Whitney Summit, changing batteries.
I am writing this on Feb 15, 5 months after the fact. It has taken me this long to sit down and flesh out my trip report, for reasons that I won’t get into – but I’m hoping to update this blog more regularly going forward. Some of the details are a bit fuzzy at this point but I will do my best to be accurate. My initial summary TR and Adam’s chart etc is here: https://backpackinglight.com/forums/topic/106927/
This was my 2nd JMT attempt for the year, and 4th overall. I started at Whitney Portal at 2:30 AM on September 12, 2015 after spending about two weeks at elevation to acclimate.
This trip came at the tail end of a busy summer, about 6 weeks after my previous attempt. On this trip I had started with a 2 night loop trip from Tuolumne Meadows to near where I got disoriented on the third night of my the last trip. This trip allowed me to spend a rather cold and windy night at one of my favorite spots on the JMT – Thousand Island Lake. But as usual, the sunrise on Banner Peak warmed me right up:
I then spent a few days trail running with Amy and camping with some friends in Tuolumne, during which we did a beautiful ridge traverse at sunrise in the Cathedral Range.
The Cathedral traverse deserves its own post so I will just say that I would definitely do that again.
Then labor day weekend was over, everyone left and I headed down to rest up at Horseshoe Meadows till I was ready.
I was hoping to start on the 11th, but as I drove into town on the 10th, there were some slightly ominous looking clouds over the crest. The forecast seemed to be improving, so I decided to wait a day.
Whitney Zone 9/11/15
On the 11th the forecast was for afternoon thunderstorms for the next couple days and then clearing with no mention of a storm system in the forecast. So I got a room in town for the night and prepared for the now all too familiar predawn start. As it was now nearly mid-September, the days were getting shorter and the nights were colder. I decided to bring an extra couple pounds of food this time so I would not risk running out – last time I cut it a bit too close and did not want to take any chances. I also brought a full length Neo-Air pad, and a light hooded down jacket instead of the 3-ounce homemade vest I had brought the last time. I knew it would be colder and the nights would be longer. I decided to start a bit later this time, timing it so that I would reach the summit of Whitney just after sunrise. I also decided to take it a bit slower the first day, since I was carrying more weight and wanted to save my quads for the 3rd and 4th day when my pack would be lighter and the terrain more runnable.
All went as planned, at first. I started at 2:30 and made steady progress up the Whitney trail, passing quite a few dayhikers, but fewer than I had seen in July. I caught a few choice views of a beautiful sunrise from various notches on the ridge before the summit plateau and reached the summit at about 6:30am, 4 hours to cover the 10 miles and 6000 feet or so of elevation gain. There were a crowd of friendly hikers at the summit enjoying the sunrise – when they heard what I was doing, they were very supportive and enthusiastically cheered me on.
By this time my Spot was already acting up, and one guy was kind enough to give me some new batteries for it. I had just replaced them the night before but they seemed to be dead already. I coasted down the back side of whitney, trying to move as fast as possible without running – although I am sure I did jog a bit here and there. Last time I had run down much of this section and I think it hurt me in the long run.
While I thought I had a better strategy, I had a few things going against me: the weather report was borderline, the days were shorter and the nights colder, my pack was heavier. But the big question mark this time was the fires that had been burning for weeks now. The smoke had been a significant issue for both Gavin Woody and Amber Monforte on their trips recently. Amber broke the women’s unsupported FKT in spite of the smoke and Gavin put in an impressive effort, although he did not manage to set a new FKT. I was hearing mixed reports about how bad it was, it seemed to be getting better after some showers. Regardless, I decided that I would have to give it a shot in spite of the smoke as the season was drawing to a close and I might not get another chance.
Day 1 was great, I felt much better at Forester Pass this time at 10:35 elapsed time. Pacing myself seemed to be helping. I made it over Glen Pass and down to Rae Lakes in daylight for a change, and stopped at Woods Creek after just over 17 hours on he move. So far I was averaging over 3.1 MPH with no mishaps and feeling pretty good. I washed up in the creek and got about 3.5 hours rest – luxury.
