Mt. Whitney loop
(Freeze your toes off in the Eastern Sierras)

26 Nov - 1 Dec 2002 - by John Sejerman (view roster page)


Participants: John "se Jerman" Damaschke (leader), and 4 new mountaineers: Gudrun de Gersem, Ksenia Egorova, Anna Stubbs, Siddarth Rao
Location: Around Mt. Whitney, up Mountaineers Route, down trail
Tempertatures: low 10s to mid 20s
Camp 0: Miracle Hot Springs, 2366'
Camp 1: Lower Boy Scout Lake, 10300'
Camp 2: Upper Boy Scout Lake, 11300'
Camp 3: Mt. Whitney Plateau, 14200'
Camp 4: Above Mirror Lake, 11400'
Casualties: 1 pot, 1 stove, 1 spoon, 1 bent ski pole
Injuries: Many freezing toes, 1 pain in the neck
Noteworthy equipment: 1 stove broken at trailhead, 1 failing at 13000', 1 stove + fuel left behind, 1 three-season tent with broken zipper, 1 pair of useless gators...

Freeze - your - ... - off - trip. Mt. Whitney, Thanksgiving weekend. No turkey for the five of us: John se jerman, Anna the American, Ksenia Moskovski, Sid the indian, and Gudrun ze Belhizje. Fifty international toes ready for a natural deepfreezer. Just to remember how snow looks like, to remember that temperatures can drop below t-shirt weather. In the bay area, you tend to forget that. The plan is to climb Mt. Muir, 14.015' in the Whitney Area, class 3. (For the European readers: both hands out of the pocket. You'll need them!) Mt. Whitney, the highest mountain of 'continental America' (without Alaska thus) is closeby, but is not really exciting, so not the main goal... Foto's can be found via John's webpage.

Tuesday night, after many U-turns thanks to John's wish to see every strech of the road twice, we set off for five days. In the trunk everything is ready: clothes, gear, food, and ... a birthday present for my sister in Belgium, that didn't find a post office without a waiting line of 20 people. She'll have to wait a bit for her ...(she hasn't guessed it yet).

That night, we camped at Miracle Hot Springs in Sequoia National Forest. A miracle they are there, in the right spot for a good start of our trip. The peppermintschnaps joins us to a wonderful pool of hot water. No comment...

In Lone Pine, we meet Sid at the ranger station. The weather forecast gives us extra hope. Night temperatures high teens (Fahrenheit...), in the twenties from thursday and trough the weekend. Day temperatures terthies to fourties. No surprises expected the next five days. Around noon, we arrive at Whitney Portal. The road is closed at about 7000' (feet) due to winterstorms. But the rocks on the road don't hold us from driving the backbacks to the trailhaid (8500'), and John and Sid the drivers get a ride up in a jeep. So, we all start the hike with fresh legs. We walk on the nice trail, with a little bit of snow under our boots.

We decide to go for a loop: ascent on the mountaineers route following the north fork of the Lone Pine Creek, up to Mt. Whitney, 14.495' (or 4418m), and then on the easy trail to the the base of Mt. Muir, up there, and back on the frequently used trail. A map might give you some idea about this loop.

The first appropriate camping spot is at Lower Boy Scout lake. After a couple of hours climbing next to the creek, we start slowing down severely, and dark falls. The last stretch we walk (struggle) with headlamps, and at the first possible campsite, we crash. The thermometer sais -10 degrees celcius. The (European) altimeter sais 3140m (10300'). Ksenia discovers her love for the shovel. Some of us, including me, never camped in the snow before, and John teaches us a full set of snow tricks. How to secure the pegs, how to use a stove appropriately, how to use a foam pad to make a smooth snow surface underneath the tent. John cooks fresh vegetables and thereby makes his backpack two pounds lighter. The bear cannister is full, Johns Ursack is full. We hang the rest of the food high in a tree, according to the rules of the art, thanks to Anna's experience.

The next morning, we discover Lower Boy Scout Lake a couple of hundred yards from our camping spot. Some people never used crampons before, so we took the time to adjust them to the boots, to try out how the straps should be arranged, etc. Late in the morning, we go on the road again. I start being pregnant of water bottles, as this is the only way to keep water liquid. After three hours of walking, with the snow becoming deeper, we slow down severely again. Some people have trouble with the altitude, and the late stop yesterday make us decide to camp at Upper Boy Scout Lake (11300') at about 3 pm, and not to do an attempt to reach Iceberg Lake. An early stop is welcome. Anna's toes start being unbearable cold, and she feels not well, so she disappears soon in her tent. Ksenia the shoveling-lover clears a rock to cook on. We discovered that we left a stove at the trailhaid, and have to be cautious with the fuel. When the water for Anna and John's meal boils, we put the pot in a sleeping-bag incubator to let the meal stove without fuel. Then, Ksenia, Sid and I have a mixed diner with rice and chicken, in a same incubator. Dark falls again, and the temperatures drop accordingly. Sid comes up with a little wine bottle. Happy Thanksgiving! Ksenia and I find the energy to cook some more water for a hot drink. In my cup, the boiling water and a good bit of wine make nice Gluhwein, which fits perfectly in the white landscape. I almost feel like on a German Weihnachtsmarkt.

