Mt Whitney via Horseshoe Meadows to Onion Valley
The high road
Being my 50th birthday, and for reasons not entirely clear to myself, I decided to try bag Whitney again. I’d tried once before but thunderbolts and lighting (and people yelling ‘get off the peak!’) had chased me off before I’d had a chance to snapchat myself against the view.
A serious multi-day, I reasoned, was just the thing. A rematch at the summit. A rumble in the jumble. And so the previous couple of months had been spent in a Rocky Balboa like montage of picking gear, going for runs, poring over maps, plotting food schedules, exit routes. This was as ready as I was gonna get.
Our epic hike, my roomie and I decided, should be from Horseshoe Meadows to Whitney and then back out over Forester Pass, Kearsarge Pass and then out to Onion Valley where we’d have a second car awaiting.
An uneventful and strategically juxtaposed drive out from SF was had on the first day in July — an all day endeavor by itself. After a day being in the car we were ready to hike! Our timing was perfect. One of us arrived earlier in Lone Pine and picked up permits — and being in a pre-hiking season we were able to get them for free including the Whitney Zone.
A last supper of Chicken Chow-Mein was shoveled into our gullets at Lone Pine’s only Chinese restaurant. Then, luckily as it turns out, before the stores closed we were able to pick up a few errant supplies. At Elevation Climbing outfitters the sales person compelled us to rent crampons and ice axes (and socks oddly enough) — certain protection from an icy plummet to our deaths.
Acquisitions made, and lacking level 5 autonomous mode, we did the vehicle drops, one at Onion Pass, and then an hour later at Horseshoe Meadows where we rolled out of the car flashlights probing erratically in the darkness for the eves camping spot.
With sunrise came the sound of tents unzipping — or in my case car doors opening as I’d decided to simply sleep in the back of my truck — roughing it could wait till the following eve. Packs altogether too heavy thrown on our backs and we were on our way.
Horseshoe Meadows transitions into the Golden Trout Wilderness. A sandy level basin slowly climbing from cottonwood trees hugging the creek contours through lodgepole to gnarled ancient junipers. I especially love how fallen trees can look like beached baleen whales.
Part of what I wanted to do was to have the whole group succeed. This didn’t happen. Turns out that we didn’t carefully sit down and go over the map together, nor did we carefully audit our fellow hikers packs — and as a result that first day we ended up only about half way to Crabtree Meadows. We did budget an extra day so this in itself wasn’t a big deal. But in retrospect I would have taken more time to carefully talk through every pass so that we all had the same expectations. Two of us were conditioned for the hike, and one of us had done it several times — the other two found it more anxiety producing than it needed to be. It’s said that hiking is in the mind as much as the body. In that first day of hiking on a new trail the mind looks for excuses to quit, it bucks and fights your will, talks about how impossible it is, or how unprepared you are, or how dangerous it all is. It can be hard to out argue yourself.
Come round morning our cohort decided they needed to turn back. Altitude sickness, nausea and headaches had magnified overnight since we had camped at a higher altitude than planned. Horseshoe Meadows was at 9920 and Chicken Spring Lake area was at 11,242 — or another thousand feet up. Rock Creek Crossing was at 9520. Not allayed by diamox nor chocolate anxiety crept in. Hikers coming towards us told tales of trudging through deep snow, the trail lost, and being pulled underwater by swollen creeks.
The choice for me was to continue onwards alone.
Rock Creek Crossing
The trail drops about 1000 feet to Rock Creek with excellent views of Mount Langley, Mount Pickering, Mount Chamberlin, Mount Mallory, and Mount LeConte. The Ranger Station just before the creek warned that the creek was impassable due to snow melt.
Snowmelt had indeed raised many creeks to furious torrents, impassable by wading. Small surveys a mile upstream and downstream were often required to find an opportune fallen log to teeter across each careful step my pack top heavy.
In this case there was a log perfectly bridging the white waters not twenty feet from the trail. From here the other side was an absurdly lovely and gradual ascent to Guyot pass. Sunny, warm, snow-free — foxtail pine, explosions of spring flowers. A spring creek kept me company for much of this portion of the trail.
At some point before Crabtree was a stream crossing, the outflow of a small lake, which became a lovely place to swim. A lovely and re-invigorating release.
From here I crept up through a valley, unable to cross the stream, and stuck on the steep and muddy side of the slope, until I rejoined the trail much later.
Crabtree Meadows itself is an unusually flat green alpine field ringed by a council of sunset orange peaks facing towards the snow laden and hunched back of Whitney in the distance.
The stream continued to block hikers even here and as a result the perfect field was completely empty of tent and traveler — although the ranger cabin showed signs of habitation.
The night passed in Crabtree Meadows.
To my chagrin I’d forgotten to actually download the PCT trail map so I had to do the rest of the hike without a map. In fact I didn’t have any books at all except for one oddly enough . It was a luminous brilliantly woven tale of the intersection of many cultures in medieval Granada and I found myself absurdly captivated, reading late into the night.
With morning came oatmeal courtesy of the small alcohol stove I’d borrowed and then my increasingly lighter pack thrown back onto shoulders and carried onwards.
