guyot Pass. We ate whatever it was we ate. Probably some Mountain House item.
Day 3 and maybe 4: I remember not all that much from Rock Creek to Crabtree Meadow. There was a dinky little 10k pass, which Guyot Pass is a rather good candidate for. I remember eating trail mix on it, which we were calling gorp. That was the in thing. This gorp had lots of good stuff in it including M&Ms, which were prime and got picked out first and do seem to protect the chocolate from getting on the other things. It had raisins and salty peanuts, so of course when we ate it it was salty raisins and bland peanuts. I do not like salt in my raisins and forever look for their lack if there are raisins. It had carob chips, which were saved for emergency rations. Carob chips are disgusting.
|Could be the trail dropping down into lower Crabtree Meadow. Maybe.|
It was a crowded madhouse when we hit Crabtree Meadow. There were boy scouts everywhere and they had their washing out on lines right next to the trail. I am pretty sure we had to duck under one string. Okay, that is probably an exaggeration of old memory. One hopes.
|This dry and not at all green is certainly in the character of what I remember of the land above Crabtree.|
From there, we were climbing again. It seemed long, but generally gentle. It was hot, at least to a kid used to the coastal cool. A mountain off to our left took over the view and some of the girls were saying it must be our mountain because it was the tallest. I was of the theory that it only looked that way because we were right next to it. They did not believe me, but eventually we got around it and it really was just a little thing.
|Probably getting almost to Guitar Lake. Definitely in that segment of the trail.|
We camped out at Guitar Lake somewhere north of the Goleta Valley Boys Club. I could smell watermelon coming from them, but deeply suspected that no one had actually carried one up here. One of the councilors decided to go for a swim in the lake and dove off a high rock. The lake was clear and deep and there was definitely nothing hiding down there for her to hit. Oh, except for the cold. It was so very very cold and a shore where she could get out was a bit of a swim away. She was immediately heading for it as fast as possible worried that the cold would make her unable to reach it. Seems to me there was someone else who jumped in after anyway.
Penultimate day: The peak! We got up earlier than other days for the last, big climb. We wanted to do it in the shadow of the ridge. It was definitely the time to do it. We were very entertained by the Hitchcock Lakes as they came into view, but we did not know that was what they were called. We called them Beaver and Bear Paw.
|Looking back over Guitar Lake as we climb.|
We dropped off our packs at Trail Crest with at least a dozen that were already there. People were picking up their packs and telling of what the marmots had eaten on their pack this time or in other times. Marmots are an ever present danger for hip belts and other things that might be salty. We dropped our packs anyway and continued up the trail. From Trail Crest, it is almost two miles to the peak, but most of the climb has been done.
|A picture with a distinctly southerly direction.|
|Iceberg Lake with its namesake floating around in it. Owens Valley beyond with actual green line for the river.|
|Another look south, now with the trail traveled. This section is referred to as the windows since there are breaks to look through from time to time. It is the part that I think look like wicked sharp teeth from afar.|
There was a patch of snow on the peak in the middle. It had pink on it. Ew. We signed the register and checked out the cabin and took in the view and ate lunch and chatted with people. There was a guy with a cell phone who brought it up just to see if he could make a call. This cell phone was to a flip phone as the luggable computers Macintosh made are to the Mac Air of today. You could carry them around, but it was not all that attractive a prospect. He claimed he did have signal and using local signal to San Diego. Roaming was expensive, so that is important. A few other people were planning on spending the night at the top.
|Off to the north. Williamson should be in there somewhere.|
|Back the way we came.|
Eventually it had to end. We headed down again.
|The view through one of the windows, probably to Boy Scout Lake.|
|The windows from the east side.|
It is a long way down, but we do not have to go all the way. We are just going to Trail Camp. It is kind of a disgusting place and full of people. We got directed to a spot that was empty and told to hang our food on the hooks provided. They were low enough for us to just reach up and put the bags on them. They were clearly just to keep rodents out of the food. The camp was being frequented by a mom bear with two cubs. What good would it be against them? We were also told about the solar toilet. We had to poop in the solar toilet and no where else. We could pee anywhere else except in the solar toilet. At some point we had to get water. There is a pond above camp and it was sudsy with floating things and generally not something to get water from. We probably got water from the creek above.
|A rather limited view of the White Mountains from Trail Camp.|
I do remember what the sleeping arrangements were here. It was too rocky to pitch a tent so we just slept out under the stars. I remember them being brighter than any night before and sometimes watching the satellites crossing it. The polar orbit ones seem particularly easy to spot.
