Friday, December 9, 2011

Last Hurrah In Death Valley

Death Valley Last Day – 9/17/11 - Mosiac Canyon & Artist’s Palette – 3 Miles

We spent a peaceful, dry, comfortable cool/warm night.  I might or might not have heard a little snoring from a nearby tent.  We were in hiker heaven after summiting the big MW.  (Does anyone call it that or did I just make it up?)

We took a minute to cruise through the cozy little Lone Pine Camp- ground that we had occupied in the dark.  How’s this for a front porch view?

A hotel room in Las Vegas was waiting for us but first we had some unfinished business back in Death Valley, a hike and a scenic drive that we shaved from our itinerary earlier in the week.  We dropped off those infernal bear canisters at the Visitor Center, waved goodbye to Lone Pine, and headed east. 

First stop:  Mosaic Canyon, a popular little hike near the mirage of Stovepipe Wells.  Did we really feel like hiking after the last three days?  Answer:  Yes!  No elevation gain and no loaded backpacks maketh a cheerful hiker.  What a contrast this hot, short, easy walk was to just 24 hours earlier, the cold, steep, grueling summit day.  (Funny thing, though, in the canyon all of us complained of aching calves.) 

Mosaic Canyon is famous for its mosaic breccia and smooth marble walls.  It alternates from narrow slots to very wide open areas.  The guideline that I have learned still applied:  gradually walk up until you turn around and walk down.

Silky smooth walls

Carolyn walking up the narrow slot

Smooth rock and rough breccia flowing over it

A bit of scrambling was involved going up Mosaic Canyon until we hit this spot called Upper Dry Falls, a dead end – or was it?  Jeff’s GPS wanted to go further, but I did not.  So while he and Carolyn and Dolores climbed up a side wall, I began a leisurely backtrack.  The air was still, the sky was brilliant blue and I had the place to myself. 

I found a shady spot to lie down on a smooth marble slab and indulged in a little quiet meditation time (aka a siesta).  It’s good to pause and appreciate the fact that you may only be in this particular place one time in your life and say a prayer of thanks.  

I left behind a tiny cairn saying “I was here.”

Jeff in another narrow slot

After conquering Mosaic Canyon we drove along Highway 190, stopping to photograph the signs we had previously whizzed by on our way to trailheads.

Welcome, y’all!

Looks inviting, huh?

Our last hurrah in Death Valley was a cruise along Artist’s Drive and particularly Artist’s Palette, a mind-blowing area for which I cannot write an accurate description.  Here are some of Jeff’s fine photos:

We waved goodbye to Death Valley and drove for the final time to Las Vegas for a hotel room, a hot shower (second one in 9 days), a good meal and more furious packing to be ready for our flight back home the next day.  At the restaurant we celebrated Dolores’ birthday, congratulated ourselves on our summit success, and laughed long and loud at our mishaps.

By now my hiking and blog-reading friends are familiar with my mixed bag of emotions on these hiking trips:  a bit of moaning and whining mixed with a lot of awe and gratitude.  I need a little time between the experience and the writeup to digest the events, sift through the photos, and evaluate the experience through the 20/20 of hindsight.  The answer to the question, “Would you do it again?” is inevitably “YES.”  The physical discomfort (pain) and emotional rollercoaster (insanity) are temporary, but the memories are forever.

Here I am, safely returned over those peaks from a journey far more beautiful and strange than anything I had hoped for or imagined--how is it that this safe return brings such regret?  ~Peter Matthiessen
“I try to end each day saying, ‘I am glad I did,’ rather than, ‘I wish I had.’” ~Barbara J. McMorrow

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Summiting Mount Whitney

Mt Whitney Backpack Trip – Day 3 – 9/16/11 – Guitar Lake to Mt Whitney Summit to Whitney Portal – 15.7 Miles

Jeff woke us at 6:00 a.m. to get an early start on our summit of Mt Whitney.  It was a whopping 24 degrees overnight but I slept warm and comfortable.  I now have the gear combination nailed down for surviving (enjoying!) these cold temperatures.  Pitched out in the open, my tent was covered in dew which turned to ice within minutes after I vacated it.  Great - now I have an ice block to carry to the top of the mountain. 

