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Re: JMT '14 - Summit and Birthday Fever

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JMT '14 - Day 13 - Summit and Birthday Fever
August 03, 2014 07:21PM
Day 13: July 27, 2014

The rain and hail had started falling lightly as we passed Timberline Lake, but as we neared Guitar Lake the storm had become more insistent, a chilly mix of rain and hail. We quickly pitched our shelter near that of our trail companions who had arrived before the weather took a turn for the worse; the third group of our party pitched not far from us not soon after we were comfortably under our shelter. We made tea and tried to stay warm as the rain and hail continued to fall, occasionally teasing us with a brief pause or a patch of blue sky that made us look hopefully towards the summit of Mt. Whitney, but also occasionally pushing us together for warmth under our shelter with a brief downpour or a distant clap of thunder. We would get out of our shelters when the rainfall lightened enough to look around, trying to guess what we should expect next: the small patch of blue sky over Crabtree or the dark clouds over the Kaweah Range.

Eventually one pause in the weather lasted longer... and longer... and we debated what to do--stay or move on. Staying still was chilly--we'd have to put on our warm clothes and climb into our sleeping bags to stay comfortable. But, it wasn't too chilly, especially if we were moving. Somehow, after 200 miles, moving was more attractive than staying put.

So, after much discussion and guesswork, we decided to move on, and after loading my pack with the damp shelter and 8 liters of water, I slowly followed my hiking partners up and away from Guitar Lake towards... well, we really never quite decided that. Trail Crest? The summit of Mt. Whitney? Up and over to Trail Camp and down to Whitney Portal?

The sky appeared to be clearing a bit as we headed up the long, well-engineered switchbacks up the "back" of Whitney. There were still dark clouds, but they were always somewhere else in the distance--the Kaweahs, The Great Western Divide, some unknown location across the Owens Valley.

Our progress gaining elevation was slow but steady; I called out the elevation every 500' or so based on my altimeter. We still didn't know what our destination elevation was--13,600' at Trail Crest or 14,500' at the summit--but we were making slow, steady progress. The weight of the water I was carrying started to take its toll on me; near 13,000', I announced on the radio that I had only 1,500' of climb left in my legs. Near this elevation the terrain becomes much more interesting as the trail weaves between and around various granite pinnacles--enough so that the final 600' or so went by quickly. When we did make it to the junction with the Main Whitney Trail, the typical sea of stashed backpacks was nowhere to be found, and no one was camping on the flat "pads" below this junction. There was only one small day pack stashed, and the sky was mostly blue, at least around us.

There may have been a debate as to what to do next, but there really wasn't. E didn't want to be "2 for 5" in summit attempts, and two of the aborted attempts had been shared with JKW--one at the end of the JMT, the other at the end of the High Sierra Trail. The weather didn't look that bad, and we knew that the H party wanted to summit either today or tomorrow. I had been carrying a piece of paper with "Mt. Whitney or Bust!" written on it for 200 miles, and we didn't seem to be facing "bust" conditions. Overall Whitney was more inviting than not, and with perhaps not quite enough discussion and perhaps a bit too much summit fever we decided to continue to the end of the JMT.

At one point we could look over Mt. Young at where we had started the day on Bighorn Plateau, and could follow our circuitous route around this mountain towards Crabtree, then up Whitney Creek past Timberline and Guitar Lakes to the base of the mountain itself.

Given the abundant blue sky, it was odd that we were the only party on the trail that we could see. We knew via radio that the H's were not far below us, but we didn't see anyone else who had started up from Guitar Lake...

Perhaps for the first time, among the numerous blooms along the trail, I noticed the smell of Sky Pilot.

Through one of the "windows" we could see Lone Pine far below--where we would be the next day, and storms--perhaps worse than we'd expected to see--over the White-Inyo Mountains in the distance.

As we neared the summit, the blue sky that had teased us towards the top gave way to darker clouds; a light hail fell on us as we rushed the final distance to the top.

Perhaps we had been a bit crazy to push for the summit, but fortunately, we had been the only crazy party pushing for the summit that day, so the summit shelter was all ours.

We huddled in it to cook dinner and ride out the light storm. Occasionally we heard thunder in the distance, but it didn't seem like we'd need to test the grounding of the shelter. Still, we put in earplugs just in case.

The H party arrived a bit after we had settled into the shelter. Although neither the wind, temperature, or precipitation were that bad, we decided that we'd find a way for all seven of us to sleep in the shelter. (Pro tip: someone, hopefully short, has to sleep on the stone "bench", which is almost exactly the height of a Bearikade Expedition... the rest have to go head-to-toe.)