Final day: This day started a little early for me. Sometime in the middle of the night, the moon came up. As it was overhead, the brightness woke me up. I found it difficult to sleep the rest of the night. With dawn came the winds right down off the mountain and across camp. They were very strong. We packed up and got moving. The only thing left was to hike downhill for eight miles and catch our ride back to camp. It felt like a long hike and not really something I would want to come up, particularly not in a day plus the mountain and back down again.
Down at the trailhead, we heard that the winds were even worse on the mountain top. One of the guys we talked to the day before that was camping at the top after finishing his John Muir Trail through hike had had his tent set up with big rocks on the inside and the wind had picked it up and carried it over the side, rocks and all. His trusting Eureka Flashlight. I felt the loss too. We owned one of those and it really was a trusted tent.
Inyo National Forest
Kings Canyon National Park
Sequoia National ParkThree years later, I was back to get the peak again. I had had at least two more backpacking trips, one up San Jacento as part of a different camp unit and one on the Rae Lakes loop with my little sister and father. This trip would be just me and my little sister. Our parents were headed up the 395 ten days apart, so there would be no difficulty with going in and out different trailheads. Neither of us could drive anyway. Oh, yes, and they were willing to trust us on our own to get in and out of the wilderness alive and reasonably uninjured.
We headed up with mom getting to Lone Pine about half an hour before the office closed. We were expecting to have to come down the mountain the next morning to get a permit even with the office open, but decided to ask anyway. Apparently Tuesday is a good day to get a walk-in permit because the ranger still had two to hand out. We filled it in and mom signed it and we were ready. This was before there were also permits to enter the Whitney Zone, so we did not have to worry about that. We noticed they had a new edition of the map we were using, but ours was only 10 years old so we did not indulge in a second. This map is two sheets of 3 foot by 4 foot paper with map on three sides and Leave No Trace on the fourth and covers the whole of the John Muir Wilderness for just $10. It is a little more expensive now.
|Onion Valley to Whitney Portal trip. The dots and nights came out even this time noting that one dot counts twice.|
Day 1: Start in Onion Valley. Our first campsite was just two miles up the trail at a lake. We were obligated to enter the wilderness that day, so we waved to mom and our big sister and got started up the hill. They went down to the campground and camped out. My pack was lighter and I was probably stronger, so the climb was not bad. We got to the camp area and found a site and set about getting some food prepared.
This is when we ran into the first problem. Our parents backpacked once upon a time and of course we had their stove. It was an Optimus Svea. It is a classic that can still be purchased today with very little different from this early 1970s (at a guess) model. This is a solid piece of copper with a reservoir for white gas at the bottom and topped with a dinky little pot that no one ever uses but still carries. It is something that everyone should experience, preferably with someone to laugh at them while they struggle with it and eventually tell them how it works. We had not done that bit. My sister had not even watched our dad use it while we did our Rae Lakes loop. It was up to me to figure it out from memory of casual watching. I got it set up, which is just pulling out the key and attaching it to the valve and twisting out the pot supports.
Next it has to be primed. White gas works under pressure. With the Coleman stove we camp with, there is a big pump on the side to pressurize the can. With this one, it has to be heated. It is supposed to be possible to do this just with hand warmth on this one, a feature that had never actually worked. The reliable way is to pour a little fuel over the top and light it. There is a little dent around the top of the reservoir to help out with this. I got out the fuel bottle, put on the funnel cap, and poured fuel onto the top so it would go down the stem and into the dip. With the tip full, I lit it. Then we both stepped back very far because there was a four foot flame erupting from the top.