I had no appetite for breakfast, nervous about the big mileage and elevation gain ahead.  Was I being affected by the altitude?  I didn’t feel lightheaded or nauseous, just sluggish and tired.  The hiking groups around us were packing up and leaving.  Despite our best efforts, it was nearly 7:30 a.m. before we resumed the John Muir Trail.  This was Carolyn’s day to carry the bear canister, a big load combined with all her other gear.  My pack did not feel lighter than the first day:  less food but a wet tent. 

In my short few years of outdoor adventures I have drawn many lines that I refused to cross…and then crossed them.  Peeing in the woods?  Hiking farther than 10 miles, 15 miles, 20 miles?  Hiking alone?  Hiking in a downpour?  Hiking at 15 degrees?  Hiking with people I met on the internet?  Sleeping in a shelter, no tent?  Camping alone?  No shower for five days?  Crossed all those lines.  After a debate about the WAG bags (“maybe I can just hold it until I get to Whitney Portal”) we women acknowledged that if we are true environmentalists and stewards of our public lands, we should follow the recommended guidelines, so before we left camp we joined the WAG bag club.  Another line crossed, and like the others, no big deal.  Whatever it takes to get me to the places I want to go…and keep them protected for the next adventurer.

I carried 2.5 liters of water and was not drinking enough, which added to my lethargy.  My first steps taking me away from Guitar Lake were already tough.  The long sustained climb up to the pass, called Trail Crest, was relentless.  The tree line was long gone.  Looking at the wall of rock, it was difficult to discern the switchbacks until I was on top of them. 

Dolores was hiking with one pole (her second one had broken before the trip) and she was uneasy about the narrow trail.  She said that she would be my “slave” today, one step behind, and she was true to her word.  Me, I was so slow that she occasionally bumped into me but neither of us minded because we wanted the moral support.  I would not have believed that I could walk so slowly.  Each step was a monumental effort, breathe in with the right foot, breathe out with the left foot.  If the slope of the trail changed one iota I could feel it.  When I had three easier steps in a row I gained confidence and thought I could make it – then the trail tilted upward again and it became unbearable, too hard, bad idea, ain’t never doing this again.

And all the while we were surrounded by God’s incredible works.  Good morning, Guitar Lake

Good morning moon 

Can you find me and Dolores? 

Can you find the hiker blending in?

Tired eyes

Looking down at Guitar Lake 

As we climbed higher the temperature dropped lower and I dug down for my thicker gloves.  Mileage was fuzzy as usual, but I think after about three miles we reached Trail Crest, the intersection of the John Muir Trail with the spur trail to the summit of Mt Whitney.  Carolyn and Jeff were already there, eating and preparing for the summit.  Here we dropped our packs, put on a couple more layers, including rain gear, and loaded our pockets with essentials for the four-mile out-and-back trek:  food, cell phones, cameras, gloves, hats.  We debated about donning our YaxTrax that we had carried for three days, but descending hikers said that they were not necessary so we skipped it (except Jeff because he is smarter than we are).  I did not consider not summiting:  I was just glad to drop that pack.  I didn’t eat anything at this point, even though I knew I really should, just didn’t think I could swallow. 

And off we go to summit Mt Whitney! 

Carolyn in the red coat on the spur trail

Dolores on the spur trail

Mt Whitney is the mountain sloping upward from the left to the center of the photo

An iceberg lake

The uphill was quite difficult even without a backpack.  My breathing was labored, my legs weighed about a thousand pounds each, and I stopped often, trying to catch my breath and eat a mini Clif bar one microscopic bite at a time.

Still working it.  Now the mountain is just a big pile of rocks and the trail is just stepping over rocks, no fear of heights whatsoever.  Passing descending hikers can be challenging.

Snow field – I was not happy about this, flashbacks of the Grand Tetons backpack trip.  Dolores finally passed me as I struggled to continue.

It is not lonely on top of Mt Whitney.  I’ve read that 11,000 people summit it each year.  Cell signals are possible and everyone calls home to say, “Guess where I am?”

The gang’s all here sharing an unforgettable moment at 14,500 feet, the highest point of the lower 48 states.