The next day was JKW's birthday, and on the eve of that day the H party presented her with a birthday crown crafted out of used food packets and a peanut butter cup with a candle. We had had only two "firm" dates for the trip: our reservation for a cabin at Reds Meadow (the patty melt and shower there a distant memory, albeit only a dozen or so days ago) and JKW's birthday, which we really wanted to celebrate on the summit of Mt. Whitney. We had to wait out the weather a few times over the past few weeks, but in the end we had finished the JMT exactly on schedule--even arriving at "camp" at the summit around 6:00pm--our unofficial "start looking for a good campsite" time.

After dinner and evening tea, we left the cramped shelter to watch the sun set over the distant Great Western Divide. A thin sliver of bright red lit the entire western horizon.

The weather may not have been perfect during our two week adventure, but it seemed to wait until we were safely in our shelters before hitting us hard. The skies were clear on the days when we had to make many miles, so we couldn't complain that we had to wait out storms a few times on our shorter days.

At one point I asked myself: would I hike the same trail, with the same weather, and especially with the same people, again, if I had a chance? Absolutely! Despite everything, it had been a great trip.

(Many!) More Pictures

Edited 1 time(s). Last edit at 08/04/2014 08:44PM by basilbop.
Re: JMT '14 - Summit and Birthday Fever
August 04, 2014 03:30AM
Re: JMT '14 - Summit and Birthday Fever
August 04, 2014 04:05AM
Thanks for the write up and pics. An epic trip. But 8L of water ? Man, that's a lot of weight in your pack !
Re: JMT '14 - Summit and Birthday Fever
August 04, 2014 09:24AM
Basilbop said it was another bit of my birthday present! I only had to carry my one liter side bottle, and some extra gear so Basilbop could fit both 3 liter Platy bags inside. Then he had two one liter bottles in side pockets. He is an ox! But we did use the water for dinner and the next morning and on trail until first good running water below trail camp. Definitely a fabulous present!
Re: JMT '14 - Summit and Birthday Fever
August 04, 2014 09:29AM
Great trip report! I really enjoyed it. Now that is a birthday to remember!
Re: JMT '14 - Summit and Birthday Fever
August 04, 2014 10:54AM
As briefly as I can be (I know I have a problem with "brief"winking smiley...
  • Big Horn Plateau to Guitar Lake - As opposed to the last time when I was cursing the distance from our campsite to the top of Whitney - we'd lost the early time of day when we may have been able to summit before the winds... but we wouldn't have stayed on top - this time I loved every step. I'd spent a happy night at Big Horn, especially since I'd known in advance to have my almost daily bath in Tyndall Creek before the final climb. The views during the walk were excellent, and it was clear that the campsites at Wright and Wallace creeks were quite full. I do love the scenery on this section. It's eerie and beautiful.
  • WAG bags - Though we had been told no WAG bags at Crabtree, there was the box. Quite full.
  • Thunder before Timberline Lake - By this point, I said we were going to get wet by the time we hit Guitar, and I was right. Though it didn't quite dump until we made it to the "site" near our friends.
  • Waiting under trailstar - this was the coldest shelter-in-place we did and it was taking a toll. We huddled and I told Basilbop and my friend M to squish right up against me. And as time went on, we squished more. BBop got quite wet a few times re-jiggering the doorway as the wind swirled, but the hot tea made a huge difference. Our friends who came in after us got soaked setting up their tent.
  • Going for it - by the time it had stopped raining, we realized we wanted to move on to at least the trail junction, at which point, we were going to summit, or haul down the other side as far as we could get. Could be others had other ideas, but me and a few of my girlfriends were in agreement. We started out around 2 pm, and we could see many others (and spoke to a few) who were trying to decide what to do. No one followed us immediately - for at least as Iong as I could see as we worked the switchbacks. It was as if the sun was shining a spotlight on us, leading us up. We saw a couple of folks heading to guitar not long after starting up, and after that, we had the whole route, then the mountain, to ourselves. That alone was a first-time treat for me.
  • No pain, all gain - The trip had been so nice compared to the previous one, that my main goal of finishing without real pain or discomfort or difficulty was satisfied by the time I hit the junction, and I admit I started crying with joy that it had worked out so well. So very different from the previous time! So nice to share that moment with the same crew from the previous time.
  • Earplugs - it started to hail lightly as we hit the summit shelter. We went in. Then Basilbop says the real problem with the shelter in a bad storm is going deaf from the sound of the lightning. Great. I said I had earplugs. Someone asked if I had enough? I almost did! Basilbop had one of two I'd found in my jacket (he and I wore previously used ones, but I had new packs for everyone else). It's kinda fun to pull out some emergency gear that no one thinks you'd have... The next morning, I found the other one for BBop, but thankfully, they were never needed. The most gentle of storms over us as we had dinner, and afterwards, it was stormy around us, but not on us. Truly the mountain had welcomed us up, and took care with us that night. I was most thankful.
  • Pleasant night - I didn't have a traditional upraising. This is truly the first birthday slumber party I've ever had in my life. Go figure. And it was AWESOME. I did not mean to and still do not mean to take anything away from any of the others who had their first JMT and Whitney Summit/sleeping on Whitney experiences - each was a huge accomplishment! But those amazing people certainly made my birthday the most wonderful ever. They sang and surprised me with a crown made of my chew packet bags and duct tape (I had thought one of them had gone batty a few days prior when she asked for my ultra-clean trash bag) and a candle in a peanut butter cup! How utterly perfect! BBop made me Beef Stew with Fritos crumbled into it. Best dinner ever. Only one thing I missed - my trail family and other special friends and family who could not make the trip. But they were thinking about us, it turns out, and that somehow really helped!
  • The mountain chooses - I'd always said I'd let the mountain tell me when I was ready to summit or spend the night. Not all my summit attempts were allowed, no previous attempt to sleep on it was permitted. But this day, this night, the mountain said yes and it was kind. It could have been so much worse. You could say it's luck. You could say it's a bunch of pretty experienced people evaluating the conditions and taking a very calculated risk. I still say the mountain said yes. And I'm ever so thankful.

