mt. whitney wednesday: lone pine lake to mirror lake

Hi everyone! This post is part of my series the Mt. Whitney chronicles, which is comprised of journal entries from when I climbed Mt. Whitney, the tallest mountain in the contiguous United States, ten years ago. If you missed the earlier post in the series, you can read them here.

mt whitney chronicles

Saturday, July 26, 6:04 a.m.

Dawn slowly approaches and we stop at Lone Pine Lake to rest and turn our headlamps off. Sunrise on the trail was one of the prettiest sights I have seen, rivaling even a summer sunset over the rim of the Grand Canyon. It is indeed a “Kodak moment,” yet Julianna was right: a picture could never do this justice. It is something you just have to see – and feel in your soul – for yourself.

We have gone 2.5 miles — less than nine miles more to the top. It seemed like we were going at a fairly brisk pace, and yet it has taken us two hours to go just over two miles. I try not to get discouraged; maybe we will get into a faster rhythm as daylight arrives. Not that speed is of the essence. I think of the famous quote by Cervantes: “The journey is better than the inn.” I want to enjoy this journey, and we left so early we have plenty of time to do so.

Yet it is also overwhelming to think about hiking for another twelve hours, another twenty miles, to complete the roundtrip journey. I try not to dwell on it, and instead focus on enjoying the postcard scenery. Mom brought two new disposable cameras, and she takes lots of pictures. I playfully tell her she had better save some film for the summit! We don’t want to be like my funny Uncle Doug, who always comes back from fishing trips bragging about the big trout he caught – without any proof.

me and mom on trail

6:47 a.m.

We have reached the first camp, “Outpost Camp.” According to my map, we have traveled 3.5 miles and are at an elevation of 10,365 feet – meaning we must still climb more than 4,000 feet in elevation to reach the top. I am grateful Mom and I took medicine for altitude sickness before we left; I don’t feel nauseous, but I do still have a bit of a headache despite the medicine. I drink lots of water, even though I am embarrassed about having to go to the bathroom in the wilderness. Mom laughs and says doing your business outside just proves you are a true hiker.

Speaking of bathrooms, at Outpost Camp we get to use the first of the two “solar toilets” provided along the trail for hikers. It is like a “Porta Potty” except it has some sort of solar device at the top that supposedly uses energy from the sun to compact the waste. A good idea, indeed . . .

. . . but, as we found out firsthand, very, very smelly. In fact, it was THE most disgusting bathrooms I have ever been in! I had to hold my breath. Two things are certain: I will never again complain about the bathrooms at school, for they are heavenly compared to this. And I won’t be embarrassed anymore about doing my business out in the fresh-smelling sunshine of the wild!

8:18 a.m.

We passed by Mirror Lake, which is the four-mile mark, and the trail turned from dirt to rock. The trail has also become much steeper here at the timberline – trees are fewer and farther between, and the landscape is more barren and desolate. I look around and see mountains rising above us on all sides.

We hike pretty much in silence, each of us consumed by our own thoughts. The only sounds are our heavy, even breathing and slow, trudging footsteps up the trail. Occasionally a bird calls out.

From time to time we encounter other hikers; some have given up and turned around, others have made it to the top, camped out, and are making their descent. The latter are always very happy and inspire me to keep going – if they can do it, we can too. Everyone we meet is friendly and encouraging, and we sometimes stop and swap hiking stories and hometowns while taking a drink of water. Then we wish each other good luck and continue our separate ways.

We have reached Trailside Meadow and take a short food break. Even though it is still fairly early in the morning (at least for a teenager like me who likes to sleep in on summer days!) we have been up so long that it seems like lunchtime. I snack on bagels and trail mix while Mom takes more pictures.