Day 2 over Pinchot and Mather was good, steady progress. Then apocalyptic smoke from Palisade Basin onward. The haze was disconcerting and bizarre, the smell was constant. I felt like I was alone in a post-disaster wasteland. There were signs warning hikers to exit the trail, and it appeared most had taken this advice.
There was some wind and light rain going over Muir pass in the afternoon, but nothing major. The second night I camped near Senger Creek, got about 2 hours of rest and headed up towards Selden Pass. The effect of getting over 5 hours of sleep over 2 nights was quite noticeable – I still felt relatively good overall.
Day 3 was going well in spite of the smoke. I reached Selden pass near sunrise, and enjoyed a gorgeous view down into the basin below. The smoke was still an issue but as the day wore on and I headed up towards Silver Pass, the wind really started to pick up and a light rain began to fall.
At the pass, I was still wearing T-shirt and shorts, but as I jogged down the easy switchbacks, the pleasant sprinkles turned into a cold, wet rainstorm. As I descended, I layered up to stay warm – rain jacket, hat, gloves, and finally windpants.
By the time I reached Tully Hole I was wearing everything except my down jacket. I was cold and getting colder. My gloves, shoes and socks had all soaked through, and I was losing heat in spite of walking quite fast. I didn’t want my down jacket to get wet, but at this point my core was getting cold, my hands were numb and losing dexterity, and I still had to go back up to over 10,000 feet in order to get down to Red’s Meadow. I could have stopped and crawled into my bivy if necessary – but I doubted that it would keep me dry all night, and the rain showed no sign of letting up. I decided it was best to press on to Red’s Meadow while I still had daylight.
I stopped under a big tree and put on the down jacket, managing to keep it mostly dry. My hands were numb and barely able to work the zipper, but once it was on I put my rain shell over it and started moving fast again. The extra warmth was immediately noticeable, and helped to offset the fact that my feet were now completely soaked as the trail was flowing with water. With every step I gripped my poles and tried to squeeze the water out of my gloves, and soon the feeling began returning to my fingers. I was very glad I brought the puffy – I would have been flirting with hypothermia without it. Soon I was headed uphill again, climbing out of Tully Hole and generating heat, both good things.
I knew I only had 6-7 hours to Red’s Meadow, and charged up to Virginia Lakes like my life depended on it. On the way up the rain changed to snow. The few other hikers I saw were in full on rain gear and their expressions ranged from wonder to shell-shock. I was not the only one surprised by this storm, and while I had the clothing and experience to deal with it, I did not have a tent to crawl into, a stove to light up, or dry clothes to change into. I had a very small margin of safety, and I was tired and depleted from 60+ hours of near constant movement. So I was probably more on the shell-shock end of the spectrum.
As I passed 10,000 feet the rain turned to snow and began accumulating on the ground and on the trees. It was beautiful, cold and wet. It reminded me of Christmas, if one was to spend Christmas alone in the mountains in a snowstorm, wet and tired and cold and hungry. Which reminded me – I had stopped eating a while back, and I needed to start taking in some calories again to keep the furnace going.
As I neared Lake Virginia, I was struck by how beautiful and peaceful it was – there was no one else around, and everything was covered in a coat of white.
Snow continued to gently fall, although it seemed that the worst of the storm had passed, or I had climbed up out of it. I was grateful for the snow: freezing rain is far more dangerous, and far less beautiful. The cold fog blanketing Lake Virginia was mystical.
My pace had slowed significantly due to the weather conditions. I was beginning to doubt the wisdom of continuing on into the night, so I focused on reaching Red’s Meadow as quickly as possible. Shelter, and a bowl of hot soup were starting to sound appealing, but I had miles and hours to go.
After taking a few pictures, I pressed on past Lake Virginia and Purple Lake, and down towards Reds Meadow. While it was no longer raining, I was still in the clouds and night was approaching. My pace improved as I descended. My clothes went from wet to merely damp – things were looking up. As I passed the last creek crossing there was a young couple making dinner, and they offered me some hot food. I thanked them but declined, but I did ask them what time the restaurant closed. A quick phone call revealed that it had closed already so I was out of luck – I still had a few miles to go.
