Wednesday, June 30, 2010


Telephoto view of Mt. Whitney from Lone Pine (15 miles away and 10,000 feet below)

I don't really know why I got interested in going to the top of Whitney. It's something that's been in the back of my mind for years and it just kind of came forward.  Running the marathon last summer was such a great focal point for fitness training and really having discipline about keeping to a training regimen. Then, the idea of Whitney came up and it seemed to fit in the same general category. I'd have to train hard for it and it could feel like a significant accomplishment and maybe I'd get some interesting photos too.

I was coming off knee surgery in September and working on recovering from that and was committed to building up the strength in my legs to protect my knees from future injury. So, somewhere around December/January, I started thinking more seriously about what it would take to do Whitney.   In my usual fashion, step one was to read everything I could find about the trip and learn all about it.  (I bought four books on the subject and found zillions of useful web pages).   As I read, I learned that if the weather and trail conditions cooperate (typical summer conditions), it's a hike that challenges your fitness level, but it's not a technical climb.  Perfect, I'd need to prepare and get in great shape, but it should be doable.

I wasn't really sure who I'd go with.  I kind of hoped that Kevin would want to do it with me, but I wasn't sure whether Kevin would be interested in the trip because it would involve a lot of training and preparation and the trip itself would be really physically demanding, but I explained what the whole thing involved and asked him if he wanted to do it with me.   He said yes and seemed to get excited about both the challenge and the reward. I reiterated what would be involved to make sure he fully understood and really sounded committed.   He did.

So, this was perfect, it would be a father-son trip. We'd prepare together and train together and hopefully make it to the top and back down together.

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The Plan

The starting point for most ascents of Mt. Whitney (14,496 feet) is from the east starting at Whitney Portal (8000 feet).   Whitney Portal is a campground, a store and a hiker's parking lot which is about 12 miles from the town of Lone Pine (4000 feet elevation) in Owens Valley on the eastern side of the Sierras. Whitney Portal is about a 7-1/2 hour drive from the Bay Area (going over Tioga Pass in Yosemite).

The round trip to the summit of Whitney along the main Whitney trail is 22 miles. There are a number of ways to do this 22 miles. Some people attempt it in a single day. They leave the trail-head at around 2-3am and hike the first couple hours by headlamp before sunrise. They plan to hit the Trail Camp camping area at 12,000 feet around 7am, then maybe get to the summit by 11-12am and get down before sunset or sometimes finish after dark by headlamp. The single day trip has a number of advantages. It's logistically a lot simpler because you only need a permit for one day, because you go lightweight for the entire trip and because you don't have to have any backpacking equipment. Lots of people try it this way. On our particular trip, I'd say that 2/3 of the folks were doing the single day.

Here's a look at the main trail from the Inyo National Forest web site:

Besides the obvious physical challenge of doing the whole thing in one day, the single biggest obstacle to any ascent of Whitney is altitude sickness. Above 10,000 feet and certainly above 12,000 feet, a significant number of people start having trouble adapting to the thinner air. Altitude sickness is something to be dealt with very seriously because, if the early symptoms are ignored and the ascent is continued, it can result in death. Basically, if you start feeling altitude sickness, you have to descend immediately. You can't wait for it to go away, you can't take some medicine for it - you have to descend (usually at least 2000 feet). There are two general forms of serious altitude sickness - cerebral (brain swelling) and pulmonary (fluid in lungs). With high altitude cerebral edema (HACE), you start to lose judgment and coordination. Many mountaineering accidents and even deaths on Whitney (two people died last year) are thought to be influenced by poor decision making because of the effects of HACE. With high altitude pulmonary edema (HAPE), you start getting fluid in your lungs and you simply can't get enough oxygen and you suffocate. HACE is more common than HAPE and the very early warning signs for HACE are a headache that just won't go away, even with something like Advil. Symptoms progress to the point where you can't walk a straight line and might even appear to be drunk. While science has not pinpointed any particular reason why some people get altitude sickness and some do not (it has nothing to do with fitness level), it has clearly shown that acclimatizing to your base altitude and then ascending slowly is the best thing you can do to improve your odds against altitude sickness. The ideal ascent rate is 1000-1500 feet per day. Since Whitney is a 6137 foot climb from the trail-head, you can see the challenge. Somewhere between 1/3-1/2 of those who attempt the summit don't succeed because of altitude issues.  It is the major reason people don't make the summit.

So, since we weren't trying to cram the trip into a weekend and wanted to increase our odds against altitude sickness, it was an easy decision for us that we weren't going to do the single day trip. Then the question becomes how many days to you take to go up. A conservative plan would be acclimatize well beforehand and then hike up to 10,000 feet, spend the night at a camping area known as Outpost Camp, hike up to 12,000 feet, spend the night at a camping area know as Trail Camp, then go to the summit the third day. Slightly less conservative would be to hike up to Trail Camp at 12,000 feet the first day and then summit the second day. We decided that we would plan for a three night trip. If we got to 10,000 feet the first day and still felt pretty good, we'd see if we could go on to 12,000 feet. If we made it to 12,000 feet, we'd either summit the second day or we'd have a buffer day if the weather on the summit was lousy and we could wait it out.