Friday. Long day to go. After two half-days, we want to make serious progress. We need to get to the ridge, go over Mt. Whitney to the base of Mt. Muir and find a camping spot. After a fast breakfast, we broke up camp and went off. We meet 2 other hikers, going for a day hike up to Thor Peak, and have a chat. The first people we meet on the trail. We go further up, and do the class 2/3 scrambling to Iceberg Lake. The ice axe is helpfull. The lake is totally frozen, no water accessible. So, we go on and start to climb the gully north of Mt. Whitney to the ridge. It is a 30% (40 maybe?) snow/ice slope. We slow down severely again. We need to be at the ridge before dark. John is a bit worried, so am I. We can both care for ourselves, but when something would happen, we are not sure having enough energy for going down again and carrying another backpack up. At 14.000', it's not a little walk in the park anymore. Anna's toes are freezing cold. Sid's lagging quite a way. Everybody suffers. We make it to the ridge in daylight though, and traverse to the plateau on Mt. Whitney relatively fast. Sid follows us on a bit distance, but at the edge of dark, he joins us at the campsite. The altimeter sais 4380m. It starts snowing and a gusty wind chills us to the bone. The view could be better... As soon as the tents are up, Anna disappears again, with 'fucking freezing toes'. Ksenia, Sid and John share a 2-person 3-season tent with a broken zipper. I try to secure the outer layer of the tent, so that it would not be blown on to the inner layer with every gust.

That night, nobody slept well. I couldn't sleep because of the altitude, but I managed to get myself warm, and I had a calm rest. Anna couldn't sleep because she was so worried we would snow in and suffocate. I don't know, but somehow this didn't worry me at all. I never had this experience before, but so many people had spent nights and days in tents during snowstorms in way worse conditions than we were. In the middle of the night, I became really hungry, as we didn't have dinner. I had experienced that my body had not too much energy left during the hiking day for digestion, so I forced myself to eat some granola bars, as a reserve for the next day. In the morning, Ksenia told me that in the other tent, they also had a rough night.

In the morning, the snowing had almost stopped, the wind is less, and now and then the sun brakes trough the clouds. Most of the clouds are underneath, hiding the deserted valley from our view. We are only 50m? below the absolute top of the Sierra (Mt. Whitney), and every other mountain we see is lower. It feels like the top of the world. The only thing we could care at that moment though, was to get going as soon as possible and get to lower elevation. Also finding water is a major point. Eating snow doesn't release you from thurst, as snow contains no minerals.

We plough knee/hip-high trough the fresh snow, fall trough where the snow hides a stone with according snow hole, struggle up again. Anna's gaiters prove to be totally useless. This, together with only a half-size Thermarest, doesn't help her to get the feeling in her toes back. After a while, we come to the main Whitney trail, which we follow along the ridge. We pass the bases of Keeler Needle, some nice gully's with astonishing views (even with the gray weather), the base of Mt. Muir. Still on the ridge, we melt some snow to have some drinking water, which costs us quite some fuel.

At the crossing of the Ridge Crest Trail and the Whitney Trail, we meet the first (old) footprints. The descent from the crest is not too easy. The fresh snow doesn't give too much support. But after a first stretch trough the rocks under the snow, we could descent in clear snow/ice, straight down. Yee-haaaa. I have fun. My sailing pants, my gaiters, my goretex jacket, Chaos goretex mits, my Scarpa Italian boots do a good job. They keep me perfectly dry, in spite of major attacks of the snow. I fall trough to the chest twice, slip down some meters (which causes you to be half buried under the fresh soft snow), but I could be sure of my gear. Anna is not so lucky.

At about 3 pm, we arrive at a first possible camping spot (3680m), but we decide to go on for another hour, to get lower, and in the hope to find water. An astonishing view on Whotan's Throne accompanies us already a while. We leave the impressive throne to our left, and struggle on. At about 4 p.m. we reach non-frozen water, and search for a camping spot. We go back a bit to a flatter place (3440m). I am hungry, but don't feel like eating much. I was almost trough my physical energy and had to peptalk myself back up again. There, everybody had arrived, and Ksenia, John and Sid went down and up again for water. Thanks!! A hot soup gives us a first fresh energy-shot. John cooks for Anna and him. Ksenia and I eat a rice dish, which tastes surprisingly well.

Sundaymorning already. We'll hike till we reach the trailhaid. The first hour is still snow-ploughing, following the old footprints, but then we can follow the real trail and the slow diminishes. We come across some hare and coyote tracks. At about 2900m, we meet other hikers. From below Iceberg Lake, up on the ridge, to below Lone Pine Lake, we had the whole region for ourselves. Whaaaaooo.

Anna smells home, and arrives at the trailhaid first. In a nice chat, John, Ksenia and I follow pretty soon. Also Sid is not far behind. The sight of the trailhaid makes me sad. I want to turn back again. I had a hard time, but it was worth it! I learnt a lot, about winter camping, about mountaineering, about myself, about reactions on hard conditions.

In the bear lockers, I discover one of my apples, and it tastes like heaven. Even frozen (but it was not too bad). We go down to the place where we left the cars, which is still quite a way downhill. I start whistling again. People passing in (full) cars ask us where we came from, how long we were up, how it looked like. Back at the cars, we sort out the CHaOS gear. Sid leaves to LA, Anna and I leave for the bay area, Ksenia and John go for another bath in the Miracle Hot Springs and then to Mountain View.

Back home, my housemate was waiting for me. I called my parents, who were a bit worried. I realized that I forgot the birthday present for my sister in Anna's car. And above all, I took a shower and had a long sleep in a fantastic bed.

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