I continued down, and soon it was dark. Half jogging down the trail with my headlamp on, I reached the area above Red’s that had burned a few years back. Meter-thick trees strewn about like toothpicks in various stages of decay; adolescent trees and bushes growing up to replace their the fallen elders. Memories of my journey and other trips began to flow – the trail is smooth and fast and familiar, I was on autopilot. I remembered that just a month before, I had been running down this section when I accidentally kicked a chipmunk. It had darted out in front of me, too quickly for either of us to react, startling us both equally. It scampered off apparently unhurt, but I felt a little bad nonetheless.
I was jolted out of my meditative shuffle-jog by a massive, snorting Volkswagen-sized bear charging up the trail at me like the most graceful freight train you ever saw. It was probably 40 feet away, engrossed in its task of tearing into a huge fallen tree, when I came around a corner. The bear saw my headlamp and charged directly at me. I had no time to react – in the fraction of a second that it took me to register what was happening, the bear halved the distance between us. All I could do was stop in my tracks and breathe a terrified “Holy Shit!” as it abruptly turned and crashed off into the bushes.
I was left frozen on the trail, heart pounding, in awe of the speed and incredible power of this beast. This bear could have run right through me, destroyed me without even trying, just as surely as I would have crushed that innocent chipmunk had our paths intersected in a just slightly different way.
I reached Red’s Meadow after dark. The cabins were chock-full of soggy hikers, and everything was closed. No room in the inn, no soup for me. I sat down to think about my options, but I was pretty sure I was done. I could press on into the night – it wasn’t raining here, but heading back out into a wet, cold storm for another 18 hours, crossing over Donahue pass at midnight when it was likely to be below freezing with a mix of rain and snow at 11,000 feet seemed like a pretty bad idea in the state I was in.
By this time, the FKT was definitely out of reach. The storm had slowed me down quite a bit, and it would not have been safe or smart to continue in the condition I was in – alone, sleep deprived, exhausted, wet, with no stove, and a minimal shelter and insulation. Basically not much of a margin of safety if the weather got worse, or I got lost or injured.
When I started on Saturday morning, about 65 hours and 165 miles earlier, the weather report was for some afternoon showers Saturday/Sunday and then clear skies and cooling temps on Monday and Tuesday. Somehow this evolved into a very real rain/snow storm on Monday into Tuesday as the remnants of Hurricane Linda decided to hang out and have some fun in the mountains. So I made the smart decision, and bailed. I called a taxi and got a ride to mammoth, called Amy and she got me a hotel for the night. I had a nice hot meal and a glass of wine, and managed to get a decent night’s sleep in a real bed.
The next day was consumed by bus rides and hitch-hiking back to Whitney Portal followed by a long drive back home to the bay. It was nice to be home after a pretty epic 2+ weeks in the Sierras. While I was ultimately unsuccessful in my quest, it was a great experience. I am of course disappointed that I didn’t set a new FKT, or even finish the trail. But I am also at peace with the decision to bail at Red’s Meadow, and I’m incredibly happy that I was able to give it another great effort, and grateful that I have been lucky enough to enjoy the health, fitness, and support that have enabled me to push my limits and have these amazing adventures in the mountains.
This trip report is a fleshed-out version of the report I wrote on BPL when I got home. All the positive comments and encouragement have been amazing. It is really awesome to read all of your thoughts and encouraging words, and the interactions with those of you I have met along the way were amazing as well – THANK YOU!!!!!
I’ll leave you with these two quotes from Yvonne Chouinard, whose many adventures continue to inspire me:
“The word adventure has gotten overused. For me, when everything goes wrong – that’s when adventure starts.”
“So, it’s kind of like the quest for the Holy Grail. Well, you know, who gives a shit what the Holy Grail is. It’s the quest is what’s important.”