The meadow here is so heavenly, more like a stream bordered with flowers than a meadow. There is a gorgeous waterfall flowing down some nearby rocks, fed by melting snow up on the mountain. It is growing warm out now and I take off my outer jacket and replace my beanie with my favorite baseball cap.

trailside meadows

mt. whitney wednesday: the day before “the big day”

Hi everyone! This post is part of my Mt. Whitney chronicles, which is comprised of journal entries from when I climbed Mt. Whitney, the tallest mountain in the contiguous United States, ten years ago. If you missed any earlier posts in the series, they are all archived here.

mt whitney chronicles

Friday, July 25, 2003. 2:43 p.m.
Mom and I left our nice, warm home in Ventura at 10 a.m. to depart on the four-hour drive to the quaint little town of Lone Pine, made famous in the hiking world because of its close proximity to Mt. Whitney. Surprisingly, it seems most Lone-Piners take for granted the tallest mountain in the continental United States that watches over their little town. They take more pride in the fact that John Wayne used to film some of his famous Westerns here. There are pictures of The Duke adorning the walls of just about every restaurant and hotel lobby we see.

When I told my friends I was going away for the weekend to climb Mt. Whitney, they laughed incredulously and said I’m insane. “Uh, Dallas, you do know that’s a huge mountain, right?” one asked. I replied that yes, I do know, and I promised to bring back pictures from the top. My friends just don’t understand that I am a real hiker now; I have been preparing for months. I am ready for this challenge. Game on, Whitney!

Mom, however, is not as confident. Even though she has run a handful of marathons, she confides to me: “I have doubts I’ll be able to make it to the top. If I have to stop, you go on without me.”

“We’ll make it together,” I say, and I mean it.

3:13 p.m.
We checked into our hotel room and drove up to the Whitney Portal, otherwise known as the trailhead, or start, of the Mt. Whitney trail. Since it will still be dark in the wee hours tomorrow morning when we make the drive up to the Portal, Mom wants to do it in the daylight today so we will have an idea of where we are going and hopefully won’t get lost. With a one-day hike, we can’t afford to have our start delayed. A few members of our group are camping at the Portal and we’re planning to take a short hike with them this afternoon, to see the trail and get our legs moving after the long car ride.

As we started driving along the road towards the Portal, we noticed dark, ominous clouds brewing ahead. Mt. Whitney is notorious for its sudden thunderstorms, especially in summer. On the hike tomorrow we want to reach the top of the mountain by noon, because that will hopefully give us enough time to get back down below the timberline before the storms roll in up at the top, typically around two or three o’clock.

The rain came quickly, going from a light drizzle to a heavy downpour in a matter of minutes. We kept driving cautiously, the windshield wipers working overtime, when suddenly lightning cracked in the distance and thunder boomed. Looking up at the grim, threatening mountains looming ahead of us, the lightning flashing around their peaks like menacing signs from the heavens, I wondered if my friends are right. Maybe I am insane. What person in their right mind would hike up that mountain, to the very place where the storm was thrashing its hardest? This is nothing like our training hikes. I felt like a toddler forced to go straight from a tricycle to a twelve-gear mountain bike with no steps in between.

I looked at Mom, and she looked at me. Without a word, she turned the car around and we drove to a nearby restaurant billed as “John Wayne’s Favorite Lone Pine Diner!” for a late lunch.

4:02 p.m.
We stepped outside the restaurant to find the storm had stopped and the sun was out again. The regular inhabitants of Lone Pine were going about their business as if storms like that come up without warning all the time, and I guess here they probably do. Calmer in both mind and spirit, Mom and I got into the car and began the fifteen-minute drive up to Whitney Portal again. It seemed like a totally different road and a totally different mountain range looming ahead than it had an hour ago. The mountains were still intimidating (to say the least), but now they didn’t look so evil and threatening without the dark skies and lightning crackling around them.

day before the hike

We met the rest of the group up at the trailhead and hiked the first half-mile or so of the trail. It is a nice trail, at least the part we did, well-marked and treaded by the feet of countless other hikers. It is amazing to think about the thousands and thousands of hikers that have walked on this very trail in the century that people have been climbing Mt. Whitney.

It was so neat to see the hikers coming down the trail who had made it to the top of Whitney today. They all looked so weary, yet also so happy. I hope that will be us tomorrow!

8:11 p.m.
Mom and I had a carbo-loaded dinner and are getting ready for bed. Our backpacks are all packed except for our water bottles frozen in the cooler. Our hiking clothes are laid out and ready. My friends would laugh if they knew I was going to bed at 8 p.m., but we have to wake up very early in the morning and need to get some sleep. But somehow I don’t think it really matters what time I go to bed – I don’t know how I’ll be able to sleep tonight! I am so nervous for the big day tomorrow.