Christian Kemp's USA travelogs

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Around midnight, the wind started picking up. Up until then, temperatures had been relatively nice, around 15 degrees Celsius inside of my tent. But with the cold wind they soon dropped, thankfully never below 7 degrees Celsius. Unfortunately, the wind as such was a problem. It caused the tent walls to shake with every wind gust, creating a level of noise than even wax ear plugs couldn't cover. Also, my tent neighbors were kept awake, which translated to the guy starting conversations and opening and closing zippers (what for, I don't know) several times during the night.

While I'd slept pretty well from 8pm to midnight, I had no such luck in the following hours. I don't think I slept at all from midnight to sometime after 4:40am. I debated for a moment whether I shouldn't just get up and start hiking, but this would have meant almost two hours of hiking in the dark, and I was (needlessly, it turned out) concerned about any potential rough spots that I might encounter. I must have fallen asleep for about an hour, and woke up again at 5:50. I quickly packed my backpack, and hit the trail at 6am. The wind was blowing fiercely, and even though I was wearing all layers of clothing I had brought with me, I wasn't feeling too warm. There was quite a lot of activity along the campsites, and I could see a couple of headlights already moving up the mountain.

Pretty soon, I was walking up the switchbacks above Trail Camp. I passed an older man, who remarked that he had no energy at all, and then two younger hikers. The older man was soon joined by two other people from their group, and a while later, while I was with the two other hikers at the section called "The Cables", he turned around. I'd read about that "cable" section, and the ice that forms there in the fall, and it was the main reason why I hadn't started earlier. But it turned out that there was almost no ice and the trail was two meters wide at this spot. The cables merely served as a delimiter, not a primary means of support. As such, they were not really indicative of dangerous exposure, as they would on a cable-secured section in the Alps. At the present time, this section could have been mastered even in full darkness.

As is, the sun was starting to rise, and the entire mountain face with Mount Whitney on the extreme right was getting a red tint. Gradually, that red tint turned into rich golden colors. This didn't help at all temperature-wise, since the wind was still biting cold. I'd warmed up some by hiking uphill, however; and shed my outmost layer (a rain jacket). The trail still went up switchbacks on the left side of the more extreme cliffs, and I was still making decent progress, even though I could feel the altitude by now. I reached Trail Crest at around 7:45am. It's at 13,600 feet of elevation, and thus I had reached one of my goals of ascending to at least 4000m of elevation. From here, it would only be two more miles to the summit, but I'd soon find out that these two miles were among the two longest miles I've hiked so far. All this time, the trail was never technically difficult, feeling much like a long-distance trail through the Alps.

What changed at this point was that I'd left Inyo National Forest, and entered Sequoia National Park. The views had changed as well - gone were the views of the abrupt eastern rises of Mount Muir, Mount Whitney and lesser peaks; instead I saw their rocky backsides and extended views into the valley and further mountain ranges of Sequoia. The trail would now contour around the backside of the above-mentioned peaks, and reach Mount Whitney without ever being either spectacular nor dangerous. But of course my speed seemed to approach that of a common garden snail, even as I forced myself to keep a steady pace. It would take me almost an hour and a half to cover these last two miles. At 9:20am, the summit hut finally came into view.

The sky was a perfect blue, and what little clouds were visible were so far in the distance that I wouldn't have to worry about any bad weather coming in. It was, however, still very cold - my small thermometer registered a low of -3 degrees Celsius, which doesn't take into account the wind chill factor. I sat down behind the summit building, on the side that was sheltered from the wind; and had a bit of food. I neither seemed to be very hungry nor very thirsty. Afterwards, I walked around the summit area to get a look in the various directions, and then retired into the summit building to try and fix one of my hiking poles and put on my knee braces for the descent that was still ahead of me. I managed to get the hiking pole to stay extended all the way again, and with temperatures not rising there was little reason to stay at the top any further. I thus started my descent around 10am, still about three quarters of an hour after arriving.

My downhill speed was better than my uphill speed had been on the last two miles of the ascent, but since I stopped many times to take pictures it still took me a while to get back to the mountain pass where I'd leave the crest again. One hour and thirty minutes, to be exact, which does include a short rest stop however. To get to the crest, I had to ascend two short uphill sections, which didn't feel too great. Once beyond the crest and with a lot of the trail down in sight now, I started going down the switchbacks to Trail Camp. It seems like they had multiplied since I'd gone up in the morning - I didn't remember there being that many; and time seemed to not move at all. All in all, it took one hour fifteen minutes for this stretch. By this time I'd developed quite a headache, too; which only confirmed my plans to break camp and head down in elevation for the night rather than potentially spending another miserable night up at Trail Camp.

So after resting for a few minutes, I started putting all my camping gear into the backpack again. Still, with the water and food I'd been taking in during the day, it was a couple of kilos lighter than on my way up, which made a noticeable difference. After about 45 minutes, I was ready to head on. My progress from here on wasn't very fast... with the heavy backpack, I preferred to really take it easy and not strain my knees more than I had to. Consequently, it took me until 3pm to reach Outpost Camp. I could have stayed here for the night, but I decided that since my knees had held up quite well so far, it'd be somewhat annoying to end the day at 3pm already - what would I do in those four or five hours until the sun set? So I continued hiking down.

Once more, the switchbacks leading to Whitney Portal seemed to have multiplied overnight, and multiple times I thought that judging by the time I'd been hiking I should be back at the trailhead; when in reality I was still high above it. What increased my disgruntlement was that a lone hiker had been trailing me since Trail Camp - he'd always been one switchback behind, and whenever I thought he'd come near enough that I thought I'd let him pass, he seemed to increase the distance just a bit. It wasn't that he made me feel paranoid, but just that same feeling you get when a car is driving behind you for a hundred miles, doing exactly the same speed as you when it could easily pass and just move at its own pace. Why couldn't that guy set his own pace? I was annoyed.

After a seemingly endless two more hours, around 5pm, I finally reached Whitney Portal. I'd survived Whitney even though my preparation for it had been less than stellar; and I thought a greasy burger was well in order to celebrate the feat. With some daylight left, but no desire to do much driving, I decided I'd just drive into Lone Pine to take a shower and then retreat to the Alabama Hills for a good night's rest. When I took my shower at the Whitney Portal Hostel, I asked them where I'd be able to do laundry, and was told I could just use their facilities, free of charge. I thought that was a nice gesture indeed. I tried to repay by buying something to drink (and leaving a tip). While waiting for the washer and the dryer to do their jobs, I went online and caught up on my email.

Sleep was just a short drive away into the Alabama Hills, not the same spot I'd used the previous night but that didn't make any difference.

Miles driven: 16mi (26km)

Campground Accommodation: Primitive camping (Alabama Hills): $0.00

First part written at Goosenecks State Park between 6pm and 7pm on 29th September 2008, finished Saturday October 4th on the flight from Las Vegas to St. Paul / Minneapolis