Mount Whitney: Day Two
A few miles later we had our first snow crossing. These areas were well packed and simple to traverse, although a quick glance at the rocks below was enough to reinstate appropriate caution. This became most exaggerated when approaching the cables. Reports from the days before ranged from requiring crampons and ice axes to bare boots and trekking poles—we found it to be somewhat closer to boots and poles.
Seeing as yak-traks were in our packs, we paused to attach them to our shoes and gauged the quality of the snow. Very slushy, good for the traks to grip into. Jon headed off first and made it with no issues.
Following the cables was a lot of “up.” Each switchback increasing our field of view in ways perceptually disproportionate to the amount of additional elevation.
Our pace was pretty good, and we started gaining on a fellow hiker. As the spacing decreased we heard the sweet-nothings of EDM bangers. Holy shit do speakers on trail bother me. Two things came to mind:
- Perhaps I should bring a few pairs of cheap headphones, and upon encountering sonically insensitive hikers say “hello” and ask, “would you like a pair of headphones to better appreciate the fidelity of your tunes?” Passive aggressive, yeah, but come on…
- When visiting the beaches of Southern California the composer John Cage would become annoyed by people endlessly blasting their portable radios. To overcome this agitation Cage composed a piece entirely out of radios simultaneously playing an array of stations. In this way, whenever visiting the beach, he would pleasantly encounter one of his own compositions and no longer feel the pang of intrusive melodies.
These thoughts behind (and below) us the elevation became more noticeable as the end of the switchbacks came into view. Just one more snow crossing at the top of the chute and we’d be at Trail Crest.
Trail Crest really lives up to the name. Approaching the ridgeline, focused on the horizon in front of you, sky gives way to the interior Sierras beneath you. It feels infinite up here despite being firmly planted on granite.
The temperature was hovering around the mid-40s and the winds really picked up as we followed the trail along the edge of a large cliff into the valley below. Putting the puffy on felt just right, and the fresh views helped renew our sense of “holy shit” after a few hours on the switchbacks.
This section of trail also takes you past several crags which create “windows” through which you can see the Owens Valley on the opposite side. As with many details of this trip, the size was immense, and impossible to communicate through imagery.
The entire Whitney Trail is class one, meaning relative ease and no scrambling sections, but this should not discount the effects of elevation, and the last couple hundred feet you’re really sloggin it up. As the hut came into view a wave of excitement began to surge as it became clear we’d summit.
There were perhaps 30 people hanging out at the top—an interesting mix. There were the climbers, who had just scaled the east face and made my little jaunt up feel extremely pedestrian, and the Instagram models posing in varying states of undress, connecting to the burst of LTE signal beamed up from Lone Pine.
It was a weird scene, and I began thinking about this all as backdrop for social media. The themes I read yesterday in Aereality about the transformation of land (environment) into landscape (image) crossed my mind. Similar to how an environment like this summit is subject to the same range of ecological crisis affecting me at home despite distance, so too does the cognitive pollution and associated behavior of platform technology follow me even here.
The connectedness was acute. How strange to feel so removed from my everyday, hyper-saturated by media, but find myself just as embedded within it.
After about half an hour at the summit we began our way back to camp. It felt nice to descend after two solid days of nonstop up. The change in light was noticeable, and the air had cleared up a bit. Views, though familiar, felt new with the this fresh perspective.
Just before reaching Trail Crest the Whitney Trail intersects the Pacific Crest Trail, and here hikers often drop their packs for the two miles up to the summit. Nearing this juncture I saw a few crows hovering in the heavy winds—impressive. Approaching, it became clear they were getting up to no good by getting into people’s packs. There was also a super fat marmot. Can’t say I blame them.
The rest of the way down was smooth and we reached the bottom of the switchbacks at 3:20pm. Not bad.
Rather than heading directly back to camp we decided to go relax on the edge of Consultation Lake. A lush ravine revealed an easier way down the otherwise jagged and difficult terrain.
The water was almost freezing, literally. Just before our arrival to Whitney this had been frozen over. We challenged each other to see who could keep their feet submerged the longest, the loser clearly owing the winner a beer when reaching Lone Pine.
Being no ice man, I lost after about 30 seconds.
We turned in early after dinner, both from exhaustion and as the winds were significantly higher than yesterday. From camp above we could see the gusts of wind tracing over the lake below, a sort of real time visualization of air masses making their way down to the Owens Valley.
- Leave early, it gets hot down at the switchbacks in the mid-afternoon. We saw some people heading up quite late, and not only will you be sweating on the way up, you’ll be rushing to get back down before the winds pick up during sunset.
- Don’t take the chute unless you know what you’re doing, for real. Don’t jeopardize yourself or those around you.
- Keep your pace in check, although sleeping at elevation helps you’ll certainly begin noticing it. We talked to a few people who turned back at Trail Crest and I can’t help but wonder if this was because the effects of altitude were exaggerated because of speed.
- Don’t fall off the top.