Personal triumph – the feeling of accomplishment was immense

Signing the summit register

We hung around for the better part of an hour, taking numerous variations of summit photos.  Jeff left first, then Dolores, then Carolyn, and then I began the long descent – 11 miles.  The snow field was terrifying going down.  It’s just a narrow path stomped into the snow and nothing on either side except air.  I slipped once flat onto my back, got myself back up with  my heart pounding, then slipped two more times.  There were people behind me waiting patiently, telling me to take my time.  Note to self:  always carry the darn YaxTrax. 

Back at Trail Crest, Jeff’s pack was gone so we figured we wouldn’t see him the rest of the day.  I shouldered my pack again, took a few steps down and around a curve…and there was another upward climb.  Back to my now-perfected snail’s pace.  After that, the downhill began for real on the infamous 99 switchbacks.  I was so very glad to be going downhill that the switchbacks were a pleasure.

Dolores in the lower left corner

A friendly marmot

I passed Dolores, descending very cautiously with her single hiking pole, and eventually caught up with Carolyn below Trail Camp, about 6 miles from the trail’s end at Whitney Portal.  The trail opened up as we passed through meadows and it seemed that the end was near, but then the trail would descend sharply again through a narrow section.  My back felt great, my knees didn’t hurt (much) and with every downward step the oxygen level increased and I could breathe, breathe, breathe again.  

Looking down into the town of Lone Pine

A waterfall on Lone Pine Creek

We caught up with a couple of hikers and Carolyn became engaged in a long conversation with them, trying to pass the time, and I slipped on ahead and got into a zone.  Time was flying and I really wanted to get off the trail before dark.  The last two miles were tough as my joints began to protest the constant stepping down.  I finished in fading light at 7:10 p.m., almost 12 hours on the trail.  Taking off a loaded backpack is one of the best feelings in the whole wide world.

Carolyn was only a few minutes behind, then we went to the car to catch up with Jeff.  A half hour later Dolores emerged in full dark with a very cute young man who had noticed her descending with one hiking pole as he was going UP to the summit.  On his way back down he saw her again, insisted that she use his hiking poles, and then accompanied her the rest of the way.  What a big finish! 

Is the day over?  No, not yet.  The only place in town to get a quick bite was McDonald’s.  Then we had to find our campground home for the night and set up tents again.  Then…after a prayer of thanks…oblivion until morning.

Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things you didn't do, than by the ones you did do. ~ Mark Twain

Promise me you’ll always remember:  You’re braver than you believe, and stronger than you seem, and smarter than you think.  ~Christoper Robin to Pooh

Monday, November 14, 2011

Destination: Guitar Lake

Mt Whitney Backpack Trip – Day 2 – 9/15/11 – Rock Creek to Guitar Lake– 11.2 Miles

The inside of a fuschia tent at sunrise is a religious experience.  The almost-full moon cast a spotlight on our campsite during the night, but the morning’s first rays lit up the walls of my little pink house like stained glass windows in a cathedral.  (Okay, maybe that’s too much metaphor – John Mellencamp, anyone?)  I lay there enjoying the glow for nearly an hour before the sound of rustling from other parts of camp told me to get moving. 

The low overnight temperature was 35 degrees, a pleasant surprise.  I slept very comfortably with my silk liner in my sleeping bag, long underwear tops and bottoms, one pair of socks and a fleece head wrap.  The silk liner was the trick, I think.  Because it wasn’t too cold we enjoyed a leisurely breakfast and then got down to packing.  Today was my turn to carry the bear canister.  I solved the dilemma of how to fit this large hard plastic object into my pack by lining it with a clean plastic garbage bag (always carry a few) and stuffing my sleeping bag, stuff sack, silk liner and hand/toe warmers into it.  Then I slid the canister down into my backpack and stuffed the rest of my gear in around it.  Dolores took over the two backpacking stoves and fuel that I had carried yesterday, plus my sleeping pad, so that I had room for everything else, and my net increase in weight was about a pound. 