Edited 1 time(s). Last edit at 08/04/2014 10:58AM by JustKeepWalking.
avatar Re: JMT '14 - Summit and Birthday Fever
August 04, 2014 11:13AM
Purty Awe-sum!

Chick-on is looking at you!
avatar Re: JMT '14 - Summit and Birthday Fever
August 04, 2014 05:15PM
Awesome indeed. Great pics!
Re: JMT '14 - Day 13 - Summit and Birthday Fever
August 04, 2014 09:44PM
Awesome. I camped on top of Whitney on my last night on the JMT last year. We got the best sunset and sunrise I've ever seen bar none... pretty much the whole southern Sierra laid out before you from up there. I spent 45 minutes picking out peaks from my topo map. I could see all the way north to Mount Tom, 56 miles away. It was cold (17F overnight) and it was pretty much the worst night's sleep I've ever had, even after 9 days at 10,000 ft+, but it was totally worth it.
Re: JMT '14 - Day 13 - Summit and Birthday Fever
August 05, 2014 08:48AM
Yah, the "fire on the mountains" effect we saw at sunset as the sun moved below the clouds was just spectacular. The photos do not do it justice. We were all dancing around looking here, looking there. Amazing. Oddly, even with the storms, we had good visibility at sunset, because the clouds had lifted enough... except over the White Mountains, which were obviously getting pummeled. Sunrise was definitely nothing special - too many clouds everywhere... and we were worried that we would be in a storm in the morning, so we ate and moved off the mountain. But with trying to find a secluded spot for WAG bag use... and all, well, it was flurrying lightly by the time we left.

I'm not sure how cold it got outside that night, I could definitely see my breath, and it was refreshing, but it was really humid too and nothing froze that I noticed. Inside, with 7 bodies, and Thermarest NeoAirs covering the entire floor.... it was ├╝ber toasty and cushy. I actually found a number of positions that allowed me to sleep really well interspersed with my (and others' ) nocturnal bathroom breaks and random kicks. The shelter door closes easily now, and we had to be careful with banging it. I had drunk as much water, if not more, than usual, since I expected severe dryness on Mt. Whitney. Interestingly, the humidity helped, I think, and my nose didn't dry out.

Also interesting and extremely satisfying, was that this was the best I'd ever felt on Whitney. I was wondering if any of us would have altitude issues, especially with an extended stay on top... luckily, all seemed fine. I kept feeling myself out for issues, but nothing. No headache, nausea, fatigue or anything. I had a full appetite and ate my food like the hungry little piggy I was. I definitely didn't get enough sleep on top, but that was more because we were squished like sardines. Had we known the night would remain as gentle as it did, I probably would have rigged up the shelter as a wind-break and taken at least Basilbop to sleep outside. I'm definitely not used to a dog-pile. But it wasn't nearly as bad as I'd thought it might be.

Given how quickly Basilbop's symptoms disappeared days prior, we thought maybe he did indeed get hit with some mild AMS, and if so, it just adds to the theory that altitude sickness can actually hit anyone at any time, and though you can tilt the odds in your favor, it's best to stay tuned to your body and be ready to drop elevation. Again, I think we got "lucky" on Whitney on so many counts.
avatar Re: JMT '14 - Day 13 - Summit and Birthday Fever
August 10, 2014 07:48AM
Great birthday trip, JKW. Always thinking of you folks.
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