Carrying all the gear up to the top of Whitney made no sense, so I decided to setup my tent again just below Guitar Lake and throw everything into it that I didn’t want for the final ascent. In this way if I had to exit at Portal I wouldn’t have to go back quite as far. And if somebody stole my stuff then I could just die and get it all over with.
From here it was just a long slog up the back wall of Whitney and then finally rejoining the intersection with the Portal trail — and from there the peak itself!
On this segment I’d managed to run out of water and luckily there was enough snow melt towards the top of Whitney to cause little rivulets. Arranging the snow and ice in a useful way I was able to produce a small continuous stream which I used to fill up my water bag.
For some reason I found this part especially challenging. I had to resort to counting steps in my head, and doing small blocks of hiking and taking smaller steps. The altitude and breathing related issues were manageable but I just didn’t have a lot of power. I found it to be challenging.
Once finally at the top I took a ton of photos and then called my friends to see what the plan was. Several other hikers also were on top using their cellphones — everybody was checking in after days of no reception. My friends had just exited at Horseshoe and were committed to meeting me in two days at the end of the trail. It seemed best at this point to just carry on and do the entire hike (even though there was some argument in my mind that I shouldn’t do it alone).
Coming down I almost skipped down the mountain. Much of the psychological pressure was released and I was looking forward to chilling and reading my book. The view was spectacular.
Heading to Forester Pass
The next morning I woke up at Guitar Lake, having slept at a fairly high altitude, and generally feeling good.
I’d had eerie nightmares the night before. Thinking of my friend who had stepped off of the Golden Gate Bridge a month earlier. Thinking of whales carrying her body out to sea and following them myself in a small glider.
This was an exceptionally long day — and a few mistakes were made, inadequate sun protection, somewhat failing to balance my fluid intake and foods. The fresh food was largely gone and power-bars were not agreeing with me.
Bighorn Plateau was beautiful as well but there are some places that cannot be captured by a camera.
Pushing hard this day, perhaps too hard. Decided to bag Forester in the evening since there was nowhere obvious to camp. An outcrop of rock on the snowy plain was occupied by some fellow hikers I had met earlier. I decided to carry onwards to top.
There was no trail, it was under snow, so I went straight up the face of the mountain towards the pass. The snow had formed deep wind scoured snow cups which acted a lot like stairs.
Reaching the top felt like a feat, and it was quite late and I was quite tired. Coming down the backside snow slope I slipped and tore my ankle. The pain from this was intense enough that I decided I had to stop, so I setup camp at 13,000 feet up above a bird aviary. I could hear the birds calling and cooing to each other, and strong winds buffeted the tent making me nervous since I was camped on a spine of rock on the edge of a cliff.
Once sequestered in my tent I started to feel nausea and I felt myself getting sicker and sicker. The internal council that is my mind decided we had to descend. Moving quickly I repacked my tent and limped down another 1000 feet and then setup my tent again. One of the tent poles broke on the tent so I had to carefully jury rig a solution. The winds were stronger and I had to anchor the tent securely. At this point I’d pushed myself too hard and I felt definitely sick. A combination of my ankle, sun stroke, exhaustion and perhaps altitude sickness. I threw up most of the days food and liquids and then I passed out in my tent with strong winds continuing to try to scrape the tent off the mountain.
Forester to Kearsarge to the car
I woke up feeling better but still with a twisted ankle. The pain was sharp and mostly on descent.
This was a long day of limping through the forest below Forester and then climbing up into one of the most beautiful alpine lakes I had ever seen.
To distract myself I worried over a small philosophical knot. Machines it seems can produce both images and music now that present as fairly compelling. Deep Learning can do style transfer from one medium to another — and in this way morph an artist voice between eras of critical inquiry. But at the same time somehow it seems detectable by a human that these pieces are not made by a human — why is that? Clearly machines have yet to be able to compose text. This text I write for example could not be composed by a machine yet because it doesn’t understand the deeper movements behind this text. It doesn’t have a physical spatio temporal model of reality, it doesn’t have a model of lived experience, emotion or stress. Any text produced by a machine today can trivially be discerned. It feels like somehow the same is true for both music and visual media — it feels like we can discern machine generated art. The puzzle however is how do we do that if that is the case? We don’t know the grammar of other media — it is somewhat unconscious and unwritten. What are the subtle cues that hint at the humanity behind the art?
From here I lost the trail so I climbed straight up the wall of the valley and did a high alpine hike along the edge of the mountain in a big circle all the way to Kearsarge.
Up near the top of Kearsarge I was able to drink directly from the streams. Nice to be able to do this and have only marmot poo to worry about ingesting. Here’s a 360 video of this:
Hiking down into Onion Valley was some of the longest hiking. My foot was pretty sore at this point and I was using the hiking poles to keep weight off of it.
Part way down I ran into Edmond who had been hiking in the area and was waiting to see if I showed up. It was a perfect end to an excellent hike.
Back at the car we grabbed a stray hiker and fed them and gave them a place to crash back in Bishop. It was deliriously nice to be off the trail — and I can’t imagine what it would be like for somebody to do this for months on end — only dipping into towns for resupplies.
In the following days my ankle itched like crazy as it healed itself, and I felt strong and capable. It was an epic hike, bigger than I had thought, and now in hindsight the little aches and pains have faded and I’m left with the good experiences.