We watched it for a while and wondered if it would, maybe, explode. Perhaps. It has a pressure relief valve on the lid, but you never know if those still work. We stepped back a few more feet. The flame gradually became only three feet tall, then shrank some more. As it was just about to go out, I stepped up and turned the key as slightly as I could. The stove roared and we could cook.
We brought Lipton sides in various flavors to eat. It says two servings, and we shared one packet between the two of us. Like I said before, hiking used to suppress my appetite. My sister is the same. We were quite full at the finish with just one more task. The stove works best when full, so I pulled off the lid and topped off the reservoir. We were set.
We were relying on bear boxes for the trip to store our food safely from bears. This is another thing they will not let you do, but they encouraged it then. Well, encouraged camping by the boxes. We had rope as a backup, which was probably required too. To keep us sheltered, we had the Eureka Flashlight. It was a two (really comfortable together) man tent that weighted in at about 5 pounds and was solid against the elements. There were not a lot of tents like that in those days.
There are no photos for this trip. I would get wary of the continuing expense of film and developing and was taking fewer and fewer photos. The trip above started with a partly used roll of 36 that I did not even finish. This trip, I had no camera with me at all.
Day 2: We had gone from 150 feet to over 10000 feet the previous day and both woke up with headaches. I always attribute headaches to dehydration, so I downed my water bottle with a pain killer and went to refill it. My sister did the same. We made breakfast. After too much camping, neither one of us can stand instant oatmeal, so we had split pea soup. Lipton again. It was yummy. Cooking did not require the torch this time. I just poured over enough fuel to fill a top piece of metal that directs the flame, then pushed the fuel over the sides and down into the lower dip to get it primed. It was much better like that.
We headed up the pass. It was quite pretty and a little warm. I forgot to put sunscreen on, but decided it did not matter since I was playing soccer every day and quite tan from not putting sunscreen on for that. Unfortunately, I was wearing about the smallest shirt I owned and there was a little over an inch of arm exposed that normally was not. The pass over Kearsarge leaves one mostly walking in one direction and my arm on the south side was fried to a crisp. It was quite painful. I put on the sunscreen I had forgotten, but the already burned area still hurt when the sun hit it. A wet bandanna helped the pain and so I tied it around.
We headed down the back side, which is not a lot of down. We wandered past Bullfrog Lake, but did not stop there. Camping was not allowed within a quarter mile of the lake. We did camp somewhere nearby.
Day 3: We started south on the main highway through the Sierra Nevada Mountains. Some of my parents' confidence in letting us go off on our own had to do with the sheer number or people who travel through here and people in the backcountry do tend to be reliable. The first bit of the trail was familiar since it was part of the Rae Lakes loop. That was for the long drop down from near Bullfrog Lake to the lowest point on the trek for quite a while.
At a junction in a meadow, we turned south again and started the long climb up Forester Pass leaving the familiar behind. We had three campsites ahead to choose from and decided to go for the last one before the pass. This would be easy to tell because there was a maintained trail that came down to it, so there would be a sign.
We treked through three campsites not noticing a sign. Was there an extra one not on the map? We kept on going, but could not find our camp and it was starting to look like we would accidentally do Forester Pass. One thing about the highest point on the Pacific Crest Trail is that you are not supposed to get there accidentally. We carefully looked over the map and found that we were long past the camp. There was a creek up ahead, we would go there. Had we indulged in the newer map, we would not have made this mistake. The trail we were looking for was no longer maintained and someone thought it would be dandy to take out the sign. The newer map marked it in black (unmaintained) instead of red (maintained). I cannot help but notice that this is the other end of the same trail that two guys we met around The Pothole on the Williamson trip were looking for.
We found a well used camp and even found a bear box. Of sorts. Someone had constructed a box out of rocks. We thought it was comical if they thought that would keep anything out. We looked around for the perfect tree and there was none. There was not even an imperfect tree. We decided to use the box hoping that anyone trying to get into it would make enough noise to wake us. For the first time, we also gathered up a pile of bear rocks to throw at a bear if it should come. But never at the eyes. That just makes them mad and attack.
