Thursday, November 10, 2011

Horseshoe Meadow to Rock Creek

Mt Whitney Backpack Trip – Day 1 – 9/14/11 – Horseshoe Meadow to Rock Creek – 13.8 Miles

Tired after a long night spent packing and repacking in my sleep.  When I woke up I added back my book and my reading glasses. We were at the Visitor’s Center before 8:00 a.m. ready for the process of receiving permits and bear canisters. (Back in the spring Jeff scored our permit spots for backcountry camping.)  We also received our “wag bags” and a lesson on their use.  Our first two days of hiking go through the Inyo National Forest and Sequoia National Park, but our second night’s campsite and hike on day 3 is in the John Muir Wilderness, a “carry out your own poop” zone.  More than you want to know about that later.

Weather forecasts are important for being prepared for precipitation, but in some places weather forecasts can cancel a trip, especially above tree line.  It was our great good fortune that a storm system that had hung around for the last few days was moving out and Friday, our summit day, was forecast to be clear and beautiful. (Note the temp differences between Furnace Creek and Mt. Whitney.) 

Our route is U-shaped, not a loop.  Jeff arranged a shuttle driver, who met us in town and drove with us to Whitney Portal to leave our rental car.  Doesn’t the name Whitney Portal sound a little Star Trekky?  It’s an unincorporated little community where the Mount Whitney Trail begins, complete with campgrounds, a store, a restaurant and lots of parking for pilgrims going to the summit.  Our hike ends here, but it begins at Horseshoe Meadow, elevation 9,900 feet high on our way to 14,500-foot Mount Whitney. 

Dolores enjoying her last real cup of coffee

At Horseshoe Meadow, it’s now- or-never time

In Golden Trout Wilder- ness, Inyo National Forest

Waiting for my editor to identify this tree – after this shot my camera succumbed to the sand inside it and stopped working.  The rest of the hike’s photos are from Jeff (always better anyway).

Look at how blue that sky is (doesn’t last long)

Within the first 15 minutes of any serious hike there is a wardrobe change.

A wide open landscape that we just don’t see back in North Carolina

The first mile was level and comfort- able as we got used to our heavy packs, and then came the long switch- backed trail up to Cottonwood Pass.  I felt a buzz of excitement as we stepped onto the Pacific Coast Trail, a western sister to the Appalachian Trail.  But doubts began to bubble up as my legs grew heavier and my breathing became labored.  Was this because of yesterday’s hike up to Telescope Peak?  Maybe we should have taken a rest day, you know, like serious athletes do.  Or was it the altitude?  As I slowly trudged up to the pass I felt disheartened – this really was going to be as hard as I thought.

Chicken Spring Lake – lots of campers, perhaps a guided trip with a local outfitter

Big Whitney Meadow - Even the weight of my pack could not distract me from the scenery.  This is what backpacking is for, to get to these faraway places.  The trees are immense.  Fat chipmunks scurry around everywhere. 

Clouds gathered and dispersed and we could see thunder- storms a long distance away.  We stopped to put on pack covers and rain gear and – hail!  It quickly passed over and the sun peaked out again.  Some areas that we walked through later in the day had much more accumulation than we had experienced. 

This deer was not at all disturbed as we passed by

Five miles into the hike the trail leveled out and I had no trouble with the pack weight.  But what about tomorrow?  We’ve got to go up again sometime.  The four of us stuck closer together than on dayhikes.  Carolyn intentionally put me ahead of her to set the pace, which I very much appreciated, because she is naturally faster.  Jeff, as usual, occasionally disappeared to take pictures.  Dolores stayed in the back a good bit of the day, adjusting to carrying the bear canister.  I think that thing weighs even more mentally than literally. 

As I’ve said before, mileage is screwy out here and different maps disagree with each other and with signage on the trail.  Jeff’s GPS is what we decided to rely on, with 13.8 miles for our first day, ending near the Rock Creek ranger station, a terrific campsite by Rock Creek, lots of water, level ground, a nice campfire ring with logs to sit on.  Ironically, we were at 9,600 feet, so we lost all the elevation we gained today, but it was important to sleep at this elevation to help with acclimatization.  After we set up camp I pulled out my camera to mess with it – and it revived!  Hallelujah!  I caught up on my picture-taking.

Campsite at Rock Creek

Rock Creek

Jeff’s gear, including bear canister

Fire ring for fine dining

We cooked supper and ate, talking about the day and what lay ahead tomorrow.  Fitting all the food and trash into the two bear canisters was an unexpected challenge.  As we struggled with this in the fading sunlight, a light rain began to fall and we hustled to finish our chores.  We each ended up with our sealed backpacking meals in our tents.

By 8:00 p.m. we were all sequestered in our little homes and I was very cold as I zipped up the entrance.  My amazing Lightheart tent is large enough for my backpack as well as me and my sleeping gear, so I spent some time changing into dry clothes, making a pillow out of my tent bag stuffed with hiking shirts and a jacket, and was soon warmed up.  I read my (heavy) book for a short time, then laid down to listen to the nighttime sounds.  No more pitter-patter of rain (yay), just the gurgling of the creek (yay again).

Today was a hard day.  Thoughts of thru-hiking the AT are gone.  I don’t want to cope with days of cold rain and a heavy load.  We’ll see if the memory of the discomfort fades away.

Everyone wants to live on top of the mountain, but all the happiness and growth occurs while you're climbing it. ~ Andy Rooney

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