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The Permit

About 2-1/2 miles up the Whitney trail, you enter the Whitney Zone which requires a permit for all hikers, even day hikers. Because of high traffic on the trail and environmental damage from high numbers of people, the forest service instituted a strict permitting system that limits the number of people entering the Whitney Zone each day to no more than 100 people. Since demand in the summer far exceeds that number, they have a lottery system. You send in your application in February with a permit fee ($30) and a list of dates you would accept in priority order (you can list as many dates as you want). In March, they start doing a drawing from all applications received on time and they just draw them one by one and give you the first date on your application that is still available. In April, they let you know what did or didn't get.

Because of snow conditions, the later you can go in the summer, the better your chances are. But Kevin was planning on taking a two week summer school class the first two weeks of August and then he starts school so August was out. I sent in an application for basically any three nights in July. Then, Kevin applied to this science program at the University of Santa Cruz which is all of July. We weren't sure Kevin would get into this highly competitive science program, but a couple days before the deadline, I decided to send in a second application for any three nights in June, but clearly listing out the later days in June as our first priority because snow can really still be an issue in June.

What I had read on the web was that if you get your application in on time and you include a number of mid-week options that don't have Friday, Saturday or Sunday in them, you will probably get something. I was really, really hoping we'd get something workable. Somewhere in early April, we got a rejection for the first application I had sent in for the July dates. My heart sunk - now it all depends on the second application for the June dates. I started to wonder if all the planning and training so far would be for naught. 

Then, a couple weeks later, we got the permit for the nights of June 23-25th. Not the very end of June, but way better than the early days in June. Then, Kevin got into the Cosmos science program for July so the June dates were the good ones for us anyway. The trip was on - yeah. Now we had something concrete to plan for.

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My focus for training was building strength in my leg muscles to protect and support my knee and to allow me to start running regularly to rebuild my endurance. I've tried other endurance things like elliptical trainer and stationery bikes and they just don't keep me interested so I knew I needed to find a way to get back to running. I was working with a physical therapist on the training program for my knee strength and doing a lot in the gym four days a week. Slowly I got to where I could run again and I took to running on dirt trails (to stay off the hard pavement) and running hills (to work on building the muscle and to stress the cardio). To keep my risk of injury low, I was careful to not run on successive days and to give myself a day off if the body felt like it needed it and keep the training going in the gym in between. My runs got longer and I started tackling larger hills. I could see measurable progress in my leg muscles, particularly the quad on my surgery knee.  I got to a point where I ran a couple half marathons for training and separately ran some trails with more than 1000' of elevation gain.

For Kevin, we got some fortunate timing because, independent from the Whitney trip, Kevin joined a rowing club and started training with them. For those of you who don't know rowing, it's a great all body sport: legs, core, arms, endurance. I could see pretty early on that Kevin was getting good overall fitness and strength training with the rowing team so all we'd have to concentrate on with him would be some practice with backpacking and hiking.

I wanted to try to do some practice hikes at altitude (~10,000 feet), but we had such a snowy and late winter this year that I really couldn't find anything in Northern California at altitude in May/early June that was feasible and compatible with the rowing schedule. So, we settled for doing some steep hikes around here (2000 foot climbs) to get used to hiking in our boots and carrying our backpacks.

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The Weather

We had an unusual winter here in Northern California. We were pretty much on track for normal snow-pack in February and then it just didn't stop snowing in the mountains. Much of the Sierras ended up at 140% of normal and so much of it came late (April and even May) that by the beginning of June there was a lot of snow still in the mountains and, while it was melting, there was so much of it.

This is significant for the Whitney trail because above 12,000 feet, there's a very steep climb up to Trail Crest at 13,600 feet that normally consists of 99 switchbacks. When the switchbacks are buried under snow and ice, the whole complexity of the climb changes. No longer is it a hike on a trail, but it becomes a snowy climb straight up that requires stiff boots, crampons and ice axes, some skill at using those and a much more physically demanding day.  If you succeed in getting up, the descent is less physically demanding, but can be technically difficult to do safely.  In fact, one person died last year on Whitney on this descent.  They were glissading down (more on this later), lost control of their speed and hit some rocks.

As of early June, all I can do is read the reports from people coming back as to what it's like (there's a bulletin board online where many people post about their experiences). With about 10 days to go before our trip, I conclude that it's going to be snowy/icy and we need crampons and ice axes. I don't really want to buy them so I finally find a place in the east bay that rents them. I take our boots over there and talk to them about renting. They conclude that our hiking boots are not stiff enough for crampons. There's too much flex in the toes and crampons won't hold their grip and might not stay on. His recommendation is that we rent mountaineering boots that are made for crampons. They are very stiff and quite heavy and we've never worn them before. But, I finally make the decision that we have to be safe on the snow/ice, even if it means we might not make the summit. Unfortunately, the crampons and ice axes add another five pounds to our packs. Things are getting more and more difficult as the day nears. At this point, I'm thinking to myself and starting to help Kevin realize that we may only have a 50% chance of making it to the summit.

There's a well known saying about Whitney that any trip that you get back safely from is a good one because the mountain will always be there for some other day.  We may have to remember that if the snow conditions make the climb too risky for our lack of technical experience.

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