Day 4: We got up to find our food undisturbed. We looked out over the local area and less than a quarter mile away there was a bag hanging high in a tree far in excess of the required isolation. Someone had come down in the night and managed to find that mythical perfect tree. It was astonishing. We were basically above treeline.
We started up the rest of Forester Pass. It felt gentle and easy. There are a few switchbacks as it climbs, but it is nothing compared to the wall on the far side. We settled in for a nice long bask in the height when we got to the top. My sunburn was feeling fine as I was still keeping the wet bandanna on it. We enjoyed crackers and cheese and dried fruits and nuts. We had a half a bag of crackers each day for lunches. Others enjoyed a nice long lunch at the top, basking in the height, too. The cheese reminded them of the times they had come up passes with a bit of it and complementary wine and how enjoyable it was.
We were getting to be a big, chatty group (of 6 or 8) when three people came up from the north with almost empty bags and sat off by themselves to eat sandwiches with mayonnaise, then continued on their way. They seemed odd. Then we spotted the mule train. There were 13 animals in it. Three horses were along, but riderless. Two of the mules were carrying ice chests. As they got closer, we dispersed. Somehow we did not really want to be on the pass as they passed.
The far side of the pass gave me the impression of a cliff. The trail was carved in the side. It looked like it could be deadly with a bit of ice. I get dreadfully worried when I read a through hiker journal as they hit this, always with a bit of snow on it still. They never seem to see it the same way I did. Maybe it is another exaggeration of memory. Or maybe it is that they are looking up at it and I was looking down. They seem to think of the north side as a bit more scary than I did. We picked our way down. It got better and easier fairly quickly.
We were following a creek on the far side. As we came to a camp, we stopped for the night. We decided to do some laundry and with the food tucked into a real bear box, we had the bear rope handy to hang it. Unlike the boy scouts of that other trip, we were not prepared with clothes pins. Further unlike them, we never would be. Those things are heavy. We also did not need them. We looped the rope around one tree at the middle, then twisted it on the way to another. We just had to tuck our socks and shirts and underwear into the twists to hold them up.
Come supper, I had a problem with the stove again. I had not topped it off before putting it away and it turned out that that was when the cap was loose enough to get off. Now I could not budge it. I asked about for some pliers and quickly found a pair. The Leatherman was still somewhat new, but they had gotten popular in the last few years. They did the trick, although not without some evidence. Never, ever tell my dad I applied pliers to his stove. He will be very angry even this far removed. If we could not find pliers, I figured a little extra fuel priming should do the trick.
Day 5: Just a bit of long gentle downhill. It was easy, we enjoyed it. The map shows some uphill too, so I guess there was some of that. Not much to say about this day.
Day 6: More easy day. This does have some uphill, but it is quite easy. I am allergic to something up there just a little and the snot runs down the back of my throat and triggers coughing. It is annoying, but it seems it was causing some to worry about these two teenagers that seemed to be out on their own. We made our way up to upper Crabtree to camp and the ranger stopped by to chat and make sure we were okay. Our only problem was that we were going to run out of trail to hike a day early. We were going as slow as we could, but it was not slow enough.
He seemed less than thrilled at my claim of allergies, but decided to let it go. Better, he had a suggestion for what to do with the extra day. There was a guy down in the lower meadow who would probably be happy to take us up to the Hitchcock Lakes tomorrow. He set it up and so we had a plan for an adventure for the morrow!
When we tucked in our food in the bear box, we found it quite full and it was difficult to find enough room to add ours. We made it work.
Day 7: We packed up for a day outing and wandered down to the lower meadow to find this guy the ranger knew. He was an older fellow who had spent many years putting up the fences for cattle grazing allotments. (That was a government job for anyone wondering who pays for that.) He had gotten to know a lot of rangers in his time and now he was taking advantage of that to stay out in the backcountry for as long as he could. He had only been able to get a permit for Shepherd Pass, which was mysterious to us, so he told us about it. It starts low and drops significantly while it climbs and the top part is not even maintained. On our map, it was marked "not recommended for stock". He started with 80 pounds and came up it very slowly. That was to get as much food as he could, but also all the things you need to survive Sierra weather when you might be out in anything. That included a sleeping bag good below -20°F. He did it all in jeans because he knew of nothing else that would last long enough. He was now out for around day 40 and had been hanging out in the meadow for about a week. That is where knowing the ranger came in handy. Usually, they do not want people staying in one place for too long.