We left camp at about 9:15, in no hurry because we anticipated less than 10 miles for the day (wrong).  Within a half mile, we hit our first “what up?” at an unexpected wet crossing.  After scouting in vain for a place to rock hop across, we plunged in.  It took a while for four of us to make the crossing – removing boots/socks, careful steps, drying off, putting on boots/socks – and I took advantage of the time to adjust the bear canister a little higher in my pack, much more comfortable.

Jeff as Alfred E. Neuman from Mad Magazine:  “What, Me Worry?”

Mount Anna Mills

Mount Guyot, named for the same fellow as our Mount Guyot in the Great Smoky Mountains (Arnold G. got around)

Foxtail Pines: huge and straight and majestic. I am a tiny insignificant creature walking among them.

Yes, it’s real

Our first climb went up Guyot Pass, an 800-foot elevation gain, tough going but good switchbacks to the pass.  I slowed my pace way down and settled into a rhythm for the rest of the day.  It’s a mind game to become one with the backpack, cinch the straps up tight and regard it as part of you as you step up, down, over and around objects. 

At the top of Guyot Pass

As you may guess, we had joined the stream of pilgrims on our way to Mt. Whitney.  The couple that took our photo at Guyot Pass was planning to summit tomorrow, too.  We also met two hilarious New Zealand fellows on a trek celebrating the ten-year anniversary of their first summit.  That first time was on September 11, 2001.  

A group of fish and game employees were hiking in the opposite direction; we met them at the pass just before Crabtree Meadows.  Answering questions about the trail and what to expect ahead, they warned that the Mt. Whitney Trail down to Whitney Portal is quite steep and hard on the knees.  They also advised not to go past Guitar Lake looking for a campsite tonight because there are no level areas, only rocks.  In this photo Jeff looks skeptical (and it turned out he was right, those guys were not correct.  Oh well…)

Beyond the second pass suddenly the mountains were up close.  Dark clouds stayed on the horizon, but we didn’t hear any thunder all day.  Descending into Crabtree Meadows – what do you suppose this gate is for?

Crabtree Meadows was a particularly beautiful section of this incredibly beautiful trail, criss-crossed by flowing creeks, huge expanses of green grasses, surrounded by mountains and imposing rock formations.

Last chance to pick up a “WAG bag” – love the instruction on the box, “please do not sit here.”  

Jeff's photography skills are so much better than mine, it's hard to select just a few to give an idea of what we were seeing, but here goes:

Timberline Lake

Timberline Lake


The rest of the hike to Guitar Lake was longer than anticipated (surprise), a steady uphill with lots of stone steps.  The lake is in a stunning setting, ringed by bare mountains on all sides, piles of rocks beside the placid water, no trees...and very little privacy.  Campers were already set up but it did not feel crowded.  The couple we met at Guyot Pass arrived soon after we did.    It was well before 5:00 p.m., early based on our recent experience, but it was breezy and definitely chilly so we got right to work. 

Checking out tent spots at Guitar Lake

What clouds? 

Guitar Lake (Jeff’s photo)

Home sweet home again (Jeff’s photo)

Jeff’s setup (Jeff’s photo)

Pause for reflection

See my pink tent?

Tomorrow we’re climbing up that rock wall

We all treated water using Dolores’ SteriPEN, filling up for tomorrow’s hiking and all our cooking needs.  We set up stoves and cooked supper in a protected area near the rocks.  The temperature dropped quickly and we were ready to give it up by 7:00 p.m. with some daylight left.  Then Dolores produced a titanium flask (a gift from her kids) with Amaretto and we had a sip to warm us on our way to our tents.  I know lots of people that carry a nip of wine or peppermint schnapps or bourbon, but Amaretto is my new favorite.

Inside my tent, I wrote notes about the day, trying to push away my nervousness about tomorrow’s cold, steep climb.  I knew I would gut it out because the car is at the end of the trail, but I ruminated on why I do this crazy thing called hiking.  At the time I didn’t have a good answer.  Carolyn and I both said that we’re taking a break from backpacking after this…until the next awesome trip gets planned.

Sunset at Guitar Lake (Jeff's photo)

“Hiking takes more head than heel.”  ~Emma 'Grandma' Gatewood, at age 67 the first woman to thru-hike the Appalachian Trail (1955)