Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Day #1: Whitney Portal to Outpost Camp

We're up at 6am, pack up our campsite, do the final loading of our packs, drive up to the trail-head parking, put any remaining food from the car in the bear boxes and we're finally ready to go by 7:55 and we start up the trail.

At the Trail-Head

The segment of the trail up to Outpost Camp consists mostly of lots of switchbacks and is a pretty well maintained trail. It's mostly granite gravel with a bunch of stream crossings. There's tons of water in the streams, but they've put boulders in the streams to step on and our boots are waterproof and we have hiking poles for balance so their really is no issue. There are a few waterfalls to look at along the way and lots of little springs popping up. You can literally fill your water bottles just about anywhere you want to.

Kevin and I have found in our practice hikes that we both take 15-30 minutes to sort of get into a rhythm and get our body cranked up for what we're asking it to do so we start out fairly slowly. The terrain is steep (2000' in 3 miles is a pretty good grade), but the trail is in good shape. We've got hydration tubes so we can literally drink any time without breaking a step. We've read that it's easy to get dehydrated while exerting at altitude so we're being cautious to drink as much as we can. There are a lot of spots along the trail where we can refill with water from the stream so we don't have to worry about how much we consume. We take a couple short breaks to adjust equipment, but our stops at first are mostly just short little stops to catch our breath after a steeper section.

After about an hour, it really sets in just how heavy my pack is (more on this later). For those of you who haven't done much backpacking, the goal is to get most of the weight on your hips with the hip belt and take just enough weight on the shoulders to balance things. Both Kevin and I are having trouble finding that balance. More weight on the shoulders means more work for your core to support everything. I wouldn't say we're bothered by the 8000' altitude (we've been at that altitude for three days now), but it is still significant exertion in thinner air.

There's a regular progression of folks coming down the trail and I attempt to talk to pretty much everyone to find out what conditions are like up top. One of these first ones we talk to is a day hiker who tells us he got up to 13,000' and then had to turn around because of altitude sickness. He's really bummed. He left at 3am, got most of the way up one of the hardest sections and had to turn around. At 9:30am he's almost all the way back down. We talk to other backpackers who had summited the day before and everyone confirms that you need ice axe and crampons for the chute (more on that later too).

After about an hour and a half, we start a climb up a steeper section of the trail. Gone is the nice gravel trail and now we're going up something quite a bit steeper with large steps up granite boulders. There's a large waterfall coming over the steep section that we're making our way up. At the top of this section, we pass the turn off to Lone Pine Lake which is the last place you can hike to or camp without a Whitney permit and we take our first serious rest. So far, so good. Not easy by any stretch of the imagination, but doable so far. If the rest of the hike is like this, we're OK, but obviously the air continues to get thinner as we go.

Taking a Break Near Lone Pine Lake

At 10am, we enter the actual Whitney Zone where permits are required. While it doesn't mean anything in particular, it's a good point of progress (we're about 2/3 of the way to Outpost Camp) and we know exactly where we are on the map. A little while later we hit another steep progression of switchbacks. We're well over 9000' now and can really feel it when the slope gets steeper than normal. The rented mountaineering boots are starting to bother me in one particular place (on my left shin). Every step forward and up seems to press on the very front part of the shin and hurts a bit. At this point, I'm not really sure what to do about it (a point of foolish neglect) so we press on. We make it up this set of switchbacks and come out into a large meadow with a gorgeous stream running through it. We get glimpses of the Whitney peaks up above us - something we've haven't seen in awhile.

One of the Many Stream Crossings

The trail flattens out as we walk through the meadow and, at the far side of the meadow is Outpost Camp at around 10,000'. At 10:40am, we are ready for a good long rest there. We've both just about emptied our hydration bladders (2 liters each) so we're also going to fill up with water here. The rest feels nice and we break open some trail snacks. There's only one other camper in Outpost Camp and they're not around at the moment, just a tent and some equipment nearby. By now, my left shin is hurting quite a bit so I take the opportunity to take my boots off and try to figure out what's wrong. There isn't anything obviously wrong, but I decide that maybe they were just laced too tight and I'll try to go looser with them. I run the risk of a blister if my foot is slipping around too much, but the current path isn't working too well so I might as well try something different.

The Meadow Right Before Outpost Camp (Whitney Peak is looming in the far background)

Waterfall at Outpost Camp

Made it to Outpost Camp

We both feel pretty good about making it to Outpost Camp in 3 hours. That seems like good progress and there's no way that we feel like camping here - we definitely ought to press on to Trail Camp. Kevin remarks that if the second half of the day is like the first half, it won't be so bad. I briefly remind him of the increasing altitude just to manage expectations, but the optimism is good. Three more miles and 2000' more to get to Trail Camp. After about a 20 minute break, we press on.

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