The day trip today was fishing in the Hitchcock Lakes. An old trail went up there and while it did not quite reach the old junction anymore, he knew how to find it not far from our campsite. So we headed back up and caught the trail and followed it up to the lakes. Along the way we found the ranger's brother-in-law and nephew who were up for a birthday, possibly the ranger's. They were camping by a little pond along the creek below the main lakes and we chatted with them as they fished the pond. They already had one and showed us.
We got up to the big lake where the fish are said to be the best in these mountains (or so we were told) and he got started. There was a stiff debate as to which lake exactly was best with Arctic Lake also getting a lot of followers. Cold water and slow growing make the best fish apparently. Arctic Lake is higher, but this one is deeper. The first fish was too big for his line and took his lure.
He continued fishing and we continued on along the boulders beside the lake. We worked our way up to a moraine at the top of the lake and played along there. (This was probably between the lakes rather than as I have drawn up and around the upper one.) Eventually he had enough fish for all three of us and we headed down again, waving at the ranger's family as we passed. He told us where we could find little red onions, supposedly planted by John Muir as some sort of Johnny Onionseed, near our campsite. We got a pasta alfredo and margarine (which was what we trusted not to spoil over ten days) and picked some of those onions and headed down to the lower meadow again.
We boiled up the pasta with a little plain stuff he had to increase the amount and he pan fried the fish over the fire. We had never had rainbow trout or much other fish growing up vegetarian. So we tried this mysterious fish with our pasta as it got dark. At some point, I realized I had left my sunglasses beside a tree across the meadow, but could not find them again in the dark. They were lost. When supper was finished, we headed back up to camp to pass out.
Day 8: The little thermometer on my zipper pull was pegged right at freezing as we got up. It had been doing that most the trip. I wondered if the air temperature tended to plateau a little as the lakes and streams and dew thought about freezing. We headed up to Guitar Lake, which is not a very long hike. All along it, my boot was bothering me. I adjusted the lacing and tried to get the sock as flat as I could, but it was not the sock. The boot was doing it.
When we got to the lake, it was a bit crowded. We decided to go up the creek a little way to find a spot. We were also feeling a little smelly. The nose deadens quickly to organic smells like sweat, but every once in a while, when the wind has been carrying the stench away so that most the smell is not getting to the nose, but then stops to allow it to return, one gets a whiff. We decided to do something about it and found a little pool to try to take a bath. We had no soap. Even "biodegradable" soap is just slightly less long lasting pollutants for the water. We just scrubbed as best we could. The water was way too cold for it and we did not get much stink off.
After that I pulled out my pocket knife and the boot that had gone at least 300 miles and I cut out the piece of it that had suddenly decided to rub. There would be no rubbing tomorrow. The ankle support was probably compromised, too.
Day 9: We gathered up our stuff and we hiked up the mountain in the shade of the ridge. At Trail Crest, we added our packs to the array that the marmots consider an all-you-can-eat buffet of salty straps. We headed up the mountain and signed our names to the register and explored the cabin and took in the views and ate lunch and generally enjoyed ourselves. There was no snow at the top this time, but the days had felt a little cooler. Oh, and I sunburned my eyeballs again.
We headed down to Trail Camp in the afternoon. The marmots had left our packs alone, just as before. Trail Camp was still a bit of a disgusting place with the same rules. We definitely got water from the creek above the pond this time. The creeks along there are actually quite fun. The trail is over big boulders and you can hear the water splashing its way under many layers of them as you pass over them, but rarely ever see any of that water.
Day 10: We hiked out. It gets pretty and green as we drop and the creek we generally follow is nice. But there is an awful lot of downhill and it does not seem like something I would much like to climb. We timed it pretty well for our pickup around 2 PM and were off. He was not quite finished with his camping, so we had one more night out before we got to go home and get a shower.
©2016 Valerie Norton
Posted 13 September 2016