Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Day #1: Outpost Camp to Trail Camp

Out of Outpost Camp, it took almost no time at all for the full force of this first day to show itself. There's a climb out of Outpost Camp that takes you to Mirror Lake (a well deserved name and an absolutely beautiful view).

We get another view of the Whitney peaks from there and then there's a steep set of switchbacks that rise above the lake. The trees are completely gone at over 10,000' once you get above Mirror Lake and the trail is switch-backing over rough granite. Just moving up and through the chunks of granite is significant work and we're both starting to really feel the altitude.

We have to stop several times to figure out where the trail is. If you know what to look for, you can spot the trail markings (lines of rocks on the turns), but it's also pretty easy to miss one and then wonder why you can't find the trail. There are also numerous patches of snow now that sometimes obscure parts of the trail or have forced people to detour around them and make their own segment of trail. Looking at the map, it looks like once we get through these switchbacks maybe it won't be so steep, but that turns out not to be the case. In fact, I think this was one of the hardest parts of the whole first day. We're ascending along a granite ridge without switchbacks, but it's still pretty steep and the footing is a lot of work. Our boots grip the rock well and the hiking poles really help with balance, but the going is pretty rough. We're having to take numerous short breaks to catch our breath.

We finally make it up that ridge with Mirror Lake far below at 12:40, nearly two hours from Outpost. We're both breathing very hard and we've both developed a cough that won't go away. You try to take a deep breath, it makes you cough, nothing comes out and you still feel like you need to cough. It's afflicting both of us, but affecting Kevin a bit more. After finishing with this steep ridge, it levels out briefly into Trailside Meadow. We can't really see much of the meadow because it's still mostly covered in snow, but we take a good break there.

Taking a Break on the Way Above Mirror Lake

Made it to Trailside Meadow

Out of Trailside Meadow, the trail goes back to some steep switchbacks. Some of the switchbacks are covered in snow and we have to traverse on the snow. It's a bit unnerving because if you lose your balance, you can slide a long way down the snow covered hill, eventually hitting some rocks. We tread carefully, stomping our boots into the snow to get good footing and using our hiking poles for added balance. As we rise up these switchbacks, we start to get a view of Consultation Lake which is still frozen over. At this point, we're both getting a bit worried about the coughing. It isn't constant, but it won't go away and it's making it harder and harder to catch our breath. Because we've both read up on altitude sickness, Kevin is particularly worried that he's feeling the early signs of HAPE (High Altitude Pulmonary Edema) which could mean immediate descent is needed. That stress probably isn't helping either.

The steep trail out of Trailside Meadow - Nothing but Rock and Snow

Some Parts of the Trail are Covered in Snow

According to the map, we're not particularly far from Trail Camp in either miles or additional altitude so we take a break on the steep climb out of Trailside Meadow, hoping that slowing down will help the breathing. At this point, Kevin gets to discover how to use the WAG bags. The least interesting part of the whole Whitney hike is that you have to capture and carry out all your solid human waste. This is because the trail and camping areas are so confined and there are so many people every day on the trail that doing it any other way leads to an environmental mess. To do this, your permit comes with a WAG bag for each person. It stands for Waste Alleviation & Gelling Pooh-Powder. I won't go into the all the details, but there's an internal and external bag and you lay out the internal bag flat on the ground, do your business, roll up the outsides of the bag to contain the waste, tie off the top of that bag, then put it in another zip lock bag to fully contain it. There is a gel and powder that reacts with the waste to somewhat neutralize it. You use the bag as many times as you need to on your trip, pack it out and deposit it in special human waste trash containers at the trail-head It's not fun and it's extra weight to carry, but it works. We brought extra large ziplocks and garbage bags to make sure it was contained inside. When you get to Trail Camp and see how barren it is, you totally realize that there just isn't any place for four months of visitors to do their business and not have the whole place get disgusting so everyone packs out their own. After our WAG break, we push on for Trail Camp.

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